Thousands of Aphids

I’m not sure if it’s the cold spell weather we’re having or the season. but after all the activity around the early bees and butterflies there’s a noticeable lull in activity around the garden. One family of insects that is bucking this trend though are the aphids; there’s thousands of them everywhere and the predator species like ladybirds are not around in any kind of numbers sufficient to keep the numbers down. Who knows, maybe that’s by design - to let the numbers get up so that there’s plenty to eat for the rest of the summer. It’s very well organised if that’s the case.

The aphids I found lately are Gooseberry Willowherb Aphid (Aphis grossulariae) scrunching up the new grown leaves on the gooseberry bushes, Silver Birch Aphid (Euceraphis betulae) in amazing numbers on the undersides of the silver birch leaves, Geranium Aphid (Acyrthosiphon malvae) on the lower leaves of the wild geranium plants in the flowerbed and Herb Bennet Aphid (Macrosiphum gei) on the Herb Bennet that grows wherever it can.

One thing i learned about aphids is that certain species have a life-cycle involving two plants - the Gooseberry Willowherb Aphid being an example. It spends the winter and spring in the woody gooseberry bush, in the spring curling over the young leaves at the ends of each branch as the first generations of young grow. Presumably this is for protection against things like the blue tits and wren that I have seen feeding in the same bush. In the summer they decamp, at least partially, to willowherb plants, before returning to the gooseberry to pass the winter. Apparently several aphid species have a similar strategy; while it makes sense in terms of surviving the winter it seems incredible that a species would evolve to be dependent on two specific yet so different species of plant.

Seed Dispersal by Animals

Preparing the vegetable patch to sow some seed, I found two walnuts seedlings. The neighbourhood grey squirrels were busy all Autumn burying nuts from next-door’s tree, so it’s not such a surprise to find some of them sprouting in the Spring. I put the seedlings into pots to join the Horse Chestnuts from the previous year. I’m not sure if the conkers were brought in by squirrels or the kids, but in the end it’s the same process. Now all I need is to find a big enough space to plant out my growing collection of seedling trees. Neither tree is actually native to UK, both originally coming from SE Europe.

La Fête du Muguet

Giving a bouquet of Muguet or Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) on 1st May is a tradition in France. Mine in the garden are only just ready in time, recent cold weather having slowed things right down. Other flowers looking good right now are the Welsh Poppies (Meconopsis cambrica), Apple blosson (Malus pumila) and the only new species for a little while, Field Wood-rush (Luzula campestris, #471),, This is a Spring-flowering grass and common weed in lawns, which is also sometimes called Good Friday Grass. Insects are few, but when the sun shines butterflies soon appear (Holly Blue, Orange Tip and a Red Admiral today) and the first returning swift was overhead yesterday.

Three Flies

Not everyone’s favourite, but with the weather turning cold again other insects have taken a rain-check and disappeared, but the flies are still there. Flies are also an important part of the UK’s biodiversity, with over 7,000 species to be found - so plenty of scope for finding new species for my list. Such diversity does bring challenges with identification though - so it’s not easy. Going by www,naturespot.org.uk and other photos on the web the first two are closely related species of root-maggot fly. The first of them has been quite common around the garden during April, Hydrophoria lancifer (#448); while the second, with its different patterning and reddish-coloured thighs, is Hydrophoria linogrisea (#469). The third fly is a female Yellow Dung Fly (Scathophaga stercoraria, #127), much greener than its yellow coloured mate,

Lords & Ladies

I do like these plants; the red berries in the Autumn last for ages (they are poisonous, which helps) and the flowers are quite exotic-looking, They have an unpleasant smell to attract insects, more for pollination than for nutrition. Lords & Ladies goes by a whole host of country names such as snakeshead, adder's root, devils & angels, cows & bulls, cuckoo-pint, soldiers diddies, priest's pintle, Adam & Eve, bobbins, wake robin, friar's cowl, sonsie-give-us-your-hand and Jack-in-the-pulpit to name a few; many of them referring to the flowers’ likeness to genitalia Not surprisingly the plant also has a whole lot of folklore associated with it. While the berries are poisonous, the large, starch-rich roots used to be eaten as porridge - but they have to be prepared correctly to neutralise the toxins, so probably not something you will want to try at home.

Ladybirds

So far this spring I’ve seen several Seven Spotted Ladybirds (Coccinella septempunctata) and Fourteen Spotted Ladybirds (Propylea quattuordecimpunctata) - got to love those Latin names. The Asian Harlequin Ladybirds have not been present, so it’s been nice to see the native species. The small brown bug looks like Epuraea aestiva, joining the pollen beetles on the head of a dandelion.

