Friday, 26 July 2013

I got the key, I got the secret...

I got the key, I got the secret someone once sung. But I'm pretty sure they weren't singing about the same key as me. No, the key or keys I talk about do not unlock a door, but they do help unlock clues which help us identify various insects. For example, most of us can point to a hoverfly and say, 'that's a hoverfly'. Yet, there are around 260+ species of hoverfly in the UK alone, or in the case of bumblebees there are 24 species, 225 for solitary bees, 250 wasps, 35 for woodlice, 600+ for spiders, ~6500 for flies, ~4000 for beetles, 6000+ parasitic wasps and so on and so forth.
As you can imagine, if you have a general interest in these things, or you want to find out about a certain habitat, you need to know as far as possible what species are in the area. Doing this can give pointers as to how the habitat is, for example, you may find a species of invertebrate that prefers polluted water than clean water. So this could tell you that the water course or habitat your studying is in decline. 

So, what is a key?

A key is a bit like a list of clues that lead to an answer. For example, in the case of hoverflies, the first thing we look at is the front of the thorax (the main body where the wings attach) and the head. Is the front of the thorax visible or is it hard to see because the head is concave in shape?
If it's the former, we move on to the next key. However, if it's the latter, then it's possibly going to be one of the flies of the following tribes: Syrphini, Bacchini or Paragini. If it is the latter, we then look at the keys of each tribe to point us to the relevant species. If it is the former, then the next key asks us to examine the wing venation. These are the veins and cells in the wings. Believe it or not, there are many different types of wing venation. In fact, wing venation is used by bat workers to identify pipistrelles in the hand. There are three different species of pipistrelle bat in the UK, (Pipistrellus pipistrellus, P pygmaeus, and P nathusii), and each one has a slightly different wing venation to the other. 
The different wing venation in pipistrelle bats.

Wing venation in hoverflies.
(From: Britain's Hoverflies:
An introduction to the hoverflies of Britain.
By Stuart Ball and Roger Morris)
So, as you can see, each little clue points to a different species, whether it be hoverfly or bat or whatever it is that you're looking at.
A common sight amongst our flowers at the moment are bumble bees. Maybe you have a plant in your garden that is well visited by these wonderful little creatures on a daily basis, but what type of bumblebee is it? If you can, take a picture of it. Don't be frightened by it, it doesn't want to sting you unless you start prodding or poking it. Then go to this great little online key from the Natural History Museum and click on the two types of key at the bottom to start identifying what bees you have. It really is simple and like I said earlier, there are only 24 species of UK bumblebee, so it shouldn't bee (sorry) to hard! Let me know how you got on.

Another new and FREE app!

Now I know I've been banging on about the Big Butterfly Count the last few posts, but hear me out once more because it just got even more easier to do (if that's possible). They (Butterfly Conservation) have just released a FREE APP for the iPhone and soon for the Android that allows you to participate in the Big Butterfly Count whilst you're out and about, so no need to carry around an identification sheet, it's all on your phone so again, no excuses.

The iPhone app, could it be anymore simple!!!
I thought I'd give it a go on a walk this afternoon down on Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Newbourne Spring Nature Reserve. It's somewhere I've never been and didn't find out about it till this morning. Found it on their website. It's only about 15 minutes from where I live, so no long journey in a hot car, thankfully.
Although the website gives a post code which takes you to the Fox Inn pub, do not park there, they don't like it. Instead, with the pub on the left, just drive a little way past it and take the first left (Woodbridge Rd) and first immediate left again. Here you'll find parking for about 8 cars. From here, there's only one way to go into the reserve, along a well made path. The dappled shade from the trees gave some respite from the blazing sun and insects of all sorts were visibly going around their business.
It wasn't long before I started to see butterflies here and there. The first one I spotted was this lovely Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

Speckled Wood (P aegeria)

