Garden Safari – Part 2: Spiders

Yesterday’s post covered the bees and hoverflies that Matt and I had found in his garden on Friday 1st. In this post I’m looking briefly at the spiders we saw … but first a little addendum on the bees.

We had seen Bombus pratorum – Early bumblebee – workers, but when I popped out into my own garden in the sunshine first thing this morning there were a number of the males on the wing, nectaring on the raspberry plants that are now in flower. I’ve posted comparison shots here to show the differences – top two are the female worker, bottom two the male:

Sizes don’t show well with nothing to scale them against, but both are about the same size. Note the male has the extra yellow stripe across the join between thorax and abdomen, and also yellow hairs on the face – as do several other male bumblebees. The female is also neater; in fact the male is, frankly, a flying fluff-ball and this stands out in the field to me.

So, on to the spiders. I promised myself that I would start to try and get into the arachnids this year, but like all new orders it’s a bewildering world until you find some similarities between species which start to bring them into the genus groups. We photographed four, as follows, though there were more than this about, and thanks to people on Twitter, IDs followed.

This is Pisaura mirabilis, one of the nurseryweb species. Although it would blend beautifully in dry, straw-coloured grass, on the lush green it stood out. It’s swollen abdomen made me wonder if it is about to lay eggs – photos in the field guides tend to show a much slimmer spider.

The second one was Tetragnatha sp., the exact species not clear, though either T. extensa or montana.

Tetragnatha sp

Tetragnatha is one of four genera of the Tetragnathidae – the Long-jawed Orbweb spiders – called the ‘stretch spiders’. It’s not hard to see why, and when they are ‘stretched’ out along the stem of a plant of some sort they must almost disappear.

A second genus of the Tetragnathidae is Metellina – with three, common, orb web spider species – and the spider below comes from here.

Metellina sp

It looks to me like either M. segmentata or M. mengei which are visually very similar. My guess is mengei based on the most usual time of year to see the adults, which Bee, Oxford and Smith (2017) report as being spring and early summer, rather than late summer and autumn for sementata.

The final one is perhaps the most interesting. It’s a tiny spider, but bright red, making it stand out against the pale green of this grass head.

Nigma puella

Thanks to some expert advice from Twitter users, I’ve managed to find out a little and it’s likely to be a male Nigma puella. Until recently, Nigma was a genus with two British species – N. walckenaeri and N. puella. Both are not common, puella described as ‘nationally scarce’ by Bee et al, but showing distribution along the S. Dorset and E. Devon coast. Walckenaeri is yet to be found in Devon and looks like it’s more frequent in late summer. However, a third species – N. flavescens – has recently turned up with two records in Kent, offering the enticing prospect that future sightings might be important records! The males are identical visually, so other than the massive likelihood that it’s puella I can’t be entirely sure … though the females differ and finding one of these would clinch it.

This is one of the things I love about exploring insects, spiders, birds etc. Even as a rank amateur there is the chance of something interesting turning up, especially with creatures that are little researched and studied. Ask my nephew, who, at aged 10 has just turned up the first Grey Birch Moth ever recorded in West Cornwall. Fab!

Reference:

Bee, L., Oxford, G., & Smith, H. (2017). Britain’s Spiders: A Field Guide: Princeton University Press.

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Garden Safari – Hoverflies

I popped round to Matt’s house yesterday with the idea that we might head out somewhere to look for birds. In the end we spent a couple of hours simply looking at the wild area at the bottom of his garden – no more than 20 square metres, but packed with wildlife! It shows that you don’t need to spend thousand of pounds, or dump hundreds of kgs of CO2 into the atmosphere, to go on safari. There is more than enough of interest right under our feet.

I’ve split the finds into three parts: bees and hoverflies and various other bits and bobs, which I deal with here; spiders, which I’m planning on doing in another post.

So, to the bees and hoverflies.

