Dear Readers, today I made a return visit to the amazing array of wildflowers growing alongside Muswell Hill Playing Field. As the year moves on, the cast of insect characters changes, and this summer I’ve really noticed the way that new players appear on the scene as others head back to the dressing room. Common carder bees now outnumber the other bumbles : these little ginger bees make their nests out of moss and dry grass, which they ‘comb’ together using special structures on their back legs. They are very adept at ‘buzz-pollinating’, and you can hear them vibrating away on the last remaining bittersweet flowers in my impromptu hedge. The one in the photo was a fairly large individual so she could well be a new queen – common carders have tiny nests of just 60-150 workers, and may have two generations per year.
The creeping thistle is very popular with butterflies, such as this small tortoiseshell. I was struck by how pale the vertical bands on the forewing were – usually the one closest to the wingtip is white, but the other two are sunshine yellow. There is a website called British Butterfly Aberrations, so I’ve sent off some photos. Let’s see what they say.
And how about this beauty? Adult peacock butterflies emerge in July, and can live for a whole year, hibernating over the winter. This one looks new-minted. I love the way that the ‘eyes’ look as if they have been blended with pastels, with the white dots even making them look moist. There are eye-spots on the lower wings too, but this butterfly was far too busy feeding on nectar from the greater knapweed to show them off. Apparently peacocks can also produce a hissing noise by rubbing their wings together if they are particularly irate.
And back to the bees. This magnificent red-tailed bee was feasting on the common mallow – the queens are completely black and red (like the first photo), but the males have a bit of yellow ‘fur’ on the face and thorax, as in the second photo. These are very fine bees, with colonies that live underground and can contain up to 600 individuals. Alas, by August the colonies are in decline, though the big queens (described in my bee book as ‘rectangular’) can be on the wing until October, before retiring to hibernate.
What is always interesting to me is the number of small, unobtrusive insects that the yellow ‘daisies’ (in this case I am hazarding a guess at smooth hawksbeard(Crepis capillaris)) always seem to attract. There is a fine mixture of beetles, tiny flies, small wasps and all kinds of miniature invertebrates rolling about in the pollen and squirming between the petals.
This is such a singular spot for wild plants and their insect attendants that I find myself drawn back every week. I suspect that when the thistle heads mature, it will be a good spot for finches as well. And the surprises weren’t over yet.
Small skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris) are little golden-brown harbingers of summer – adults emerge from June until August, mate, and lay their eggs on grasses such as Yorkshire fog or creeping soft-grass. This is a creature of rough grassland, and you will be very lucky to see it in your garden unless you have untrimmed road verges or uncut fields nearby. Incidentally, the male small skipper has a black line on each forewing, which is apparently known as the ‘sex brand’. I loved the fluffy white edges to this butterfly’s wings, and the way that it buzzed about: at one point it met up with another small skipper and the pair circled one another in a busy spiral until ‘our’ butterfly went back to feeding.
This time of year is also a reminder that, for many insects, the summer is already over. This male meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) already looks faded and bleached out, like an old Kodak photo left in the sun. Still, he was enjoying the yarrow, and hopefully he has already passed on his genes to a female who has dropped her eggs in the long grass and gone on her way rejoicing. Maybe there are some hairy green caterpillars who emerge at night to feed on the long grass.
Whatever the story, I wish him sunny days.
And as if on cue, here is a female meadow brown, getting stuck into the spear thistle.
What an extraordinary resource this little bit of rough ground is! It just makes me wonder what it could be like if the whole of the edge of the cemetery was this varied and insect-friendly. Nowhere close to home feels as much like an Austrian Alpine meadow, and if it hadn’t been for the lockdown I probably wouldn’t have found it. There is so much to be said for exploring your home territory, however ‘familiar’ it initially seems. I have found, during this few months, that there is always something extraordinary to see.