There were lots of Small and Large whites whizzing about too. At one point, as I was walking, I looked to the side of me where there was a bed of nettles and there flying beside me were six, yes, six Ringlet butterflies! Amazing.
Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) basking on a leaf.
Eventually, I found a nice shady spot where I could try out my butterfly count app and boy, what a test it was going to be.
My nice shady spot for the count.
To cut a long 15 minute story short, I counted 105 butterflies in 15 minutes. It was truly unbelievable, the majority were Small Whites (Artogeia rapae), with Large Whites (Pieris brassicae) and Ringlet (A hyperantus) also showing in large numbers. There were also a few Meadow Browns (Maniola jurtina) in there and 1 Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus). Unfortunately, I can't give you the exact figures of what I saw because once you submit your survey, that's it, its gone. There's no record of what you saw and where you saw it and I think this is a design flaw with this app. I only know there was 105 butterflies because there was the option for me to share my findings on Twitter and Facebook and that's what it says "I just spotted 105 butterflies for Big Butterfly Count..." I think it would be better if it said something like 'I just spotted 15 Sml Whites, 12 Lge whites, etc" Or at least give you a record of it, which is something you would have if you had done it on paper.
So, count done I went on for a bit more of a wander and came across this bizarre kissing gate
A size discriminating gate
I'm not fat, in fact, injuries aside, I'm quite a healthy fellow. Yet this gate was obviously made for people of an extremely slim nature, maybe size 0, or size 00, the sort of ladies you might find strutting a cat walk, not walking a woodland path. Usually, in situations like this, I would've just jumped over the gate, however, I'm suffering from a back/neck muscle/nerve type injury at the moment. So, jumping over the gate was a big no no, as knowing my luck, I would've got over to have my injury spasm and find I couldn't get back again. So,this part of the reserve was off bounds to me. Maybe Suffolk Wildlife Trust would like to address the issue??
So I made my way back to the car with butterflies all around and came across two other fellows who hadn't appeared on the survey. A first for the year, a lovely Red Admiral just gliding around the path and nettles. Unfortunately, it wasn't in the mood for stopping so I didn't get a pic. The other fellow was one of my favs, a Comma
A Comma (Polyonia c-album)
This one was a little shy and refused to open his wings to show his splendid colours, but I will be back and I will get a shot, I promise.
I have one more picture to share with you, a butterfly that was in abundance, a Small White
Small White (A rapae)
That's it for this week, I hope you have a lovely, smashing weekend.
Till then, take care.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Kids, the next generation!

Well last time we spoke, I left you with the thought of doing the Big Butterfly Count and I hope you took part, or are going to take part. I've just done mine in the garden on this glorious sunny afternoon and was pleased to see 4 Large Whites, a Ringlet and a Small Tortoiseshell in the allocated 15 minutes. Yes, that's all it takes so you have no excuse, and don't worry either because it's running till 11th August, so you haven't missed it! Again, no excuses, just get out there and do it and if you need that special reason or excuse why you should do it, here's something that'll make you think:
How many wasps have you seen this summer? 
How many ladybirds have you seen this summer?
I bet it's not many, I'd be surprised if you said it was as many as 10. I've only seen 4 ladybirds this year and I've been out looking for them! As for wasps, I've seen 2 this year and that was this week, and it's pretty likely I saw the same one twice, just on different days. This isn't right, we've just had a two week heatwave and at some point or other during those glorious sunny days, all of us should've come across a wasp at some point, whether it's been shooing it away from your ice cream, or watching them gnaw away at your fence for nest building materials. But I bet many of you haven't seen them. Now this is the reason we, the general public, are asked to do surveys. We are the eyes of the world, we see everything, everyday. We notice the changes, we see the declines, we see the improvements and just by observation alone, we are part of that intricate web, that delicate balance that is nature. If we see changes, especially detrimental ones, and do nothing, then we are a part of that demise. Yet, by doing a simple little thing as sitting in your garden, with a nice drink in lovely weather and taking 15 minutes out just to look at what butterflies are passing through your little patch, then you are helping. Not only helping to stop the demise, but even in spotting the demise.
Maybe if we had been monitoring wasps over the last few years, we might have spotted a problem in their numbers. However, as far as I know, no surveys have been done and now we know something's wrong.

I've also just completed the last of my National Bat Monitoring Program field bat survey for the year. Due to injury, I had a friend along with me to help and also learn as she is rather new to all this bat malarkey.
I've been doing the same transects for the past 4 years and was saying to my friend Jackie how much I've noticed declines in some areas and improvements in others. And it's information like this conservation groups need to monitor the welfare of our wildlife and it's people like us who help them to see what's going on out in the towns and countryside.
It's not rocket science, the even give you an ID chart of what to look for.
It's not rocket science, you don't need to have any special qualifications or prior knowledge and no-one is going to be upset if you find it all a little daunting and you're not sure what you're doing. we all had to start somewhere.

Starting somewhere, a different take.

I've got a wonderful little 7 year old niece called Gabby who has a passing interest in nature of sorts and usually comes to me if she has any questions in the subject, or wants to tell me something about what she's seen. This year in her primary school, she and her classmates have been learning all about insects and bats. Gabby, never being the shy one, often tells the teacher what her Uncle Hawk has told her. So much so, the teacher ended up asking Gabby, if her Uncle Hawk could come in and have a chat with the class. Not wanting to disappoint, I gathered some of my specimens together, and I also had a chat with the lovely Ann Ainsworth of Ipswich Museum. I told Ann of the task that had been laid before me and she helped by providing a display box of British butterflies and other small interesting creatures for a small fee. Also being a member of the Amateur Entomologists Society I told them what I was up to and asked them if they could provide any leaflets and stuff for the kids. They didn't fail me and Dafydd Lewis of the AES didn't fail me and sent me lots of leaflets, mags, pencils and stickers.
One of my boxes of Hawkmoths.

