John Clare: Landscape & Learning – Northampton – 11th November

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Following my recent post about John Clare’s poem “Wild Bees“, I’ve been invited to give a short presentation on this at a forthcoming meeting about the Northamptonshire poet and documenter of environmental change.


Here’s the details:

John Clare: Landscape & Learning

Short presentations & discussions on aspects of John Clare

Venue: Room MY120 University of Northampton, Avenue Campus, NN2 6JD


FRIDAY 11th NOVEMBER: 10am arrival – 4pm close


Culminating with the JOHN CLARE LECTURE 2016 to be given by Professor John Goodridge


Contributors include: Jeff Ollerton, Erin Lafford, Charles Bennett, Clare Abbatt, Christy Edwall, Stephen Sullivan, Carry Akroyd, on topics such as:

John Clare’s Sonnets * Clare & the Bees * Clare the Fiddle Player * Clare as Inspiration * Clare & Weather * ‘The Nightingale’ * Clare in the Fields * ‘St Martin’s Eve’

Free and open to all. Bring lunch or use cafeteria on site.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity and culture

Spiral Sunday #4 – from SCAPE

Abisko spiral 20161015_221148.png

This Spiral Sunday post is coming from the SCAPE conference, where  a bunch of us are sitting in the foyer of the Abisko tourist accommodation centre, waiting for a minibus to get us to Kiruna airport.  I took the photograph last night – it’s a close up of a woven place mat.  Spirals are everywhere, if you look closely….

Looking forward to getting home late tonight and seeing Karin and the family (including cats and chickens).

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“I want to see the bright lights tonight” – the 30th annual SCAPE conference part 1

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The 30th annual Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology (SCAPE) meeting is taking place at its northern-most, and most remote, venue. We are at Abisko in Sweden, 68O N and 195km inside the Arctic Circle. It’s not too cold at the moment, but there is ice starting to form on the many lakes in the area, and the trees are leafless. It’s a stunning, sparse location for the conference.

About 75 of us have gathered to hear a wide range of talks on all matters related to pollinators and pollination. The programme kicked off at 1925 on Thursday evening when five participants discovered that they were speaking in the first session after a hard day of travelling. I’d been awake since 0330 that morning so was not as receptive to the science as I should have been… Yesterday was much better, in that I was more awake, but it was still quite an intensive day that culminated in my own talk on spatio-temporal stability in a plant-pollinator interaction on Tenerife.  Being last speaker in a session is a mixed blessing and needs a good story to keep people awake.  But I’m not best able to judge if I succeeded.

The quality of the science, and of the presentations, has so far been very good. Here’s a selection of just a few other things I’ve learned or that have intrigued me during the first half of the conference:

Individual pollen grains can be stained a variety of fluorescent colours by a new marking technique involving “quantum dots” (Bruce Anderson)

We are still a long way from understanding all of the subtle ecological and behavioural effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinators and pollinations (Juho Lämsä and Dara Stanley)

There are serious prospects of us being able to track individual pollinators across landscapes using drones (Tonya Lander)

Active “stigma rubbing” by anthers to promote self pollination has been documented for using time-lapse photography (Mohamed Abdelaziz)

The outcomes of competition for pollinations and reproductive interference between co-flowering plant species are complex and certainly not always predictable (Sharon Strauss and James Rodger)

The title of this post refers to a great song by Richard and Linda Thompson called “I want to see the bright lights tonight” and reflects everyone’s desire over to see the aurora borealis during this meeting. We had a brief encounter with the northern lights on Thursday evening, but they were pale and obscured by clouds. Perhaps tonight will be brighter. Before that we have another full day of talks to look forward to, and I’ll try to report back before we leave tomorrow.  For now, breakfast is calling.

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Ivy pollinators citizen science project

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Today, finally, after several years of hunting for them in Northamptonshire, I got to see some Ivy Bees (Colletes hederae) and managed to get a couple of decent photos.  The Ivy Bee is a recent natural colonist to the British Isles, having arrived here in 2001.  The Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) is running an Ivy Bee Mapping Project and you can find out more details by following that link.

The bees we saw today were a few minutes walk from the University and were (it’s galling to admit) discovered by Fergus Chadwick, a keen young ecologist who is working with me for a couple of months to gain some postgraduate research experience.

