Some time ago in Unst, Frances Wilson dug up a live bumblebee. It was a fine day in January and she was getting ahead with a bit of gardening work. The bee was a surprise and also a worry. It was miles too early to set it free. The first cold night would probably have finished it off. So she made a temporary home for it in a jam jar, filled with moist earth from the place it had been found. The bee accepted a feed of honey, and then retreated into the depths of the jarred soil. The jar was placed gently on a ledge in a cool room, kept out of the sunlight and given a tiny drop of water from time to time.
On Saturday of last week, Frances saw several bees bumbling about in the garden and decided that it was wake-up time for her lodger. She was fairly sure that it would not have survived in the artificial bee hibernaculum and resigned herself to finding its remains. However, to her great relief, when she poked tentatively into the earth, there was the bee; sluggish, sleepy, but very much alive.
It emerged, crawling groggily from its jam jar, out into a beautiful spring day in Unst. Frances resolved to feed, and then release it, hoping for the best and hugely pleased and relieved that it had survived its ordeal. While the Uyeasound community and hordes of other Unst folk were celebrating the opening of the new pier, Frances’ bumblebee was enjoying a slap-up meal of honey diluted with a little water.
While on the subject of Uyeasound, we came across a remarkable beach a short way along the coastline to the east of the village. The banks were studded with deep purple violets and sea pinks were ready to burst into flower any day now, but it was the rocks which caught my attention.
The rock here looks for all the world like wood. It breaks up at the shore into elongated pebbles like sea worn chunks of timber, which clink as you walk across them. They gave me an idea. “Oh no! Not more pebbles,” sighed my trusty companion, with visions no doubt of the window sills, shelves, coffee tables and ledges at home already groaning under the weight of earlier stone treasures. But this time was different.
Yes, a whole horde of stones were carted back, but not for display. I rigged up a lithophone, or at least that’s what I think they are called. A tripod of canes set a short distance from a second one the same size and height. A strong cane laid between them; all lashed tightly together to form a frame. The horizontal cane has to be frilly with rubber bands, threaded round it all the way along; several dozen at least. Now you take the elongated pebbles, each one selected for its delightfully musical clink. By looping and locking rubber bands together, you can lengthen each one into elastic chains hanging down, ready for their clink bars. Carefully insert each pebble into two rubber band loops, side by side, adjusting the height of each above the ground so that they don’t touch each other. Now take the slimmest pebble from the rest of the heap and tap each suspended stone. Cink! Tap another one – clunk! Tap a third – clonk! Lo and behold, a Shetland stone sort-of-tuned musical instrument a bit like a glockenspiel or a xylophone. A lithophone!
Not many of Shetland’s beaches produce ringing stones and even those that do can’t replicate the clarity of certain other ringing stones from other parts of the world where the instruments are a well established tradition: Africa, Australia and Indian North America. I really needed to spend far longer on the beach selecting the stones, but my Heath Robinson effort wasn’t bad for a trial run.
Another Shetland lady had a very special insect adventure recently. She bought a bunch of pale cream coloured carnations from Tesco’s. In them, when she got home, she found a caterpillar, large as life and twice as lively. The caterpillar was busily engaged upon eating up the flowers. I was interested to hear the description of its progress over the ensuing days, now actually weeks. Several attempts have been made to obtain more of the peach coloured carnations, but so far with no effect.
Red carnations were tried, but these were rejected by the creature. Recently the caterpillar has been changing its behaviour somewhat. Instead of a slow, steady, munching crawl, it has been rushing (relatively speaking) about, climbing in and out, up and over far more things, more quickly than before. Maybe it was hungry. I suspect though that it is sensing the imminent arrival of metamorphosis day and is frantically trying to secure a safe place to change.
I look forward to hearing if, or how it gets on. It would be marvellous if it survived to emerge as a healthy moth or butterfly so that we could identify it. The successful rescue of a small, wild thing from a crisis bring immense satisfaction, even though it barely registers on the scale of wildlife in danger. Plants as well as wild creatures can also be subjects for urgent rescue too.
When the main Lerwick to Sumburgh road was being realigned and widened many years ago, I was delighted when the council included the lifting of primrose-rich turf from the Cunningsburgh/Sandwick section and the replanting of it in a safer area, among the contract tendering details. Several friends and family members assisted with the care of these replanted turfs and in particular, the watering of them over dry periods.
One day, as we returned from a Lerwick trip, upon entering the road to Scalloway from the Gulberwick Black Gaet junction, I saw a man busy digging up some of the plants, right where we had so recently been watering them. My family tried their best to restrain me, but it was a hopeless task. I was out of the car before I realised, and bearing down on the poor man, yelling like banshee and giving him the fright of his life.
“Put those back!” I shrieked, in a most un-quakerly fashion and to my relief, he did so. I regained a little calm and explained the history of the plants and the efforts being made to rescue and preserve them. He apologised, poor soul, saying that he thought that anyone could take stuff from roadsides. We parted on somewhat better terms and the primroses survived for many years, despite the fact that was a huge difference between their original wild bank habitat and the Black Gaet junction verge side.
This year there may well be a big reduction in the primroses though, as there has been a great deal of heavy machinery working on the site, putting in barriers. Time will tell just how many plants have survived. I would really like to see a Shetland “reflorestation” project where banks, verges and cliffs from which the flowers are known to have been taken, are restocked by gardeners who now have plenty of their plants’ offspring to share.
Several friends have been growing and splitting wild primrose clumps in their gardens for years and voluntarily setting chunks of them back into the wild. The sight of ever more attractive verges, footpath banks and burnsides, frothy with the soft shimmer of honey rich primroses, all restored to their former glory is a reward in itself. Some householders though get their satisfaction from suburbanising their nearby roadsides.
We are all different I suppose, but it always saddens me to see once species-rich verges, shorn and trimmed regularly by tidy minded folk, who seem allergic to the idea of the tangle of colour, form and scent of wild flowers. Mow your lawn by all means but why encroach on the violets, coltsfoot, primroses, dandelions, campions, red clovers, self heals and orchids which will bloom without any help if you leave them to it. We really do need to make every effort to help save those bumble bees.
Jill Slee Blackadder