Bumblebees are under threat - but not in Penge, where they have found a heaven in Mark Carlton's delightful wildflower garden (writes Wildlife Committee member Sigrid Collins).

In July, I attended a workshop on bumblebees, arranged by Mark Carlton and Diana Cheng from the charity 'Buglife', the only organisation in Europe devoted to the conservation of invertebrates. Quite a number of the rarest species of bumble bees live in the Thames Estuary and 'Buglife' is particularly concerned that they might disappear under concrete. 'Brownfield' sites are a valuable habitat for invertebrates and all kinds of wildlife depends on them. Whilst housing needs necessitate the development of most unused land, 'Buglife' is trying to raise awareness of the need for sensitive planning so that some vital habitat can be preserved or incorporated into redevelopment projects. After all, if we remove plants and invertebrates, the whole ecosystem will collapse.

With dwindling green and 'brown' habitat, birds and bees are becoming more and more dependent on gardens; and those of us who are fortunate to have a garden, can help to create a home for them. Of the remaining 22 species left in Great Britain, we are likely to see only 6 or 7 (which are all hedgerow or woodland edge species) in our gardens. We all love these attractive and gentle creatures; they do not sting, unless threatened, and they are excellent pollinators of soft fruit, vegetables and wild flowers.

Bumble bees (which are wild) may be most easily distinguished from domesticated honey bees and solitary bees by their furriness; incidentally. Linnaeus, the 18th century botanist, named most of the bees by their characteristics, e.g. bombus pratorum, (yellow stripes, with a red tail) for instance, is so-called because it is found in meadows, while bombus hortorum (three yellow stripes and a white tail) is found in gardens. Bumble bees also have a different life cycle to that of honey bees, spending only a short time in a co-operative colony. Then most of them die, leaving only a few fertile queens to start the whole cycle over again the following year.

First, the queens must find a suitable place to spend the winter, safe and dry, so that she can emerge in March or April to find a new nest site in which to lay her eggs. Such sites are at such a premium that females may fight to the death over them.

In your garden, you can help these endangered bees throughout the year. First, as autumn approaches, provide them with:

  • A home for the winter
    A fertile queen will need to hibernate. She may go under compost heaps, leaf litter or rotten wood. Leave some places undisturbed. 
  • Food from spring to autumn
    The best strategy is to do less. Bumblebees do not like manicured gardens and, unfortunately, most bedding plants do not provide any food for them. Many plants have been cultivated for their colours, shapes and scents - attractive to human senses but useless to most insects because they lack sufficient nectar. Bumble bees can only eat pollen and liquid nectar, a concentrated sugar solution and different types have differently-designed mouth parts (the garden bumble bee tends to have a particularly long tongue and can reach inside long, tubular flowers). Simple perennials, traditionally grown in cottage gardens, are best, e.g. foxgloves, lupins, salvias. Wildflowers and herbs are beneficial and I have seen many bumblebees on my cardoon (cynara cardunculus) and teasels. As different species of bumblebees have different preference, it is useful to plant a variety of flowers and it also helps to plant in drifts. Plant members of the pea/vetch family are also important food-providers for these bees. And it is best to avoid using insecticides, including organic ones.
  • A home for the Summer
    Now is the time to plan ahead. When the queen bee emerges in spring, she will look for a garden that has sufficient food and suitable nesting sites. Mark Carlton has tried some of the expensive ready-made bumblebee shelters but has found them to be ineffective. In general the queen is looking for a dry, cool cavity in which she can maintain a colony at a steady temperature. She will never pick a nest site that is in full sunlight. In natural surroundings, some queens will pick the vacated, underground homes of mice and voles. Others will go for an old bird's nest. 

Here are some ideas for creating nesting sites:

  • Leave some shady corners of your garden undisturbed.
  • For ground-nesting Bumblebee species, place a paving slab over a football-sized hole in the soil, leaving a small entrance crack.
  • For other, above-ground-nesting bee species , place a piece of thick 1 metre square plywood on the ground among long, tussocky grass and leave it for one or two years. You may also encourage slow worms to use it.
  • Construct a chamber at ground level in a quiet part of the garden under a hedge (15cm x 15cm x 10cm high with a 2 cm wide gap), tile over it, cover with old leaves and put some old birds' nest material, or rodent bedding material (e.g. from a caged mouse or hamster) inside, to make it smell right! Build as many of these as possible.

I shall have a go. Mark Carlton's garden was full of bumblebees and gardening for wildlife is not strenuous, it suits the deckchair gardener. Already, I have noticed that the clover in my front lawn attracts many insects and bees and have decided to mow even less next year.

For more information see the 'Buglife' website http://www.buglife.org.uk

Publications: "The Field Guide to the Bumble Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Edwards & Jenner, pub by Countryside and Gardens Conservation series OCELLI ISBN 0954971302

Rose Jacobs of College Road writes

I was intrigued by the article on the diminishing Bumble Bees.

I wasted no time and purchased a very pretty bumble bee nester.

I have placed it in my garden as suggested - facing south and low on the ground. So far no baby bees are nesting there, but there are quite a few bees around my lavender. Time will tell.

