Rain, Rain, Rain. Manic Midges, Abseiling Slugs and Simple Singles.

So, the nights are drawing in…Having just passed the longest day, we’ve also now notched up the wettest month in 2 years (even though we’ve over a week to go in June, and well, it’s JUNE, for goodness sake.) 273 mm of rain has fallen already (or nearly 11 inches.) Thank goodness about 4 years ago we’d realised the potential for erosion on our access track from increasing numbers of 20 mm plus rainfall days. After a lot of thought we decided to create a central run off channel fed by chevron shaped shallow gullies every 15 yards or so on the section of downhill track (the track is a sunken lane between high banks and hedges for most of its route, so no other options for diverting run off existed). I did need to spend 3 hours recently deepening bits of the gully to cope with sustained deluges, but of course beyond a certain depth it tends to keep itself clear by erosion downwards, particularly if the wheel tracks are slightly cambered inwards. So a lot of hard work in the past is paying off by avoiding the sump grinding ridge so common on most access farm tracks.

….when we started to renovate our barn, we wondered why there was such a huge hole without mortar at the base of one corner…. after periods of 35mm rain in a day, a spring emerges – often 12 hours after all rain has stopped. This June has seen it running out on several occasions!

All this wet weather is great news for one of our smaller garden insect visitors. The humble, but not to be ignored, midge. There are always issues with them on warm still cloudy days in late May/June, but this year has seen them mass in nearly Scottish Highlands proportions, and on some days meant outside work has been impossible without applying repellant. I thought I should find out a bit more about the life-cycle of the midge. More information can be gleaned from this excellent site, which describes the situation in Northern Scotland. Click here for more.

  • Only the female midges bite, needing a fresh blood meal to lay more than one batch of eggs. After finding and feeding on a suitable mammal, to which they are attracted by first warmth and Carbon Dioxide emissions, they release a pheromone which lets all the other females around know that there’s a good food source here! Hence the experience of a single bite quickly turning into an all over onslaught.
  • They don’t need water to breed, just very wet ground (over 50 inches annual rainfall….so no problems here!), usually associated with sphagnum moss, rushes and Purple Moor grass (Molinia caerulea) – what is known as Rhos pasture in Wales.
  • The eggs hatch and 4 larval stages develop and grow. The final larval stage overwinters and finally pupates,  when triggered by suitable light and warmth conditions in late May/June  with the adult emerging only about 2 days later. So a sudden change in weather can cause a real population explosion.
  • Humans aren’t normally the main food source for females – round here its likely to be sheep and cattle. This year we have very reduced grazing, so this may have been a reason for our big issue with them.
  • Adult midges can survive for 20 to 30 days, dependent on weather conditions.
  •  They’re so tiny they don’t have significant predators as adults, even small bats and birds eat very few.
  • Numbers can be huge..in one study 500,000 midges were found from a 2 metres by 2 metres plot.

The Scottish article reckons that they are such a nuisance that perhaps 20% of working hours are lost from outside jobs during the midge season, since work becomes intolerable.  Then added at the article’s end that perhaps in part, midges are the reason why the North West of Scotland has remained so undeveloped!

Meanwhile some more interesting insects appeared in the garden thanks to a visit from our oldest son and fiancee…

Real damselflies and dragonflies have been only occasionally seen so far this year. Although the larval stages are aquatic, adults need dry conditions to fly, but I did spot this very handsome Shield Bug the other morning, on some Welsh Poppy Seedpods.

The same morning when I was up and garden wandering at 5.00 am, air rifle in hand, I spotted a slug abseiling from the leaf tip of a Clerodendron trichotomum, heading for the ground some 5 feet below. (No, I haven’t resorted to trying to shoot them, but yet again no rabbits were spotted.) Never having seen this before I dashed in for the camera to record its progress. Of course there was no need to hurry, since slugs don’t do anything particularly fast….  

And as the midges gradually started to gather around the gaps in my inadequate dressing gowned protection, I had lots of time to ponder. If the slug has to climb up the tree to graze, why drop down in this fashion, rather than gliding down the stems/trunk. Is it quicker?

It didn’t seem to be. The whole process took about half an hour, as the sun gradually rose higher in the sky. Was less effort involved? Well possibly, since a slug normally travels over a layer of created slime by contracting its muscular foot/base in a wave-like pattern…

But the slug was far from passive in its descent, twisting its body corkscrew fashion, as it descended from a secreted slimy cord, and arching from one side to the other, presumably as an aid to getting the slime cord to flow away from its tail…

I wondered about what tensile strength the slime cord must have to be to support a large slug like this? Is slime tensile strength a limiting factor in eventual slug size? And since it will have a non fatal terminal velocity like many small mammals, then why not simply drop off the leaf to the ground? Since that way you would save yourself a whole lot of time and slime. And although slug slime is over 90% water, the rest is a modified glycoprotein, and so, I suppose, physiologically quite costly to produce.

