Dear Readers, in the middle of East Finchley there are a number of what are called ‘unadopted roads’. These are strange little snickleways which are not the responsibility of the council or of the Highways Commission. In theory, they ‘belong’ to houses that front onto them, but this one has only the back gates of properties, so it is unclear who should be looking after it. In some places, the patches around the garages and back fences have been planted up with garden flowers, to the detriment of the wild plants – I turned up my nose at one patch of paeonies and pyracantha. In other places the brambles, ivy and nettles grow wild.The road might be unadopted, but it has been taken to the hearts of many weeds and creatures.
I was planning to write about Cherry Tree Wood this week, but once I was in the unadopted road, and having found a patch of bramble which was just about to open, I found myself detained by the sheer number of insects. First up was a metallic green Flower Beetle. I tend to forget how important insects which aren’t bees can be in pollination.
We also tend to forget that flies are pollinators too. There was a wide selection of hoverflies, some of them spending up to half an hour on a single blossom, others restlessly dashing about. So much biodiversity in one tiny spot!
And then, there were the ladybirds. This one is a Harlequin, which was recently described as the UK’s fastest invading species. It is rather larger than our native species and, if you get close enough, you can see that it has two little dimples at the back of the wingcases. Although it is accused of out-competing other species, it is now so well ensconced that I doubt if anything will shift it, plus it eats aphids and all kinds of other pests in preference to more valuable insects. We will have to wait and see how things pan out.
But it’s not all Harlequins. I also found a larvae of our largest native Ladybird, a 7-Spot. Maybe when there is enough food, the different species can coexist, and there were certainly plenty of aphids around. The larvae are just as predatory as the adults, and they always remind me of little tigers, prowling through the foliage.
As I stood there with my camera, I was passed by:
- A white van that was using this tiny road as a cut-through, and was probably doing his chassis a damage as he went
- A man with a small dog, who let it crap on the path and then hurried past while I was busy photographing a creature. Shame on you, sir!
- A very nice woman who lived in one of the houses, and who explained about the road’s unadopted status.
But as I stood there, I realised that I could hear buzzing, over and above the occasional passing bee. It led me to a huge bank of ivy, which was growing over a fence. I watched as bumblebees flew into and out of the foliage. On the way out, they flew like small furry bullets. On the way in they were more hesitant, as if trying to find their way, or even as if they were checking out if it was safe.
It dawned on me slowly – I’d found my first ever bumblebee nest! These are White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum). I’d always wanted to find one, and harbour dreams of a nest in my garden, but this was the next best thing.
In the spring, Queen bumblebees come out of hibernation, and look for somewhere to make a nest. This is often a deserted rodent nest. The Queen gathers pollen from whatever plants are available, and uses this to build a ball, onto which she lays her eggs. She also collects some nectar to sustain herself and the larvae, and puts this into a ‘honey pot’ out of wax. Then she broods the first eggs: bumblebees can control their body temperature through a considerable range, and can keep the eggs at a temperature of 25C even when it’s cold outside. When the eggs hatch, she will be the sole provider for the larvae until they pupate and emerge as workers, which is why it is so important that there are early spring flowers for food. Once the workers leave the nest, they can start to forage, and the Queen’s responsibility is now mainly about laying more eggs. Bumblebee nests are much smaller than those of honeybees, with a maximum of 400 individuals, but this still requires a lot of pollen and nectar. As most of the bramble flowers were still closed, I wondered what the bees were feeding on. I didn’t have to walk far to find out. The Pyracantha bush that I’d been so sniffy about when I’d walked past it earlier was just ten metres from the nest, and was full of bumblebees. What a great illustration of the importance of providing pollinator-friendly plants in our gardens. I’m sure that this one plant is making a great difference to the number of larvae that the bees can feed, and to their rate of growth. Plus, even in poor weather the bees will be able to nip out for sustenance. The Pyracantha is filling the gap until the brambles opened fully, even if it was planted more with a view to security than to invertebrates.
As I walked back along this unprepossessing little track, I thought about all the things that go on around us that we don’t notice. I could easily have missed the bumblebee nest if I hadn’t slowed down to take some photos, and hadn’t noticed that tell-tale buzzing. I am often in such a rush, but if I settle down and really pay attention, there are fascinating things happening all around me, and around all of us. It’s a lesson to me of the value of slowing down.