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.

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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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Angle Shades

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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!

The Moths are back – a quick update

After a warm day on Thursday and a clear night, there was finally a good number of moths in the trap this morning – around 20 in total, though limited species richness.

The best of the bunch was this Frosted Green:

It’s another wonderful Spring moth, the colour of fresh moss/lichen, and with a glossy sheen which doesn’t quite come across on the photos. In addition to this I had Dotted border, a pretty geometrid:

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Other than that it was fairly ordinary stuff, with Hebrew Character, Common Quaker and Early Grey dominating the numbers.

A quick mention to my nephew, Ed, though who is trapping brilliantly down in Goodhavern, Cornwall and getting some cracking moths, including this one which I think is Pale Pinion:

Warm again tonight. Time to set the trap again …

Orthosia again

It’s almost exactly two years ago since I began to put names to the genus Orthosia – the ‘Quakers’. These are the classic early Spring moths, some of which I featured in the last post too. This morning I had a nice set of them in the trap and because of their habit of playing dead when disturbed, I was able to line them up to show the differences.

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From left to right, these are: Twin-spotted quaker (O. munda); Small quaker (O. cruda); Common quaker (O. cerasi); Hebrew character (O. gothica).

Seen from the back you get a good sense of the different ways in which the wings are held, and hence the different ‘shape’ of each moth.

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None of them are rare, indeed Common Quaker and Hebrew Character as very common in the garden, but Twin-spotted is less usual for me and a really nice moth, speckled with black scales in addition to its ‘twin spots’:

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Altogether, a nice catch on what was the first properly decent weather of the year for moths. In addition to these I also had my first pug of the year – a faded Brindled Pug – and this Early Thorn, a beautiful leaf-mimic:

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Finally, yesterday I featured Early Grey, a lovely subtle moth with a grey/green tone. Today I had two or three, but of a different shade, being pink-flushed. To show the difference I’ve put yesterday’s moth (L) against today’s (R), below:

Some of the difference may be to do with the light, and the cast thrown by the plastic pot, but even so they illustrate nicely the two different tones that I get here.

Moths are full of these endless fascinations for me and I’m beginning to look forward to the warmer weather that has been promised, with better catches to come.

 

Early moths

At last, a little sunshine and some signs of spring – despite heavy overnight rain again – meant that I was inspired to set the trap last night. In part this was because I’ve done so little posting about moths in the last few months that I was beginning to think the blog was misnamed and might be better called Word of Stuff!

So the trap ran overnight and, though not a mighty catch by any means, at least I finally had three moths to look at in the morning. These were all relatively common: Hebrew character; Early grey; and perhaps the best, Small quaker. The last (Orthosa cruda) I’ve only had once before, actually on the same day last year.

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It’s a subtle moth, superficially plain, but close-up speckled with black scales that give it a slightly rough-textured appearance. The markings can be variable – on this one the kidney marks are just about, but on just, visible on each wing, as is the pale cross-line near the wing tips. Its size gives it away though – the squares here are 5mm so the forewing length is about 13mm, the middle of its range and considerably smaller than the other Orthosa moths. Though ‘common’, it’s a moth more of woodland than garden, but the large oak trees behind our house probably harbour small numbers.

The other two are very common, but equally beautiful.

Like many moths of this time of year, they blend nicely with the pale, patchwork colours of early spring. I particularly like the Early grey (Xylocampa areola – right), with its beautiful and diagnostic, double-oval shapes.

A brief walk round Orcombe Point this morning brought my first Exmouth swallow of the year and also the first willow warblers and blackcaps that I’ve heard this Spring. At least three of each, the blackcaps briefly singing strongly. It’s great to be able to enjoy the early mornings again and with warmer weather forecast for the coming week, perhaps we will finally get a decent selection of moths to blog about.