As well as harvest time it’s also school holidays and when the cries of “I’m bored! What shall we do?” start, and they don’t want to watch the combine harvester, it’s worth looking into other outdoor activities that children can take part in. Something they all usually like is pond dipping and many of our nature reserves run these activities. There will be an expert on hand to help identify things caught in the nets which will be tipped into shallow trays of water where they can be examined; they are all returned to the pond when everyone has had a look. Fish and amphibians are the larger pond inhabitants but the tinies are also interesting. There will be insects, insect larvae, crustaceans and aquatic worms including leeches. One you may find is something we talked about last month, the Caddis fly larva; it’s very interesting to see the different kinds of cases which these industrious little creatures build to protect themselves.
A boat trip to Blakeney Point to see the seals is another good holiday outing. Common seals started to have their pups in June and continue to give birth into this month; there will also be Grey seals which are bigger with longer noses. They will all be resting on the shingle banks and it is possible to get quite close without disturbing them, so take your camera.
There’s lots of interesting life in your own garden for children to see and identify, especially if you have left an area to ‘go wild’.
One insect that is hard to miss is the bright orangey-red Common red soldier beetle, sometimes called the ‘bloodsucker’ because of its colour, although it doesn’t bite people. It loves to feed on such flowers as Hogweed and Cow parsley where it will eat aphids as well as nectar and pollen. These adults are usually seen in pairs as they spend a lot of their summer lives mating. Their larvae live at the bottom of grasses and feed on ground dwelling invertebrates including snails and slugs which would otherwise be eating our cabbages.
Something else, though, is enjoying the brassicas this year. Huge clouds of Diamondback moths have been blown over to Britain from the European continent and the caterpillars of this species feed on cruciferous plants which include cabbages, broccoli, cauliflowers, sprouts and oilseed rape. These are all important crops so this micro-moth could become a major pest in East Anglia. It has become resistant to most insecticides and, in keeping with the move away from these chemicals, a laboratory in Oxford has come up with a cunning plan. The scientists there have genetically altered this moth so that out of the eggs hatched, only males survive. These changed males will mate with existing females and pass on the altered gene which means eventually there will be no females and consequently no caterpillars. Of course, the experiment will have to be repeated when a new batch of moths, which will include females, arrives from Europe but it is hoped that it will prove a successful method of control. The bonus here is that this will target only the Diamondback and, unlike insecticides, will not harm other insects, especially our very important bees.
We have bee hives in our meadow, now. They belong to a friend, Helen, who chauffeured them to us and comes regularly to do the management. Honey bees are sociable insects and life inside the hive is fascinating. There are three kinds of bees that live there: the Queen which lays the eggs, the workers, which are sterile females, and the drones which are males. The workers have different jobs to do depending on their age. They can be housekeepers, cleaning and tidying the hive, nurse bees, feeding and looking after the larvae babies or hand-maidens to the queen, feeding and grooming her. There will be guards, watching out for predators and strange bees, and others will be field bees who go out foraging for pollen and nectar which is stored in cells made by the workers from wax secreted by glands on their bodies.
Some nectar is stored immediately but some is passed by mouth from one indoor bee to another before it is put in the larder. This reduces the moisture in the nectar which develops into honey to feed the hive (or for us to steal). Other workers fan the hive with their wings, which also helps with the reduction of moisture, keeps the temperature constant and distributes pheromones so that the field bees will be guided home.
So, as you can see, these females certainly deserve the name ‘workers’. The drones, on the other hand don’t do much at all other than forage for themselves. These males are there for one purpose only and that is to mate with the new queens who fly to a place where the drones from different hives or nests congregate to wait for them. After their job is done they die because -gentlemen readers may wish to avert their eyes at this point – their reproductive organs are ripped out and carried off inside the queen. Those drones which do not mate are killed or thrown out of the hive by the workers in the autumn. Who’d be a drone!
The queen stores the sperm, gathered during her nuptial flight, in her body and this will fertilise the eggs, laid throughout her life, which are destined to become workers or queens; the drones result from those which are unfertilised. She lays her eggs in the wax cells and the hatching larvae are fed, for the first few days, on ‘royal jelly’ then on ‘bee bread’, both made by the workers from nectar and pollen. Those destined to become new queens continue to be fed on the ‘royal jelly’ in their specially constructed queen cells until they pupate prior to becoming adult bees. As the number of bees increases in the hive it starts to become overcrowded and this is when the queen decides to leave, accompanied by thousands of her subjects, allowing a new virgin queen to mate and repopulate the hive. The old queen and her followers swarm to a resting place, usually not too far from the home they have just left, and this is when a beekeeper can collect them and settle them in a fresh hive. Those that are not collected now need a new residence and scout bees are sent out to find one, which in the wild would be a hollow tree or a hole in an old building.
The communication between the workers is amazing. They will reconnoitre the area around their new home and on returning perform elaborate movements, known as ‘the waggle dance’, to let the others know where the best food sources are.
Helen showed me the queen in one of the hives and as Her Majesty walked around all the other bees parted to let her through, a bit like our own Queen at the Chelsea Flower Show!
One flower the bees will love to visit is Himalayan balsam which is very rich in nectar and continues to bloom quite late into the year when others have died down. This plant was imported to Britain from the Himalayas in the mid nineteenth century and quickly became naturalised. It can tolerate low light levels and will grow to be quite tall, shading out other species which can’t compete. Himalayan balsam often favours damp habitats such as river courses and when winter comes and it dies back there will be no other plants to hold the soil together, resulting in bank erosion. It can spread very rapidly as the seed pods explode and send the seeds as far as 7 metres (23 ft) away from the parent plant; they will also be carried by rivers to colonise banks further downstream. It is a pretty plant and some people like to have it in their gardens but it is invasive so it is best to remove the seed pods before they mature.
Things to do this month include:
• Wild Friday, summer holiday event – Strumpshaw Fen. email@example.com
• Park discovery & pond dipping, family event – Holkham Hall. www.holkham.co.uk
• Rock pool rummaging – West Runton beach. Dyke dipping – Hickling & Ranworth.
Details: www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Seal trips are run by several different companies – Look on line or in your local paper.
© Sheila Sims 2016