Detail of Lego Dodo
On Saturday I attended another insect identification course, this time on Solitary Bees and Wasps. These informative courses are run the Hampshire Arts and Museum Service at Chilcomb House. One of the real treats for me is that the keeper, Christine, allows us a lunchtime peak at the natural science collections. This time she let me handle a femur (thigh bone) from a Dodo Raphus Cucullatus a flightless bird which although only ‘discovered’ in 1598 was extinct by 1662, just over 60 years later. This particular bone was probably recovered from the the Mare aux Songes swamp in Mauritius around 1860. I must say I did feel rather melancholy holding it in my hand.
Sadly many more beautiful creatures continue to join it or find themselves on the ever expanding critically endangered list. Despite the losses we really haven’t learnt much as a species.
Gonepteryx rhamni – Male
The Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni is one of our longest-lived butterflies. Adults emerging in July that have successfully over-wintered can still be on the wing the following July, 12 months later. Males like the one pictured above usually awake from hibernation first, typically in the first warm, sunny days of March, a couple of weeks before the females. So if you spot a yellow butterfly at the moment, it’ll be a Brimstone.
The sulphur yellow males are thought to be the original ‘butter-coloured fly’ and thus the source of the word ‘butter-fly’. The less conspicuous female is a much paler greenish-white in comparison. On the upperside, both sexes carry a distinctive single orange spot in the centre of each upper and lower wing, but these are tricky to see in flight. And this is a butterfly that never settles or feeds with its wings open. In fact on a dull day when perched amongst foliage, the veined and leaf-like scalloped wings blend with the leaves so convincingly that this can be an extremely hard insect to spot. Until that is it suddenly materialises in front of you like a splash of sunshine.
This butterfly was the subject of one of the earliest hoaxes. Shortly before his death in 1702, an English butterfly collector, William Charlton, sent a male Brimstone, hand-painted with additional black spots and blue moons on the lower wings, to the esteemed entomologist James Petiver. In 1763, none other than the great Carl Linnaeus declared it a new species Papilio eclipses and included it in the 12th edition (1767) of his Systema Naturae. Thirty years later, in 1793, the Danish entomologist, John Christian Fabricius, examined it more closely and realised it was a fake.
Allegedly, when the hoax was uncovered, the Keeper of National Curiosities at the British Museum was so annoyed he ‘indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces’. So the two specimens in the collection of the Linnean Society in London may actually be later replicas. Fake fakes if you will.
Stephen checking the wing feathers to see if the Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris, is an adult or juvenile
One of my school friends has been on my mind a lot recently. Horribly I found out via Facebook that he passed away last August and of course I regret I haven’t spent more time with him in recent years.
Last week was all early mornings. So it was a challenge to get out of bed again at 6.00am on Saturday to meet up with the aptly named John Swallow of the Berkshire Downs Ringing Group who’d I’d got in touch with via the excellent (BTO) British Trust for Ornithology website. John had very kindly invited me to join him in the Kennet valley for an early morning bird ringing session. Something I’ve wanted to get involved with for ages. I’ve always been interested in birds, in fact they were my first love. I spent many happy hours watching and sketching them when I was a nipper.
The thick overwintering egg case of Thecla betulae
Apologies for my absence. Some of you may be aware that England has been getting a bit of a battering weather-wise. Storm after storm has hit southern Britain giving us almost biblical amounts of rain. It’s felt like it has poured virtually non-stop since December. We’ve had the wettest January since records began. February has been much the same leaving most of Somerset under water.
I togged this Common Wasp Vespula vulgaris in the garden when it paused for a moment to soak up some November sun after enjoying the never to ripen pinot noir on my grape vine. Now here’s an insect with attitude. Mess with these guys and they will sting you multiple times. But rarely without reason.
I realise they can be rather irritating if you are enjoying a pint in a beer garden or al fresco dining on a warm summers day. But they are usually harmless unless you absentmindedly drink one or allow one to crawl down past the gold medallion glinting from the depths of your far too open-neck shirt and then start leaping about like the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Obviously I’m making allowances for the innocent, babies, small children and those who suffer from adverse reactions to stings. Anaphylactic shock is no laughing matter. But nothing amuses me more than seeing a grown man or woman running around and screaming like a jessie convinced he or she is being chased by a wasp. As if. Wasps are far too cool.
