Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – May

Fledgling starling

Dear Readers, there is so much going on in May that it’s positively dizzying – all that preparation during March and April should, in a good year, have led to the emergence of fledglings all over the country during May, when insect numbers should be at their height. In my garden there’s the familiar wheezing of starling fledglings, and the first shrieks of swifts overhead. The pond will hopefully be full of tadpoles, and the hedgerows will be bursting with cow parsley. It’s a great month for the naturalist and the flaneur, and it seems to me to be the most hopeful month of the year.

Cow parsley in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Things to Do

  • This is a great month for exploring parks and local green spaces – there’s something going on wherever you look. And if you have the time to survey an area for bumblebees for about an hour every month (and May is a great month to start) you could contribute to the research for Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Beewalk project. I am seriously thinking about doing this this year.  Ideally this should start in March, so I might include it in the March Almanac post that will appear at the end of February.
  • For those of us who don’t have a garden, Chelsea Physic Garden is hosting a talk on ‘The Indoor Garden’ with Jade Murray. Lots of people began to realise how wonderful house plants were during lockdown, but this sounds like a great course on how to really understand how to look after these organisms with their complex and varied requirements.
  • The London Natural History Society has a botanical expedition to Kensal Green Cemetery on Saturday 27th May – I imagine that this will be a great opportunity to examine the plants in this unique location.
  • The free virtual talk offered by the LNHS in May is on the restoration of Hainault Forest – I used to live quite close to this area, so I shall probably watch this one. All talks are recorded if you can’t make the actual date(19.00 on Thursday 11th May), and are available on the LNHS’s Youtube channel.

Plants for Pollinators

The RHS is suggesting nettle-leaved bellflower for this month, which surprised me a little until I realised that this species has two bees of its own – the bellflower blunthorn bee (Melitta haemorrhoidalis) and the small scissor bee (Chelostoma campanularum). Goodness! Both these species will apparently shelter inside the flowers of this plant, and the small scissor bee actually mates in there as well. Who knew?

The plant looks extremely pretty, and it’s a native, so it will be no hardship to grow it if I can find some somewhere. The name ‘trachelium’ comes from a belief that the plant could be used to cure a sore throat.

Nettle-leaved bellflower (Campanula trachelium)

The bee itself is one of those inconspicuous little solitary bees that goes about pollinating our flowers without being noticed. Apparently it will also visit other kinds of bellflowers, but the nettle-leaved species is the one that it loves the best.

Small scissor bee (Photo by Lukas Large at https://www.flickr.com/photos/99278910@N00/50065628713)

Other valuable plants in flower now include bird’s foot trefoil, Californian Lilac (Ceanothus), Comfrey, Rosemary, Hawthorn and, for hoverflies, the ubiquitous cow parsley.

Bird Behaviour

  • Well, it’s all going on in May! As already noted, the swifts should have arrived by mid-May, the starling fledglings are out by the end of the month and all sorts of other young birds will be putting in an appearance, including blackbirds, robins and many young finches and tits.
  • Swallows and house martins (and swifts) will be returning to the nests that they occupied last year, so long as some anti-social householder hasn’t taken them down because they are ‘too messy’ (don’t get me started). If you’re very lucky, you might see house martins gathering beakfuls of mud to patch up their existing homes, or to start new ones if it’s their first time breeding.
  • Long-tailed tits will have finished making those beautiful nests that we talked about in a previous post, but they do have a habit of making them in places that are too conspicuous – I found one nest low down in a shrub in a well-used Islington Square, full of dogs and squirrels and ever-watchful magpies. Interestingly, if a nest fails, the couple may assist another couple in provisioning their youngsters – often all the birds in an area are related, so it makes sense to help out Mum and Dad, or your siblings. The ‘helper’ birds will then join the flock in the winter, which is a great advantage when it comes to finding food. Long-tailed tits are the only British birds that cooperate in this way, and it makes me love them even more than I already did, if such a thing is possible.
    • Fledgling long-tailed tits in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery
    • Plants in Flower
    • It might be easier to list what isn’t in flower in May, but just to add to the list above, the lilac should be in flower, tulips should be busting forth along with the purple Sputnik flowers of alliums, the first foxgloves will be full of bumblebees, sweet woodruff and bluebells are amongst the last of the spring ephemerals to flower, elderflowers are just asking to be made into cordial, marigolds are adding a welcome touch of orange, and the air is heavy with the feral smell of hawthorn (or May blossom if you prefer). In the cemetery the new arrivals for May include red campion and germander speedwell, red clover and wood avens, and the mysterious salsify flowers that pop up every year, having come from goodness only knows where.
    • Horse chestnut trees should be in flower, always an impressive sight with their ‘candles’ of blossom.

Germander speedwell



Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

    • This is prime cuckoo time. I grew up hearing these birds in Wanstead Park every single year, but these days I’m most likely to hear them in Austria.
    • The fox cubs are a lot noisier and more boisterous in May, though they are still unlikely to move far from the earth unless they’re disturbed and their mother moves them.
    • In the pond, the large red damselflies will be emerging, followed by the azure damselflies a few weeks later. If we’re lucky, we might get a visit from a ‘proper’ dragonfly, such as a broad-bodied chaser.

Large red damselflies mating

  • If the last few years are anything to go by, the buddleia will be smothered in greenfly, and the ladybird larvae and even some of the birds (goldfinches, sparrows and blue tits in particular) will be feasting on them. The honeydew will be raining down so much that it glues the lid of the wheelie bin shut. Sigh.
  • The full moon will be on the 5th May, and is known as the Mother’s Moon or the Bright Moon.

Holidays and Celebrations

  • 1st May is Beltane, and International Workers Day, so there are plenty of excuses for having fun
  • 7th May is International Dawn Chorus day, keep your eyes open for crack-of-dawn walks in your local woodland (or sit in the garden with a cup of tea as it’s getting light and drink it all in)
  • 14th May is Rogation Sunday, and also the day for ‘Beating the Bounds’ – we did this around Coldfall Wood last year, and great fun it was too!
  • In the UK the first and last Mondays in May are Bank Holidays, but this year the 8th May is also a Bank Holiday in honour of King Charles III’s coronation. Bank Holidays are like buses just lately, you wait for five months for one and then three come along at once (not that I’m complaining).


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