Life has exploded this June. It probably happens every June, but maybe weather conditions have concentrated the process this year. And when I say life, I really mean the invertebrates which share our garden and meadows with us.
I get used to the excitement of seeing new waves of plants flowering, sequentially changing vistas. Watching buds develop, fill and eventually open, but get a warm day in early June, and with no preamble, BANG. For butterflies and moths, hidden pupae split. Instantly transformed, or at least uncaged, metamorphosis completed, the winged adults sample the fresh air, inflate their crumpled wings pump up and seal their proboscis halves, locked tight, and take flight. Speckled wood butterfly, Parage aegeria. Wall brown butterfly, Lasiommata megera. Red-necked footman moth, Atolmis rubricollis.
In the case of dragonflies, damselflies, and indeed the above Brown Chima-mark moth, their larvae in their final stage, or stadium, go through a hidden aquatic metamorphosis. The large compound eyes of the dragons and damsels, unnecessary for their sub aqua phase have to rapidly develop. Gills need to be lost and an air breathing apparatus developed. In their last few days, larvae can’t feed because their underwater jaws are being remodelled, and so they rest with head and thorax above the water’s surface, taking in air.
Most of this goes unnoticed, at least by me, and then the adults emerge, initially pale, ghostly, and soft. Like the butterflies, they need to rest a while, to harden off, and colour up.Flex that new abdomen, and test those clever wing joints.Before with jewel like colours, patterns and movement the garden and meadows are illuminated with their myriad forms and flight.
This year, these events began with the emergence of Garden chafers in our upper hay meadow. Phyllopertha horticola, is a medium sized beetle, which has never previously been a common sighting here, though apparently in the past vast numbers could emerge from traditional untreated or contaminated grasslands and form huge swarms in pastures. Like many insects, the adults are fairly short lived, and their grubs, developed from the creamy eggs laid by the mated females, devour the roots of plants, particularly grasses. Pupation takes place in late spring, and then metamorphosis in a beneath-the-soil burrow, before warm weather triggers emergence of the adult beetle. Google ‘Garden chafer’ and many of the highest ranked articles, will tell you how to get rid of these lawn “pests”.As with most on the wing insects, even my newish camera struggled to get reasonable photos of the beetle in flight, but a point of interest to me was that this beetle apparently triggered the development of the Coch y bonddu fishing fly, in Wales, perhaps as early as the 1700’s. Or perhaps more accurately the Coch a bon ddu. Translated roughly as red (coch) and (or with) a black(ddu) stump (or base). Probably one of the oldest patterns of trout fishing fly ever designed and made by fishermen, trying to mimic one of (back then) nature’s temporary supply gluts.
As a youngster who did a spot of fly fishing, the name stuck with me in spite of no knowledge of Welsh at that time, though I do remember it as an easy to tie fly, and available as either a “dry” fly (fished on the surface), or a “wet” design, (to be fished below the surface), reflecting where the unfortunate chafers could end up, wind-blown, or spent, on the surfaces of lakes or rivers, sending trout into a feeding frenzy.
For a few years when fishing for trout was a gripping and absorbing teenage hunting mission, I’d make my own. Carefully twisted and tied around a hook’s bronzed shank, gripped in a table mounted small Verniard fly tying vice, using peacock herl, scarlet thread and a hackle feather with a black centre and brown periphery, pulled from the cape of an appropriately coloured chicken. Click here for an idea of what might tickle a fly fishermen’s fancy and end up in his fly-tying kit. And for anyone who’s never considered the techniques or other materials used to fool trout into lunging at an artificial lure you could click here for a demonstration by Davie Mcphail, of how a Coch y bonddu is actually made.
How to fish one successfully, is way beyond the scope of this blog, and sadly fishing is one pastime which I haven’t managed to revisit, for time limitations, even in this land of very famous game fishing rivers.
How anything, invertebrate or salmonid, can survive in our small stream, the Afon Melinddwr, is a miracle, after the sort of summer spate experienced here on June 6th. More rain fell in a single 24 hour period than I’ve ever recorded here before – 74.5 mm.
