Sunday, 29 April 2012


There are currently 24 species of bumblebee in the UK. The most common and likely to be seen in gardens are buff-tailed, red-tailed, white-tailed, early, garden, common carder and heath bumblebees. Six of these 24 are cuckoo bumblebees, that parasitise other bumblebees. Three of our bee species have become extinct and several more are threatened.


Queens are very large and common in early spring. Workers have a white tail with a hint of buff at the front margin. Yellow bands are slightly darker/dirtier than in the white-tailed bumblebee.
Very common on chalk downland and frequent in gardens. It is distinguishable from the much rarewr red-shanked bumblebee by the black hairs of the pollen basket on the hind legs.
Common bumblebee, often nest under garden sheds. Distinguishable from similar buff-tailed bumblebee by pure white tail and lemon-yellow bands.

Small bee that often nests in tit boxes. The yellow band on the abdomen is sometimes missing in females. Colonies are very short-lived, producing males as early as April. Rarely seen from July onwards.
Very long-tongued bumblebee that prefers deep flowers such as Foxgloves, Delphinium and Honeysuckle. Distinguishable from the generally smaller heath bumblebee by a much longer face when viewed from the front.

Common everywhere, being the only common all-brown bumblebee. Distinguishable from the much rarer brown-banded carder bee by the presence of some black hairs on the sides the abdomen.
Small bee, found on mountains, moorland, lowland heaths and sometimes gardens. Short, heart-shaped face distinguishes it from the larger garden bumblebee. Short-tongued, preferring shallow flowers such as Heather and Cotoneaster.

Found sporadically in south and east England. The queens are among the largest UK bees. Very variable in colour. Pale specimens are very similar to the garden bumblebee but the yellow band on the rear of the thorax is noticeably thicker in the middle. Entirely black bees are not uncommon and intermediates occur in which the yellow bands are reduced, dark in colour or absent. Has a very long tongue.

Only colonised the UK in 2001 Becoming common in gardens in southern England. Prefers to nest in holes in trees, or even bird boxes. Identifiably by its brown thorax, black abdomen and white tail.
Found mainly in southern England. Distinguished from the common carder by the absence of black hairs on siders of the abdomen, and brownish band across abdomen. Rare southerly species which has declined greatly in recent years. Distinguished from the much more common red-tailed bumblebee by the red hairs of pollen basket on hind leg.This bee weaves grass into a thatch for its nest and is a ground dweller, as are all carder bees.

In the UK there are 6 species of cuckoo bumblebees (3 illustrated). These were once like other bumblebees, but they have switched to a parasitic existence. The females kill or evict the queen and take over her workers as their own, using them to rear their own offspring. If you live in the south of England, males of the southern cuckoo bumblebee can be among the most common bumblebees in July and August.Cuckoo bees hang around outside the nest of the bees they are imitating in order to acquire their scent and make it easier for them to get in without a fight. Cuckoo bees only produce queens or males, hence their need to take over a nest and have the workers tend to their needs. However, if the host bee is rare then so is the cuckoo bee for that species. Cuckoo bees have no pollen baskets - they don't need them. They have fewer hairs on their legs, more chitin on their bodies and a longer sting. Cuckoo bees no longer have pollen baskets as they stopped collecting pollen a long time ago. Their legs are just very hairy. They also have darker wings.

Female bumblebees have a concave area on their legs which is shiny and fringed with hairs (for carrying a big bag of pollen). Females have a pointed tip to the abdomen from which the sting emerges. They are literally busy bees, flitting around.
Males have similar legs but with a few hairs. Males also have distinct long antennae, a rounded tip to their abdomen and sit lazily on flowers and DON'T collect pollen. Male antennae are slightly longer than the female's and curved, female antennae have an elbow in them. If you are close enough to check, the male antennae have 13 segments each, the female 12. As males do not collect pollen, they have no pollen baskets on their legs - the only purpose of the males is to mate and then die. Female hind legs have a hook and are hairier. Males often have a yellow face. They are also identifiable from females as they are often dusted with pollen, whereas the female will dust off the pollen with the hook on her leg.

All photos and info courtesy of Bumblee Conservation Trust

Sunday, 8 April 2012


So, another hosepipe ban comes into force. But this doesn't mean we have to stop planting and making our gardens wildlife-friendly. Many wildflowers are tolerant of drought conditions and therefore will still survive little watering. It goes without saying that waterbutts are invaluable for when we do get a bit of rain so if you can try and dot as many of them as you can around the garden. Below are some wildflowers that are good for insects, very attractive and drought-tolerant.