I also wanted the kids to see living examples of our insect life and decided to take along the remaining 4 emperor caterpillars (I'll tell you later what happened to the others) and my Poplar Hawkmoth caterpillars. It suddenly occurred to me that it was Stag beetle season and the night before I went on a little hunt with torch in hand to areas where I knew them to be present. One of these areas was around Ipswich hospital and it wasn't long before I was approached by an officer of the law enquiring as to what I was doing exactly. Thankfully, he laughed when I told him what and why I was searching for and left me to get on with it.
Alas, I didn't find any males stag beetles with the large antler type pincers, but I did come across a female stag beetle and a Violet beetle, which I knew would be happily received.

So armed with my specimens alive and dead and some advice from wonderful Twitter friends going round in my head (thanks guys, you know who you are), the following lunchtime saw me waiting around the reception area of Trimley St Mary Primary School, feeling like a naughty school kid waiting to see the headmistress. Frankly, Mrs Jiggings was far from scary and was only to pleased to see me and helped me set up my display whilst the kids were having their lunch. The weather was scorching outside and my nerves weren't helping, after all, I had never done anything like this before. But the kids came in and were sent to me in groups of 6, and what wonderful kids they were. So knowledgeable, they had obviously learnt loads over the past year and were keen not only to see what were in my little boxes, but to tell me everything they had learnt. I was soon put at ease with their friendliness and politeness, something we don't see too much in today's society. The afternoon whizzed by with lots of interesting questions and some wonderful answers such as when one little boy picked up my dead stick insect specimen and I asked him does he know why the insect looks like a stick?
Boy: Because it's a stick?
Me: No, it's an insect that looks like a stick. But why do you think it looks like a stick?
Boy: Because its mum and dad was a stick! 

Love it, it made me smile anyway and I explained to him the meaning of camouflage and that's why a stick insect looks like a stick. To actually see the point when they suddenly get it was quite rewarding and for that alone, it was worth being there. It wasn't long before the teacher brought in the kids from the class next door, who also had lots of questions and answers for me.
At the end of it all, as the kids got ready for home, some came up to me to give me wonderful pictures they had done, just for me. Here they are:

Loads of wonderful bugs

A female caterpillar from Toby

A wonderfully coloured in Lime Hawkmoth that I downloaded from
the AES.
So, judging from the feedback I received, from the kids as well as Mrs Jiggings, they loved it. So much so, I've been asked to come back at the start of next term and do it again, I've happily agreed.

The importance of specimens

One thing that struck me was how amazed the kids were when they saw my hawkmoth collection. They had never seen moths that big before, nor had they seen some of the butterflies that the museum had loaned to me. If it wasn't for collections like these, people wouldn't know about these creatures. People often say to me how amazing and colourful some of the moths are after seeing moths from my moth trap and they never knew that moths were like that. Now, let me say here and now, I never harm any of the moths I capture. Sometimes, the occasional one dies on me unfortunately. The moths that I have for display, are moths that have been prepared by someone else, from collections that are being broken up. My Death's Head Hawkmoth dates back to 1894 for instance. 
My Death's Head Hawkmoth from 1894. Think you've seen it before? Then
think 'Silence of the Lambs'.
As yet, I cannot bring myself to kill an insect just to stick a pin through it, but I am finding the odd dead bumblebee in my garden from time to time and am learning to set and pin them.

Two specimens being set on a setting block.
 Slowly, very slowly, I'm beginning to build up my own pinned collection. A collection that will allow others, children as well, to see these insects close up without the fear of being stung.
Pins are used to hold the various limbs and wings in place so it sets in that particular way
instead of being all curled up.
People, myself included, will be able to study minute details such as the hairs on the legs or the wing venation pattern (the various cells in a wing).
Doing this enables others to study the specimen easily as trying to move a wing or leg after it's dried up
would only cause the appendage to break off.
Once the insect has set, usually after a few days, I pin them in to the temporary display case. with their respective label which marks what it is. Like I say, I'm just beginning to learn this art and for anyone else who's thinking of doing this, there are many reputable companies who sell all the right equipment. Unfortunately, the first company I dealt with was supposed to reputable but I found far from. They're a Polish company who told me they were processing my order via Paypal and even though they never told me how much the postage would be. After much waiting, I got an email in broken English demanding I make the payment. Apparently, unlike most companies who take the money from your Paypal account, these don't, you have to send the money to them via Paypal. This should've been a warning to me, but no I ignored it and paid. When the order arrived 2 weeks later, I opened it up to find that they had sent me one item out of three that I had asked for and three items I hadn't asked for. I sent them an email asking them to rectify the situation. That was 2 weeks ago and I still haven't heard from them and doubt if I ever will.
Thankfully, they are not the only suppliers of entomological equipment and am now dealing with an English company. You live and learn.

