Bees and Butterflies

Wild honey bees nest in woodland in the hollows of rotting trees, but these natural nest sites are thought to be in short supply. The Gardeners Beehive has been designed to mimic a hollow tree and to provide an alternative comfortable home for the bees, but ours has been standing empty in a shady spot under a cherry tree for a good few years now.

The Gardeners Beehive

Should a swarm of honey bees ever find it and move in, they could live in peace without human interference and keep all the honey for themselves, which is used to feed the colony through the winter. At the same time we would benefit from their pollination in the meadows.

However, as so often seems to be the case here, things haven’t happened quite as intended. Honey bees have indeed arrived this summer but have taken up residence in the little owl box rather than the Gardeners Beehive nearby.

The little owl box in a copse of trees
Little owl nest boxes have a tunnel leading from the entrance into the main cavity of the box

There have never been little owls nesting in this box and they have lost their opportunity now even if they wanted to – I understand that this bee colony might be here for several years.

On the subject of bees, a bird species that loves to eat them has been added to the meadows bird list at number 92. The Bird Ringer heard and saw two Bee-eaters flying over the meadows. He didn’t get a photo but this is what these colourful birds look like:

A photo of a pair of Bee-eaters by Pierre Dalous under Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 3.0 unported licence

The Bird Ringer came with his nets this week to do the first ringing session of the autumnal season. By this point of the year, he is allowed to play the songs of birds that will have definitely finished breeding such as warblers. But in the event he had a quiet morning and only caught a young robin and three juvenile Great Tits:

A young robin, already starting to develop its red breast

My first thought was that this next photo was a young robin with a horrible growth on its face but then, with relief, I realised that actually it must be Song Thrush carrying a snail:

In the heat of this past week, winged ants have been taking to the air from the multitudinous ant nests in the meadows. We know this because Black-headed Gulls arrived in their hundreds, seemingly from nowhere, and flew round and round catching them – what a bonanza it must be for the birds. For us, it is one of the summer spectacles that we eagerly watch out for:

Black-headed Gulls busy ‘anting’ in the second meadow

Black-headed and Herring Gulls were also hunting the ants on the ground, wherever there was short grass:

One of the Herring Gulls had lost feathers around its eye making it look goggley-eyed:

These starlings are probably ant-hunting too:

As well as enjoying some communal drinking:

I include this photo because it looks like one bird has placed a comforting wing round the other:

Screaming parties of swifts are frequently to be seen and heard shooting around the skies above the meadows catching the flying ants and other insects. One afternoon, there was a pair flying as I was out in the meadows and I couldn’t quite believe my eyes – one flew straight up to a nest box on the side of the house and went in. We have been trying to persuade swifts to nest in these boxes for so long – had I really seen one going in at long last? I sat down and waited while the second swift made repeated high-speed rushes at the box, only to veer away at the last moment. After about ten minutes, the first swift emerged from the box and rejoined the other one and I was filled with a warm feeling of triumph and jubilation.

A photo from earlier this month. We have put black squares with faux white droppings below the holes to make them more obvious to birds flying past at speed. The swift went into the righthand box and, now that I properly look at it, can I see signs of wear on the board below the hole?

I wonder if swifts been going in and out of this box a lot this summer and we just haven’t noticed before. They are certainly very quick and easy to miss. Or perhaps these are juvenile birds checking out potential nest sites for the future. We shall have to see what happens next year.

Having finished rearing their young, the magpies have gone into moult. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but this one looks more vulture than corvid:

It is a great time of year for butterflies and the headlines have well and truly been grabbed by this beautiful Swallowtail butterfly seen feeding on red valerian by the allotment yesterday. This is the 24th butterfly species to be seen in the meadows:

I love how the black lines on the wings extend onto the body

There is a very rare British race, britannicus, of Swallowtails that is restricted to the fenlands of Norfolk and which unfortunately only uses milk-parsley, a plant of wetlands, as its larval food plant. The butterfly in the meadows, however, will be a visitor from continental Europe and will be from the gorganus race. This European race is a lot less fussy and will use various umbellifers to lay eggs on, including wild carrot of which we have an awful lot here. Is this a female butterfly and will she lay eggs here? That’s an exciting thought.

It has been so long since we have had any meaningful rain and the meadows are yellow rather than green. On a cooler morning this week we were walking past this long grassy area in the foreground here:

We noticed that there was a large Common Blue roost within the grasses. There must have been more than fifty of these butterflies, little intense colour pops amongst the dry yellow grasses:

Six Common Blues roosting in this photo (four open and two closed up)
Marbled White on Ragwort
Wall on Greater Knapweed

I am aware that there have not been too many burnet moths around this year and actually I’m not sure that I’ve seen any of the narrow-bordered five spot ones at all.

Six-spot burnet moth

This large pupa was tucked away behind a trail camera, strapped to an apple tree:

Its associated dried-out and hairy caterpillar skin was also nearby. Although it looks all very interesting, unfortunately I have not been able to identify it. I suppose I could put the pupa into container and wait to see what hatches out, but the responsibility of that intervention feels too great and I have returned the camera and pupa back to where they were so that they can get on with things on their own.

We are visiting the wood a bit more frequently than normal to keep the ponds topped up in this drought. I don’t think there is a natural water source anywhere in the wider wood that won’t be dried up by now and so providing water is definitely being appreciated by the woodland animals.

This is how we transport water to the wood. These plastic bottles used to contain distilled water for steam irons and that’s an awful lot of ironing I’ve done over the years

Buzzards are such big, heavy birds:

A Sparrowhawk is much slighter with long skinny legs

This Sparrowhawk seen in the meadows this week demonstrates that they also have very long toes, all the better to grasp their prey:

Tawny Owls are often seen bathing in the woodland ponds in the heat of summer nights:

This owl is not ringed and so is not one of the chicks from the owl box this spring. Apparently young tawny owls are still dependant on their parents for food for up to three months after fledging and so the young birds should still be around in the wood somewhere.

Young Green Woodpecker:

Recently fledged Bullfinch:

Adult badger and cub:

The two natural bowls in coppice stools that we have been filling with water also continue to be well visited:

There was a frog in one when we went to top it up. It’s odd to think of a frog hopping through the woodland:

The marjoram glade is now out in full flower:

We stood for ten minutes one sunny afternoon and counted eight species of butterfly on the marjoram. Brown Argus, Meadow Brown, Peacock, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, Silver-washed Fritillary…

…as well as Green Veined White and Gatekeeper. There were also Mint Moths flying, who are particularly partial to marjoram:

We had hoped that the marjoram glade was going to be good this year and so it is proving.

Finally, here are two photos that show how different consecutive years can be:

2021 on the left was wettish, with the grass still green and the ponds filled with water at this time of year. 2022 couldn’t be more different and sadly the weather forecast for the next two weeks doesn’t hold any promise of rain. But this drought will surely break eventually and for us that can’t come soon enough.

3 thoughts on “Bees and Butterflies

    1. I know!..although its doesn’t feel right to have them here. Have all your swifts left the mill? – ours have all gone now and they are much missed.

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