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

A Smaller World, but Limitless

Everyone’s world seems to have got smaller, we cannot travel around as we were used to doing, favourite places are denied to us. We have our homes and with luck a view of some sort, many will have a garden and how many of us will be appreciating this anew, not a chore to look after but haven. Then there is the daily walk, it may only be a mile or two but I’ll bet, like me, you will be seeing with new eyes what has been there all along, but previously overlooked.

It reminds me of childhood, in those days my world was the garden and a distance from home I could easily walk or later cycle. If you have a car you don’t really get to know your local area as you drive through it, only on foot do you see the details and appreciate the lay of the land.

What you soon begin to see is that this smaller world is still full of more things than you could know in a lifetime, the more detail you see the more there is to find. Lots of birdwatchers, confined to home have been scanning the skies and suddenly seeing bird flying over that they never imagined. I suspect Hampshire will see as many osprey reported this spring as in any year, despite almost nobody getting out to the “Hotspots” for this species. A remarkable feature has been the realisation that there are common scoter migrating overland night after night, if you go and stand in your garden you have a fair chance of hearing some flying over, eventually. I would add I would avoid standing in my garden, which has been a stubbornly scoter-free area! Who would have thought that you could get a sea duck on your garden bird list even if you live an hour or more drive from the sea.

A garden will have wildlife, you may need to look for it a bit but it will be there. The other day I noticed several tiny moths flying in the sunshine around my front door, they were a micro most called Esperia sulphurella, they were often landing on the wall of the house, so I went to get my camera. Just as I was lining up my shot, having got as close as I could I saw that several other pairs of eyes had also spotted the same target.

zebra spider with E sulphurella

zebra spider with Esperia sulphurella

I later realised that several of these zebra jumping spiders were patrolling the wall and more than one had caught the same prey as they warmed on the brickwork.

The sunshine has had lots of insects warming themselves on suitable surfaces, I have some large Echiums growing the garden and they seem especially popular with sunning solitary bees and ladybirds, such as this 7-spot ladybird.

7-spot ladybird

7-spot ladybird on Echium leaf.

The sun has meant that I have had the camera out, trying to get shots of some of the trickier species, the hoverers and the darters of this world, where a sharp picture is as much about luck as technique. I have been trying to get a flight shot of a bee-fly for ages, it requires a very fast shutter speed, actually faster than I can manage with my camera, and if I open the aperture the depth of field gets very small, still it can produce a result of sorts from time to time.

dark-bordered bee-fly

dark-bordered bee-fly, Bombylius major

I wonder if, when we are let out into the wider world again, we will see it with new eyes, perhaps seeing the myriad little pictures that go to make up the big picture, and appreciating all of it the more.