Lesser Knapweed is particularly attractive to bees and butterflies. We have two large patches in the nursery that have grown into the weed-proof matting and every summer they are smothered in bees and butterflies, especially the little red-bottomed bees. Flowers from June to September. Grows to about 2 ft high.

Particular butterflies that find it attractive are Tortoiseshell and Painted Ladies, and Satyr Pug, Silver Y and Lime Speck Pug moths, and birds like the seeds. Other butterflies – Comma, Silver Washed Fritillary, Marbled White, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Small Skipper, Essex Skipper, Silver Spotted Skipper, Chalkhill Blue, Adonis, Brimstone.


Striking when grown in drifts and looks wonderful with Lesser Knapweed. The word “daisy” comes from two Anglo-Saxon words – daeyes and eayes = day’s eye.

Ox-eye Daisy has quite a bit of folk lore attached to it. It was considered lucky to step on the first flower of the year. Bunches should be picked with your eyes shut and the number of flowers collected would equal the number of years until you married. Somerset folklore connects the Ox-eye Daisy with the Thunder God, so it is sometimes known as Dun Daisy. Ancient peoples dedicated the plant to Artemis, goddess of women, as it was believed that the plant was good for women’s problems. According to ancient Celtic legend, Daisies are the spirits of children who died at birth. Christian legend has it that when the Wise Men were going to see baby Jesus, they asked for a sign to show them his location. As they looked around they saw a group of Ox-eye Daisies near a stable, resembling the star that led them. In the Middle Ages, if a knight wore two Daisies he was the ladies’ choice.

Leaves and outer layer of stem have been used as a sedative, astringent and demulcant. Anti-spasmodic and diuretic. It is also a herbal remedy for whooping cough, asthma and stomach upsets. In Wales during the Middle Ages, Daisies were used to treat madness, smallpox, tumours and jaundice. Makes a good lotion for wounds, bruises and ulcers. Decoction of fresh herb for jaundice. Distilled water made from the flowers can be used as an eye lotion for conjunctivitis.

Herbivorous insects won’t touch Ox-eye Daisy juice so the plant was often mixed with the straw bedding of farm animals and hung from ceilings indoors to repel fleas etc. Dried blossoms can be boiled and used as a lotion for chapped hands. Root stops night sweats in consumption. Alleged to deter flies if planted around the outside of the house.

Flowers May to October, or later.


There is alot to say about Yarrow! Hardy perennial growing to about 3 ft (92 cm) in height. Member of the Pink family. Frondy leaves and large panicles of tiny flowers. Also known as Soldiers’ Woundwort, Staunch Grass, Old Man’s Mustard, Devil’s Plaything, Nosebleed, Old Man’s Pepper and Devil’s Nettle (believed to be one of the Devil’s favourite plants). Known as Field Hops in Sweden and has been used to make beer. Yarrow has been around for about 6000 years. The ancient Greeks called it herba militaris, the military herb. The botanical name “millefolium” comes from the Latin meaning thousand cuts, referring to the many cuts of its leaves. Yarrow comes from the Anglo-Saxon “yearwe”. The wild, white form of Yarrow is found in meadows, hedgerows and woodland clearings. The variety we currently offer is in pastel shades. The French call it Carpenter’s Plant as it is believed to instantly cure wounds caused by edged tools.

Place an ounce of Yarrow from a young man’s grace under the pillow of the person you want to fall in love with you. Superstition has it that if a girl tickles her nose with Yarrow and its starts to bleed, then her lover is true to her. More alarming is that Yarrow was used to induce nosebleed by twirling it in the nostrils, as nosebleeds were considered good for curing headache, or a promise of success in love:

“Yarroway, yarroway, bear a white blow If my love love me, my nose will bleed now”

Was tied to cradles to protect babies from witches. The fifteenth-century Book of Secrets by Magnus claims that if Yarrow juice is smeared on the hands and then the hands plunged into water, fish will be drawn to you. It was a plant dedicated to Satan and so used in charms and spells. If eaten at a wedding feast then the happy couple would remain together in love for at least seven years. It was also made into snuff. It was the first herb held in the baby Jesus’ hand.

Keep a bunch of Yarrow hanging in the tool shed for safety and to protect from thieves. Bind it round the handles of tools in case you cut yourself – you can staunch the blood with it. If you lived in Wales you wouldn’t bring Yarrow indoors for fear of incurring a death in the family. In the Hebrides, a leaf held against the eyes will endow you with second sight. If eaten at a wedding feast, the bride and groom would be in love for seven years. Similarly bridesmaids would bring Yarrow to weddings for seven years of love. Druids used the plant’s stems to divine the weather. The plant is potent against fairies. Witches believed that placing sprigs of Yarrow in their caps would give them the ability to fly. Yarrow used to be mixed with pig grease to make a healing ointment. The plant has also been used to treat measles and poxes. It was one of the herbs of the “Lancashire Witches”, one of whom used it in divination.

