Category Archives: Tenerife

Some upcoming public lectures

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Giving public lectures to special interest groups in and around Northamptonshire is always a pleasure as the audiences are usually very receptive.  Just been through my diary and realised that I’m giving five such lectures over the next few months, on pollinators, conservation,  ecosystem services, and so on:

8th March – “Bees for dinner?  The importance of pollinators in a changing world” – Long Buckby Women’s Institute – open to all and not just women!

22nd March – “A city without trees is like a bird without feathers” – Litchborough Gardening Club [title is slightly wrong on that link…]

5th April 2 – “Darwin’s Unrequited Isle: a personal natural history of Tenerife” – Friends of Linford Lakes (Milton Keynes)

27th June – “Pollinator diversity” – Chalfonts Beekeepers (Buckinghamshire)

12th July – “Plants & pollinators – more than just honey bees” – Cancer Research UK ladies lunch club fundraiser at Wellingborough Golf Club

Some of these will certainly be open to guests if you’re not a member and want to come along and hear what I have to say.

Happy to discuss giving a talk to other groups, please do get in touch, though I’m probably not available until after the summer as I’m also giving a keynote lecture at the PopBio conference in Germany in May and a couple of short talks at the International Botanical Congress in China in July.

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Spiral Sunday #19 – a fragment of shell

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Whenever I take a walk on a beach or in the countryside I’m liable to pick up interesting bits of shell, stone, sea glass or wood to take home as a memento of the visit.  Doesn’t always work, though, as I forget where I found this fragment of shell!  I have a feeling that it was on Tenerife.  I love the way the sea has rounded the sharp edges and a piece of stone has forced its way into the opening, a perfect sculpture in miniature as today’s Spiral Sunday contribution.

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Spiral Sunday #10 – a shrine in Tenerife

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To celebrate number ten in my series I thought I would fulfil a promise that I made in Spiral Sunday #1 to tell the story behind the main image of a blue spiral that adorns this blog.

In 2008 I was leading a group of students on a walk in the Anaga region of Tenerife during our annual undergraduate field course to the island.  We were hiking through laurel forest along the trails from the restaurant at Cruz del Carmen,  looking at the forest and cliff vegetation community structure.  During our lunch break I set off alone down a side trail and came across a shallow recess, a sort of low natural grotto, in the vertical bank that defined one side of the track.

The walls of the grotto were green with lichen which made a vivid backdrop to what appeared to be a small consisting of branches, including one set upright that looked like a human figure with arms raised, or could it represent a crucifix?  Around this were scattered coloured pencils (to the right on the main image) and pieces of paper with writing on them, possibly prayers (on the left).

Most striking of all was a drawing of a blue spiral, its colours smudged and faded with the humidity, but still a conspicuous contrast to the lichen.  I took a few photographs, being careful not to disturb the display, then headed back to catch up with the students.

There is a strong local sense of traditional, pre-Spanish identity in this part of Tenerife and it is well known for its local stories such as the “Witches of Anaga“, and it’s possible that this shrine relates to local ritualistic practices.  The spiral is a traditional design used by the original Guanche inhabitants of the Canary Islands and still regularly found on logos, pottery, etc.  Alternatively what I discovered could have been just kids playing in the forest, though that seems unlikely as it’s off the beaten track and not close to any villages.

I’ve occasionally found other ritualistic items on the island (e.g. a child’s doll wrapped in cloth, with folded paper in the bindings) but the Anaga spiral shrine was a particualrly striking discovery.  When we returned with the field course the following year the spiral had disintegrated but the rest of the shrine had been tidied up and more neatly arranged (see lower photograph).  I wonder if it’s still there?