The munchers update!

As I mentioned earlier, I took the remaining 4 munchers to the school visit. I can almost see the looks of concerned shock and horror in wondering what's happened to all the many other munchers. Has there been some sort of catastrophe? Did Trousers the cat get TOO curious? Fear not dear follower, all is well. The many other munchers have completed their destructive munching cycle and are now entering the long drawn out cycle of metamorphosis. Yes, they're all busy in their little cocoons now and will spend 1, possibly 2 winters, in those cocoons. So a long wait for them to change.
All set in for winter, an Emperor moth cocoon.

Cocoon in the making.

Unfortunately, for the Poplar hawkmoth caterpillars, I do have some bad news to report. Alas, three of the eight have died off. I suspected this would happen, as some were getting bigger than the others at quite a rate and the poorly three were very lethargic. Are the good news front, the remaining five are doing well and getting bigger everyday.
Poplar Hawkmoth caterpillar, the pointy bit is the tail.

I think that's enough for this week, I hope you have a good week.

Till then, take care.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Something you don't see everyday

Well the weather of late has been absolutely scorching and I for am not complaining. It seems to have brought the insects out in their droves and last weeks moth trap says it all. More on that later.

Did you see that!

The other day, as me and wifey got in from a jaunt down town, we walked in to the garden and within 20 minutes had spotted a Small Toroiseshell, Holly Blue, Comma, Skipper, Large White, Small White and a Meadow Brown. Yes, seven butterflies in 20 mins, but the best waited till last as all of a sudden a Swallowtail flew over one fence, across the garden and off over the next fence, making it eight butterflies, awesome. Now these butterflies are beautiful in themselves, but what's really special about this one is that Swallowtails are only common in the UK to one small part of Norfolk. I reported my sighting to Butterfly Conservation (Suffolk) who informed me that the last sighting of a Swallowtail in Ipswich was in 1998. The one I saw was either a migrant species from Europe, or a captive bread one that's been released. If it is the latter, I'm not impressed as someone's released a species that isn't known in this part of the UK and there's a reason for that and that is that this part of the UK is not suitable for them. Their only suitable UK habitat is on the Norfolk Broads, a long way from here. If it was a migrant, ain't I (and the wifey) the lucky one(s). This would be only my second UK Swallowtail I ever seen, my first one was on the broads a few years back.

This leads me nicely to the Big Butterfly Count which starts this weekend 20th July till 11th August. Just click on the link and download your ID chart, go sit in your garden/park/nature reserve and count what butterflies you see in 15 minutes. Couldn't be simpler.

On the subject of Citizen Science, I recently got an email telling me that a CS project I had been involved in has finally published a paper on the experiment. Yes, back in 2011 when that unpronounceable volcano in Iceland kicked off grounding all those planes across Europe and the inevitable travel chaos ensued, I came across a request for air samples. Not too sure how I came about it, I think I was doing a course with the Open University at the time and it came through them or someone linked with. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I had to attach a strip of selotape, sticky side up, on a book and leave out overnight. Then stick a bit of white paper on the sticky bit afterwards and send it to the researcher who looked at all the samples, under a high powered microscope, for ash. Well it seems that there was ash in my sample meaning that some did drift as far south as Ipswich. The paper can be seen here and just goes to show how important CS is, so do get involved.

From the moth trap

Well, with last weekends lovely weather, I knew I was going to be a bit busy when it came to emptying out the moth trap. I wasn't kidding. The final count from last weeks trap was 496 moths of 83 species, AND because it was taking me an age to go through them all, I let about 20 of them go without identifying them first. They seemed to be getting quite frantic, so it was for the best. But it's safe to say I broke the 500 mark and what with the scorcher we've had of late, I'm expecting pretty much the same tomorrow morning when I drag myself out of the bed to the bedlam that awaits me.

From the garden

Had my first signs of a hedgehog visit the garden a couple of nights back and I knew this because it left me a rather large present. This reminded me to leave some dishes of water out for them. On these warm muggy nights, there's not much moisture about and usually the hedgehogs would lick the dew from the grass leaves. But as there isn't much moisture in the air for the dew to form. This will cause the hogs to seek out ponds, where a lot will end up drowning. Especially as some ponds have steep or walled sides making it impossible for them to get out again. If you have a pond, make sure there is a sloped area rising out of the pond allowing them an easy escape from what would otherwise be a certain death.

Sorry the blog is pretty short this week, mainly due to a combination of things, man flu being one of them. However, next week I'll have some more news to tell you, so till then.

