Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Some members of the dead-nettle family (Lamiaceae):

White dead-nettle Lamium album, a favourite plant of bumblebees

Red dead-nettle Lamium purpureum, flowers all year-round

Ground ivy Glechoma hederaceae, in damp grassy places, often on the edge of woodlands

Bugle Ajuga reptans grows in woodland and damp meadows

Self-heal Prunella vulgaris, in short grass and waste places

Henbit deadnettle Lamium amplexicaule, grows in disturbed ground e.g. edges of arable fields


Marsh woundwort Stachys palustris, in ditches and wet soils, hybridises with hedge woundwort (below)


Hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica, common in shady hedgerows and woodland edges. Unpleasant pungent smell when crushed.

Wood sage Teucrium scorodonia, woodland edges, especially on acid soils

Black horehound Ballota nigra, hedgerows, stiff hairs make it rough to the touch, very pungent when crushed

Common hemp nettle Galeopsis tetrahit, often on arable land and usually with flowers tinged pink; this white-flowered form is a weed in my garden

Betony Betonica officinalis, often in grassland beside roads and footpaths

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Leaf-cutter bee contortions

The leaf-cutter bees in our garden find the bell-shaped flowers of Symphyandra pendula irresistible.

 As you can see from this image these very active little bees collect pollen on the underside of their abdomen and it's interesting to watch how they harvest it.

When they arrive they enter right way up and walk up into the bell along the central column of the flower but at some point, when they are out of view, they flip upside down.

This means that as they back out of the flower they pick up pollen on their abdomen as its brushed off from the central column of stamens in the flower. 

Interesting to watch how the bees adapt to different flower architectures. The same bees are currently visiting the open bowl-shaped flowers of meadow cranesbill. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Purple hairstreak

When I was out walking near Durham city with Allan Watson and Steve Ansdell this lunchtime Allan spotted a butterfly in the grass under an oak tree on the edge of some woodland, which turned out to be this exquisite male purple hairstreak.

You rarely see purple hairstreaks on the ground because they spend most of their lives in or around the crowns of oaks, so you need binoculars to watch them. This was an exceptionally lucky encounter. I suspect that it had just hatched from a pupa - it certainly looks in mint condition. Purple hairstreak caterpillars feed on oak foliage but they pupate underground in ants' nests, which is where this one would have emerged from.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Grass of Parnassus

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is an account of a walk along the river Nent, between Alston and Blagill in Cumbria, taking in some lovely hay meadows and also a rather special wild flower.

This attractive little bridge is at the Alston end of the walk, where the river ......

... drops over this low waterfall. Downstream it flows into the South Tyne.

The first part of the walk leads over these high pastures towards Blagill. This is curlew and oystercatcher country in summer and their calls followed us all the way.

The return leg of the walk drops down from Blagill to a footpath that follows the southern bank of the river, through some wonderful hay meadows that had many more spotted orchids in flower than we could possibly count. The patch of purple you can see in the picture above, just below the centre, is ....

........ melancholy thistle, once thought to be a herbal cure for said affliction. Finding it thriving in damp hollows in the meadow certainly lifted our spirits because this characteristic hay meadow species is declining in many of its North Pennine strongholds, although there's still plenty of it along the uncultivated road verges that are themselves remnants of meadows. It's a thistle that has no prickles and the undersides of the leaves are almost pure white, thanks to a dense covering of fine hairs. The flower heads are as big as shaving brishes (for those who can remember using these implements).

The wet gulleys that run down the escarpment in the haymeadow were full of ragged robin ....

.... looking suitably ragged in the blustery wind. 

Downstream from the meadows there were .....

.... mountain pansies still  in flower .....

.... in several colour forms, but the plant we'd really come to see was .....

...... grass of Parnassus, which isn't related to grasses at all but usually grows amongst them. It looked like we were too early - the flower buds, like little pearls, were still clasped in their sepals ...... 

...... but eventually we found just one in bloom ......

...... allowing us to examine its most unusual feature. It produces nectar to reward visiting pollinators but it first catches their attention with false nectaries - they're the yellowy-green finger like projections with droplet-like spheres at their tips that you can see between the stamens and the petals.

The other notable feature of grass of Parnassus is that it is the county flower of Cumbria, featuring on the county's coat-of-arms.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The elephant in the garden

Although I've found elephant hawk-moth caterpillars on several occasions in the wild, I've only found it in our garden once. On that occasion the caterpillars were feeding on bogbean growing in our garden pond, but their usual food plant is rosebay willowherb.

The insect gets its name from its head and first two segments which are narrower than those behind and stretch out like an elephant's prehensile trunk. That changes dramatically if you threaten the caterpillar by giving it a prod, mimicking a bird's beak. Then those first segments are drawn in so that those behind swell ....

....... with this startling effect. The false eye spots on that third segment swell too, so that .....

.... the larva looks larger and far more menacing. Enough, apparently, to give it a reasonable chance of scaring away an inquisitive bird, but if that's not enough ......

... the caterpillar rears up like a snake and sways from side-to-side. All this enhances its survival prospects and increases its chances of living long enough to become .....

..... the very impressive adult moth.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Who ate all the red campion seeds?

Ever since I first introduced red campions into our garden, about twenty years ago, we've had these caterpillars of the campion moth Hadena rivularis feeding on them. 

This is one of this year's brood. They tend to feed on the plant's calyx first, then chew their way into the seed capsule and eat the seeds.

The pictures below are from a brood from an earlier year.

Here you can see it chewing away at the calyx to expose the tip of the seed capsule ..

.... then it eats its way into the seeds.

The caterpillars often tend to spend the day inside empty seed capsules and ....

............if you give the capsule a gentle squeeze it will often emerge.