 

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Six bees, one stone: recent pollinator-related talks and workshops

BBKA lecture April 2016As I write this I’m painfully conscious that (a) it’s a couple of weeks since I last posted on the blog; and (b) I have a long list of things to complete before I head off to Tenerife for ten days of field work on Friday.  The absence of posting has been due to my current work load, including the number of conferences, talks and workshops I’ve been involved with in the past month, which seems to have taken up a disproportionate amount of my time.  It’s all been interesting and useful, however, and reflects the rising activity stemming from the National Pollinator Strategy, and increasing interest in pollinators more broadly.  I’ve certainly learned a lot and hopefully my own expertise contributed to the success of these events.

In this post I thought I’d briefly summarise what I’ve been up to recently, in the process expanding the numerical and phylogenetic parameters of “killing two birds with one stone“:

16th March – took part in a workshop to map the latest phase of Buglife’s B-Lines across Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.  This was a really interesting exercise and I felt that we’d actually achieved rather a lot by the end of the day.  Once the final maps are completed I’ll post a link so you can see where the routes go through these counties and how they meet up.

23rd March – spoke at a one-day conference on “delivering biodiversity” organised by the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges at the University of Worcester.  Although I was talking about our bird surveys on the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus, pollinators did receive some attention during a workshop on creating wildflower meadows.  I’ll post an update on the Waterside work once we’ve completed the next set of spring surveys.

30th March – spoke at the Bumblebee Working Group at the University of Sussex – have already posted an account of that.

6th April – took part in a”Pollinator Experts Elicitation” workshop at the University of Warwick, along with a group of nine other academics, and members of stakeholder groups such as FERA and the NFU.  Run as part of Warwick’s Food and Behavioural Science Global Research priority groups, the organisers, from the university’s Department of Statistics, used the Delphi Method to assess the likelihood of sustaining pollinator populations under different scenarios of disease, climate change, and habitat degradation.  It was a fascinating process and interesting to see how often experts’ views converged on the same opinion.  Also rather humbling to see the degree of our uncertainty in our forecasts.  The workshop garnered quite a bit of media attention including pieces on the BBC’s Midlands Today and the Farming Today programmes.

8th-9th April – delivered two lectures at the British Beekeepers Association’s Spring Convention at Harper Adams University.  Rather disconcerting to be the least-informed person in the room, given my limited knowledge of bee keeping, but they were a friendly and curious lot with good-sized audiences for my talks on the diversity of bees to be found in urban settings, and the global diversity and functional importance of pollinators.

13th April – spoke to a very receptive audience at the Friends of Linford Lakes Nature Reserve near Milton Keynes, on the topic of “Bees for dinner?  The importance of pollinators in a changing world“.  Great evening and lots of interesting questions afterwards, though my talk was a bit too long (must cut it for next time).

That’s it for now, hope to do some posts from Tenerife while we are there.

 

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SCAPE conference 2015 – day 2 – probably the best pollination ecology meeting in the world

We’re in Denmark, so I had to use the old Carlsberg meme.  And anyway I stole it from Jane Stout who used it on Twitter this morning.  So there.

Day 2 of the SCAPE conference has been, like day 1, enjoyable and stimulating and full of things that made me think “wow, I did not know that”.  Here’s a few examples:

The day kicked off with two talks on pollen limitation in plants by Amey Iler and James Rodger.  Both challenged some preconceived ideas about the nature of pollen limitation: Amy that it was independent of flowering phenology and James that biodiversity hot spots were more likely to be pollen limited.  Amy found that pollen limitation is more likely to occur early in the flowering time of some plant populations, but not all.  James showed that the South African flora was significantly less pollen limited than expected.

Marcos Mendez also challenged us to re-think whether or not reproduction by plants has a cost on other aspects of plant growth and survival: his meta-analysis suggests not and I hope he writes up the work soon.  But, as Marcos mentioned, he has a lot of on-going reviews to complete….

Beate Strandberg discussed the subtle effects that herbicides can have on non-target plants in non-target habitats, via drift from agricultural fields.  Specifically they can reduce the number of flowers and delay flowering time in plants that are important pollen and nectar sources for pollinators.  Expect to hear lots more about this in the future: it’s not just the neonicotinoid pesticides that are worrying researchers.

