Dear Readers, in my lifetime there have been some remarkable changes in our wildlife. Mostly it’s bad news, with species declining and disappearing, but this year, as people have spent more time at home and in nature, there have been reports of many insects which seem to be be increasing. Some of them, such as oak processionary moths and harlequin ladybirds can cause problems for our native wildlife, but many just seem to fit in and go about their business as if they’ve always been here.
The hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) is a cracking insect, which has a 40mm wingspan and is a pretty accurate hornet mimic. There had been only two reported sightings by 1940 but since then it has become much more common, and with climate change warming things up it has been advancing north in the UK. It is migratory, arriving here from the Mediterranean in August and is usually gone by October. I saw one in the garden a few days ago, and very spectacular it was too, all clad in gold and copper. The males have a much narrower gap between the eyes than the females do.
The larvae of the hornet hoverfly live in the nests of hornets and wasps, where they act as cleaners and are tolerated by their hosts.
And how about this beauty, which was popping up on my Facebook Insect ID pages about twice a day through the earlier part of the summer?
We aren’t sure whether this very attractive day-flying moth is just a resident, or if its numbers are swollen by immigrants from mainland Europe (or even the Channel Islands, as you might expect from the name). It is listed as Nationally Scarce but if this year was anything to go by it is definitely increasing. Having seen just one, in Mum and Dad’s garden in Dorset, until this year, I then saw several every day for about a month. I was very excited as one of the foodplants is hemp agrimony, of which I have an abundance. However, I am still not seeing any caterpillars or leaf damage, so maybe my moths are just visiting. Definitely one to keep an eye open for, though: although it’s largely confined to the southern parts of England at the moment I suspect that it too will gradually make its way north as things warm up.
And who could forget the ivy bees (Colletes hederae)? If you have any ivy in flower near you, it’s worth having a look for these little guys, who could easily be mistaken at first glance for honeybees except that they are much stripier and gather the pollen onto their hairy legs rather than into a proper ‘basket’. They are solitary bees, although they may make their nest tunnels in the same area, forming a conglomeration of thousands of individuals. The ivy bees are among the last of the bees to appear, and very fine they are too. They were first recorded in the UK in 2001 and have made themselves very at home by taking advantage of a niche that our native bees seem to have missed.
And finally, the southern small white butterfly (Pieris mannii) might not even be here yet, but it is knocking on the door. Originally from south-eastern Europe, it has been advancing north-west at a rate of over 100km a year, and in 2019 it was recorded in Calais, so the race is on to identify the first one to land in the UK.
The trouble is, how on earth do you tell that you’re looking at a southern small white and not a large white, a small white or a green-veined white? It’s largely to do with the black ‘spot’ on the upper wing, which in the southern small white is more of a concave square. Here is a very handy identification chart designed by Chris van Swaay of the Dutch charity De Flinderstichting.
It’s pretty clear that the butterfly will turn up on the south coast first but of course it could have been here for ages, fluttering about incognito with all those other white-winged insects. Keep your eyes peeled, bugpeople! The caterpillars feed only on candy tuft (Iberis sempervirens) and Greek bladderpod (Allyssoides utriculatum) so I suspect that they won’t be breeding here very much until they widen their tastes, but the first step is usually to arrive as a summer visitor. It will be very interesting to see what happens next. What’s clear is that the whole of nature is in flux, and while there will be many losers some creatures and plants will thrive in this strange new world.
Photo One by NobbiP / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
Photo Two by Siga / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Photo Three by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Photo Four by Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Photo Five by Chris Van Swaay from https://www.vlinderstichting.nl/ via Butterfly Conservation https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/southern-small-white
Photo Six by Guy Padfield at https://www.guypadfield.com/