And the stream does contain juvenile salmon or sea trout, and supports the caddis flies and other insects which provide them with a diet. When we first moved to Gelli Uchaf, there were quietly told stories of poachers who’d furtively hoik out double figure salmon and sewin from this very same stream, after the fish had completed their migratory return journey to this upper reach part of the Cothi and Tywi river catchments. We’ve always had fish in the Melinddwr, and contrast this with recent reports of catastrophic population crashes in the Tywi catchment fisheries (for example salmon parr were absent in 31 out of 37 sites surveyed in 2016! Click here for more).
I’ve never seen a large fish, but approach the banks carefully, when the water is low, and clear, and you sometime catch a glimpse of a 3 or 4 inch parr darting for the safety of an undercut bank, or if you pause and study a run or small pool from a distance you’ll catch the spreading ripples of a rise, as one of these tiddlers takes a fly from the fast moving stream’s surface – as in the top left of the pool, below.
What was unusual about this summer spate was that the rain fell persistently rather than in a sudden cloudburst, and so allowed me scope for walking the stream’s banks, togged in waterproofs and beneath a buffeted umbrella to try to capture some photos of the muddy torrent, before normality was restored as the water gradually cleared of sediment.
Hunting with a camera is now more likely to occupy my free time, than fly fishing. And down by our upper pond, late May to early June sees the first wave of Odonata (toothed jaws), Dragonflies and Damselflies, scramble out onto vegetation and begin their courtship and mating. Like the Garden chafer, the colourful adults, which are the very essence of a summer’s day, have one principle aim in their short lives.
To find a mate.
I’m sure everyone will be familiar with the sight of paired damselflies beside ponds and rivers, but spend a little more time observing them when they move into the mating wheel position, and you might spot the rhythmic pumping actions of the (usually upper), male. In part this is an effort by the male to clean out any sperm from the female before inserting his own. A whip like penis, equipped with spines in some species, is responsible for this aspect of behaviour, contributing to what is benignly known as sperm competition. At the end of this process, the male will insert his own semen.
Hanging onto his mate until she completes egg laying obviously ensures that his own semen isn’t subsequently removed by another, later usurper, male.
This year so far, I’ve been able to identify 6 different species, and I suspect this will rise as the season extends into September.
Blue-tailed damselfly, Ischnura elegans. Notice the long bi-coloured pterostigma on the male’s fore wing. The small dark pterostigma, being a heavier part, towards the tip of the wing, has been shown to have a key role in helping to stabilise the wings in flight. And create a useful identification key to differentiate some similar species. This species was only found in small numbers, and early in the season.
Azure Damselfly, Coenagrion puella. One of the commonest damselflies around the upper pond, in 2017, so very easy to photograph. Quite visually similar to the Common blue damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum, but the blue stripes on the thorax are much thinner in this species, as above.
Large Red damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula. Black legs, black pterostigma, and black abdominal markings.
Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly. Calopteryx virgo. I first spotted one of these in 2016, very briefly, flitting butterfly like amongst the willow branches overhanging our stream, and got really excited. Partly because of its iridescent colours, and partly because it is a marker species for good water quality, being very sensitive to pollution, and poor water oxygen levels. In 2017, I was determined to try to get some sort of a photo, though this was easier said than done, since they are quite mobile, like butterflies, flying up and down the stream, and suddenly disappearing visually, or actually, into the surrounding vegetation. And there aren’t very many of them. (Addendum – I did much better with photos in July 2018, with a whole sequence of a mating pair, click here).
So much more restless than the similar, more common, and easier to photograph Banded Demoiselle, Calopteryx splendens, above, which frequents slower moving rivers and waters, often in large numbers (as seen recently by us in Oxfordshire). But once seen never forgotten, and a fabulous almost tropical butterfly effect of iridescent blueish wings and emerald body flitting around the stream’s banks.
Keeled skimmer dragonfly, Orthetrum coerulescens. Distinctive features include a tapering powder blue abdomen in mature males, and a yellow pterostigma, though the immature male has a black and gold abdomen. The female has wings which are tinted yellow on the anterior aspect. This darter dragonfly, present in small numbers, often seemed to be found resting away from the pond’s edge quite low on the ground, making photography fairly easy.
