20 December 2013

Magnolia Stellata and the promise of things to come...

This is a photo of my Magnolia stellata. It was given to me as a present for my birthday in 2012. It was a tiny thing and, I guess, it still is! But it has bushed out quite a bit and put on a good show of leaves this past year. It didn't flower, but being so small I hadn't expected it to. But this year as the leaves dropped one by one, I began to notice these little buds.

I'm very much hoping that they are flower buds. The flower buds are fuzzy, allowing the bud to insulate itself from the worst of the cold weather. This is important because the tree flowers before producing foliage. Stellata roughly means star and the common name for this magnolia is the star magnolia. It produces lovely flowers reminiscent of stars with both the petals and sepal being white.

So all of those leaves that I enjoyed seeing this year and put all of their energy into producing these flower buds. I hope that they manage to survive the winter, which in the UK hasn't really started yet.

Either way, for me, it's the promise of good and positive things to come.

I hope you all have a very Happy Christmas and New Year.

Thanks for reading for my blog.


18 December 2013

Pale Brindled Beauty moth caterpillar - Phigalia pilosaria

Date Photographed: 13/06/2013
Location: Melksham
Resources: http://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/pale-brindled-beauty
Notes: This is the caterpillar of the Pale Brindled Beauty (Phigalia pilosaria) moth. It happened to drop into Lucy's hair as she parked the car under a tree near our house and she found it when she got inside! I've put together this short clip of the caterpillar moving as I like how it grabs the container with it's little 'foot' while moving along:

16 December 2013

U316 - The goodies have arrived

Last Wednesday I signed up for the final module in my degree with the Open University, called U316 The Environmental Web. So imagine my surprise, two days later, when a knock at the door announced that goodies, ahem, module study resources, had arrived!

As you can see by the titles of the books, there are some really interesting topics to be studied during this module.

But not only that we received a study file, which included field guide sheets for birds, dragonflies, and the humble woodlouse. I'll look forward to this as I enjoy recording wildlife. As well as an introduction to the module and some excerpts of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which I hadn't heard of before this module - but seems to be very important. Information about the Assessment is available here.

In an attempt to get a head start, I've already begun reading the books. The module feels like it will get very hectic, so every page read is a page I can be better prepared for the 6 tutor marked assessments and the end of module assessment.

Fingers crossed!

Has anyone reading this done U316 or similar? If so, I've love to hear your thoughts and advice about the module!

13 December 2013

Appreciating Ivy

Ivy flowers. Copyright: Alfred Osterloh
With great pride I support our English Ivy (Hedera Helix). I think that in the right situation it's a feast for the eyes and a wonderful resource for all of nature - us included. Ever since I was a lad I'd heard all the negative press about ivy being parasitic (which it's not) and that it damages everything it climbs upon (which it does not), so earlier this year I did my own research and documented the most current findings on the positives and negatives of ivy and how to manage ivy on my blog here. I also wrote about research into the weak, but potentially important, adhesion that ivy rootlets secrete here.

With that in mind, I was very excited to read research published earlier this year evaluating the importance of ivy (Hedera helix and H. hibernica) for autumn flower-visiting insects, particularly honey bees. Not only were the findings positive, but the researchers went as far as to say that:
'ivy may well be a keystone species for flowervisiting insects in autumn'  
(Garbuzov & Ratnieks, 2013)

Keystone species are species that play a crucial role within the ecosystem(s) that they are present. Keystone species can affect many other organisms within the ecosystem to the point of determining the numbers and types of other species within the ecosystem community.

