Early Bumblebees: Despite being quite small, these are one of the so-called ‘big 7’ bumblebees that are widespread and common. They usually nest underground, often using the old burrows of small mammals. The Queen, who emerges early, hence their name, raises less than a hundred workers, but sometimes manages two broods in a season. You will often hear and see these bees en masse around garden flowers. They have a slightly orange-red ‘tail’ but not as pronounced or strongly coloured as that of the Red-tailed Bumblebee. They also have yellow bands on their bodies, though these are sometimes indistinct in the females, and the males have very noticeable yellow hairs on their faces. These bees are very important pollinators, including of soft fruit, drawn especially to the tubular flowers of currants. Conditions: hot sun, blue skies and gentle breeze. Temperature: Max 26 Min 14C.
Scarlet Pimpernel- I love this unusually coloured flower with its purple eye. It used to be common as a ‘weed’ of cornfields but weed killers have eradicated it so now you need to look on verges, rough grazing, field-edges or sandy coasts. Also known as the Shepherd’s Weatherglass because the flowers open in the sun and close as bad weather approaches, it was thought to cure melancholy, hence a lovely common name in Somerset of Laughter Bringer. The flower was the secret signature used by the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ in the French novel of the same name, an adventurer who sought to save French aristocrats from the guillotine! Conditions: Close and hot sun and cloud. No rain in sight again. Temperature: Max 25 Min 16C.
Soldier and Sailor Beetles: I have covered the very common Soldier Beetle that we used to call Bloodsuckers before and here is another common one, often found in rough grassland and verges, especially where there are Umbellifers like Cow Parsley and Hogweed. These beetles are carnivorous, feeding on tiny invertebrates often on flowers, among the long grass. The main one I cover here is Cantharis Rustica, one of about 40 Cantharis species, usually black and red- this one has a black heart-shaped mark on the front red part (or pronitum as it is officially called) – also known as a Sailor Beetle. Despite seeing several of these recently, and many Common Blue Damselflies and wild bees, decline in insects generally is really dismaying. I spent two weeks in the countryside down in East Sussex and saw very very few insects of all sorts, even flies. Most common sites for insects were people’s gardens, which shows just how important our gardens have become for wildlife in general- as we know, insects are essential for so many other creatures, including many birds, bats, and small mammals. Conditions: Warm, and continuing dry with cloud, sun and gentle breezes. Temperature: Max 20 Min 12C.
Common Blue Damselfly: These past few warm days have seen the emergence of many species of damselfly, the most common one you will see on ponds and open water is probably the Common Blue. (As most of you will know, the simple way of telling Damselflies from Dragonflies is that Damselflies fold their wings when at rest, while Dragonflies hold theirs open). Having emerged from the depths of the ponds as nymphs, the adults are now on the wing. Males are blue with black markings and females are either blue or pale green. It’s a delight to watch them – flying singly and patrolling the ponds, swooping onto foliage to feed on tiny insects, or as they pair up and fly in tandem, and mate in the circular position known as the ‘mating wheel’. They will stay in the wheel as the females lay the eggs on pondweed just beneath the surface of the water. The Common Blue is to be found in many stretches of relatively still and open water, including garden ponds, wild ponds, slow-flowing rivers and canals. Conditions: the hot, dry weather continues. Temperature: Max 20 Min 9C.
Blue Tit’s are struggling with the climate this year– they virtually always have only one brood per year and so their nesting, to be successful, has to coincide with the proliferation of the primary food they feed their young- the caterpillars of the Oak Eggar Moth, and that is getting harder as our climate becomes less predictable. As we know, May this year was cold and unsettled, and in many areas wet and windy. Those Blue Tits nesting early have found either that they have been out of sequence with the breaking of Oaks into leaf and the subsequent emergence of the caterpillars, or that many caterpillars have been washed off the trees. Blue Tits don’t know to forage on the ground. They can compensate to an extent by feeding on fat and some seeds from garden feeders but these lack the necessary fluids for the young to develop well. Fresh mealworms can help but not many of us have supplies of these. It could be that more Oak Eggar Moths caterpillars will survive because of this this year, and so there could be a glut next spring, which could help if next season the Blue Tits can coincide breeding with the caterpillars emergence but springs are becoming more difficult to predict, year on year. As you can see from the recent photos, female Blue Tits are run-ragged at this time of year, whether they have a big, successful brood to raise or not! Conditions: A dry day following a wet one in the South East yesterday. Temperature: Max 20 Min 10C..
