Friday, October 13, 2017

Moon or Luna?



As much as I am enjoying sitting here listening to a bit of Bob Dylan on the iPod, sooner or later, one of us must know (a little clue to the song there) that it's time to knuckle down and write up another blog entry. Just before we get to the subject matter of this update, a question: what do you think is the significance of this next photo?

Well according to the BBC, who recently broadcast a programme about marbles in which presenters showed how a marble was held by the crooked index finger and flicked by the thumb, "this is where the phrase 'knuckle down' came from". 

Let's get to it then: let's talk about caterpillars...
Actually, these are not strictly caterpillars, but larvae: still, carry on John, nobody will have noticed. 

I recently obtained some early instar Actias selene (Indian Moon-moth) larvae. These would be fantastic to observe I thought, and as they seem to like a wide variety of food-plants, many of which I could obtain easily, would be a safe bet. I had a care-sheet from the Amateur Entomologists Society that stated the preferred food-plants:

The caterpillars will feed on a variety of plants, including:-
  • Walnut
  • Apple
  • Hawthorn
  • Cherry
  • Cherry Plum
  • Willow
  • Hibiscus
  • Rhododendron (Rhodendron ponticum)
  • Holm or evergreen oak (Quercus ilex)
On arrival I treated them all to a mix of walnut, apple, cherry, willow and rhododendron, and waited to see which they preferred. None of them was the answer! I added hawthorn and a couple of the larvae seemed to take to it but weren't eating very much and soon began wandering off in search of something better.

This is how most looked when they arrived...



The following day I was starting to think I had made a mistake taking these on as they were definitely not feeding. Then I did a bit of detective work and found that they will also use liquidamber, or sweet gum. 

Where could I acquire sweet gum though? Any ideas? Nor me! Hang on though...isn't eucalyptus a gum tree? That was rhetorical of course, because we  already know the answer . Just need to find some now. Hmmm... might be a problem. 

I pounded the streets, but that did no good and so I repaired them and moved on. I racked my brain...but even putting it on the rack had no effect, I couldn't recall where, or indeed, if, I had seen any locally. I decided the only thing to do was to have a drive around looking for some. My salvation came in St. Michael's near Tenterden, when I spotted this tree outside a house, beside the local garage...


I rang the doorbell. "Hi" said the guy who answered, only half interested as he browsed his phone. "This is gonna sound like a strange request" I said. "try me" he replied, still not looking up from his phone. "Could I possibly steal a few sprigs of your eucalyptus tree?" Finally! his interest had piqued. With a half-smile, he said "Take the whole tree if ya like". Thanking him, I felt I owed an explanation: although, he didn't seem at all interested in knowing my reasons. I mumbled something about caterpillars as he turned and shut the door and I cut myself some eucalyptus.

Success! In fact, a great success. All but a couple were eating like there was no tomorrow and the remainder soon joined in.

It was September 16th when I acquired the caterpillars and by the end of the 17th some were already moulting...






By the 19th of September, many had moulted and were now shades of green...




Time to separate them into individual containers, as I had read that they can be cannibalistic once they start to mature. They were all looking much healthier now and growing fast. All except for the little runt that is. He was still way behind the others and looked like this...


In fact, this is how it stayed right through until September 26th. It was eating, but not a lot. His/her plight was not helped when on the 19th, it somehow managed to circumnavigate the obstacles I placed at the top of the water jar that contained the food plant, and fell right into the water. I have no idea how long it was there before I rescued it, but I dried it as best I could and assumed that it  had possibly drowned as there was no sign of life. 

However, the next time I checked, it was feeding. A miracle. It did eventually moult and became green like all the others, even though it was now a couple of moults behind the rest, who were quite variable in size and colour but doing much better than the runt...





Freshly moulted 29th Sept.

Freshly moulted 29th Sept.


The largest ones were now really impressive beasts. Those feet are brilliant and once fixed to a leaf or stem, there is no moving them. I had also read that they could be aggressive, gnashing their mandibles and swiveling their heads round if threatened, but I had no problems and didn't find any displaying those traits.

October 7th saw my first completed cocoon...


Today (Oct 13th) most have now pupated and I have just three with a bit more growing to do. Now I have to wait and see if any adult moths emerge in around a month's time, or whether they will overwinter and eclose come spring 2018.



