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.
I’m not that good at identifying wild flowers. Botany is definitely a subject I could do better in. But then by most people’s standards I’m not exactly a dullard either. I can put a name to most of the common stuff, it’s just there’s still quite a bit that’s a mystery. One wild flower I can identify is the Harebell Campanula rotundifolia.
A couple of Sunday’s ago I went looking for the Adonis Blue butterfly at Martin Down but pretty much as soon as I arrived it absolutely lashed it down. While I waited for the insects to towel themselves dry I got distracted by these delicate little violet-blue flowers. The water droplets and soft light adding to their attractiveness.
Generally I focus on taking reference shots rather than photos for their artistic merit. But as I had my waterproofs on and time to kill I took a few photographs lying down on the wet ground and experimented with the depth of field. I quite like the increasingly blurry background but can’t help thinking how I’d like to see a pristine water-droplet coated Adonis Blue perched on the right-hand side of the nearest flower.
These pretty little flowers are known as Bluebells in Scotland and were once used in the manufacture of the blue dye used in tartan. Incidentally the name Harebell is a reference to the fact that these bell-like flowers can often be found where you find hares. Both are fond of dry, open grassland. On a similar theme witches are thought to be able to transform themselves into hares by drinking the milky sap. North American Indians call them ‘blue rain flowers’ as they believe picking them will cause it to rain. Well, it wasn’t me.
Colias croceus – Male
The Clouded Yellow Colias croceus isn’t a butterfly most of us get to see every year. It’s a summer migrant from southern Europe. If you live near the coast in Devon or Dorset and you’re the type of person that looks then you might get to see one or two each year. But further north you can go for years without seeing one at all. In nine out of ten years it is scarce. Then for reasons that we don’t fully understand we get an invasion. A glorious ‘Clouded Yellow year’ where numbers can be exceptional and individuals can be seen throughout the country and if we are truly blessed as far as southern Scotland.
Sadly the year after, again for reasons we don’t fully understand, numbers can be extremely poor.
So having spotted a dozen or so on Saturday afternoon at Martin Down NNR in Hampshire, I did the only sensible thing and went back again on Sunday morning. Well, that and the fact that my photos from Saturday were truly shocking. In my defence they’re tricky to photograph in as much as when they land they immediately fold their wings, plus they are all too easily spooked.
As you can see the underside is attractive enough but you really need to get out there and see them flying to see the upperside which is rather stunning – something not lost on the Victorian collectors. Both upper wings are a warm sulphur yellow with black margins. The upper with a single black eye-spot, the lower with a double dark orange, yellow-edged eye-spot. For a change the female has the edge in colouration in that the black margin is sprinkled with bright yellow dots. These are absent in the male. The French have a good name for this butterfly ‘Le Souci’ (The Marigold) which is very descriptive of the upper wing colour.
I saw plenty of Clouded Yellows in Cyprus earlier in the year so it was great to see them here in good old blighty.
This striking gold and black and surprisingly hairy caterpillar is the larval stage of the scarlet and dark charcoal Cinnabar Moth Tyria jacobaeae. The adult can be identified by the two bright red spots and the long red stripe down the leading edge of its dark grey/black forewing and its all red hindwing. It is named after the mineral ‘cinnabar’ once used by artists as a red pigment for painting. The bright colours of both the adult and larvae are a warning to predators that it is mildly poisonous.
This is the Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus formerly and perhaps more appropriately known as the Hedge Brown or ‘Hedge Eye’. This butterfly can only be confused with a female Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina. However, in comparison it is much smaller and overall a much brighter orange. Where the Meadow Brown has one white spot in the centre of the black eye-spot on the upper wing, the Gatekeeper, as you can see, almost always has two. Also, with wings folded the Gatekeeper has a row of small white dots on its lower underwing, whereas the latter, if it has any, not all do, will have small dark dots. Plus, you are much more likely to find it like this, wings wide-open, basking on a leaf in a hedgerow soaking up the sun.
But beware, both species are subject to variation. I’ve seen Meadow Brown’s with two white spots and Gatekeeper’s with one. So it’s worth keeping a look out for aberrations. If you are lucky you may even find one of the heavily spotted multiocellata variations which can be very pretty indeed. Just remember to carry your camera, because of course I didn’t.
The recent run of warm weather here in the UK has been a reminder of how hot it was when I visited Cyprus in April. This little chap was one of the first insects I encountered in the village of Frenaros where my mum and dad now live. My reason for showing it here is that this strikingly coloured red and black bug, that looks as though it has an african mask painted on its back, may be spreading northwards into England. Recently it has been found in Devon. Previously there have been small colonies in Surrey and Sussex and sporadic reports elsewhere. Although Britain has traditionally marked the northernmost edge of its range it has been a native of Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands for some time now. In the last decade the populations there have increased greatly. So it may be an insect worth looking out for in future.
It proved a particularly difficult subject to photograph. Being almost manically active due to the very warm temperature. It wouldn’t keep still, even for a fraction of a second, and so the vast majority of my photos were just slightly blurred. But I persevered over several days and eventually succeeded in getting this image. Read more
This is a butterfly we’ve taken for granted. The Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae was once one of our most familiar and numerous garden visitors. Sadly it is no longer as common as it once was. In recent years, particularly in the south it has declined, possibly due to predation by the parasitic fly Sturmia bella. Somehow our buddleia bushes just don’t look quite the same without these butterflies nectaring on every other mauve, orange-centred flower head. But, let’s not get overly maudlin. Instead let’s reflect on what a stunning little insect this still is. Gorgeous orange set off with deft little touches of black, dabs of yellow and white, ringed with a necklace of brilliant turquoise. What’s not to like?
Limenitis camilla – Male
I arrived at Bentley Wood to find the car park packed, not only with cars, but with people gazing upwards. The nearest chap whispered in hushed tones that we were in the presence of ‘His Majesty’ the Purple Emporer Apatura iris. A first for me. An elusive, almost mythical butterfly that until then I’d only read and dreamt about. I hadn’t imagined for one moment that one day I’d simply step out of my car and find it waiting for me. If I’d known, I would have had it cleaned and valeted.
Melanargia galathea – Male
Readers of my last post about my visits to Collard Hill may have got the impression that it was a disappointment. It wasn’t, the view from the Polden Hills is breathtaking and freshly emerged specimens of the monochromatic magnificence that is the Marbled White Melanargia galathia were abundant. I’m often asked which is my favourite butterfly and that’s a really tough call as I have so many. But, this is possibly my favourite ‘white’ even if technically it’s a ‘brown’.