Small Heath and Small Copper– these two small butterflies are on the wing along grassy verges, fields and garden lawns at the moment. The Small Heath is not very conspicuous as it flits low through the grasses, moving fast and settling low on grass stems. One of the Brown family, It has an eye spot on the underside of its fore wings and can be seen from April to September, as there are a varying number of broods over a summer. It is on the high conservation list so that is one good reason to leave some area of your lawn to grow a bit wilder, not to mention some of our verges. The caterpillars feed on fine grasses, like Bents. The Small Copper is much easier to spot, being brighter in colouring, especially when fairly newly emerged from their chrysalis. It is in decline, though not as much as the Small Heath. It’s caterpillars rely on Common Sorrel and Sheep Sorrel, another reason to let some of our grassy areas grow a little wilder in early summer. Conditions: Sunny and breezy, with cloudy intervals. Temperature: Max 19 Min 11C.
Green Alkanet These startlingly blue flowers growing on a lush plant can’t be seen in many hedgerows and verges at present, including in quite shady areas. Introduced from Europe many years ago, they have naturalised in many parts of England. A member of the borage family which includes Forget-me-nots the flowers are bigger but similar with their white centres and like many of the borage family, including Bugloss, the buds are mauve-pink and don’t get their full bright blue colour until open. The leaves and stems are bristly, a bit like Comfrey, and can be steeped in water, like Comfrey, to make a liquid feed. Once you get Green Alkanet in the garden it will be hard to control, as it spreads by seed and by deep tap roots that are hard to dig out completely so, though they are good for bees, you might do better with others of the same family, like Borage and Forget-me-nots in your wildlife patch. Conditions: hot, blue-skied and dry. Temperature: Max 22 Min 12 C.
Pignut: These are showing well at the moment, usually growing on unimproved grassland, verges or at the edges of fields. A member of the Carrot family they are named after the way pigs can track them down by smell and root them out, much like they do truffles. We used to love finding these as kids, digging the tubers out with our penknives, rubbing the dirt off and eating them there and then. The tubers are a little way underground, brown and knobbly, a bit like small Jerusalem Artichokes to look at, and taste nutty and lovely. In Shakespeare’s time they were well known as a country food. In the Tempest he has the monster, Caliban, saying to the shipwrecked servants: “I’ll show thee the best springs, I’ll pluck thee berries…. and I will, with my long nails, dig thee pig-nuts”. At one point there was an attempt to cultivate them, but they don’t grow well in ploughed land. Look for a delicate unbelief, up to around 12 inches /30 cm, and sometimes, in poor ground, much smaller, with narrow leaves growing from the stem (see photos). Follow the stems right down and dig around a little way underground- probably not for a while as the tubers need time to develop. Conditions: Dry, still, settled hot weather for a few days after one of the wettest, coolest May’s ever. Temperature: Max 18 Min 9C.
Long-tailed Tits: I love this time of year, when young birds start to fledge and one of the earliest small birds is the Long-tailed Tit, which have been bringing their fledged ones to the garden over the last few days. They build their nests early and start laying the 6-8 eggs in April. With the female incubating the eggs from 8-12 days and the young being fed in the nest for 14-18 days it’s not surprising they are already about, even in Sheffield. Although the ests are built to expand, using spider-webs, as I described a while ago, by the time they are ready to fledge the nests are bursting. You can usually tell young of birds by their ‘fluffiness’ and soft colouring and with Long-tailed Tits the red rim round the eye often shows up well, too. Unusually, long-tailed Tits support each other as wider family groups, with those without young often helping to feed those with young. You will often be alerted to their presence by the amount they vocalise with each other- a lovely ‘tsee-tsee-tsee’ social contact call. I was lucky to watch these in the garden the other day, some a bit far away but still showing pretty well. Conditions: still cool for the time of year. Temperature: 13- Min 7C.
Female Blackbirds- you have to feel for birds that breed at this time of the year, and the female Blackbird is no exception. She does virtually all the nest building, making a rough cup of small twigs, straw and grass, usually low in a shrub or bush, before lining the cup with mud and fine grass. She then has two or three clutches of eggs, depending on the weather conditions, laying 3-5 eggs each time (more when the nests are in woodland or woodland edges than when in gardens) and she alone incubates them, which takes around two weeks for each brood. The male and female share feeding the young that hatch and then, once fledged, she returns to building or repairing the nest and laying the next clutch, while the male oversees the fledglings until they are fully independent. All this ends with only 30-40%, at most, of the broods reaching maturity, sometimes less than this in woodlands. There are lots of things that go wrong, including changes in the weather, being inexperienced and making insecure nests, and of course, predation by the Crow family, birds of prey and cats. Still, if she’s lucky, she will live long enough to successfully raise a number of adult Blackbirds in her life-time. Conditions: grey, wet, windy and cold these last few days. Temperature: Max 12 Min 7c.