Tag Archives: Denmark

Pollinators, landscape and friends: our recent trip to the Danish island of Sejerø

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This is not the first time I’ve written about the beautiful Danish island of Sejerø – see my post “Why do bumblebees follow ferries?“.  It’s home to our friends Pia and Stephen Valentine (Stephen is the very talented artist who produced the fabulous study of waxwings that Karin commissioned for my birthday last year).  Earlier this month we traveled over to stay with them and to explore some more of the island.  Here are some photos and thoughts from that trip.

Despite the hot, dry weather that northern Europe has been experiencing recently there were pollinators aplenty.  Thistles and knapweeds (both groups from the daisy family Asteraceae) are well known to be drought tolerant and attract a lot of insect interest.  This is a Pantaloon Bee (Dasypoda sp.)  If it was Britain I’d say that it was D. hirtipes, but there are other species on the continent so I can’t be sure.  These bees are well named: the “pantaloons” are found only on the females and are used to collect pollen, especially from Asteraceae.

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I believe that this is the male of this species; note the absence of the pollen-collecting hairs on the rear legs and the yellow face, typical of many male bees:

The flower heads of the knapweeds were highly sought after; on this one, two different bumblebees (Bombus spp.) were competing with two Silver Y moths (Autographa gamma):

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Sometimes the bumblebees got an inflorescence to themselves, though the photobombing Silver Ys were never far away:

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It’s been a good year for the Silver Y, large numbers have migrated northwards from southern Europe and we’ve had lots in our garden too.  On Sejerø they were everywhere, on all kinds of plants: 

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The butterfly is one of the Blues (Lycaenidae), possibly Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus), but again this being Denmark they may have other species that I’m not familiar with.  Note the Silver Y photobombing once more…:


Wild carrot (Daucus carota) was common on the island and always attracts a wide range of flies, wasps and beetles:


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Close to home we found a huge cherry tree laden with the fruits of pollination and collected a couple of kilos for Stephen to make into jam.  Stoning them was messy but fun and a nice opportunity to sit and chat about nature and people:

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I was very impressed with Stephen’s up-cycled general purpose baskets, made from plastic containers he finds on the beach, wire, and lengths of old hosepipe:

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Along the shore another edible plant, Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) was attracting a lot of attention from white butterflies (Pieridae) whose caterpillars feed on this and other members of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae):

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I tried a piece of raw leaf; it tasted ok, salty and a little bitter.  Apparently it’s very nice if you blanch the young leaves.  It’s a distinctive and impressive component of the beach flora:

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Amidst the greens, buffs and browns of the beach landscape we encountered the occasional scarlet of a patch of poppies (Papaver sp.):

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Everywhere on the island we saw evidence of the link between life on land and in the sea, and the cycles and processes upon which that life depends.  Sand martins (Riparia riparia – an apt name – “riparian” refers to the interface between land and water) are common and their nest excavations speed up the return of sediments back to the sea:

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Favoured rocks have been used by gulls and other sea birds for generations, their guano helping to enrich these coastal waters and fueling the primary production of seaweeds and diatoms, which in turn feed other shore life:

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Evidence of human activities was never far away, though, concrete and steel blending with nature:

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Wheat fields merging with the sky:

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Thanks to Pia and Stephen, and of course Zenja, for making this such a wonderful trip and allowing us to join them in exploring their home island:

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Waxwings on my birthday!


Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) may possibly be my favourite bird, and I’ve posted a couple of times about encounters with them – see: Waxwing winter and Waxwings in Northants.

So for my birthday last weekend I was stunned and delighted by a gift from my wife Karin: a specially commissioned illustration of waxwings by a very talented artist friend of ours, Stephen Valentine, who is based in Denmark.

I think Stephen has beautifully captured both the alert intelligence of these birds, always on the look-out for food and predators, and their subtle and striking colouration.  It’s such an honour to own a piece like this!

If you’re interested, Stephen regularly takes commissions; you can find him on Facebook by searching for “Studio Sejerø”, or I can put you in touch with him.

Thanks Karin, thanks Stephen! 🙂

Spiral Sunday #17 – sculpted hair from Louisiana

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This week’s Spiral Sunday features a close-up of  hair sculpted in marble, taken during the visit to Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art I mentioned in Spiral Sunday 5. Sadly I forgot to note down the name of the artist, but I do like the way s/he has depicted the hair as deeply carved, close-set spirals.

Spiral Sunday #5 – Pre-Columbian Pottery

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Two spirals for the price of one in my fifth Spiral Sunday post.  This photo was taken during our recent trip to Denmark that I described in “Why do bumblebees follow ferries?“.  These South American pots are part of a Pre-Columbian ceramics collection at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen.  Well worth a visit if you are in the city – it’s an amazing museum.

