The wonderful Hummingbird Hawkmoth is a day-flying moths that arrives from the continent in high summer, though it is beginning to overwinter in the south of England. With a 5cm wingspan, it can hover because its wings beat at 80 times a second. They are usually a blur, and when it is quiet you can hear their wings humming. As they hover they unfurl their very long proboscis and feed on the wing, sipping nectar from the base of long-tubed flowers like Buddlia and Valerian. You may get a view of their orange hindwing as they feed, as in these shots. It is the last weekend for the Big Butterfly Count and these moths are included in the species they want recorded. You just watch for 15 minutes and note the butterflies and moths you see, then submit the ones they are interested in on the app or online (Butterfly Conservation). You can do it as often as you like, in your garden, park etc and they are just as interested in you seeing nothing as seeing a lot. Conditions: Sun and cloud, with light wings. Temperature: Max 23 Min 13 C.
Grasshoppers– There are over 25,000 species of Grasshoppers and Crickets world-wide and around 30 species of Grasshopper breed in the UK. This is the Common Green which isn’t as common as it was. They eat grasses, leaves and cereals, and prefer dampish grassy areas. They are the prey of a wide range of creatures, including small rodents, birds, spiders, beetles and snakes. Their long, strong rear legs mean they can leap long distances, the human equivalent of us being able to jump the length of a football pitch. They sound they make, called ‘stridulations’ are made by rubbing peg-like growths on their
hind legs against their forewings and of course it is the sound which often alerts us to their presence beneath our feet. The simple way to distinguish grasshoppers from crickets is that grasshoppers are usually solitary, and have short-ish antennae while the antennae of the more gregarious Crickets are very long (see photo). Conditions: Cloud and sun, very warm. Temperature: Max 24 Min 17C.
Perforated St John’s Wort. One of 27 varieties of St John’s Wort, all good for insects with their bright, open flowers, this one is easy to identify- look at the flowers and there may be small black dots on the petal-edges, but pick a leaf and hold it up to the light and you all see many small transparent glands that are definitive. Crush a leaf or stem and blood-red sap with a foxy smell will be released. It was this last characteristic which made this plant associated with many myths and magic properties. When the pagan mid-summer feast was replaced by the Feast of ST John the Baptist, this plant was named after him, the sap representing his bloody murder. You can see the Perforated St John’s Wort along hedgerows, woodland glades and waste ground- it is still used to treat wounds, burns and skin conditions and makes a beautiful burnt-orange cream or oil. Its Latin name is Hypericum and it is used still to treat low mood and depression. However, it has long been associated with magic– A poem of 1400 includes “St John’s Wort doth charm all witches away, if gathered at midnight on the Saint’s Holy Day, Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower, No thunder nor tempest will then have the power, to hurt or to hinder your houses, and bind round your neck a charm of similar kind”. In Wales, families would use sprigs to assess the life
expectancy of family members. Each would hang a sprig overnight from a beam and the sprigs that looked best in the morning would have the longest life. Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘Nativity Chant’: “Trefoil, Vervain, John’s Wort, dill, hinders witches of their will”. In the dreadful practice of accusing women of witchcraft a handful could be stuffed in the accused mouth as it was believed to force a confession. Conditions: Warm sun and cloud. Temperature: Max 21 Min 13 C.
Patchwork Leaf-cutter Bee– this is one of my favourite solitary bees and if you look closely you my well have it in your gardens or nearby parks or open ground.. The first thing you notice could be the neat arcs cut out of rose, birch or honeysuckle leaves (and a few other plants). You may be lucky as I was and see them flying off with the leaf section as an undercarriage (see photo). This will be the female, which makes a nest in any crevice, even a dry hollow stem. She chews up the leaves to a paste and lines each cell she makes with this mixture, laying an egg in each. She then gathers pollen and nectar and makes a larder in each cell before plugging them with more paste. The other very noticeable thing about this bee is that, like some other solitary bees that lack pollen sacs on their legs for collecting food, the female Patchwork Leaf-cutter Bee has to collect pollen on her body. She has what is called a pollen-brush, bright orange in her case, on the underside of her abdomen and you should be able to see her when her whole underside is yellow with pollen that sticks to her pollen-brush, as in one of these photos. The male only has to feed himself so doesn’t
have this behaviour or appearance and is harder to identify. Conditions: Breezy with sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 18 Min 11C.
Here is a brief introduction to a few common WillowHerbs. Rosebay Willowherb is the best known- it is also called Fireweed because, as well as all the waste ground and hedgerow sites it grows on profusely, it grows readily where fires have been. The Great or Hairy Willowherb prefers damper spots but is also common, with its larger and sparser open flowers and white centres. I like its common name, Codlins and Cream, named after the old, rosy English apple, Codlin. The Enchanters Nightshade, which has possibly my favourite name of all common wild flowers, is not a nightshade but a willowherb. The Enchanters Nightshade can become a bit of a problem in gardens but I love its delicate, tiny flowers and the whole plant is only about 6 inches/15 cm’s tall, and grows in the shade of woods, hedgerows etc. Disappointingly for something which has such an intriguing name no one can really find a reason for it to be called this, either in folklore or witchcraft, and even the great 17th century herbalist Gerard could not get enthusiastic about any uses for it- although the Austrians used to make a tea rom it! Conditions: Drizzle and cloud with some showers. Temperature: Max 11 Min 7C.
