I was recently commissioned to design a nature board for a meadow in Hampshire. I’d hoped to get Richard Lewington to do the illustrations but unfortunately he was too busy working on other projects. So I tried another illustrator but sadly that didn’t work out so I ended up doing them myself. There were twelve in total including a couple of beetles. The Black and yellow longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata is pictured above. Previously I’ve always used designer’s gouache but after trying a variety of styles and techniques I finally opted for Faber Castell Polychromous coloured pencils and Pigma Micron archival ink on Strathmore Bristol Smooth paper. Surprising really as I’ve never used coloured pencils before.
I’ve made a conscious effort this year to improve my botany skills. That’s just a posher way of saying I’m endeavouring to put a name to some of the plants I see when I’m out looking for insects. A number of the people that have helped me with my various surveys are good botanists and so have got used to me pointing to a flower and asking ‘What’s this?’.
At the weekend while out counting bees on Salisbury Plain we spotted this rather unusual looking wildflower which I was informed is called Blue Fleabane Erigeron acris (formerly Erigeron acer). I was struck by its unusual and delicate pale lilac and yellow flowers. Apparently it’s a member of the Daisy family, Asteraceae. It’s a herb thought to be helpful in treating tooth-ache and arthritic pains.
Until 2004, the blue alder leaf beetle Agelastica alni was thought to be very rare in Britain, possibly extinct although there were some historical records from southern England. Then in 2004 it suddenly appeared again in northern England in the Manchester area, Lancashire and Cheshire in 2006 and Yorkshire in 2014. It was found in Wales in 2013 and in southern England in Hampshire in 2014, mainly around Southampton*. I found it myself for the first time in Hampshire in 2015 near Eastleigh.
I searched for it in Wiltshire in 2016 but couldn’t find it (not that I looked that hard) but of course it was only a matter of time before it arrived. So it came as no surprise when I received an email from David Lawman containing a couple of specimens he photographed in Bentley Wood in south Wiltshire on 11th June. Coincidentally the same day I received an email from Anthony Coles containing a photo of a couple of carded vouchers he found on 2nd and 3rd June in Foxham near Chippenham, north Wiltshire. Although in both instances the photos looked pretty convincing, they were a little blurry (and as I’ve only recently taken on the role of county recorder and I’m not an expert on chrysomelids) I passed them onto David Hubble for a second opinion. Dave runs the Bruchidae & Chrysomelidae Recording Scheme and is the author of the Keys to the adults of seed and leaf beetles of Britain and Ireland and the about to be published Leaf Beetles. Dave confirmed by return, as we all suspected, that they were indeed Agelastica alni.
I photographed this Four-banded flower bee Anthophora quadrimaculata during a weekend bee workshop run by Steven Falk, author of the recently published Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. I think it shows the diagnostic bluey-grey eyes rather well. The course was just one of many hosted by Sallyann Spence at Berrycroft Hub on a working farm just north of Swindon at Ashbury on the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it, excellent company, good weather and we even got driven up onto the downs in a 1977 Daimler Pinzgauer high-mobility all-terrain 6WD ex-Swiss army military utility vehicle… what’s not to like? Read more
The Small Blue Cupido minimus is the UK’s smallest resident butterfly. Females are chocolate brown whilst males, like the one pictured above photographed recently at Martin Down, have a silvery-blue dusting of scales near the base of the wings. The sole food plant is Kidney Vetch Anthyllis vulneraria and so it is reliant on the type of grassland habitat where this plant can flourish. It favours areas with broken ground.
I’ve not posted for a while. Working freelance has kept me busy and much of my spare time has been spent either keying out specimens, uploading insect and wildlife records, writing reports or more enjoyably attending various insect workshops. At the last one, on Caribidae (Ground beetles) I got chatting to a young lady at the microscope opposite me. Ashleigh works in Edinburgh as a curatorial assistant (Entomology) for National Museums, Scotland and I mentioned that sometimes flying beetles get attracted to my moth-trap. Not quite so welcome are the big, up to 30mm long ‘Spang Beetles’ or ‘Billy Witches’ more commonly known as the Common Cockchafer Melolontha melolontha.
My favourite bumblebee at the moment is also our commonest, the Common Carder Bee Bombus pascuorum. The photo above shows a particularly handsome, well-marked, somewhat foxy-looking male. Male bees can be handled safely in the field, like this, if held very gently, but if you are in any doubt as to the sex, don’t do it.