Finally Soren Nedergaard has spent a winter on Tenerife in the high altitude lava deserts of Las Canadas, one of my favourite places to do field work, and discovered that some of the plants and bees are active for 12 months of the year!  I’m still trying to digest that finding, I don’t know of any other ecological communities that have the same plants and pollinators interacting all year, every year.  Is it unprecedented?  Does anyone know of other examples?  Even in the tropics plants tend to have a rest period when they don’t flower.

That’s it, just a quick flavour of day 2 as it’s almost 6pm and time for a beer, though not a Carlsberg: they only serve more exclusive beers here….

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7 minutes is a long time in science, 7 goals is a big win in football (BES Macroecology meeting day 2)

Grey heron in Nottingham

Day 1 of the British Ecological Society Macroecology Special Interest Group ended with a drinks reception, kindly bankrolled by the International Biogeography Society, and a stark choice: dinner in a pub with good food and no television on which to watch the Brazil v Germany World Cup semi-final; or dinner in a pub with crappy food but a television.

The split amongst meeting delegates was about 50-50.  As I get older I’m being drawn to things in which I previously had only a passing interest, amongst them bird watching and football.  So I opted for the latter, and was one of only two Brazil supporters in the whole pub, the other being our guest speaker Cathy Graham, largely because we both have more Brazilian than German friends and colleagues. We were rewarded with one of the most excruciatingly clinical dissections of a major international football team that I’ve ever witnessed.  And the food was indeed crappy, but the lager was cold and plentiful.

The next morning, impelled by an uncomfortable mattress on a steel-framed bed in one of the student halls of residence, I woke early enough to do a little bird watching around the University of Nottingham’s Park Campus, which is not unlike the University of Northampton’s Park Campus, except much larger.  There was a modest diversity of birds flying and calling, the highlight being a large grey heron patrolling the edge of a circular pond.  As there were no fish in the pond it seemed to be mainly eating the slugs crawling on the adjacent lawn.  Not a behaviour I’ve ever seen before, though this year’s BBC Springwatch showed footage of parent tawny owls bringing back large slugs for their chick, so perhaps it’s more common than we realise.

Following a mediocre breakfast and disgusting coffee, it was time for the first lecture of the day, the second keynote by Cathy Graham.  Once again she focussed on her hummingbird research and presented some fascinating unpublished data on the structure of bird assemblages along an altitudinal gradient in Ecuador.  Cathy’s team has been using cheap digital cameras which take one frame a second to amass data on infrequently visited rainforest flowers, an approach that trades off time and space: it’s possible to get a long set of data, but for only a limited number of plant species and individuals.

After coffee there were papers by Katie Leach on her PhD work on competition between co-occurring species of Lagomorpha (rabbits, hares, pikas, etc.) and from Richard Field on altitudinal effects on the endemism of plants which chimed with my experiences in Tenerife.  Both of these neatly demonstrated one of the strengths of macroecology: the 21st Century tools it can marshal to use secondary data for understanding ecological patterns and processes at very large spatial scales.

But secondary data can also be a weakness of the field if the quality is poor and it is limited in scope.  This was the subject later in the day of a polemical lecture by Shai Meiri entitled “Laziness in macroecology: a crime and no punishment” that railed against researchers who sometimes fail to augment ready-made data sets with even the most rudimentary of additional data.  My favourite of Shai’s examples was a study which had used a mammalian ecology data set in which the diet of anteaters was coded as “unknown”!  The tee-shirt Shai wore during his often very funny rant read: “If you are not outraged, you were not paying attention” and there was plenty for the audience to feel outraged about, not least his suggestion that we “ban taxonomy” and (even more controversially) get away from our computer screens and into the libraries to source information to fill in the gaps in data sets.

