The speed and dexterity of the leafcutter bees amazes me. They cut so precisely, always leaving a perfectly smooth edge and I’ve never seen one drop the leaf piece it has cut. (They are too quick for me to photograph in action – I can only show the results.)
This year, the leafcutter bees have taken a particular shine to a young cherry tree – there are other cherry trees around, but they’ve been ignored and the bees are just working this one tree. Leafcutter bees are notorious for clipping out pieces of rose leaves. There are wild roses near to this cherry tree, but they’re being ignored too.
Leafcutter bees are of the genus Megachile: mega – big; chile – from the Greek for lips: so they could also be called the big-lip bees, but I’ve never heard that;)
It’s been so hot, dry and sunny here recently that I’m having coffee breaks in the cool of a shed. Last week, over a couple of days, I watched a mason wasp industriously building a little nest in the angle of the shed’s roof timbers. The wasp would sometimes fly in with mud to build up the cell; and sometimes with something green – which I’m guessing would be a caterpillar for the new wasp to eat when it hatches.
Then part way through building the second cell, another mason wasp arrived and seemed to be hassling the original wasp. That second cell went unfinished. And I haven’t seen those type of wasps since.
Then today, as I was drinking my coffee, I saw something scurrying around up where the mason wasp had worked. When I went to investigate, I found this stunning little wasp.
As far as I can tell this is a ruby tailed wasp – aptly named. But although it is beautiful, it is a bad wasp from the mason wasp’s perspective. The ruby tail wasp is a “cuckoo” wasp. It will lay its egg by the mason wasp’s egg and when the ruby tail hatches it will eat the mason wasp and the caterpillar that was meant for it.
Another wasp that impressed me through the winter was (I think) just a common wasp (Vespula vulgaris). It crawled into one of the bamboo tubes of a “bug hotel” in the autumn. And it stayed in there all winter. I often thought it must’ve been dead. Most of the time it was lying on its back. Sometimes it seemed to have shifted a bit, but I put that down to the wind blowing it around. The “hotel” provided scant shelter for the wasp and our winter has been unseasonably harsh. Nevertheless back in April, the wasp woke up. It seemed to spend a couple of days chewing on something at the back of the bamboo tube. And then it spent another couple of days coming and going to and from the same hole. Then it disappeared – happily, because I wouldn’t have wanted it nesting too nearby.
I have seen sawflies on commercial fruit plots strip dozens of bushes completely bare, seemingly overnight. Some people try to control them with sprays; others just accept them. Some say that because the sawflies usually affect the bushes quite late in the season they don’t affect the fruit yield. I tend to nip them off if I spot them, and leave them for the birds to eat (and wonder why the birds aren’t eating them anyway…).
Last winter’s and this spring’s storms and hard frosts left one of my daisy bushes (Olearia macrodonta) looking a little the worse for wear. It was also getting a bit leggy. So, back at the end of March I gave it a bit of a chop.
I couldn’t find much information on just how hard to cut it back – my books all said “little pruning is necessary” and “remove dead or diseased branches in spring”. Not so helpful, really.
The branches I wanted to take out were about five or six years old and just over an inch in diameter. Apart from the leaves at their tips they were bare all the way down their stems.
I took about four feet off; leaving about two feet of bare branch. And then I waited. And waited. By the middle of May I was becoming a bit worried that the branches wouldn’t revive. But scraping their bark showed they were still green and vital. So, I waited some more.
Happily, in the last couple of days the branches have started to throw buds up all along their length, right up to the cut ends.
I have heard that you can cut a daisy bush right down to the ground and it will resprout. But I’ve also heard that they might just give up and die. So, I prefer a more gradual approach to rejuvenation, and hope that this bush will be back to its full flowering beauty next summer.
In October last year, Storm Ophelia arrived in the UK. That marked the beginning of what has turned out to be a pretty tiresome winter for the cork oaks and carob trees.
Storm Ophelia was a complete novelty to me. Usually when hurricanes arrive in the UK they are cold and wet. Ophelia was hot and dry. Although it was October, the temperature rose above 20C with winds consistently above 50mph and gusting to 90mph and more.
The results of this on the cork oaks especially were severe scorch of the mature leaves and complete desiccation of all the growing tips: and there are a lot of growing tips on the cork oaks in autumn.
The story was similar with the carob trees, but they have suffered even more from the poor weather that has beleaguered us this winter.
Like the cork oaks, they had a lot of young growth at the start of the autumn (typical of many Mediterranean species – they have a spurt of growth in spring, sit out the summer, and then have another growth spurt in the autumn). As with the oaks, Storm Ophelia sucked the life from those fresh young shoots. But the carobs are still in pots and were, therefore, less able to stand the vagaries of the weather. It has been too cold, too dark and too wet for too long for them and they aren’t looking great.
However, although this sounds very negative, I am hopeful that most of the young trees are going to get through this. The cork oaks have sturdy root systems and, I hope, enough reserves to pull back from.
The carob trees, although they look pretty dire, do have plenty of potential new growth points and even a few new shoots springing up from low down on their stems.
Incidentally, I do leave the “dead, dying and mo(u)ldy” bits on the carob trees. I have found that cutting them out just spreads the dieback further and faster. By leaving them, provided the plant is strong enough, it should be able to compartmentalise the decay and stop it spreading too far: which,if my memory serves me well, is pretty much what they taught us at college – CODIT – compartmentalisation of decay in trees/timber.
I spotted this stunning caterpillar munching away on the strawberry tree that I planted last winter. When I looked it up I found that it is, I think, a vapourer moth caterpillar. Everything I read suggested that these caterpillars feed on deciduous trees, especially fruit trees. So I thought that it must have fallen down from one of the neighbouring trees. But looking more closely, I noticed three of its shed skins on the undersides of the strawberry tree’s leaves. So it would seem it has completed its caterpillar life stage here, quite happily eating the strawberry tree’s evergreen leaves. In total, this one caterpillar has eaten less than one leaf. I read that they are “no longer a significant pest in orchards because of the use of insecticides”…
I also spotted another tufted caterpillar on a snowy mespilus shrub (Amelanchier lamarckii). It’s not as impressive as the vapourer, but still quite striking. It too is a moth caterpillar, this time of the grey dagger (Acronicta psi).
It always puzzles me that many people say they like butterflies; but they think moths are somehow less nice; and caterpillars are purely pests.
Following the winter’s damage, I’ve been keeping an eye out to make sure the privet bushes recover OK. By and large, they are doing just that. However, I’d say some are a little weaker than would be usual, but it’s hard to tell. One thing I have noticed though is a surge in the amount of leaf miner damage.
The damage first shows as brownish marks on the leaves. They quickly expand to become a large brown blister. By this stage the blisters are easy to pull open and inside there are little tribes of larvae living a sheltered life between the upper and lower leaf surfaces.
These larvae will grow up to become tiny little micro moths – Gracillaria syringella. As the name suggests, they also mine lilac (Syringa) leaves and are known as lilac leaf miners as well as privet leaf miners. There are plenty of them on the lilac bushes this year too.