Friday, September 15, 2017


There is a litter from oaks and other trees after storm Aileen all over the lane and the field edge.  I found spangle and pincushion galls on one small oak sprig and a hazel nut neatly chiseled into by a mouse.  There are knopper galls everywhere on the ground but this year lots of acorns too.

They are very beautiful with their smooth, semi-gloss melon green fading towards the base to pale yellow and ivory and with a tiny point at the top.  Some have fallen still inside their cups of dusty grey embossed with darker markings like antique bowls.

After a few days they turn nut brown, but keep their shine, and provide a welcome food source for various animals and birds: mice and voles, squirrels and wild boar, jays and woodpigeons.  There are insects too - acorn weevils and some tortrix moth caterpillars.

There is a round disc at the base of each acorn like a flatbread with char marks around the rim or a stone disc with a mystical circle of characters in an unknown language - acornish.  Do all these characteristics have a purpose that makes them 'fitter' than other seeds I wonder.  Why are they egg shaped?  Why to they sit in a cup?  Why do they have a point at the top?

In the autumn sunshine as well as acorns there are buttercup and smooth hawksbeard flowers, but the finest is the late flourish of dandelions with their wonderfully ragged symmetry and a bright, even yellow.

Friday, June 02, 2017

A moth romance

A few days ago a female white ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda) settled on the glass of our kitchen window where it had been attracted by the light.

The following day this female (which was not there in the daytime) re-appeared in almost the same place and was found by a male when events followed their natural course.

After mating, however, the moths did not leave the window pane but rested motionless side by side for several hours
They were still there when I turned the light off just after midnight, but by the morning they had gone.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A landscape of fear

I have read recently about the ecological phenomenon described as 'Landscapes of Fear' where the introduction of large predators can change the flora and fauna of an area quite radically.  The re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park is a good example.  See:

A couple of years ago our granddaughter came to live with us and brought her cats into a cat-free garden and this has had quite a marked effect on biodiversity.  On part of the lawn, for example, an impressive stand of cuckooflower or lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis) has developed whereas in the past the plants would have been eaten down by rabbits.  In the picture above note the rabbit and mouse hunting tortoiseshell cat in the background.  Ground feeding birds also avoid the lawn and there has been a marked increase in slugs and snails.

Although many species have suffered, others have done well.  The cuckooflowers attracted solitary bees, bee flies, hover flies and many other insects which often find nectar and pollen providing plants scarce in early April.

The cuckooflowers are over now but yesterday a male orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) spent some time exploring the green seed heads looking, no doubt, for a female searching for the food plants on which to lay her eggs.  Eventually the butterfly settled on some hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) which, I have noticed elsewhere, often seems popular with orange tips.  Though not so showy the bittercress has no doubt been able to flourish in the absence of rabbits kept in check by the cats.  Both cuckooflower and hairy bittercress are used as food plants by orange tips.

We are mowing round the cuckooflower area and will report on any other interesting developments.  As with all such matters, issues of management will arise: when should we cut the 'meadow', for example, and where do we expect whatever programme we follow to lead us?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Bread and cheese

Hawthorn leaves (Crataegus monogyna) are now sprouting liberally in the garden.  Every year I think they are earlier than ever, but this may just be a delusion as I do not keep any proper phenological records.  To be of any value I think the first record of anything in a particular year should be made under the same conditions as in previous years.  One should return to the same hawthorn bush and be sure that local conditions round about it have not changed.  Around our lane there is a 50 metre stretch of hawthorns that always seems to sprout before any others.  I suspect this is because they are an early leafing clone that was bought in and planted, but roadside plants often behave rather differently from those elsewhere.  The road and its traffic perhaps creates a microclimate or possibly more carbon dioxide and other exhaust gases accelerate growth.

As a child my friends and I used to eat young hawthorn sprouts and called them 'bread and cheese'. This seems to be a very widespread habit in the British Isles and the shoots are quite palatable, if not very exciting.  How they came to be called 'bread and cheese' I have been unable to discover - they are certainly nothing like bread and cheese either in appearance, in shape, or in colour.  A probable explanation is that they were eaten by the very hungry as a replacement for bread and cheese.  The expression is also not confined to hawthorn - much wild leafy food has the bread and cheese accolade.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Slow traveller

I found this solitary wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) in a shady spot under some ornamental trees at the base of an old dead eucalypt in our garden the other day.  Wood anemones are ancient woodland indicators in South East England, but this was definitely not in ancient woodland.  I reckon the nearest population is about 75 metres away in Churchland Wood.

The plant is known to be able to colonise suitable new sites, but it can, so they say, take hundreds of years.  I suppose though it only takes one successful event for the colonisation to start and this could be one season from year zero or a good deal longer - I don't think the plant is particularly fussy about where it grows: I have seen it in undisturbed grassland as well as woodland.  Once established it will, of course, spread vegetatively as a clone of the original, so perhaps several different clones would make a healthier woodland population, but maybe not.

It has been suggested that new arrivals of this kind may have been transported mechanically as bits of rhizome in some way - on a vehicle, or the sole of a boot.  It is possible that someone walked this one in but the rarity of the plant's arrival in new places means that this is the sort of thing that seldom happens.

