Feed the Bugs

Bee in Fuchsia

Our walk in Glengarriff Woods opened my eyes to the challenges facing us in regards to ensuring the continuing biodiversity of Ireland. Loss of habitat, invasion of alien species, climate change, and modern farming practices all combine to present our insect life with increasing difficulty in obtaining what they need to thrive. Perhaps the best-known (although not the best understood) example currently is the enormous die-off of the bee population, known as colony collapse.

Hildegard's Shrub

With this in mind, I have been observing the bees, butterflies and bugs in our neighbourhood, and the role of flowers, both wild and cultivated, in supplying the food and the nectar they need. We have the advantage here that the hedgerows are rich in flowering plants, and that by regulation they must remain uncut until the end of August.

Fly on yellow flower

But this has been a short, cool summer and already the flowers that we saw last year in September have gone, to be replaced with the browning bracken. Our Budleia, for example, also known as the Butterfly Bush, was still attracting butterflies in September last year but this year it’s been flowerless since late August.

A speckled Wood Butterfly and a Hoverfly enjoy some blackberry time

On the upside, we’re enjoying a bumper blackberry crop, and lots of insect seem to love blackberries as much as we do. Because of the way blackberries grow, ripening at different times, some brambles are only flowering now, providing nectar for the bees.

Great Willowherb 2015

This photograph, showing a riotous mixture  of Great Willowherb and Montbretia (Crocosmia) was taken at this time in 2015: this year all these flowers have finished already.

holly close to flowering

This year the holly flowers are abundant – here they are about to bloom. The berries are honeysuckle berries

The fuchsia is still flowering, providing that gorgeous blush along the boreens that we love. One of the advantages of the fuchsia flower is that it is down-facing. This helps to keep it dry and preserve the nectar (see photo at beginning of post).

We have two types of bindweed here: hedge bindweed in the upper photo; a subspecies, the uncommon hedge bindweed ‘roseata’ is lower right ; lower left is sea bindweed, which grows along sandy shores

We might hate bindweed but it is an important flower for the bees. The hedge-bindweed we see around here has pretty pink and white stripes – apparently the white stripes act like a runway, guiding the insects into the heart of the flower.

rose with bee

Wild and cultivated roses are still blooming, here and there. This little guy is appreciative.

Speckled Wood Butterfly on sedum

How many bees?Red admiral at Helen's GardenMy  friend Gill grows sedum (upper two photos) and the bees love it. You can hear the hum from ten feet away. Meanwhile, Helen and William’s garden (lower photo) attracts butterflies by the score. I saw my first Red Admiral there last year.

Small Tortoiseshell on oregano

A Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly enjoys my Oregano, along with the bumbles bees

In my herb garden it seems to be the Oregano that is attractive to both bees and butterflies. It’s just finishing its flowering period now, but I still have to be careful when I pick a bunch, not to pick a bee as well.

Flies and spiders need the flowers too. Hoverflies are an important part of the ecosystem, helping to pollinate and preying on aphids and thrips. They (and the wasps!) seem to prefer my fennel. They also like the little pink Herb Roberts that are still to be seen in the hedgerows.

Honeysuckle

And what about the Honeysuckle? It’s abundant and beautiful, and with a name like that surely it’s a-buzz with bees? No – apparently the flower is too long and the bees can’t reach in far enough to gather the nectar. But the sweet scent, which gets even more intense towards the evening, calls in the moths who take their fill.

Snail on cabbage

Ah, but y’know – you can’t always welcome little critters to your plants. Sometimes, it’s us against them.

Cobweb on Montbretia

And of course, sometimes the plant isn’t so much food, as a means to an end…

All Around the Bloomin’ Heather

heathers CappaghglassHeather blooms here in late summer and through the autumn – not, as in the song lyrics, when “the summer time is comin’”. It washes the hillsides with a rich pink-purple that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. The gorse has a late bloom too and the combination of the purple heather and the brilliant yellow gorse is one of my favourite things at this time of year.

We’ve been walking the little roads around us in West Cork again, and observing the new cycle of hedgerow flowers since I last reported on them in June.

boreen

Inspired by my Ellen Hutchins experience, I set out to identify some of the most conspicuous of them, aided by my Zoë Devlin book and my friend Amanda.

