All the small things

I spent some time in the meadow last Thursday and again yesterday, it feels as though it is going over more quickly than usual this year because it has been so dry so it was nice to take a closer look and see which insects are on the wing.

Last week I found a male and female bee-wolf, a solitary wasp that digs a nest in a sandy spot and hunts honey bees. The males gather together to form a lek, where each male defends a small territory and uses pheromones to attract a female. The females work a lot harder, digging a nesting burrow which can be up to one metre long and may have as many as 34 side burrows that end in brood chambers. Once excavation on the burrow has begun, the female will prey on honeybee workers, paralysing them with a sting and bringing them back to the burrow. Up to six paralysed bees can be placed into one chamber then a single egg is laid on one of the bees and chamber is sealed up with sand. After hatching, the larvae feed on the honeybees before spinning a cocoon to hibernate in throughout the winter, emerging in the spring.

I also found a number of different solitary bees enjoying the ox-eye daisies. I’ve been trying to learn a few more bees this year, but the solitary ones are quite hard. They were fun to photograph though!

I also spotted a ladybird larva, a female thick-legged flower beetle (the males have the thick back legs) and a pair of fairy-ring longhorn beetles.

The highlight yesterday was this small skipper, the only butterfly I saw in the meadow when I visited:

When I was there yesterday I had two great views of a fox cub, both sightings took me by surprise so there is no photo, but it first walked up the slope outside the meadow then a bit later came through the ox-eye daisies in the middle before disappearing through the fence. I’m assuming it was the same cub, but I suppose it could have been two different ones.

In the woodland there are lots of scorpion flies on the nettles and I also spotted a speckled bush cricket nymph. The dock are being devoured by the larvae of the green dock beetle, who have completely stripped the leaves from many. If you look closely you can see the larvae along with the occasional shiny green beetle.

I also had my first sightings of grass snake yesterday, although my first was actually this dead one on the path near the meadow, I’m assuming it was predated by a bird:

dead grass snake

Dead grass snake

Having a dead grass snake as my first for this year, I decided to go down towards Ivy South hide and see if I could spot a live one in the dead hedge and was rewarded with two:

There were two there again this morning.

Going back to the reserve’s insect life, the planters outside the front of the centre are still continuing to attract large numbers of bees, hoverflies, horseflies, shield bugs and damselflies and this morning I had glimpses of a dark bush cricket and a ruby tailed wasp. Sadly no photos of either, I will have to keep looking every time I walk past…

The moth trap numbers have decreased again with the drop in temperature, but last week there was a very smart eyed hawk-moth in the trap and yesterday there was a spectacle moth:

You can guess how the spectacle moth gets his name…

Yesterday I noticed a jay spending quite a bit of time on the ground outside the back of the Centre and I watched it for some time sunning itself, stretching its wings, shaking and preening. It could have been dust bathing, but the picnic bench was in the way to see properly. After a while I managed to get a few photos:

It was joined by a great spotted woodpecker, who spent some time hopping around on the ground, possibly looking for ants, before flying up to a tree.

The woodpecker was sat calling from the bench a short while ago, so it must be a favoured spot.

Out in the Garden

Like most people who are lucky enough to have one, I have been spending a lot of time in the garden recently. Our garden is almost exactly the average size of a UK garden, so a little larger than most people will have, but still not a large plot. It does allow space for all the elements with a flower border, vegetable plot, lawn and most importantly a pond and mini-meadow. The aim has always been to maximise the opportunities for wildlife within a more or less conventional garden space and I am really pleased that it was as there has enough wildlife to keep me interested throughout lockdown.

Although the garden is very short of trees and shrubs the variety and features such as the meadow seem very attractive to lots of birds, probably just because it offers home to a large number and wide variety of invertebrates, the main food of nestlings.

blackbird female

Blackbird female

As we have been sitting out a lot it is really noticeable how much more tame most of the birds have become, a feature not just of birds that use the feeder, they just seem to have got used to us being out there.

