It must be a result of the long hard winter: I seem more than usually alert to every sign of Spring, marking off a mental tick list . So – a tiny ladybird crawling around the frame of the patio door was one more tick. Probably it had overwintered inside either as an adult or as a chrysalis – a blackish speck easily destroyed by a careless duster – and was now keen to get out into the sunlit garden. Then, on a walk beside the river at Barden, my husband met a caterpillar, about an inch long, black head and its body covered with brown hair, moving briskly along the sandy path and clearly going somewhere important. It must have overwintered as a larva somewhere in the surrounding vegetation and was probably looking for a place to pupate. Consultation and research still leave its identity unclear – possibly a ruby tiger moth – but clearly another tick on the list!
Peacock butterflies are already on the wing – though I haven’t seen one yet. But we were delighted to see our first bumblebee on March 8th. The temperature the previous night had been down to -7C, but the morning was bright and warm and there she was skimming over the winter-flowering heathers. Only mated queens survive the winter. Sustained by a body-store of white fat, the queen makes a burrow in the soil and hibernates. As soon as surrounding soil warms up she emerges, feeds to build up her energy and then starts searching for a suitable site to found a new colony. She has to provision this, lay and brood the eggs and forage for the larvae. Once the first generation of workers is mature, she can relax and, as my reference book quaintly phrases it, devote her energies to egg laying and housework.
With the devastating decline in honeybee numbers, bumblebees are even more vital as pollinators, so need all the help they can get. A week or so later I found another queen on the lawn, apparently dead. I picked her up to look more closely and felt a faint tremour, so I curled my hand round her. As she warmed up she began to move her legs. I put her among the flowering heather where she would be sheltered and close to food and, a few minutes later, she’d disappeared. A happy ending, I hope.
Along the south-facing margin of Middleton Woods lesser celandines and wood anemones are in flower, while within the wood one clump of kingcups was already crowned with buds, and the whole woodland floor was lush green with bluebell leaves. The race is on to flower, set seed and build up bulb or corm before the canopy closes out the sunlight. Not much birdsong in the wood as yet, just the wistful trails of robin and buzz of wren, and, of course, the assertive trills of the chaffinches but I have already heard great spotted woodpecker drumming and green woodpecker yaffling in Strid Woods. Only another two or three weeks and the warblers will be arriving so I plan to get out my birdsong tapes and swot up their calls and songs so that I am ready to award myself some more ticks.