Sunday, June 30, 2013

A hat full of wild strawberries

We picked this hat full of wild strawberries Fragaria vesca yesterday afternoon - fiddly to pick but their taste and aroma are incomparable. 

It's a big mistake to eat strawberries with ice cream - they need to be warm, to release the full aroma. We had these on porridge this morning. Wonderful!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Pond Life

 A quick sampling of the tadpoles in our garden pond showed that many of them were still some way off developing limbs, which I guess is a sign of the late spring - the frogs spawned very late this year. (Double-click for a larger image).

This tadpole is a sharing the trough that I photographed it in with a flatworm.

A water log-louse Asellus aquaticus. There are vast numbers of these scavengers down at the bottom of the pond, where there's  thick layer of decaying leaves.

Underside of a water hog-louse. These crustaceans are isopods - all their legs are more or less the same length. For more isopods, click here and here.

Possibly the least lovable animal in the pond - a leech. I suspect that these parasitize the pond snails. The dark patterning is its digestive system, visible through the body wall.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Nettle-tap micro-moth

No Nettles Required: The Reassuring Truth about Wildlife Gardening, by Dr. Ken Thompson, is one of the best books about wildlife gardening that I have encountered, largely because it's based on his several years of research into wildlife in gardens in Sheffield. Many wildlife gardening books simply trot out the same old formulaic advice that's recycled from earlier books, or are based on wishful thinking rather than real experience. Thompson's book is full of sound advice about how to integrate elements of wildlife gardening into a plot that produces food and is aesthetically pleasing; it has probably converted a lot of people to a more wildlife-friendly form of gardening who might otherwise have been put off by the thought of accommodating nettles.

One of the points he makes in his book is that cultivating nettles in the hope that nettle-breeding butterflies like peacocks, small tortoiseshells and commas will colonise them isn't a core activity for the wildlife gardener - there's no shortage of nettles in the wider countryside and on waste ground everywhere and these butterflies most often choose large swathes of nettles to lay their eggs on, rather than small patches in corners of typical gardens. There are better ways to use gardens to encourage wildlife to take up residence - like making sure there's a pond, a log pile, some long grass and plenty of pollen- and nectar-producing flowers (which don't necessarily need to be natives).

Of course nettles have an extensive insect fauna (explored in B.N.K Davis's book Insects on Nettles), in addition to the butterflies mentioned above, but some of the common nettle specialists visit nettle-free gardens to feed even it there are no host plants to lay their eggs on. We've had large numbers of this day-flying micro-moth, the nettle-tap Anthophila fabriciana , in our garden this year even though it's a nettle-free zone. They come for the easily-accessible nectar in plants like this cow parsley - you can see the moth's proboscis sucking up nectar in the top picture.The moth's generic name - Anthophila - means 'flower lover'.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Newly-hatched caddis fly

I was sorting through some pondweed yesterday when I found this caddis larva. I don't know what the species is but I think it's one that lives between waterlogged dead leaves, rather than one that constructs a distinct tube to live in.

I could see that it was just about to hatch - you can see the well-formed wings in this picture.

A little later, when I looked again, the imago had hatched and climbed out on top of the waterweed. It's still drying its wings here and you can see the shed larval skin, down in the bottom right-hand corner of this photo. The caddis fly is still grooming one of its antennae.

Here's a the shed skin a little closer - I wish I'd been around to see the imago slide its long antennae out of their larval skin.

Still conducting pre-flight checks here.

One newly-minted caddis fly, ready to take to the skies.

If you've never seen it, it's well worth checking out this web site and this video, to see some amazing bejewelled caddis fly larvae.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rhingia campestris

This is the commonest hoverfly in our garden at the moment - Rhingia campestris. Here it's on sweet rocket Hesperis matrionalis. When the insect is at rest its proboscis sticks out in front and looks quite menacing, but when it's actually feeding ..

..... the proboscis hinges downwards and the stretched soft tissue between it and the 'snout' that faces forward acts like a pump for sucking up nectar.

This individual has just withdrawn its proboscis from the flower, giving a better impression of how long it is. It's often assumed that this hoverfly is exclusively a nectar feeder but a study published back in 1989 by John Haslett at the Department of Zoology at Oxford University found substantial amounts of pollen in the guts of females, which need the protein that it contains for the production of their eggs. Male R. campestris were mainly nectar feeders, using the sugars as their energy source.

The books say that R. campestris breeds in dung, something of a contrast to the smell of sweet rocket that it's feeding on here - this is one of the most fragrant plants in the garden, with a strong carnation scent.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Rusty nettles

The recent warm, humid weather has provided excellent conditions for the development of stinging nettle rust fungus Puccinia urticata and there are some colourful infestations on our local nettle patches.

The disease tends to produced flattened, distorted stems and also .....

... patches of spore cups on the underside of the leaves. 

For a close-up view of the spore cups and their contents in a related species of rust fungus, click here.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Summer Saturday on the Durham Coast at Dawdon...

One of the finest specimens of a marsh orchid that I've seen in a long time.

Spotted orchids in great profusion.

Bird's foot trefoil, with plenty of common blue butterflies.

Bloody crane'sbill growing on the magnesian limestone cliffs

Ox-eye daisies swaying in the breeze.

Harebells just coming into flower.

Cliff-top shrubs full of whitethroats, and finally ..............

.......... a lark ascending - for a soundtrack, click here....

