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Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria, male

Pararge aegeria – male

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.

Brimstone

Brimstone butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni, male

Gonepteryx rhamni, male

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.

Searching for Arty

Marsh Fritillary caterpillar, third instal

Euphydryas aurinia larva, third instar

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).

 

 

Roesel’s Bush-cricket

Roesel's Bush-cricket, Metrioptera roeselii, male

Metrioptera roeselii – male

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

It’s also said to be reminiscent of the song of the Savi’s warbler. You can listen to that here thanks to http://www.rspb.org

Let me know what you think?