Violet Rust (Puccinia violae, #470)

Seeing some leaves on Dog Violet starting to get deformed with discoloured blisters I was expecting to find some kind of violet aphid or mite, but the root cause turned out to be a fungus. After a few days the undersides of the impacted leaves develop brown/orange pustules which will release fungus spores. Strange to see such a disease form so quickly on fresh green Spring plant leaves.

Wild Geraniums

Two members of the geranium family growing like weeds in the garden. Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum, #22) grows in the cracks between paving slabs and rocks all around the garden, but this is first time I noticed the closely related Shining Cranesbill (Geranium lucidum, #466) with its smaller flowers and shiny, rounded leaves growing in overgrown gravel down by the shed. Quite a pretty little flower.

Flavous Nomad Bee (Nomada flava, #463)

These nomad bees have been driving me mad the last few days as they are pretty small (+/- 1 cm) and hardly ever land for more than a few seconds. They just cruise around and around the elder trees in the wild corner of the garden. Today I got a break as one of them got trapped in a spider’s web enabling me to get a decent look. They really do look like mini wasps, patrolling around like wasps too; but close up you can see red mixed with the yellow stripes on the body. This one appears to be Flavous Nomad Bee (Nomada flava), but the identification between this species and Panzer’s Nomad Bee is pretty difficult. Nomad bees are kleptoparasitic cuckoo bees of mining bees; in this case usually Andrena scotica (Chocolate Mining Bee). Apparently the males search our the host bee’s nests, which they scent mark, helping the females to locate the nests for egg laying. The nomad bee’s larvae kill the host’s and any other nomad bee larvae present, so only one bee larva remains in the nest to feed of the stored pollen & nectar, the adult wasp emerging the next Spring.

Cutworm - Moth larva

After last week’s Vine Weevil, here’s another one from the rogues gallery of horrendous garden pests; a cutworm, so-called because of the way they nip off seedlings at ground level. These are moth caterpillars that live in the ground, coming out at night to voraciously munch their way around the garden. There are several species of noctuid moth that have ground-living larvae. This one might be from the Turnip Moth (Agrotis segetum), which has a particular reputation as an vegetable-growers nightmare; however due to the lack of features it’s hard to say. Not a very pretty thing either, but certainly looking well fed.

Moth larva.jpg

Easter Pick & Mix

A bit of a mixed bag around the garden today, with Chocolate Mining Bee (Andrena scotica, 459) adding to the medley of mining bees that are present at the moment. A few Amara ground. beetles were to be seen in the sunshine; this one appears like a Common Sun Beetle (Amara aenea). Next a couple of spiders. Zebra Spider (Salticus scenicus, #460) is usually a common enough species of jumping spider, but I didn’t find one last summer, so it was nice to catch this one in the sunshine by the front door. The not-so-long-legged harvestman is Phalangium opilio (#461); found while doing some gardening,

Esperia sulphurella (#457)

Esperia sulphurella is a prettily-marked daytime flying moth that typically emerges in April/May. The larvae of this species live in dead wood - perhaps in this case the nearby the dead Elder stump. This is my first new moth species since November, hopefully the first of many to appear as the weather warms up. I really do need to find myself a moth trap…

#457 Esperia sulphurella

#457 Esperia sulphurella

Three New Weeds

I found this trio of new weeds around the garden this week.

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta, #454), popping up between the paving slabs is an unassuming little weed with small white flowers and leaves shaped like watercress. The leaves are edible, adding - as per the name - a bitter taste to your salad.

Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis, #453) also goes by the names of Lady’s Smock or Milkmaid. One of the main food-plants of the Orange-tip Butterfly, it is often plentiful in Spring in damp meadows, but not so widespread in my rather dry garden. It’s closely related to the bittercress, both being members of the cabbage family, and is also edible. After flowering in spring it produces seeds then dies back until the next year.

Ivy-leaved Speedwell (Veronica hederifolia, #455) is c common garden weed, originating from Eurasia and by now spread widely as an introduced species. It has a blue form and a white form, the latter being the one in my garden.

Orange-tip Butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines, #438)

Some beautiful Spring colours today. Orange-tips are my favourite butterfly, turning up regular as clockwork in the garden each April. They are the first of the butterflies that do not hibernate as adults, but emerge in Spring from their chrysalis, to appear. Often they just flutter straight through, so it was nice to get this shot of male enjoying my (Spanish) bluebells. Typical food-plants for the caterpillars include Cuckoo Flower or Lady’s Smock, my most recent addition to the list at #453.

I also couldn’t resist this photo of a Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale, #21) flower; another shot of beautiful colour from a wild corner of the garden.

Refugees from the Shrubbery

I came across these two refugees from my weekend work clearing out more shrubs from my overgrown borders.