Andrena labiata query

I’d been hoping to see this bee – Andrena labiata (Red-girdled Mining Bee) – which Matt had found a few days beforehand (see his blog for details), but whether it needs more sun than we had yesterday or whether we were just unlucky, I don’t know. Either way, it wasn’t there. What we did have though were two nice bumblebees. Tree Bumblebee (B. hypnorum) workers were busy on the flowers round the garden, pollen packed on their hind legs, as the slo-mo video shows, here:

Alongside hypnorum was another smaller worker, B. pratorum – Early Bumblebee. It’s a beautiful little bee, working busily among the blossom:

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Whilst these were large, obvious visitors to the garden, the hoverflies were less easy to see, darting and dashing between patches of sunlight and flowers. We trapped four, all similar in being narrow-bodied and colourful, but quite distinct when one puts them under a microscope lens. The first was the familiar ‘Marmalade’ fly – Episyrphus balteatus:

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The colour, and the ‘moustache’ patterns on the abdomen, make this unmistakable (allows a dangerous thing to say with insects, in my experience, but I’ll stick my neck out). It’s a very common one, seen regularly in the garden and standing out for its colour alone.

Next was Platycheirus albimanus, another common hoverfly, with both male and female trapped. It is one of the varied Bachini tribe, which have black thorax, often shiny, and black faces … and the genus Platycheirus has many different species, though only two common ones with silver/bronze, rather than orange/yellow, abdomenal markings. The female (eyes are separated on female hoverflies, and meet at the top in males) shows silvery spots:

Meanwhile, the male, had more bronze-coloured, faded, spots:

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The male can be distinguished from the similar P. ambiguus by a clump of hairs on the front femur. I’ve tried to capture this under the microscope, though it’s not easy to see:

The final slim hoverfly was like the Bachini, but from the genus Melanostoma: M. scalare:

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The female has the distinctively-shaped orange pattern on the abdomen. The other British Melanostoma, M. mellinum, is similar but females can be told apart by scalare having large ‘dust spots’ between the eyes, above the mouth – the two grey, triangular patches on the photo below:

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Apparently, in mellinum these dust patches are much smaller.

As ever, all this information is new to me and I’m learning as I go, taking it straight from two great books: the photo field guide by Ball and Morris, and the classic text ‘British Hoverflies’ by Stubbs and Falk. Each is wonderful, the former giving lots of information,, clear photos, and great distribution data; the latter being more focused on the key along with Falk’s wonderful hand-painted illustrations in the back. I recommend them both.

The final hoverfly, which was easily visible without the need for trapping, was this mating pair of Merodon equestris – I think!

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The male stayed on top of the female for a good 15 minutes at least, from the time we saw them, vibrating its abdomen, presumably, having mated, to keep other males from mating again (excuse the sideways video!):

Finally, we had a few other bits and bobs, including this wonderful male Oedemera nobilis – the aptly named Swollen Thigh Beetle.

It was an iridescent beauty, and yet well hidden amongst damp grasses.

The only other thing of note was this diurnal micro moth which, up close, had a beautiful orange quarter-moon shape on its dorsum.

It is one of the Dichrorampha Tortrix micros. Sterling, Parsons and Lewington (2012, p.329) note that the ‘at first sight, most of the species in this (Dichrorampha) group appear dull, and they tend to be dismissed as ‘too difficult to identify”. Here, the dorsal mark meant that it was either D. alpinana, D. petiverella or D. vancouverana, and a quick look under the microscope showed that it was the first of these:

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All-in-all a nice couple of hours finding all sorts of stuff to keep us going. And still the spiders to go … I’ll try and get to them when I can!

Warming up …

At last the temperature is rising a little and the sun is starting to shine … and, with it, the moths are finally getting active again. Still not great numbers in the trap here, though I also looked back at last year to remind myself that the sense of missing moths is an annual affair when you are keen to see them!

Despite the low numbers there have been some great moths, new to the garden, so in this post I’ve done a round-up of some of the best.

