Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pine cone bug

Found this lovely little pine cone bug Gastrodes grossipes scurrying around below some Scots pines, near Wolsingham in Weardale today. 

The adult bugs overwinters in a secure spot and mate soon after emergence in spring. The nymphs that hatch from the eggs feed on the soft tissues of pine - especially the developing green cones, and reach maturity in early autumn.

Adult bugs often shelter between the open scales of mature pine cones.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Psychedelic Spindle

I was a teenager in the 1960s, so inevitably the vibrant colours of these spindle Euonymus europaeus fruits remind me of the colours used in psychedelic art during the period. This must surely be our most colourful hedgerow tree, not least because its foliage also turns crimson in October.

When the fruit splits open it reveals the seeds, which are covered in an extra fleshy orange layer known as the aril, which makes them attractive to birds. Very few British native plants have seeds with arils, although they are common in the tropical flora - the fleshy edible part of a lychee is an aril.

Sadly, spindle is now an uncommon hedgerow tree through much of its range because in winter it's the alternative host of black bean aphid that infests bean crops in summer, so it has been deliberately eradicated in some arable-growing areas. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Birch Shield Bug

Today's Guardian Country Diary is about this delightful family of birch shield bugs that I found feeding on birch seed catkins, beside a footpath along the river Tyne at Wylam.

This is a nymph, two moults away from becoming an adult, with the most amazing 'smiley face' markings on its abdomen - an insect emoticon.

And here it is feeding alongside its mother, on a birch seed catkin.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Heterobasidion annosum - a notorious, tree-killing bracket fungus

We found this impressive specimen of the root rot bracket fungus Heterobasidion annosum in Hamsterley Forest at the weekend. The roots of the Norway spruce that it was growing on will have been largely destroyed by the time the fungal fructification reaches this stage.

The bracket was actively releasing spores - notice the dense white covering on the ground under the bracket. They are often dispersed by soil animals.

Root rot is one of the most damaging tree pathogens and the surrounding trees, as well as this one, are likely to be fatally infected.

Monday, October 6, 2014


This is the time of year when yew 'berries' begin to become conspicuous. Yew is one of only three British native species belonging to that division of the plant kingdom known as the gymnosperms - seed-producing plants that don't have flowers and don't enclose their seeds in an ovary to form a fruit. The other two are juniper (whose seed has a succulent outer coating - seed picture at the bottom of this post) and Scots pine (which carries its seeds in woody cones - see picture below)

In this picture you can seed the fully formed yew seed on the right, half covered by a pale green cup. This is the tissue that quickly expands to form the scarlet succulent aril, that you can see half-formed on the seed on the left. This squashy cup is attractive to birds that disperse the seeds, effectively judging from the numerous seedlings that appear in places where birds perch, such as crevices in old stone walls after the seed passes unharmed through the bird's gut. The seed itself is deadly poisonous to mammals but I've watched nuthatches wedge it in a bark crevice, hammer it open and eat it.

Here's a fully formed aril, which almost completely encloses the seed, like a scarlet doughnut.

Juniper 'berries'

Scots pine cone

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Greenfly guzzler

I found this large hoverfly larva in Teesdale yesterday and watched it feeding on aphids. A gruesome spectacle - it caught them tail-first and they were still waving their legs and antennae as they disappeared into the predator's digestive tract.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Vandal identified

This year the Korean fir Abies koreana in our garden has produced its best cone crop ever. They usually stay on the tree well into winter but over the last week they've begun to disintegrate, with more being reduced every day to a spiky spindle. I thought it might be the dry autumn that was causing the cones' premature destruction but this morning I discovered the real cause..... 

.... and this is the culprit. I watched for half an hour while it made made repeated visits, pulling the cones apart.

This is what it was after - the seeds, which have purple papery wings. There are two seeds attached to each of those fan-shaped woody cone scales.

The bird is totally obsessed with plundering the food store that it has discovered - so much so that it allows us to approach quite closely to watch. At the current rate it will have trashed all the cones within about a week.

Korean fir is an ideal specimen conifer for a small garden, producing a reliable cone crop when just a few years old. Ours is growing in a very large pot and doubles up as a Christmas tree. The attractive cones are held upright on the branches and are purple when they first develop, ripening to brown and topped with very fragrant resin. And, as it turns out, excellent food for coal tits and if brings them into the garden, that's a plus.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ants and Adders

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is an account of an encounter with ants and adders

This massive wood ant's nest is on the side of a footpath through Hamsterley Forest on the edge of Weardale in County Durham. It's four years since we last followed this path and the nest is now almost a metre tall. There's as much nest below ground as above soil level and it's probably home to well over 250,000 ants.

The nest is thatched with dead pine needles and its surface was covered with ants, either adding more thatch or bringing back honeydew that they'd collected from aphids high in the tree canopy.

These ants attack intruders with great ferocity. This is what happened when I poked a stick into the top of the nest. You can see the powerful jaws biting the stick .....

..... and here you can see how the ant curls its tail underneath, to squirt formic acid at the attacker.

Those jaws are very painful when they grip your flesh, but .....

... not as painful as a bite from this. My wife spotted this female adder sunbathing near the ant's nest. You can see how the snake has flattened herself out to absorb as much of the warmth of the autumn sun as possible.

While I was photographing her I noticed two young adders, about the length of my index finger, slithering away in the grass, too quickly for me to get a photograph. Evidently we were standing in a favourite adder sun-basking spot. At this point the female became more defensive, although it's hard to say whether is was because she was defending her offspring or simply because she was tired of our intrusion in her siesta.

By now the angry ants had caught up with me and were biting myleg, so it was time to leave!

For more on adders click here

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Smart spider

This rather fine garden spider Araneus diadematus (aka cross spider aka diadem spider) has spun its web above our kitchen waste wheely bin, so ensuring that it will have a plentiful supply of flies attracted into its web.

The colour of these spiders is quite variable - here's a grey one, photographed in almost the same place two years ago.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Hairy snail

I found this tiny hairy snail Trochulus hispidus in woodland beside the river Tees near Barnard Castle today. The shell was about 5mm. in diameter.

It's a common species but tends to be confined to damp, shady habitats.