I took the chance to refurbish our pond, which had evidently sprung a leak, so it was relined and filled from the water butts. In no time it attracted eight smooth newt and several damselflies and even egg-laying broad-bodied chaser with an attendant male.

broad-bodied chaser male 4x3

broad-bodied chaser male

The mini-meadow, which with the area of the pond is in a 5m x 4m space is the main attraction for most wildlife. It was made by initially allowing the existing grass to grow and cutting and removing the vegetation once a year. I then added some seed and a few small plants that I grew from seed and over the last five years it has developed.

common vetch

common vetch – just one of the species that was already present 

A flowery meadow is, unsurprisingly very popular with butterflies, over the last few days I have seen my first small copper and common blue of the year in my garden, both species I think breed in the meadow.

common blue 4x3

My first common blue of 2020

small copper pair

Small copper pair

Lots of other insects live in the meadow, most obviously lots of ants, I now have a number of anthills dotted about the patch, you may have spotted a couple of ants in the common vetch picture above, probably collecting nectar from the base of the flowers. A range of true bugs are wandering about, mostly, but not all, vegetarians.

Rhopalus subrufus 4x3

Rhopalus subrufus – one of the many true bugs

There has been a lot in the media in recent times about bees and pollinators. You could be forgiven for thinking that pollination is dependent upon honey-bees, occasionally in very industrial scale agriculture this is almost true, but generally this is far from the case. In fact it turns out that more diverse environments have more pollinators and more different types of pollinators, we have a pollinator “problem” because we have impoverished our environment. I notice in my garden that having lots of different plants with differing flower types results in seeing lots of different types of insects and especially different species of bees.

ashy mining bee

ashy-mining bee

The ashy mining bee is one very distinctive species of spring-flying solitary mining bee which is increasingly visiting gardens. Pollination is carried out by almost all insects that visit flowers and even by other creatures like birds and small mammals. Recently the importance of moths has received some attention, as they fly at night their role is often forgotten. Hoverflies are more obvious and it is easy to see them visiting lots of flowers, often with a coating of pollen grains. I was interested to see a species I did not recognise recently int he garden and luckily got a picture that was good enough to identify the species. It turned out to be a recent colonist to this country with larvae that eat house-leeks, it may have got here under its own steam, but more likely was brought here as a result of the plant trade. It was first found in 2006 and now quite widespread across the southern part of the country.

Cheilosia caerulescens 4x3

Cheilosia caerulescens – the house leek hoverfly

 

Beeing in the Garden

Yesterday I spent much of the day beeing in the garden, by which I mean looking for and at the many types of bees that make their way into the garden. I do get a few honey-bees but not many and this is actually a good thing fro all the other species of bees, many of which can find themselves getting out-competed by large numbers of hive bees in some areas.

There a lot of solitary bees, something well over 200 species in the UK in fact  and spring is a good time to look for them. Although they are solitary, in that each female has her own nest, there can be lots of nests very close together, so you might find a nesting aggregation of hundreds of solitary bees, sometimes of several different species. Lots of them nest in tunnels in the ground, so a good place to look is where the ground is loose enough for a bee to dig a tunnel, old sand pits are a favourite. Several other species nest in hollow stems or old beetle tunnels in wood, so you can mimic this by drilling holes in a block of wood and making a “bee hotel”.

One of the common spring species is the tawny mining bee.

tawny mining bee

tawny mining bee

Some species are very, very small, in fact some are known as “mini-miners”. Others are tiny and brightly coloured like the “Blood bees” these are rather difficult to identify to species level.

blood bee 2

blood bee

Others are more familiar and much larger, the bumble bees, although there are rather few species they are not necessarily straightforward to identify. This is one of the easier ones, the garden bumble bee, appropriately enough as I found it in my garden.

garden bumble bee

garden bumble bee

Some of them would probably be passed over as wasps as they are mainly black and yellow, these are the Nomad bees and they are parasites of other solitary bees, often of just one species.

Nomada 5

Nomada goodeniana – Gooden’s nomad bee

Nomada 3

Nomada leucophthalma – the early nomad bee

Nomada 2

Nomad bee (I have not identified this one yet)

As you can see they are all similar, but slightly different.

Of course when you start looking for one thing you start seeing others. I can across several small spiders including these two jumping spiders.

Heliophanus flavipes

Heliophanus flavipes

They are fierce hunters for their size, creeping up on their prey and using their many eyes and excellent binocular vision to judge a jump to capture their prey. The one above is not rare, but not seen nearly as often as the zebra jumping spider, which often hunts on walls and fences as w ell as vegetation.

zebra spider with hoverfly prey

zebra spider with hoverfly prey

I also saw several large red damselfly, much earlier than last year when I barely saw one before May.

large red damselfly

large red damselfly

The Benefits of Staying at Home

I am still going over the reserve to make site checks, mainly security and safety checks, but sadly also dealing with the result of the actions of people who see the present situation as an opportunity. Arriving on site the first thing I spotted was a donation, sadly not a positive one, but a quantity of fly-tipped rubbish, inconveniently thrown well into a bramble to make it extra difficult to retrieve.

fly-tipping

fly-tipping

Thankfully very few people are continuing to drive out to the reserve, although some are, and they are providing good cover for a variety of people up to no good. There has been evidence of poaching on most days since the “Lockdown” started as well a several people wandering around in off-limits areas of the reserve, for no legitimate reason.