Keep safe, keep watching and don't forget to do the Big Butterfly Count


Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A little bit of time-lapse

Wowser! What a hot weekend that was, my weather station actually hit 31.8ºC!!!! I put the moth trap out and again numbers were high, although not as high as I had hoped. I was hoping to break the 300 moths mark this weekend, but only managed a happy 265 moths of 79 species. 30 of those species were a first for me this year which meant another 30 to my score on the Garden Moth Challenge bringing me up to 10th place. Woohoo! I've made the top ten. But, I'm sure that won't last. Who knows, we'll see.
However, although I was up at 4am to beat the birdies, I actually managed to remember to take the camera out with me and snapped away as I worked through the trap and at all the lovely moths I trapped. So without delay, here are some of those pictures:

The Pine Carpet Thera firmata

Ribband Wave Idaea aversata

Without a doubt one of the most impressive moths the Elephant Hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor

A large micro moth, Small Magpie Anania hortulata

Spectacle moth Abrostolata tripartita No prizes for guessing why it's called that,
even though his eyes are actually below the glasses markings.

A micro-moth with no common name. It's Crambus pascuella I do believe.
It's only 11mm long and it wasn't the smallest one I had!

Brimstone Moth Opisthograptis luteolata 

Now this is what I call a hair style. The Elephant Hawkmoth again D elpenor.

The wonderful Buff Arches Habrosyne pyritoides. One of my favourites.

And here's why. The intricate wing pattern looks like
it was drawn with a fine fountain pen. Awesome.

Last year I got these in huge numbers. I've only recorded 6 so far this year.
The Common Footman Eilema lurideola.

A first for me and then found by my friend Kass a day later up in Bradford on her window.
Wasn't even trying. Swallow-tailed Moth Ourapteryx sambucaria.

A beautiful Eyed Hawkmoth Smerinthus ocellata. This one seemed to have a strong hint of lilac about it.

And here's the same moth with more natural surroundings than an egg tray.

There was, of course, someone who found all this moth stuff utterly boring:
Trousers found it all too much and decided sleep was needed.
This is of course only a small selection of the moths I trapped. Otherwise the blog could end up going on forever. Identifying them all took a good part of the Saturday up. Many of them I was able to ID on the spot and release straight away. However, things like micro moths are very hard to ID in the hand due to their size and markings. Micro moths as opposed to macro moths usually have a forewing length of less than 10mm, although there are exceptions to the rule such as the Small Magpie pictured above, which is about the size of your average moth, the macro moth.


One thing I care about are the moths I catch, and as soon as I have identified them, I release them back out into the garden. I'm always careful to make sure no birdies are watching as I once remember, on a course, a moth unexpectedly flew from the trap as we were inspecting it. It flew to a nearby tree and within a second of landing, was gobbled up by a Spotted Flycatcher who had been watching from a nearby tree. First time I've ever seen on of those. Spotted Flycatcher that is.

Anyway, I digress. A similar thing happened to me last Saturday morning as I was releasing the last of a bunch of micro moths. I released it out of the vial it was being held in in the direction of some tall grass like plant (botany isn't my thing). It landed on the plant, then took of again and landed on the patio, where, quick as a flash, a Blue-tailed damselfly swooped down and grabbed it by the neck and landed on a tree. I'll never forget the look of that moth as the damselfly tucked in.

Moths aren't the only thing on a damselflies menu. I grabbed this shot of one in the week having a spot of lunch by the pond.

Nom nom n... do you mind watching me eat!!!
What was he eating? It was a pond skater, one of many that frequent my pond.
Pond skater, possibly a relative!

This just shows what opportunists damselflies are and they aren't the only ones. Regular follower to this blog is Mick (Hi Mick) and he sent me a couple of pictures of a rather careless snail that had fallen into his pond and was pounced on (bit dramatic I know) by several tadpoles, yes tadpoles. Don't believe me, here's the pictures:

I beginning to think that the snail may have been out on the razz as it looks like
he was wearing a pink party hat!

Word soon spread around the pond that there was a free lunch on offer!
Need I say that all copyright for the above two images goes to Mick King and can't be reproduced without his kind permission.

Mini Muncher update

I managed to catch one of the munchers going through an instar change and quickly set-up the camera to do a time lapse. Here it is:

A time lapse of an emperor moth changing instar.

As some of you may know, a couple of weeks back a moth laid some eggs which I thought were Elephant Hawkmoth eggs. Well they hatched and they weren't taking to the recommended food plant. Now either they hadn't read the same book as me, or they were a different moth. Then it hit me and I remembered that I had a Poplar Hawkmoth in the same box as the Elephant's. So a quick look up in the book and I went off in search of one of the following: Poplar trees (pretty obvious really), Goat willow or Sallow trees. Now as we've already established, I'm no botanist, so this wasn't going to be easy, but I had a rough idea what a poplar tree looks like and there was one just down the road from me, so I nabbed a few leaves. I also know there's a weeping willow in Holywells park, so I nabbed some leaves from that too. I know that weeping willow wasn't on the list, but it's part of the willow family so there may be a chance. To which I'm happy to report, they like a bit of both leaves, joy!

