Swarms and Smells; Waiting for the Oracle and the Miracle of the Persuasive Burglar

Over the few years I’ve written this blog I’ve occasionally referenced the poem, “In Translation” which Mark, my younger brother, wrote about a stay here some 17 years ago. But until this year the last verse has never seemed appropriate.S1000006 (2a) (2)(Thanks to the nuns of St.Cecelia’s Abbey, on the Isle Of Wight, for the lovely calligraphy, written a few years later).

But this sense of waiting for an oracle, and being set free by rain has been all too real for the last 10 days or so. Sustained hot dry weather in a garden and home reliant on a spring fed water supply moves us into a daily routine unfamiliar to most in the UK, though perhaps not globally – using bath water to flush the loo, carrying out ‘grey’ bath water to irrigate plants and containers, brushing teeth with a mug of water and not a running tap, and dusk time watering of vegetables. The normality of taking limitless water on tap for granted has been suspended of late.SDIM2344 (2) (There’s also been little need for a sun parasol either, for several previous summers).

Some of the plants which normally sail through what count as dry periods here, have suffered, and without some irrigation would have failed, in particular our Meconopsis and Saxifrage fortunei. Perhaps the rains will come too late for rhododendron and camellia flower buds to initiate for next spring? Other plants, like many native ferns and aubrieta growing in the garden wall, seem perfectly happy to completely dessicate, and then be quickly revived and plump up once the rain begins to fall.SDIM2414 (2) So, whilst we won’t be making our way to the Teifi to fish for sewin as Mark did, we relish the rain which is beginning to fall right now at 7.00 am, as I begin to type this, and as the sky darkens and distant thunder rumbles around the hills.SDIM2533 (2)SDIM2532 (2) Let’s just repeat that.

We relish the rain which is beginning to fall. A real novelty for me to write these words.SDIM2537 (2)There’s been a big drain on our physical stamina as the other sunny, dry weather work needed, when running an upland small holding in a frankly primitive fashion, to ensure we have hay for the sheep and wood for the stoves to last the coming winter, has taken precedence over any other activity. Blogging and photography has gone down the pecking order for weeks.S1010004 (2) As indeed has our excellent hen (now known as mummy hen), who’d managed to look after all 5 chicks to the point where at 5 weeks plus, the bonding was understandably beginning to break down down.SDIM2550 (2) (You’ll see later, why we’re pleased to have had the chicks covered from aerial attack with plant netting).

She seemed to want to return to the cockerel and remaining 2 hens. Sadly chickens are mysterious and vicious. Within a day of being moved back in with the other birds, she had been viciously assaulted by both cockerel and the other hen (whose days are now very much numbered), and who can’t seem to be able to decide whether she is male or female. Feathers were removed and eaten, skin bruised, but worse a huge wound was quickly opened up on the back of her neck.SDIM2547 (2)We rescued her, put her back with her chicks and remarkably she has already begun laying for us again in spite of her healing wounds. We’d eventually removed remaining turkey eggs, which were still being sat on by the turkey hens, but the odd one was exploding, with tremendous force, and classically rotten egg smell… SDIM2177 (2)Bernie, the bronze turkey, broke with normal turkey protocol, and decided that all the talk about poor fertility would only mean one thing come Christmas, so decided to start sitting on the eggs which the 2 turkey hens have continued to lay. He even developed a new vocabulary of soft vocalisations and gentle egg rolling skills, to match the hens. We managed to rescue some eggs after a few days, and seem to have broken him of this frankly inappropriate behaviour.SDIM2393 (2) Shortly after my last post we’d begun our tedious manual small scale hay making on our steeply sloping field by strimming off selected areas of our this hay/wild flower meadow. I reckoned strimming around the empty bee hive might be a good idea as well since the developing heatwave might have triggered a swarm nearby. Indeed we’d both seen and heard a mini swarm fly overhead and down our track, a couple of days earlier. So 2 days later I got quite excited when Fiona noticed a few bees exploring the hive entrance at dusk. S1010001 (2)A day later and the numbers had increased, and another day saw tens of bees around the entrance in the mid day heat, which by now was regularly hitting the high ‘ 20’s degrees C.S1010006 (2) By dusk, activity seemed to have ceased, and keen to see whether anything was happening inside I carefully lifted the top super off the hive (after first pressing an ear to the flaky paint of the exterior for any sound of significant bee activity. None was detected).S1010007 (2) To my surprise there were perhaps 50 or 60 bees pressed in between a couple of the combs. But this confirmed my suspicions that all this activity wasn’t real scouting for a new home, but simply exploiting and robbing the residual honey stores left by the previous, long deceased, inhabitants. A later visit from Andy, the bee keeper, confirmed this. Within 2 days the honey had presumably been cleared and no more bees were seen around the hive. I do wonder if bees are capable of sensing death in a hive like this, and perhaps giving it a wide berth as a potential new home? This would be a sensible adaptive trait, in view of the evident vulnerability of the hive’s current position during the unusual freeze drying Easterly winds of the previous spring.

