Weekly Highlights: W/C 15th May

Despite poor weather conditions Monday to Wednesday this week, suitable conditions prevailed on Thursday and Friday allowing me to get outdoors. On Thursday I visited Trecastle Landfill Tip near Llanharry, while on Friday I visited Cwmaman Land Reclamation Site (reclaimed coal tip) near Aberdare.  Here are just a small selection of the days finds.

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Microdon myrmicae/mutabilis – A scarce hoverfly of wet habitats such as valley mire, wet meadows, and wet heathland and moorland. The slug-like larvae are parasites in the nests of ants. 

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Xanthogramma citrofasciatum (Barred Ant-hill Hoverfly) – A widespread but localised species strongly associated with grassland and open-structured scrub with ant hills of Lasius flavus. It is believed the that the larvae feed on ant-attended aphids within the nests. 

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Bombus monticola (Bilberry bumblebee) – A bee of upland moorland areas of northern and western Britain, it requires a landscape mosaic with Bilberry-rich moorland as just one of the components. This is an iconic species of the south Wales valleys and coal tips. 

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Bombus humilis (Brown-banded carder bee) – Once widespread in lowland Britain, this species suffered a substantial decline during the 20th century. South Wales is one of its national strongholds, and these bees are a familiar site on the coal tips of the south Wales valleys. It exploits a wide variety of different habitats. This queen was observed foraging on invasive Cotoneaster

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Erynnis tages (Dingy skipper) – An iconic butterfly of colliery spoil tips, so much so that you’ll struggle not to find it! The Dingy Skipper is locally distributed throughout Britain but has experienced substantial declines in some areas. 

Scarce bee at Lady Windsor Colliery, Ynysybwl

Today I visited Lady Windsor Colliery in Ynysybwl in search of a potentially interesting bee spotted by local resident (and friend) Steven Murray. Looking at Steven’s pictures of a nesting female, it appeared to resemble the Cat’s-ear Mining Bee (Andrena humilis) – a scarce species listed as Notable B in Falk (1991) (now known as Near Threatened).

Andrena humilis is widespread but very localised in southern and central Britain north to Cumbria. It is found in a variety of habitats but is mostly found in heathland and coastal districts. Pollen is obtained entirely from yellow hawkish composites such as Cat’s-ear, Mouse-ear Hawkweed and hawk’s-beards. Adults fly from May to July and nesting usually occurs along footpaths. Further information is available on the BWARS website.

Following a grid reference given to me by Steven, I started my search for the nests. Thankfully, the nests were relatively east to find, situated on a footpath beneath a rather distinctive oak tree. I noted what looked like 6 nests, although after waiting for almost an hour, I could see no sign of activity.  I decided to try again later.

On my return an hour or so later, I spotted a female pocking her head out of her nest. After patiently sitting beside the nest entrance, I watched her emerge and head off foraging (see sequence below).

Female Andrena humilis emerging from her nest

Around 5-10 minutes, she returned with pollen-loaded legs. Catching her in a net, I had a closer look and confirmed the bee to be Andrena humilis.

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Female in a pot for a closer look

I also observed several males flying around a female foraging on a yellow composite well away from the nesting area (see below), suggesting further nests may be present elsewhere on the site.

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Female foraging on yellow composite

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Steven Murray on his excellent find. This is another exciting discovery for the coal tips of south Wales, and represents the second coal tip in Rhondda Cynon Taf supporting this scarce species.

 

Liam Olds

Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative

 

 

Rare bee discovered on coal tips in the Rhondda Valleys

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A pinned specimen of Andrena falsifica from Whitbarrow, Cumbria © Steven Falk

A rare bee, last recorded in Wales in 1967, has been discovered in the Rhondda valleys. The Thick-margined Mini-mining Bee (Andrena falsifica) is a rare and poorly understood solitary bee species with scattered records as far north as Cumbria. It has only been recorded in Wales on three occasions: at Tregarth, Gwynedd, in 1967 (recorded by J. Morgan) and at St. Donats, Vale of Glamorgan, in 1929 (recorder unknown) and 1932 (recorded by H. M. Hallett). In South Wales, it hasn’t been recorded for around 84 years!

But, what are solitary bees?

In Britain, we have around 270 different species of bee. The social bees (bumblebees and the honeybee) account for around one-tenth of that figure, the remainder of which are solitary. Unlike bumblebees and the honeybee, solitary bees do not live in colonies, produce honey or have a queen. Solitary bees live largely independent lives, building and provisioning their own nests without the help of a worker caste. These charismatic and highly diverse bees are readily overlooked, despite the valuable pollination service they provide. Solitary bees are fantastic pollinators, and it is said that a single red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) is between 120 and 200 times more efficient at pollination than a honeybee.

