An Afternoon with a Crop of Bumble Bees

Dr Douglas Fraser

The last four, frantic weeks of bumble bee activity has calmed. The ground is peppered with carcasses of drones, which until last week were still jumping on queens as they emerged from the many holes in our flat-roof facia boards. Famously, bumble bees are said to defy the physics of flight, but somehow they do, until, that is, a drone latches onto the back of the rather bigger queen. The pair often falls to the ground with an audible thud. Then they co-ordinate their talents to confound Newton’s laws, once more. Presumably, having done their business, the matriarchal society has decided that their continuance is as useful as is the bicycle for fish. There’s a lesson for us all.

Now the queens are flying less (presumably laying eggs more) and the familiar feeding grounds are full of the relatively smaller workers. Currently they are gorging on nectar from geraniums (especially the blue ones) and Cotoneaster.

B hypnorum

B. hypnorum

The Cotoneaster is in full flower and is seething with bees. Rather like when watching faint stars, it is better to look slightly off and see the glimmer with your peripheral vision, it is not quite possible to see all the bees except as a shimmer across your whole field of view. It certainly does not work in a still photograph.

B hypnorum

B. hypnorum

The most common bee in our garden is the tree bumble bee (Bombus hypnorum). This is a newcomer, having apparently crossed the Channel and was first seen in the UK in 1981. It is pretty common across the UK, now. If it is any measure of familiarity, it is this bee that is enjoying the blue Allium flower in the BBC Gardeners’ World opening sequence. It has pale-rusty brown hairs all over its thorax and a white tail (last few segments of the abdomen). In our population, the queens can be as large as 20 mm, whilst the workers are up to 15 mm. This makes it quite a large bee.

Here is an older tree bumble bee worker. Her thorax hairs are wearing off, giving a tonsure, showing her shiny black exoskeleton.

B hypnorum

B. hypnorum

By contrast, the smaller red-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius) workers are only about 9 or 10 mm, although this year’s queens did measure around 15 – 18 mm in length. The drones are all black.

B. lapidarius

B. lapidarius

Highlighting my poor photography skills (for such fast fliers in blinding sunshine), here is the only evidence I captured of the buff-tailed bumble bee (Bombus pratorum). After the tree bumble and the red-tailed bumble, these are the next most common in our garden, but most of my photographs are of Cotoneaster flowers, 1/10th of a second after a bee had left! It is a dreadful photo, but as a field sketch portrait, it works better! On this queen, it is clear to see the single orangey-yellow ‘stole’, a band of yellow at the front of the thorax, +or- a smaller yellow band on the abdomen, and the orangey-buff final segments of the abdomen. Workers have a yellow ‘stole’, whiter tail, with only a hint of buff.

B. pratorum

B. pratorum

The least common bee this week has been the white-tailed bumble bee (Bombus leucorum), which is the classic picture-book stripy bee. Here a fuzzy shot shows the two yellow bands (one on front of thorax and one about one third of the way down the abdomen) and the pure white abdominal tip. The queens have been as large as 25 mm and the workers up to 18 mm. The drone is about the same size as a worker, but has a yellow face and no pollen on his legs.

B. leucorum

B. leucorum

There are also honey bees (Apis melifera), which I suspect are totally wild, as I know of no hives within a couple of miles (the usual range).

Apis melifera

Apis melifera

Now the Cotoneaster flowers are becoming berries (bird food) and the worker bees have moved on to other sources of nectar and pollen. The necessary succession of sources has to be planned and enabled in human-dominated environments. Thankfully, most keen gardeners like flowers for as long as possible. Bees require simple flowers, with easy access to the nectaries and anthers – not always possible in “over-engineered” cultivars. But that is a subject for another virtual field trip, soon.

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Student-staff research projects: landscape history of the Peak District

IMG_4861Two BSc Environmental Science students, Joe and Saul, were successful in their recent applications for research funding for Department of the Natural and Built Environment Student-Staff Research Projects (SSRPs) with Prof Ian Rotherham and Dr Naomi Holmes.  The SSRP scheme will allow Saul and Joe to undertake short research projects working in collaboration with SHU academics.

The two projects focus on the landscape history of the eastern Peak District.  A site reccie has been carried out and soon cores will be obtained for the study.  Once cores are collected they will undergo a variety of analyses, both at SHU and elsewhere.

IMG_4863

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Day 7 – Czech Republic Field Trip (14th May 2017)

Hayley Doyle, 2nd year BSc Environmental Science student

H7

On Sunday, even though my legs and feet were hurting from all the walking the previous day, we returned to Prague and visited the John Lennon Wall and Prague Castle which has amazing views of the cities red rooftops. The John Lennon Wall has become a tourist attraction after young Czech people rebelled against the communist regime by drawing on and painting the wall in bright colours, the communist regime would try and paint it over but new drawings would appear overnight and today it is one of Prague’s major tourist attractions. It is easy to see why it is so popular. The messages on the wall are filled with hope and it made me slightly emotional, it’s a visit I will never forget.