May 15th – Pale Pinion … a moth completely new to me and localised, largely to the south and west of Britain, though numbers are increasing in the SE:

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No need to point out what superb camouflage it forms, looking for all the world like a old, decaying twig.

25th May – Brown Silver-lines … a bracken feeder at larval stage, so more commonly associated with heath and moorland, but common throughout Britain. Still a first for me, and presumably simply flying over the garden:

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It’s worth noting that it was almost dead when I caught it and hence the wings are not in their usual position – held over the hind-wings in a more triangular shape – something that confused me at first.

25th May – Cream-spot Tiger … perhaps the pick of the bunch from the garden.

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What a beauty! Again, a localised moth, though not uncommon in my area, but even better when it shows its orange hind-wing and red under-wings:

 

These were all new to me and caught in the garden. However, also a lifer – and perhaps the star of the show – was the male Emperor Moth that Matt and Martin caught on Withycombe Common with a pheromone lure:

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I promise you, it really was this colour! Just the most stunning insect I’ve ever seen. Apparently, the lure pulled in up to 10 males in just a few minutes, using their antennae to ‘sniff out’ the female – see this post I did on the same idea for December moth.

The moths above were all the new ones, but others have been of interest too.

This beautiful Silver-Y was the first obvious immigrant of the year, and looking really fresh …

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The colours are subtle, but beautiful, with purple and gold blending into the overall silvery-grey.

Also great to see was Treble Brown Spot

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It’s a fairly scarce moth in this part of the world, but I’ve had it three years running now and so pleased to note that there is almost certainly a stable colony nearby.

And finally, three moths that are not uncommon at all, but of interest for various reasons. First, Vine’s Rustic … caught on 25th May and again on the 26th:

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I’ve got a soft spot for Vine’s, I think because it is so like some other moths – the Quakers, Rustic and Uncertain. Vine’s has a lovely silvery appearance to it though, which can look almost ghost-like is some specimens … including this one above. Smaller than Quaker, with large-ish, fairly round kidney marks and ovals and a straight leading edge, help to identify it (I hope … argh, the uncertainty of the novice!).

Then there was this pug. At first I thought it was Brindled, but with some ID help have it as Common Pug:

The pugs are so hard, and I seem to get different ones each year – Common, not having been that common in previous years. However, I’ve realised that the white, inter-terminal line is a good feature to look for.

Finally, this longhorn moth is one of the Nematopogon species:

I think it’s probably N. schwarziellus going by the size (FL=c.7mm) and the wing shape. N. metaxella has rounded wings and flies later, in June/July, and N. swammerdamella is larger, around 9-11mm FL. I love these ‘Longhorns’, with antennae that are constantly on the go, feeling with world around them, like someone with impaired sight using a long stick.

So, a good few days, even if numbers are still only building up. My garden species list is now at 329, and yet 6 -7 new species already this year show just how diverse moths are – and why it’s always worth setting the trap even when it may not look that promising.

BeeWalk

I do BeeWalk, a survey for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust involving a planned walk each month round a circuit, identifying and recording bumblebees. I thought I’d left it too late yesterday evening, but it was such a beautiful day, the hottest early May Bank Holiday on record, that I walked my route around 6pm, starting in Gore Lane.

The first part of the walk takes you past a hedgerow with gorse, facing south and is often the best spot. Tonight I heard a fairly high pitched bee in there, suggesting that it was something smaller than the B terrestris that has been all I’ve seen so far this year on this route. Sure enough, there were two small bumblebees nectaring in the gorse. At first sight I thought they were B hortorum – garden bumblebee – because of the twin yellow stripes and white tail.

 

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However, the size seemed too small, not much bigger than 10mm or so, and the bands were not quite lemony yellow enough. I managed to pot one up and used the Slo-Mo feature on my iphone to get a slow motion video, which you can see below.

Note the face. It’s relatively short, not the very long face of hortorum and so I’m confident that this is B. jonellus – Heath Bumblebee. [Confirmation, via those more knowledgeable on Twitter later the same day, has reassured me!]

