The flight of the bumblebee

Our valley is a tranquil spot at the best of times but in these unusual circumstances of minimal traffic on the roads and no planes overhead, it is exceptionally and blissfully peaceful. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how in modern society, over 90% of the noise that surrounds us in our daily lives is man-made, yet for prehistoric peoples the opposite was true. Now I am not expecting to see a woolly mammoth come strolling down the lane anytine soon but – putting the current grave circumstances aside – how extraordinary it is to experience an environment overwhelmingly dominated by natural sounds.

Of course, there is the usual cacophony of cockerels and cowbells punctuated by short bursts of village activity; after all, despite most of Spanish society remaining in total lockdown, the farming and smallholding year must continue if starvation isn’t to be the next problem. Still, it is the wilder sounds that prevail with a crystal clarity, as though nature’s crackly radio has at last been fine-tuned to perfection. I am a willing audience.

The river snakes its way across the valley floor below us in a constant ripple of energy, bubbling and chattering over boulders as if it were still a youthful mountain stream, but now it is somehow amplified to a level that suggests the rush and drop of a weir or hidden waterfall where there is neither. Breezes susurrate and sigh across the mountainsides, stippling the light and ruffling the trees like a huge invisible hand pulled through soft, silvery grasses.

It is no surprise that the birds hold centre stage from dawn to dusk, their rousing symphony of harmony and counterpoint played out against the rhythmic ostinato of cuckoos and crickets. In this clear air there is a fresh magic to their music, startling surprises in the familiar like a bright new tapestry woven from old threads.

It’s not just their songs, either. How incredible to notice the rigid wingbeats of a crow flapping languorously overhead, the slick torpedo whoosh of a sparrowhawk perforating the air like a dart, the fragile sigh of a wren alighting on a tremulous twig. There’s nothing new about any of these sounds . . . but have I ever truly heard them before? By day, the stags’ guttural coughs echo across the meadows and at night, the tawny owls practise their haunting call-and-response under vaulted skies. There’s no missing those raucous renditions but who’d believe the soft patter of a lizard’s footsteps or the whispered rustle of a grass snake’s sinuous trajectory can truly be heard? Hush. Be still. We only have to listen.

The garden is alive with insects who play their part magnificently, too. I’ve recently read a report about the effects of climate change on bumblebee demographics and in particular, how a run of very warm summers here in Spain has seen populations pushed ever northwards to these green and mountainous regions. I am no biologist but I can certainly vouch for that: they are here in their thousands and the garden and meadows thrum constantly with their exuberant notes. I love them; they are so busy and yet so unfussy, zipping from place to place and feeding at whichever flower take their fancy. Nothing is too grand or too humble for their attention – weeds, garden blooms, vegetable flowers, whatever. Crimson clover is proving to be a huge success, its vibrant bottlebrush flowers are an irresistible bee magnet. The same is true of phacelia, another green manure plant which has self-set around the patch in pops and drifts of hazy mauve, bristling with the frenetic activity of bumbles, honey bees and solitary bees alike.

Something we have noted with delight and optimism is the increasing amount of wildlife drawn to our patch year on year, not only in terms of absolute numbers but in the range and variety of species, too. How exciting this week to see a carpenter bee joining the phacelia feeding frenzy; we had them in our garden in France but have never seen one here until now. I think the females are stunning creatures clad in their shiny black armour with wings of metallic bluey-purple, iridescent in the sunlight. They are bold and brash and very loud which, along with their habit of building nests by hollowing out wooden structures, apparently gets them a bad name; I was completely shocked at how many internet sites give information on how to destroy these so-called troublesome pests. How sad. At least here in our little haven (or as Mary Reynolds would call it, our ‘ark’), they are safe and welcome.

As I sit in the garden writing this on the laptop, I realise that it has been exactly six weeks since I last left our property. For 42 days I have been here without exception, watching spring unfold around me in a way never quite as before. It has been fascinating to observe the developments and events, not in steps or leaps but in the tiniest, barely perceptible shifts of change; it has almost seemed possible to watch leafbuds burst, blossoms unfurl, seeds germinate. What incredible changes have occurred in a relatively short time! Like a time-lapse film, the countryside around us has greened and filled to bursting, whilst the garden canvas has moved through an entire palette – from primroses, violets and tulips to alliums, poppies and roses – to arrive at the crazy, carefree carnival of rainbows I love so much.

Where flower gardening is concerned, I’ve given up – not for any negative reason, you understand, but because I am simply no longer needed. Having saved many things that were already here, planted perennials, sowed biennials, scattered annuals and buried bulbs in previous years, nature now does the work for me and the garden takes care of itself. We haven’t planted the new border where concrete used to be because it will plant itself in the coming months. How could I improve on the swathes of colour, here soft and billowy, there loud and shocking, that have organised their own unique compositions? Would I have thought to take crimson clover and yellow calendula then stitch them through with the dazzling magenta of vetch?