The other novelty of this heatwave, which I can only communicate through words, is the range of new smells which haven’t been experienced for sometime. And mostly very pleasant ones. Beginning a couple of days after our neighbour had his hay meadow cut. The smell of fresh hay pervading the kitchen in the early morning cool, beating the dusk time scent from the honeysuckle outside the front door, which was sufficiently tempting to bring out the Elephant Hawk-moths in time to see them before they faded into the night sky.S1010011.a PG (2) 2 Tigers prowled the garden in this clement moth weather – the first was a garden tiger moth, Arctia caja, which was put into flight by Anne’s visiting spaniel, and then circuited the magic terrace garden a few times, avoiding all the hungry swallow mouths, by flaunting its distinctive red-orange body hair, as it circled before eventually landing on a hazel twig. How appropriate, since Anne had popped in to buy one of our silk scarves inspired by and designed from the striking patterns of the garden tiger wings and body.SDIM7491 (2) I’ve never seen one during daylight before in the garden.SDIM2443 (2)Later the even more impressive scarlet tiger, Callimorpha dominula, (above) couldn’t be tempted into flight from where it was spotted on a ‘forget-me-not’ flowers near the Francoa. Moving the nearby vegetation simply elicited some body shaking and wing spreading:

“Bite me if you dare!”

The scent of roses has often filled the garden, and as the forecast rain moved closer, even the smell of muck spread across the valley was strangely appealing, and indeed the swallows sensed the first wave of rain showers with hyperactivity and chatter. Jazz indeed. But whether the chatter was linked to the weather change directly, or more that the atmospheric change had heralded a hatch of tasty flies, I’m not sure.SDIM2473 (2) Certainly this has been a great spell for emerging insects – ringlets, Aphantopus hyperantus, meadow browns, Maniola jurtina, and small skippers, Thymelicus sylvestris, (above) have danced through the high meadow, and paused, basking at either end of the day to catch the sun’s warmth as it rose and fell close to the horizon. SDIM2384 (2)Watching this one morning after wandering round the hay meadow at 5 am, I paused before going inside to make the morning tea, and was taken aback by a flash of grey black, barely 10 yards away as a large bird crashed into the low, flowering vegetation by the gateway. I’m not sufficiently bird savvy to have realised what it was initially, and so was too late to get a clear image as I swivelled around, but the faint barring on the disappearing wings suggest a probably failed breakfast grab bid by a Sparrow or Gos Hawk.SDIM2394 (2) The balmy calm was temporarily shattered. The swallows objected vociferously, mobbing the retreating raptor, but the hawk had moved on to new pastures, for another stealth attack at speed.


SDIM2176 (2) The lengthy final piece on this post is devoted to another stealth attack witnessed by me for the first time this week. And committed by the “persuasive burglar” (above).

Or this is probably the correct description, for this is the translation of Rhyssa persuasoria. Also known as the Giant ichneumon wasp, or sabre wasp, it’s certainly deserving of its name. Measuring nearly 2 inches long, with the female having an additional 2 inch ‘sting’ extension to its body, it’s an impressive insect which hasn’t shown itself before, or at least we’ve never seen it. But this year we’ve had 3 different ones patrolling the long woodpile behind the house which has sat there for a few months pending suitable weather to log it up, and put it into store whilst still dry (2 females below).SDIM2494 (2)This lengthy hot sunny spell, and a cheap electric chainsaw provided the perfect opportunity, and probably because of the increased time spent in this part of the garden, I first noticed this large wasp about 2 weeks ago. Getting some usable images was a little tricky, since although it ‘buzzed’ me in the way that many insects do in a non- threatening way, (one often senses an extra dimension to this interest, rather like the dragonfly-like creature featured in the film Pan’s Labyrinth), it was a bit flighty at rest. The ‘sting’ is in fact venomless, and as we shall see is simply a long ovipositor, but the insect generates an audible clatter and presence not dissimilar to a large dragonfly, which frankly is a little disconcerting to even a seasoned insect observer like me!SDIM2376 (2) With some images successfully taken, a few days later the ‘stingless male’ above, was sighted, and I relaxed a little and when I eventually had a spare moment, put the picture details on iSpot and Nature Plus for a possible identification. So, I had the tentative identification given above, thanks to other naturalists’ opinions. But why tentative for such a large distinctive beastie?SDIM2500 (2)There are over 3,000 species of Ichneumonid wasps in the UK alone – perhaps 60,000 globally, and even the experts are rarely able to give a definitive identification from a photographic image. For more on Ichneumonids in general, click here. This identification seems pretty likely to be a close match, given its large size, and all Ichneumonids are parasitoids that use their long ovipositor ‘stings’ to inject an egg into or onto the egg or larva of their host species.