Why do bumblebees follow ferries?

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A few years ago I mentioned in my post “Garlicky archipelago” that I had seen bumblebees (Bombus spp.) following the ferry from Southampton to the Isle of Wight, a distance of about 1.5km across water.  If I remember correctly it was my colleague Scott Armbruster who first mentioned this to me: he lives on the Isle of Wight and commutes regularly to the mainland.

I’ve not thought much about this since then as 1.5km is a fairly modest distance for a bumblebee to fly.  But then a few weeks ago I saw the same thing in Denmark, but this time over a much longer distance.

Karin and I were visiting friends on the small island of Sejerø, which (at its closest point) is about 8km from the mainland of Zealand.  To get there you have to catch a ferry which takes about an hour to cross this stretch of water.  About half-way across,  whilst looking over the stern of the ship, I spotted a bumblebee following the ferry.

So that’s twice, on two different ferries and under very different contexts, that I’ve seen this phenomenon.  A pattern is starting to form….  Has anyone else observed this?  Please do comment.

I can think of a few explanations/hypotheses for what’s going on here (some of which are not mutually exclusive):

  1.  Clearly bumblebees do fly across significant stretches of open seawater.  Perhaps all I’m seeing is bees that do this, but spotted from the only vantage point where it’s viewable (i.e. the ferry).
  2. These bumblebees are taking advantage of the slipstream created by the ferry to reduce the energy required to fly these long distances.
  3. The bees are hitching a lift on the ferry and I only observe them as they arrive or depart.
  4. The bees are following the wake of the ship to navigate between the island and the mainland, in order to exploit significant flower patches.  Work by one of my PhD students, Louise Cranmer, a few years ago showed that bumblebees follow linear features such as non-flowering hedgerows to navigate – see Cranmer et al. (2012) Oikos.  Perhaps something similar is happening here?

There’s probably other possibilities I’ve not thought of.  But whatever the explanation, it looks to me as if there’s some potential for interesting experiments marking and recapturing bees on islands/mainland, releasing bees on ferries to see if they follow the wake, etc.  If only Northampton wasn’t so far from the coast….



SCAPE day 3 – science on a Sunday

Last night I added a new edible plant family to my life list – Cornaceae – courtesy of the ever-hospitable Marcin Zych and his home-made fruit liqueurs. The one he opened after dinner was made from the fruit of edible dogwood (Cornus mas) and had been maturing for five years.  It was sour but delicious, and very, very strong.  That’s my first new addition to the list since my Brazil trip back in in November 2013.  One day I will post an annotated list of the biodiversity of plant families I’ve consumed….but not tonight, it’s the end of a tiring final day of the SCAPE conference.

To end the meeting this morning there was a short session of three talks from Klaus Lunau’s sensory ecology group.  Klaus started the proceedings with a talk about the role of UV-absorbent dark central “bull’s eyes” in the middle of flowers and compound inflorescences.  He concluded that, despite their near mythological status, UV patterns were perhaps no more important than patterns absorbing at other wavelengths and presented some interesting experimental data to support the argument.  Over breakfast Klaus and I had discussed the absence of difficult questions at the conference; he felt people were being a little too polite.  So I asked him a hard one – whether his findings held up for male bees which don’t collect pollen.  He confessed that he’d not tested them and agreed that it would be worth doing: hope he does, will be an interesting test.

Klaus was followed by Saskia Wilmsen who showed us the results of some elegant experiments using artificial “flowers” with different shaped epidermal cells (flat, conical, etc.)  These different surfaces have distinctive optical properties in different light conditions, and bees behave in slightly different ways, accordingly.  A very cool reminder that as we move to ever finer scales in pollination ecology, from macro biogeographical and community questions, to micro surveys, the layers of complexity just go on increasing.

This latter point was reinforced by the final presentation of the meeting, which was Sebastien Kothe discussing the functional role of the spines possessed by pollen in some plant families, especially Malvaceae.  He presented compelling evidence that these spines have evolved in order to reduce their attractiveness to pollen collecting bees.  The spines render the pollen hydrophobic meaning that the bees have to use much more nectar to bind it into the pollen baskets.  It would be interesting to track the evolution of this echinaceous pollen through the fossil record and to assess whether its appearance coincides with the evolution of particular bee groups.

And with that, the 29th SCAPE meeting was finished except for the usual hugs and goodbyes and promises to meet up again in 12 months time, probably inside the Arctic Circle: it looks as though the 30th meeting will be held at the field station at Abisko.

The rest of Sunday was spent visiting the botanic garden and the art museum in Aarhus, both to be recommended if you have a chance to visit.  It’s now 8.15pm and I’m sat at Billund Airport with a large glass of Carlsberg, my first of the trip. It’s been a great meeting and I look forward to repeating it next year, and interacting with such a passionate group of scientists.  Over and out from SCAPE.