My baby Poplar Hawk moths, awwww.
That's it for now, till next time.

Friday, 5 July 2013

While you're about it...

Well, the weekend is almost upon us and for once the the sun is shining almost everywhere as this Tweet from the Met Office shows:

Met Office (@metoffice) tweet from Fri 5th July.
So with the glorious weather forecast, I guess many of you will be heading for the beach or countryside to bask in the glorious burning radiation of a star that's 93 million miles away (I always find that amazing that something so far away can actually burn you). Please be careful folks, as they say in Australia, "slip, slap, slop" don't be frugal when it comes to sun block.
As many of you will know, I broke my personal best on the moth trap last week with 295 moths and judging by the weather today, I'm thinking that record might be broken again tonight when I get the trap out once again. The weather here in Costa Del Ipswich has been lovely and ideal for the insect life. As I tap this blog out now, I'm sitting in my garden, surrounded by buzzing bees, fluttering damselflies and hovering hoverflies, it's beautiful. I'm also hoping to conduct my yearly National Bat Monitoring Program survey tomorrow night as again, the weather is looking ideal for it. I will also be helped by a friend and bat carer Jackie who's new to this batting lark and wants to know more. So if you happen to peer out of your window in the middle of the night and see two people standing on the corner of your street with a clipboard and a handheld box of electrics, don't panic, it's just a couple of batty people!

Which leads me on nicely to this. 

New citizen science project

There's a new citizen science project that everyone with a smartphone and 10 secs a day (or even a week) to spare can do. It's FREE and is sponsored  by Waitrose and it's called 'Bee Friendly' and aims to collect and research data on what plants pollinators like, bees, butterflies and other insects, like to visit. You don't even have to know what species of insect or plant that you're looking at, you don't have to be a wildlife enthusiast at all. Just take a pic with your phone and a Joanna Lumley would say, "clicky clicky, slide slide" and Bob's your uncle, Nelly's your aunt you've submitted some useful data. It's that easy, and if you don't like or struggle with the app, then delete it, it cost you nothing.  
Also something to have fun and participate in is the Big Butterfly Count. It's on between 20th July - 11th August and all you have to do is find a nice spot, whether it's in your garden or your local park or nature reserve, and count what butterflies and moths (some moths fly in the day too) you see in 15 minutes, it's not rocket science so you have no excuses, go there now and sign up!

A bit of a change

Some of you may have noticed that I've changed the decor to the blog again. I do this from time to time as I like to keep the blog looking fresh. However, if there's something you do or don't like about it, please let me know, I aim to please.

Talking of change

As some of you may know, I was rewarded last week with some Elephant Hawkmoth D elpenor eggs, eight of them in fact. I read up to find out what food plants they require as many people don't realise that caterpillars won't just eat any old leaf that's put in front of them. No, some are extremely fussy and Elephant Hawkmoths are no exception. Apparently, the larvae only feed on Bedstraw, Rosebay Willowherb or Fuscia's. Firstly, Fuscia's are far too expensive for me to be buying, I've looked up Bedstraw and I have no idea where I'm going to find it. Apparently, it's a common weed that grows everywhere, but I'm no botanist and the majority of plants all look pretty much the same to me. However, that said I do have a vague idea of what a willowherb looks like as I have it growing in my garden. Unfortunately, it's not Rosebay Willow herb, but knowing what Willowherb looks like and a gander at my flower book showed me what to look for. Again, willowherb is a weed and grows almost everywhere you don't want it to grow, so I popped out to my local patch and the second group of plants I came across were willow herbs (the first bunch in case your wondering was Bracken). I took a pic and tweeted it with the question "Is this Rosebay Willowherb?" Within 5 mins three 'tweeps' tweeted back with a YES! Bonus! I pulled up a couple by the root and took them home to replant in a pot out in the garden. These would be the first food the new mini munchers would get after hatching. 
Unfortunately, after getting home I checked on the eggs and I'm getting the feeling that they might not hatch at all. On looking at them under the hand lens, I can see that each egg seems to have an indentation in them as if they are beginning to collapse. This could be a sign that they are in fact infertile and all my efforts were in vain. However, I'm hoping that my observations might be leading me to the wrong conclusions and I continue to monitor them on a daily basis. Watch this space!  

Muncher news!

Well, not only are my mini munchers getting bigger, they're getting noisier too. So much so, Trousers the cat like to sit and watch them.

Trousers watches intently at the strange, noisy green things.
Yes, it may be hard to believe, but they really are noisy eaters as they chomp, chomp, chomp (and it is a CHOMP) through the constant supply of leaves I have to give them on a two day basis. Couple this with the constant pattering of frass falling onto the newspaper below and multiply that by 70 caterpillars and it just becomes a constant sound. It's not something you would want in your bedroom, let me tell you.
Noise aside though, and they are making excellent progress from 5 weeks back when they were tiny little things on my finger tip. They are now huge and I'm expecting that they'll be getting ready to start building their cocoons soon.