This is a good find as jonellus is not common everywhere, though we seem to do quite well for them in Exmouth. Earlier this year I found a queen struggling to survive in our garden and the post I did then shows the difference in face length. It’s a beautiful little bee, quite fluffy (longer-haired than hortorum) and compact and its clearly been working hard as the pollen baskets are overladen with pollen, mixed with nectar and squashed into orange-yellow balls to take back to the nest.

Let’s hope that these workers help to make that nest a success so that we have more of these lovely insects pollinating all our plants for us. With this in mind, I was delighted to see that the EU has recently banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides; a significant step in helping bees and other pollinating insects. More jonellus would be great in my opinion.

Shark attack!

The numbers of moths have been poor over the last few weeks and last night was no exception. A warm Saturday which was promising for insects turned into a very clear and moonlit night and though the temperature stayed up around 11C the light sky seemed to put them off. Just four moths were in the trap, of which three were frequent fliers: Common Quaker; Angle Shades; and Early Grey. However, the fourth was clearly a shark of some sort, a group of moths so named because of the way they raise their collar up like a dorsal fin:

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A normal Shark would have been a lifer for me anyway – despite it being common I’ve not trapped it before – but on closer inspection I realised that this was actually Chamomile Shark (Cucullia chamomillae), a much more local, less frequent visitor named after the main food-plant of the larvae. Both species are similar, but the distinguishing feature of Chamomile is that the beautiful black lines in the wings run into the pale fringe at the ends (in Shark, they stop short of this). The photo below illustrates this in more detail:

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It’s a wonderful moth, with its beauty held in the subtlety of patterning of black on pale grey and cream.

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I love these kinds of moths, of which the Wainscots are also examples, mimicking the strands of fibrous material that make up plant stems and woody structures. Chamomile Shark is rare enough to be interesting in the Devon. Last year there were just 4 captures recorded in the Devon Moths Record, three in VC3 (where Exmouth lies) and one in VC4 (north/mid Devon). In the previous year, 2016, the Devon Record shows just one capture, in VC3, and the year before that none at all in the county. I consider myself lucky therefore to have found it.

I suspect that, as I’ve noted before, I’m the beneficiary of living in the old part of Exmouth where, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries many of the grand local houses, now mainly flats and apartments, were built. Around them, large gardens were stocked with plants and so, despite being a residential area, this part of town has a good many mature garden plants and trees. Of course, my Chamomile Shark could just have been passing through, but it looks like it is newly emerged to me, being so pristine, so perhaps there is a small colony nearby taking advantage of a Chamomile plant; or one of the other food sources the larvae will take to.

Apart from my four moths, the only other thing of interest in the trap was this spider. It had built a beautiful web – not really visible in the photo here – half way up the sides of an egg box hole and was waiting patiently underneath it for flies to land.

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Now, I’m not good with spiders, but it was one of my new year’s resolutions to work on them and so with the help of an ID guide and a homemade spider-observing pot I think I’ve narrowed it down Scotophaeus blackwalli. This is one of the hunting spiders, common and closely associated with houses and hunting at night. It’s also commonly called a ‘mouse spider’ because looking close up you see it covered in mouse-like soft hairs – to me a thing of beauty.

However, despite being a predator, the observant among you may have noticed that the spider has not had it all their own way as it appears to be missing a rear left leg! Maybe, just maybe, a shark attack?

Fresh from the garden …

With a bout of man-flu I was tucked up in bed this weekend when Matt was out finding the first real fall of migrants on Orcombe Point. I was sad to miss out on three redstarts, my favourite regular migrants of all, but a lie-in allowed me to spend some time in the house sorting out a new garden hoverfly – and I then managed to get the redstarts when walking the dog today!

The hoverfly also allowed me to test out the camera on my latest purchase: a binocular microscope that I treated myself to recently.

