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Nature & Wildlife

Across the region, we are lucky to have a wide variety of habitats and landscapes giving us the opportunity to observe a wide range of flora and fauna. From windswept shores to inland waterways, from plains to craggy rockfaces, each has secrets to share. 

At Living, we have teamed up with experts in the region to show you what to watch out for at the different times of year...


Nature Notes on... Spring is in the air…

Nature Notes on... Spring is in the air…

Chris Luck shows us how to spot the earliest signs of spring in our gardens…

With the catkins of Hazel (Noisetier commun) and Goat willow (Saule des chèvres) opening in February, we see the first obvious signs of spring in our region. Providing the snow and extremely cold weather which are always a strong possibility in February aren’t too serious or long lasting, the catkins will be attracting plenty of activity even early in the month.

Both of these common, early flowering native trees along with Blackthorn (Epine noire), various Wild Plums (Prunes sauvage), Dandelions (Pissenlit), Red dead nettle (Lamier rouge), Sweet violet (La Violette odorante) and Common field speedwell, (Véronique de Perse) are important early nutrition sources for a number of flying insects, many of which are important to us.

The flowers of the plants mentioned along with the Blackthorn and the Wild Plums all provide both nectar and pollen; however this is not the quite the case with Goat willow and Hazel. Although they both have catkins they are sexually completely different and this is important for our early flying insects. Hazels are Monoecious and have separate male and female reproductive units on the same tree, catkins being the male units that produce pollen and the tiny red brushes where the nuts will form being the female units. Goat willows, (sometimes known as Pussy willows), are Dioecious and individual trees are either uniquely male or uniquely female. The buds or catkins on the male Goat willow trees usually appear earlier than do those on the female trees and produce only pollen, whereas the female tree’s catkins produce nectar, bear ovules and form seeds.

Honey bees are probably the greatest beneficiary of the Hazel’s catkins. Near the start of February a honey bee colony has already started, or is preparing to start, its rapid spring population expansion and for this it requires both pollen and honey. If the colony has wintered well there should still be sufficient honey in store to meet their needs before fresh nectar is available. However, the demand for fresh pollen as the protein food for raising the new brood will be enormous and it is the humble hazel with its abundant supply of pollen that is the main provider. The Hazel is soon followed by the Goat willow and then the others rapidly appear fast on their heels. The real action starts with not only honey bees but over wintered queen bumblebees, over wintered butterflies and the emergence of the early species of hoverfly and solitary bees and, of course, some of their respective parasitic species.

The first butterflies are always a joy, easy to see and most are quite well known. Those that have hibernated here, perhaps in your roof or outbuilding, will soon be out seeking a nectar energy drink on a warm day, with Brimstone (Le Citron), Red admiral (Le Vulcain), Peacock (La Paon du jour), and Comma (Le robert le diable) all generally common. Worth keeping an eye out for are Small Tortoiseshell (La petite tortue) and Large Tortoiseshell (Le Grande tortue), that were once common here but now quite rare. The first of the non-hibernating butterflies to emerge, and a true sign of spring, is the unmistakable Orange Tip (L’Aurore). Almost unbelievably, the pupa of these butterflies will have been attached to a plant stem or similar for up to 10 months and may have survived temperatures anything from +45°C to -20°C. Also in March we should see the first of the butterflies that migrate here from North Africa, the Painted Lady (La Belle-Dame). These are well known for their tendency in some years to arrive and pass through in their hundreds of thousands. Sometimes locally, they can almost cover roads and chemins when they settle.

Bumblebee queens that have been fertilised the previous autumn and hibernated, usually underground, will also be out looking for both nectar and pollen. Initially, their nectar requirement is solely for their personal energy requirements and some pollen to replace weight loss that has occurred over winter. Then, when she has chosen a nest site, she will start to raise the first workers feeding the larvae with both pollen and nectar. The Buff-tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris (le bourdon terrestre), is our most common bumblebee and one of the first to show itself, sometimes even in late January if warm and sunny. Usually a ground nesting bumblebee species as its name implies but certainly not the only bumblebee to make underground nests. The Red-tailed bumblebee Bombus lapidaries (Le Bourdon des pierres), is another early bumblebee that is common and sometimes nests underground but more commonly, as its French name indicates, in stone walls or rubble heaps. Finally, (although there are many more bumblebees), the Common Carder Bee Bombus pascuorum (Le Bourdon des champs) is the earliest of the Carder species to show in spring and interestingly one of the last bumblebees to disappear in autumn. They make their nest on or just under the surface in rough grassland, sometimes using an old bird nest. All of these bumblebee species are particularly fond of Red dead nettle, Goat willow, violets and the plum blossoms.

A honey bee “look alike”, the Drone fly Eristalis tenax (L’éristale gluant), is an early common hoverfly that is easy to spot is and these will be around from February feeding on Goat willows and Dandelions. As with the bumblebees, it will usually be females fertilised prior to winter that survive although, in mild winters or coastal areas, a substantial number of males may survive as well. Its larva is the rat tailed maggot that lives in foetid habitats such as stagnant water, sewage and farmyard manure and, to compensate for the low oxygen levels in these environments, it breathes through its tail, using it like a snorkel. Perhaps next time you see these rather disgusting looking grubs you will know what they are and leave them in peace.

Eristalis-tenax-on-goat-willowThe earliest solitary bee to emerge in February is the Yellow legged mining bee Andrena flavipes and is a species with a second generation in June/August. Nests are constructed in the ground and are often found in dense aggregations in suitably exposed somewhat bare ground. Pollen and nectar are taken from all of the plants and trees mentioned except the Red Dead Nettle. Where this bee is present, it likely plays host to the cuckoo bee Nomada fucata.

Another well known early and important solitary bee is the Red Mason Bee Osmia rufa (L’Osmie rousse). Although this is a Mason bee they nest in pre-existing hollows, choosing not to excavate their own and these can be almost anywhere there is a suitably sized tunnel. They start to emerge in March and will be around for 10 to 14 weeks taking pollen and nectar from all the trees and plants mentioned.

All of the insect species mentioned in this article are valuable pollinators, should be common throughout the region, and are easy to see and identify. They are harmless to us and our property with the possible exception of honey bees that may in some circumstances sting. Solitary bees and bumblebees are most unlikely to sting - even those that can.

The bumble bees mentioned in the article all have a corresponding “Cuckoo” species which victimise them and are members of the subgenus Psithyrus in the bumblebee genus Bombus. these are for the Buff-tailed bumblebee - Bombus vestalis, for the Red tailed bumblebee - Bombus rupestris, and the Common Carder bee - Bombus campestris. More of this another time.



Interesting fact?

The common English name dandelion is from French dent-de-lion, meaning “lion’s tooth”, one of its many vernacular French names.