Bee spotting and Botanising in Gibraltar

  • By mark patterson
  • 14 Nov, 2016

Mark explores the British Overseas territory of Gibraltar, its history, culture and wildlife.

Many people will be familiar with Gibraltar. Our long standing feud with the Spanish over its sovereignty regularly hits the national press and it has its own TV show ‘Gibraltar –Britain in the Sun’. 

The area is a popular tourist destination with its large population of wild monkeys attracting crowds from around Europe. But there is much more to this British territory than its wild apes as I found out in April when I spent a week there searching for wild flowers and their pollinators.

Before I talk about Gibraltar’s flowers and its pollinators I’ll give a brief overview of the area’s history and geography. Gibraltar is a small British territory (6.8km2 in area) on the southern tip of Spain’s Iberian Peninsula, its affectionately referred to as ‘Gib’ by the locals who mostly identify themselves as being British. It was captured by the British in 1704 and has been a British territory since 1713 despite numerous attempts by the Spanish to re-take it. The area is unique in having a diverse mixture of Afro-European fauna and flora found nowhere else in Europe. The ‘Rock’ itself is a large Jurassic  Limestone formation rising 426 meters above sea level with steep slopes on the West side of the rock and almost vertical cliffs on the opposite East Side.

The rock and its limestone geology are unique in Spain where the main rock type is sandstone and granite. Gibraltar’s rocks belong to the same Limestone formations found across the narrow sea crossing in North Africa. Around 5 million years ago the Mediterranean basin flooded and the rock was separated from Morocco. At this time many African species of plant and animal became trapped and isolated and have since evolved alongside European species. Many of the rocks African plant species cannot survive in the typical European habitats found on the mainland as they are limestone specialists and cannot cope with the acid conditions on the granite and sandstone areas. The result today is a unique mix of Africa meets Europe with assemblages of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world including several rare and endemic species.

I had visited Gib before but on short trips in the autumn and found the entire area to be baked tinder dry and aside from the occasional Autumn Colchium and Amaryllis belladonna there were very few wild plants in flower and even fewer bees. Gibraltar like much of southern Spain is subject to scorching hot summers so many plants and animals go dormant or hibernate for much of the dry season mid-summer to winter. The spring in Gibraltar is quite spectacular though in contrast. Winter rains and a frequent supply of moist air rising up the rocks Eastern cliffs brings lots of moisture in spring transforming the arid rock into a Lush Tropical paradise. The best time to visit to see wild flowers and their pollinators is late March and April, but there is still plenty to see if you visit in May.

I decided to visit the second week of April because I wanted to see flowers at their best but I also wanted to coincide my trip with the peak in spring bird migration. Having the narrowest sea crossing in the western Mediterranean the rock is a magnet for many migrating birds, especially birds of prey such as kites, eagles, buzzards and Vultures which rely on thermals to cover great distance. There's something really special about watching 100's of eagle sized raptors soaring just meters over your boat headed for the mainland.

It’s not just birds which migrate here in spring. Many species of Dragonfly, large Solitary bee’s, butterflies and Hoverfly’s also make the 14km journey from North Africa to Europe. One of the best ways to see these migrations is to take a pelagic boat trip out into the straight. Many tired insect travellers will alight on the boats to rest their tired flight muscles. Migrant hawkers, Chasers, and Darter dragonflies are numerous, Vollucela hoverflies are also common and occasionally clouds of Painted lady Butterfly flutter past. I noted many insect bodies floating on the ocean surface during the boat trip. Clearly the sea crossing is treacherous for insects and many don’t complete the journey – Gulls, Cory’s Shearwater and Black Terns eagerly pick their lifeless bodies from the waters surface. Occasionally a large bee will also buzz past. Another reason for taking a boat trip is to see the numerous whales and dolphins which inhabit the straight alongside sea turtles, Sun fish, Basking sharks, Humpback, Minke and Sperm Whales. The Local Striped Dolphin are among the most social and easiest to approach in Europe and come right along the side of the boats. We had the pleasure of a pod of around 15 adults and a calf bow ride our boat for around 40 minutes.

