Recently I set off to look for the Ivy Bee Collettes hederae, no luck but as soon as I crossed the river I found this spectacular looking caterpillar. It’s the larva of the Vapourer Moth Orgyia antiqua which are sometimes called Rusty Tussock Moths. The males, which can sometimes be found flying during the day, are a rich chestnut brown colour and have two distinctive white spots on the wings. The female is unusual in that she is completely wingless and resembles an overweight furry grey grub. There’s more info and images here on the excellent UK Moths website.
The Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria seems to be having a good year in Wiltshire. Whenever I’ve ventured near a patch of sun dappled woodland it’s magically appeared. Darting out to give me the once over before spiralling skywards for a honeydew top-up or returning to a favourite perch to soak up just a little more sunshine.
It’s always a welcome sight in my eyes but these adults will soon be gone as Autumn’s chill is upon us. This one looks to be a male.
It’s unusual as it is the only butterfly in Britain that can survive the winter as either a larva (caterpillar) or a pupa (chrysalis) before emerging again in the spring next year. Although it’s believed the caterpillars need to have reached their third instar (moult).
Get out and enjoy them while you still can.
I’ve been chatting to Michael Marlow via email about insects and macro photography. I explained that the majority of my photographs are essentially record shots and that I rarely take more artistic photos. But here’s an exception, a photo of a male Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni nectaring on Devils-bit Scabious and here’s another from a post last year.
I guess what’s probably most surprising about that statement is the fact that I am an artist or designer of sorts, albeit primarily a graphic artist and illustrator by profession. However, I have dabbled more seriously on the fine-art side of things and in this I was much encouraged by my late father-in-law, Gerard Lumley or Marcel Zouf as he liked to be known when working as an artist. He’s much missed.
For me though the fine-art path to be a serious painter led to nothing but trouble. Dilettantism, depression, and ultimately divorce. Well there’s only so much narcissistic self-destruction a relationship can take. Fortunately none of my paintings survive. I’ve rarely picked up a pencil or brush in the last 12 years but maybe my interest in insects will inspire me to start drawing again and who knows you might even get to see a doodle or sketch on this blog.
Incidentally, Michael’s just written an excellent series of articles about the reverse-lens method and diffused-flash on his excellent blog BugPhoto.net which I can highly recommend.
It’s taken me two years to find Arty the Marsh Fritillary caterpillar Euphydryas aurinia. I found him when I was out in the Salisbury Plain Training Area searching for larval webs with Mervyn Grist and the Bulford Conservation Group (BCG). Mervyn has been conducting these larval surveys and collecting this important data with the help of the BCG since 2001.
During last year’s survey I didn’t find any. But this year I found three webs, two had been vacated but the second had three tiny black caterpillars inside. One of which is shown above.
The once widespread Marsh Fritillary has declined dramatically throughout Europe and is regarded as endangered or vulnerable in most of its range. The UK is actually one of its remaining strongholds, but even here it has declined by over 60% and has become extinct in much of Britain. However, Salisbury Plain is recognised as an important (and protected) breeding site for the species and fortunately at approx 300 square miles, it’s big, but better than that, it’s right on my doorstep.
Ironically protection for the butterfly has come because the British Army use about 150 square miles of the Plain as a military training area, particularly its heavy artillery and tank units. Subsequently this little butterfly has been nicknamed the ‘artillery fritillary’ or as I call it ‘Arty’. Due to about 340 days of live firing, about 39 square miles are permanently closed to the public, and access is greatly restricted in other areas, although conservation groups like ours can get access on non-firing days, subsequently it’s a wildlife haven and if you like butterflies a privileged glimpse of what we’ve lost.
The female fritillary will look for Devils-bit scabious Succisa pratensis, crawling down through the vegetation to lay from 150-350 eggs in neat rows on the underside of one of the basal leaves. She seems to have a preference for prominent, medium-sized plants growing in a sunny position. After hatching the caterpillars spin a dense web for protection and after eating the first plant crawl off together to find and spin a web in another. They might do this several times.
Fortunately this makes surveying relatively simple. Spotting the dark purple flowers of ‘devil’s-bit’ is easy enough as is the rather conspicuous larval web. However, there is a lot of scabious on the Plain, which is a good thing, but bending over to check the base of each one, hour after hour, is back-breaking work. Can I just remind you I found 3 webs and 3 caterpillars.
As the caterpillars grow they moult their skin – each of these changes is called an instar. At the third instar they change from greenish-brown to black with a speckling of tiny white spots and rows of short black spines. At the end of August, early September the groups break up and individuals go their separate ways.
The caterpillars will reappear in February or early March after making a new web on a scabious plant where they may be seen clustered together absorbing the warmth of the sun. By early May they will have pupated into a chrysalis and the adults will start to emerge two or three weeks later.
Incidentally the little black dots around the caterpillar are frass (caterpillar poo).
