Thursday 28 July 2016

#FLYINGANTDAY (Flying Ant Day, 2016)

Yesterday was the day of the ants.

Our garden was bristling with movement. Ants were everywhere. Apparently we were rather behind schedule here in Suffolk, as others have already experienced the annual ant explosion.

You can see a large Queen in the centre of the photo above. This is the season when male ants prepare to mate with these Queens, who subsequently shed their wings and turn their attention to nest building in our sandy soil. The males are very active until they have mated, but once this key airborne activity has taken place, it is only a matter of days before they die.

The Royal Society of Biology, in association with the University of Gloucestershire, is asking for sighting records so I shall be logging mine here

This is my poster, which I shall tweet with the hashtag, #flyingantday ...

... and if you see flying ants, you can post one, too!

Monday 25 July 2016

More Butterflies (including another Big Butterfly Count) and Moths

We spent Saturday at NT Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. It was a very hot day and we hoped that we might see good numbers of odonata and lepidoptera.

We decided to do a second Big Butterfly Count - this time along the Butterfly Walk. We saw other butterflies, too, such as the Small Tortoiseshell and the Peacock, but the ones in the list above were the ones we were able to count during the allocated time.

I mentioned in my previous post that there are two day-flying moths that can be counted alongside butterflies for the purpose of this particular survey, namely the Silver Y (a migratory species) and the Six-spot Burnet. I have seen both these species this year (the Silver Y sighting was a first for me), but not during a count.

The Silver Y in the photos below was at NT Dunwich Heath, nectaring on bell heather.

You can make out the tail of the letter 'y' on the left forewing

Frontal view

So then we come to the Six-spot Burnet.

The photo below (my apologies for the lack of focus: I blame the breeze which caused the grass to sway!) was taken at Minsmere ...

... where we also saw the adult moths taking to the air on their maiden voyages ...

There is another day-flying (but also night-flying) moth that we sometimes see here in Suffolk, the Cinnabar moth. Its caterpillars stand out against the grass and can often be seen on Ragwort. Here is a photo:

And here is the adult moth in a picture I took at Snape Maltings in early June ...

cropped close-up

Thursday 21 July 2016

Butterflies and the 2016 Big Butterfly Count

David and I put aside fifteen minutes at the weekend to do a butterfly survey at Dunwich Heath for the Big Butterfly Count. The heather has been superb this year, and the Small Whites were certainly out in force, as you can see from our results above. 

If you would like to take part in the count, you will find the instructions here.


I keep checking our own garden for butterflies. We have had one or two Large and Small Whites. Sadly the Skippers we had last year have not reappeared although we have refrained from mowing a patch of the yellow flowers (a form of Hawkweed?) that attracted them in 2015. 

We saw few butterflies during our holiday along the Solway. I think we were just a bit early, given the chilly weather that we had at times. 

There was a good show of Meadow Browns at Castle Acre priory last weekend. There were also a couple of Small Tortoiseshells in the monks' herb garden. 

We saw a few Common Blues in a patch of heath at Dunwich some days ago.

NT Sutton Hoo has a few Small Coppers on the wing. They favoured sheltered lines of brushed-down grass in among the longer stems. 

To add a bit of colour, here is a selection of the butterfly photos I have taken so far this year. The occasional moth species may squeak in, too.

No butterflies here, but a photo to show you the setting (Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk) for the next six pics.

Small Tortoiseshell in the nettle patch (July) ...

... and on this thyme-like plant.

Travel-worn Small Tortoiseshell, at one with the old stone path

Another Small Tortoiseshell ...

... enjoying the monks' herb garden at Castle Acre

A Meadow brown, one of many
At this point we leave Castle Acre... and move to NT Sutton Hoo.

Small Copper in the long grass

A Large Skipper (I think this was at Sutton Hoo, but am not 100% sure)

Small Skipper
And moving on to other sites:

Red Admiral on yellow lichen

Painted Lady: I believe I have only seen one this season ...

... and here it is with its wings closed.
 The next two photos were taken on Dunwich Heath in rather dense area of vegetation.

Common Blue (I think) ...

... and with wings closed.
 And here is a butterfly in my garden ...

Small White

The next two photos were taken en route to Scotland (we took quite a detour though!) at Gibraltar Point near Skegness ...