The plant is flowering, of course, to attract insects to that central ring of yellow anthers around the green stigmas, and early insects often do visit wood anemones, but successful dispersal of seeds does not appear to be of great value in establishing the plant in new sites (I wonder why)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Flowers that "waste their sweetness"

I have always been puzzled by flowers that go to some lengths in terms of colour or scent to appear attractive but, in my experience, are visited by very few insects.  Among those in the garden at the moment are spurge-laurel (Daphne laureola) - see below - which I visit regularly but have found nothing on but a few springtails of the kind that can be beaten out of every tree or shrub.  In mainland Europe they have been shown to be pollinated by pollen beetles (Nitidulidae: Meligethes) but, while several species are not uncommon here, they are either not yet about, or prefer something else. Maybe moths or other insects visit the flowers at night as it fruits well.

Very close to the spurge-laurel we have an ever-extending bed of lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor), Blue flowers are normally rather attractive to insects but, again, these little flowers appear to entice nothing.  Our patch was started many years ago when we first moved to South View and newly weds in the past would often plant periwinkles in their first gardens as it was supposed to promote love.  It seems to have kept Cynthia and I together very successfully.  Its flower is also said to be the item referred to in recommending that wedding gifts should include 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue'.

My third 'tries hard' flower is that of the cherry-plum, Prunus cerasifera, also known as the myrobalan.  It is an alien March-flowering species not known anywhere in the wild, but probably from western Asia, and often grown in this country as a hedge or used as a stock for grafting with other fruit trees. Bullfinches are very fond of the buds and these often the reduce the quantity of flower but, clearly, they had not found the branch below though they were going round the garden a week or two ago.

Although I have seen no insect visitors, it is said to be pollinated by bees and, as well as bumble bees, we have at least two species of Andrena on the wing in the garden just now.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Behaviour of Eudasyphora cyanella, the green cluster fly

Eudasyphora cyanella, a muscid sometimes known as the green cluster fly, emerges from hibernation at this time of year.  I noticed twenty or thirty of them yesterday settling on shiny sunlit leaves of cherry-laurel in our lane.  They did not seem to be interested in other leaves and, if disturbed, quickly returned.

I think the attraction might be that they think the leaves are wet and they might be thirsty.  Some years back I made, in our garden, an artificial tree hole in a bucket filled with water and dead wood over which I hung a sleeve cage so that insects could get in via the lower open end. 

I wrote the below at the time:

On 18th April 2000, a cold, grey day with heavy showers there were, unexpectedly, seventeen of the distinctive muscid greenbottle  Eudasyphora cyanella (Meigen), all female, in the trap.  Several females of this species had occurred during the autumn, but none had been recorded since then.  E. cyanella breeds in fresh cow-dung and larvae have also been recorded from sheep dung .  Both cattle and sheep graze regularly in pastures about 100 metres from the trap, but the insects would have had to fly through woodland and scrub to reach the rot-hole. 

During the next few weeks numbers of E. cyanella rose steadily, though there were several days when none, or few appeared.  Females were quite quickly joined by males and, on the 25th April, there were at least 200 examples in the trap showing a marked clustering behaviour as they gathered on the ‘roof’.  Though they were extremely active, no mating was observed.  During this period several other species of Diptera were, as usual, found in the trap but in nowhere near the quantity of E. cyanella.

On 24th April, a reasonably sunny but quite cool day, I spent some time watching the trap area in the early afternoon.  E. cyanella were sunning themselves on leaves at ground level near the trap and some would rest on the side of the bucket.  On one occasion one was observed on the rim of the bucket apparently drinking from the moisture there and on one of the projecting pieces of wood (these had by now absorbed much water).  On leaving they tended to fly up into the hanging sleeve.  The flies seemed to make little distinction between warm, sunny days and cool, cloudy ones, but numbers were much lower during or after rain, the inference being that there was plenty of free moisture available to drink from vegetation.

By 18th May the numbers of E. cyanella had fallen to virtually nil, but the species was frequently observed in the wider countryside and singletons turned up in the trap until mid-August.

One of the characteristics of Eudasyphora is that, unlike nearly all other Muscids, the adults hibernate in winter.  One of the possible explanations of the observed behaviour was that, after their winter rest, they needed to drink, though why they should be particularly attracted to a rot-hole at a period when plenty of alternative sources of water were available is not clear.  Whatever the reason for their behaviour, it had some further ecological consequences.  They produced, for example, a substantial amount of excrement much of which must have finished up in the rot-hole, thus significantly increasing the nutrient-level of a habitat which is normally nutrient-poor.  At this time the trap also attracted a considerable swarm of the biting midge Culicoides obsoletus (Meigen). They would settle in some numbers on the black netting and in rather smaller quantities on my arms and face.  They bit occasionally, but their main interest seemed to be the trap.  On looking carefully at these midges, they seemed to be more interested in the droppings of the Muscids (which adhered to the netting) than the flies themselves, though I did see them settle on some of the larger species as though to bite.  C. obsoletus breeds in a wide range of moist decaying matter and it has been reported from both rot-holes and sheep dung.  It was not, however, biting in other parts of the neighbourhood and would therefore appear to have been attracted by E. cyanella and the other flies, rather than by myself.