Sunday, 23 March 2014

Getting buzzy with it!

Hello dear readers, hope you are well and a warm welcome to my newest reader Julie, glad to have you aboard. Also a big thanks to Natasha for your kind comments last time, much appreciated.

Spring is here me thinks.

Well, with all this lovely weather of late, lots has been happening. Unfortunately though, the bumblebee nest box that I set up has failed to work and after another bee sadly died, I opened the exit tube and the other bee left of its own accord. I won't be catching anymore bees this year now as I didn't create this experiment to kill bees, no. I will however wait till next year and try again, after all, it was Einstien who once said:
"Those who have never failed, have never tried anything new"
I can only summarise that the reasons the bees didn't take to the box was for the following reasons:

  • Bees caught too early, not enough time to prepare themselves for nesting
  • I didn't provide enough pollen
  • Bombus terrestris usually nests in old mouse nests and as I didn't have an old mouse nest to use.
  • The box temperature might have been wrong.
Whatever the reason, there's always next year. On an ironic twist however, not long after I released the last bee, I got a visitor to the blue tit nest box looking for a nest site.

It's a Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum), which is a newcomer to the UK and it made its way here under its own steam and wasn't introduced (makes a change). As the name suggests, the like to nest high up in trees and are commonly known to take over nest boxes. Very much like our own Buff-tailed bumblebee (B terrestis) which takes over mouse nests. 

Not long after this though, on the same day, this happened:

Yes, finally, after weeks of popping back and forth and lots of wing shuffles, the blue tit finally starts the task of nest building. It was very slow at first and by the second day there wasn't much in there to speak of. But then I got another surprise!

Yes, the Tree bumble was back again, and it didn't seem to pleased with the new additions to the nest box. He even came back for a third time the following day, yet, the tow have never been in the box together as far as I know. Possibly a good thing. 

However, after the third day, the bumble never returned anymore and the blue tit nest has come on leaps and bounds, so much so that for the first time ever, the blue tit actually spent its first night in the box and here we see it as it stirs to attend an itch and then sticks its head back under its wing as a noisy train rumbles past.

The following day, nest building began in earnest and at one point she was visiting the nest once every 2 minutes with nesting materials which she seems to be collecting from a garden 2 doors down. They have an area at the rear of their garden where old potted plants go to die. A potted plant graveyard if you like. There is obviously a good supply of sphagnum there too and today the nest is looking very nest like.

I'm also taking a photo of the nest on a daily basis which I hope to stitch together into a time-lapse at the end of the season. Watch this space!

I will also be updating my YouTube channel on a regular basis, so click here to keep updated, or subscribe to the channel as well.

The Emperor's are emerging!

Yes, the cocoons that I brought in from the cold last week have suddenly started to emerge and the look fabulous. 
Saturnia pavonia female on the left, male on the right.
The adult moths will live for about 4-6 weeks and during this time will not feed. This stage of their lifecycle is purely about furthering the species, it's about mating, and the way they do this is also quite a spectacular feat in itself.

Adult Emperor moths have a strange lifestyle, the male flies at day and sleeps at night whilst the female flies by night and sleeps during the day. So how do they ever meet to mate I hear you ask. The answer comes in the form of pheromones. When the female rests up for the day, they release a chemical called pheromones, a bit like ladies wearing a very nice perfume. We humans can't smell these pheromones, but the feathery antennae of the male moths (see photo above to compare the male and female antennae) pick the pheromones up very well and like a well trained bloodhound begin to track the female down.

It's amazing just how powerful this pheromone is. Me and my niece Gabby, went over to my local heathland patch to release some of the males and females this weekend. Dafydd Lewis, the membership secretary of the Amateur Entomologists Society had already told me about a practice called 'assemblage'. This is where you put a caught female in a container with a net lid on, then go out to an area where that moth frequents with the female and soon you should get males coming to find the female in the container due to them homing in on her pheromone scent. Needless to say, me and Gabby hadn't been there long when from about 100 yards away, two males came fluttering in and one flew straight into the box of females I had brought along. It was quite windy too, which added to the amazement and if you're still not taken back by this wonderful feat, try looking at it like this: The average human is around 70" tall and the average Emperor moth has a body length of about 1". The moth was picking up the scent at over a 100yds away. That would be like the average human male smelling a female from over 7000yds away across a huge garden full of flowers and doing it blindfolded, because the moth is doing it by sight either. Considering most men can't smell their wife's perfume from 2yds away, that really is quite a trick the moths have.