A bit later I found on-line that slug slime has some fascinating properties, sometimes behaving like a liquid (e.g. as a lubricant when gliding over a surface), and sometimes when the molecules of glycoprotein are arranged in a different fashion, behaving more like a solid, as I guess here in the slime cord. Click here for a bit more information on this…

I’d already thought I’d call this abseiling (which derives from the German for Ab – down, and Seil – rope), when I’d returned inside and made a cup of tea. But an hour later, having given up with the photography owing to midge attacks, I wondered what had happened to the slime cord once the slug reached the ground. Could it be re-ingested, or was it just left behind as a dangling sticky cord? Or did it, or the water in it, evaporate into thin air?

The slug of course by now was nowhere to be seen. Equally there was absolutely no trace of the slime cord, or even a small residual blob of goo to indicate where it had been.

I’d guessed this would be the case – otherwise we’d be constantly walking into suspended trails of slime left in the dawn flight to safety by the army of slugs in the garden. So what had happened to it? It didn’t seem warm enough for it to have dried to dust in the hour or so since I’d left. Slug rope. German Rope. Elvish Rope???

But perhaps all of this speculation is missing the point. Maybe for a creature that spends most of its time crawling around in the wet undergrowth, munching decaying vegetation, a  long slow abseil on a still, cool, sunny summer morning allows you time to take in the surroundings and dream a little. Enjoy a different perspective on life. Or even think about your distant cousins who mate whilst suspended from slime cords. And being hermaphrodite creatures, each with a set of female and corkscrew shaped male genitalia, occasionally get tangled in an amorous embrace and have to resort to apophallation (which involves one slug chewing off the entangled organ to effect a post mating release). Or how many more tubs of slug killer are going to be flying off the shelves of British Garden Centres this summer?

Lest you think that this blogger wanders around all day with camera poised, in between the rain we’ve now managed to clear the areas in the Meadow copse either side of our newish mossy path, and with more wet weather forecast, have taken the opportunity to plant out a few plants, and sow a mix of home saved Crocus tommasinianus and Narcissus Topolino seed. How long until we see a few flowers from this bulb seed? Check back in about 3-4 years, I guess! Slow gardening.

…..The terracotta seeds are Crocus, the black seeds Narcissus.

…. when dealing with big new areas like this, we’ll use anything we can get hold of on site as a temporary mulch after soil clearance, to limit weed germination – in this case short grass clippings.

Photography opportunities have been limited this week, but in a brief respite I did whizz round the garden to take a few photos of some of the lovely single roses which are open now. Most single roses don’t have much scent, but they have a simple charm which I adore, and many go on to produce hips in the autumn, as well as being of interest to flies and some bees whilst in bloom.

…Rosa moyesii, grown from saved seed. One of the best for witnessing bumblebee buzz pollination, or at least pollen harvesting through flight muscle buzzing.

…….Rosa glauca grown from seed.

…Rosa ‘Francis Lester’ grown from a cutting from Fiona’s Mother’s old garden. A very vigorous and healthy rose here.

….and 3 more wild roses to demonstrate that as is often the case, less is sometimes more aesthetically pleasing than the rose breeder’s drive for blowsy blooms.

And finally a few garden views snatched between grey skies….

…..Terrace Garden

….Magic Terrace Garden…

….Matrix Fruit/Vegetable Garden…..

……Solitary Yellow-Legged Bee on Pink Campion

….dramatic rain clouds…

……. At last a butterfly, a lovely Small Tortoiseshell on Erysimum Bowle’s Mauve.

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Rain, Rain, Rain. Manic Midges, Abseiling Slugs and Simple Singles.

  1. Thank you for our garden tour recently and the delicious cream tea. The garden is fascinating and delightful, all the more so for hearing the facinating history in its unfolding. from Stella Taylor, Llandeilo and District Gardening Club

  2. If no trace was left of the slime blob on the leaf, maybe , finally, the weight of said clug caused the ‘rope’ to detatch from the leaf? One imagines the thoughts of the slug -‘Oh b…other, I won’t be trying that bungie jump again then’. Or even ‘Ouch! That stung!!’ – as ‘rope’ whiplashes after slug, hence it’s quick departure from the landing site below……

    • Hello Rinka, Thanks for the comment. Indeed this might happen…..My elvish rope mention hints at this….the great scene in ‘The Two Towers’ when Sam Gamgee (Hobbit!) tugs on the bottom of the Elvish rope he and Frodo have just used to descend a cliff face, with the comment that his tied knot at the top will never come undone…. only to find that it does….. very mysterious…. BW Julian

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