Remembrance & Biodiversity

As we approach the 4th August and are reminded of the start of a conflict a hundred years ago that saw the needless loss of so many men and women on all sides, it seems appropriate that our first wildflower sowing initiative should be dominated by two of the flowers that are symbols of remembrance. We are all familiar with the Poppy that started to be used by the United Kingdom and other countries in remembrance of the dead of WW1, but the Cornflower, the Bleuet de France, has a similar role in France, said to have been inspired by the blue cloth that soldiers produced as they recovered in hospital from the wounds they had received in that terrible conflict.

Of course these two flowers, along with Corn Marigold, are all weeds associated with the cultivation of wheat and other grain crops. Their origins as species are somewhere in the Middle East and they only came to our islands when settled agriculture and grain crops were introduced several thousand years ago. But growing among the crops that people depend on for food did not make them universally welcome. Indeed one of the three, Corn Marigold, was regarded as presenting such a serious problem that there were edicts from kings, such as Alexander II in Scotland, and Henry II in England, for fines to be imposed on any farmer who allowed Corn Marigold to grow and set seed in their fields. The sight in the fields of a sprinkling of poppy red on the other hand was long associated with the prospect of a good harvest, and the seeds also had a use; when added to bread during baking they give a delicious nutty flavour. All of these flowers used to be a common sight in fields of wheat and barley until the advent of selective weedkillers and efficient seed cleaning techniques after WW2 all but removed this sight from the landscape. Fortunately with set aside policies and seed banks in the soil of the old fields they did begin to flower again and now with the interest in planting wildflowers they can once more be widely seen in bloom.

As well as adding some welcome colour, that small area of varied wildflowers has now started to attract a range of insects. Standing there for just 10 minutes on a warm and sunny day I was able to see 3 species of bee, 3 of butterfly and a couple of hover flies; and at night time there would have been at least that number of different moths. The pollen and nectar of the flowers that are a food source for many of these insects are not however all equally attractive to the different pollinators. It is the Red-tailed Bumblebees that are principally attracted to the blue cornflowers, and the pollen baskets on the legs of this one are crammed with white cornflower pollen.

White-tailed on the other hand were more interested in the poppies and this one kept going round and round the flower bud impatient to get into it as it was about to open, but the mostly black balls of pollen on her legs shows that she has been a regular visitor and pollen collector at other poppy flowers.

But it is not just the larger bees that are benefiting from our seed sowing efforts. Corn Marigold, though ignored by the Bumblebees was targeted by several Hoverflies and also a diminutive solitary bee. There are many species in this group and most are quite small and so are often overlooked. As the name implies they do not form colonies like the Bumblebees and Honeybees, but make individual nests. They typically burrow into sunny banks of soil and sand, or even excavate in soft rocks and brickwork. The tunnel is lined and then provisioned with pollen and nectar before an egg is laid and the burrow sealed. The larva then develops on the stored food supply and emerges in time as an adult bee.

The one visiting our patch appears to be Colletes daviesanus (it doesn’t have a common name) a species that makes burrows in sandstone rocks. Its UK distribution is unusual as it is mostly found in the south of England except for a scattered presence on the south facing coast of the Forth estuary. Our wildflower patch will be a short flight from the sea and sun facing cliffs over the wall where, in addition to the hard dolerite, there are probably also some suitable outcrops of the softer Carboniferous sandstones.

While our attention is naturally drawn to the bright and colourful cornfield flowers, there are other species beginning to grow, some also from the mix in the seed packets but others from the seed bank in the soil.

The pale yellow flowers of Charlock are a familiar site whenever soils have been disturbed by digging, and they were attracting the butterflies, especially Small and Green-veined Whites.

These butterflies, as well as several moth species, will lay eggs on this plant, providing caterpillars for any sharp eyed birds. Even now it is hard to find a leaf that does not show signs of insect munching and the pair of mating Small Whites look poised to further increase the caterpillar supply.

One of the aims of our group was to maintain and enhance biodiversity, as well as improving the woodlands for residents and visitors, and what has developed in this small project area shows that it is easily possible to make an impact in both of these objectives. Thanks to the seeds from the BBC Countyfile Grow Wild initiative we now have an area of colourful wildflowers next to where both locals and visitors take the Coastal Path towards Hopeward Wood and it is already proving to be a small wildlife haven.

Dick Alderson

31 July 2014

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