This is a species that can vary enormously in appearance and size, in all castes, with some female workers being very tiny indeed. For me this is part of the fascination. Pale-haired specimens can be confused with the rarer carders B. humilis or B. muscorum and may need determining (particularly males) using genitalia extraction. To get to species (useful if you are collecting scientific data) its often necessary to key out a specimen under a stereomicroscope.
For a while now I’ve been thinking I really ought to focus on one group of insects. I really love beetles, Coleoptera, but I don’t find as many as I should. It seems of late that the Hymenoptera (Bees, Ants and Wasps) seem to have chosen me, especially the Bees. This is partially due to where I live, right on the edge of Salisbury Plain – a huge open area of ancient flower-rich grassland and the fact that the Plain holds some particularly rare examples like the Shrill Carder Bee Bombus sylvarum, the Armed Nomad Bee, Nomada armata and the Sainfoin Bee Melitta dimidiata.
But it’s a tough group and as indicated earlier a lot of bees aren’t identifiable beyond family in the field.
Yet in many respects identifying bees, at least in the UK, has just got a tiny bit easier with the long-awaited publication of a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk and Illustrated by Richard Lewington. This is the first major work on bees since The Hymenoptera Aculeate of the British Islands by Edward Saunders in 1896.
More info about naturalist Steven Falk and his new book here.
It’s been many months since I last posted. One Monday morning I went in to work to find that someone higher up the food chain had decided to close our department – I’m now working freelance. Inevitably time has been short while I focus on my new enterprise (it’s gone rather well so far) but I have made time to continue to lead my monthly Beewalks on Salisbury Plain in Areas 15 on behalf of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
Although the Shrill Carder Bee Bombus sylvarum has remained elusive we have encountered another rare bumblebee. From July we started observing specimens of what at first glance looked to be small Bombus terrestris or Bombus lucorum female workers but… the first yellow band on the thorax was just a little bit too lemony and the tail although predominantly white had a peachey tinge separating it from the black. Thinking it might be the Broken-belted Bumblebee Bombus Soroeensis we took photos (see photo of male above) and posted these onto the BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society) Facebook page but at best the overall consensus was ‘possibly’.
On my next encounter, to get a positive determination, I kept a specimen so I could look at it in more detail under my stereomicroscope and key it out. I also allowed Marc Taylor who’d joined us for the day to take a specimen and after he’d examined the sting sheath confirmed he thought it was soroeensis. (Marc is a much more experienced amateur entomologist than I, particularly in regard to things like dissection). I was pretty sure it was too as features on the mandibles and antenna looked good but as I was coincidentally visiting the Natural History Museum in London the very next day I had the good fortune to get David Notton, Head Curator, Hymenoptera, to take a look and he confirmed it was indeed soroeensis. After a celebratory skip, hop and jump I agreed to donate my specimen to the museum for DNA research as the NHM has very few specimens from Salisbury Plain.
It’s rather scarce outside of Scotland and until fairly recently Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire was thought to have the only population of this species in southern England (although new records have come in from the Dungeness area where it was previously unrecorded). Most records from the Plain have come from further East around the Bulford area and we do not appear to have any records this far West in the Centre. But according to George Else who has been recording bees on the Plain since the early 80s ‘it is is very widely distributed over the Plain and locally abundant in a number of locations.’ I’m sure he’s right, it may just be that due to the difficulty in identifying it in the field it is simply under-recorded.
In regard to the photo, that must be a bit of a rarity too as the bumblebee (now confirmed as a male, B. soroeensis) is nectaring on Tuberous Thistle Cirsium tuberosum an even rarer perennial only found in one other location outside Wiltshire. The good news is this year we’ve found good numbers of Tuberous Thistle in Area 15.
A few weeks back I helped to show a group of Dutch scientists around Salisbury Plain. On Silk Hill we found a couple of freshly-emerged and rather spectacularly-coloured Small Elephant Hawk-moths Deilephila porcellus. It’s a pretty impressive moth with a wingspan in the range of 40-45mm. It can be found in a range of habitats but it prefers chalk and dry grass habitats where its larvae feed mostly on bedstraws Gallium.
More recently I’ve found a couple in my moth-trap along with the slightly larger Elephant Hawk-moth Deilephila elpenor.