On my thumb and he's not the biggest one.

Regardless of how many leaves I put in there, they all seem to want the same ones!
I had intended on releasing them just before they got ready to overwinter, but after speaking with the County Moth Recorder, he advised me that it would be better for them if I let them build their cocoons some sticks in placed in their cage, then let them hang up outside the shed over the winter period. This way, they would stand a much better chance of survival than if I just put them out as caterpillars. So it looks like their with me for the long haul!

In the garden

As I write this, a dragonfly just whizzed past my head and straight over the fence. Couldn't be certain to what species it was, but it looked like a 'chaser'. More importantly, it's the first one I've seen in the garden this year, although Wifey revels in the fact that she saw one in the garden last weekend whilst I was inside.
Anyway, after seeing this dragonfly I sat by the pond in the hope it would return and I could get a closer look at it, unfortunately, it didn't return. However, things happen for a reason I always say and whilst I was sitting there watching the damselflies chase each other about I heard a strange, muffled buzz. I looked to see the a bee had fallen off a leaf and landed on its back in the pond! Due to any injury I have at the moment, I wasn't able to reach out to it, but I did have my insect net nearby and I stretched the handle across for the bee to grab onto, which it did (clever thing).
On closer inspection I noticed that it wasn't a bee, in fact, it was a bee mimic. A fly with bee markings.

It looks like a bee
It even buzzes like a bee
But closer inspection reveals it to bee a fly (sorry)

Time to dry off.

So whilst my little friend dries himself off, I'll say take care and take it easy, have a lovely weekend and don't get burnt!!!

Till next time.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A record and a reward!

Well, last weekend was a lovely weekend down here in Suffolk. Lovely warm weather with blue skies and little wind saw us all basking in the heat. I was enjoying it too thinking what it would mean for the moth trap that I was going to put out on the Saturday night. I could hardly wait and kept checking the weather reports on a regular basis to see what the overnight weather was going to bring. Warm temperatures, around the 15ºC mark and cloud cover with little wind was forecast and is ideal moth trapping weather.
Saturday night came and the cloud wasn't fully overcast, but it was still good and warm.

Just a little cloud with a nice wavy pattern.
So it was time to set the moth trap up to see what was flying tonight.

Moth trap set, bring on the moths.
As you can see from the above photo, I lay my trap on a white sheet. This helps reflect the light upwards and gives the moths a nice large target to aim for. The egg trays laying up against the trap are there for any moths that are struggling to get into the trap. Many moths land outside the trap and spend a lot of time whizzing round and round the outside banging against the side of the trap. The egg trays give the confused moth refuge and helps to quieten them down.
I also pin up a sheet to the side of the trap against the fence. Again, this is to spread the message by reflecting light a bit further away than just a bulb. I find it works as usually, as in the morning when I inspect the trap I find a lot of moths on both sides of the fence sheet.
Come 9 pm I popped out to see what was being pulled in to the light only to find it all still very quiet and not much happening. I then checked again 30 mins later to find a moth on the fence sheet. However, the moth turned out to not be a moth at all, but a beetle instead, a Summer Chafer Amphimallon solstitialis. It's very much like a Cockchafer Melolontha melolontha but smaller and it was the first time I had seen one.
Just landed with wings still protruding from the elytra. Summer Chafer A solstitialis
Then, again after 30 mins I was back outside like an eager school boy waiting to see what presents had been left. What I saw was amazing, the moths were swarming around the moth trap and I had to watch my every step to make sure I didn't tread on any. Already I could see an Elephant Hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor in the trap and also a Hawkmoth that thought he was just too good to be in the trap and found a nice place to sit by the pond instead.
A beautiful Poplar Hawkmoth Laothoe populi takes a rest on the bullrushes.
I didn't disturb him from his rest and he remained in the same place till the following night. My niece Gabby was pleased to see it the following and commented that it looked like a leaf and when I asked her did she know the reason why it looked like a leaf, she replied immediately with, so the birds won't see it and kill it. Spot on and she's only 6. 
So, the moths were gathering and I went off to bed knowing I was in for a busy day identifying them on Sunday.

Early start

I awoke without the aid of an alarm clock (unusual for me) bang on 4am. The first thought that entered my head was, better get up and sort the trap out. Very quietly so as not to disturb wifey, I slipped out of bed and straight down stairs with my pots, notepad and ID books and insect net thinking this'll take me an hour and then I'll pop back to bed. The site that greeted me was amazing, there were moths everywhere and I was at a loss as to where I should start. Sadly, I wasn't awake enough to think about taking a photo, I'll try better next time. 
I eventually pulled myself together after making a cup of coffee and started by sorting out the moths outside the trap on the floor, nearby plants and the back of the house. Then I moved onto the sheet against the fence before attempting the egg trays around the trap. Those moths which I could identify easily were made a note of and released into nearby vegetation. Those which I was 100% sure on I gave a quick look in the book to see if I could get an ID and once ID'd, again were released. Those that I couldn't ID with ease were potted ready for identifying later.
Some of the pots I use for potting my moths for later identification.
Once all the moths were potted 3 hours later (so much for going back to bed) they were placed in the fridge. Now don't worry, this doesn't harm them and to them it's just like a sudden chilly spell. By placing them in the fridge, it slows their metabolism down and the don't beat themselves silly trying to escape. 

