Reaching for the Sky: Hollyhocks

I have been waiting for this pink hollyhock to finish flowering and for its seeds to ripen. At last it has, and I’ve cut down the old stems and taken them away to a sunny, sheltered spot where I’m hoping it will seed itself around. (I need to clear the hollyhock’s space so that it can become part of a new bog garden.)

The plant was the offspring of a series of hollyhocks that have self-sown in the area for the last few years. Originally I had planted a few seedlings bought at a community plant sale. I can’t now remember what colour the flowers were. Possibly yellow, because I do remember some very pretty double yellow flowers and it seems likely that they would eventually revert to producing plants with single flowers.

This year there was only the one plant. That’s probably a result of all the disturbance of having the fence renewed last year. But this single plant was much bigger than any of the previous hollyhocks. When I cut the stems, I measured the longest and found that it had reached a height of 10 feet. (Hollyhocks do grow tall, but are more likely to be 6 to 8 ft.) It was lucky that it hasn’t been windy enough to blow the stems over!

There’s a lot of discussion about whether hollyhocks are biennial or perennial. (They don’t flower until their second year.) The RHS says that they are short-lived perennials, so I’m happy to go with that. But I haven’t tried to move the hollyhock to a new position because they have deep tap roots and don’t like to be disturbed.

A reddish-pink hollyhock flower

If there’s time next year, I may grow some new plants from seed. I’d love to have a range of colours, including pale yellow, the really dark purples, and strong pinks like the flower above. This one sadly wasn’t in my garden, but was photographed outside a pretty cottage a few years ago. (I’ve seen a wonderful range of colours outside some of the pretty medieval cottages in the villages around here…the tall flowers and quaint cottages seem to go so well together!)

Whatever colours I might fancy in hollyhocks, the bees seemed happy with this year’s pink. This plant has attracted many bees, so that would be a good reason for keeping some of the same shade – and a good reason for growing varieties with single flowers rather than the doubles. If I manage to grow hollyhocks in a number of different colours, I must take note of which they prefer – could be an interesting little project!

Common Carder Bee: Bee I.D.

In the last few years, I’ve become fascinated by the bees and other insects that visit my garden. Sometimes I like to just sit and watch as they go about their business among the flowers. It feels very relaxing and deeply peaceful.

There are several different species of bee that use the garden. Honeybees come here frequently. There’s usually a good number of buff-tailed bumblebees too, and just occasionally, a red-tailed bumblebee. And there’s the bumblebee pictured above – the common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum).

Common carder bee
Common carder bee on Caryopteris x clandonensis

I’d noticed these bees back in spring, visiting the white deadnettle and other early flowers. They moved about too much for me to get a really good look at them, or a clear photograph that showed their markings. Recently, I saw a couple of them enjoying the freshly-opened flowers of a sedum on a sunny afternoon. It made a good opportunity to photograph them.

Having photographs of the bees made it easier to identify them by comparing them to images on websites about bees. Even then, it can be very hard to be sure about identification, because many bees look very similar.

Honeybee on Sedum
For comparison: honeybee on sedum

To make it easier to see the differences between the commonest bees in my garden, I’ve posted a couple of comparison photos. Above is the honeybee. (The western or European honeybee, Apis mellifera.)

You can see that the honeybee’s colouration is quite like that of the common carder bee. But the carder is much hairier and a stronger ginger colour. (The common carder is also a bit bigger than the honeybee.)

If you look at the tails of the two bees, you’ll notice that the tail of the common carder has hairy stripes in black and white. While the honeybee also has a stripey look to its tail, they are quite different. Here the black areas of the tail look smooth and slightly shiny, with just very short and sparse pale-coloured hairs.

Bumblebee on a blue scabious flower.
For comparison (2): Buff-tailed bumblebee (I think!)

The other comparison (above) is the very common buff-tailed bumblebee. (Which can be distinguished from the white-tailed bumblebee by that very narrow orangey stripe at the top of its tail.) It looks quite different from the common carder bee, having a mostly black thorax with an orangey-yellow stripe just below the head, and another on the abdomen, just below the waist. (Mostly hidden here by the wings.)