To see why the researchers have made this suggestion, we need to consider which species visit the ivy flowers, what the ivy flower offers, and what benefit these species derive from a relationship with ivy:
  • Firstly, there were many different species visiting the flowers of the ivy including the honey bee (Apis mellifera), common wasp (Vespula vulgaris), ivy bee (Colletes hederae), hover fly (Eristalis tenax), green bottle fly (Lucilia sp.) and red admiral butterfly (Venessa atalanta) among others.
  • Secondly, the ivy flower offers both nectar and pollen, possibly no surprise there. But, perhaps what is surprising is that the nectar has a sugar content of around 49%. This is quite a high percentage and shows that ivy nectar is a high quality foraging resource. The results strongly suggested that the only nectar that the tested bees had in their crops was from ivy. This becomes even more important considering that 79.7% of honey bees and 94.6% of bumble bees did not have pollen in their baskets. Pollen trapping at six hives in two locations showed that of the pollen that was collected by the honey bees, an average of 89% was pollen from ivy during the autumn.
  • Thirdly, ivy is a very abundant plant meaning that foraging distances are much shorter than summer foraging trips. Collecting pollen and nectar from ivy flowers is also fairly easy. These traits make it efficient enough for honey bees to make a honey crop. This may improve survival over winter of honey bees. These factors may well provide honey bees with a food resource allowing them to rear young workers before overwintering, subsequently providing them to get off to a great start in the spring. The paper rightly suggests that further experimental work should be done before we can understand this properly.
So, while we already knew that ivy provides food via berries and can provide a home for many insects and nesting sites for birds (if it is allowed to grow), but this paper really drives home the importance of ivy to many species of insect that are still around in autumn, including late season butterflies.

Ivy not only provides them with a meal as they collect nectar or pollen, but the nectar is of such high quality it can also help honey bees survive the winter. Without sounding too dramatic, if ivy was lost to the ecosystem, even locally, it could mean death to the honey bees in that particular area. If honey bees aren't around to pollinate our food crops, then we could be in big trouble.

It just goes to show how difficult it can be to understand ecosystems and food webs, prior to this research I wouldn't have connected ivy to food crops and yet the honey bee is a link between the two.

For further information on this paper
  • Watch a video made by the University of Sussex produced to assist us in identifying the insects we may see on ivy flower:

  • To read more, view some amazing macro shot, or download an ID leaflet; see the University of Sussex blog post about the research here.
  • Read the AOB blog post that alerted me to this research.
  • Also, interestingly, a house that had been allowed to be overrun by ivy for 10 years recently had the ivy trimmed back. While some of the dead ivy branches were left hanging for some reason, this house shows that as long as the masonry and brickwork aren't damaged prior to the ivy - then they won't be damaged by the ivy. To see the photos, click here
Garbuzov M., Ratnieks F.L.W., Leather S.R. & Roubik D. (2013). Ivy: an underappreciated key resource to flower-visiting insects in autumn, Insect Conservation and Diversity, n/a-n/a. DOI:

11 December 2013

U316 - The environmental web

The view from Morgan's Hill Nature Reserve, Wiltshire.

For the past few years I've been studying towards a degree. It's been a bit disjointed as i first began with studying science, but then my employer at the time offered to pay for my study if it was work related. So I started studying business and information communication technology, but kept studying the certificate in contemporary science in the background. This was possible because an undergraduate certificate is made up of 60 points, this particular certificate could be built with 6 10 point modules, therefore giving a good base for understanding contemporary science (they were some of the toughest modules I've done!).

Then I was made redundant and fell ill shortly after (possibly even before) starting a new job. I wasn't really well enough to continue studying, so I knew I had to start modules I was interested in at the time to ensure I could get a degree - and hopefully prove to future employers that I didn't waste time just being ill! By this time I had amassed 2 undergraduate certificates, 1 in Business and the other in ICT and Computing. I had also already completed my first level 2 module, a 60 point module in communication and information technologies.

So what could I do that I was really interested in? I decided that I wanted to learn more about English, firstly a level 2 course about the history of English. Then bringing us up to my most recent module, a 60 point level 3 module entitled Children's Literature. In the background I managed to complete my third undergraduate certificate in Contemporary Science.

I finished my most recent module in February 2013. Even though I'd managed to get away with only 2-3 hours of study a week - I needed a break. I wasn't getting any better and I needed time away from deadlines and constant forced reading. I could 'cash in' my points for an ordinary degree, but I didn't want to constantly explain to people what an ordinary degree was and that it didn't have a grade! I've also done well enough that I should be able to finish with a 2:1, which would be amazing and much more than I expected.

So I've now decided, after much deliberation, to try and finish my degree - and thus close this chapter of my life! I've registered for a 60 level 3 module entitled The environmental web.

