Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Dance yourself dizzy...


In an effort to start this blog update in a slightly different way, I thought perhaps a dancing chrysalis might fit the bill? You might like to ensure that your sound is on for this...

Please remember that these videos are often too large to show in the e.mail version of the blog:

         

Not exactly quiescent is it. All I know about this is based on the larva that I found in the garden, which looks like this...


I kept the (unknown) larva until pupation and I guess I must have disturbed the chrysalis to instigate such a violent reaction.

Staying with the theme of moth larvae for a second; I recently discovered an early instar of an Elephant-hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor) which gave me a chance to observe how they grow (fast is the answer!) and hadn't realised that they start out green. I thought I had found a green version, which you don't see too often...



Luckily though, I found one of those too...



This is what the brown one looks like now, still a lot of growing to do...





Yes, time for some news about the puss moth parasites featured in my last update. I wasn't at all hopeful about my chances of encouraging the parasite larvae to pupate: I had read that it is tricky to provide the right conditions, as it's assumed that they do so inside of the puss moth cocoons. The best idea I could come up with was to sandwich them between 2 pieces of bark and then put them in the dark. 

I left them for a few days, and when I checked, to my amazement, they were still moving and had begun to change in appearance...



Sure enough, a few days later when I re-checked them, they had begun to pupate. I now have 3 cocoons. I am expecting that they will now remain this way until next year and then...hopefully, I will get to see the wasps emerge, if I am real lucky.






Baby news now: Nadya Suleman, better known as "Octomom," became world famous when she gave birth to eight babies in January 2009 but could you imagine trying to look after this lot? I'm not sure of exact numbers, but it's in excess of 20 that this mother has to care for.

This is 'Elasmucha grisea' the Parent Bug. Or as I have seen them described, the Motherly Bug. A description that seems more apt in a way, because dad has naff-all to do with caring for his offspring, in fact he dies soon after mating, which seems a bit harsh; whilst mum sits tight, on-guard, from egg laying until the nymphs venture out to feed.








Here's an unrelated 2nd instar nymph that I found at a different location. This one seems to have damaged an eye: I wonder if that will resolve at the next moult?



This update seems to have turned out to be devoted to the first stages of life, with eggs, tiny nymphs and chrysalis' a'plenty, so let's end with another discovery of ova. Whilst looking for butterfly eggs in the garden, I spotted this amazingly small egg on the Nepta plant. It really was too small to accurately measure but I guess was around 0.5mm.

I think it may be a bug egg of some kind? (sits back and waits for somebody with superior knowledge to confirm/deny) But if it is; which species? I know there are at least a couple of Rhopalid bug species present. There are several bugs that I can rule out, but that's about as far as I have got, and although I have kept this in a little pot (container that is, not hashish!) I still wonder if I will be able to find it again being so small (the egg, not me).




A pretty, pretty picture to end on. One of the few Painted Ladies I have seen locally this year. Well, I did see an overweight girly, covered in tattoos with a phone stuck to her ear one evening. 








Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Nature can be cruel, but she balances her books"

Even after all these years of photographing and studying invertebrates, I am amazed at how much I miss. I think I am fairly good at spotting bugs and insects and then will be quite selective and particular about the detail and content of the resulting photographs, and yet, to this day, I still fail to spot what subsequently seems like an obvious thing.

More on that in a bit: first I want to share the results of one night of running the moth trap. On July 17th I ran the trap all night and this was the result...


If my maths (or math? as the Americans say) is correct, there are 108 here. There were a further 42 that I didn't get to photo; mostly because they were more repeats of commonplace moths. Then there were the escapees, perhaps a dozen or so that made their escape as I opened the trap. I also had six green lacewings, one soldier beetle and three wasps. 

Probably one of the best nights for 3 years. Very pleased, even if it did result in a lot of work the following day.


I recently got to spend some time on Ashdown Forest. Home of Poo(h)...and there was plenty around as the cows and sheep wandered freely! It might be why the hoverfly I was messing around with, trying to capture in-flight, turned out to be a horsefly?



I also found this very teneral looking red-legged shieldbug...





And a late instar, together with an adult, tortoise shieldbug (Eurygaster testudinaria)



 And on the bracken, a freshly moulted vapourer moth larva...



Finally, at one of the ponds, the largest pond-skaters I have ever seen; they were huge. A photo doesn't really give a sense of scale, but they were enormous and other people were commenting on them too...





I had better return to my opening statement now though, before I forget. I posted a photo of a puss moth larva to Flickr a few days ago and here it is reproduced below...


I was quite pleased to find this impressive larva because I rarely see them. Nothing exceptional about it, other than the fabulous colouring and size of it. Or is there? What I had failed to notice, were those tiny black dots around the 'neck' area, and one more towards the rear. I've highlighted them in the image below to make them more obvious. What are they though? They just look like bits of debris, or perhaps plant material, or even caterpillar poop, or frass as the experts call it. 

What they actually are, is something much more sinister, as I was about to find out as the story unfolded. 




Yes, we are talking about parasites here: or are we? Is it a  parasite or parasitoid? What's the difference? Well, the answer can be quite a grey area but in general, a parasite doesn't usually kill its host (but sometimes does) and a parasitoid always does. In this case we have a parasitoid, in fact I believe it to be the Ichneumon parasitoid 'Netelia vinulae'. A classic case of this parasitoid affecting a puss moth larva was documented on the AES website in 1995 and what I witnessed here, matches perfectly.


At this stage nothing is obvious; this is the colour the larvae change to prior to constructing a cocoon....




But, try as it might, the poor thing was unable to complete its cocoon; the very same thing happened in the 1995 observation...



