Saturday, 23 August 2014

Bartsia, mint and a combing bee

Chris Durdin, NWT Thorpe Marshes

Many of the late summer flowers of NWT Thorpe Marshes are pink and purple, such as hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and marsh woundwort. Those three are big and showy, but the pictures here show two similarly coloured but smaller species.

Red bartsia
Red bartsia is a real oddity – a plant of bare ground, rather than marshes. Here it grows on the edge of the path and is far from showy: overlooked rather than scarce. It’s semi-parasitic, gaining extra nutrients by tapping into the roots of grasses.

Water mint is better known, and as the name suggests grows in ditches or on their edges. Squeeze a leaf, sniff and it’s obviously a mint. The flowers are in pretty, round heads, and this one has attracted a common carder bee.

Many bee species are horribly similar but the red-brown back and stripy tail end makes this fairly distinctive. Why ‘carder’ bee? Carding is the process of combing and cleaning fibres, such as prior to spinning wool, or raising the nap of woven wool. Apparently the bees use combs on their legs to do this to moss and grass for their nests, though I can’t claim to have witnessed the process.

Water mint with common carder bee
As an aside, the word carding is sometimes said to derive from Carduus for the teasels once used to comb wool. This at first pleasing etymological nugget rather falls apart as Carduus is actually a genus of thistle – teasels are Dipsacus. Teasel heads mounted on a stiff, flat structure make a card for carding, which is some way removed from the stiff paper we call card.

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