The miraculous aspect of the giant ichneumonid wasp’s existence is that its target larva is that of the horntail, or wood ‘wasp’ Urocerus gigas (actually a large sawfly, and not a wasp), which lives buried beneath the surface of a log, or fallen tree. Sometimes Longhorn Beetle larvae (Monochamus sutor) are parasitised instead. Click here for more. I’ve certainly regularly seen wood wasps in the garden before, usually on an annual basis, but don’t seem to have a digital image to hand to include here. Click here for a couple of images of what wood wasps look like. Fascinated by all this information, I was really cross that I hadn’t paid more attention to the wasps earlier on. We now had just one more day of logging and dry weather. The logs had to be shifted before the rain arrived. The pile had already been reduced to a fraction of its former size.

Would the wasps present a final photo opportunity to capture what I’d seen, from American video clips, was a pretty amazing methodical ‘hunting’ technique and then postural flip of the ovipositor to target their prey beneath the wood’s surface? Fortunately, yes! In the end, along with further buzzing from the wasps as the wood was shifted, I witnessed attempts at ovipositing not just once, but twice. I’ve managed some still images below and video clips, which I’ll hope to upload with Kevin’s help in due course.SDIM2509 (2) How the ichneumonid actually locates the larva is fascinating. They may be able to smell its presence with its antennae, and in particular the fungi which live on the larval droppings, but to home in more precisely, they seem to have modified, hollowed out tips, to their antennae. Click here for a brief summary.SDIM2510 (2) Using these as tapping rods, they criss cross a piece of timber, before determining the exact spot at which to drill down to reach the larva, by a form of echolocation. In the images below, look at how both body and leg positions change, as the ‘drill’ is positioned and forced through the wood.SDIM2511 (2) SDIM2512 (2) SDIM2513 (2) SDIM2514 (2) SDIM2515 (2) SDIM2516 (2)SDIM2517 (2) SDIM2518 (2) SDIM2519 (2) SDIM2520 (2) How they manage to achieve this, through hard timber defies belief, the thrust coming from movement of the curled abdominal tip. Some researchers think that there are high metal concentrations of manganese and zinc, both in the ovipositor tip, and also in the jaws of its own larva, which allows it to eat its way out of the wood, once it has grown to maturity by consuming the host larva.

The very mode of existence of these parasitoid wasps apparently caused Charles Darwin to question his own faith, as this often quoted (on-line) text from a letter he wrote to an American naturalist Asa Gray in 1860 illustrates:

I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

This letter also forms the basis for an interesting blog post and philosophical discussion “Did God create Ichneumonids?” which you can access by clicking on here. The arguments here seem to slant firmly against creationism. I don’t have strong views in this field, but am intrigued that any animal can have carved out a niche existence (sorry), by boring down with exquisite sophisticated anatomy and pin point precision through wood undergoing the early stages of physical decay, to find its prey, and thus the very foodstuff of its species’ survival.

What design perfection, whether by chance or other means. Has anyone exploited aspects of this in biomimicry design? Surely some process or influence elevates this existence above the mere inevitable physical decay of the log, whose entropic degenerative nutrient recycling must await us all in time? By a further stroke of appropriateness, the most detailed description, with electron micrograph images, which I could find of the actual micro anatomy of an Ichneumonid ovipositor (albeit a very different species), was in the dissertation by Charles Andrew Boring, from the University of Kentucky, which you can click on here. What a fascinating topic for research, not at all boring! SDIM2487 (2)The most extraordinary shots of all come from the second drilling session, which I captured as still images from the camcorder, just as the wasp decided to withdraw the ovipositor after a good 5 minutes of drilling. You can make out, in the middle image, that the whole of the underbelly of the wasp has been split down the middle to allow the drill / ovipositor to be brought into – or in this case returned after – action, and that indeed it has a split, 2 part structure.S1000001 (2) S1000002 (3) S1000003 (2) My guess is that like the natural ice vase seen in January this year, Click here for images, I shall never witness this event again, so it will remain as one of the magical moments which we’ve witnessed in our time here.

Finally for those who would prefer flower and plant images to all this animal life, a few to finish with. SDIM2188 (2) SDIM2419 (2)SDIM2425 (2)SDIM2453 (2)SDIM2461 (2)SDIM2346 (2)First tomatoes, ‘Stupice’, being ripened with ethylene from a bought banana. 16/07/2013SDIM2430 (2) Any ideas on which of the above roses is the parent, and which are the promising home raised offspring?

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  1. Pingback: Why? Flowers and Insects; Hanging on; Diverse Forages; Relief | thegardenimpressionists

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