Dear Readers, during my sojourn in Austria the water plants have grown up with much enthusiasm. Alongside the meadowsweet that I wrote about last week, there is hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife, and a patch of greater willowherb. The whole area is literally buzzing: it’s in one of the few constantly sunny areas in my north-facing garden, and, inspired by a wonderful Country Diary by Mark Cocker in the Guardian this week, I decided to ‘hang out’ for a bit and see what I could spot.
First things first. Most of the butterflies in this year have been of the white or blue species, so a flash of orange was a delight. The hemp agrimony seems to be a favourite with all winged creatures, who sink into those raggedy flowerheads in a kind of ecstasy. I had to wait a few minutes for the butterfly to open her wings, though the underside has a subtle beauty of its own.
And then the sun came out, and I was rewarded.
Once the wings are open, it reveals those double eye-spots, which tell me that this is a gatekeeper (or hedge brown). I can tell this is a female because the male has a dark band across his forewings. The photo doesn’t do justice to the caramel colour of those wings. Gatekeepers are one of the latest flying of the butterflies, with new broods taking to the air from late June to the end of August.
If you wanted a reason for not mowing the lawn, the caterpillars of this species would provide one. The female drops her eggs among grasses such as cock’s foot, timothy and common couch, and the caterpillars feed at night, pupating in the dried vegetation and emerging during the following year. Your grass could also support the caterpillars of speckled wood, ringlet, wall and meadow brown, small skipper and brown argus. I gave up my lawn to replace it with a pond, but I notice that grass is creeping back, nonetheless.
The bumblebees also like the hemp agrimony, but seem to marginally prefer the purple loosestrife, and the dark red buddleia that has just come into blossom. I should point out that the latter is meant to be a dwarf variety, but is already six feet tall.
How to tell a white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) from a buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)? It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because the ‘buff-tail’ of the latter is often white. In my book ‘Garden Wildlife’ by Richard Lewington (which has the most wonderful illustrations), the white-tailed bumblebee is described as having ‘clean’ yellow banding. whilst the buff-tail is said to have ‘dirty’ yellow banding.The Bumblebee Conservation Trust have a very useful website containing identification charts for all the common British species, and you can find it here.
Both are extremely common, the queens of both species appear as early as February on a warm winter day, and both are ‘nectar-robbers’, with short tongues that make it difficult for them to access plants with longer corolla. As a result, bumblebees of both species will cut a tiny hole in the base of flowers such as penstemon and salvia, and drink the nectar without doing any pollination.
It really comes as no surprise to me that bumblebees have learned to circumvent the carefully-evolved defences of flowering plants. I always think of them as the Einsteins of the insect world, and recent research has proved me right (though who knows what might be found if other insects were so closely observed). Bumblebees have solved the ‘travelling salesman’ problem, calculating the most efficient route between plants to maximise the amount of nectar collected and minimise the calories expended to get it. They’ve even been taught to ‘play golf’ in order to get food, which the researcher considers an example of tool use. All this from a creature that doesn’t have what we understand as a ‘brain’. Who knows what we might discover if we really paid attention?
There are plenty of honeybees about too. Our local allotments have a number of hives, and I suspect that the lavender in the front garden, and the bog plants at the back, are a major draw. There has been a lot written about honeybees and their potential demise just lately, but let’s not forget that the pollinator community is much greater and more diverse than just this one species, iconic and important as it is.
And then there are the hoverflies, so rarely noticed and yet so omnipresent. This one is a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus), our commonest hoverfly, yet I had never noticed the metallic shine on its thorax, which looks almost like liquid copper. For all you hoverfly enthusiasts out there, I can recommend ‘Britain’s Hoverflies’ by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris, an absolute labour of love.
The colour of the marmalade hoverfly is very variable, and seems to depend on the temperature when the larvae are maturing – in hot temperatures, the adult will be predominantly orange, but if it’s cold, they can be almost black. The larvae themselves are voracious eaters of aphids, especially those found on cereal crops and cabbages. They might not be as elegant as lacewings or ladybirds, but they are possibly even more important.
Sometimes swarms of marmalade hoverflies arrive from southern Europe, and the media is fond of filling the summer doldrums with reports of ‘wasps’ terrorising the gardens of England. The reporting of all things insect-related in the papers, and on social media, is often enough to make me bash my head against the wall.
The final ‘spotting’ of my 15 minutes was this ‘muscular’ little hoverfly, Siritta pipiens, which has the common name of ‘thick-legged hoverfly’, for obvious reasons. With those enormous ‘thighs’ it could be a candidate for an insect body-building competition. This creature is both common and widespread, and yet I had never noticed it before. Apparently the males are very territorial and will conduct battles in which they push one another backwards and forwards much like a pair of miniature water buffalo.
And so, I spent a very interesting 15 minutes with the insects. There is nothing like sitting peaceably among the bees and butterflies and hoverflies to give one a sense of perspective. It brings me a sense of being part of something much larger than just my small, transient concerns, and that is very welcome at the moment, as life gently moves on, whether I want it to or not. If you are feeling out of sorts, or dissociated, or generally confused, I can recommend sitting next to some flowering plants and just noticing who turns up. You might just be surprised.