Tuesday, October 03, 2017

I'm not really a spider, honest...


As I sit here, wiping the sleep from my eyes, trying to spark my weary brain to action, it's about 192 hours since I last did this. Incidentally, 192 hours is according to a survey conducted by the Express newspaper, the amount of time we all waste per year. That includes at 31 per cent, waiting for slow computers to boot-up.

That French geezer who wrote a bit himself, Victor Hugo once said "Short as life is, we make it shorter by the careless waste of time". He also said "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come" and I have an idea, and so...


Much to my surprise, my Large White butterflies have started emerging. I have some caterpillars in my studio too (more of that in a future update) and I guess that the temperature I am keeping those at was just a tad too hot for the chrysalises. I suspected a few might be close to eclosing when I spotted the one in the photograph below. The wing spots are already quite distinctive...   



Isn't it annoying how mobile phones rule us! Not only alerting us to every minutia of our lives, but demanding we pick them up to answer immediately. I had been observing this chrysalis for at least a couple of hours, hoping to catch the moment it metamorphosed, when my phone summoned me with a knock, knock. I was distracted for no more than two minutes, when I turned back, it was already half way out! 

Oh well, here it is anyway, at least I got to photo it...



I determined that it wouldn't happen again and so I removed the temptation by leaving my phone in the house whilst I watched another for signs of new life. This time I did better. Not perfect, but better. I could have done with being a little further away really, so that it was still all in shot but at least I get to share what I recorded here.

Watch for the point at about 0:49 where the meconium is expelled. Meconium is the reddish fluid that butterflies expel when they emerge from their chrysalises. It’s a waste product left over from metamorphosis. Also right at the end, it struggles to free one wing from the empty casing...




And then a short video showing it expanding its wings...




Finally a shot of it resting before being released...



I think that the four, yes four have now emerged, were all females. Could that be significant? The other thing that struck me was that I had two colourways of these and it is the green ones that are left: not a single green one eclosed.

I wasn't able to release the first to emerge, the weather was just not good enough. I kept them inside my studio in the garden and allowed them to fly free overnight if they wished. I also provided a sugar-water drink and a sprig of Buddleia should they want to feed.

Luckily the weather the following day was much better, as were temperatures, and so I was able to release them all and watch them fly off. Was it just coincidence I wonder that they all flew to the South East of the garden? 



Something a little different to complete this blog-update. I recently submitted 2 pieces of work for publication, the idea being that it gave the publishers a choice between the two. Having chosen, it left me wondering what to do with the one not chosen and so I thought, why not use it here, rather than leave it unread and unused.

Here it is then...

“The ghost of a spider” 



It was January of 1963 and although we didn’t realise it at the time, we were experiencing what would become the coldest British winter since records began. At Herne Bay, the sea froze for a mile out from the shore: it also froze inland in places, removing the last chance of food for many inland water birds.
At home it was mightily cold too, with temperatures indoors only marginally above those outdoors in the snow.

 Central heating had been used in some select homes since the mid-1800s but it wasn’t for the likes of we plebs. Memory tells me that the house was heated on the ground floor by an open fire, and a Rayburn cast-iron range cooker; upstairs there was no heat source whatsoever, nothing to prevent the frost from forming on the inside of the windows, as it often would in wintertime. Even so, on this particular night I was anticipating bedtime nicely. My pyjamas had been warming on the towel rail at the front of the cooker, ready for me to climb into after ‘my turn’ in the bath, and the stone hot water bottle was already airing my bed. Best of all, dad who was a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades, had installed his latest creation, a set of bunk beds (I shared with my brother) and tonight was to be the inaugural sleep on my choice of the top bunk.

 Yet it wasn’t a wholehearted acceptance of bedtime, there were a couple of reservations uppermost in my mind. There was the omnipresent threat of the terrors: nightmares! By the tender age of 12 they had already become a staple of my nights. Then there was ‘The Thing’, the physical embodiment of nightmares. It hung there in the corner of the room, just below the ceiling, taunting me, making eye contact, threatening to invade my already angst-ridden dream-time and who knows what else it might be capable of should I avert my gaze for even a millisecond. Gossamer thin, opaque at a distance, becoming more translucent should I dare to creep closer: ghostly! In fact such was its form that I had christened it ‘the ghost of a spider’. I had already asked mother if she could banish the ghost of a spider from the bedroom, and by association, my dreams, but my request was met with a curt, “You know I hate spiders, ask your father”.