Taking macro photos of insects is as much about luck as anything. But of course you increase your luck by being out there. I was laying on Morgans Hill trying to take a photograph of a grasshopper when this little lady crawled out of the grass allowing me to get this side-on shot. It’s a female Roesel’s Bush-cricket Metrioptera roeselii. You can tell it is a female by the scythe-like ovipositor and that it is Roesel’s by the yellow/green edge to the pronotum and the three spots/patches just behind on the abdomen.
Roesel’s are normally brown or yellow-brown with a hint of green and maybe a touch of red but this may be the rarer green form.
This is a cricket that was rare in Britain prior to the 20th Century and pretty much only found on the South-East coast of England. Since then it has rapidly increased its range in the South, to the North and West possibly helped by the rough grassland found along the sides of many of our roads which have provided it with ‘corridors’ inland.
It favours damp grassland that is relatively undisturbed. The male’s high pitched stridulation is meant to sound like the crackle of overhead electricity cables. Have a listen here thanks to http://www.orthoptera.org.uk
Let me know what you think?
The photo above of a second generation Adonis Blue Polyommatus bellargus taken at Martin Down in Hampshire shows the typical chequered fringe of the male. This is a butterfly which can only be confused with the male Common Blue Polyommatus icarus but in comparison that has a plain fringe as can be seen here. In my opinion the Adonis Blue is bluer, less purpley and the colour is rather more dense. I’ve found that the wings of the common blue are slightly translucent, so depending on the light, the spots and markings on the underwings can often just show through. You may just about be able to make this out depending on the quality of your monitor.
Adonis in Greek mythology, is the male god of beauty. This is certainly a handsome butterfly, arguably the most attractive of the British blues.
What do you think? Feel free to add your comments below.
Last weekend I managed an early morning trip to Martin Down in Hampshire. In many ways it felt like the last day of summer. Certainly many of the butterflies, particularly the Dark Green Fritillaries and many of the Skippers were well past their best, distinctly tatty. But I usually find something interesting to gawp at and this time it was this wee beastie, the Giant Tachinid Fly Tachina grossa. Read more
Following on from my last butterfly post from Kefalonia.
Walking through the village of Assos a new butterfly species introduced itself to me, the Southern Comma Polygonia egea. A paler, less heavily marked (but perhaps slightly brighter orange) version of our native Comma Polygonia c-album. For a comparison see my previous posts a female comma and spiced orange.
Well it certainly liked the heat, happily basking in the full afternoon sun. Usually on the tarmac or on the whitewashed walls, like the one pictured here, caught between the shadows. I noticed that the underside was slightly paler and less cryptically marked than our indigenous species and the characteristic white marking on the underwing was more silvery and less like a comma and more like a squashed letter ‘Y’.
While I was looking through my photos of Wall Brown butterflies from Kefalonia for my previous post The megera I noticed that one of them looked slightly different. As you can see this one is distinctly darker and less heavily marked and so at first I thought it might be an aberration. But then it occurred to me that it might actually be another species. I was right, it’s the Large Wall Brown Lasiommata maera a male in this instance and a new species for me. I must admit I hadn’t really noticed when I took the photo. But even if I had, minus my reference books and with no internet it would have been difficult to get confirmation.
But this is a species that has been seen in Britain, in Shrewsbury, Shropshire but not since 1931 and even then it is suspected these were an accidental introduction.
In Greek mythology Maera was the hound of Erigone, daughter of Icarus, who after death was turned into the dog star, Procyon which is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor.
In an earlier post I mentioned my early morning walks in Kefalonia. I often get up really early when on holiday as the light is less harsh and as it is marginally cooler, insects can be more settled and easier to photograph. Although, that said, in Kefalonia even at first light it was still way into the twenties. So on quite a few mornings dawn saw me make the steep climb up through the pine trees to the ancient hill fortress overlooking the pretty fishing village of Assos.
It was always worth getting out of bed though as the castle was ‘the place’ for butterflies and one of the ruined bastions proved to be a real hot spot for the Wall Lasiommata megera which loves to bask on walls, rocks, stones and bare ground. This is a butterfly we get here in Wiltshire, see my earlier post here but it’s not one I’ve seen so far this year. The Wall, or Wall Brown as it is sometimes known, is fairly widely distributed in England, I’ve seen it way up in Northumbria for example but it rarely occurs in large numbers. In the last decade or so it has declined substantially due to a continuing loss of habitat and it is now a priority species for conservation. So it was a blessing to see so many and have the time to study them in detail.
Often it was just me and the Megera, these mythical daughters of Creon, king of Thebes. Under the shade of an obliging olive tree I spent many peaceful hours watching these orange and brown furies flit in and out of the sunlight. The only sounds the over excited squeals of alpine swifts above my head and the distant crashing of waves on the rocks far below.