By Albert Nolan.
I pass quietly through the city streets pausing at every corner to scan the buildings for birds or take a quick peak into an overgrown garden in the hope of finding a few insects. I adjust my bumblebee net to a more discreet position so as not to draw too much attention to myself and allow the sounds of the city to fade into the background. Today, I am on my way to meet Veronica Santorum who is Coordinator of the Limerick Buzzing project. This is an environmental awareness and more importantly action project that is working within the community to help wild bees. We will be exploring the banks of the canal and discovering some of its amazing wildlife and also how our city bees are coping with the stresses of urban living.
After a few minutes, I arrive at the Lock bar and to the amusement of a passing couple I start to search through the leaves of a tall Lime tree hoping to discover a hidden moth. While this bar is a well-known meeting spot for couples, the idea of an insect date is probably alien to many. Veronica arrives and soon we are busy examining the tree. It has cast its cool shade over many of life stories but hidden among its branches nature leads an equally fascinating life. Trees are important feeding stations for wildlife and as we check the leaves we find tiny holes. These are made by birds as they pluck the tiny insects that feed on them. The Lime tree is also excellent for bees as they come to collect pollen and nectar from the flowers. They are also part time farmers as they milk the sticky honeydew that greenfly produce as they feed.
We move along and pause underneath a magnificent Horsechestnut tree that is in full flower. Veronica explains how insects and plants communicate with each other by using colour. When the Horsechestnut flowers need to be pollinated they have a prominent red spot that attracts bees and this fades to a more subtle yellow once the bee have visited. Nearby the rough and cracked bark of an ancient Sycamore tree provides plenty of hiding places for insects and its long green flowers are another source of early nectar and pollen for insects.
Just past the bridge we peer over the wall and discover a hidden garden. Nature has colonised one of the smooth supports of the bridge and turned hard concrete into a mini woodland. Buddleia and Sycamore are growing up through a moss floor and on the wall we find Hartstongue fern, Valerian, Figworth and Meadow sweet. Helping bees is about recognizing the value of these wild corners and not been over zealous when it comes to tidying up. Across the river the canal island is eagerly sized up for a possible trip and the wildlife stories awaiting to be revealed.
While a good diversity of plants are vital for bees they also need places to build their nests. The old red bricked bridge over the canal is an important habitat as it has a variety of different sized holes where they will build their nests. Bricks trap the heat of the sun during the day and releases it slowly at night-time creating a stable temperature for the developing larva.
By the edge of the path there is a natural woodland edge. Tall Sycamores are at the back followed by flowering Lilac and the smaller flowers at the front. The different heights attract a wide range of species and I hear the songs of a Blackbird, Dunnocks and Great tit. Blue and green flies fit between the branches and on a rolled up Nettle leaf we find a tiny black caterpillar. A bee comes briefly into range but with a steep drop just in front of us we cannot catch him in the net. The way to the nature reserve on the island is blocked by a muddy stream that is carpeted in bright yellow Marsh marigold.
I learn a new word as Veronica explains that the caterpillars droppings (called Frass) can be used as an indicator as to the health of a habitat. A sheet is slid under the hedge and the Frass is gathered. If you have a lot of caterpillars feeding you will have a good quantity and the caterpillars in turn will be eaten by birds and bumblebees.
We stop by a tall ivy patch and watch as a female Song thrush devoured the berries. For a few minutes she ignores us before nosily disappearing over the wall. Ivy produces its flowers in late summer and this provides a last bounty for late flying insects. On the wall a brave Garden snail is beginning his epic climb. He is a favourite food of birds and especially thrushes who break their hard shells on stones called anvils to get at the soft body.
Small changes make a big differences for wildlife and bees and the grass along by the wall could be left to grow long. Keep a meter cut in the from the edge of the public path and cut once a year in late autumn. All of the different wildflowers and grasses will flourish creating a beautiful display for walkers but also a rich feeding area for butterflies, moths and of course bees. Nestled in a corner of the wall we find Sow thistle and its milkly sap was once prescribed as a treatment for warts.
Underneath a Poplar tree, Bush vetch is growing and this is one of the best flowers for bumblebees. It is a member of the pea family and its fruits are tiny hard peas that we used to eat when we were younger. It climbs up other plants and if more of this flower was planted in our community green spaces it would benefit insects. Our second bee of the day appears and she is flying down low over the ground. It is called the White tailed bumblebee and the queens can be up to 20mm in length. If you see a large bee try not to panic as it will only defend itself if it feels threatened. Take a step back and allow one of nature’s hardest workers to continue its important job of pollinating our flowers and vegetables.
She could be searching for a nest site and Veronica explains that each species emerges at different times throughout the year so it is important that there is a succession of nectar rich plants. This is something to consider when planning our planting scheme in our gardens and tidy towns flowerbeds. Including herbs, fruit like strawberries and apples and leaving a few dandelions grow will provide a good supply of food during the spring and summer.
We pass under the bridge and in the reed beds by the pond we hear the Willow and Sedge warbler calling. Bees benefit from a variety of habitats and while an acre of wildflowers is brilliant for nectar and pollen it will not serve all their needs. Having areas of bare hard soil and stumps of trees creates a home for bees that excavate small tunnels and lay their eggs inside. Both these features are becoming scarce in the landscape but thankfully are still common on this walk.
Other insects catch our attention like the stunning Blue tailed damselfly and Seven spot ladybirds but time as always is against us and we have to begin the walk home.
Our last stop is on a piece of wild ground that has a mixture of bare ground, scattered trees and wildflowers making this prime habitat for bees. A Common Carder bee is busy feeding and Birch seedlings are starting to transform the open spaces into urban woodland. Cuckoo flower is growing in the wetter places and we find a few eggs of the Orange tip butterfly on its stems. Many thanks to Veronica for sharing her time, knowledge and energy and given me a better appreciation and understanding of the bees living in the city boundaries. Also to all the people who have supported the projects so far.
This year, Limerick Buzzing are running a very interesting project called “Strawberry days”. Members of the public are being asked to grow two pots of Strawberries and the size of the strawberries will help develop an understanding of how well your local bees are faring. This is a fun and tasty project for the summer and also helps bees in the process. The project is supported by local garden centres and sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland Discover programme. If you would like to take part, more information on bees, upcoming events and training days please check out www.limerickbuzzing.ie
Please join me on Limerick City Community Radio at 4.30pm for my show “Wild about Limerick”. The show is broadcasted every second Saturday(next June 6th) and if you have a story or event you want to share please contact me. Tune in online at www.lccr.ie or 99.9fm.
Comments/questions to [email protected] or 089 4230502. Also available to give walks/talks to schools, tidy towns, youth and community groups.
Read more about Albert Nolan’s Nature articles here