We gently placed the rest of the moths around the heath in different places in the hope they wouldn't get found by any predators such as birds, etc. We also placed some eggs in different places around the heath as one thing I found from these emerging moths is that mate pretty quickly once they've emerged. This is quite understandable really. Emerging as an adult moth/butterfly is everything that little munching caterpillar has been working towards, the time to mate and further the species. Imagine the futility of it all if you were to be snapped up by a bird not long after emerging? So the need to mate and lay eggs quickly after emerging is of great importance and this is another reason (I believe) that the female flies at night. Firstly, there's less chance of being predated upon when flying at night and secondly, you can lay your eggs without any predators seeing where you've laid the eggs. So although it seems rather strange for the different sexes to be flying at different times, in the long run, it makes perfect sense.

Needless to say, all this mating as soon as emerging has left me with a lot of eggs.

Emperor moth eggs

Some eggs were thoughtfully placed on twigs which makes them easier to place in the wild.

Thoughtfully placed eggs.
These should hatch in around 7 days, however, most of these eggs will go to other like minded friends who want the joy of raising such a creature and many will be placed on the heathland where their food plant is abundant.

It's been a wonderful experience since I first found the original female Emperor moth who laid the eggs which hatched into tiny little caterpillars which grew and grew and grew and then made their tough silk cocoons.

Then come the spring to watch them emerge is fantastic and here's a video of one female emerging. I hope you like it. If it isn't showing below, please click on this here

Food for thought!

It is quite common this time of year to find large queen bumblebees looking rather dozy and lethargic on the floor, or on walls etc. These bees are usually low on energy and the best thing you can do for them is to give them a solution of sugar water. 2 parts water: 1 part sugar (by weight) and place it in front of the bee. You'll find she'll lap it up and will be on her way in no time with her energy packs fully restored. Please do not give bees honey! There is a very good chance that there could be harmful pathogens in the honey that will harm the bee and could spread doing far more harm than good and our bees are already in serious trouble, they don't need anymore trouble. A big thanks to Sarah (you know who you are) for reminding me about this.

That's about it for now, hope you enjoyed and please feel free to check my YouTube channel for further updates on PattyBlue (as the wifey calls her) the blue tit. Eggs should be laid soon I reckon. Wonder how many she will lay?

Tile next time folks, keep safe, keep smiling.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Beautiful butterflies, bees and beetles.

Hello dear readers, hope all is good with you. It's been a lovely week weather wise with many butterflies and bees on the wing. Saw my first Brimstone Butterfly fly over the garden this week along with a Comma and a Small tortoiseshell having a drink from my pond's waterfall.
Sorry for the blurriness, taken from distance on phone, Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
There was even a report of a rare migrant Large Tortoiseshell by Will Brame on Twitter, spotted not once, but a couple of times in Felixstowe.

Something else that I've seen lots of this week whilst walking around my local patch Purdis Heath are these lovely 7-spot ladybirds (Cocinella 7-punctata).

7-spot ladybird.
They seem to be all over the gorse at the moment, so when I spot one, I usually stand back and see how many more I can see and on most occasions, it's more than 10. I then take a photo on my phone and upload it to iRecord via the iRecord Ladybirds app. If you haven't got it, I suggest you go and download it now as it's FREE. It helps you to identify what ladybird you've found and even locates you via GPS. It's so simple to use and it helps the UK ladybird survey so much. 

Another beautiful and tiny ladybird I came across was this little fella

Pine Ladybird (Exochomus 4-pustulatus) hiding amongst gorse flower buds.
I only found it by chance when I was trying to ID a bumblebee (which turned out to be a Buff-tail Bombus terrestris) queen).

Talking of which...

Whilst out and about on my walk around the heath this week, the bees were in abundance too and at one point I was buzzed not by one but three bees in less than 30 seconds. the last one really wanted to check me out though and spent some time buzzing in front of my face as if to say, do I know you?

