Mushrooms, Mistles and Myremycology

The fabulous summer of 2018 ended for us in late July. Our weather has fortunately reverted to type here, with grey days, dampness, drizzle and occasional deluges. Only 3 days with no rain as of August 27th.

However August is often like this, with dramatic light and cloud changes within just a few hours… This year, I’m really enjoying these changes. After half a million litres of water fell on every hectare during a single 24 hour period, the real worry of running out of water has dissipated and manual watering is at last no longer needed. Fields are green once more. The stream flows with sound, the Demoiselle’s stream side Spearwort plant is now well under water and the seasonal markers I always look for at summer’s end have begun to appear.

In the garden this means the first Cyclamen flowers, and in the meadows an array of mushrooms. (Clitocybe metachroa, below)

As yet no Waxcaps – perhaps it’s still too early or has been too dry for them to perform?But leading the pack has been a fantastic crop of Field Mushrooms, Agaricus campestris, which every few days has given us enough for a couple of meals. These are growing mainly in a poor patch of ground in our upper hay meadow, but also more locally in some of the lower fields too.

I still find identifying mushrooms is a tricky business – worse than moths or bumblebees perhaps.

Armed with good photos, and two excellent books, it can still take quite a time to pin a species down, and even then, since both books don’t carry the same, or even the full range of UK mushroom species, it’s always possible that you have misidentified one. Marasmius rotula, below …

So we’ll only ever eat anything that is a classical field mushroom.

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Finishing off the Shepherd’s hut came in time to allow me to sit down and capture the early August visits of a family of Mistle thrushes to our upper hay meadow. (Many thanks for Colin confirming this). Over the last couple of years they often seem to appear at this time of the year, in a group of 5 or 6, and bound around the meadow, interspersed with small glides of flight. Erect, tall birds, with pale breasts marked with distinctive brown splashes. They’re probably feeding on invertebrates and worms in this field, but sadly these communal visits don’t last long, en famille, before they go their separate ways for autumn and winter.

The name, Turdus viscivorous, of this the largest of European thrushes, apparently comes from their favouring mistletoe berries where they can find them, with their incredibly sticky white flesh, later in the year. But they’ll also take holly berries and even attempt to protect a favoured tree from other berry eating birds later in the year, to try to retain a winter food larder should the weather turn really nasty. I must look out for this later in the year.

Usually however we notice them thanks to the males singing from the tree tops, often in foul weather (hence one of their common names – “stormcocks”). Wonderful diverse  serenades, which demand one pauses, and tries to pinpoint the bird responsible. These lengthy periods of melodic bird song are always a delight which cheers one even in the worst weather. The joy of hearing these in full flow is beautifully observed and described in the poem below by Thomas Hardy, written at the very turn of the nineteenth century…

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.
Thomas Hardy.
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A much less often observed event was noticed towards the beginning of August, after checking the sheep in one of our stream side meadows. We continued our walk into the section of wet meadow we’d cut for hay this year, and Fiona spotted the large ant hill in the field was alive.
The clip above captures just how dramatic this was. Hundreds of winged yellow meadow ants, Lasius flavus, had judged that now was the time to swarm.
Typically an annual event, timed to coincide with a hot and humid day, we’ve never seen such a huge number actually emerging from the ant hill. The eggs for these alates – winged virgin queens, and their accompanying winged males, will have been laid many weeks earlier, and nurtured as larvae and then pupae within the nest.
The ants open up exits from the burrow on the selected flight day, and out pour the winged ants, to take off, possibly mate, and perhaps establish a new colony. I have written about this once before, but have struggled to find out how long a colony of L. flavus can last. Although colonies may be initially established by several queens at the same site, once the colony begins to grow, the queens will fight it out until only one is left. She will then continue to lay eggs for many years. Click here for much more useful information on ant life cycles and general myremycology, on the excellent Antkeepers website.
In the case of this lower wet meadow, we know that the nest has already been present and continued to grow for over a decade already. I haven’t found any information that suggests another new queen will ever take over an existing nest, so perhaps our big nest still has its founding queen laying viable eggs in huge numbers after all these years?
In addition, look at these mounds at any other time of the year, and you’ll never see any ants around them. It’s thought that the workers feed entirely underground, either eating subterranean invertebrates, or possibly farming root aphids, as their main source of nutrition.
Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of queens  will mate, survive and manage to start a new colony. Many will be predated or drown. The pictures below show our terrace birdbath on July 23 rd this year, after an earlier, and probably different ant species swarming event…
The fortunate few who survive, will chew off their wings once mated, and having found a suitable potential nest site, create an underground chamber and overwinter, before laying a few eggs in the spring. The queen will stay underground to tend and feed the eggs once they have hatched into larvae, and to do this she can also lay unfertilised “trophic” eggs which are created using the protein from her now redundant flight muscles. Eventually the larvae will mature, pupate and emerge as workers, though this process will take several weeks. At this point the workers will begin to forage and bring food back to the now near starving queen ant, who from this point on will concentrate on egg laying for the rest of her life.
Annual mowing in a hay meadow would normally remove any ant nests which grow above ground, but in this case, and also on a narrow slope in our upper hay meadow, we can leave the nest undisturbed, and watch how they grow in size over the years.
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Apart from our best ever crop of disease free apples this year, the garden has looked lacklustre, and in recovery mode after the prolonged drought. However all the recent rain and mild conditions have produced the inevitable second rush of weed seed germination, just in time for an enforced period of rest and recuperation.
The Asters, strangely, look as though they will flower very late this year, as indeed does the Sedum spectabile, so we’re still awaiting the prospect of Sedum flowers buzzing with honeybees from Tony’s hive.
Pottering about yesterday, I saw a terminal tussle between a wasp and a honeybee. Perhaps inevitably the wasp won and I guess carryied off the poor bee’s body before I could return with my camera. Hard to think that September is just around the corner, after what seems to have been an incredibly long summer.

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