Solitary bees are highly diverse, and so are their nesting habits. The majority of British species nest in the ground, excavating their own nests. The appropriately named Mining bees (in the genus Andrena) are ground nesting species. After choosing a suitable piece of ground, the female mining bee begins excavating a nest by digging. After creating the nest, she provisions the nest with nectar and pollen, everything her developing larvae needs to grow and develop. Solitary bees do not tend to the young as they grow, as bumblebees and honeybees do.

Andrena falsifica

In Britain there are around 65 species of bee in the genus Andrena, making the mining bees the largest of our bee groups. Among these mining are the mini-miners (subgenus Micrandrena), which are among the smallest of our bees (with many often measuring just 5 to 7 mm in length). The rare mini-mining bee Andrena falsifica was discovered by Liam Olds (founder of the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative) as part of his ongoing research highlighting the important wildlife value of south Wales’ coal tips. Relatively little is known about this bee, although many records are from heaths and moors. It is thought to forage on a wide variety of flowers including a cinquefoil, dandelion, Daisy, Wild Strawberry, Germander Speedwell and umbellifers. The bee was found at three different Rhondda coal tips – Tylorstown Tip (‘Old Smokey’), Gelli Coal Tips and the reclaimed tips of Clydach Vale Country Park.

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Gelli Coal Tips – one of the sites supporting this rare bee in the Rhondda © Liam Olds

Commenting on the find, Liam said “The discovery of this rare bee is very exciting and highlights the importance of our coal tips. Over decades, our tips have been colonised by a wide variety of plants and animals, and many now support habitats and species of considerable local and national importance. This discovery is just one of many other rare and scarce invertebrates, lichens, plants and fungi that have been found on coal tips. Coal tips are not only important wildlife habitats, but are part of our industrial heritage and cultural identity and they need conserving. The Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative will continue to raise awareness of the importance of coal tips for wildlife and people in an attempt to aid their conservation”.

Please follow the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative on Facebook and Twitter, and spread the word about the importance of coal tips (and other brownfield habitats) for wildlife.

If you would like any further information on solitary bees, check out Ryan Clark’s Guide to Solitary Bees in Britain. For further information on Andrena falsifica, visit Steven Falk’s Flickr page and the BWARS website.

 

 

 

Bees of Y Graig, Llantrisant (WARNING: this has nothing to do with coal tips)

With my growing reputation as the county’s resident ‘bee man’, I have been asked by Rhondda Cynon Taf Council to conduct a number of surveys in addition to my regular work on colliery spoil tips. One of the sites I’ve been asked to survey is Y Graig (or The Graig). For those that are somewhat familiar with the area, Y Graig is a mountain adjacent to the historic town of Llantrisant. The famous Billy Wynt tower (pictured below) is situated on the highest point of Y Graig. With a height of approximately 173m (568ft), Y Graig offers fantastic and far-reaching views across south Wales – a must-see if your in the area.

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Much of the mountain is south-west facing, and a number of footpaths transect the site. With the majority of our solitary bees showing a nesting preference for south-facing slopes, Y Graig could potentially hold a rather diverse bee fauna. This, has however, yet to be explored…but that’s where I come in.

After a morning of report writing, I decided to take advantage of a break in the weather to ‘scout out’ the site. Despite the sunshine, it was rather breezy. After some time walking around and having only seen one species of solitary bee, I was beginning to feel as though Y Graig would be a failure on the bee front. On top of the mountain, it was far too windy so I decided to head back down. Walking down the footpath pictured below, I noticed some nesting Halictus rubicundus (Orange-legged Furrow-bee).

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This seemed like a good spot so I sat and waited for more bees to come along. Not long after being there, a female Sphecodes monilicornis (Box-headed Blood-bee) appeared, the cuckoo of  Halictus rubicundus.

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Sphecodes monilicornis (Box-headed Blood-bee)

Then, a female Nomada lathburiana (Lathbury’s Nomad) appeared. Nomada lathburiana is the cuckoo of Andrena cineraria (Ashy Mining Bee), a species which I also recorded at Y Graig.

 

Several Nomada flavoguttata (Little Nomad Bee) were also observed searching for the nests of their hosts (which are mini-mining bees) on this footpath – so 4 species in just this small area!

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Nomada flavoguttata (Little Nomad Bee)

The bee species list continued to grow as I followed the path downwards. By the time I got back to my car (around 2 hours after setting off), I had 15 bee species on the site list (and I could have added several more if I was a bit quicker with my net!). Here are a few pictures of some of the other bees I observed. It appears that Y Graig is a good site for bees, and repeated visits throughout the spring and summer may well reveal a decent bee list (lets hope so).