A pod of Dolphins swims alongside our boat during a 3 hour pelagic cruise

One of the first stops on my trip and a great place to see pollinators is the Alameda Botanic Gardens. Here you can get up close to many of the rocks rare and threatened plants which are being cultivated to conserve the species and to repopulate the upper rock reserve. The gardens also boast impressive assemblages of North African and Mediterranean plants which in April are almost all in flower at once and attract masses of buzzing insects.  The Mediterranean is a hotspot for global bee diversity both in terms of population size and numbers of species found in the region, Spain alone has over 1000 species of bee and identifying them all is not an easy task. At best in the field you can only expect to get to Genus level with most of them as many are hard to identify to species level unless you can capture them for close up examination with a hand lens or microscope. At the Alameda Gardens I saw lots of Flower bees Anthophora sp . Some were a local sub-species of our Hairy Footed Flower bee A.plumipes , they were identical in every way except much brighter in colour almost ginger. Other species of Flower bee I could not identify as they were too fast and wouldn’t stay still long enough to get a good look at them. I also saw lots of Andrena Mining bees similar to our tawny mining bee and a great number of Osmia and Lasioglossum bees. Bumble bees were quite scarce though Bombus vestalis, hortorum and terrestris can be seen. Although most of the common UK bumble bees can be found in Spain along with many other bumble bees not found in the UK they are scarce in the Iberian Peninsula – the climate is probably too hot for their large hairy bodies to keep cool.

Leaving the Botanic Gardens you can either take a short but quite a steep and physically draining walk up the winding roads of the Western face of the rock or you can take the cable car or a taxi ride to the upper rock reserve. This is the really wild part of Gibraltar, protected as a nature reserve and home to the Barbary Macaque apes.
The Alameda Botanic Gardens
An Anthophora bee visits flowers at the Alameda Botanic Gardens
The upper rock is dominated by a type of wild Olive scrub and dwarf woodland called Macchia. Much of the scrub is evergreen Holme oak, wild Olive, Juniper, Gorse type Genista scrub and patches of wild cut leaved Lavender, Thymes, Rosemary, Wild Sage, Buckthorn with a dense understory of herbaceous perennials. 
A man made fire break among the Machhia scrub and dwarf olive forest

Most of the wild bees inhabiting these areas are arboreal and are difficult to see spending much of their time up in the canopy where they feed on arboreal flowers and burrow into decaying branches to make their nests. One of them is the impressive Violet Carpenter bee – an absolutely enormous solitary bee that makes its nests inside the hollow stems of dead tree branches and tall Umbellifer flowers among the Macchia. You usually hear them well before you see them, they make a very loud humming noise. They are pretty spectacular bees having glossy black bodies with iridescent purple wings the colour of Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate foil wrappings.

A Violet Carpenter Bee

Throughout the macchia there are numerous glades and clearings where you will find Silver knapweed, Centaurea sonchifolia, Cut-leaved Valerian, Centranthus calcitrapae, Thapsia villosa a large yellow cow parsley like flower – often covered in bees and lots of introduced Acanthus Mollis which is becoming a well established pest on much of the reserve. Bees and large pollinating chaffer type beetles were on virtually every flower.

Along the path ways Blue Pimpernel Anagallis arvensis, Rambling fumitory, Fumaria capreolata, Bladder vetch, Anthyllis tetraphylla , wild Fennel, Greater soft storksbill, Erodium chium and the subspecies subcordata of the Sticky Restharrow Ononis viscosa grow in profusion. These were visited by the local honey bees. There is a small charity in Gibraltar which tend the only managed hives in the town. Contrary to claims on their website they do not keep the Scutella Central African race of Honey bee but the local Spanish Race Apis melifera iberiensis. Here is a picture of some of them foraging on Southern Birds Foot Trefoil. Being surrounded on 3 sides by the sea and being less than 7km2 in area it must be a challenging place to keep bees not least to get new queens mated.