Bee moth

Last year we had a wasp nest under the eaves of our house, so that may be why this bee moth found its way onto our bedroom wall. Bee moth larvae live as inquilines in the nests of bees and wasps, feeding on the wax cells, debris and sometimes even the larvae of their host. 

 When the moth was undisturbed its wings were almost rolled up, but ........

...... once I caught it they were extended a little to reveal the subtle hints of green and purple in the scales.

I've only ever found this moth once before, in a bumblebee nest that had been built in a bird nest box - there are some pictures here

Friday, June 21, 2013

Bee antics

After a slow start the bee population is building up nicely in our garden. There's always a bit of a lag phase between the first queens coming out of hibernation to forage and begin nesting and the appearance of the first workers.

Columbines Aquilegia spp. are a good source of pollen for bumblebees but they need to learn a special technique for harvesting it, by clasping the stamens with their jaws and then using their front pair of legs to rake pollen down onto their bodies. Occasionally, if it's a big bee swinging from old stamens they break free from the flower and it suddenly drops away.

This bee has full pollen baskets and is going after the nectar, which is located high up in those nectar spurs at the top of the flower, so it has to force itself right up into the flower - which must impose a lot of wear-and-tear on wings when it backs out again. 

No wonder that smarter bumblebees soon learn to bite through the nectar spurs and steal the nectar without the need for these contortions - click here to see a columbine that has been robbed in this way.

The signs are that we are in for a good broad bean crop his year, since flowering has coincided with plentiful pollinators. The flowers need to be 'tripped', forcing down the lower lip and transferring pollen to the stigma, and this common carder bee is probably not strong or heavy enough to do this efficiently. The bigger, stronger bumblebees are better, but they soon lean to steal nectar by biting through the corolla tube, as you can see by clicking here.

Many years ago I carried out a lot of research in broad ban breeding and grew large trial plots. The scent of their flowers early in the morning is exquisite and very strong; there is an ancient legend that you would hallucinate if you fell asleep in flowering broad bean crop; click here for more on the folklore of this plant. 

The biggest 'bee magnet' early in the year has been alkanet Pentaglottis sempervirens, which I couldn't stop growing even if I wanted too, as it's somewhat invasive and, like dandelions, re-sprouts from small pieces of root left in the soil. It has recently been visited by this bee, which I think is the red mason bee Osmia rufa - a rare visitor to our garden, although I have seen its nest tunnels in mortar in the walls of a house not far away.

You can see the distinctive 'horns' on the face here and the large jaws  - used for collecting mud to plug their nest chambers.

I think I'll install some nest tubes like these to see if it can be coaxed to breed in the garden.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mirid bug

I found this beautifully marked plant bug, which I think is Miris striatus, in a hedgerow near the river Wear in Wolsingham.

This is a heteropteran plant bug, characterised by wings that are partly hardened and partly membranous. This one just scuttled away instead of flying when I disturbed it. 

Most heteropterans feed on plants but apparently this one is partly carnivorous, feeding on other small insects. 

The colouring varies quite a lot in this species - I think the intensity of colour in the blue tip to the membranous part of the wing varies depending on the angle of the lighting.

Bluebells and Globeflowers in Teesdale

Today's Guardian Country Diary is an account of a walk that follows the river Tees upstream, between Middleton-in-Teesdale and Bowlees.

Along the route the footpath passes through some beautiful old meadows, with shallow fast-flowing shallow streams like this that flow down from the fells into the river in the bottom of the valley.

This is one of the umbellifers that's common in the old, flower-rich grassland: pignut Conopodium majus. There's archaeological evidence that its underground tubers were once an important food source during the Bronze Age and those who have tried them report that they taste like Brazil nuts although, given the poisonous nature of many umbellifers, this isn't something that anyone should try unless they are absolutely certain of the identification. Many of the plant poisonings that are reported, including fatal ones, are the result of mistaken identification of umbellifers - usually water dropwort species which also have roots that resemble carrots.

If you travel from sea level at the coast up into the Pennines you can walk back through the seasons in County Durham.  Because of the late spring and the altitude, there was a fine display of bluebells along the footpath (which is part of the Pennine Way), even though they had long since faded away at Hawthorn Dene on the coast, which we'd visited recently. 

The smell of the bluebells, confined between the dry stone walls early in the morning on a windless day, was glorious.

The steep banks of the Tees host fine displays of bluebells amongst the ferns, with...........

.... some fine specimens of early purple orchids amongst them.

Bluebells are most familiar as woodland plants but one of the features of the meadows here is that they are sometimes full of bluebells too - a reminder that this cultivated land was once woodland and that some of the fields here have not been ploughed in recent memory. Double-click this image for a larger one, which shows the bluebells more clearly.

Bird cherry is a tree with a predominantly northern distribution and this year its floral display has been magnificent. It's usually a small hedgerow tree and large, well proportioned specimens like these two are uncommon.

Bird cherry blossom complements Teesdale's white painted farms perfectly.

When the footpath descended to the edge of the Tees we found these globe flowers, known to earlier generations of Teesdale folk as 'double-dumplings' . They are much larger relatives of the buttercup, with incurved yellow petals and sepals, so that they resemble art deco lamps. These days they are mostly confined to the riverbank, but they used to be common in wetter areas in old unimproved meadows, growing alongside meadowsweet, ragged robin and melancholy thistle.