On my patrol I surprised a roe deer, she started up, but still had not seen me and stopped to look around to see what I was, standing very still she took a while to realise I was just a few feet away!

roe deer 4x3

rod deer doe

It was very warm in the sunshine and there were lots of butterflies about, mainly brimstone and peacock, but I also saw my first green-veined white of the year.

battered peacock

a rather battered peacock

Today I was with everyone else, at home in the sunshine. So the garden was my domain and I decided to keep a list of all the birds I could record in the day, it turned out to be a rather poor 29 species, although I did see my first two swallow of the year, both flying over heading north. I ran a moth trap overnight, but that was disappointing too, only Hebrew character and pine beauty, however with bright sunshine the daytime insect were out ion abundance. Solitary bees were particularly abundant, with lots of Andrena scotica, the chocolate mining bee, and not they don’t mine chocolate!

chocolate mining bee 4x3

chocolate mining bee

My small bee hotel, actually just a block of wood with holes drilled in it and placed in a sunny spot, had Osmia caerulescens, the blue mason bee nesting in it last summer. The males are now emerging, they are quite unlike the metallic blue females, but very smart for all that.

blue mason bee male 4x3

blue mason bee male

Staying at home is not just good for the nation’s health, if you look hard, or even not so hard, there is lots to see and some of it is really spectacular.

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – Here be Bees

Another mostly dull day, although dry, conditions that may seem not so good for finding insects, which is true, but if you find them they are much less active and so easier to see well.

hoverfly

hoverfly, Platycheirus albimanus (I think)

On such days insects will often be found sitting in the open in the hope that the sun will come out and enable them to warm up enough to become active. Predatory species, if they can get active can then easily catch prey that has not warmed up so much. Robberflies are one such predator and several species are on the wing now.

robberfly

robberfly

Many insects will vibrate their wing muscles to increase their core temperature, bees have an added advantage of being furry which will help to reduce heat loss.

solitary bee

solitary bee

The cooler weather did encourage me to do some control of the bramble regrowth in the grassland in the former Hanson plant entrance, this area gets very hot in the sun, which should make it good for insects. The soil, if it can be called that is very poor, an advantage for establishing a non-grassy sward, but here it is so poor, that in places almost nothing will grow. This is in contrast to the bank of deeper soil just to the south where there are probably too many nutrients.

Hanson bank

Grassy bank on former Hanson entrance

Despite having only been seeded three years ago and on soil spread from the old concrete block plant site it already has some quiet surprising species.

old roadway

bee orchid on line of old tarmac roadway

I assume the bee orchids must have been already in the soil, surely three years is too short a time for them to have grown from seed? There were only  a few but one was one of the variants, I think “Belgarum”.

bee orchid flowert variant

bee orchid variant

30 Days Wild – Day 1

It’s that time of year again! I have started the 30 Days with a day off, so I was out in the garden, thanks to a rather warm day there were lots of insects about. As ever my mini-meadow was the place to look.

common blue

common blue female

I have not been able to confirm if they are breeding in the meadow yet, but I have recently seen both males and females, so I am hopeful. The garden is also good for bees, lots of bumble bees of several species and solitary bees too, such as this mason bee, which I think is orange-vented mason bee.

mason bee

mason bee (I love those eyes!)

These bees seem to face a lot of problems, not least a lot of parasites, one of which maybe this wasp with an almost unbelievably long ovipositor, this one is  the rather splendidly named Gasteruption jaculator.

Gasteruption jaculator

Gasteruption jaculator

I also got out onto the New Forest for a bit, I called in at a site that is well known for its population of southern damselfly, and found lots of them!

southern damselfly 4x3

southern damselfly male

Nearby there were lots of heath spotted orchid, smaller than the common spotted orchid and with a more compact and shorter flower spike, they are common across a lot of the New Forest heaths.

heath spotted orchid 4x3

heath spotted orchid

Back at work tomorrow, so we will have to see what Blashford has in store.