One morning whilst visiting the Bird Observatory on the Upper rock reserve I joined the bird ringers to go check their mist nets they use to catch birds as part of their migration studies. In the thick and impenetrable scrub was the remains of a very old vehicle, probably abandoned since the Second World War from the look of it. Inside was a wild honey bee nest with comb hanging from the metal roof.

A local Honey Bee on Southern Birdsfoot Trefoil flowers

The bird observatory has one of the very few ponds found in Gibraltar. Limestone is porous so there are very few natural places where water can collect to form pools. The man made pond at the Observatory is visited by many birds but it is also visited by many insects as they need to drink too. It is the only place where I saw frogs – the rest of the upper rock is too dry for them to survive.

One of Gibraltars more elusive inhabitants is the  Barbary Partridge. This game bird is very similar to the Red Legged Partridge found throughout most of Western Europe. It is widespread across northern Africa and the Canary Islands but is restricted to Gibraltar in Spain. The remaining population is now very small and they are very shy and not easy to see. The video below is one I pilled from YouTube and is not my own footage - sadly I didnt get to see this bird.

A blue Rock Thrush being fitted with a leg ring and having its biometric measurements taken at the bird observatory. Each spring volunteers from the British Trust for Ornithology journey here to monitor the epic bird migration.

One of the best parts of the rock to see wild flowers and pollinators is the Mediterranean steps, a 1.4km hike starting at 140 meters above sea level and climbing to the summit of the rock on its eastern side along very tough terrain involving a steep climb up the Eastern Cliffs. The route starts off on an easy gradient but then climbs very steeply up the vertical face of the Eastern side of the Rock. This part of the climb is not for the faint hearted as there are few safety ropes or rails and a sheer drop should you fall from the stone carved foot path.

Bristley Bugloss growing on the lower reaches of the steps

On the scree slopes along the steps cornfield annuals which are native to the locality grow in abundance alongside Bristly bugloss, Echium creticum of which Gibraltar has its own sub species coincyanum. These plants grow at home in the UK and are often cited as being native but they were actually introduced to the UK by man as weed seeds in the earliest domestic grains brought from the Mediterranean . In the Uk these plants rely on sympathetic agricultural practices to provide the disturbed soil they need to grow. Here in their natural habitat the crumbling limestone cliffs provide the disturbed soil habitats they require to flourish.

Cleopatra butterfly on Bristley Bugloss
Bladder Vetch

Other plants growing out of the thin soils here included Cut leaved and Red valerian, Cut leaved lavender and wild Calendula. This area was covered in Butterflies including the Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina, Cleopatra butterfly and large numbers of migrating Painted Ladies - many of which will refuel at Gibraltar before continuing to migrate into North West Europe reaching the British Isles and as far north as Greenland.

Spanish Festoon butterfly

There are numerous caves throughout the rock where rain water run off has dissolved weaker parts of the limestone. Many solitary bees excavate their nests in the soft crumbling rock around the cave entrances. Nearby Mallow leaved bindweed, Convulvulus althaeoides rambled through the wild olives etching a living out of the vertical rock face and attracted lots honey bees. To get a close look at any of these bees you really need to come equipped with a long handled net to catch them (I didn’t! and my short handled net was not much use). The steep cliffs, narrow footpath and dense vegetation make it hard to get up close to the wild bees. The heat and humidity also means they are ‘super charged’ and the Anthophora bees in particular are very flighty. It may be easier to get close to bees earlier in the morning when the air is still cool from the mists coming off the sea as the bees won’t be as alert and fast moving.

