The flowers, the bees, and the tractor: a true story

Yesterday I was up and out early with colleagues and students to carry out the first of this season’s spring bird surveys of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus – see my previous post on this topic.   We had finished one stretch of the survey and were walking back along the path next to Midsummer Meadow when I spotted a huge expanse of Red Dead-Nettle (Lamium purpureum), mixed in with some While Dead-Nettle (Lamium album):

Tractor 1 2018-04-18 08.21.14

Both species produce a lot of nectar; as kids we would often suck it from the flowers of White Dead-Nettle, and they are just as attractive to bees and other pollinators:

Tractor 2 2018-04-18 08.24.16

Sure enough, a quick survey showed that there were at least two species of bee working the flowers, Common Carder Bees (Bombus pascuorum), and male and female Hairy-footed Flower Bees (Anthophora plumipes) – here’s a shot of the female:

Tractor 3 - 2018-04-18 08.23.53

Suddenly there was an exclamation from one of my colleagues: whilst I was focused on the bees he’d seen a tractor pulling a grass cutter coming towards us:

Tractor 4 2018-04-18 08.25.06

It got closer…:

Tractor 5 - 2018-04-18 08.25.12

…and closer…:

Tractor 6 - 2018-04-18 08.25.25

…and we were sure it was going to mow this beautiful patch of wild flowers, and the bees, into oblivion:

Tractor 8 - 2018-04-18 08.25.46

But it didn’t!  The driver carefully mowed round the patch and headed back the way he’d come:

Tractor 9 - 2018-04-18 08.26.33

A big relief!

Urban recreational grasslands like this clearly need to be managed by regular cutting, but this should be done strategically as these sorts of wild flower patches are important nectar and pollen sources for urban pollinators.  They are especially critical at this time of year when resources are needed to build up colony numbers in the social species like Common Carder Bee.  I don’t know who manages Midsummer Meadow – presumably contractors working on behalf of Northampton Borough Council?  But I hope that this is a conscious strategy by them to conduct “smart mowing” whereby they cut around flower patches like this even when they are not planted.  The bees (and I) thank you for it.

7 thoughts on “The flowers, the bees, and the tractor: a true story

  1. Renate Wesselingh

    I wished that we had considerate gardeners like that my university… Here everything is mown by external contractors without regard of what is growing, and they even managed to mow a designated wild flower area one year, in the middle of June: the end of the yellow rattle population…
    I have a patch of purple dead nettle like that (ok, smaller, but just as dense) in my vegetable garden, my onions now have to wait until the end of flowering, because there are loads of bees in it.
    I can name the bumblebees, but I need to start learning the solitary ones as well. I’ve just ordered a guide to help me with that. Do I need to catch these bees in order to identify them? They’re quite quick, much faster than the bumblebees, so they’re difficult to study in detail while they’re foraging.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hi Renate – have you tried talking with your estates department about the problem? In my experience most estates workers will be sympathetic once you point out the issue. Regarding solitary bees, yes, for most species you need to catch them. This Anthophora is pretty distinctive though, and there are a few others that you can also identify on the wing.

  2. philipstrange

    What a coincidence, just this morning I saw blokes strimming the edges of a car park near where I live. One grassy bank has a colony of A flavipes and A cineraria complete with Nomada. I had spoken to the local council about this last year and this morning they left about two thirds of the bank untouched. Not ideal but much better than I expected.
    In response to Renata, I find I can identify a reasonable number of solitary bees from photos taken in the field, the best thing is to start looking (live bees and photos) and you may be surprised at what you see.

  3. Helen

    Thanks for the pics of red dead nettle – I have it in my garden but wasn’t one hundred percent sure I had made the right identification until your post. Anyway, I will keep mine, now I know how beneficial it is for bees.


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