Enjoy the pictures.

 

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Andrena flavipes (Yellow-legged Mining-bee)

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Andrena fulva (Tawny Mining Bee)

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Andrena haemorrhoa male (Orange-tailed Mining-bee)

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Andrena nitida (Grey-patched Mining-bee)

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Bombus sylvestris (Forest Cuckoo Bee)

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Nomada fabriciana (Fabricius’ Nomad)

 

Fungus believed to be ‘extinct’ in Wales is re-discovered on a colliery spoil tip

 

 

A fungus believed to be extinct in Wales has been re-discovered on colliery spoil in south Wales. Cudoniella tenuispora was last recorded in Wales in 1958 and was believed to have become ‘extinct’ due to a long absence of records for the species. Emma Williams of Glamorgan Fungus Group discovered Cudoniella tenuispora growing on pine cones (Pinus spp.) near the famous Tower Colliery, Hirwaun.

Tower Colliery operated from the early 19th century to 2008, making it the oldest continuously working deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom. Tower Colliery was the last deep mine to close in the south Wales valleys.

Specimens of Cudoniella tenuispora have now been sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) for DNA sequencing for inclusion into the Genbank (a DNA sequence repository) and Kew’s Fungarium.

 

Liam Olds

Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative

Deliberate grass fires, their impacts and nature’s recovery – a year in pictures

In April 2015, south Wales was plagued by weeks of wildfires that ravaged the countryside and threatened our homes. From 1st to 15th April 2015, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service attended 473 grass fires, the vast majority of which were started deliberately. By 23rd April, this figure had risen to 776. By the end of the month, the total number of deliberate grass fires in south Wales stood at a shocking 874!

April 2015 saw a 183% increase in deliberate grass fires in south Wales compared to the previous year (2014). The Easter period is historically a peak period for deliberate grass fires, but I was shocked by the magnitude of the fires last year.

These fires couldn’t have come at a worse time for our nesting birds, small mammals, reptiles and insects. Coity Wallia Commons Biodiversity Enhancement Partnership – a project to restore and reconnect 1,063 hectares of priority habitats north of Bridgend – reported on the severe impacts of deliberate grass fires on the wildlife of Coity Wallia Common. Following fires on 17th and 20th April 2015, they reported on the discovery of “46 dead slow worms, 2 dead adders, 1 dead toad, 2 dead common shrews, as well as 53 burnt birds’ nests and 32 burnt mammal nests”. They further stated that “the number of animals that we found are just the tip of the iceberg. Our finds don’t include those who died under ground, the animals that we missed, those that were burned with no trace, or those eaten by predators/scavengers”. When you consider the severity of this 5.6 hectare fire alone, it’s hard to imagine the devastating impacts on wildlife experienced across the whole of the south Wales region that month.

Rhondda Cynon Taff was among the worst areas affected. A total of 322 deliberate grass fires were experienced in this county alone during April 2015. Among the many areas affected by fire was Clydach Vale Country Park, near Tonypandy. The park covers 113 hectares and was formed following the reclamation of the Cambrian Colliery site in the 1980’s. The park supports a mixture of habitats including neutral and acid grasslands, woodland plantations, scrub, lakes, quarries, ffridd, and dry heath, all of which support a variety of wildlife. Clydach Vale Country Park was somewhere I regularly visited that year to conduct invertebrate surveys. I was unfortunate enough to witness first-hand the destructive nature of these fires, where an almost entire south-facing valley side within the park was burnt (Picture 1; Picture 2). Exploring the frazzled aftermath of the fire with a work colleague on 19th April, we discovered some of the victims of this mindless act. Several dead adders (Picture 3; Picture 4) and slow worms (Picture 5) were discovered, along with other victims including terrestrial molluscs (i.e. snails). Who knows what other animals perished in that fire – birds, mammals, more reptiles, insects, other invertebrates?

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Picture 1: Looking down the valley (Photo: Liam Olds)

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Picture 2: Looking up the valley (Photo: Ben Rowson)

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Picture 3: Dead adder discovered following the fire (Photo: Ben Rowson)

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Picture 4: Another dead adder that perished in the (Photo: Ben Rowson)

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Picture 5: Dead slow worm discovered following the fire (Photo: Ben Rowson)

The impacts of wildfires are clearly severe for wildlife. With most female Slow worms (Anguis fragilis) and Adders (Vipera berus) usually only reproducing every other year, it could well take some time for populations to recover at Clydach Vale Country Park. We will never know the full impact that this fire, and other across south Wales that year, have had on our wildlife but I dread to think.