As I climbed higher up the steeper parts of the rock different plant communities are found. Mediterranean Squirting Cucumber Ecballium elaterium , Doronicum, and Aromatic Inula, Dittrichia viscosa Grow. On more exposed cliffs several rare plants grow in abundance. They include the Gibraltar Candytuft Iberis gibraltarica and the Gibraltar Saxifrage Saxifraga globulifera a species endemic to Gibraltar. An even rarer plant unique to Gibraltar is the Gibraltar Campion Silene tomentosa . This plant was though extinct until a few years ago when a rock climber accidentally discovered a small group of them growing on a very high outcrop. There are only a handful of wild specimens left and their exact location a guarded secret. I unfortunately did not get to see this plant.

One of the most spectacular plants I saw on the sleep cliffs of the steps were Giant Squill Scilla peruviana . The iridescent purple flowers attracted lots of insects including lots of small metallic solitary bees – probably lasioglossum species.

looking down the eastern cliffs from the Mediterranean Steps
Giant Squill
The endemic Gibraltar Candytuft - found nowhere else in the world.

Other parts of the rock good for botanising and looking for pollinators is Europa Point on the southern tip of the peninsula. Here the Botanical society of Gibraltar and the Gibraltar Nature conservancy have done allot of work to restore the native maritime coastal habitats. Here vast swathes of Purple vipers bugloss, Echium plantagineum grow amongst Wild Calendula, Southern Birds Foot Trefoil lotus creticus , Mediterranean Catchfly Silene colorata ,   Italian Sainfoin Hedysarum coronarium and native Chrysanthemums. Gibraltar Sea Lavender Limonium emarginatum also grows here – another Endemic species. Europa point is where allot of the migrating birds and insects first make landfall and many Entomologists and ornithologists gather at the observatory there to look out for and record incoming migrants.

Surprisingly one of the interesting parts of the Gibraltar to look for plants is the old town centre. The narrow streets and steep stairwells are often home to little botanical gems. Many of these are not native but have escaped over the years and makes for an eclectic mix of plants such as Wild Snap Dragon Antirrhinum majus and schiizostylis which grow out of the old lime stone walls. Cape Sorrell Oxalis pes-caprae is common along old walls and is host for the parasitic plant Branched broomrape, Orobanche ramose.

Europa Point
Europa Point

Aside from wonderful wild flowers and lots of bees and butterflies Gibraltar is also a pretty good place to see reptiles. There are many species of lizard, snakes and Gecko found on the Rock, many are easy to see early in the morning as they bask in the sun to warm their bodies. Some are restricted to Gibraltar in Europe being descendants of African species stranded millions of years ago when the Straight flooded.

A reptile I rescued from a drain at the side of the road
An infant Moorish Gecko which made its way into our apartment

I would highly recommend a visit to Gibraltar in April but be warned, there are very few modern and respectable hotels in the town, most of the accommodation options are basic, out dated and costly.

Another word of caution is regarding the Apes. You cannot walk around the Upper rock reserve with food or shiny objects on display – you will be robbed! My travel companion I went on this 5 day trip with was literally ‘mugged’ by a gang of Apes after they spotted the shiny foil wrappings of his sandwich pocking out of his trouser pocket. They also stole his Wallet and souvenir bag – do not under estimate them. I actually saw a troop of monkeys ransack a parked car after the occupants left their windows down. The apes climbed in one side grabbed what they could carry and left out the opposite window. The female passenger didn’t get her handbag back as it disappeared along with the ape over the cliff edge.

A female Barbary Macaque cradles her baby whilst precariously perched above a 400 meter vertical drop. They are Europe's only wild Primate. There are around 16 troops of the Apes occupying the Upper Rock Reserve - treat them with respect!