One of my reasons for wanting to know which bees use my garden is so that I can try to make sure I have a range of flowers to suit them.

The common carder bees have been busy at the caryopteris flowers, even though the shrub has almost finished flowering for the year. Like a lot of other bees, they’re keen on the flowers of sedums at the moment, as well as the last of the catnip flowers. (When there’s not a cat sleeping in it!)

Now I must go and read up on what other flowers they like and what sorts of habitats suit them. I’m hoping for lots more of them next year!

Common Carder Bee
Common Carder Bee – it has a hairy face!

Out for the Big Butterfly Count

Recently I wrote that there had been few butterflies in the garden this summer. And I had seen no Peacock butterflies. Happily, some have now appeared, as you can see from the top picture (where it shares the buddleia flower with a Red Admiral.)

There aren’t as many butterflies as in last year’s really warm summer, but it’s great to see some. A little bit of sunshine and the scent of the buddleias has brought them into the garden to feast and sun themselves – conveniently for the ‘Big Butterfly Count’, which finishes this weekend.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly
Small Tortoiseshell

The appearance of this Small Tortoiseshell butterfly was well-timed for my second go at the butterfly count. It’s the only one I’ve seen so far this year. In fact, I’ve only seen it a few times in the garden. I was delighted that I had my camera ready, and even happier that it didn’t fly away. (Most of the pictures here have been cropped from much bigger images because I couldn’t get close without disturbing the butterfly.)

Below is a butterfly that I’ve not noticed in the garden before. It’s a Gatekeeper and there were two of them, often in the same area. (The dark, band-like markings on the forewings of this one show that it’s a male.) These are common in hedgerows, grassland and around the edges of wooded areas, so they may have come from the woodlands across the road from us. There are plenty of trees and shrubs in the gardens around here and wilder areas with long grass too, so there could soon be more of them.

Gatekeeper butterfly
Male Gatekeeper butterfly

After I had photographed the Gatekeeper, I thought to myself that it would be good if I could find a Comma to photograph too. They are common butterflies and sure enough, a couple of them turned up. In fact the first one surprised me by landing on the grass at my feet and then deciding to perch on my leg for a while. So I got a rather dodgy photograph of that one and then managed to get a better photograph of the Comma below.

The butterfly that we see most often here is the Red Admiral. There’s usually several of these around on a sunny day and they’re pretty reliable when it comes to being around for the Big Butterfly Count. Afterwards they entertained me by chasing each other around the garden. It was amazing to see them spinning wildly through the air in the last of the evening sunshine.

Comma butterfly
Comma butterfly

While I was taking part in the butterfly count, I noticed that many of the butterflies came to feed on the buddleia plant that you see in the photographs here. This was good, because I hadn’t seen many on it before and I wondered if they preferred the paler purple varieties. This one is ‘Royal Red’. Here it looks more of a reddish purple but the colour changes a lot with the light and sometimes it’s a really lovely deep colour with more red in it. I’m glad to see that it does attract butterflies. I have several cuttings of it that are growing well, so I’ll plant them out in a sunny and sheltered area. Maybe they’ll bring in more butterflies for next year’s count.

There was a surprise while doing my first butterfly count for this year – a big hedgehog snoozing in the undergrowth! I haven’t seen one in this garden for a few years, so it’s good to know that they are around. It was worth having to restart that count just for the glimpse of him or her. (And don’t tell my cats, but I left out a bit of their food, which it ate pretty quickly.)

Red Admiral butterfly
Red Admiral on Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’

Little Visitors

After the bees got all the attention last week, I thought I’d pay some to a few of our other garden visitors. I find a lot more wildlife in the garden here than in our previous garden, so there’s often something new or unfamiliar.

The metallic-looking little beetle in the top photo is a first for me. I’d never seen one before but I have read about them. This is a rosemary beetle (Chrysolina americana) and actually an unwelcome intruder because it feeds on various aromatic plants. (These include rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme, all of which grow in our garden.) Luckily I’ve only seen the one so far, so I hope it hasn’t brought its friends! Apparently the damage they do may not harm the plants much, and the beetles themselves can just be picked off the plants.