I’d go further and say that some field work would not go amiss as well!  In comparison with using ever more sophisticated analyses, developing better software, and building ever more complex models, collecting field data seems to be low on the list of priorities for many macroecologists, particularly some of the PhD students. Not all of them by any means, and hopefully Cathy Graham’s talks will have inspired them to get into the field, but it strikes me as a trend.  That’s worrying on many levels, and good data are hard won, but then I’m an old-fashioned, muddy boots kind of ecologist who realises that our knowledge of biodiversity is built up from a very small set of data in comparison to what we don’t know: we’ve scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg as a colleague used to say.

In the afternoon there was an unscheduled talk by Olivia Norfolk on the biodiversity of plants and pollinators of Bedouin gardens in the mountains of Sinai, which included a lot of field data.  This was followed by a second set of seven minute “lightning talks”.  I was third on a diverse bill, sandwiched within research on amphibians, Tyrannosaurus rex, North American lizards and microbial communities.  Seven minutes passes quickly and I overran slightly, but hopefully managed to convey the gist of our work on the relative frequency of wind versus animal pollination across the globe.  No one threw missiles at least and there were a couple of good questions that probed the scope and limitations of the current data, but were nowhere near as challenging as the questions in Copenhagen (though I’d had much more time for that lecture).

Following a hasty set of goodbyes I headed to Nottingham station to catch the 1810 back home, once again via the desolation of Birmingham New Street.  Reflecting on the meeting on the way to Northampton I was struck by the fact that of the forty-odd attending, I was the oldest delegate by some margin, which was even more sobering than Brazil’s loss to Germany.  I consoled myself with a bit of “train spotting” (identifying as many bird species as possible through the windows of the train), and ended up with a respectable 21 species* during the two hours or so of travel.

Thanks to the organising committee of the BES Macroecology SIG, and especially to Adam Algar and his team in Nottingham, for a great meeting.  I look forward to next year’s in Copenhagen.

 

*Blackbird, buzzard, swift, house martin, tufted duck, mute swan, mallard, jay, goldfinch, collared dove, wood pigeon, feral pigeon, starling, crow, magpie, grey heron, Canada goose, common tern, back-headed gull, common gull, pheasant, (22 if you count chickens in a run).

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Nature as gardener (Darwin’s Unrequited Isle part 5)

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Gardening and gardens are a long-standing interest of mine, as I’ve mentioned in a few posts, such as “Harvest of evidence” and “In defence of lawns“.  At the moment the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is running and medals are being awarded to gardens and plants, some of which I like, some of which I don’t: make up your own mind from this gallery of images taken around the show.

But nature often trumps us when it comes to aesthetically pleasing plant combinations.  The photograph above (which you can click to see a larger version) was taken in the Anagas Mountains during our recent Tenerife Field Course. Although it’s along a roadside, these two plants have grown there spontaneously – nature as gardener!  The plants are both endemic Macaronesian species:  the billowy white flowers of a Canary Island sea kale (Crambe strigosa) found only on Tenerife and La Gomera, spill over the vivid yellow blooms of a large buttercup (Ranunculus cortusifolius, from the Canary Islands and the Azores).

Up close it makes for a subtle but effective combination (again, looks better if you click to open it):

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The plants of Tenerife never fail to impress – here’s the Canary Island Foxglove (Isoplexis canariensis) one of the bird-pollinated plants of Tenerife that we’ve studied in the past:

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This post is largely deflection behaviour to take me away from grading student dissertations.  So before I return to it I’ll leave you with a gratuitous shot of three endemic Canary Island species:  a woody sow thistle (Sonchus sp.) being pollinated by the Canary Island Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris canariensis), and the Canary Island Large White butterfly (Pieris cheiranthi) whose caterpillars, to take us back to the beginning, feed on Crambe strigosa:

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Now, back to the coal face…..

 

 

 

 

 

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Fire and rain (Darwin’s Unrequited Isle part 4)

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,

I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end…

On Sunday I arrived back in Tenerife with my students for our annual field course. This is now my 14th trip to the island and James Taylor’s song Fire and Rain provides an apt soundtrack to some of what we’ve seen during our current stay on Darwin’s Unrequited Isle.