The nester comes with instructions and hints on siting, food/pollination, nesting material, (An old mouse nest is most successful if you can find one!) The nester is quite small and neat . Planting traditional country garden flowers is just what bumble bees like most, and I know that there are lots of such gardens around Dulwich. More nesters?

(The nester purchased was from ecotopia.co.uk and cost £15.99 plus delivery)

Wildlife Report

It is difficult to know which of an excessively hot or an excessively wet summer affects our wildlife most, although it is clear that like ourselves the fauna and flora now have to adapt to extremes. This year clearly favours amphibians and those of us with ponds should have a good survival of frogs and newts which should in their turn be feeding voraciously on our slugs. However no sensible animal eats its entire food supply so our wet gardens continue to provide sufficient molluscs both to feed the frogs and to be fed by our Hostas. Such is the balance of nature.

Our birds appear so far to be maintaining their status. Dave Clark has done a census of both Dulwich Park and the Woods: Robins, Blackbirds, Wrens, Blue, Great and Long tailed Tits are all supporting good populations, Song and Mistle Thrushes are present in smaller numbers as are Nuthatches. Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers are also present, and being noisy are easily seen, but I have not so far heard whether the rarer Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers has been seen this year. On the positive side Goldfiches, Greenfinches and Chaffinches are doing well, House Sparrows are still present around Stradella Road and Lancaster Avenue and doubtless other sites. Goldfinches have become more common nationwide and are a colourful addition to our gardens. They can be encouraged by growing Teasels and Carline Thistles which provide favoured food. On the negative side the nationwide drop in Starling population I reflected upon here, has not been helped by competition for nest holes by our increasing numbers of Parakeets.

Of our summer migrants we have good numbers of breeding House Martins this year. However Swifts arrived late and their numbers seem small with fewer of the screaming parties around the Edwardian and Victorian houses whose roofs and eaves they favour to breed. There are fewer singing Chiffchaffs but good numbers of Blackcaps which reward us with a fluty song. A more unusual Warbler was a Lesser Whitethroat which sang throughout May in the Velodrome site though it may not have bred.

The biggest ornithological event was the successful breeding of a Little Grebe or Dabchick on the Dulwich Park pond which is probably a first although it attempted unsuccessfully last year. The Park's refurbishment may have provided food not previously available. More unusual was a Pheasant reported in Hawarden Grove, not its natural habitat, and a Hobby paid a call on the Burbage Road Housemartins hoping for a meal.

The residents of College Road have mentioned that they rarely now see a Hedgehog although there were reported to be "loads" in Dulwich Wood Avenue last year. It would be good to hear of sightings this year. In fact a last minute record is of a Hedgehog alas dead in Gallery Road. The multi spotted Harlequin Ladybird from Asia seems to have taken over dominance now from our native seven spot and on our few fine evenings the lumbering flight of Stag Beetles have shown that this rarity is still with us. Those of us with ponds will have seen many of the brilliant blue Azure Damsel Fly as well as perhaps the larger Black Tailed Skimmer Dragonfly. We still have a good variety of our commoner butterflies including Red Admirals, Peacocks, Holly Blues, Speckled Woods, Gatekeepers and Skippers although Tortoiseshells have mysteriously diminished in numbers.

I am phoned from time to time by readers of my articles who have wildlife identification problems and I remain happy to oblige wherever possible. Please keep your records and impressions coming and any wildlife photographs that you think may illustrate an article.

Peter Roseveare - Wildlife Recorder
Tel: 020 7274 4567

The Dulwich resident who sent in this photo of fox cubs in her garden, says that the animals were "very bold " and came right inside her house, if the garden door were left open. "They have removed several gardening gloves and also shoes. One fox was discovered by our neighbour on her sofa! " She adds that "the cubs' charm is considerable, but is outweighed by their nuisance value and, of course, they will soon be adult, mangy and disagreeable. How do we get rid of them?"

Wildlife Committee chair Angela Wilkes offers the following advice:

"As a wildlife hospital volunteer and animal 'rescuer' whose concerns tend to centre on alleviating the misery of foxes hurt in road accidents, snaring incidents or suffering from severe canine sarcoptic mange, my obvious initial reply has to be in the form of another question: " Why do you want to get rid of them? " But, understanding that some residents do struggle to come to terms with the "nuisance value" of adult foxes in their gardens, I shall put on my agony aunt hat and explain how best to soften the impact of vulpine visits and, hopefully, improve relations between one human family and their wildlife neighbours.

Firstly, although foxes are prolific breeders, many of the young effectively get rid of themselves. They do so, chiefly, by getting themselves killed.

One of Britain's leading mammalogists, Professor Stephen Harris, who has spent his entire working life studying foxes, has published detailed research which shows that, by the summer, only about a third of fox cubs produced will have made it through, alive. Some cubs die of cold, starvation, etc., before they are old enough even to leave the breeding earth. At a later stage, deaths of active cubs are particularly high in urban areas. Many youngsters die under the wheels of road vehicles, others come to grief when the vixen is killed, or as a result of accidents (e.g., drowning in swimming pools, poisoning, dog attacks). Being members of the canine species, they are susceptible to deadly dog diseases (wildlife hospitals caring for orphaned cubs now routinely vaccinate them against these in order to eradicate such killers as canine distemper and canine parvovirus from the environment). Also, being members of the canine species, fox cubs are keen, fearless explorers and get themselves into all sorts of horrendous scrapes, jamming heads in plastic and metal food and drink containers, trapping themselves between fences, in drains, and so on. So "Nature", or what passes for it in a south-east London suburb, takes care of litter numbers initially.