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It turns out to be one of the Platycheirus species. Organising hoverflies is quite complicated to me and, as ever in describing what I see, I’m drawing on the excellent field guide by Ball and Morris (2015). Within the Class of Insecta they are in the Order Diptera – the true flies, with just two wings (hence diptera) – and then the Family Syrphidae which makes up the hoverflies. Their defining feature is a ‘spurious vein’, the vena spuria, in each wing, illustrated here on a version of the photo above (just above yellow line):

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Apart from one rare hoverfly, they all show this feature (and see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoverfly for a quick intro to other features too). Three sub-families – Eristalinae, Microdontinae and Syrphinae – are then split up into tribes, and each tribe has several genera. The 283 (current) individual species of the British Isles then fall into these genera.

Platycheirus is one of the genera in the Bacchini tribe, one of three tribes in the sub-family Syrphinae. However, it’s a large genus of mainly slim-bodied, long hoverflies and so potentially difficult to identify to species level. Luckily, only four of these species have silvery/grey markings on a black abdomen, the others being wasp mimics with yellow on black. Furthermore, of these, two are nationally scarce meaning that mine boiled down to P. albinamus or P. ambiguus. It is also a female, identifiable by the separation of the eyes at the top of the face (males have eyes touching at the apex):

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Note that on this photo you can see one of the ‘halteres’, the small club-like projections which are all that are left of a second pair of wings, these having evolved into tools to balance the flight.

The female of P. ambiguus tends to have grey ‘bands’ on tergite 3 and 4, rather than, as with this one, spots instead:

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It’s therefore Platycheirus albimanus, a new hoverfly for me and for my garden, which is always a good find.

Finally, a quick rummage in the garden this afternoon as I let the dog out resulted in a new bee too:

It’s one of the ‘mining bees’ (Andrena) and at first I thought this was Andrena clarkella (Clarke’s mining bee). However, though this has the same ginger thorax, the abdomen is fluffy, covered in black hairs. This one is shiny, with the hairs sparser, as you can see on this photo:

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Thanks to Tim Worfolk for pointing this out for me; and therefore identifying it as Andrena nitida, Grey-patched mining bee. The name comes from the white hairs on the sides of tergites 3 and 4 which form grey patches, though they are not too evident in the photos I’ve taken here. Again, it’s new bee for me and for the garden and a nice way to spend lunchtime trying to ID it.

Let’s hope the weather continues to improve and the birds, bees and other insects keep appearing. Meanwhile, decision time … do I go to Exminster for Black-winged Stilt, which is on the marsh there …?

Reference:
Ball, S. & Morris, R. (2015) Britain’s Hoverflies: A Field Guide. Princeton University Press.

New moths

The last few weeks have produced very little in the way of moths so it has been lovely to finally have a bit of warm weather to help them on their way. The moths are beautiful at this time of year, reflecting the way the new colours of spring are mixed with those left over from winter.

Some have been old favourites, seen before in the garden here:

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Streamer

Angle Shades

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Lunar Marbled Brown

None of these are rare; all had been caught in the garden before. However, one of the fascinating things about moths is that all can be local to certain places where habitat and the right food sources are available. That has been the case for two more in the last week or so, all of which, though ‘common’ if you look at the books hadn’t been caught here before. The first of these was Red Chestnut:

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The beautiful red dots along the forewing are lovely, as are the subtle markings over the wings. Equally lovely was this male Brindled Beauty, freshly hatched by the looks of things given the clean, bright patterns on the wings. Note the wonderful antennae.

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Finally, less common and most exciting for me was this beautiful Pale Pinion – a very exciting catch which, for all the world, gives the impression of a piece of broken wood.

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And, as if that wasn’t enough, by chance this wonderful Black Sexton Beetle chose to drop in too; its orange-brown antennae clubs marking it out.

Don’t be fooled by looks though. This is one of the ‘burying beetle’ which find carrion – even much larger than themselves such as small rodents – and then dig beneath them until they are buried. They legs nearby and, hey presto, baby food for life!