Saturday, June 25, 2011

Do what we can, summer will have its flies. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

We are well into summer now here in the U.K. We have already passed the summer solstice and therefore also the day with the longest period of daylight.

Worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied among cultures, but most have held a recognition of signs of fertility. In the miniature world of the bug, this also can be applied. I'm not sure they're aware of the nights starting to draw-in, but they are certainly fertile! 

Each new dawn seems to bring a fresh flush of insects. Unfortunately for me, that includes the biting bugs that love to attack any would be bug-hunter/wildlife photographer with relish. Before you get a mental image of a huge hornet throwing jars of pickle at me, I meant in the sense of hearty enjoyment! But you knew that anyhow?

Yes, if there were such a thing (and if not, I've just invented/coined it) we are at the 'Invert apogee' moment in time. It's 'Hemiptera high noon'.....'Coleoptera crescendo' get the idea. 

What I am trying to convey, is that there is a  lot to see and record right now. A very busy time. I am out almost everyday (health permitting) photographing and recording inverts for a variety of people/organisations.

For this particular blog entry I thought I'd begin with a puzzle. A 'Can ya tell what it is yet' (Said in a Rolf Harris style voice) type of photo.
And so, take a look at the photograph below and see if you can identify just what it is?

Easy! I knew at least a handful of you would instantly recognise the subject, but what about the rest? Does this look like anything you might have seen before? Perhaps it'll help if I tell you that the actual measurement across this image is in real life little more than 8mm.

Whilst you're having a think about that, I'll move on and return to it shortly.
Our back garden (yard, for my American friends) has, as probably most do, got its pros & cons. On the down side, it is small, O.K. then, very small.
Let me elaborate, I always for instance quote it's size as the reason we don't have a cat (not room to swing one),just my little joke!

What we try to do though is make it as wildlife friendly as possible. On the plus side, we do back on to open fields and orchards. I try and keep a note of what we see and the number of insects is climbing with every year that passes. 

We've had birds in our bird box for the first time this year and have seen nuthatches and a greater spotted woodpecker as well as the usual feathered visitors.
In a section of the garden (circled in the photo) I found a green shield bug today. Quite a common bug but a first for our little garden.

Green Shield Bug

Another 'garden find' or to be more precise, 'house find' because it had ventured indoors from the garden somehow, was the strange beastie that is pictured below. There seems to be a theme emerging to this blog entry now because I would guess that you may not know what this one is either?

This is very small at around 3mm or so. The wider end is the back by the way.
It will have hatched from an egg during the spring or early summer. Any ideas now? Once again, a few will know but I reckon most won't and so what about if I were to say "Woolly Bear" would that be sufficient to get you to the correct identity?

Well if it was, then you'd be aware by now that this is actually the larva of the varied carpet beetle. The larval stage can last up to 10 months, depending on humidity, temperature and the availability of food, whereas the adult beetles only live for 2-6 weeks.
My guess would be that an adult beetle got into the house during last summer, found somewhere to lay its eggs and that's how this came to be here now. I just hope that I don't locate too many, they can be quite destructive pests.

Adult V.Carpet Beetle

Now that we've solved that riddle, how are you doing on the first photo? Perhaps an additional picture from another angle would clinch it? It should! Let's try...

Yes, they are in fact insect eggs. I am almost sure that they will turn out to be shield-bug eggs but exactly which shield-bug is another matter. I have seen and photographed some similar ones before and they turned out to be Sloe Bugs.
Sloe Bug Eggs
Could these be the same? Possibly, but it's so difficult to say for sure at this stage. They do appear to be different in colour but about the same size. I have seen sloe-bugs in the area where I found these. I don't have too much experience with finding these bug eggs yet and so wouldn't want to commit. I'll be sure and keep an eye on them though and post the results in a later blog.

To return briefly to the birds that nested in our garden this year. They were in fact Blue Tits and we all really enjoyed having them here whilst they built a nest, raised their young (around 6 we thought) and fledged safely, at least for the most part. 

They chose around 7am to leave the nest and this was one of the few shots of them leaving that I managed.

Sadly one little bird got left behind by the parents and being too small, with under-developed tail feathers, was unable to fend for itself and so we had to ring the local rescue centre and pop it in to them to look after until it could be released at a later date.