Bee is for Blashford

Or maybe Blashford is for bees, well of course it is! Blashford is for all wildlife and the people who like to experience it. Everyone knows the honey bee and bumble bees, although perhaps not that there are 28 species of them. However there are something like 250 other species of bees in Britain and they all spend their days visiting flowers and pollinating them. These 250 are the so called solitary bees, despite the name they can occur in great aggregations, importantly though each nest is the domain of just one female, there are no worker bees.

Andrena vaga female 2

grey-backed mining bee (female) with a load of willow pollen.

There has been much coverage recently about the declines in insect numbers around the world and that of pollinating insects in particular, perhaps because they are economically important to us as pollinators of crops. Declines could be for many reasons and probably are multi-factored, but a general loss of habitat and an increasing uniformity in what is left, along with increased prevalence of chemical contaminants are all likely contributors. Some enlightened local authorities are modifying their grass mowing regimes on verges, roundabouts and recreation site to allow more flowering, some of the best are actually seeding back wildflowers or using “meadow mixes”. In fact we can all help by providing flowers that are good sources of nectar and by valuing some of the “weeds” that we might have removed in the past. For instance a lawn with dandelions may not win the green-keepers prize but these are a very important source of food for early flying bees and hoverflies.

Blashford Lakes has lots of nectar sources, especially at this time of year when willows are important for many species and so has lots of solitary bees. Many also need bare, sandy soil to dig their nests and we have that in abundance too.

Andrena vaga female emerging from burrow

grey-backed mining bee (female) emerging from nest hole

One of the problems with solitary bees is that some species are very similar to one another and so difficult to identify in the field. Although the grey-backed mining bee female is distinctive the male looks very like the male of another species, the ashy mining bee.

Andrena cineraria male

ashy mining bee (male)

One of the commonest mining bees around at present is the yellow-legged mining bee, which can be found nesting in bare ground in banks, lawns and various other places.

Andrena flavipes male

yellow-legged mining bee (male) – or at least I think it is!

Some bees are neither colonial nor make their own solitary nests, they are nest parasites of other bees. One genus of bees the Nomada bees specialise in this way of life, often specialising on one particular host species. The yellow-legged mining bee plays unwilling host to the painted nomad bee, which looks very wasp-like.

Nomada fucata male

painted nomad bee (male)

The last few of days have seen big arrivals of hirundines, Monday was almost all sand martin, yesterday there were a few swallow and the odd house martin and today there were even more swallow, probably over 50. On Ibsley Water there a couple of pairs of oystercatcher, a pair of redshank, probably five little ringed plover, several lapwing and today two green sandpiper. Meanwhile around the Centre and Woodland Hide the wheezing of brambling is very much in evidence, particularly in the morning, there are at least 30 and I suspect 50 or more around just now.

And remember it does not take much effort not to mow the lawn for a few days and let the dandelions flower to feed the bees. You could put your feet up and have a cup of tea, or a beer (other drinks are available), whilst making your own contribution to Wilding Hampshire!

Some Birds and Some Bees

I had my first proper look out of the new Tern Hide when I arrived to open up this morning and was greeted by something between 600 and 1000 sand martin swooping over the water, the first serious arrival of hirundines this spring. I saw only one swallow though and no sign of any house martin.

Along the shore in front of the hide there was a pair of little ringed plover and a fine male lapwing.

lapwing

male lapwing from Tern Hide

There were several ducks feeding close in too.

gadwall drake

drake gadwall, not just a dull, grey duck as some would have you believe

shoveler pair

shoveler pair

tufted duck pair

tufted duck pair

I spent a good part of the day trying to complete the annual report, which kept me in the office on a day when outside would have been far preferable. However I did have an excuse to get out for a while and enjoy the sunshine as we had a visit from a small group of top entomologists to look particularly at solitary bees, of which we saw many species including a few new reserve records. Incidentally we also saw several orange-tip, including one female, speckled wood and peacock.

Locking up the weather was still sunny and at the Woodland Hide finches were still feeding, including a good number of brambling.

brambling male

male brambling

There were also several reed bunting, almost all males.

reed bunting male

male reed bunting 

Bittern not Stung

I am fairly sure that the bittern that spent a good part of the winter showing off by Ivy North Hide left on the night of Sunday 17th March, conditions were perfect and there were no records in the next couple of days. However a couple of brief sightings in since suggested I was wrong. This evening I saw a bittern from the hide, but it was not the bird that wintered there, being somewhat duller and, I think, smaller. This may be the second bid seen during the winter but which was chased off by the regular one, now able to hunt in peace, or perhaps a migrant.