Good compost activator and fertiliser, and horses like it! Young leaves are edible and nutritious, sometimes used in salads. Its leaves can also be used as a poultice or infused to treat wounds or chewed as a remedy for toothache. Milfoil tea is still drunk in the Orkneys for melancholy. Good dried flower and meadow plant. Attractive to butterflies, ladybirds and wasps that feed on aphids. Food plant of the Essex Emerald, Lime Speck Pug and Straw Belle, Ruby Tiger, Yarrow Pug, V Pug, Grey Pug, Tawny Speckled Pug, Common Pug, Mullein Wave, Wormwood Pug, Sussex Emerald and several Tortricord moths.

The plant is alleged to have got its Latin name from Achilles, who applied Yarrow to the wounds of his bleeding soldiers. Achilles also appealed to the gods for protection before going into battle. They picked him up by the ankle and immersed him in a vat of Yarrow tea but his ankle remained unprotected – hence the term Achilles heel. Yarrow tea is good for colds. The flower tops can be made into a weak infusion as a cleanser for oily skin. The essential oil in Yarrow contains azulene, which has anti-inflammatory properties. It increases perspiration, lowers blood pressure and relieves indigestion. The Irish believe it is lucky if sewn inside clothing. Yarrow ointment is good for bleeding piles. Good rabbit and guinea pig food when plants are young.

In ancient China, 50 dried and stripped Yarrow stalks were consulted as an oracle. Yarrow cools fevers, increases circulation, soothes aching muscles and heals mucous membranes. Added to snuff, it was known as Old Man’s Pepper. Pull off a Yarrow leaf with the left hand saying the name of a sick person you wish to cure. Then eat the leaf and the fever in the patient will fall. Yarrow tea was believed to prevent baldness if rinsed in it.

If planted amongst herbs it will strengthen them and make them more disease-resistant. It will also enhance the essential oils of herbs planted near it. Flowers last well in water.

Birds Foot Trefoil, Musk Mallow, Selfheal, Sorrel, Bladder Campion, Toadflax, Viper's Bugloss, Lady's Bedstraw and Agrimony.

Therefore, all is not lost! You can still have a garden full of bees, butterflies and flowers even if you water less! Happy planting!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

BUPA and RSPB's House Sparrow Project

As some of you may know, the house sparrow is in decline.  In order to help reverse this dire situation the RSPB has been trialling a special mix of seed in their house sparrow project, the aim being to boost sparrow numbers. You can read further info on sparrow population trends here.  It is a sad fact that house sparrow numbers have dropped by 55% since the RSPB's first Birdwatch survey in 1979. 

This special mix is a blend of annuals which will provide nectar for the insects that the birds eat.  A component of the mix also provides seeds for birds.  This mix is comprised of the following - linseed, triticale, barley, phacelia, white millet and sunflower.  These provide the seed and insect element.  To enhance the appearance and provide additional nectar, the following cornfield annuals have been added - corn chamomile, corn marigold, corncockle, cornflower, field poppy, scentless mayweed and white campion.

As part of its Wildlife Week (7-13 May), BUPA has teamed up with the RSPB to sow this mix in their 300+ care homes.  Their wildlife week is a week of special activities designed to create wildlife havens in their care home grounds.  If you are interested in what they are doing, or would like to help, please visit BUPA's website for more info.

Our role in this project has been to provide the seeds for the mix.  This mix is now available in our website shop if you would like to create a similar "feeding ground" for the birds in your garden.

Other things you can do to help both the sparrows and other birds:

Put a bird bath in your garden to provide water and a bathing area, even an upturned dustbin lid will do! However, birds will only use it if they feel safe.  They will need to have clear visibility with bushes and trees nearby to fly into for cover if alarmed, and for perching on for preening.  Birds will also visit and try to use water barrels or drinking troughs during periods of drought, which can lead to them drowning so it is a good idea to cover them over if you can or make them safer by placing a branch or blank of wood in the water so they can land, bathe and drink safely.

Put up nest boxes.  Sparrow nest boxes should be placed 2 - 4 metres up a tree, wall or side of house or, even better, under the eaves of a building.  Face the box between north and east away from strong sunlight and rain.  The hole in the box should be no less than 32 mm diameter.

Sow the aforementioned wildlife seed mix.

Create a foraging area of long grass for sparrows in front of shrubs.