The beetle is a Vine Weevil (Otiorhynchus sulcatus, #451). Quite an impressive looking beetle, but also a devastating garden pest. The beetle’s larvae are the problem, as they eat the roots of plants over the autumn & winter, often killing them. This is especially the case for plants growing in containers. The RHS website (https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=234 ) dedicates a page to advising how (at no small effort) to eradicate these weevils. Probably it was a mistake to release this candidate for gardeners public enemy #1 back into the wild.

The spider, Clubiona terrestris (#446), is sac spider, so named because of the sac-like web it makes. Living in the leaf litter it seems more likely to be a gardeners friend. This family of spider has 8 eyes arranged in two rows on its face.

As well as these new species for the list, I added a fly-over Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, #450) and saw a very welcome first Swallow of the year over the village.

Redcurrant Blister Aphid (Cryptomyzus ribis)

Red curled leaves on a currant bush are a sure sign of the #447 Redcurrant Blister Aphid (Cryptomyzus ribis). The aphids themselves are supposed to be a yellowish colour, but the nymphs on the underside of these leaves are bright green. I’ll have to check later to see what the adults look like; however the other species of greenfly that likes currants doesn’t cause the red leaves. Happily, despite the damaged leaves, these aphids are considered fairly harmless for the health of the bush and the fruit crop.

Mourning Bee & Mining Bees

The Spirea is in flower and yesterday, while the sun was shining, its white, scented blossoms attracted a variety of pollinating insects, including all three species of mining bee that are currently in and around the garden.

With a body looking like a ginger pipe-cleaner, the female Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva, #4442) looks quite different to the paler male (see Thursday’s blog). Early Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa, #445) has a fox brown coloured body too, but a darker less fluffy thorax. Finally the grey-coloured Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria, #61) is also visiting the Spirea flowers.

Back to the first photo, this is something a bit different. All black with white spots on its thorax, it’s a Common Mourning Bee (Melecta albifrons). This so-called “cuckoo bee” is a kleptoparasite of the Hairy-footed Flower Bee ((Anthophora plumipes)). It lays its eggs in the nest of its host, the larvae hatching before the host’s and consuming the competition as well as the stored pollen, ready to emerge as adults the following spring.

Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica, #16)

Bordered by large birch and beech trees, much of my garden is shady like an open woodland, and the bluebells really seem to like it. Sadly, I have the Spanish version (Hyacinthoides hispanica), rather than the native Common Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). The non-native species has broader leaves, more upright flower stalks as the flowers form on both sides of the stem and a more open, less bell-shaped flower. They also lack a scent, which perhaps makes them less attractive to insects, though I do see bumble bees and bee flies visiting them. They are also much more fast-growing than the native bluebell, quickly spreading across the borders and given half a chance into woodlands, where they also pose a risk to the native species through hybridisation. I should I suppose pull them out and replace them by some native ones, but if I do I will wait until after they have flowered, as they are pretty.

#16 Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)

#16 Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)

Mining Bees and Bee Fly

In the sunny weather at the start of the week there was an encouragingly good amount of mining bees around the garden. Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria, #61) and Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva, #442) are solitary bees emerging early in the Spring and flying for 6-8 weeks. The females make separate nests in the ground, often many nesting in the same area. The Bee Fly (Bombylius major) is a parasite of the mining bees, especially the Tawny Mining Bee, laying its own eggs near the entrance of the bees nest so its larvae can predate those of the bee. The bees and Bee Fly do visit the garden flowers and are important pollinators. The mining bees seemingly preferring blossoms on the fruit trees, while the Bee Fly goes for flowers like Bluebell.

New Season, New Insects

Buzzing around or sunbathing on the walls or fences trying to catch some rays from the March sunshine, there’s many more insects buzzing around this last week. Most of them are very active, so I’m struggling to get photos. For instance yesterday we welcomed back spring with 4 species of butterfly in the garden (Peacock, Brimstone, Holly Blue and Orange Tip)., but none of them stopped for so much as a second. Similar story for most of the bees and hoverflies.

On to some things which were more obliging, I snapped Common Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax) on the wall and some of the many flies sitting on the fence and plants. Still some work to do to identify all of them, but a (very common, in fact) Blue Bottle Fly (Calliphora vicina, #432) was new to the list, as was Eudasyphora cyanella (#441) with its white collar and the Scavenger Fly (Scatopse sp).

Mint Moth (#69) was a visitor to the kitchen. So far there don’t appear to be many moths around; when driving at night they seem even less in evidence than during mid-winter.

Finally, noticing some damaged leaves on my hellebores, I found sap-sucking Hellebore Aphids (#431, Macrosiphum hellebore) making themselves at home on the undersides of the leaves. Fortunately not too many of them.