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...

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A sting in the tail...

And why not may I ask? "If you've got it, share it" has always been my motto. Whilst we are thinking about time and how fast it flies, and at the risk of alienating every female on the planet (not that I haven't done that already) why do women seldom wear watches? Because there's a clock on the cooker!

A few nights ago, I ran the moth trap and I am pleased to be able to report that it was quite successful this time. Catches have been disappointing for a while now and so to get, I think it was around 29 species, on one night, was really encouraging. Here are just some of the moths that I managed to photograph: all of the IDs are tentative and provisional of course. Please do let me know if I have got any wrong, or if you know the missing ones...

Buff Tip Moth - Phalera bucephala 

Buff Tip Moth - Phalera bucephala 

Clouded Border - Lomaspilis marginata

Buff Ermine - Spilosoma lutea

Grass moth - Possibly Ypsolopha alpella

Different Grass Moth ?

Clouded Silver - Lomographa temerata

The Coronet - Craniophora ligustri

Buff Arches - Habrosyne pyritoides

Buff Arches - Habrosyne pyritoides

Riband Wave - Idaea aversata

Possibly Swordgrass?

Bird-cherry Ermine - Yponomeuta evonymella

Many-plumed Moth - Alucita hexadactyla

Not at all sure about this one: Micropterix species maybe?

Small Magpie - Anania hortulata

White Ermin - Spilosoma lubricipeda

Dark arches - Apamea monoglypha

Possibly Blotched Emerald - Comibaena bajularia

Light Emerald - Campaea margaritata

Poplar Hawk-moth - Laothoe populi

I also had this beautiful, female Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli)

The males are rather gorgeous too. This is one I found in the garden soon after it emerged. I featured it here on the blog in a 2013 post.

The female left me with both a present and a problem: what I do normally is to start emptying the trap by collecting any moths that I would like to photo, in smaller containers. When I eventually opened the box to photograph this moth, she had laid quite a number of eggs. I decided to get a picture and release her before she added to the 'gifts'. My problem is, should I try to raise the larvae, if any emerge? I would love to be able to do that because it would be quite educational. But...they are said to feed underground on the roots of grasses and small plants; that isn't going to be easy to provide is it.

Freshly laid Ghost Moth eggs

Quite quickly, they darkened down

One day when I was out bug-hunting (that's every day isn't it?) I spotted what I thought at first was my first robber fly of 2017 - it transpired that it was actually a snipe-fly, and once I had found one, I realised there were lots of them...

A Snipe-fly - Poss: Rhagio scolopaceus

A Snipe-fly - Poss: Rhagio scolopaceus

A couple of bumble bee mimics, and I hope I have chosen the correct identities for them. These are both flies pretending they are bees, the top one is the better mimic don't you think? No...thought not!

Volucella bombylans 

Cheilosia illustrata

Another find was this tiny barkfly...

What else? Oh yes! This cricket that I spotted one day...

One more moth completes this update: I don't know species here, but I am going to call it the OX Moth...

And finally, there's always a sting in the tail...

A Hornet stinger