How do bees know when it is worth visiting a flower for nectar? Bees and other insects have co-evolved with flowers for millennia. If you have ever closely watched Bees working a patch or a head of flowers, you will have seen them hovering around individual flowers before deciding which flower to land on and feed from. Some very clever research (involving artificial flowers and electrical charges) has shown that they
Fuschia, White-tailed Bumblebee
Honey Bee, Alexanders
Carder Bee exploring Pulmonaria
respond to an electrical charge as they circulate and explore. The bees are picking up on an electrical charge that is emitted by the flowers, a charge which gets higher when their nectar chambers are empty and lessen as they re-fill. So, a Bee can distinguish a flower that has enough nectar to make a visit worthwhile, as well as when the chambers are filled again, hence, as you watch, you will see them revisit a rejected flower a little later! Conditions: Cool and sunny. Temperature: Max 16 Min 11C.
Small White Butterfly- by the crinkled, crumpled nature of this Small White’s wings, I think it must have been fairly newly emerged from the chrysalis, and nectaring on Scabious. One of the ‘Cabbage Whites’ this one does not create as much damage to brassicas as its cousin the Large White but its largely yellow-green caterpillars with pale yellow dots along its side, (lacking the black markings of the Large) do damage crops
Newly emerged Small White nectaring on Scabious
Small White, still crumpled from emerging from its chrysalis
, especially as they are so ubiquitous in their range, and have two broods per summer. An ill-informed introduction of this species to Melbourne in 1939 and its subsequent spread led lepidopterists to work out that an adult Small White can travel 100 miles its short lifetime, compared to most butterflies which travel only a mile or two. (This makes the 100 miles a day of the Painted Lady, which I looked at recently, even more astonishing). Conditions: Breezy and cloudy. Temperature: Max 21 Min 13C.
Late summer butterflies, like the ones in the drawing, need our flowers as much as those in the spring and early summer. This year is one of the rare years for a mass migration of beautiful Painted Lady butterflies. These amazing insects don’t overwinter here in any form. They migrate from North Africa, travelling about 100 miles a day and can reach as far north as the Shetlands. They need the nectar of Lavender, Knapweed, Thistles, Sedum and other late flowers to fill up on the way, much as we fill up a car at a petrol station. While we usually get some Painted Ladies through the country, a mass migration involves far more– the last mass migration was in 2009 when an estimated 11 million Painted Lady butterflies came and you should see them wherever you are in the UK this year.
. Conditions: Very warm and dry. Temperature: Max 27 Min 15C.
This Seven-spot Ladybird, our most common Ladybird species (numbers being boosted in sumer by migration from Europe), was very busy eating aphids on some Yarrow, in the garden yesterday. You can see it has slight damage to its wing-case (elytra) which means it carries one wing extended and allows us to see the way the wing-cases open and the wings extend when it flies. It didn’t seem to hinder this one feeding avidly on aphids, which, as you can see in the photo’s, try to get out of the way but the Ladybird can move quite fast when it needs to. They can eat 50 Aphids a day so are great pest controllers. They themselves have two protective characteristics- their red case is a warning that they don’t taste very nice, and if handled, they emit an oily yellow substance from their joints. This doesn’t always protect them from predation and in the past people even believed the yellow fluid was a pain-killer that could ease toothache, and ate them! Being common, they have some lovely local names, including ‘Dowdy Cows’ in Yorkshire, and ‘Bishy-Barny-Bees’ in parts of Norfolk. Conditions: Cloudy with some drizzle. Temperature: Max 19 Min 14 C.
Seven-spot Ladybird feeding on aphids
Seven-spot Ladybird feeding on aphids on Yarrow
Seven-spot Ladybird with wing-cases partially opened
Starling adult and young begging for food
Starling and young
Starling adult feeding young
Starlings- now they are on the red (endangered) list in the UK, maybe we should take another look at our relationship to Starlings, which aren’t the most popular garden birds. In Scandinavia, they encourage them by putting up nest boxes but, as they need to nest in colonies it would take quite a few boxes to replace their traditional nesting sites of holes in trees and buildings. Starling colonies synchronise their egg-laying, and most have one brood- only occasionally two. On Orkney and more recently in East Yorkshire we saw the sorts of numbers I would see as a kid, but we seldom have them visit our garden in north Sheffield. The decline in insects numbers is a key cause of their decline, especially as, although they will eat almost anything as adults, for about their first twelve days Starling young are fed on insects and invertebrates, and we watched the pale brown young squawking energetically and noisily to be fed as the adults dug pests and worms from the grass. The young moult completely in autumn and then put on the iridescent plumage of the adult (see photo’s). Conditions: Breeze and sun. Temperature: Max 19 Min 11C.
The lovely House Martins, (they were my dad’s favourite), are in decline all over central and northern Europe so it was wonderful to see these on the Moray Firth recently, with the ingredients they so desperately need to breed- muddy puddles! about twenty were collecting mud pellets which they mix with grass to build their cup-shaped nests under eaves. It takes about two weeks to build a nest from scratch, lining it with feathers, but they sometimes recolonise their old nests, which takes less work. Pre-19th century, House Martins nested on cliffs but they have now abandoned these sites for domestic and farm buildings. The other thing then need is an abundant supply of flying insects which are also declining of course. The young can, amazingly, survive a few days without food, going into kind of mini-
House Martin, drinking
hibernation, but the sorts of extreme weather we are having more- both bad conditions and too hot and dry weather, are affecting breeding success. Conditions: Hot, humid with storms around. Temperature: Max 18 Min 12C.
Insects are in demand, and sometimes in short supply but at Coldingham Beach on the Scottish Borders there was a mass of flies which this Pied Wagtail was taking advantage of, returning again and again to catch a bill-full and take them to feed their young somewhere nearby, in a small cup-shaped nest in a crevice or hole nearby. So many young birds need the protein of invertebrates at this stage, which is one of the many reasons the drastic reduction of insects is affecting creatures further up the food-chain. Pied Wagtails often have
Pied Wagtail collecting flies for young in the nest
Pied Wagtail witha bill full of flies
a year and both male and female feed the young. This one was catching flies on the ground and in the air, displaying their great agility as well as their energy levels. They manage to keep hold of a bill-full while adding yet more.
Pied Wagtails catch flies in the air as well as on the ground
Conditions: heavy showers and a little sun. Temperature : Max 14 Min 9.