H8

The trip taught us there is more to life than our own culture and there is a world out there waiting to be explored. I want to return and see different parts of the country as it taught me so much. I would advise people to stay away from Prague and more English speaking areas and challenge yourself to learn some Czech and visit more traditional areas. In the traditional areas you can learn so much more about the country and it’s way of life while also learning and practising a new language.

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Day 6 – Czech Republic Field Trip (13th May 2017)

Hayley Doyle, 2nd year BSc Environmental Science student

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H6We left Most and travelled to Prague, arriving in the late afternoon, most of us headed into the city until late evening. The hotel we were at was in Prague 9, this was three metro zones away from the city centre. One of the biggest challenges of the day was buying a ticket in the metro station as nothing was English, it was even more daunting trying to get on the right metro. Compared to the UK the price of a ticket on the metro is really cheap, around 80p for three zones one way. Once we arrived into the city  were able to see sights such as the Old Town, Astronomical Clock and Charles Bridge.

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Day 5 – Czech Republic Field Trip (12th May 2017)

Hayley Doyle, 2nd year BSc Environmental Science student

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After visiting the beautiful Hnevin Hill, we spent Friday travelling from the south of the Czech Republic to Most in the North, close to the border with Germany. On the way, we stopped to hike up the extinct volcano Rana. The view from the top allowed us to see the ecology of the coalfield area which was very different from the limestone areas in the south. Once we had arrived we were allocated rooms in a lovely hotel. Later, after freshening up we were all glad to be having a sit-down meal and were even more excited when we were given chicken, mash and gravy. Many of us had missed the home comforts and it was a relief after eating the same continental and Czech foods for half the week. On the evening, we had free time so as most students do, we found a bar about a 15- minute walk away from the hotel. We went as a group and ended up having a really good time.

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Day 4 – Czech Republic Field Trip (11th May 2017)

Hayley Doyle, 2nd year BSc Environmental Science student

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Thursday was the highlight for many of us. We visited the Moravský kras, which is the Moravian Karst. The day was spend walking to the Punkvevní jeskyně (Punkva Caves) and exploring the area and the Machocha Abyss on the way. The weather was beautiful and it really completed the day. Inside the caves there were huge stalagmites and stalactites. After walking through the huge cave system, we took a cruise through to the exit.

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Although the caves were amazing one of my favourite parts of the day was being dropped off in a traditional Czech village which was beautiful and it had so much character and charm.

 

 

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Day 3 – Czech Republic Field Trip (10th May 2017)

Hayley Doyle, 2nd year BSc Environmental Science student

H3

On Wednesday groups were able to carry out experiments for their planned projects. My group chose renewable energy so we focused on the Kapraluv Myln and the equipment and methods they use to make the building as environmentally friendly as possible. Some of the methods amazed me. Instead of lights, light wells containing glass and mirrors brought light into the room at no cost after their implementation. The walls were made with rocks and milk to absorb moisture keeping the room fresh and cool. Solar panels were used to power the building but also to heat water for showers and taps. So many methods had been adopted, many well thought out. It made me realise just how far behind the UK are in solar technologies and I hope we can one day adopt all these methods.

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Day 2 – Czech Republic Field Trip (9th May 2017)

Hayley Doyle, 2nd year BSc Environmental Science student

D1

The day began at 8am, tired faces filled the kitchen for a continental breakfast with a selection of ham, cheeses and breads. By 9am we had left the centre and were taken on a walk to a woodland that has some of the highest protection in the world. The walk was steady and allowed us to explore the area and its wildlife slowly. We were able to try a selection of edible plants, which tasted better than imagined! The walk also allowed the group to see the resurgence of streams from limestone, the water at the point of resurgence is not drinkable but it was explained due to the filtration from rocks, the water downstream was drinkable straight from the stream. As there is a limited supply of water further upstream, there are no dwellings as there is not enough drinking water to sustain life.

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After a quick walk up a hill, we were also allowed to explore a cave with the aid of headtorches, the cave was once a shelter for people, shown by simple weapons and cooking tools found scattered on the floor around the cave.

The rest of the afternoon was spent planning projects to be carried out the following day. When we had finished project planning we were able to spend some time in the garden as the weather had warmed up.