When climbing the rock and looking for wildlife its best to start early in the morning on the western side. The mornings often produce moisture carrying breezes which collide with the base of the rocks Eastern side and are pushed up the cliffs providing water for plants. This side also receives more shade in the morning so the Climb is easier as it’s not too hot yet. Many of the plants secrete nectar early in the morning before it gets too hot, by early afternoon it can become very dry, the moisture laden fogbank around the base of the rock dissipates and it becomes too hot for many plants to secrete nectar and most pollinators are less active. When you come to climb the Eastern side of the rock which is very steep and physically strenuous the sun will have moved westwards and the rock provides welcome shade from the heat. Temperatures were in the high 20’s Celsius the entire week we were there and on several days reached 30 Celcius.

looking down the steps towards the town of Gibraltar
Climbing the steps to the summit. On the left is the Eastern cliffs-a vertical 400 meter drop and on the right the western slopes smothered in Machhia scrub/forest

Aside from wildlife watching there is allot to do in Gibraltar, the whole town is steeped in history, there are caves to explore, underground museums, an 8th century Moorish castle, Military museum, and Ocean village marina where you’ll find Casinos, shops and restaurants. 

There are also lots of antique and old book shops in the town centre. 

Almost Everyone in Gib speaks English as a first language, they use the British Pound as currency and you’ll find familiar shops such as M&S, Morrisons, Body Shop, next, Tesco and the Post Office. 

It really is Britain in the Sun!

The endemic and critically endangered Gibraltar Campion Silene tormentosa - sadly a plant I did not get to see as its location in the wild is a closely guarded secret
The endemic Gibraltar Saxifrage grows all over the Upper Rock Reserve straight out of the Limestone rock
By mark patterson 15 Oct, 2017

Whilst in Atlanta I attended the Metro Atlanta Beekeeping Associations monthly meeting and lecture.  I have a few friends there among the association and whenever I come to town I get invited to attend their meetings, meet their members and exchange beekeeping experiences.  

Their October guest lecturer was the internationally known Dr Keith Delaplane MBE from University Georgia. See his profile here: http://caes2.caes.uga.edu/bees/personnel/delaplane.html

Before the meeting my friend Cindy, former president of the association introduced me to Keith who has previously worked on bee research projects in the Uk with current colleagues of mine at FERA/DEFRA. We had a brief chat about the work Keith participated in and my colleagues he'd had the pleasure of working with.

As the room packed out with around 50 people attending Dr Delaplane began to gave his talk on his latest research project which has just been funded by the United States Department for Agriculture. 

He started off by explaining some of the background of honey bee social evolution and Honey Bee reproductive strategy and how having a single queen devoted to reproduction within the colony brings benefits to the hive. He went on to explain that having highly promiscuous queens which practice polyandry also brings benefits through the diverse genetic make-up of the colony which enables the colony to brave environmental stressors, be more disease resistant and produce more honey.

His latest project will involve the artificial insemination of a large number of queen bees from various stocks. These queens will be inseminated in 3 groups. One group will be given the sperm of just 10 drones, another group the sperm of 30 drones and the last group the semen of 60 drones. The researchers will then compare the colonies performances against varroa resistant hygiene, Productivity, disease etc. Their hypothesis is that instrumentally inseminated queens with a more diverse package of sperm will produce more productive colonies.

At this point he pointed out that the queens receiving sperm from 60 drones will not burst with semen because they are too full! The sperm from multiple drones is blended together then the same amount of the mixture given to each queen. Apparently he’s been asked if queens burst if they are full on several occasions.

Dr Delaplane explained that within each colony there exists sisterhoods made up of workers belonging to the same drone father. These different sisterhoods made up of super sisters often display a preference or exceptional ability at certain tasks within the hives. Some may be better at foraging, others better at producing wax or comb construction, whilst others may be better at brood rearing and others may be more inclined to swarm. Having a diverse workforce means you have more sisterhoods with task specialisms  that are well equipped to excel at a wide  range of tasks within the colony therefore the colony can survive and thrive easier.

This is the exact opposite of what happens in most bee breeding programs when beekeepers are selecting a small number of drones to inseminate queens as they are looking for a specific set of desired traits. Dr Delaplane believes that rather than selecting for specific traits we should be aiming for queens which have slept around allot and produce a diverse workforce which in itself produces better bees.

