Darting, buzzing, jumping and pouncing, It's all been happening out there!
Once upon a time, there was a woman who was rather scared of 'Creepy Crawlies' and buzzing whizzing things. She was even more scared of spiders...
Then one day she decided to learn how to use her camera, she started off on larger creatures, but during the summer months, when the birds were all busy with young or out of sight behind the leaves, she began to look more closely at the little creatures. After a while, with the help of a long lens, she began to 'see', get curious as to what she was seeing and began to marvel at the world of Minibeasts.
Every year, I love watching everything emerge and follow a cycle, from the plants reappearing in the spring, followed by the first Bees, then watching the birds getting busy, then in the summer, the gradual emergence of fairly common insects. I almost tell the time of year, by what I'm observing out on my walks.
I'm not scared of the Creepy Crawlies and buzzy whizzy things anymore and can even cope with spiders....
Close up, the insect world is incredibly beautiful - each has evolved into a little masterpiece to fit it's place in the natural cascade and has a purpose.
Here are some of the smaller residents that I have seen this summer on my Local Patch:
Dark Edged Bee-fly (Bombyius major)
One of the earlier insects to appear this year was the Dark Edged Bee-fly. These hover in mid air and then suddenly dart up or sideways. Bee-flies like a variety of habitats, grassland, woodland rides and gardens. The long proboscis is used to feed on nectar whilst hovering at the flowerheads. They are not very Bee friendly however, as they lay their eggs in the nests of mining bees; the bee-fly larvae then feed on the Mining Bee larvae as they emerge.
These are one of the larger hoverflies which appear and are fast in flight, but often seen sunning themselves or nectaring on brambles, elder or umbelliferae flower heads (hogweed, wild carrot etc). I began to see these from early June onwards and there are still quite a few about. At first glance they look like a Bee, however they are actually bee mimics and various forms imitate Buff-tailed, White-tailed and Red-tailed bees. Their eggs are laid in wasps' or Bees' nests where there is a colony and the larvae feed mostly on the debris in the nests, acting as little 'Dustbin' bugs although they do sometimes also eat their host's larvae.
Garden Cross Spider (Araneus Diademaus)
In the autumn months, you may well have seen the common Garden Cross spiders, suspended from beautiful webs in your garden, or when out walking. On my Local Patch, the grasses and hogweed stems are often festooned with their webs at that time of year. In late autumn, the female lays her eggs in an eggsack which is nearly as big as herself - she stays with the egg sack to protect it, literally the last thing she does. The following spring, the spiderlings will emerge and little wriggling golden knots of them can be seen amongst the vegetation. This was taken along a bank of brambles, although at home, we've also had these appear in the ivy in the front garden or the laurel bushes.
For protection, the spiderlings mostly stay together in a 'clump' however, if the web moves or vibrates and they sense danger, they will disperse as shown - becoming tiny gold motes across the web.. As they grow they disperse, taking around two years to reach adulthood.
Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)
In early June or sometimes late May, I'll have begun to see damselflies emerge - this year they were few in numbers, however I did see some Common Blue damsels and whilst out one afternoon I saw this rather handsome male Large Red Damselfly. These are quite common around slow moving water, which fits with the little streams and ditches around the perimeter of the fields I walk.
Damselflies lay their eggs (ovipost) in water in the mud or decaying wood just below the surface. The eggs hatch into nymphs. Damselfly nymphs take around two to three months to develop, feeding on small prey as they grow and moult. When the time is right, the nymph emerges from the water and finds a suitable stem to cling to; it then goes through a final moult, emerging slowly in the form which we see on the wing, as adults they only live for maybe a further few weeks. The cycle then begins again, with the Damsels dancing and chasing a mate, before pairing and laying eggs for the next generation.
Broad Bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa) F
Late one afternoon in early June, I was watching a female Whitethroat foraging along a bank of brambles next to the little brook, when suddenly this Broad Bodied Chaser appeared. The life cycle of a dragonfly is much the same as for a damselfly, however, dragonflies spend far longer in the nymph form - anything up to two years, so whenever I see dragonflies, I know I am seeing little survivors - the nymphs are quite a delicacy for many underwater predators!
The male form of the Broad Bodied Chaser is blue and brown, with similar 'stained glass windows' at the base of the wings. This female however, was very fresh looking and a beautiful bright gold in the sunshine. She would fly up and down in short bursts, before repeatedly settling on 'lookout' posts, occasionally with a small snack to munch on. Hopefully, she eventually found a mate and did not fall prey to one of the local birds who had hungry mouths to feed!
More recently, a few more dragonflies have appeared - Migrant Hawkers around the edges of the field and in the garden, where they dangle in the jasmine and on the far side of where I walk, where there is new tree planting and in the little 'rides' Southern Hawkers can be seen patrolling at speed up and down the clearways between the trees.
Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)
The first Bees I see most years are Red Tailed bees which appear and feed off freshly blooming willow in the early spring, as things gradually warm up, I also see quite a few White and Buff tailed bees feeding on thistles and brambles as well as other tree blossom as it appears.
