Bumbles in the willows

Last year around this time I wrote a post about bumble bees swarming high up in the crown of a pussy willow (Salix caprea, aka goat willow). I knew nothing. Nothing. Since that time I have read Dave Goulson’s excellent A Sting in the Tale which, if nothing else, has served to give me some appreciation of the depths of my ignorance.

These are queen bumbles, newly waked from hibernation from which they emerge famished, having used up all their stored energy resources over winter. The female pussy willow is one of the few sources of rich nectar at this time of year, and must be a welcome sight indeed to the nearly knackered queenies. No wonder so many of them descend upon each tree, they must be gasping, the poor things. So, drink up ladies. Ovaries to swell, nesting burrows to find, and eggs to lay. Fortunately for the shagged out queens, no energy will need to be spent upon the tiresome business of mating – that was all done before the winter, the males now less than a distant memory, their sperm being stored within the body of the queen. It will be needed to fertilize eggs to produce daughters, who will become the first generation of worker bees, and later, the next generation of queens. Male bees are produced from unfertilised eggs, their only function in life being to mate. It’s not a massively interesting life – the tend to hang around in groups on the top of hills, waiting for a lady to arrive – but they have it better than the male honeybee. The last moments of a sexually successful male honeybee are somewhat dramatic, involving mid-flight sex, exploding genitals, and death. Way to go, chaps.

But all that is months away. Spring is newly arrived – perhaps a week or two late this year – and the willows are abuzz once more.

More sobering is the revelation that the government’s own research into the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees does not support the conclusions that they drew from it at the time. A recent article in The Guardian describes how Dave Goulson has taken another look at the study from 2012, finding that the evidence gathered strongly suggests a negative correlation between the presence of common neonicotinoids and the number of queen bees. You can read the full piece here; I was particularly drawn to the following quote from Professor Goulson,

“The conclusions (the government) come to seem to be completely contrary to their own results section.

“They find that 100% of the time there is a negative relationship between how much pesticides were found in the nest and how well the nest performed, and they go on to conclude that the study shows that there isn’t a significant effect of pesticides on bee colonies. It doesn’t add up.”

Even a spokesman from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), who carried out the research, concurs that the wrong conclusions were drawn.

You often hear both scientists and politicians speaking of the importance of good, reasearch-based data upon which to base policy decisions. When the research is conducted by individuals and organisations manifestly less than impartial to the outcome, the studies are not exposed to the rigours of peer review and the resulting data are apparently wilfully misinterpreted, one could be forgiven for wondering how well this process is working.

Laurel, and Hardy Plants

To the utterly charming and most inspiring Marchants Hardy Plants today, a wonderful garden and nursery not far from Lewes in East Sussex. I’d love to give you the exact location but, in spite of printing out instructions from the infernal interweb, we got slightly lost, and spent rather longer getting there than intended.

The small car park was overflowing when we finally arrived, so we pulled up on the roadside just before the entrance, next to an artfully pruned hedge of what I took to be field maple. But what this place specialises in is as fine a selection of home grown herbacious perennials and ornamental grasses as you are likely to find anywhere, and that's what we'd come to see.

Accompanied by the sound of the breeze whispering in two fine willows flanking the entrance to the garden, we descended from a grassy knoll into the beautifully landscaped space, which acts as a showcase for the plants in the nursery. Here inspiration in abundance awaits, from planting combinations suggesting myriad ways in which grasses can be used together with perennials and shrubs, through the soft landscaping of the undulating grassland and creatively shaped hornbeam hedges, to the subtle use of hard landscaping materials. Any questions we had were answered by Graham Gough and his partner, textile designer Lucy Goffin, whose passion and enthusiasm for both plants and garden was clearly evident.

Leaving empty handed was never an option, and we took with us the prettiest, pale pink flowered pelargonium, P. ‘Shannon’ (the stunning, dark maroon flowered P. sidoides was on show but, alas, not on sale this year), and a magnificent willow, Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders’ – all mahogany stems and long, pale, olivey leaves – which I’d spied making a fantastic backdrop to clumps of Stipa gigantea in the garden. Lucy has made the single most creative example of a living willow fence I’ve ever seen from whips of this plant, which we spied as we drove away.

And as for the laurels? I might have missed them, but I’m afraid we didn’t see any. Just a shameless, bad pun to give me a half decent title for a blog post!