He also explained that among the sisterhoods in the hive there are some bloodlines which are royalty and do not make good workers. These bees when they are larva emit a pheromone which screams out to the nurse bees ‘make me a queen’ and in the event the the colony needs to make an emergency queen cell its these larva which are chosen over others as preferential queens because they are genetically programed to be better queens but poorer workers. As workers these bloodlines are basically social parasites and do little to no work in the colony. This was the first I had heard of royal bloodlines in the Honey Bee and had always thought queens were chosen at random or that the bees somehow can tell which larva are fittest and chose them.

It had for a long time been widely hypothesised that sisterhoods would prefer a supersister to raise as the next queen as that super sister queen would share more DNA with her sisters but this has turned out to be one of the biggest scientific flops of the 20th century with over 100 studies failing to prove this is what happens.

 So it turns out some queens are born to be queens – but may never become one and others which are not ‘born to be queens’ just happen to get laid in a play cup and become a queen anyway without any particular desire or choice to become one.

Dr Delaplane thinks his new research project could challenge established practices by bee breeders and queen producers  forcing them to re-think the trend of selecting a narrow range of desirable traits which produces genetically limited stock.

My own preference for raising new queens is the miller method or I use a special frame inside the parent colony which then snaps apart into several smaller frames fitting into a mini mating hive populated with nurse bees and I leave the bees to decide which of the larva they want to raise into queens. Its less work than grafting and providing you supply the nuc with a frame consisting plenty of eggs or very small newly hatched larva for the bees to choose from they have plenty of time to feed the larva royal jelly and make good queens.

I find that this method works for me better than grafting or using the jenta cup system which I have also experimented with. I get great queens using this method and I think my results coincide with Dr Delaplanes findings thus far.


By mark patterson 07 Aug, 2017

Late summer for the bees is one of the most desperate times of the year when they can struggle the most to find enough food to eat. Many people find this fact difficult to believe as the weather is often hot and sunny and presumably great for the bees but it is in fact often one of the leanest times for the busy insects. At this time of year colonies are large with many mouths to feed and as the beekeeper has removed the honey crop the flowers are also diminishing in abundance meaning the bees can struggle to replace honey which has been taken off. For this reason it’s crucial not to be over greedy and take all the honey leaving the bees with no stores for themselves.

Come late summer the majority of our nectar rich native wild plants have ceased flowering and gone to seed, especially woodland and meadow flowers whose flowering period is in rhythm with the closing of the woodland canopy and cutting of meadows for hay. Bramble and all our native trees have also long since finished flowering and are now sporting fruits and seeds leaving little for the bees.

Away from Heather moorland and Heaths, the only real bountiful sources of forage from native wild plants are Greater Willow Herb, Thistles, Ragwort, Bindweed and Hogweed – though many of these are early this year and already going over. Along water courses Purple Loosestrife, Marsh Woundwort, Water Mint and the invasive Himalayan Balsam provide welcome relief but not everyone is in range of such localised sources of forage.

By mark patterson 16 Jun, 2017

Early summer, June in particular is a time of the year which brings uncertainty for many a beekeeper, and for those in rural areas in particular. June is the beginning of the summer season when the spring flowering plants and trees shed their blooms having been pollinated and now begin to form seeds but the main flow of summer flowering blooms has yet to begin. Beekeepers refer to this period of change as the June Gap.

At this time of year Honey bee colonies are approaching their peak in worker population in readiness for the summer flow, Queens are laying at a prolific rate and colonies have many larva to feed. A reduction in incoming nectar and pollen as the spring flowers cease but the summer flowers are yet to peak can leave large colonies struggling to feed themselves or fill supers with surplus honey for the beekeeper.

By mark patterson 09 Apr, 2017

Following a very mild March the forage this season appears to be well advanced of recent springs, even in comparison to last year’s very mild winter and warm start to the year. 2017 has started cold and chilly but in late March this has warmed up considerably. So much so that I experienced my first attempt at a swarm during the last week of March and already the new queens have emerged and unbelievably appear to have been mated and are laying in the first week of April!!!

