Last year saw us clear an area adjacent to Crow Wood and the Coastal Path and sow wild flower seeds. Some, on the triangle at the junction of Lumsdaine Drive with the Coastal Path were supplied by the Grow Wild (Landward) initiative. These gave us a colourful display last summer with abundant flowers of scarlet Poppies along with Cornflower and Corn Marigold. Clearing the dominant grasses and other plants and exposing the soil has also allowed some of the seeds that had lain dormant to germinate and start into growth. In addition there was some transplanting of small plants of wild flowers that had self seeded in local gardens, Foxgloves, Teasels, Dog Violet, Lesser Celandine, Lady’s Smock and Self-heal. And we are now beginning to see what all these initiatives are bringing for the flowers that will bloom there this year.
At present it is White Dead-nettle, and on the triangle the related Red Dead-nettle, that are dominating flowering at present, and these are an important source of nectar and pollen for the bumblebee queens that have recently emerged from winter hibernation.
The face of this magnificent Red-tailed queen is well dusted with pollen, and the gingery Common Carder is half buried in the flower while extracting nectar from its depths.
For the black and yellow Garden Bumblebee, which has the longest tongue of all our common bumblebee species, White Dead-nettle is particularly important, and finding these flowers in spring may be a key factor for its success in establishing a nest. [This species is distinguished from the more common Buff-tailed and White-tailed by having two lines of yellow hairs, one above the wing bases and the other below, clearly seen in this photo, but harder to see when they are busy visiting flowers]
But not all of the bees using our wildflowers are as large as the bumblebees. A closer look at some of the flowers may reveal one of a group of widespread and important pollinating insects, the solitary bees. These, as the name implies, do not form the familiar social bumblebee colonies where the bee larvae are tended, first by the queen, and then by the workers, but instead dig holes in sunny banks which they stock with nectar and pollen before laying a single egg in each and then leaving their larvae to grow and develop to maturity on their own.
Like the bumblebees they too have abundant hairs on some parts of the body and these readily become coated with pollen some of which will end up being transferred to the next flower that they visit. This yellow dusting is very evident on the two photos here of a couple of these bees visiting Lesser Celandine and Dandelion.
Dandelions, though not much appreciated by gardeners, can also be important fuel sources for some of the early butterflies like the Small Tortoiseshell.
The Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock which you will see flying at this time of year are adults that have emerged from hibernation having spent the winter in gaps in walls and other nooks and crannies, including garages and outbuildings. When they emerge they need these early flowers to refuel for their spring activities. After courtship and mating the females will lay their eggs on nettles, and the caterpillars which hatch will go on to produce the new generation of colourful adults later in the year. These are the ones that delight us as they visit garden flowers, especially Buddleia or Michaelmas Daisies, before going off to hibernate for the following year’s generation. So, while we have removed some of the nettles in Bathing House Wood for the tree planting and to make the pathways pleasanter to walk down, there are still plenty left for the caterpillars of these butterflies.
Apart from the Lesser Celandines, always a spring favourite with their brassy gold flowers, and which can now be seen where they have been transplanted on the lower edges of the banks, there is another of the transplants now in flower. The bank on the right hand side of the tree has some clumps of Cuckoo Flower or Lady’s Smock. These plants came from self seeding of some plants originally bought from the Jupiter Wildlife Centre in Grangemouth and hopefully once fully established they should continue to seed on the bank side.
Their pale lilac flowers are a bit small and delicate for bumblebees, though they can be used, but they are often used by early flying butterflies, especially Green-veined White and Orange Tip which have yet to put in an appearance.
But you may see one insect that is visiting them at present that looks superficially like a small bumblebee but hovers in front of a flower and inserts a very long tongue to reach the nectar. This is the Bee Fly, one of the two winged flies (Diptera), so not even closely related to the bees. In its life cycle it is what is termed a parasitoid. It lays its eggs at the mouths of burrows of insects such as the solitary bees mentioned earlier and the larvae, after hatching, crawl down the burrow and feed on the bee larva within.
The spring flowers may not be as showy as some of the annual summer blooms that we saw last year, but they are vitally important for a range of insects that need to get started in spring. Without the abundance of spring flowers that our patch now supplies many of the bumblebees and other insects that we see visiting them would not be able to survive into the summer when there will be more colourful flowers in bloom. And as the year advances we will get some of the summer annuals in flower again, as well as some of the perennials that were also part of the seed mixes that were sown.
Because of the dry summer, some of the seeds sown last year were very late to germinate, especially on the south facing bank near the conifer tree. But some of those are now developing rapidly and the downward hanging flower buds of Poppies show that there will soon be showy scarlet flowers again. It is only when looking closely at the flower bud that you can see how densely hairy the flower stem is. This must provide a good defence against insects and other invertebrates like slugs and snails that might attempt to crawl up the stem to eat the developing flowers.
Our wild flower patch is therefore worth a closer look, both to see the spring flowers and also to see some of the plants that are developing for later flowering. Compared to what we started with in this area our efforts have now produced an impressive increase in the diversity of plant species, and the other wildlife is clearly showing the benefit.