I never use chemicals in the garden and prefer to hope that predators will naturally get rid of pests. In the case of rosemary beetles, their larva are eaten by birds, frogs and other beetles. So it’s good to have plenty of hungry carnivorous beasties around!

Greenfly tend to suddenly appear in large numbers every summer but luckily the ladybirds do too. A few weeks ago I found the weird-looking larvae of ladybirds in amongst a swarm of greenfly – I hope they had good appetites! There are lots of ladybirds around this year so I think they must have had a an easy winter. (I tend to see them grouped in curled up leaves that have fallen in autumn. Our garden is never too tidy, so there are plenty of places for them to hibernate.)

Another visitor that comes here in large numbers is the hoverfly. (Pictured above.) There are always a lot of these tiny pollinators around the garden – many more than there are bees. I like to watch these little brightly-coloured flies as they zoom around amongst the flower heads. And I find they will often be very obliging and sit still for long enough for me to focus on them when I’m out with my camera. Wish the bees would do that too!

The visitors that we’re missing this year are butterflies. There have been a few Red Admirals and some Large Whites but not much else. Last year there were often Peacock butterflies (below) sunning themselves on our brick path – sometimes as many as a dozen along the length of it. This year I have seen none so far. The low numbers are probably due to all the cold and rain we’ve had this year, so perhaps things will improve as the weather does. The ‘Big Butterfly Count’ survey is being held in the UK at the moment. Let’s hope that the results of that are a bit more encouraging!

Bees’ Needs Week 2021

The summer feels like it’s going by too quickly. (As always!) Already the flowers that I associate with late summer are starting to make an appearance. I’ve noticed the first pale pink flowers to open on my patch of Japanese anemones, and the echinacea plants (above) are now beginning to display their brightly-coloured daisies.

There are lots of flowers in the garden at the moment so there are also plenty of bees and hoverflies around. That’s very appropriate because this week has been the annual ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ in the UK. This is a campaign to encourage us to grow suitable plants for bees and pollinators and to allow areas in our gardens to be wild enough to create a habitat for them.

Bee on Cephelaria gigantea (giant scabious)

Interest in helping bees (and wildlife in general) has grown greatly in recent years, with many gardeners delighted to provide spaces for nature. Now local councils and other bodies are taking a more sympathetic stance too. They have been allowing areas of grass to remain uncut for longer and even encouraging wild patches and mini meadows in previously manicured areas.

It’s good to see the bees back again here after a couple of weeks that have been unusually wet and much cooler than normal. Certain flowers are particularly successful at attracting bees. Here it’s the various members of the scabious family that seem to always have bees and hoverflies around them.

The pale yellow flowers of the giant scabious (Cephalaria gigantea, above) are a recent addition to the garden and have proved very popular. Their impressive height makes it a little difficult for me to photograph the bees on them though! (They can get up to 8 ft. tall, but mine have still some way to go.) Scabiosa atropurpurea (below, right) is up to about 3 ft. tall, so much easier to photograph!

L: Honeybee on geranium, R: Bumblebee on scabious flower

The blue geranium pictured on the left (‘Mrs. Kendall Clark’) has finished flowering but geranium ‘Rozanne’ is ready to take over its role. However, although the bees enjoy it, there weren’t any on its flowers when I took my photographs.

I think the bees weren’t interested in the flowers of Rozanne because the lavender beside it was in full flower and more alluring. I watched lots of these buff-tailed bumblebees (below) buzzing from flower to flower, clearly intent on making the most of the nectar in the tiny flowers before they all go over. (Bumblebees have longer tongues than honeybees, which makes it easier and quicker for them to access the nectar in lavender than it is for honeybees. This means they tend to move around the flowers quite fast – so harder work for the photographer!)

Given how much the bees enjoy the lavender, I’ll plant more of it for next summer. (Angustifolia varieties are reckoned to be particularly good.) I’m very happy to be able to provide something for the bees here. It seems only fair when I enjoy going on a ‘bee-hunt’ with my camera – and of course, we need our bees!