Just a quick reminder that these videos may not show in the emailed version of this update.





Even in this picture below, you can just see that the eggs are starting to hatch out...





The parasitoid larvae grew at quite a pace and became green in colour, suggesting that they may be feeding on the caterpillar's 'blood' (haemolymph).









I wonder if that is what this next video shows. I had originally thought it might be the digestive tract at work, but if it is, then it seems to be heading in the wrong direction?







From what I have read about the 1995 observations, the parasitoid larvae failed to pupate. However, it took almost a full month before they left the caterpillar and wandered around looking for a pupation site, at which time, unable to do so, most eventually died. It went on to say this: "Clearly the conditions provided were unsuitable. On the assumption that pupation in the wild occurred within the puss moth cocoon, the few remaining larvae were placed in a small container, but these also died without pupating".

I am still observing mine and hope they will pupate, so that I can learn about the full life-cycle first hand, but expect that the outcome will probably be the same. I will let you know either way. Incidentally, the process I have been documenting here all began on exactly the same day as the one in 1995, but one month earlier - July 12th, and so if things continue at the same pace, I will not know until August how my story ends.



I can't leave you with a story about nature at its most gruesome, and so how about something a touch more uplifting. My local wood have been devoid of blue butterflies for the past couple of years. But this year thankfully has seen them return. Maybe not in the numbers I would have liked, but it's great to see these tiny common blue butterflies once again enjoying the sunshine and all that Comfort's Wood has to offer...








Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"The most dangerous caterpillar species in Britain!"


Yes, it was Saturday December 18th 2010 when I wrote the following words in my first ever blog post: "In the beginning: I'm making a start on this new blog today. It's cold and snowy in Kent, with little to offer in the way of interesting, outdoor macro subjects to photograph".

And today July 12th 2017 I am here writing my 200th update. According to statistics, most people quit blogging within the first three months (you spend time working on something without a reward, the harder it is to continue doing it). For me the truth is that I love doing these updates and would probably continue even if they weren't being read. Thankfully, due to some loyal followers, my little blog continues to be accessed in at least a dozen countries, with UK, USA, Netherlands, China and Belgium being the top 5 regards amount of views. 

A sample of just some of the bugs and insects that I have featured here over the past seven years...



What have I got that is special for this update? How about...

 "The most dangerous caterpillar species in Britain!"

That is how I have seen the caterpillar of the puss moth (Cerura vinula) described. The puss moth is quite an easy moth to identify and inhabits wooded, or lightly wooded areas where there is plenty of willow or poplar. Here's a recently emerged adult moth that I photographed in 2015...



But it's the larvae that interest me most. As with all larvae, they are predated by many other creatures. In order to protect themselves, they have the ability to spray formic acid at their attacker! 

A Puss Moth Larva - Cerura vinula


Formic acid is interesting in itself and gets its name from the Latin name for ant "Formica". There is a little video of wood ants spraying the acid, it's on YouTube if you feel like having a look. Formic acid is actually found in the bites and stings of many insects, including bees and ants. It is also a contributing factor when you get stung by nettles. It's used by farmers to preserve animal feed, bee-keepers use it as pesticide against the deadly Varroa mite and if all that leaves you wanting more, then I can tell you that it is used in the treatment of warts and as a toilet bowl cleaner.










I'm starting to feel a tad guilty now, because the other day I had to rescue yet another bee from the bird bath. I really don't know why, or how they get into the water, but once in, they seldom get out...







This one however lived to see another day and once dry, flew off seemingly unharmed by its dunking. I think this is probably a wool-carder bee. 

---------
I have been having a few early morning walks whilst this hot weather has been with us. I tried a few evening ones too, but the mosquitoes gave me such a hard time that I soon stopped those. In a local, uncut meadow, I found this large beetle. Unfortunately it was quite low down in the grasses and even so, the light wind was enough to make it almost impossible to get a perfectly focused picture...


This is most likely Nicrophorus investigator. There are other similar beetles but I think judging by its size and the reddish antennae tips (that you cannot see well here because of the movement) it seems to fit. As always, there are mites attached. This is the beetle that uses carrion to house its young.

In the same woods that I found the puss moth larva, I also spotted this fabulous grasshopper nymph. Possibly a field grasshopper but wouldn't put my house on it...that would flatten it for sure!



I was pleased with those two finds but ecstatic over the next: a species of butterfly that I have never seen before, let alone photographed. It was in woods that I know well too and have surveyed for insects in the past. There was another survey in about 2010 I think, and this butterfly was definitely not on their list either. It's the beautiful purple hairstreak...

A Purple Hairstreak - Favonius quercus

The UK Butterflies website says this about it: "It is often difficult to locate, due to its habit of flying in the tree canopy, where it feeds on honeydew. However, the adults are occasionally seen basking at lower levels, on various small trees, shrubs and bracken". It's the side of the wings that you can't see here that have the purple colour, although not as much in the males as females. 

One day whilst out walking without the camera, I managed to capture these 2 pictures of a brimstone butterfly with my phone...







When I found this crab spider, its face was still covered in the remains of its dinner (been there!)


And this is what it had just been dining on...




The crab spider here is Misumena vatia: It's the same spider that in a recent BBC 4 programme about life in our back gardens, Chris Packham
said could change colour to match the background. He didn't mention that it is only the mature females that have this ability; and that the colour changes are restricted to white, yellow and green(ish). 

Well I have lots more that I could share, but I think there is more than enough here for one update, so I shall save it for next time. Instead I will leave you with a few shots of something that has not featured much at all in the updates...until now: it's the humble garden snail...