Fuchsia Montbretia and blackberries

Most striking, of course, is that combination of drooping fuchsia and the gaily waving montbretia (or crocosmia) underneath. Although technically both are introduced species, together these two flowers define the south west of Ireland – it’s what we see in our mind’s eye when we think of West Cork.

Mainly montbretia

Now the berries are ripening and it’s impossible to walk without keeping an eye out for particularly juicy blackberries.

Blackberries

Although, because we’ve had a cold and wet summer, lots of the brambles are only flowering now.

blackberry flowers

Sloes too, with their glossy blueblack skins are there for the picking. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn, often used for making sloe gin. They are actually a type of small plum and are considered edible after the frost. (Note to self – must try one!) Blackthorn hedges are common around here as they make an impenetrable, thorny cattle-proof fence. The wood was prized in the past for making walking sticks that could also be used as clubs, sometimes called shillelaghs. Traditionally, they were cured and acquired their glossy black colour by sticking them up the chimney.

Sloes

Whitethorn, or hawthorn, hedges and their red berries, or haws, are equally ubiquitous in September. We love to see our garden birds descend on the whitethorn trees in the winter, knowing that the haws provide an important source of nutrition for them.

Haws

The wild roses, white and pink, still sport a few blooms but now mostly the colour comes from the rose hips, the more domesticated ones huge and glossy and the wilder ones smaller and half-hidden among the brambles. I’ve never made rose hip jelly, which is apparently packed with Vitamin C, but I did pick up a delicious rose hip and apple jam at one of our local markets recently, and I’ve been enjoying it on my morning toast.

One of the dominant flowers in the hedges and ditches now is purple loosestrife. In lower-lying marshy ground it masses in a vivid amaranthine swath.

Loosestrife

We can admire it freely here, although when I lived in Canada I knew it as an invasive weed to be feared and eliminated. Researching this online, I came across this excellent article by the Examiner’s Dick Warner. As he explains it, once purple loosestrife established itself in North America…

In these new homes, without any natural ecological controls, it became invasive and threatened to choke up important watercourses. The main reason this doesn’t happen in Ireland is that purple loosestrife is kept in check by a number of specialised and very efficient insect predators.

There are known to be two species of beetle, two species of weevil and one species of moth that feed virtually exclusively on purple loosestrife and control its spread. In America, the first thing they tried when it started to become a problem was to control it mechanically, by cutting and removing it. When this didn’t work they tried chemical control, spraying it with herbicides. Not only was this equally unsuccessful, it had some very undesirable environmental repercussions. Using toxic substances in or around water is always problematic.

Then the scientists looked to Europe. They decided the moth with caterpillars that ate purple loosestrife was itself a potential pest, so they left it alone. But they imported the beetles and the weevils and they did an excellent job. It’s one of the classic success stories of biological pest control.

The grasses, brackens, hogweed and ragwort have colonised the hedges and jostle for space in the corners of the fields.

Thistles have now mostly lost their purple heads but are no less spectacular for that.

thistle seedheads

In fact seed heads of all kinds provide an ethereal fringe to many of the hedges, while the breeze in the grasses supplies the music. 

Thistles and seedheads

Knapweed (top) and ragwort seed heads

A few of the smaller flowers can be easily missed.

Common dog-violet (left) and tormentil (right)

And even some of the larger ones are easy to ignore because they’re so common. But look closely…

meadowsweet

Scabious

Meadowsweet (upper) and Scabious (lower)

And here’s a handsome one – Hemp Agrimony, sometimes known as Holy Rope or St John’s Herb. Apparently you’re supposed to boil the root in ale as a purgative or to cure dropsy. Now you know.

Hemp Agrimony

Finally, and because many of you cherish the memory of curling up with Baroness Orczy as teenagers, here’s a Scarlet Pimpernel.

Scarlet pimpernel

All the photographs in this collection, with one exception, were taken on one day, September 8. There’s more, so much more, to see and hear at this time of year along the boreens of West Cork, but I’ll leave it at that for now, except to show you whom I was sharing all this with on my walk.

FLY ON BLACKBERRY

Clockwise from top: blackberry, dog rose, rose hip, hawkbit, herb robert and a species of willowherb. All with visitors.

Oh and one more thing… there are many versions of the song Wild Mountain Thyme on YouTube, but this one struck me because of the lyrics. Subtle changes make the song both more romantic and more accurate. See what you think.

fuchsia