The orange-spotted caterpillar of the Brown-tail moth (moth, not butterfly) ...

... and the tent from which it emerges.

The next photo shows a Peacock butterfly caterpillar. Look at those spines! This one was seen at Minsmere some weeks ago. 

 My final caterpillar is a Drinker Moth larva. I noticed it at Flatford Mill back in the spring.

The Big Butterfly Count is largely about ... butterflies, though it does include a couple of moths, the Silver Y and the colourful 6-spot Burnet, two species I want to cover in a future post.

I hope the inclusion of a couple of different moth species - in addition to the photos of lepidoptera in the larval stage - has not detracted from the butterflies in this post. I thought it would be fun to show a selection of my 2016 sightings to date. Some are little more than record shots, but they all add a little flourish to my personal observation list. I am no expert and, as ever, would be delighted to hear from anyone who can correct an ID!

I will leave you with a photo of the beautifully recreated monks' herb garden at Castle Acre, which was a haven for butterflies when we were there last Saturday.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Sand Wasps, Digger Wasps, the Ant-lion and the Bee-wolf

Suffolk boasts a number of sandy heathland and sand dune habitats. The photos below were taken at NT Sutton Hoo, above the river Deben near Woodbridge and at RSPB Minsmere on the Suffolk coast. The mounds at Sutton Hoo rise prominently above the skyline, but there are also a number of tiny mounds in the area that you could easily miss. These belong to a variety of burrowing insects including digger wasps.

The sandy soil around Minsmere and the adjoining heath above Dunwich is home to the Ant-lion and the Bee-wolf. Adult Ant-lions are not exactly spectacular: they look a bit like dull grey damselflies and are not often seen during the best hours of daylight, preferring the evening for their excursions on the wing. The larvae are the ones responsible for the name since they have soft bodies covered in bristles: they also have huge appetites for ants. They live in sandy pits, which they create and in which they sometimes play host to parasitic insects.

The Bee-wolf, on the other hand, is actually a solitary digger wasp. This insect preys on the worker Honey bee, but since the Bee-wolf needs a very particular habitat, I wonder how much of a threat it poses to the Honey bee population. It looks like a large wasp, but with rather short thick antennae.


My first photo (immediately below) was taken at Sutton Hoo in sandy soil. I do not have an exact ID for the insect to date, but I am pretty certain that it is a species of Digger Wasp ...

... for here it is doing what Digger Wasps do best.

The photo below shows ... a head in a hole. No prizes for guessing that!

The next photo was taken on the reserve at RSPB Minsmere along the sandy edge of the path that leads towards the sea from the Visitors' Centre.

Here we are back at NT Sutton Hoo again, where the brown insect - a weevil perhaps, possibly a larva of some sort - is climbing up the sandy wall of a large Digger Wasp/Sand Wasp hole. I am wondering if there is another insect slightly above it to the right in the hole within the hole. There was a lot of insect activity in the area.

 The following picture is of the same hole, and shows a wasp peering out of a crevice.

The hole below was about a couple of metres away from the large one above. This time you can see a different kind of insect, looking more like an ant; and yet it is in fact a solitary Red-banded Sand Wasp of the Ammophila family.

... and here it is ...

... digging away.

The photos that I took at Sutton Hoo were taken during a walk around the mounds. The photo below shows just how brown the long grass has become, despite the heavy rains in June. I find it sad to think that we are already about a month on from the longest day.

And finally, here is a photo of three friends who were quite happy to stand in our path until their pictures had been taken!

Sunday 17 July 2016

Ladybird Alert - Striped Ladybird, a first for me

We took a walk on the magnificent heath at Dunwich on the Suffolk coast (just above Minsmere) this afternoon, and I remembered that I had still to post a photo of a ladybird I saw there on my last visit, about a month ago, back in June.

The insect was quite large, about the size you would expect for a Harlequin, but (unless I am completely mistaken) this was no Harlequin. It was a Striped Ladybird, a variety I do not recall having seen before. It feeds on brown aphids of the genus Cinara, which frequent pine trees, particularly Scots Pine.

This ladybird was crawling over a wooden bench, as you can see. I seem to recall that there were some pine trees in the vicinity, but I do not think that they were Scots Pine (which I have seen in Scotland, along the shore of places like Loch Maree).