Now you may laugh, but recent studies have found that bees are able to recognise human faces! So be careful next time you try to swat that wasp (they belong to the same families as bees, Hymenoptera), they may recognise you and sting you whilst you're not looking.

whilst there were many bees buzzing around me, I found one bee that had become a fatality lying on the path in front of me. It didn't seem to have any obvious injuries, so I imagine it may have been parasitised. 

An ex-bumblebee.
There were also some honey-bees on the wing feeding on the gorse flowers.

Honey-bee (Apis mellifera) on gorse flower.

In from the cold.

Cast your minds back to last year and you will recall that I reared some Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia) caterpillars from eggs all the way to cocoons. They have spent all winter wrapped in a lattice type rubber door mat hanging on the side of my wifey's studio. The Emperor moth flight season begins in April and this is the point when all those little munching machines reach maturity. This is the one thing they have been munching their way to, adulthood. A time to procreate and carry the species on to the next generation of leaf munchers. This is emergence is something I don't want to miss as I have never seen it before in real life. So as the outdoor temperatures are pretty close to my indoor temperature, I've set up the flexarium and have placed all those cocoons within it to wait and see what happens.

As I was picking the cocoons from their protective rubber door mat and placing them in the flexarium, I heard a small buzz and saw what I thought was a fly shoot off from the mat straight to the window, where it kept buzzing as it tried to get through the impenetrable forcefield of glass. I continued to put the cocoons in place and then I went to release the fly. However, it wash't a fly, it was in fact a queen common wasp (Vespula vulgaris)

Pleased to meet you, I think.

And your good side please.
Lets just hope she didn't munch her way into any of the cocoons for a mid-winter snack. There were also four other co-habitants in the mat and these came in the form of House spiders (Tegenaria domestica). Don't worry, I will not post their pictures here. 

Don't tell the Daily Mail.

One other spider I found this week was also another first for me and I found it whilst clearing out an outdoor storeroom. I moved a box of a shelf and there crawling rather slowly away from me was this spider. Being the good naturalist, I reached into my pocket, grabbed a specimen pot and potted it for later identification. It turns out that the spider was in fact quite a well known (for all the wrong reasons) spider called Steatoda bipunctata. Or otherwise called the False Widow spider. It also has another less known common name of Rabbit Hutch spider, but this doesn't sound very frightening or scandalous as False Widow which the Daily Mail like to bang on about.

Lets get one thing straight, or several things for that matter. 
  • Yes, it can bite and is venomous, but so can all spiders, but it doesn't make them dangerous. Spiders are scared of you, humans can (and often do) harm them, so they won't come running after you to bite you.
  • If you get bitten by a False Widow, it's pretty much the same as a bee sting, however, bees have killed more people than this spider has. In fact, this spider hasn't killed anyone unlike its cousin, the Black widow which lives on the other side of the world and I once even found one in my hair and I'm still here.
  • They have been recorded in this country for 140 years and in all that time, they haven't killed anyone, so they're not that dangerous are they.
  • This spider, like most things in life, will only bite you if you provoke it. So if you find one, don't go running around screaming for your life or try to shoo it away. Leave it and it will walk off and hide of its own accord.
Spiders are your friend, you don't have to cuddle them or stroke them, even they wouldn't want that. But you don't have to splat them either, they provide a valuable part of our delicate ecosystems which we have pretty much messed up already, so lets not mess it up anymore.

Till next time my dear readers, keep safe, keep smiling.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Things are hotting up!

Hello dear readers, hope all is good in your world. Well the blossom is coming out on the trees, crocus' are springing up on lawns everywhere and it would seem spring is beginning to spring. It seems quite weird though considering that we really haven't had a winter full of ice and snow.

Some sad news

Alas dear readers, queen Helen is no more. She started to behave rather oddly and in the end died. I would fathom a guess that she had been parasitised, which sometimes happens with all insects. In the case of bumbles, there's a type of worm that grows inside them and it gets to the point where all of a sudden the bee can't fly or do anything. Sad I know, but fear not..

Some good news

I have not one, but two new queens that I caught over the local park and they have settled down nicely to start (I hope) building a nest. Again, they are both Buff-tail's (Bombus terrestris) and I have observed them sitting tight on the little cups of pollen filled wax that I have provided them.

Last years collected pollen being transferred to beeswax cups.
Unfortunately, I don't have much of them on video except for this little bit here which shows one of the queens paying much interest in the pollen cups.