When we were here in 2013 the pine forest on the slopes south of Las Cañadas looked black and bare, having burned a few months previously:

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Trunks of the endemic Canary Island Pine Tree (Pinus canariensis) were blackened and showed very little foliage:

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That was April 2013.  Twelve months later, following one of the wettest winters that Tenerife has experienced, we were greeted with a sight of rejuvenation. The pine trees are re-sprouting and the landscape is full of colour as plants such as Erysimum scoparium, Echium wildpretii and Argyranthemum tenerifae flower in abundance.  There are also more butterflies that I can previously recall seeing in these habitats:

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James Taylor’s song is about loss and grief; but from fire and rain also comes new life and new beginnings, a positive environmental stimulus for the endemic biodiversity of Tenerife. The fire has opened up the vegetation, allowing seeds to germinate, and the winter rain has stimulated growth and flowering in these summer-drought habitats.

….I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,

But I always thought that I’d see you again.

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Garlicky archipelago

Sunrise from train September 2013

“Garlicky” is a great word, redolent of hot, pungent flavour and nose-filling odour: a Pavlovian word that ignites the senses as it’s uttered.  Perhaps I love the word because garlic is one of my favourite vegetables, a pleasure to both eat and grow.  A Garlic Festival is therefore not to be missed, and my family and I had the opportunity to attend one on the Isle of Wight during a short holiday a couple of weeks ago.  We were joined by university friends I’ve referred to previously, as the first one of us to reach a half century celebrated his 50th birthday.  There was more to the festival than just garlic, but for me its highlight was seeing the sheer variety of different garlic types that can be grown, testament to how this vegetable has been modified from its ancient wild origins in central Asia.  Karin and I bought seed bulbs of four different varieties as additions to the horticultural biodiversity of our vegetable plot, to be planted later in September.   These included the notable Elephant Garlic with its massive individual cloves, which, I’ve just learned while researching that link, is not a true garlic at all but rather a variety of leek.  We live and learn!

Archipelago is another great word and the time we spent on the Isle of Wight, travelling over by ferry from Southampton, served to remind me that the British Isles, with over six thousand islands of various sizes, is by any standards a significant archipelago.  Since at least the explorations of Alexander von Humbloldt, island groups have  been known to host unique species, isolated taxonomically and physically from their closest continental relatives.  Darwin’s later researches showed that archipelagos such as the Galapagos Islands are important as natural evolutionary laboratories, and in previous posts I’ve briefly discussed his unrequited desire to visit to the Canary Islands.  The Isle of Wight is too close to the continent of Europe to have evolved any unique biodiversity but I did pick up the hint of a subtle Island Biogeographic Effect whilst compiling a list of all the bird species I saw over the course of the week.  The list topped out at about 30 species, which I thought was rather low.  Some of the omissions surprised me (not a single blackbird, for instance) and I saw very few individuals of some other common British species.  Now, it could be due to my lousy birding skills I suppose, but it could also be due to the fact that we were on an island, even though it’s less than 1500m across The Solent to the mainland at its closest point.  This is close enough for bumblebees to fly to the island: I’ve seen them shadowing the ferry.  But nonetheless it might be far enough to affect both the diversity and population sizes of the bird life.  Enough wild speculation; I’d be interested to know what serious ornithologists who actually know something about the subject make of this.   

As I finish writing this post I’m on the other great island of my home archipelago, sitting in a bar in Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport.  I’ve been working at University College Dublin as external examiner for their MSc Applied Environmental Science course.  It’s been a fun couple of days reading theses and interviewing chatty, engaged students, which began with a dawn alarm yesterday in order to get to the train station and then Birmingham International in time for a 0850 flight.  Whilst waiting for my taxi I popped into the garden and paused to enjoy the early morning stillness before opening up the chicken coop.  A large flock of black-headed gulls passed low above me, backlit by a thin sliver of moon and silent except for the shuffle of feathers.  From the direction they were travelling I think they were heading from a roost on Pitsford Water and on to destinations unknown.  The garden was also busy with early risen blackbirds and a couple of flitting bats, whilst a little later my taxi passed a rangy fox idly trotting through low mist on the Racecourse park.   It was urban biodiversity at its most sublime.  

