It’s the little things…

Whilst Bob has been doing a brilliant job of blogging his 30 Days Wild antics, this week is also National Insect Week. Organised by the Royal Entomological Society, it encourages everyone to appreciate and learn more about the ‘little things that run the world’.

Insects are by far the most diverse and ecologically important group of animals on land and there are over 24,000 known species in the United Kingdom alone, with hundreds of species to be found in almost every garden and green space. With so many to study they are grouped into orders, for example the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), Hymenoptera (bees, ants and wasps), Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets) and Coleoptera (beetles) to name a few.

Insects have a huge role to play and without them our lives would be very different: they pollinate fruit, flowers and vegetables; they are food for amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals; and they feed on lots of living and dead things themselves, breaking down waste and helping to keep the balance of nature. You can find out more about National Insect Week on their website.

So here’s a very mini Blashford insect safari, using photos I’ve taken over the past few days, covering a very meagre 23 species and spanning five orders – I have quite a few more to track down!

The moth trap has revealed some spectacular moths over the past few days, including some very smart Privet and Elephant hawk-moths:

There was also another Scarce merveille du jour, with its lichen coloured forewings which provide it with brilliant camouflage:

Other species included a swallow-tailed moth, peppered moth, pebble prominent, lobster moth, large emerald, iron prominent, buff tip and barred straw:

The raised planters outside the front of the Centre are still a good place to look for insects, with plenty of bees, ladybirds, and butterflies making the most of the flowers:

There has also been a red admiral regularly resting on the fence posts and gravel outside the front of the Centre…

red admiral

Red admiral

…and I also found this Figwort sawfly on the mullein by the corner of the building:

sawfly

Figwort sawfly, Tenthredo scrophulariae

I’m not sure I’ve seen the sawfly before, or if I have I don’t think I’ve had the time to photograph and identify it, so it was nice to find a different species. Its striking yellow and black bands mimic a wasp and whilst the adults will sometimes nectar on flowers as this one was doing, they will often eat other insects. The larvae feed on either mullein or figwort.

Where we have not been using the grassy area by the side of the Centre for school lunches and Wild Days Out free play, the grass has been able to grow nice and tall and a few other plants have sprung up, particularly around the tunnel. One plant in particular seemed popular with the bees and volunteer Phil tested out his plant finder app on it for me on Tuesday as I had been trying to identify it without much success. It reminded me a bit of dead nettle.

Known as Black horehound (Ballota nigra), it grows along hedgerows, road side verges and on waste ground and belongs to the mint and dead nettle family, Lamiaceae. When the leaves are crushed it gives off a pungent rotten smell to deter herbivores (perhaps we need to relocate some into the planter by the Centre which has been targeted by the deer) which has given it the local name of ‘stinking Roger’ in some places. It also has a long tradition in herbal medicine and has been used to treat a range of issues from respiratory problems to travel sickness and depression to gout.

carder bee on black horehound

Carder bee on black horehound

There have been a number of emperor dragonflies hawking over the Centre and ponds and yesterday I spent some time sat by the pond watching a male fly overhead, occasionally dive bombing me. Every so often he would return to one particular iris to perch, either on or above the exuvia that was still clinging on, so I guess this could have been where he emerged:

emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly

This damselfly was not quite as fortunate as I found it in the firm grasp of a zebra spider who was doing an excellent job of carrying it around the post to devour in peace:

zebra spider and damselfly

Zebra spider, Salticus scenicus, and damselfly

In venturing further from the Centre to check the reserve, I had a brief glimpse of a fritillary along the Dockens path and managed a quick photo. I think it’s a Silver-washed fritillary:

fritillary

Silver-washed fritillary

In studying all the mullein I came across in the hope of stumbling across a mullein moth caterpillar, I had to settle for this grasshopper instead, although it did pose very obligingly for a photo:

grasshopper

Grasshopper

Now is definitely a good time to find and watch insects, and you don’t need to venture far to track them down as even the smallest garden or green space can provide a home for this incredibly diverse group of animals. So if you get the chance head outside and see what you can find!

Moving away from the insects, I ventured into our woodland log circle area on Sunday and it has certainly enjoyed the lack of bug hunting children, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so green and grassy. On a number of logs I found the fruiting bodies of the slime mould Lycogala epidendrum, also known as wolf’s milk or groening’s slime. If the outer wall of the fruiting body is broken before maturity they excrete a pink paste.

slime mould

Slime mold, Lycogala epidendrum or wolf’s milk

Finally, although they have been disappearing very quickly with the warmer weather, the grass snakes by Ivy Silt Pond have been very obliging, with two often on the stretch of hedge immediately behind the temporary sign:

grass snakes 2

Grass snakes on the dead hedge by Ivy Silt Pond

Butterflies, Flowers and the Dead

Although today was another mainly dominated by rain and yet more rain, it was also Thursday and so the rain held off until after the volunteers had finished work, as is to be expected. The task was pulling ragwort, yet again, but we will probably only have one more week to go before it starts to seed. In fact when we started work the sun was almost out an there were butterflies flying between the flowers along the lakeshore, they were mostly meadow browns and marbled whites, two species that will fly in dull conditions so long as it is moderately warm.

marbled white

The moth trap was very quiet following a rather cool night and as I was not in yesterday I will report on Tuesday’s catch, which did not make it to the blog. A couple of new species for the year were included, these being barred straw.

barred straw

Barred straw rest with their wings curled at the edges, presumably to try to look less moth-like when amongst appropriately coloured leaves. There was also a very fresh slender brindle.

slender brindle

Normally this time of year is dominated by insects and as a result lots of plants that flower now are rich in nectar to attract them as pollinators. Moths visit lots of flowers and some like honeysuckle attract species such as the long-tongued hawk-moths, such as elephant hawk-moth and the migrant humming-bird hawk-moth.

honeysuckle

Thistles are also very good nectar sources with the tall marsh thistle being especially popular with silver-washed fritillaries.

marsh thistle

Perhaps one of the most visited plant types are the brambles, they provide a good source of food for insects and the many micro species flower at slightly different times meaning they are available for a very long season.

hoverfly on bramble flower

Ragwort is also a very good nectar source for lots of insects and this is always one of the conflicts we face when deciding to remove it. A site like Blashford will always have ragwort, a long history of ground disturbance and as a result a huge store of seed must now be in the soil. We will only ever keep the amount under a degree of control and reduce the risk of spread onto neighbouring land. It is poisonous to stock, although usually they will not eat it when it is growing and there is grass available, in hay it is a different matter. On the way to today’s task we came across a headless linnet lying beside the path, presumably killed by a bird of prey, probably a sparrowhawk, apart from the lack of a head it was in good condition.

headless linnet

The recent rain has resulted in very high flows in the Dockens Water and this has shifted shingle banks and made and damaged various log jams.  I was inspecting one of the log piles when I noticed the wet log on top was covered in black fungi, they were deadman’s fingers, the picture is not great both because it was raining quite hard and due to the very deep shade.

deadman’s fingers

There are still very few birds of note to report, today’s highlights included a duck pochard on Ivy Lake, where there were also at least 47 mute swans. At the end of the day an adult common sandpiper on the small section of cleared shore in front of the Tern hide was pleasing as we spent a couple of hours removing the vegetation there last week.