The main thing that Fergus is going to work on is a Pollinators of Ivy Monitoring Project.  Follow that link and it will give you details of how you can provide us with data to better understand the pollination ecology of one of our most ecologically valuable and under-rated plants.  Ivy (Hedera helix) is a hugely important nectar source to a wide range of over wintering bees, flies, beetles, hoverflies, wasps, and other insects.  Not only that but its berries are a vital food source for many fruit eating birds.  Any and all help in this project is very much appreciated!


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Pollination, Wasps

Spiral Sunday #3

2014-08-23 11.11.25

For the third of my Spiral Sunday posts I’m using a photograph I originally took for an old post from 2014 called Blackberry Week, which was about how the timing of the seasons (and specifically autumn) have changed since I was a kid.  Seems appropriate this month, at least from a northern hemisphere perspective.

The blackberries were wild ones picked from the garden.  It’s not immediately apparent but there is also a spiral on the plate, so this is a two-for-one post.

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International Wildlife Gardening Conference – 23rd November

20160702_100724An International Wildlife Gardening conference is to be held at the Natural History Museum in London on 23rd November this year, organised by the Wildlife Gardening Forum.  The theme is:  “What European wildlife and nature gardeners can learn from each other” – very apt in these post-Brexit times.  The cost is £50 for the day (including lunch) and you can book by following this link.

Here is the programme for the day:

10.00 Registration and tea/coffee

10.30 Introduction and background; The Forum and the Wildlife gardening movement in England and Wales – Dr Steve Head (WLGF)

10.50 Nature gardening in Germany: an historical view from the start to today. How useful is the concept of native plants for wildlife? – Dr Reinhard Witt (President of Naturgarten e.V. [Nature Gardeners’ Association], Germany)

11.25 Naturgarten e.V.: nature-oriented design in gardens, educational institutions and public space in an era of climate change – Ulrike Aufderheide (Naturgarten e.V. [Nature Gardeners’ Association], Germany)

12.00 Lunch and networking (optional guided tour of the Wildlife Garden)

1.30 Biodiversity path in a heritage park: a case study – Jérôme Constant and Carole Paleco (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) (Afternoon Session Chair: Andrew Salisbury)

2.05 Looking for oases – Marianne van Lier and Willy Leufgen (Stichting Oase [Oasis Foundation], Netherlands)

2.40 Tea/coffee

3.00 Looking after our roots and the brown stuff – Sarah Rubalcava (Ireland)

3.35 19 years of Garden for Life: working together to promote wildlife gardening in Scotland – Dr Deborah Long and Juliette Camburn (Garden for Life Forum, Scotland)

4.10 Panel session with speakers (led by Adrian Thomas)

4.30 Summing up and Close

(Please note; this programme may be subject to late changes)


Filed under Biodiversity, Gardens, Royal Horticultural Society, Urban biodiversity

Spiral Sunday #2

Beach spiral

The second of my Spiral Sunday posts is an image taken during a visit to the Isle of Wight that I described in the post Garlicky archipelago.  One night after dinner we went for a walk along the beach and came across some sand castles and sand doodlings from earlier in the day.  One of these was a beautifully formed spiral.  I wonder who made it?

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Bumblebees, ferries, and mass migrations: an update

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The post earlier this week on the question of “Why do bumblebees follow ferries?” generated quite a few comments, both on the blog and on Facebook.  As I’d hoped a number of people have chimed in to say that they have observed the same thing, or commented that they often see bumblebees when sailing or kayaking out at sea.

Here are the additional observations in increasing distance order to nearest larger area of land.  Distances are approximate and in some cases it’s unclear where exactly the observations were made:

Isle of Mull to the Isle of Staffa: 6.5km

Skye and the Outer Hebrides going in both directions: 24km

Ferry to Jersey: 28.4km

Estonia to Helsinki: 80km – described in a short paper by Mikkola (1984).

However this is nothing compared to evidence that queen bumblebees may engage in mass migrations (involving thousands of bees) across the North Sea from England to Holland, a distance of 165km!  See Will Hawkes’s short article “Flight of the Bumblebee“.

