13 June 2016
Longhorns at Allt-y-bela
I'm currently sitting on the grass in the garden theatre soaking up a little sunshine with my laptop on my lap and my boots removed and slung lazily on the bank below. This really doesn't feel like I'm working terribly hard. It doesn't feel very long ago that I was writing a similar introduction huddled inside the doorway of the tool shed while the rain bucketed down and everything was still cold and dark, not that I would have tried to elicit your sympathy then, Allt-y-bela really is a beautiful place to be whether the sun is shining or not.
The fields around the house appear carpeted in buttercups, it's only when you make your way out in to the fields that you discover they are all a good foot high and you could happily sink into the middle of them and lie in a flowery meadow listening to the birdsong and the gentle babbling of the stream hurrying by. I'm not going to do that of course, that might be pushing my luck a little too far!
To the east of the house, where the ground rises steeply, there are fields full of ancient ant hills. The ground here is too steep and has never been cultivated; later in the year the ant hills will be crowned in purple thyme as the wild flowers bloom around them. The fields here are lightly grazed by cattle who make their way down the steep hill in the afternoons to drink from the stream. This idyllic, bucolic landscape, we have recently discovered, is home to at least one colony of rare bees.
I was in the glasshouse a week or so ago checking on the plants. It was a hot day and despite the door and windows being open bees and flies, and occasionally birds, visit and find it hard to leave. On this particular visit I noticed a bee I'd never seen before, I wasn't even sure if he was really a bee at all. He was a little larger than a honey bee but almost fluffy like a bumble bee, the reason he stood out however was his enormous antenna, which were thick, black, shiny and almost the same length as his entire body. I took a photo, picked him up - he was very docile, and released him back into the world where he flew off happily, and resolved to look him up later and see if I could find out what he was.
After a little internet digging I was fairly convinced that he was a long horned bee. To be honest, far from it being an arduous process of comparing markings, body size or anything else, it was simply the huge antenna that gave it away! After contacting a few people who really know about these things it seems that my identification is probably correct and that is a rather wonderful thing. Long horned bees are very rare these days having lost most of their habitat. That rare combination of habitat and climate make the fields around Allt-y-bela, which I tried to describe earlier, a perfect home to these creatures. Now that I had seen one I started looking for them and have found them in profusion throughout the garden especially around the cottage garden at the moment where they are particularly enjoying Centurea montana 'Jordy' and the alliums.
Without those antenna, which were so hard to ignore, I doubt whether I would have ever had any idea that Allt-y-bela was home to such rare creatures, and for every easily identifiable species I have little doubt that many more exist hidden in plain sight by their anonymous looks. It makes me wonder what other wonderful secrets this beautiful hidden valley holds.
Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela
Photographs: Britt Willoughby Dyer and Steve Lannin