Saturday, 19 August 2017

Observe bees and you'll learn so much

OBSERVE the honey bees as they hover before the foxgloves or hollyhocks and you may be able to see the pollen basket, or corbicula, on their hind legs, a specialised transport structure to take the food back to their larvae.

They have sucking tongues for feeding on the nectar which they concentrate into honey.

While the bee probes for nectar, loose pollen grains stick to their body hair. They mix the pollen with a little nectar and a fatty secretion to get it to adhere and use their legs to push it in.

Other bee species have scopa — brushes of specialised hairs into which they pack the pollen. Hope I haven’t put you off your honey!

The foxgloves (digitalis) are flowering in the woodland glades where trees have been cut and the ground disturbed, the seeds having remained dormant for many years.

Digoxin, an extract of digitalis, was medically approved as a treatment for congestive heart failure some 20 years ago.

The plant has evolved to ensure cross fertilization: the female “gloves” hold the most pollen and are at the bottom of the spike, so the bee heads for those first and then works its way up to the male flowers.

The pollen from these is then carried to the next spike where the bee starts at the bottom again and unwittingly fertilizes the new spike’s female flowers.

There are some 250 species of bee in the British Isles. Since 1990 20 species have been lost but two new ones have arrived as the climate warms, the tree bumble bee and the ivy mining bee. It is worth studying them for their charming names!

In fact 90 per cent of bees are solitary species, each nest the work of a single female, even when they nest in clusters.

Only bumblebees and honey bees are truly social and interdependent in that each has a specific role, the queen to lay eggs, the workers to care for the larvae, the older workers to forage for nectar and the drones to fertilize the queen.

During the very hot spell we added a third birdbath to the garden and all three have been used — witness the ring of water on the paving around each one.

Insects also need to drink so if you put a stone in the birdbath they can alight there.

Meanwhile, look out for orchids in Gillotts Field and tread carefully when you walk off the path.

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