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.
Early on Saturday morning I extracted this little beauty from the mist nets at our constant effort site (CES) near the River Kennet in Berkshire. At first glance, and from the location, you could be forgiven for thinking that this spring migrant that has flown all the way from sub-saharan Africa to southern England looks like a yellow Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus but its wings are far too long at 79mm.
It has the look of a Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus or a Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix but it’s too big to be the former and rather too yellow to be the latter and lacks the prominent eye-stripe (supercilium) of both.
Have you guessed yet? After consulting our copy of Svensson, triple-checking the biometrics; wing length, margination, wing-point, wing-formula etc. Quickly taking reference photos and a quick call to our trainer, we concluded that it’s actually a rather rare (for southern England) Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve taken over the role of Entomology Sub-group Leader for one of the conservation groups on Salisbury Plain. Each month I lead a BeeWalk in Area 15 which is one of the artillery impact areas in SPTA (C). Earlier in the year we plotted a 5km transect through a variety of habitat and each month a small group of us follow this route and count and identify the bumblebee species we find. The data is uploaded to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT)BeeWalk website. More info about BeeWalk here.
In addition to the bees (which so far have not been numerous) we always find something interesting and this time it was the freshly-emerged Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia. The day was overcast, great for macro photography in my opinion, as the clouds act as a giant softbox, but there was a real nip in the wind so they were rather sensibly keeping well hunkered down in the grass. To get this shot I had to lie on my belly and wait for opportunities for the wind to drop. Low light can be a problem so inevitably it was necessary to push up the ISO to 800.
As many of you will be aware the Marsh Fritillary has declined in its distribution right across Europe, and is now a protected species and therefore the object of much conservation effort. Fortunately Salisbury Plain remains one of its major strongholds in Wiltshire, the UK and Europe.
Perhaps on my next visit, if it is a little warmer, I’ll get lucky and capture a few images with the wings open.
As a final post from my recent trip to Cyprus, here’s a photo of a Painted Lady Vanessa cardui that I managed to get a quick snap of when the sun momentarily dipped behind a cloud. I quite like the painterly quality of this image.
Although reasonably common it proved really difficult to get close enough to get a shot. The heat increased their flightiness and often as not they would close their wings as they sensed my approach. See below. Not that the underside isn’t equally photogenic.
Ultimately the combination of heat and wind made photographing insects in Cyprus rather tricky so I turned my attention to some of the lizards.
Pictured above is the European snake-eyed lizard Ophisops elegens and very pretty it is too. A characteristic feature of Ophisops species is their lack of separate eyelids. Instead, the eye is covered by a transparent ‘spectacle’ similar to that of snakes, giving rise to this species’ common name and which gives this lizard something of a ‘staring’ expression.
Also fairly common were these Schreiber’s fringe-fingered lizards Acanthodactylus schreiberi which are on the IUCN red list of threatened species. Listed as Endangered because of a serious population decline, estimated to be more than 50% over the last 12 years. For example in nearby Turkey it is now very rare. The fringe of pointed scales along their long, agile toes allows them to run easily across loose, hot sand.
In Cyprus the subspecies syriacus is still locally common and I would often see them scuttling across the bare ground in front of me.