The 'Runt'
"Please help me"

You can see from these photographs taken on the same day, just how much smaller this little one was. The folks at the sanctuary said it was quite commonplace that this happens and we were amazed to find when we arrived with out little bird that they already had rows of incubators full of other little orphans being well cared for by the volunteers.

To give them a mention, they are Folly Wildlife Rescue and thank heaven for them and their ilk.

Our little friend gets some TLC

Reluctant fledgling 

Not all of the fledglings were in a hurry to leave the comfort of the nest as you can see from the picture above. However, they did all eventually part, sans our little 'runt' of course, we have not seen them or the parents since that day but are keeping fingers firmly crossed that they survived.

I'll leave you with yet another puzzler. Answer to what this is will be in the next blog entry. Unless you already know, I'll tell you all about it then.

Until the next time then...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Canterbury tales...

I've been itching to get back to Canterbury and photograph the butterflies, as I did around this time last year & yesterday it finally happened.

Our weather has been, well, changeable over these past few days and yesterday once again, it didn't feel like June. But, by midday it was warm enough, if a touch overcast and so armed with cameras and a packed lunch, myself and other half Lizzie with Herbie (the terrier) in-tow set off on the drive across the Kent countryside that would an hour or so later see us arrive at our destination of Blean

Blean Woods is a National Nature Reserve and is classified as semi-natural ancient woodland.
The woods have been heavily managed in the past as a source for sweet chestnut coppice. When the coppice is cut and conditions are more open, the ground is colonised by Common Cow-wheat.

It's this Cow-wheat that is the food plant for the caterpillar of the rare Heath Fritillary Butterfly.

In 1980 the species was considered to be "The most endangered U.K. species" after a nationwide survey found only 31 surviving colonies. 
Hence, it has now been given protection under the Wildlife & Countryside Act.

I couldn't (and luckily, didn't have to) wait to get re-acquainted with these beautiful insects. We headed for the main entrance....

Remembering last year's visit and having read my 2010 diary notes before we left home, we recalled the area where the butterflies were to be found and took the path towards the coppiced area.

In no time at all we'd located not one but several of the little ones, some flitting around amongst the cow-wheat and others, wings wide open, sunning themselves on the chestnut leaves.

Still more were to be seen low down in the grass (a trait of this butterfly),here we were barely out of the car and already I was in fritillary heaven!

I knelt down and eased towards one of the insects and as it seemed unconcerned by my presence thought I'd get as close a shot as possible using the 100mm macro lens, this first photo is that shot.

The full glory of this wonderful butterfly was revealed to me as it came into focus. Wow! If we had to leave now, I would return home a happy man.

To think that this very same species of butterfly was on the brink of extinction in the late 1970s and here I was photographing not one but over the course of the next couple of hours, probably dozens.

I've read that it was the shock of the extinction of the Large Blue in the 1970s that provoked renewed efforts amongst entomologists in 1979 to conserve this butterfly.Plans to manage habitats were put into place that would ultimately  save it from extinction.

Those in south east England are found in woodland. Whatever the habitat, this species requires areas that are relatively-warm. This could be a patch of heathland that has recently been burned or a newly-coppiced clearing in a wood. The butterfly will readily colonise such areas, which resulted in it being given the name of "woodman's follower" as it colonises new clearings that have been created in a wood.

The Heath Fritillary

It shocks and saddens me that we could have allowed this beautiful insect to get so close to the edge that it almost became too late to do anything about it. What were we thinking? 
Perhaps we are so involved in our own, busy lives that we no longer care? After all, as people (who will remain nameless here) have often said to me "What good do they do?"

Anyhow, a couple of nice close-up shots for starters, what I now needed was a wings open photograph to show just how stunning they are viewed from above.

I'm as sure as I can be (and that's not 100%) that this will be a female. The females do seem to spend a lot of their time just lazing around, sunning themselves! (familiar)?

There is a huge variety of differing markings amongst this breed and although at first glance they appear to be identical, nothing could be further from the truth. They can differ in both pattern and colour.

A darker example
The butterfly pictured above doesn't just appear darker against the lighter daisies, it is so.


Of course a great deal of time is also spent on feeding. These little insects expend a lot of energy in their short lives and so need to take on sustenance at regular intervals.

Most will only be around for 5-10 days but it's a very busy time of feeding, mating, egg laying etc.