Every now and again, while looking at something else in the garden, a weird and wonderful insect turns up and this one also has a wonderful name: the Gasteruption Jaculator! The name tells its story- Greek Gast for stomach and eruption for forceful and speedy emission. The Jaculator comes from the Latin for javelin thrower. This is a female, as it has this extraordinarily long ovipositor.This is a parasitoid wasp. The female searches for nests of solitary bees and wasps, and ‘listens’ with its antennae for the movement of larvae inside the sealed-off nest. Having found one, it pushes its ovipositor through the carefully blocked off entrance to the bee or wasp’s nest, and injects eggs into the cell. Quickly hatching, the larvae eat the larvae of the host, plus the carefully collected larder of nectar and pollen let by the adult host bee or wasp! Then it pupates and hatches out any time between May and September, the following year, to maximise access to a wide range of Solitary Bees or Wasps to parasitise and the cycle repeats. Conditions: Unseasonally hot and dry weather continues. Temperature: Max 23 Min 8C.
Last night I did the first Moth survey in the garden this year, with my very home-made Moth Trap. Apart from listening to and seeing a lovely Tawny Owl, which calls close-by every night and last night I watched as it sat briefly on our chimney top (when it was too dark to photograph), and watching Pipistrelle bats skimming through the garden, feeding, but no Moths turned up while I sat outside. However, this morning there were several including a couple of beauties in or on the ‘trap’ that I haven’t seen in the garden before. Today’s photos are of the most common Hawkmoth in England- the huge (up to 9cm wing-span) Poplar Hawkmoth. The caterpillars of these feed of poplars, of which we have several, willows and aspen. The moths rest with their
abdomen raised, and flash reddish patches on their underwings to deter predators. (Moths attracted to Moth Traps fly off in the morning, undamaged). Conditions: Very blustery day but a welcome few showers in the morning. Temperature: Max 17 Min 9C.
Shepherd’s Purse– this small, common wild flower of waste ground, grassland and path edges is very easy to identify, once you tune in, because of the shape of the seed-pods, from whence it got its name. It has a bare stem, a few inches/cm’s tall growing from a basal rosette of leaves, a small cluster of white flowers at the top of the flower stalk and, as it develops, the definitive heart-shaped seed-heads, which, as they ripen, show the shape of seeds like the pennies in a purse. All parts of the plant are edible though it is so small that it probably only makes sense to pick and eat the flower heads as you go on your walks! The fascinating thing about this plant, I think, is the way it was used in the First World War and by country folk before that. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and a poultice of the leaves was used to staunch bleeding and cover, and thereby treat wounds.The roots were
also used to be used a a ginger substitute. Conditions: Hot, dry, with cloud and sun. Temperature: Max 20 Min 11C.
Ribwort Plantain- also commonly known as Lambs Tongue Plantain, both from the form of its leaves, is a very common plant. It has had many medicinal uses: the leaves made into teas are good for coughs and used externally the leaves are said to be better for nettle-stings than commonly used but not really effective dock, and were used to staunch bleeding. This may be because the plant is particularly good at harnessing fungi to produce concentrations of a substance called ‘catapol’ which protects it from pests. The plant roots, in research, has also been shown to be particularly good at colonising fungi to help it absorb nutrients and minerals, much like trees have been shown to do. The buds, before they are brown, are said to taste like mushrooms and be useful in sauces. However, my main association with it was because, as kids (well to be honest I still do this regularly!) we used to pick the stems, making sure they were both old and tough enough and yet still pliant, fold the stem over in a loop near the flower-head and pull, sending the flower head zinging across at some unsuspecting other kid. Hence we knew them as ‘Shooters’!
Green-veined White- I thought it was worth revisiting this beautiful butterfly, especially as it is often mistaken for the similarly-sized Small White. It needs a closer look, partly because the Small White caterpillars are more of a threat to Brassicas than this common Butterfly of damp hedgerows, woodland glades and gardens. The thing to look out for, as the name suggests, is the amazing pattern of ‘green’ veining on the undersides of the wings, most noticeable at rest, obviously, but also when the light shines through the wings. In fact, the ‘green’ veins are an optical illusion, being made of of tiny black and yellow scales. This becomes more apparent as the colours fade. If you see a female with its abdomen bending towards, as in the photo, it is signalling to the male that it has already been successfully fertilised. This butterfly is on the wing now, with the first generation emerged. A second generation will emerge in a few weeks so it should be around most of the summer. Conditions: Breezy with some sun and yet gain, no rain. Temperature: Max 13 Min 2C.