Then, later in the year - and in built-up areas this can be as late as Christmas - some of the adolescent cubs disperse. More young males leave the family group than females, and it's now thought to be pressure from other adults in the group that persuades them to go and find territories of their own. Professor Harris and his team conducted experiments in which young foxes were fitted with ear tags. These would get chewed in normal inter-pack grooming sessions, unless an individual was being "given the cold-shoulder" and encouraged to strike out on their own. Females are generally more welcome to stay behind, where the non-breeding vixens can help the alpha female (probably their littermate) with cub-rearing and food-finding duties. So that's the second-stage thinning. However, one Dulwich resident may be relieved to get fewer young foxes hanging around her garden but she will, of course, be liable to get a new "incomer" popping in! And the one that has left is likely to be seeking a home range of its own about a mile or so further away.

Meanwhile, the threats to a fox's lifespan continue: foxes seeking new territories in the autumn, crossing unfamiliar roads, cause another spike in RTA (road traffic accident) wildlife mortality figures. It is thought that a hungry, stressed, unsettled animal is more liable to pick up an infection or fall victim to the parasitic mite that causes canine sarcoptic mange. An animal unfortunate enough to collect these creatures on its coat (by up-close, skin-to-skin contact with shed, dead skin cells containing eggs and larvae) while brushing against a contaminated fence or lying up in a hollow where other, infected foxes have slept, can be dead within four months. The cause of death, incidentally, is multi-organ failure from the massive amount of toxins released from secondary bacterial infection - let into the fox's body when it scratches and bites itself in an attempt to alleviate the intense itchiness caused by mites' activities.

Canine sarcoptic mange is a parasitic infection that is not caused by, or confined to, foxes. It is a disease of the dog species. There are an estimated quarter of a million foxes in the UK (Journal of Applied Ecology, 2004), 33,000 in urban locations, and seven million dogs, so it does not take a mathematical genius to work out where the greatest reservoir lies. The problem is relatively easy to treat in a household pet dog, harder (but not impossible) to tackle in a wild-living one, like the fox. It can be picked up by humans (and some people may also display an allergic reaction to the mites), but it produces a self-limiting rash which is treatable, simply and effectively, by a topical ointment. (In seven years of handling foxes, many of which had severe mange, I only caught it once and my arms were slightly affected).

Finally, it is worth pointing out that foxes visit gardens where there is something in it for them. As cubs, they may have removed shoes, gardening gloves, etc., intrigued by their human scent, and taken them away to play chase with and to chew. Even adult foxes will do this. But wild-living canids usually play and steal for a purpose, such as teaching youngsters hunting and caching (food burying techniques). They routinely take bones and hide from a kill back to the den to be gnawed on later. There may not be much nutrition in a leather shoe or gardening glove, but it's worth a go - it's "skin", after all, and foxes are adventurous omnivores. (One group of cubs in London were recorded as nipping the tubing under parked cars and drinking the apparently sweet-tasting, but highly poisonous, brake fluid!)

Often, the attractions offered by a typical manicured, suburban garden include a pond (clean drinking water), a mown lawn (ideal for hovering up earthworms as they come to the surface on damp nights to mate - worms make up about a sixth of a fox's diet) and, probably some bird food. Another key feature will be the rodents - gardens are a woodland-edge habitat and in Dulwich they contain an abundance of house and wood mice and rats. Foxes also take birds and London's large pigeon population are a further lure. Wildlife predators, such as foxes, are attracted to hunting their prey with the minimum of energy expenditure - rather like us 'phoning for a takeaway or ordering our groceries online - so any rodent (guinea pigs) or lagomorph (rabbits) pets living in our gardens in inadequate caging could also be on the menu.

Finally, if you still want to ignore the foxes' valuable contribution as a local rodent control operative, and wish to discourage visits, make sure that you don't use bone-, fish-, or blood-based fertilisers. They will deceive the fox into thinking that there is buried carrion just ripe for the digging up. Various scented deterrents (the traditionally-used one, Renardine, has been taken off the market now) may be purchased, and the results of territorial "marking" signs removed hygienically using dog-poo bags or scented nappy sacs. Don't hose smelly areas - it will only spread the pong, which is an oil-based

ecretion passed in both urine and faeces. Human male urine, full of testosterone , is reckoned to con male foxes into thinking an aggressive rival is around and so discourage fox-marking. But, personally, I'd rather have the foxes in my garden.

Angela Wilkes is chair of the Wildlife Committee, an executive member of Dulwich Park Friends and of Commons for Wildlife. She is a writer and journalist and her latest book, Wildlife Rescue, is to be published by Broadcast Books later this year.

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