The Open University website describes the module as an
'interdisciplinary course examines contemporary issues such as biodiversity and climate change in order to develop your environmental literacy, and enable you to take part in informed debate and action. It draws on a wide variety of disciplines to investigate environmental changes, their consequences, and implications for action. You will explore environmental materials on the web used to publish data, implement policy, debate issues, and promulgate views – learning how to navigate, analyse and evaluate such information.'

I'm really looking forward to starting the module and have been reading up about the topic and contributing to the facebook group that I've joined.

I thought it would be a good topic as I'm interested in nature and biological recording and I think that this module will provide me with a great deal of context when recording wildlife and understanding how it all connects. I think it will also help me improve my writing on this blog - and will hopefully inspire me to write not only about the module, but also about topics that I encounter during the module.

So, wish me luck - I'll most definitely need it!

09 December 2013


Just a quick and fun post about some awesome shapes people have made for Geocachers. I was listening to a radio programme about Geocaching recently and one of the cachers interviewed mentioned a series of caches shaped like the head of an alien! Intrigued I set about finding this alien head located in the US. I imagined that it would be a one off - but to my surprise there are many cache series around the world that have been arranged to form shapes from Ying/Yang symbols to Signal the Frog, who is the mascot for Groundspeak (the operators of Geocaching.com).

Below I've added some screenshots from the Geocaching.com website. To view other shapes, see this bookmark list compiled by Striving4Camelot.

06 December 2013

The history of our passion flower

The passion flower is not a native of the UK and until recently they haven't done too well in our climate, as botanist Trevor Dines explained in the third episode of Wild Things earlier this year.

So imagine our surprise when one popped out of nowhere and started growing right under our living room window! I didn't know what it was when all we could see were leaves, so we allowed it to grow hoping that it would flower - which would then help us to identify it and see if it's a plant we wanted to keep.

Well it obliged and gave us a display of a couple of flowers. From the flowers, we judged it to be the common passion flower (Passiflora caerulea).
A lovely floral display from our passion flower this year.

We did wonder how it came to be in our garden in the first place and suspected that perhaps one of the previous owners had planted it. It's the ideal location with the front of the house being the southern-most facing.

Then Lucy happened upon an old photograph from an estate agent website. So we then thought that the people we bought the house from had hacked the plant down as there was no sign of it when we viewed the house or in the estate agent listing when we bought it. And that it was planted by the owners previous to them. As you can see in the photograph it used to be well established.

Passion flower far right.

Our suspicions we proved correct when we were chatting to a lovely lady that walks her dog past our house. She told us that the passion flower was very vigorous and used to grow all the way down the grass!

Being happy to keep it, but not to let it get out of control, I fastened some wire to the front of the house earlier this year. This allowed the plant to grow up to the window and be a nice cover for the wall under the window. We've then kept pruning it back when it gets a bit too much! This way it will also be easy to cut out old stems and have the new stems held in place by the wire as they grow.
Either about to open or about to close!
The passion flower has been superb this year and the flowers even went to fruit, which was fun to watch. The fruit begins green, but over time, turns to orange. I think that this makes it a plant of real interest, first the flowers and then the fruit, all through summer.

As Trevor Dines mentioned that it was edible, I took one of the fruits inside. It's a really interesting fruit to look at when it's opened, revealing lots of seeds surrounded by a sticky liquid! I did try some raw, but as is mentioned all over the Internet - it's not a nice flavour and not an experiment I'll try again. Apparently the flower can be used to make a tea that alleviates anxiety.
The ripe fruit cut in half.
As our house is a 1970s build, there is no real history and it's the same as every other house on the street. So it was quite nice finding out something of interest in the history of the house - especially because it's plant related.

Thanks for reading.

02 December 2013

Cardoon - Cynara cardunculus

Date Photographed: 25 August 2013
Location: Yeovil
Resources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardoon
Notes: This is a really tall plant. The one photographed was at least 6 foot tall. I initially thought it was a knapweed of some sort, but the good folks at Wild About Britain gave me the correct identification.
ETA: I forgot to say that this garden was next to a field that enclosed a couple of horses. They were so interested in this plant that they were reaching over the fence to eat the flowers. My parents told me that they eventually knocked the fence over in their attempts to get more and more flower heads!