SCAPE conference 2015 – day 2 – probably the best pollination ecology meeting in the world

We’re in Denmark, so I had to use the old Carlsberg meme.  And anyway I stole it from Jane Stout who used it on Twitter this morning.  So there.

Day 2 of the SCAPE conference has been, like day 1, enjoyable and stimulating and full of things that made me think “wow, I did not know that”.  Here’s a few examples:

The day kicked off with two talks on pollen limitation in plants by Amey Iler and James Rodger.  Both challenged some preconceived ideas about the nature of pollen limitation: Amy that it was independent of flowering phenology and James that biodiversity hot spots were more likely to be pollen limited.  Amy found that pollen limitation is more likely to occur early in the flowering time of some plant populations, but not all.  James showed that the South African flora was significantly less pollen limited than expected.

Marcos Mendez also challenged us to re-think whether or not reproduction by plants has a cost on other aspects of plant growth and survival: his meta-analysis suggests not and I hope he writes up the work soon.  But, as Marcos mentioned, he has a lot of on-going reviews to complete….

Beate Strandberg discussed the subtle effects that herbicides can have on non-target plants in non-target habitats, via drift from agricultural fields.  Specifically they can reduce the number of flowers and delay flowering time in plants that are important pollen and nectar sources for pollinators.  Expect to hear lots more about this in the future: it’s not just the neonicotinoid pesticides that are worrying researchers.

Finally Soren Nedergaard has spent a winter on Tenerife in the high altitude lava deserts of Las Canadas, one of my favourite places to do field work, and discovered that some of the plants and bees are active for 12 months of the year!  I’m still trying to digest that finding, I don’t know of any other ecological communities that have the same plants and pollinators interacting all year, every year.  Is it unprecedented?  Does anyone know of other examples?  Even in the tropics plants tend to have a rest period when they don’t flower.

That’s it, just a quick flavour of day 2 as it’s almost 6pm and time for a beer, though not a Carlsberg: they only serve more exclusive beers here….

SCAPE conference 2015 – day 1 – welcome to the sanatorium

The first day of the 29th SCAPE conference drew to a close and as I started to draft this post I could hear around me some intense discussions of Amy Parachnowitsch’s “crazy idea” (her words!) that flowers may be able to “eavesdrop” on one another via their floral scents. It was a very thought provoking way to end a stimulating day. And I look forward to reading the discussion paper on which the talk was based, in Trends in Plant Sciences.

What else did I learn on the first day? Here’s a few things I noted, with a link to the programme, but certainly not an exhaustive list:

Paul CaraDonna told us about the way that interactions between plants and pollinators have a faster turnover early in the season than later in the season. We discussed this afterwards and it could be because of newly emerged, naïve individual pollinators encountering and exploring flowers they’ve not previously seen.

Jane Stout described the history and future of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, and how it was driven from bottom-up by two scientists (Jane herself and Una Fitzpatrick) – a salutary tale of what can happen when passionate scientists become advocates for change.

Markus Sydenham discussed his work on power line corridors in Norway and the fact that these linear landscape elements, though artificial, can be good for solitary bees in appropriately managed by cutting and removal of woody vegetation.

A project encouraging organic Danish farmers to assess the quality of their own land for pollinating bees was described by Vibeke Langer. Interesting example of “citizen science” that goes directly to those who might benefit most from larger and more stable pollinator populations.

In Hawaii, Robert Junker and colleagues have found evidence that the flowers of the endemic plant Metrosideros polymorpha have evolved in less than 150 years to be more effectively pollinated by introduced honey bees rather than its native bird pollinators, which have declined substantially. Some individuals of this species seem to be pre-adapted for bee pollination; is this evidence that a larger bee species once existed on Hawaii but is now extinct?

The “complex, messy” ecology behind the co-existence of different Medicago species (facilitated by the interaction of plant genotypic kinship and allelopathic chemicals produced by Thymus species, was the focus of Bodil Ehlers work.

Judith Trunschke showed how ecotype morphology in hawkmoth-pollinated orchid Platanthera bifolia seems to be driven by different pollinators in grassland and woodland habitats. Are we seeing the early stages of the evolution of two new species here?

I had the honour of being the first speaker yesterday morning, talking about the macroecology of wind versus animal pollination, and the University of Northampton was further represented by Kat Harrold, who is working on her PhD as part of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project. Kat presented a short over view of her work during the poster session.

There was much more, of course, and all of it stimulating and interesting, but that’s at least a taster.   The conference is taking place in a fascinating conference facility that was a former TB sanatorium. It’s a step up from the ex-leper colony that SCAPE used in Finland a few years ago….