The record breaking count

On one night last year I had just over 200 moths, unfortunately, I didn't write it all down. Or I did, but the scrap of paper I wrote it on has since long disappeared. I knew that this trapping was going to be another 'big one' and I wasn't wrong. The final count was a whopping 295 moths, 73 species! Wowzer!
Here's what and how many I caught:

Teleiodes luculella
Blastobasis lacticolella
Phtheochroa rugosana
Eupoecilia angustana
Light Brown Apple Moth
Marble Orchard Tortix
Notocelia cynosbatella
Bramble Shoot Moth
Pine Leaf-mining Moth
Chrysoteuchia culmella
Scoparia ambigualis
Scoparia basistrigalis
Small Magpie
Bee Moth
Euphestia unicolorella
Homoeosoma sinuella
Buff Arches
Maiden's Blush
Dotted Border Wave
Treble Brown Spot
Ribband Wave
Red Twin-spot Carpet
Garden Carpet
Common Marbled Carpet
Foxglove Pug
Mottled Pug
Lime-speck Pug
Green Pug
Brown Silver-line
Scorched Wing
Brimstone Moth
Peppered Moth
Waved Umber
Willow Beauty
Clouded Silver
Light Emerald
Eyed Hawkmoth
Poplar Hawkmoth
Elephant Hawkmoth
Buff Footman
Common Footman
Heart and Dart
Shuttle-shaped Dart
Large Yellow Underwing
Ingrailed Clay
Setaceous Hebrew Character
Cabbage Moth
Bright-line Brown-eye
Broad-barred White
Common Quaker
Poplar Grey
Dark Dagger
Grey Dagger
Bird's Wing
Small Angle Shades
Dark Arches
Light Arches
Marbled Minor
Tawny Marbled Minor
Middle-barred Minor
Treble Lines
Burnished Brass
Silver Y
Straw Dot
Fan Foot
 Total                             295

The reward

Yes, I got a reward for my efforts too. You'll notice from the list above that of the 10 Hawkmoths captured, 6 were Elephant Hawkmoths. Well one of these left me a present of 8 little green sticky eggs in the holding box.

Elephant Hawkmoth D. elpenor eggs.
And here's what they will grow in to:

Elephant Hawkmoth D elpenor

I would also like to say at this point a big thank you to the little Twitter community that helped me ID the harder moths @dorsetmoths @MarkG76 @Stewchat @The LilacGrove @dominicpic @inkednaturalist @AojandTheHounds @julabell1 @dragonandonion @MarkHammond @David_W_Gibbons@CupidoMinimus and anyone else I forgot to mention, Thank You! 
Oh, and a small thanks must go to the cat:
"It's definitely not one of those!"

Mini Muncher update

As I sit here writing this, I have to contend with the constant noise of leaf munching and frass dropping onto the paper below. They really are a noisy little lot, but they look so awesome. Here's some pics:

A caterpillar just emerges from its old skin to reach another instar

Now with go faster orange dots.
Another leaf gets consumed.
They are now happily munching on pear leaves after the wifey commented on how much the apple tree had 'shrunk' over the last few days. I also managed to 'acquire' some heather from my mother's front garden and have place that in the flexarium. They don't seem to interested in it and prefer to munch on the pear leaves for the time being. Soon I will be placing some twigs in the flexarium for them to start spinning their cocoons which will see them through the winter.

Also found in the garden

I also came across this little character browsing my buddleia today:
Mullien Moth Cucullia verbasci
Quite a colourful caterpillar which over winters underground as a pupae. These have been known to spend up to 5 years underground as pupae and is the longest part of their lifecycle. I could only find one of these on my rather large buddliea and I only found one on the same plant last year, which suggests to me that the adult moth only lays eggs singularly instead of in batches. Another strange thing is that I've not caught a Mullien moth in my trap so far this year.
I also found this little bunch of guys on a leaf.

Baby shield bugs
At first I was unsure of what they were, but it turns out they're immature shield bugs, the gardeners friend. Yes, these little guys will grow up to seek out caterpillars for food, hence being the gardeners friend.
And last but not least, I also came across this little immature garden spider having a honeybee round for elevens's. Arachnaphobes, look away now:

Nom nom nom
 That's it for now, till next time.