You can read about Bees’ Needs Week and learn what you can do to help bees at these sites: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/ and https://deframedia.blog.gov.uk/2021/07/12/buzzing-for-bees-needs-week-2021/

Bumblebee on lavender

Gone Blue: Colour-Changing Flowers

Last month I photographed these tiny spring pea (Lathyrus vernus) flowers. After I had finished photographing them I noticed that they were still changing colour after they had been picked.

The flowers had started off as a purple-pink but were changing to blue as they aged. I wondered if they would turn entirely blue and I found, after a couple of days, that almost all of them had. (As you can see, there is one flower that has stubbornly managed to remain pink in the top photograph. However, I reckon it would have turned blue too if it had been able to last long enough.)

Having flowers that change colour is a bonus for a photographer, allowing a whole new set of photographs to be made of the same subject. It’s also fascinating to watch as this happens.

Apparently the reasons for this kind of colour change are practical. It lets pollinating insects know that the individual flower has already been pollinated and will now have little pollen or nectar left to offer them. This helps the plant by directing the attention of pollinators to those other flowers that are still waiting to be pollinated.

Colour change happens in other plants too. The one that I’m most aware of at the moment is Salvia ‘Hot Lips’. That’s because I bought what I thought was an un-labelled sage with a good bright red flower which would be ideal for an area of planting with hot colours. (I already had the magenta-flowered Salvia microphylla, which flowers really well here. This looked like a red version of it.)

I was a bit surprised later on, when the new flowers on the plant began opening in the well-known red and white bicolours of Hot Lips. From what I’ve read, the flowers on this plant can be red, bicoloured, or white, depending on temperature or growing conditions. So it’s an interesting plant to watch but not so useful if you have a particular colour scheme in mind!

Colour change isn’t something I’ve been much aware of in the past. But now it has me intrigued and I can see that it may give me good photographic opportunities too. So I’ll be keeping an eye open for other plants that do this…there’s always something interesting happening in gardens!

You can see my post with the spring peas still in their original pinks and purples here.

Lathyrus vernus (spring pea) flowers

Buzz! Buzz! Bee-lated Celebrations!

I’m a few days late to celebrate ‘World Bee Day’, but I will anyway because I think every day should be a bee day. (It was actually this lovely bee portrait by Steve Gingold that alerted me to the significance of Thursday 20th May.)

World Bee Day was launched by the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association and has been supported by beekeepers worldwide. There’s a website for World Bee Day that tells you all about the importance of bees and the essential role they play in the production of our food.

I think we’ve all become more aware of how much we need bees and that we need to do what we can to help them. There are some good books and websites to advise on planting ideas if you have somewhere to grow flowers for nectar and pollen. It doesn’t need to be a garden, pots on a balcony or window boxes can help. And the flowers in my images below (zinnia, scabious, salvias, and a perennial sunflower) are all very easy to grow.

If you’re in the UK, Dave Goulson’s ‘Gardening for Bumblebees’ is very good, for both planting suggestions and information on the lives of bees. But if you’re in the US, you’ll probably find that ‘Pollinator Friendly Gardening’ by Rhonda Fleming Hayes is more useful. (I thought it looked very interesting and would have bought it if it had been relevant to the bees and native plants here. You do need to read something based on your own area to get the correct information for where you live.)

Websites by local wildlife trusts are also likely to tell you what flowers are good to plant in your area. For the UK, I’ve found the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has an excellent site with lots of information about gardening for bees, identifying the different bumblebee species, and the lifecycles and habitats of bumblebees. I like the site set up by the UK Wildlife Trusts too – they have a good section on bees. (I would suggest checking out your nearest wildlife trust or organisation if you live outside the UK.)

I have a lot to do still in my own garden to make it really useful to bees for as much of the year as possible. It feels like something very worthwhile that I can do to help increase the numbers of bees around. And if most gardeners plant what they can for bees, while also avoiding the use of pesticides, we will together make a big difference.

Every day should be a bee day!

Finding a Balance: Weeds for Wildlife

This week I’ve been looking out for bumblebees on white deadnettles here. The white deadnettle (Lamium album) is an excellent wild plant for the queen bumblebees that have just emerged from hibernation in spring. The flowers, which are already opening now in April, are a great source of nectar and pollen when there isn’t much else around.