Could it have occurred to me that candy pink granny’s bonnets mingling tastefully with the glaucous blue of cerinthe and then shot through with the screaming fiery orange of nasturtiums might be something that would work? Would I sow candytuft under the grapevine, pansies among the onions, wallflowers between the peas? It’s completely outrageous and I love the whole wild, reckless, hedonistic jumble of nature’s creativity. Let’s just smile and revel in it. Why interfere?

Of course, we’ve already handed the reins over to nature in many, many areas of our patch, those margins and larger spaces left to go deliberately wild after a nudge in the right direction. We’ve recently been developing the orchard area, improving access so that we can wander up and down the steep slopes and spend more time enjoying it; how daft to have a seat there which we barely sat on! Having cleared the rougher areas, knocking back the brambles and applying a selective grass cutting regimen, it is wonderful to watch the whole space regenerating and taking on a new and tantalisingly beautiful aura.

The wildflowers that were already present have proliferated and new ones have appeared, so that beneath the fruit and nut trees – currently resplendent with fragrant blossoms or fat catkins – there are pretty carpets of scattered colour. The verges, too, are a tangle of wild beauty and a-buzz with the rapt attention of a myriad insects.

Have these past six weeks, so worrying and disruptive for much of humanity, brought positive things to the abundance of life we are so lucky to share our environment with? Could the hugely increased numbers and acrobatic energy of the swallows here be a result of a better journey northwards through cleaner air? Is the natural world in general feeling the benefit of fewer machines, less air pollution and less noise?

Has our almost constant presence outside diminished the inhibitions of the resident birds who no longer seem to notice us being here? There is currently a great tit sitting on a hanging basket close by, delicately plucking fibres from the sheep’s fleece I used as liners, without a care in the world; a few moments ago, a dunnock landed on the back of the chair opposite, its beak stuffed with moss, so close I could have reached out and stroked it. It made no rush to leave.

We have at least two more weeks of lockdown here and then, by all accounts, only a very slow lifting of restrictions to movement in small steps towards the ‘new normal.’ By then, I sincerely hope that the human situation will be improving rapidly but in the meantime, with a deep sense of gratitude I shall continue to delight in the beauties of the season and the enchantment of the bumblebees’ song.

12 thoughts on “The flight of the bumblebee

  1. We were just saying the same thing about the planes though we only get very few flying over. As we listened to the bumblebees, willow warblers, wren, robin, skylark and just arrived swallows. It will be very interesting to see what happens when restrictions ease. Hopefully I’ll be there with the self managing flowers next year, it’s looking promising!

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    1. Yes, it would be lovely to think a lot of positive things might come out of all this. It just amazes me how quickly nature bounces back given the chance. Self-managing flowers are great and definitely very easy in the climate here as things like nasturtiums, borage, Californian poppies and cerinthe just flower all year round. Perennial borders can be very lovely but I’m not missing them one bit! 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Julie! My photos are nowhere near as beautiful as yours but I have to admit wandering about with the camera is a very therapeutic and a lovely thing to be doing in these strange days. All is fine here, there is no Covid-19 in the village or area and there is a glimmer of hope that lockdown may be eased in Asturias sooner rather than later. We shall see. Hope all is well with you, too. Keep posting those amazing pictures! Lis 🙂

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  2. I’m convinced you are living in heaven on earth, Lis. I enjoyed reading your post, as always, and catching up on the progress on your plot. Love the photo of the grouped pots (with the artichoke in the background) so pretty and colourful.
    Congratulations on your self sufficiency….you have rally nailed it.

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    1. Thank you, Jane! I’m convinced it’s the beauty of spring unfolding around us and the resilience of nature that’s keeping us sane in these difficult times. Those pots of pelargoniums as so reliable and seem to flower pretty much all year round, Roger has been extending the terrace so there will be room for even more . . . now we just need to be allowed out to fetch cement and sand to finish it! 🙂

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  3. Your corner of Spain looks like paradise! It is so beautiful. It would be wonderful if , as you say, instead of heading crazily back to pre lockdown chaos , we can learn from this retreat. We have had an unusually wet spring and for once Murcia is almost as green as green Spain! The birds, especially the swallows are more energetic than I normally remember them and another brilliant sound later in the evening has been the frogs from the barranca behind our house! I think our normal dry weather has to return in May and the frogs will no longer be so noisy, what a shame. Question … does any one know how the frogs survive as the barranaca ( gully ) dries up over the summer? I always find it amazing that come the spring , their community it still thriving. What is their secret?
    Thank you for wonderful article Lis and stunning photographs.

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    1. Hola Yvonne, thanks for a lovely comment as always. Green Murcia – wow! It all sounds very wonderful on the nature front with you at the moment, there’s nothing quite like a frog chorus! I’m not sure about the frogs in summer but I know some kinds will bury themselves in the ground to keep cool, not easy once it’s parched and baked hard, though. I think they’re true survivors, we find frogspawn in the shallowest of ditches and puddles here, usually in December and it’s a miracle anything ever comes of it. Hope you are both keeping well and busy, there’s a tiny glimmer of hope here that we might be allowed out to walk and run from the weekend. Not holding our breath on that one. Besos xx

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