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Day 1 – Czech Republic Field Trip (8th May 2017)

Hayley Doyle, 2nd year BSc Environmental Science student

H1

The trip began on a cold May morning, the perfect weather to leave behind! We spent quite a lot of time travelling, although the flight only took 1h 45 minutes. We landed in Prague and for many of us we were in shock as we left the airport, it was colder than when we left Manchester, so we put on our jackets and clambered aboard the coach for the long journey to Kapraluv Myln, an environmentally friendly scout centre which would be the base for our field studies. Half way through the journey we stopped at a traditional Czech service station. The service station was unfamiliar territory and it was not like any service station in the UK. It was almost a serve yourself café.  Buying food was a particularly tough challenge when workers did not speak English and the currency is completely different to that of the pound or euro. For each item we bought we had to work out how many thirties went into each price as 30 Czech Koruna is roughly £1. The challenge was accepted and most of us aced it! With our stomachs filled with chicken and chips we clambered back on the coach for the rest of the journey.

10:30pm:  The coach began to wind down very narrow steep roads in the pitch black, many of us becoming slightly scared from the motion. The coach eventually stopped and we grabbed our cases and trundled in the darkness to the entrance of the centre. We were promptly shown to our rooms, which I can say were very nice, and made ourselves at home. Later we made our way to the kitchen where announcements were made for the next day’s plans.

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In Defence of the Stinkhorn

Dr Douglas Fraser

Yesterday, whilst clearing some of the most boisterous growth on our near-vertical garden, I caught wafts of a sweet, warm smell; the unmistakable attractant of one of my favourite fungal fruits.  I like it for three reasons; partly, because so many people don’t, partly because it is the source of the only literal mycological joke, but mostly I am supporting the underdog in its quest for justice.  To my honourable friends, I submit the evidence: the smell is rich and unusual, but it is certainly not foetid (objective evidence) or “disgusting” (OK, that is subjective).  Like the smell of silage, it is a warm, rounded smell, but with dark-sugary sweetness and a heady dose of wild microbiology.  I’m not saying that I would like to smell like that, but I entreat others to see beyond that feeling before judging this fungus unfairly.  It is a most entertaining growth!

D1

Under a small yew tree, behind some new growth of male fern, in a pot containing daffodil bulbs, is a splendid sight: a fruitbody of the stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus).  Incidentally, this maybe a biological first – has anyone ever propagated this fungus in a pot before?!  It is supposed to gain its nutrients from mycelium in buried, rotting wood.  (This may be the case, of course, and the pot soil has acted like the casing soil, used in stimulating commercial cultivated mushroom fruiting.  There might be a commercial research project in there, if anyone might want to eat … no.)

D2

Close up, the loofa-looking stem (stipe) in perfect white, is topped by a wrinkly cone covered in a viscous, glossy, greenish-brown substance, known as the gleba.  In the gleba are the spores and the source of the aroma.  This whole structure was not apparent, yesterday; it has grown within a few hours, by simple hydrostatic extension of a fully formed, but miniature version in an egg-shaped case just under the surface of the soil.  Essentially the white stipe is hydrostatic erectile tissue.  Flies are attracted and apparently gorge on the gleba.  Having covered themselves (internally and externally) with spores, the flies move on to other places of decay, where the spores might find the right conditions to germinate into a network of thread-like hyphae (and help release the nutrients held in dead tree roots).

D3

Within three hours the gleba has almost all been eaten; the function of the fruitbody is completed very quickly.  Its fate is to be consumed by slugs before tomorrow has passed.  Like many reproductive processes, this is a suitably efficient and ephemeral bit of biology.

D4

Earlier I mentioned the mycological joke.  There are very few jokes for mycologists; the majority are at mycologists.  Do you remember the line in the original Ghost Busters film, where the scientific buster was made all the more geeky by saying that he liked “spores, moulds and fungi”?  (We grit our teeth and let the tautology pass!)  At least we have the one about why there are not more people interested in fungi: because there ain’t mush-room in here.  But it doesn’t take a re-telling, does it?  Slightly rude jokes have greater longevity.  What you must understand is that the Latin name for the stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus, literally means shameless phallus – a suitable name for obvious reasons.  I can now present to you the best mycological joke, ever, in honour of my professional inspiration, Dr T.W.K.Young.  Whilst an undergraduate student, my tutor, Dr Young asked me to help him with a fungal foray that he was leading for the public, in Esher Forest.  So I was present at the public genesis of this gem.  Amongst a wide range of fairly common mushrooms and other fruitbodies, we came across a stinkhorn, in all its glory.  Dr Young gathered the group and explained how lucky we were to see such a big specimen of a stinkhorn.  To this, an elderly, very correct lady, dressed in tweed jacket and skirt, asked in the clipped, earnest voice of the eager academic, “Does it have a proper name?”, to which Dr Young replied, “No ma’am, only an improper one”!

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