Amongst the daisies

As usual I took far too many photographs, carried away  in the moment. Probably around a couple of hundred in all. We spent a fair amount of time wandering around these fantastic woods and found quite a few other interesting insects and bugs that I wouldn't normally see at home. 

I haven't had a chance to check through them all yet but no doubt that'll make for a future blog entry.

I realise that this whole entry has been about the fritillaries of course but it's not everyday I get to photograph such rare insects and so thought it warranted the star billing on this occasion.

I'll leave you with a final shot of the beautiful, stained-glass like under-wings.

Until the next time then...

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Survival of the fittest...

It's a harsh place, the world of the insect. However, nature has come up with some remarkable ways of giving them a little 'edge' that may, just may be enough to protect them from at least some predators.

If an insect or bug can trick it's enemy into thinking that it's something less tasty, or more dangerous, it will often survive.

Take a look at the these images:

Can you be sure how many of these insects process a sting? Are these all bees or wasps? Or, are none of them?

Just as we are, birds too would be unsure and therefore tend to leave well alone. Mimicry at work.

(Answer to this picture will be at the end of this blog entry.)

In a similar vein there is a beetle that uses the same tactic of yellow and black stripes to try and deter birds etc. from attacking it. It's even called 'The Wasp Beetle'.

The Wasp Beetle (Harmless)

Most insects rely on concealment for safety. Many species will chose to hide away in dark places where they won't be seen.
This is especially true of the insects that are only active at night (another ploy to avoid detection by predators). Many of the butterflies will have beautifully marked and elaborate upper wings, but because at rest the wings are closed, they tend to be dull underneath so that once closed, they blend into the background.

 Peacock Butterfly (Upper wings)

Peacock Butterfly (Underwing)

In a similar way, butterfly and moth caterpillars also have a huge variety of 'cunning plans' (as Baldrick would say) to foil any would be threat.

Caterpillars are masters of disguise.
A twig?

A fallen twig or branch?

What about moths themselves? The day-flying moths are going to be in need of some form of protection and they often take on the same colouration as the trees you find them settled on.

Even the smallest of insects and bugs use camouflage as a means of concealment. There is a tiny hopper called 'Ledra aurita' that few people have ever seen. Not because it's all that rare, just because it likes to spend it's time on lichen-covered twigs and has evolved at shape and colour that is a near perfect match.
Ledra aurita (nymph)

Of course no matter how good the disguise, it's never fool proof. If it were, then I would not have found this example and been able to share the photo with you all.

Warning colouration:
The wasps and bees we've already talked about fall into this category. They have no need to hide.Birds will recognise the warning colours and leave them alone. The venomous sting is also enough to discourage most other predators  from launching an attack.

Warning colouration often consists of red and black markings as well. Just the sight of this combination of colours will be enough to save the insect from becoming another statistic at times.

Warning colours on a Plant Bug.

The same combination on a Frog-hopper.

A great many insects are protected from predation not by possessing a weapon or camouflage but by evil-smelling, ill-tasting or even poisonous body fluids.
Larva (caterpillars) will frequently feed on plants which have bitter or poisonous sap and will then retain some essence of this at all stages, hence any unsuspecting bird will find the thing foul tasting.

Coreus marginatus

Pictured above is a common Dock Bug. They are also referred to as 'Squash Bugs' though. The reason being, they emit a nasty smell if squashed. Another defence against attack.

There are so many other ways that insects have developed for survival. Little things like the humble greenfly or aphid rely on reproduction. They give birth to so many young that the fact that such a lot won't survive to adulthood doesn't effect the overall population too much.
Some find safety in numbers, others have a heightened sense of smell that alerts them to impending danger.

Then there are those that have huge eyes in relation to the rest of the insect or bug. King of these must be the dragonfly.
A dragonfly has a compound eye constructed of up to as many as 28,000 units.
Eyes of this kind produce less accurate pictures than human eyes, but are very efficient at detecting movement and it's been said that a dragonfly may be able startled by a sudden movement 40 feet away.

Dragonfly compound eyes.

Perhaps in a future blog entry I'll look at some other ways of insects and bugs being able to tip the survival scales a little in their direction, and also try and cover how evolution has equipped them with the tools they need.

Until the next time then....

Oh yes! You'll be wanting to know which picture, if any is of a wasp or bee in the collage? Well, actually there's just one. Middle photo, bottom row is a bee. The rest are harmless flies. But then you knew that?