All this talk of Northampton is making me feel homesick to be back with the family (Karin, kids, cats and chickens) and start planting garlic.  But there’s just time for another Guinness before my gate opens.  Sláinte!

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A coiled Spring

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April, according to T.S. Elliot, “is the cruellest month”.  Not sure about that, though April 2013 proved to be both frustrating (as we in northern Europe waited for Spring to arrive) and busy, as I tried to pack in a whole set of activities.  That’s my only excuse for not updating my blog, so the aim of this post is to catch up with biodiversity-related activities and observations over the past few weeks.

Just as iconic decades begin part-way through a given ten year period (the 60s didn’t really kick off until about 1963, for instance) so April for me actually began at the end of March.  In the last week of that month I completed my formal teaching for the term and celebrated the first anniversary of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Project.  I also picked up my daughter Ellen from Heathrow Airport, on a two week visit back from working in China.  On the way I counted over 20 red kites flying near the M40 motorway – what an incredible success story their re-introduction has been!

One of the reasons Ellen had come back was that I was due to give my inaugural professorial lecture, entitled “How many bees does it take to wake up in the morning?  The importance of biotic pollination in a changing world”.  Another reason was to to celebrate my eldest son Patrick’s 18th birthday the following day.  Both once in a lifetime events and both had family at their heart.  It was a great week.

Some leave time followed, much needed after what seemed like an endless 12 week university term, during which I hoped to plant potatoes and do some other work in the garden.  But Spring refused to uncoil.  The northerly winds brought cold weather that froze all vernal activity in the act.  Flower and leaf buds were there waiting to unfurl; insects would occasionally appear then just as quickly disappear; and birds clearly wanted to get on with the important activities of raising young.  But all was delayed.  One could sense the tension, the build up of seasonal energy, biology waiting to happen.

A talk at Earlsdon Gardening Club near Coventry on Monday 8th April was well received and took my mind off the organisation of the biennial Bumblebee Working Group meeting on the 11th.  This semi-formal get together of scientists, NGOs, and other Bombus-minded individuals, shifts between venues every two years.  At the last meeting in 2011 I volunteered to host the next event and then put it out of my mind for 18 months.  Organising a scientific meeting is always a bit of a mad panic as the day draws closer and one wonders if anyone will actually turn up.  But as it turned out the event was well attended, with over 80 people listening to talks on diverse topics including the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bumblebee colonies;  I’ve uploaded a copy of the programme.

Friday 12th April was a frantic dash around office and lab to get books, equipment and sundries organised for our annual undergraduate Tenerife Field Course, which was flying out on the following Sunday.  A great time was had by all as we explored the biodiversity of Darwin’s Unrequited Isle and we came back with a wealth of great data plus not a little sunburn.  No matter how often I tell students that they really need to wear a hat and use sun block, some will never listen.

Arriving from Tenerife early on Monday 22nd, I slept for a few hours then was back at the university for the oral PhD examination of Hilary Erenler, whose work I have mentioned previously.  These exams are always stressfull for both student and supervisors but in the event Hils performed wonderfully and passed with only minor amendments.  A great result!  Now looking forward to publishing some papers from that work.

April ended, and May began, with a change in the weather.  Much warmer winds blew in from the south west and life suddenly erupted: pressure had been removed from the coiled Spring.  Lots of pollinators appeared in our garden including: Anthophora plumipes, one of my favourites for its glossy, black females and aggressively flower patrolling males; the relatively newly arrived Bombus hypnorum; the bee fly Bombylius major; and several different butterflies.

Clearly it’s time to plant those potatoes!

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