This idea of mass migration is new to me, though the Mikkola (1984) paper cites some earlier literature on the topic.  And this morning I had a quick phone chat with Dave Goulson who tells me that he occasionally gets people contacting him to tell him about such events.  But it’s unclear why these bees should be flying such large distances, how they coordinate their migrations, or indeed how much energy they need to store to travel that far. In addition there are implications for gene flow between British and Continental subspecies of bees such as the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Even a relatively well studied group of insects such as the bumblebees can continue to surprise us with new questions!

Thanks to everyone who contributed observations and ideas, it’s much appreciated.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity

Why do bumblebees follow ferries?

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A few years ago I mentioned in my post “Garlicky archipelago” that I had seen bumblebees (Bombus spp.) following the ferry from Southampton to the Isle of Wight, a distance of about 1.5km across water.  If I remember correctly it was my colleague Scott Armbruster who first mentioned this to me: he lives on the Isle of Wight and commutes regularly to the mainland.

I’ve not thought much about this since then as 1.5km is a fairly modest distance for a bumblebee to fly.  But then a few weeks ago I saw the same thing in Denmark, but this time over a much longer distance.

Karin and I were visiting friends on the small island of Sejerø, which (at its closest point) is about 8km from the mainland of Zealand.  To get there you have to catch a ferry which takes about an hour to cross this stretch of water.  About half-way across,  whilst looking over the stern of the ship, I spotted a bumblebee following the ferry.

So that’s twice, on two different ferries and under very different contexts, that I’ve seen this phenomenon.  A pattern is starting to form….  Has anyone else observed this?  Please do comment.

I can think of a few explanations/hypotheses for what’s going on here (some of which are not mutually exclusive):

  1.  Clearly bumblebees do fly across significant stretches of open seawater.  Perhaps all I’m seeing is bees that do this, but spotted from the only vantage point where it’s viewable (i.e. the ferry).
  2. These bumblebees are taking advantage of the slipstream created by the ferry to reduce the energy required to fly these long distances.
  3. The bees are hitching a lift on the ferry and I only observe them as they arrive or depart.
  4. The bees are following the wake of the ship to navigate between the island and the mainland, in order to exploit significant flower patches.  Work by one of my PhD students, Louise Cranmer, a few years ago showed that bumblebees follow linear features such as non-flowering hedgerows to navigate – see Cranmer et al. (2012) Oikos.  Perhaps something similar is happening here?

There’s probably other possibilities I’ve not thought of.  But whatever the explanation, it looks to me as if there’s some potential for interesting experiments marking and recapturing bees on islands/mainland, releasing bees on ferries to see if they follow the wake, etc.  If only Northampton wasn’t so far from the coast….




Filed under Bees, Biodiversity

Spiral Sunday #1

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Spirals have been a bit of an obsession with me for many years, as evidenced by the main image that has always adorned this blog (which, one day, I will tell the story of).  Not sure where that obsession originated but it’s manifested itself in a collection of ceramic bowls with spiral motifs, and with a growing set of photographs that I’ve taken.

This spiral obsession has some relevance to biodiversity.  Spirals are a recurrent feature of nature, and crop up everywhere from the flower heads of members of the daisy family to the whorled shells of gastropod molluscs.  Some of these are governed by mathematical processes such as the Fibonacci Series.  The spiral is also a much better description of the natural sequence of life and death than “the circle of life“.  Circles go back to where they started, which life never does; a spiral, it seems to me, captures that circular forward motion much more effectively, at least when viewed in three dimensions.

Some of the photographs I’ve taken are also of human constructs and cultural artefacts, because the spiral has been a motif used by artists and crafts people for thousands of years, as well as a useful bit of geometry for engineering and architectural purposes.

But, mainly, I just like spirals.  And I need an outlet for this obsession beyond scouring eBay and antique shops for interesting bowls.  Hence I thought I’d start Spiral Sunday*, a regular (maybe) posting of spiral images that I’ve captured, together with a brief description.  It’s possible that this may amuse no one except me, but ho hum.

Spiral Sunday #1 was taken this morning as I harvested the last of our tomatoes.  An undisciplined water regime on our part has meant that some of the fruits have split; in this case tensions within the tomato skin have resulted in a spiral split.


*I freely admit to having been inspired by the “Silent Sunday” feature on the Murtagh’s Meadow blog.  Check it out if you don’t know it.



Filed under Biodiversity and culture