Not so humble! – Apr 2017

Hello everyone! Aren’t we fortunate to live in a part of the world where a year is divided into contrasting seasons? Without the drab and gloomy days of winter we would not appreciate the explosion of colour, scent and sound that is delighting our senses at present.

Yellows in Quarry Wood – March 2017

Gardens are aglow with clouds of pink and white blossom while woodland banks are smothered with cushions of yellow Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) and Primroses (Primula vulgaris). Throughout the village, hosts of golden Daffodils (Narcissus spp.) stand guard and quiver in the breeze with such purpose William would have been reaching for his quill with a reprise in mind.  We can expect three of our favourites annuals to be taking over the woodland carpet very soon. Yes, it is time for Wood Anemones, Ramsoms and Bluebells to sweep through the Reserve in a slow-moving tide of cream and blue (see Wind Flowers, Swiss Butter and Sleeping Greeks, June 2010). The Wild Garlic may not be in flower quite yet, but brush up against the leaves and your olfactory system is awash with mouth-watering aroma di Pesto!

Wood Anemone, the first Bluebells, and early signs of Wild Garlic in Quarry Wood – March 2017

The seasonal series of early morning concerts performed by our feathered flyers is building up at present but I am saddened by the lack of the sleep-defying crescendo that marked the arrival of Spring when I was young. That said, the birds we have, though decreasing in number, are vociferously staking their territory. We were fortunate to have local Avian guru, Cliff Dean, lead us for a bird identification walk through Quarry Wood, returning via the new ‘temporary’ holding ponds located between the Link Road and the village. Cliff’s ability to pick out individual birds by sound alone bordered on the mystical at times. The songs of some birds, like our tiny Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), were just about within the auditory range of many of us. However, Cliff demonstrated how modern technology can help us in these situations by using a phone app to ‘talk’ to some of the birds and had them getting closer and replying obligingly.  In keeping with the Tales from Quarry Wood tradition of quoting from Douglas Adams, the total number of species recorded was forty-two. Living proof that Dirk Gently was correct in his theory of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things!

One sound that many of us have heard over the last few weeks is the familiar drone of our large, furry Bumble Bee (Genus Bombus) or, as Charles Darwin would have known them, Humblebees. This old-fashioned name was not a slur upon the social status of this busy insect, but more to do with the sound it generates. That familiar buzz is made through rapid movements of its flight muscles and amplified by the vibration of the wings. If you listen to the bee at a flower, you would not be mistaken in thinking the sound becomes even more frantic than usual. In fact, it is channelling the vibrations caused by buzzing through it thorax to shake the pollen off the plant’s anthers so that it sticks to its thick, hairy coat and carried away.

Buff-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus terrestris)

To those people who believe this is the most easily identifiable of the bees, it may come as a surprise to know that there are around 300 species of Bumble Bee in the world. Six species account for almost 90% of the UK population of Bumble Bees, though around twenty-five species can be found here, if you are lucky enough to see them! Bumble Bees are social insects but, unlike a colony of their honey-making relatives which can consist of around 80,000 individuals at its peak, a typical nest will contain around 400 bees only.

White-tailed Bumble bee (Bombus lucorum)

The bees we have encountered this year, so far at least, are almost certainly Queen Buff-tailed Bumble Bees (B. terrestris), noted for their appearance in early spring. The rest of the ‘big six’ to keep an eye out for, are the White- tailed (B. lucorum), Garden (B. hortorum), the striking, Red-Tailed (B. lapidarius), the small, Early Bumble Bee (B. pratorum) and the only completely brown, common Bumble Bee, the Common Carder Bee (B. pascuorum).

Red-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus lapidarius)

The solitary Queen Bees buzzing up against our windows at the moment have overwintered underground, living off fat stores accumulated by gorging themselves on pollen and nectar late last summer. Daffodils are just one of the early flowering plants vital for the survival of the Queen Bumble Bees who are at their most vulnerable at present. The nectar and pollen the Queen harvests from these flowers provide her with the strength to find a suitable nesting site and lay her eggs. Her first brood, composed of female worker bees, clean and maintain the nest, ensuring that the Queen has nothing more to do than lay eggs and give orders. Males and future queens are produced later in the season and soon leave the nest to feed and mate, but the new queens are the only bees to overwinter and set up new nests in the spring.

Early Bumble Bee (Bombus pratorum)

In the 1930s a certain August Magnan, zoologist and aeronautical engineer, produced his masterpiece Le Vol des Insectes in which he makes this infamous claim:

“First prompted by what is done in aviation, I applied the laws of air resistance to insects, and I arrived, with Mr. Sainte-Laguë, at this conclusion that their flight is impossible.”

This remark, together with his studies on bees, resulted in me, along with generations of obnoxious schoolboys, trying to sound clever by issuing statements such as, well of course, aerodynamically, it is impossible for Bumble Bees to fly! Of course, we had no reply to the obvious question regarding their evident penchant for flight. As the Flight of the Bumble Bee was not just a mind-bending piece by Rimsky-Korsakov but the subject of many a post-graduate paper, it seems that some of those school children went on to find the answer. Current theories suggest that it is a combination of wing-shape, movement and sheer brute force. Whatever the finer detail, Bumble Bees fly and they do it very well!

Common Carder Bee (Bombus Pascuorum)

If you are wondering why we are not following Mr Darwin’s example and using the old moniker for this beautiful insect, then wonder no more. Known as Humble Bees as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, their habit of seemingly bumbling along from flower to flower made Bumble an obvious choice for a common name. Perhaps another of TQW’s favourite authors, Beatrix Potter, influenced the change of name when she introduced us to Babbitty Bumble in The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse in 1910. Thus, ensuring that a generation of schoolchildren, who clearly had their priorities right and were not obnoxious, did not worry about ridiculous scientific myths but concentrated on the far more important exercise of name that animal!

With winged creatures in mind, it is apropos to mention that our Moth event will be on Sunday 7th May. Ralph will be putting his amazing piece of kit into place the night before and all are welcome to come along at 10.00 on Sunday to see what marvellous species we record and add to our photo gallery. Click here for the photos from last year, and here for 2015’s beauties.

“Good-day, Babbitty Bumble; I should be glad to buy some beeswax. But what are you doing down here? Why do you always come in at a window, and say Zizz, Bizz, Bizzz?” Mrs. Tittlemouse began to get cross.

The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse, Beatrix Potter 1910

Humbled? We should be!


Paul Johnson


Image credits:
Img 1-6: Original Quarry Wood photography (March 2017): Lorna Neville; Img 7: Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) by Stuart Anthony, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; Img 8: White-tailed bumble bee by bramblejungle, used under CC2.0; Img 9: Red-tailed Buddleia bee by Katy Wrathall, used under CC2.0; Img 10: Early Bumble Bee male (Bombus pratorum) by Stuart Anthony, used under CC2.0; Img 11: Common carder bee (Bombus Pascuorum) by bramblejungle, used under CC2.0.