One little Bee has long puzzled me though, the tiny little ones which I see feeding in the thistles, common and tufted vetch - there have been an abundance of them this year! In the meadow where I walk, it has been a very good year on the wildflower front, from swathes of tall and short buttercups early on, a beautiful and plentiful display of Spotted and Common Meadow Orchids, Greater and Lesser Stitchwort to a good array of Common Hogweed, tall thistles, huge clumps of Common and Tufted Vetch and all this bordered by banks of Brambles. There has been plenty of choice for nectaring insects.
Much of the vetch has been full of Common Carder bees; these are very sociable little bees, nesting in old birds nests, or other cavities, even mats of moss. Their Queen emerges in the spring and lays eggs which become workers, with male bees emerging later to mate with new emerging females. Some of these females will become queens themselves and hibernate for the winter, before forming their own colonies the following year.
Funnel Weaver Spider (Agelina labyrinthica)
Part of the area I walk around is given over to growing cereal crops and throughout the summer months, suspended around stems of oats or wheat, or amongst the grasses along the edges of the field, are sheets of spiders web which are formed into a funnel shape by their resident. These are the Funnel Weaver spiders.
The female usually waits around in the entrance to the funnel and pounces on passing prey, before dragging it back into the web - as the season progresses, some of these spider homes begin to look distinctly unkempt with assorted leaves and carcasses scattered around the entrance!
Now that I have realised that spiders are mostly harmless to us ( and these are!) I take some delight in peering down the funnel to see a rather fearsome looking arachnid peering back at me! On some of the larger and more elaborate funnel webs, I have sometimes counted up to half a dozen or so residents in various corners of the construction - the intricacy of which never ceases to amaze me.
Wasp Spider (Agriope bruennichi)
Now this Lady is not one of our native spiders, having arrived over the last few years from the continent; however in Southern England, here and there, are little colonies.
The Wasp spider, of which the female is the larger and more colourful of the pair, lives in a web suspended in long grass. I first saw one a couple of years ago, none last year, however, this year, this one was in a gap in the grass next to the path, so was able to watch her for some while without disturbing her.
The spiders mate in July, with the smaller male probably ending up as dinner. The female then goes on to produce a flask shaped egg sack which is one of the largest produced by this size spider - 2.5 cm . Once sealed, the egg sack is hidden in the surrounding vegetation.
The Wasp Spider's web is quite unique, in that the centre is full of silk zig-zags. There is some speculation as to why, however, one theory is that the silk reflects ultra-violet light, which in turn attracts prey to the web. The main part of their diet is grasshoppers and in the location where I found this Lady, there were certainly no shortage of these or some fairly large crickets.
Dark Bush Cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera)
Well, I've had these up my trouser leg, after crouching down to look at some other minibeast more closely, on my shoulder, sitting on the end of the camera... Brilliant characters!
These are one of those 'just saw something move but not what' minibeasts, where you see a blade of grass twitch, but the cricket is already some way away, deep under cover! On sunny days, they will sunbathe on brambles, or as this one here is, amongst the leftovers after the harvest. They are very widespread and their song is a real summer sound.
The males are very territorial and can be quite aggressive. Once they have mated, the females lay their eggs in old wood or bark crevices and the youngsters then do not emerge again for another eighteen months. Next time you are looking at an old log, just imagine how many minibeast youngsters it is home too!
Speckled Bush Cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima
Here and there on a leaf, there will be a 'colour' out of place, so I'll stop to look. Quite often, in late summer, if you look carefully at leaves and in bushes, you may see a Speckled Bush cricket perched quietly, sometimes you may see them perched on windowsills too - they are often found in gardens as well as woodland margins and hedgerows. They become most active of an evening and feed on flowers and leaves.
The adult Speckled Bush crickets that you see in the late summer, would have been laid as eggs in plant stems or tree bark and hatched in late spring, taking until late summer to mature and live until late autumn.
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum)
From late July I have been seeing Common Darters emerge and dance aound the field margins, pausing to perch on ears of wheat or on a prominent stick or stem with a good vantage point along the woodland margin. The males are a striking red (top image) whilst the females are more yellow in colour (lower image). These dragonflies can often be seen well into late autumn and are often the last about.
Sometimes they just seem to be on lookout for a mate or protecting their 'patch' or others, they pause and munch their way through a tasty morsel. There is a bank of brambles that I visit - it is in a sunny spot and enjoyed by many small 'buzzies' which I've then seen a Darter perched eating - an excellent hunting ground! They do lay their eggs in water, as other dragonflies do, however, these can often be seen quite some distance from water, around field margins and woodland rides.
Darters, Damselflies and Dragonflies are all most active during the warmer parts of the day - the little powerhouse they have on their back needs to warm up properly before they get flying, so sometimes, being perched is a warming up excercise - I recall a couple of years ago, just after the field had been harvested and ploughed, on a warm morning, there were a huge number of males and females all basking on the clumps of soil absorbing the warmth.
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