During the first week of April many of our true heralds of spring had already begun to flower across the city. Cherry Laurel Prunus laurocerasus an evergreen shrub who’s flowers are a useful source of spring forage have been out in bloom since mid-March 2-3 weeks earlier than last year. Whilst manning the LBKA stall at Ascot race course on the 2nd April I saw many Andrena Mining bees, Honey bees, Bumble bees, Hoverflies, Queen wasps and Queen Hornet nectaring on the blooms of these tall shrubs growing around the car park.

Damson, Plum, Gage, and other stone fruits have largely flowered and gone over already as have crocus, daffodils and snow drops. My flowering currant normally just blooming now is almost over already meanwhile Blue Bells are coming into flower. 

Blue bells may be visited by Honey bees and can produce a honey crop but they are also popular with some of the longer tongued solitary bees and Garden Bumble Bee Bombus hortorum . Most of the Blue Bells found growing in our gardens and sadly in many of our wilder places are the larger invasive Spanish Blue Bell Hycinthoides hispanica and not the native English Blue Bell Hycinthoides non-scripta . You can tell the two species apart by the way that the individual bells hang on the flower stalk. In English Blue bell the bells all hang on the same side but in the Spanish Blue Bell they hang at different angles all around the stalk. They also have green to blue pollen whilst English Blue Bells have a creamy coloured Pollen. Blue Bells frequently hybridise and these offspring can be difficult to differentiate.

By mark patterson 04 Mar, 2017

March is officially the first month of spring for us in the UK, though in London it has felt spring like for several weeks now.

 Already the first of the spring flowers are putting on a colourful show of yellows, purples and shades of white. Snow drops are starting to go past their best having flowered in numbers since Late January. The early flowering species crocuses are currently looking at their best across most of London and the later flowering large flowered Crocus varieties are just starting to join the display too. 

These and other spring bulbous plants including Winter Aconite, Anenemone blanda, Squill and Muscari are valuable early sources of pollen for bees.

By mark patterson 31 Jan, 2017

2017 has started off quite differently from last year’s exceptionally warm January. Last year in the first week of January I participated in the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s annual New Year’s plant hunt and found 76 species of plant in bloom during an 8 mile walk around East London. In contrast on the 3rd of January this year I found just 9!

January 2017 has seen a return of the more usual cold winter temperatures and from what I can tell so far the return towards more normal timings of the seasons and emergence of spring plants and animals. The recent cold weather has meant that late season flowering plants have ceased blooming before Christmas and not persisted through winter as they did last year meanwhile spring flowers have remained doorman and not yet begun to emerge.

Despite the weather being generally cold with some particularly harsh ground frosts there have been occasional mild days when the bees will fly to cleanse their bowels and look for food. Despite the cold there are a select few flowers in bloom which they can take advantage of.

Few native plants are yet in bloom but several exotics flourish in late winter through to early spring providing a bounty of forage for the few insects brave enough to venture out and take advantage of them.

Mahonia or Oregon Grape grows in our towns and cities in abundance and flowers throughout the winter providing nectar and pollen for bees. In southern towns and cities Buff Tailed Bumble Bees Bombus terrestris are increasingly continue to be active throughout the winter surviving largely on this plant. Around 75% of winter flower visitations by bees are to Mahonia. The variety ‘winters sun’ is particularly attractive. Bees taking advantage of Mahonia blooms in winter have few other insects to compete with and can fair better than some colonies active in summer. On the 12th December I discovered an active Buff Tailed nest in west London beneath a Pyracantha hedge. I’ve been monitoring it all winter and whenever there is a warm day the workers can be seen busily coming and going from a large stand of Mahonia shrubs across the street from the nest. The blooms will only last a few more weeks so hopefully an equally good source of forage will come into bloom nearby to ensure the colony has sufficient forage coming in to enable it to produce new queens and drones by spring when the nest dies off.