 I plucked up enough courage to broach the subject that same night, right after he’d admonished me for “that racket” he insisted I was making by trying to play ‘Foot Tapper’ on my Stylophone. I tried to explain as best I could that the tune was one of ‘The Shadows’ finest and my rendition was top-notch, and anyway Stylophones wouldn’t be invented until 1967. “Surrealism isn’t even your prime peculiarity” was his retort; followed by “get yourself off to bed and let’s hear no more about the ghost of a spider, you are almost an adult now start behaving like one”.

 As I ascended the wooden ladder of gloom to my lofty berth, I determined to sleep at the foot-end of the bed. That way the ghost of a spider would at least have to travel a fair way before it could nosedive on its silken thread, pausing only when we were eye to eye, to eye, to eye, to eye to… scare the living B-Jesus out of me. I slithered under the covers as best I could, my chilblains stung as my toes found the water bottle, covering my head with a pillow I drifted off into the best night’s sleep in a very long time. When daylight pierced a gap in the curtains and drew patterns on the wall through Jack Frost’s graffiti on the windows, there in the corner was the ghost of a spider.

 Wiping the sleep from my eyes I crawled to ‘his end’ of the bed. “Today you will become a man” I whispered, almost convincingly to myself. I raised myself up to my full, manly height, all the time trying to avoid stepping on the bottom of my sagging PJs, until me and the ghost of a spider were face to face. Fearlessly, I thrust out my right hand, expecting him to run for his life; instead he remained motionless and so using my first finger and thumb in a pincer movement, I plucked him from his ivory tower. What an anti-climax: he was nothing more than a spider moult. I had been terrorising myself for so long over an inanimate object.


 As with most lessons in life, it had its upside though. Now that I was officially a man, that school bully was about to feel the wrath of my new found confidence. 





If you find yourself anticipating another update 192 hours from now, then apparently to find out exactly when that will be, you need to divide 192 by 24 and then round it down to the nearest whole number, then add that number of days to today's date. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Antarctic Echoes might be a good choice...

Time to put away the holiday brochures and write another blog update. I am thinking of postponing my planned trip to North Korea for a bit anyway. At least until the terrible twosome stop trading insults. Just who does that Kim Jong-un think he is, with his double-barrelled name? He needs to take a chill pill and put some Vangelis on the iPod.
As for Mr Trumpton, he says his hands are too big: not the body part I had in mind! Anyway, I didn't mean to start with a rant that has nowt t'do with this blog, so let's get back in the saddle eh. So what's new Johnboy? Well how about this spider egg-sac that I discovered under a bramble leaf whilst walking in the woods...


I flipped the image so that you don't have to practice the 'shirshasana' Yoga position to view it. I thought, well, assumed really without checking, that this would be the egg-sac of a garden-cross spider (Araneus diadematus). It looked the part. However, as is often the case, first impressions can be way off the mark. Where is the mark by the way? Have you seen it? 


What did make this construction then? A wasp? Did you say wasp? Well done...





It looks like a Braconid wasp, but can't be that. So what then? Hymenoptera for sure but no idea as to species yet; I do know they were tiny and there were legions of them that emerged. 


I have been following the progress of some large white butterfly eggs that appeared on the nasturtiums in the garden...


Unfortunately, overnight rain took its toll on some of them...
                   
             

Others did survive though, and in this next picture you can see that they are nearly ready to emerge, the heads are at the top of the eggs...



It wasn't long before new life was emerging...



The newly emerged caterpillars eat the eggshells as a form of nourishment. 



Now the caterpillars have all become chrysalis' and probably will stay in this state until next spring...



There are two distinct colourways...







This looper caterpillar was doing a pretty good job of pretending to be an oak twig when I spotted it...






The buddleia bush in the garden continues to attract insects. I have counted seven species of butterfly now...





According to BBC Springwatch, Red Admiral numbers have increased by 200%

From Buddleia to Buddha...



Whilst out driving in my Volkswagen Golf car, which somebody rather rudely described as "an old banger", I had to stop and investigate when something dropped on to the windscreen. It turned out to be a Red-legged Shieldbug and so I thought it would be rude not to grab a photo or two before sending it on its way...