The sun was warm today, although the wind was a little chilly. In shelter there were lot of insects about, I saw peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell and probably thousands of solitary bees. I was able to identify a few species, the commonest was yellow-legged mining bee then the grey-backed mining bee, nationally a very rare species, but abundant locally at Blashford Lakes. The only other I certainly identified was red-girdled mining bee. It was pleasing to see lots of female grey-backed miners as I had been seeing what I was convinced were males for several days, but they are very similar to the males of a commoner species, the females are much more distinctive. My first female was sunning itself on the new screen I was building beside Goosander Hide.

grey-backed mining bee blog2

female grey-backed mining bee catching some rays

I later went to see if there were any around the sandy bank we dug for bees a couple of seasons ago and there were, loads and loads of them!

grey-backed mining bee blog1

grey-backed mining bee female checking out a likely site to dig a nest hole.

The sound of the masses of bees was amazing, there really was a “Buzz in the air”, although solitary bees can sting they do not often do so and the vast majority of the bees around the bank were males, which have no sting, so it is possible to enjoy the experience with little risk.

I had the first report of sand martin at the nesting bank today, hopefully we will have a good few nesting pairs again this year.

Elsewhere reports of a glossy ibis at Fishlake Meadows was impressive as was that of a white stork very close by at Squabb Wood, Romsey

The Blues

The last few days have seen warm sunshine by day but chilly nights, meaning it has been poor for moths but good for day-flying insects. Today at Blashford Lakes I saw my first scarce chaser and downy emerald of the year and there were other dragonflies about too with reports of emperor, broad-bodied chaser and hairy dragonfly.

Most of the butterflies that over winter by hibernation as adults are getting scarce now and spring species such as orange-tip are dropping in numbers. there are a few whites around with all three of the common species, but the highlight today was the emergence of  blues. The small meadow near Ivy North hide had six or more male common blue as I went to lock up and at least three brown argus as well, the argus is brown, but an honorary “blue” all the same..

common blue male

common blue (male), freshly emerged.

The brown argus look very like small female common blue, and the male common blues will get up to chase one if it flies by, however they quickly realise their mistake and give up. The first emergences are all males and the females will follow in a day or so. The reason for this is the same as that for male migrant bird arriving just ahead of the females. Evolution will push the males to be in place and ready for the first females to arrive, it does not pay to be late, so the pressure for males to be early is greater than that on females, who can afford to wait until they know there will be males to mate with.

The spring solitary bees are starting to disappear now, many species collect pollen from just a few plants and as these cease to flower they need to wrap up their breeding cycle. I did come across one interesting species today though, it was one of the nomad bees and the smallest species of them to be found in Britain, Nomada sheppardana.

Nomada sheppardana

Nomada sheppardana on forget-me-not

Visiting flowers is something many insects have to do to feed, it may sound an unproblematic things to do, the flowers want to offer a nectar reward, or perhaps bribe might be a better description, to the insects that will pollinate them. However it is not as safe as it might sound, flowers can hide predators, especially the camouflaged crab spider which match their colour to the flowers they sit on.

crab spider with hoverfly

crab spider with hoverfly prey

The crab spider here matched the hawthorn flowers so well that I missed it and initially set up to take a picture of the hoverfly, only then did I see the spider!

It has not been a good year for ground-nesting birds so far this spring, with most lapwing and little ringed plover losing their eggs to predators. I suspect mammals at night as the ones nesting on the islands are doing much better. Or at least they were, on Thursday might all the black-headed gull on Long Spit abandoned their nests. Although I don’t know for sure I suspect that something swam out there and ate their eggs, probably a fox or a badger. These mammals are usually not that keen on swimming, but if they are hungry they will go to great lengths to get the food they want, I think small mammals, which are their preferred prey, are in short supply this year, which might be why they are seeking birds eggs more actively.

Despite a bad time for some ground-nesters the pair of oystercatcher are still doing well, with their two chicks growing well. They hatched on Long Spit, moved off to the shore near Tern hide and have now returned to Long Spit, this meant they were not out there on the night of the predator raid. So far the main gull colony on Gull Island shows no sign of being attacked and neither do the tern rafts on Ivy Lake.