Here’s an interesting beetle I found at Langford Lakes back in May. The Wasp Beetle Clytus arietis is one of the longhorn flower beetles and a convincing wasp-mimic. Both the protective yellow and black colouration and its wasp-like movements give it some protection from predatory birds. If you see it quickly scuttling over vegetation looking for flowers full of nectar and pollen, where it often imitates the distinctive sideways walk of the wasp, it’s not surprising if at first glance this fast-moving insect is mistaken for a jasper.
I hate it when the clocks go back. It’s still dark when I have to get up and already black as pitch when I finish work. Yet some creatures welcome the night, like this handsome copper-eyed chap I disturbed whilst stacking logs, the Common or European Toad Bufa bufa. Which you may notice has a tautonymous scientific name, where the first part, the genus, is exactly the same as the second part, the specific epithet.
Unless woken prematurely, toads normally remain hidden during the day to avoid being attacked by predators. Whilst it’s true that they are able to secrete a nasty irritant from their skin which prevents many predators from eating them. It doesn’t work on grass snakes or that other nocturnal wanderer the hedgehog, or help them much if they’ve just received a mauling from a domestic cat or a stabbing from a heron, so it makes sense to keep out of sight. If they avoid being eaten then they can be surprisingly long-lived, up to 50 years in captivity, although in the wild they’ll be lucky to reach twelve.
This wet and cold weather will soon kill off the remainder of our summer insects, but quite a few of our butterflies will survive by hibernating. These include the Brimstone, Comma, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and to a lesser extent the Red Admiral (as the majority of these will migrate south back to the continent).
However, the business of finding a suitable spot and settling down for winter is a gradual process. So it is still possible to see a few butterflies on a sunny autumn day, particularly if you scan a good patch of bramble. My current favourites are the pristine, late-emerged specimens of the Comma Polygonia c-album. Basking in the sun with their wings wide-open these raggedy-edged, spiced-orange beauties really do stand out against the dark green leaves. But when, as in the photo below, they have their wings folded, they can be slightly harder to spot.
But that’s a good thing as it is this dark cryptic camouflage and irregular outline that will help keep them safe amongst the dry leaves of winter. Hiding them from the prying eyes of hungry birds and spiders.
Note the characteristic white mark or ‘comma’ on its rear underwing which gives this butterfly its common name. Personally I think it looks more like a squashed ‘v’ but let’s not get into an argument over aurelian typography.
If it survives the winter then it can be one of the first butterflies on the wing next year with sightings as early as January. And I for one will be glad to see it.
Argiope bruennichi – Female
I’m fascinated by insects but spiders give me the willies. I found this strikingly coloured example a couple of weeks back while practicing my grasshopper identification skills in Winchester, Hampshire. It’s a female Wasp Spider Argiope bruennichi which is a species of orb spider.
Initially believed to be a Mediterranean species it has been recorded in small numbers on the south coast since the early 1920s. However, it has started to spread slowly northwards and has recently been found at Lakenheath Fen in Norfolk. Here in Wiltshire it was first recorded in 1999 but is still a relative rarity as it only becomes established where long grass is not regularly managed. To survive wasp spiders need warm summers and mild winters, so with global warming they may become a far more common sight.
Be warned though, although non-poisonous if mishandled she can bite and her fangs are certainly strong enough to pierce human skin.
Pholidoptera griseoaptera – Female
On Saturday I attended a course on Grasshoppers, Crickets and Allied Insects. Allied insects covers groundhoppers, our native cockroaches and the earwigs. So what did I learn? In the UK there appear to be eleven grasshoppers, about fourteen crickets, four true crickets and three groundhoppers, all of which can be identified in the field or from photographs and then keyed out. So for once there isn’t really any need to collect specimens, particularly as most will lose their colour after death anyway. Three of the crickets, the Field Cricket, the Mole Cricket and the fabulously named Wartbiter are protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and so cannot even be handled without a licence from Natural England. Apparently even taking photographs of them is discouraged as this could be interpreted as interference.