While the impacts on wildlife are clearly severe, there are also financial impacts to deliberate grass fires. The cost of tackling grass fires in April 2015 alone was estimated by South Wales Fire and Rescue to be a staggering £1.2 million. There are also impacts on frontline services, with emergency services diverted from important work to tackle fires started as a result of the mindless behaviour of individuals. South Wales Fire and Rescue are now hard at work educating children about the impacts of deliberate fires and I can only hope that this helps to prevent fires from continuing to ravage swathes of the countryside every year.

Following the fire at Clydach Vale Country Park, I thought it would be interesting to track the process of regeneration by taking photographs at the same locations every month for an entire year. It is rather amazing how fast the vegetation regenerated following the fire, as is evident in the pictures. Unfortunately though, much of this vegetation is bracken. To the untrained eye, it is no longer obvious that this area was badly burnt just 12 months ago. While the vegetation has regenerated, I have no way of knowing how the animal populations are faring – I can only hope they are recovering well. I now hope that this area avoids another fire this year and can continue to recover for years to come. I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and enjoy the picture slideshows below.

Liam

 

A year in pictures

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Brownfields: more than just derelict land

It is easy to be misled into thinking brownfields are nothing but waste ground prime for development – even the term ‘brownfields’ does not do the habitats justice. Politicians in Westminster, the Welsh Assembly, and our local districts, are constantly urging for development on so-called ‘brownfield’ or ‘abandoned, waste ground’. I understand this is a contentious issue; people need jobs and our economy needs to grow, but can we really continue to do this at the expense of our natural environment?

Our planet is currently in the midst of its sixth mass extinction event — the sixth wave of animal and plant extinctions in the past half-billion years. Extinction is a natural phenomenon and these mass extinction events are nothing new – we all know about the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Until now, these mass extinction events have been the result of catastrophic events like asteroid strikes and volcanic eruptions; the current crisis is caused almost entirely by man. Species are being driven to extinction on a global-scale as a consequence of our activities. Whether it is the result of habitat loss, the introduction of exotic species, or human-induced global warming, current rates of species extinctions are unprecedented. Scientists appropriately refer to this sixth mass extinction event as the ‘Anthropocene’. Our whole global mind-set towards wildlife and the environment needs to change, but that may be asking too much – we obviously can’t work miracles here.

And this brings me back to brownfields. People, especially those in government, need to change their misconceptions about brownfield habitats. Buglife, the invertebrate conservation charity, have been fantastic advocates for brownfields and their importance for biodiversity.

Did you know that 12-15% of the UK’s nationally rare and scarce invertebrates have been recorded from Britain’s brownfields? Importantly, this figure is likely to be a great underestimate.

Although Buglife have made fantastic steps in helping to change negative public and political perceptions towards brownfield habitats, lots more still needs to be done. As our countryside becomes steadily more degraded for wildlife, through agricultural intensification and development, brownfield habitats are becoming increasingly important places for wildlife. Brownfields provide a must-needed refuge for a range of species rapidly declining in our modern impoverished landscapes. By linking-up with traditional habitats, they also act as stepping-stones in the environment, allowing species to move freely across the landscape. In south Wales, colliery spoil tips are doing just that – they are providing a must-needed refuge for rare and scarce invertebrates rapidly declining in the wider countryside. Scattered across the south Wales coalfield, these tips are also allowing species to move freely across the landscape. Despite their importance, like many other brownfields, colliery spoil tips receive little to no protection. They continue to be prioritised for development, threatening the future of some of our most special wildlife.

The Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative was founded in response to this, with the aim of raising awareness of the astonishingly-rich biodiversity these sites often support. It is hoped that through the surveying of sites across south Wales, important biological records will be generated that will help safeguard the future of these iconic habitats. We have already made some fantastic findings to support the notion that colliery spoil tips are important habitats for invertebrates in south Wales, results that will feature in a blog shortly. It is important to highlight that the benefits of conserving colliery tips don’t stop with biodiversity. Colliery spoil tips are of geological, archaeological, historical, cultural, social and visual significance too. They are an important part of our cultural identity as south Walians and offer a visual reminder of our rich coal mining history. It is hoped that this project can build upon its previous success in 2015 and have some impact in conserving the most iconic habitats in the south Wales valleys. Please follow the project on Twitter or Facebook, and follow our blogs. I’ll leave you with this recent quote from Chris Packham in response to the publication of ‘The State of the UK’s Butterflies’ in 2015.

As a society we are guilty of standing idly by as once common species, never mind the rarities, suffer staggering declines. This is a situation that should shame us all.” Chris Packham

Please stay tuned for updates on the project.