We have a lot of bee-friendly plants in the garden and I’m trying to develop this further by planting to provide for bees and other insects for as much of the year as possible. This is causing me a bit of a dilemma at the moment because this particular deadnettle runs rampant in my garden.

Deadnettles are members of the mint family and this one is determined to take over as big an area as possible. Before I knew that it was such a good bee plant, I’d spent years trying to remove it from the garden, with very slow progress. (I doubt that it was deliberately planted by anyone – most likely it just ‘arrived’.)

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of books about gardening for wildlife. They all recommend the white deadnettle for bees, moths and beetles, so I feel that I really shouldn’t get rid of it all. At the same time, these books don’t mention how invasive this plant can be.

It’s a UK native wildflower, but can be bought as a garden plant (presumably for a ‘wild’ garden). As you probably guessed from the name, it looks just like a nettle – except for the rings of white flowers around the stalk – but thankfully it doesn’t sting.

So now I’m wondering what to do. I have noticed that there are a couple of different species of bumblebee that visit the flowers. (Not many yet. It’s been quite chilly and if I was a queen bee, I’d have popped back to bed for a bit longer!) I really don’t want to deprive these bees of their food source but I know that the moment I turn my back on the deadnettle, it will reach out and grab the rest of my garden. The bees might then be really well-fed, but everything else will be swamped.

The best answer is probably to grow some of this over-enthusiastic plant in large pots. I’ll have to watch that none of the roots escape through the drainage holes, or else it will be off, racing through the garden again, with me in pursuit.

As you can see from the photo below, ladybirds like deadnettles too. Maybe I’ll get to like it eventually!

Ladybird on deadnettle

Frosted Seed-Heads

After last week’s snow-capped anemone seed-head, today we have seed-heads that are covered in frost. In the middle of winter I’m really glad to find anything to photograph in the garden, so I’m grateful that these are here.

On a frosty morning, these seed-heads create a focal point and some interesting textures in the garden. They become like miniature natural sculptures when their details are picked out by frost crystals. I find that seeing the patterns of frost encourages me to look more closely at the plant’s own structure. That allows me to see possible photographs where I may not have noticed them before.

frosted honesty seed pods
The remains of honesty seed-pods sparkle in the sunshine.

Mind you, sometimes there’s very little left of the seed-heads, as you can see with the honesty above. These are pretty-well wrecked by now but, given a bit of sunshine to make the frost sparkle, still manage to look interesting. Of course, on a dull but mild day, with no frost or sunshine, they don’t look at all pretty at this stage. So it’s amazing what the right weather can do.

Amongst the best of the seed-heads for frost photography are the umbellifers. There are usually quite a lot of self-sown bronze fennel seedlings around the garden and these really sparkle on a frosty morning. I never cut these down until spring, because the seeds can provide food for hungry birds. (As well as starting lots more plants.) The delicate decorations that they become is a delightful winter bonus.

frosted fennel seed head
Fennel seeds look at their best with a thick coating of frost.

Snow Day

We were greeted by snow this morning, but by the time you read this it will be gone. It won’t last for even the full day because it has now started to rain.

But it has given me an excuse to post an image with just a little bit of wet snow. This is a seed-head of a Japanese anemone. I was attracted to photographing it by the cap of melting snow that it’s wearing, and by the way the drops of meltwater are clinging to the fluffy hairs of the seeds.

It’s interesting to see how these seed-heads start as perfect tiny spheres and then erupt into little woolly clusters of seeds that can float away in the wind. I allow them to stay in the garden over the winter. A few years ago, tidy-minded gardeners would insist that the old stems and seed-heads ought to be cut back and taken away at the end of the year. Times have changed, and now we’re encouraged to leave them standing as a habitat and food for wildlife.

With luck, goldfinches will come and help themselves to these seeds. (I’ve already noticed them eating the seeds of verbena bonariensis in the last week.) And if the heads survive until springtime, the remainders will probably be gathered up when the goldfinches are building their nests. I often see these birds with their beaks full of the fluffy seeds and think that they must be creating the cosiest and most comfortable homes for their babies. So I won’t be cutting back any of these seed heads. The birds are very welcome to them.