Of course, it isn't only pollen they need, they also need nectar which comes in the form of a sugar syrup mixed 2 part water:1 part sugar (by weight) and placed in the box. I've also added a couple of drops of lemoingrass oil in the box, which is supposed to help them adopt the box as a nesting site. This along with an old blue tit nest I had all helps.

Lets hope so anyway, because if this fails, I don't think I'll be trying again this year. I don't really want to harm anymore queens than I have to, bees have it pretty hard enough as it is, without me killing them off on failed experiments.

I will keep you posted as to their developments.

New toy!

Yes, I got a new toy in the shape of a Bushnell HD Trophy Cam. A trail camera used for recording the wildlife that's loitering about when you're not loitering about. Not only does it take photos day and night, but it also captures video footage too. I'm still in the trying it out mode at the moment and I placed it out where I recently had the footprint trap sited. I sprinkled some peanuts about and set the camera to do it's thing, this is just one piece of footage it captured:

Like I said, I'm still playing with the various settings and in the above video, I had set the infra-red flash to high, leading to over exposure during the night shots. Still, over the images collected, I have found that there are 3 adults and 2 juveniles nesting in the vicinity. Maybe I should catch a couple and tag them with a GPS tracker like the cuckoo's the BTO have tagged. But that's another project.

All night long the mice came back to the nuts until this last shot in the morning that caught this little fellow looking for more:

It surprises me really, because the camera also filmed 5 different cats using this area as a cut through, yet not one of the cats was my cat, who was caught later on in the week doing this:

Maybe one of the reasons we have mice at the bottom of our garden, as our cat is more interested in a bit of sun worshipping than pesky mice. However, I'm not complaining.

Things are hotting up!

Yes, you can't fail to have noticed how glorious and spring like the weather in the east of the country has been of late. In the past week, I've managed to record at least 7 bumblebees to the iRecord site. This really is a great site to record all the things you see whilst you're out and about. It also keeps a tally of what you record and where, with lots of graphs and info too. All the info submitted is forwarded on to your local Biological Recording Centres so there's no need to do that at the end of the year. 

Here's just a couple of queens I found in my front patch by the drive when I came home this week. I also saw what I thought was a mining bee, but it was far too quick for me and was off before I could nab a photo.
Bombus hypnorum The Tree Bumblebee

Bombus terrestris The Buff-tail Bumblebee
I even saw my first Peacock butterfly (Inachis io) of the year in my garden and as it's been so nice, I thought I'd fire up the MK2 moth trap to see what she would catch. I placed her in the middle of the garden and plugged her in and left her to it. A couple of hours later, I thought I'd just pop outside to check what was happening moth wise. The evening was lovely with a slight chill in the air, a clear sky with no wind and a subtle hint of burning plastic. A couple of moths fluttered.... BURNING PLASTIC!!!! I looked down at the moth trap electric ballast box and sure enough, appearing on the lid of the box was a brown square which was very hot to the touch! I run to the plug and pulled it out, everything went dark and with a lingering smell of burning plastic filling my nostrils, I grabbed my tools and opened the electric ballast box.

Hot, too hot.
So all I could do was leave the box to cool down, remove what moths it had captured and then come back to it later to cover it up .

In those couple of hours though, it managed to capture 5 moths.

Yellow Horned (Achlya flavicornis)

Clouded Drab (Orthosia incerta)

Common Quaker (O cerasi)
It also caught a Chestnut and a Hebrew Character which I've already shown on  here before.

The next day saw me examining the box to see what had gone wrong and it seems to have been a design fault by the maker of the lighting system. The ballast gets quite hot whilst in operation and this heat had transferred to the plate which was screwed to the casing of the box. This in turn heated up the screw which melted the plastic it was screwed in to, which caused the unit to come loose and fall against the casing of the box. I have emailed the maker to let them know of this flaw and have also replaced the box and made some minor modifications to help stop this from happening again. Needless to say, I ran the trap again last night and everything performed as it should, so much so, that trapped 23 moths last night of 5 species, including this little beauty:

Pine Beauty (Panolis flammea)
Well that's about it for now, but lets hope the weather continues on its glorious warming trend and brings on the insects.

Till next time dear readers, keep safe, keep smiling.