Four-spotted chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata. Found easily, as a perching dragonfly, resting on the tips of Mare’s tail stems emerging from our upper pond. But very difficult to photograph in flight because of its rapid darting action. As a perching form, its strategy for catching prey involves sitting on such a vantage point and glancing upwards with its huge eyes, waiting for passing insect prey, and then taking off. Recent studies on how it manages to do this are fascinating, requiring very sophisticated vision and wing muscle control. Because they always approach the flying insect from behind and below, its prey capture rate has been assessed as being in the high eighties to nineties percent, of attempted sorties. Prey rarely take any evasive action, because this line of approach brings the dragonfly into the prey’s blind spot. Click here for very much more detail, though this paper isn’t written in layman’s English, so like me, you might need to skip read.
Until I wrote this piece it hadn’t really struck me that, although I’ve known the basic theory in our garden for years, without flowers in an ecosystem, insect diversity will be dramatically reduced. Now our meadows are becoming vastly more floriferous, the insect population will have grown dramatically and so provide an expanding food supply to feed all these tooth jawed, dinosaur vintage, predatory insects. Which is probably why we now find so many to delight us over the summer months, though some are themselves fodder for stealthier foes.
In spite of my annual efforts at Crocus flower pollination in February and March, this year’s crop of seedpods has been quite light. Extended over a long season beginning in the middle of May and continuing for perhaps 4 weeks it’s worth scanning for the Crocus club shaped seed pods, pushing the subterranean ovaries up into daylight for the very first time, and almost to the same height as the more delicate spring flowers. Kept in a dry place the pods soon split to release twenty or thirty seeds per pod in the case of C. tommasinianus, our favoured fecund species.Simply scattering these in areas of the garden where we don’t yet have these early season gems is all I then do. I suppose if I could be bothered to prod individual seeds into the ground there would be less wastage, through consumption by small mammals, but this approach works very well, and is much less effort than planting Crocus corms, and produces the sort of colour range variations which look so much more naturalistic than swathes of identical flowers.
Whether I’ve just noticed it this year, or whether there is actually more of it, as our meadow continues to morph into a more diverse, floriferous and open ecosystem, I’m not sure. But this year has seen masses of cuckoo spit appearing on the stems of various plants in the meadows and garden. As most will know, this appears around the time that our Cuckoo’s song is diminishing as June progresses, and is the protective spittled shroud, produced by the larval form of the Common froghopper, Philaenus spumarius.
A by product of the sap extracted from the plant stems, which the larvae feed upon, it seems to be an extremely effective protective strategy, hiding it from potential predators and also protecting the juvenile form from dessication.
I don’t yet have an image of the adult to include, but it’s a remarkable insect which can spring a distance of 70 cm or so into the air – higher even than the flea, and with an extraordinary acceleration of 400 G. Or as another way of viewing this, a change of velocity as it springs into the air of 4,000 metres per second, per second (4,000m/sec squared).
To put this into perspective, astronauts are trained to withstand a force of 9 G – ordinary people would black out at forces greater than 5 G. To read a little more about how they manage to achieve this extraordinary feat, by using their long legs as catapults, and how they might even control the direction of their leaps into the unknown, click here. Which indeed is the noise you might hear if you disturb a frog hopper on a leaf stem, and it springs away from you, leaving you to marvel at such jumping finesse.
Achieved with no training.
No special fitness diets.
And no competitive targets. (As far as we know).
Simply a very efficient survival strategy honed over millions of generations and years.
The first hay has been cut in the last few days, in soaring temperatures and day long sunshine. The Red kites fly low and close, roving shadows appearing over my shoulder as I concentrate on guiding the power scythe, inspecting for cut-kill. Though one of the benefits of a small scale slow cutter, such as I use, is that collateral amphibian damage is very slight – they can easily jump away in time.
And in a valley this year very strangely devoid of lamb calls, as neighbouring farmers have dramatically reduced sheep numbers, in part as the inevitable consequence of ageing demographics, we heard the clear, haunting high burbling cry as a pair of curlews flew overhead last week. The first and only time we’ve heard this in years.
A rare and much appreciated pleasure indeed. Perhaps less intensively grazed fields may boost local numbers with time?Finally, I must record that in our hay meadow, we have moved over the last four years from 1,1, 2 to 14 (2017) and counting, the numbers of Heath spotted orchids we found flowering. This is a huge thrill occurring so soon ( just 5 years), after starting our push to achieve greater floral diversity in this field.
As a galanthophile used to studying the minutiae of flower differences, it’s also interesting to see that they’re all quite unique and distinctive in flower spike size and shape, and individual flower patterning and colour. A few examples are shown below.