Viburnum shrubs include a number of deciduous and evergreen species which flower during the winter months. They are relatives of our native Guelder Rose Viburnum opolus . Some of the most popular Viburnums with our bees include the evergreen Viburnum tinus who’s sweetly scented cream blooms flower from November through to March and Viburnum bodnaatense whos pink flowers bloom from around Christmas to March.

Winter Heliotrope Petasites fragrans is a relative of our native Butterbur but flowers much earlier. Its not a UK native and can be quite invasive when established in the wild but is a great garden plant for bees in late winter. The flowers are shaped like a toilet brush and pink in colour.

Clematis . Several Clematis species are useful forage sources to bees in winter. Clematis amandii and Clematis cirhossa both have creamy white flowers and bloom in winter. Honey and winter active bumble bees will visit them for pollen.

Hellebores include the familiar ‘winter rose’ with its large white blooms ‘ orientalis ’ and its many cultivated hybrids and the native Stinking Hellebore helleborus foetidus .

Winter Flowering Cherry Prunus subhirtella flower from late November to February producing pale pink flowers. I’ve very rarely seen any bees on the blooms but have often seen flies on them. In the absence of better forage like Mahonia bees will visit the flowers.

Sweet Box Sarcococca confusa is a short growing evergreen shrub which produces extremely fragrant blooms (reminiscent of hyacinths) from late winter into early spring. It’s one of those plants that you almost always smell long before you see it.

Winter Heather/Heaths Erica species produce tubular blooms in shades of white to pink throughout the winter. They are coming to the end of their flowering period now but still providing forage for bees brave enough to venture out.

Winter flowering Honeysuckle . Several Honeysuckles flower during winter. Some are climbers other are shrub forming. One of the best is Lonicera fragrantissimima .

As we progress beyond February into March the usual array of spring blooms will begin to appear. Their arrival is not far off, already a few brave Daffodils, Snow Drops and Winter Aconite have made an appearance. They will be joined by Crocus, Muscari, Sweet Violets, White Deadnettle and Pulmonaria.

By mark patterson 24 Dec, 2016

Insect pests

Firstly lets start with wasps Beekeepers in America like those the world over have a hateful relationship with wasps. Here in the UK we have about half a dozen species of wasp which can pose problems for our bee colonies. These are mostly social wasps which build paper nests but there is also one solitary wasp – the Bee Wolf Philanthus – which hunts almost exclusively on honey bee workers which it buries underground and lays its eggs on after paralysing the bee. Most of these wasps are little more than a nuisance, few can actually cause any real damage, and when they do it is usually already weak colonies which are effected. Reducing hive entrances to make the colony easier for the guard bees to defend is usually all the intervention needed. In the US they have a whole different range of native wasps which predate bees as well as common Wasp, German Wasp, Tree Wasp and European Hornets which have been accidentally introduced from Europe. In total they have around 20 species of social wasps which all, to some degree prey, on honey bee colonies.

Honey Bees are not native to North America so have few defences against the native wasps which must have delighted at their arrival in the 1600s. Among the most common social wasps which can cause problems for US beekeepers are the Yellow Jackets. These are very similar to European common wasps which are the scourge of picnic tables in late summer and sometimes rob our honey bees. Yellow Jackets almost always nest underground among thick undergrowth. In 2013, I was the victim of a vicious Yellow Jacket colony which went on the rampage after an innocent bystander accidentally stepped on their nest during an event in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. 100s of wasps came pouring out of a small hole in the ground – probably an old mouse burrow and flew straight up my shorts stinging my groin. My friends were stung on the face, arms and legs. The stings were extremely painful and burned intensely. They were far more painful than any bee sting and I would not want to experience it again. There are several species of Yellow Jacket which all look very similar. They are the Eastern Yellow Jacket, Western Yellow Jacket, Prairie Yellow Jacket and the Southern Yellow Jacket. All the Yellow Jackets are in the genus Vespa which is the same Genus that our common wasps and European Hornets belong to.

By mark patterson 09 Dec, 2016