Unnerved by hundreds of buzzers

GRASS of Parnassus might have been growing in an unexpected place last week, but at least it was growing at the right time of year.

It was the “where”, not the “when” which created the excitement. This time it was the other way round. Last week, on a pre-walk for the Stromfirth Shetland Field Studies Group walk tomorrow, a flower was found blooming in August, months later than it should have been. Moss campion, in full flower on a rocky limestone knowe at West Hamarsland . . .Extraordinary! Maybe “climate change” is going to mean “seasons change” too.

Moss campion is among the first wild flowers in Shetland to bloom in early spring. The pale pink flowers have virtually no stems and they lie flat against the tight cushions of short, spiky leaves. They have a rich, honey scent, which can only be enjoyed at ground level.

You need to kneel right down beside the plant and breathe in only an inch or two from the petals. Bobby Tulloch first alerted us to this fact and each year there are temptations to take hilarious photographs as, in what looks like a primitive religious rite, people gather round to prostrate themselves and sample the fragrance.

And of course, while there are still flowers, there are bees too. The bees of West Hamarsland will have some late honey to enjoy, so long as the recent heavy rain hasn’t washed it all away.

We saw the plush, gingery Shetland bumble bee too and sent a couple of records of to Paul Harvey from the Biological Records section at the Shetland Amenity Trust office. He is always glad to get news of more sightings and can give you illustrated leaflets to help you identify the many different kinds.

The best place in Shetland for bees, as well as other insects has to be Terry Rogers’ garden at Eswick in South Nesting. He has laboured over many years to build sheltered neuks, windbreak plantations, damp places, warm corners and all for moths and other insects. Both nectar rich plants for adult insects and food plants for their young have been introduced.

Now Terry has a number of moth traps and regularly finds, identifies and releases moths of every conceivable size and sort. The area is a labyrinth of splendid stone walls, and here and there you can find the sloping faces of bedrock where he quarried them all out by himself, every single stone.

When we visited the garden recently the Himalayan balsam was fully out and scenting the air. There were so many bees feeding and collecting pollen from it that the whole area hummed.

We felt at times a little nervous under the incredible soft roar of hundreds of buzzings. There were big fat bees, slim-line ones, average size bees but with a seeming multitude of colour and velvet variations. Black and yellow, brown and yellow, bronze, orange and white in velvet bands. But the worst that could have happened would have been a bee sting, and that need not be a bad as it sounds.

Wasp are a different matter, they can sting again and again. Bees, by contrast can only sting once. Their sting shaft is said to be barbed, and the innermost part of the structure is so firmly welded to other organs, that to rip it away means the bee will die; a gaping hole at one end of his poor velvety body.

I often heard my Dad saying how, if you can manage to keep calm, it is always best to let a bee stay on you when it has stung you, as they can extract their stings, by themselves.

He had explained this a few times, but the idea only took root in my head the day he was stung, and actually did stand still, grit his teeth and wait. The distressed bee was firmly attached to the back of Dad’s hand. But when he remained quite still, hand held up for me to watch, the bee began to walk.

It could only walk in small circles, due to its sting being buried in Dad’s skin. Round and round and round it went. Then before my eyes, it slowly eased the sting barb out and liberated itself. After a bit of a wash and brush up, it revved up its engines and flew off.

Dad grinned at me. “Look, no swelling! No pain either. I think they must draw out the poison as well as the sting. Isn’t nature amazing.” The other plant that they were going mad for was Terry’s many Buddleias. He has a number of different ones and they have reached considerable heights and girths among his sheltered spaces. I love the one with the bright orange eye to each purple floret. I’m sure I remember being advised against wearing purple and orange together. But they look great here.

Apart from the bees, there were moths and butterflies too. There was one flower in particular which gets the juices going for one moth and that is the Convolvulus, or “Great Bind­weed”. This plant has exquisite flowers, pure white trumpets, but many gardeners hate it, for the stems and roots winkle their way in all directions, simultaneously digging so deep and canny that once established, you can hardly ever get it out again.

The insect that settles for this flower above all others, is actually named after it; the convolvulus hawk moth. This monster moth often finds its way to Shetland at this time of year and the first 2008 recorded sighting which came my way was from the Isbister family in Walls.

As soon as the end of summer arrives, the big moth and butterfly migration south begins. The hawk moths are among the biggest of the insect families and they can be easily mistaken for a small bird. In fact, I am tempted to think that convolvulus hawk moths are bigger that birds; at least bigger than wrens.

A wren few up from beside a plant pot next to me this week; just a flying brown puff ball of brown down. I could have sworn it was smaller than the convolvulus hawk moth. So keep a look out, for they are about.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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