On another day, I was sitting in the car at the entrance to my local woods when this critter flew in the open window...



Despite it being September, this is a Mayfly. 





Now here's an interesting observation...."Where?" Well it's coming, just be patient! "Good things come to those who wait" is what my mammy would say to me: I would reply, "Yes, but only the stuff nobody else wants". Here it is then, I saw this Tree Damsel Bug in the garden recently...

A Tree Damsel Bug - Himacerus apterus
Perhaps it arrived in the garden from next door's conifers, where they feed on aphids and others small insects. The damsel bugs I mean, not the neighbours. What intrigued me though, was the fact that it was drinking, or appeared to be, from the bird bath water. I had no idea these bugs would actually drink in this way but its proboscis was definitely in the water.


Shall we end this update by returning to where we began then: Araneus diadematus, or the Garden-cross Spider. There are quite a few Green Shieldbugs around in the garden now, but this poor thing became lunch for the female spider...




But wait!

I cannot leave you with an arachnid photo, because I know how wimpish you are  about spiders and we don't want nightmares do we. Er...does anybody remember Swiss Toni?
Toni was a character from TVs 'The Fast Show' and everything in Toni's life was "A bit like making love to a beautiful woman". And so I thought I might purloin his phrase and create my own little meme...


And so here it is: my end of update moan. This is from 'finallygoodnews.net' and is actually a worthy story about the effect of pesticides on the bee population. But just look at the photograph they have chosen to use to illustrate the story! It's a Hoverfly for ***** sake. What is it with these people that they cannot even be bothered to research properly? Although, they should already know what a bee looks like surely?

It gets worse yet. The full size image within the story proudly proclaims underneath 'Honey Bee in Flight'. I thought about letting them know of their mistake, but somebody already had.





Friday, September 08, 2017

Dung beetles and a pat on the back...

“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house."  Nathaniel Hawthorne

And so the autumnal change in our weather has seen changes in the garden too. The resident frogs, which I feared had perished following a prolonged dry spell, have returned...


The recent rains saw these two Woundwort Shieldbugs apparently waiting for the ark...



But I think throwing bread onto the lawn for the birds may have to be put on hold for a while...




Is anybody old enough to remember this game I wonder?



Well frustrated is just how I felt when I spotted this next creature. Having been watching and waiting for weeks now with no luck, suddenly, on the coldest, wettest, dullest day for ages, one appeared in the garden for a few moments...

Macroglossum stellatarum - A Hummingbird Hawk-moth

I had no time to add the flash unit to my camera (although I did try) and so this one usable shot was taken with a high ISO and small f/stop to compensate for the appalling light conditions. Meanwhile, the Comma butterfly emerged whilst I was in town shopping! At least I did manage to get it to maturity by removing that parasitic wasp though (see last update if ya don't know what the feck I am talking about)...



And this next picture is of the Small White, soon after it eclosed...




I also found this tiny, but delightful ground beetle in the garden one day. It measured around 4mm in length...

Asaphidion curtum - A Ground Beetle

Let's move out of the garden then; this huge, lumbering beetle crossed our paths whilst out walking the dog recently. I think from memory it was in a place called Woodchurch...


Now I did research the identity of this one and...should have written it down somewhere because I now cannot remember! Erm...Scarabaeidae and possibly
'Geotrupes stercorarius'? This is a natural light shot which shows the blue hue well: I also got a shot or two using flash. Notice how the detail increases by adding flash, but the colour alters too...






From Woodchurch to Rye. I got to spend time wandering around, what turned out to be a very windy nature reserve in Rye, with a pal from sunny Scunthorpe earlier this week. Again, conditions weren't great for photography, but I did get to photo this charming little Wheatear. Well done to Steven for suffering and indeed surviving the worst of our weather 'down South', you deserve a pat on the back Sir!
  






The wonderful thing about the 'bug' community here in internet land is that I get to see and share the beauty of nature with like-minded folk from across the globe. I get many requests for images and information, and in return, people are very generous about sharing their finds and experiences with me. My final offering today is this short video of a beautiful, dancing, monarch butterfly caterpillar, from my friend Stella, who spotted it searching for a pupation site in the USA recently...

Please note this video will not show in email version of update: