Saturday, 22 July 2017

A canal walk

Chris was meeting friends at the Heart of the Shires complex on the A5 north of Weedon.  The weather looked a bit 'iffy' but I decided to accompany her as far as the car park. There we parted and I walked for a couple of hundred yards to the Grand Union Canal, joining it near to the site of the deserted medieval village of Muscott. I set off walking south, planning to walk the two and a half miles back to Weedon.

Grand Union Canal. Bridge 18, looking south. 21 July, 2017
Conditions were mild but there was a blustery wind and I suspected that insects could be scarce. I was wrong. Lesser Burdock, Arctium minus, was receiving many visitors, especially the Marmalade Fly, Episyrphus balteatus. An ichneumon fly, perhaps a Lissonata species was displaying its remarkable ovipositor. Looking like a vicious sting, it is used for inserting its eggs into, usually, an insect larva.
An ichneumon  fly at burdock. Muscott, Northants. 21 July, 2017
Elsewhere, also on burdock, the picture-winged fly, Terellia tussilaginis, was very common, often noted in copula, as naturalists delicately put it. These flies, members of the Tephritidae family, need to be identified with care, and the plant with which a specimen is associated should be noted.
A pair of Picture-winged Flies, Terellia tussilaginis, on burdock.
Grand Union Canal north of Weedon. 21 July, 2017
Perhaps the loveliest, certainly the most eye-catching insect along the canal banks, was the Banded Demoiselle, Calopteryx splendens. It is common in Northants all along the River Nene. In his book The Dragonflies of Northamptonshire (2005), Mark Tyrrell make no mention of the Grand Union Canal with regard to this species, but canals are clearly important.
Banded Demoiselle beside the canal. 21 July, 2017
As specimens - and there were many - flitted restlessly from plant to plant, they proved quite tricky to photograph. In Shropshire, and probably elsewhere, they were once known as 'water butterflies'. An elderly gentleman was sitting on the opposite bank and I was tempted to ask him what he called them, but he seemed strangely uncommunicative. Models, no matter how cleverly constructed, tend to be inarticulate.
A figure of a man relaxes beside the Grand Union Canal north of Weedon.
21 July, 2017
This Parent Bug, Elasmucha grisea, is an interesting species - and this, as far as I can recall, is the first time I have seen it this year. (Incidentally Hemp Agrimony, upon which the bug sat, is a splendid wildlife plant. It is unrelated to hemp, aka cannabis, but the leaves bear a great resemblance to it.) However the Parent Bug is hardly a spectacular insect and the canalside flowers were proving more photogenic.
A Parent Bug on Hemp Agrimony beside the Grand Union Canal west
of Brockhall, Northants. 21 July, 2017

This balsam, for example, is far more colourful. It is Orange Balsam, Impatiens capensis, an introduction from North America. I saw just a couple of small clumps on my walk and there was nothing suggest it was in any way a problem, whereas the Indian Balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, is such a dreadfully invasive plant that it is now illegal to plant it or in any way cause it to spread. Luckily I saw none of this today.
Orange Balsam occurred occasionally along the canal banks.
21 July, 2017
Members of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae, are always worth checking for insect visitors although Skullcap, Scutellaria galericulata, seemed to attract little interest. It was common along the canal bank, but its diminutive flowers were easily overlooked. 
The pretty, but small, flowers of skullcap. Banks of the canal north
of Weedon, Northants. 21 July, 2017
The shape of its flowers apparently reminded early botanists of the leather helmet, the galerum, worn by Roman soldiers. Indeed, the first time I saw it I said to myself, 'Wow, that flower looks just like a galerum.' [Ed: You can be such a twit at times!]
Gipsywort, another labiate, was equally common. Here it was the properties of the plant, rather that its shape, that gave rise to its common name for the plant can yield a black dye, believed long ago to have been used by gipsies to darken their skins. Clearly racist myths are nothing new.

The whorls of Gipsywort flowers attracted a number of insects.
Grand Union Canal near Weedon. 21 July, 2017
To me the most interesting of these mint relatives was Marsh Woundwort, Stachys palustris. The foul-smelling Hedge Woundwort, Stachys sylvatica, had been common throughout my walk but it was not until I was three-quarters of the way to my destination that I found the former's rather elegant flowers. Just inside each flower is a circle of hairs, insufficient to impede bees, but apparently keeping out unwanted flies.

Marsh Woundwort was present along a short stretch of the canal
near Weedon. 21 July, 2017
There are four species of woundwort in Britain (two of them very rare) but the Marsh Woundwort was apparently regarded by herbalists as the most effective healer of them all.
By now a light drizzle was falling but Weedon was almost in sight. I scurried past the mammoth road workings where the new Weedon by-pass was being constructed and within a few minutes I was on a bus, heading for home. The many specimens I had with me would lead to much burning of midnight oil.

Tony White. e-mail:


Thursday, 20 July 2017

Allotment insects

The morning has been wet and rather miserable, but it brightened up after lunch and I resolved to visit our allotment. By the time I got there the clouds had rolled away and it was getting distinctly hot and I was already working up a sweat even as I approached our plot.
A blackbird flew off with a chattering alarm call and I was a little surprised as it is a confiding cock bird that often works quite near to my feet. I then saw a cat slinking through the grass and all became clear. It glared at me for a moment and I was reminded of a passage by Lewis Carroll:

                                        'We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
                                        'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice.

                                        'You must be,' said the cat,  'or you wouldn't have come here."

I had come to gather runner beans, mange-tout peas and a lettuce but I also intended to try and identify some of the insects on the plot, and maybe take a few photographs.
A Red-tailed Bumblebee investigates a dork form of Cornflower.
Drayton Allotments, Daventry. 20 July, 2017
Bees were busy on the scarlet flowers of the runner beans, including the Red-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius, and the Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris.
Also present, although only a singleton, was a very large bee I suspect was the Large Garden Bumblebee, Bombus ruderatus. It just seemed too large for anything else, being quite as big as the Buff-tailed Bumblebee and with an elongate form.
Bombus lapidarius on raspberry foliage. Drayton Allotments, Daventry.
20 July, 2017

A hoverfly sat motionless for some minutes on the leaf of a squash and seemed unperturbed when I leaned over for a photograph. It was Volucella pellucens, technically a  bumblebee mimic but not to me resembling any obvious species except possibly the Garden Bumblebee, Bombus hortorum.
A hoverfly, Volucella pellucens, on a squash leaf. Drayton Allotments,
Daventry. 20 July, 2017
A Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris, was zig-zagging around in a sinister manner, doubtless looking for a juicy grub to take away but I suspect it would ignore the Cinnabar caterpillars on a neighbouring plot. They were feeding on Groundsel, Senecio vulgaris, and their bodies would be laced with toxic alkaloids to an extent that few creatures will attempt to eat them. In fact the bold warning stripes resembled those of the wasp.
Cinnabar caterpillar on groundsel at Drayton Allotments, Daventry.
20 July, 2017
Hoverflies cheat. They too wear the yellow and black stripes but they would surely be perfectly palatable to any bird prepared to take a gamble. As it is, this male Syrphus ribesii can feel reasonably safe in its mimicry. 
Syrphus ribesii loafing on foliage. Drayton Allotments, Daventry.
20 July, 2017

The quantity of invertebrate life was mildly encouraging and diptera - two-winged flies - were present in large numbers. I suspect that nowadays few allotment holders use pesticides except as a very last resort. Netting is now the answer to a wide range of problems and wildlife generally is the beneficiary. The message is getting across!



Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Leafcutter Bees

I grow very few roses so when I find signs of damage I like to establish the cause. One rose I'm particularly fond of is Ferdinand Pichard, so when I found neat, semi-circular holes at the leaf edges I was a little vexed.
Ferdinand Pichard, a flamboyant and richly fragrant rose.
Our garden at Stefen Hill, Daventry. 19 July, 2017

Not that I was surprised because the culprit is very widespread: it was a leafcutter bee and almost certainly the work of Megachile centuncularis. This is probably the commonest species in gardens and was certainly present in our previous garden in Byfield.
The females cut out pieces of leaf and bear them back to their nest. This leaf portion is then used in the construction of neat cells which are filled with a mixture of nectar and pollen - plus an egg.

Neat, semi-circular hole sin rose leaves are the work of leafcutter bees.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 19 July, 2017
I have found similar semi-circular shapes cut into the leaves of our Solanum crispum, and I again suspect the work of leafcutter bees.

A few days ago, at Daventry Country Park, I was photographing a specimen on thistle heads. It was collecting both nectar and pollen, and the latter is gathered in a rather unusual way. Most bumblebees collect pollen in a sac on the hindlegs but Megachile species eschew this method. Instead the underside of the abdomen is covered in specialised hairs, to which the pollen clings.
A Megachile species working at a thistle head.
Daventry Country Park. 16 July, 2017
Eventually the whole of the ventral side will be covered in pollen, although it must be said that the hairs along the margins of the abdomen can be naturally cream or white. I made no attempt to catch or identify the Megachile in question and there are seven species known from the British Isles.
Another view of the same specimen.
The genus is a huge one, with over 1,500 species across the world, and includes the world's largest bee, Megachile pluto. Incidentally, this species, with a wingspan of over sixty millimetres (2.5 inches) was believed to be extinct until being rediscovered in 1981. And yes, it has a very painful sting!

Daventry Country Park (2)

My previous blog told of a visit I made to the edge of Daventry Country Park. I mentioned 'a fine display of wild flowers' but gave few details. Today I revisited the area, again in search of invertebrates but paying a little more attention to the flora.
Perhaps most obvious were clumps of Common Ragwort, Jacobaea vulgaris. If the Latin name seems unfamiliar it is not surprising because since my childhood it has been Senecio vulgaris and is just one of a host of 'Senecios' to undergo a recent name-change.
It is generally hated by farmers on the grounds that it is toxic to horses although in my opinion this attitude is unjustified. Horses generally leave the plant well alone and cases of horse fatalities seem quite rare. Nevertheless it is subject to vigorous provisions under the Ragwort Control Act, 2003. It is a popular species with entomologists, providing nectar to  large numbers of interest as well as being well-known as the food-plant of the Cinnabar moth.
Creeping Thistle, Cirsium arvense, was prolific, with some flower heads (capitula) being pure white. This very pale example is here being visited by a Gatekeeper, Pyronia tithonus, so-named perhaps because it works its way along hedgerows, apparently going from gate to gate. Oddly, the thistle is another species subject to control by law.
A Gatekeeper butterfly visits Creeping Thistle.
Daventry Country Park. 18 July, 2017
The first two plants are clearly serious weeds, but what of Yarrow, Achillea millefolium? It can occasionally present a problem but generally it is easily controlled and many insect species rely on it to a considerable degree. Its red and pink varieties are popular garden plants. Here at the edge of Daventry Country Park it was prolific, but not in any way a problem - and much appreciated by skipper butterflies. 'Yarrow leaves', according to Adele Nozedar in The Hedgerow Handbook,' (2012) are good in mixed salads; a little lemon juice and sugar really helps to bring out the flavour'. Perhaps I should be a little more adventurous!
Yarrow seems to be popular with butterflies, and here a skipper pays a call.
Daventry Country Park. 18 July, 2017
Some willow herbs can be weeds but the Great Willow Herb, Epilobium hirsutum, is rarely a problem. It tends to occur in damp ground, including river and lake margins; here it was in ground currently very dry and the flowers were almost over. It was only getting an occasional visit from insects, an exception being the bug, Dicyphus epilobii, which was very common on the foliage.
Great Willow Herb at Daventry Country Park.
18 July, 2017

This is the food plant for the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor, and I kept my eyes open for its presence - with no luck. Perforate St John's Wort, Hypericum perforatum, was present, as was Ox-eye Daisy, but one of the most eye-catching was Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca. Sprawling and untidy? Yes. Common? Yes. But a lovely and undervalued plant. And the bees appreciate it too.
Tufted Vetch scrambled through other herbs. Daventry Country Park.
18 July, 2017
Finally I must mention the Meadow Crane's-bill, Geranium pratense. It was reported from the 'New Reservoir, Daventry' in 1843 by William Notcutt - and was still there today! It was inaccessible behind a dense barrier of brambles, and I only managed an unsatisfactory photograph.

Meadow Cranesbill: always pleasing to see.
Daventry Country Park. 18 July, 2017
It is a beautiful plant in its own right, but its hybrid with Geranium himalayense is the very popular 'Johnson's Blue'.
With all these flowers present it was not surprising that I recorded a wide range of insects and the area may well receive a third visit in, perhaps, early autumn.


Friday, 14 July 2017

Daventry Country Park (1)

Daventry Country Park is within comfortable walking distance of where I live  - perhaps no more than a mile and a half away - and so it is surprising how infrequently I pay it a visit. Today I went there intending to have a stroll around the large lake - a former reservoir - which forms the main feature, looking at the margins and seeking invertebrates that enjoy wet conditions.
As it happens I never made it as far as the lake.
I entered the Country Park, not via the main car park, but from the south west corner and was immediately confronted by a lovely little patch of rough ground with a fine display of wild flowers. There were insects to be seen everywhere. A Six-spot Burnet Moth, Zygaena filipendulae, was busy at a thistle head and was still there three quarters of an hour later. Each thistle head consists of a hundred or so florets so I suppose when the moth had got to the last one it could start again at number one!
A Six-spot Burnet feeds at Creeping Thistle. Daventry Country Park.
14 July, 2017
The burnet moths resemble butterflies in being diurnal fliers and were, it seems, a puzzle to early entomologists, who seemed to regard them as half-way between moths and butterflies.
In my blog a couple of days ago I was scratching my head over a footman moth and today I found myself with the same problem. However I am confident that today's specimen was a Common Footman, Eilema lurideola.
A Common Footman dropped into my upturned umbrella.
Daventry Country Park. 14 July, 2017
Coloration, wing-shape and the form of the yellow wing margin lead me to this conclusion - plus the fact that this species is ubiquitous.
An experienced lepidopterist would probably have little hesitation in naming this skipper but when it comes to these insects I admit to being a tyro. However, there is no sign of a black tip to the antennae so I am reasonably certain that it is a female Small Skipper, Thymelicus flavus, here on a head of yarrow.

A Small Skipper on Yarrow at Daventry Country Park.
14 July, 2017
Plenty of Bumblebees were around and so too was one of their major enemies, the conopid fly Physocephala rufipes.
Physocephala rufipes, taken at Daventry Country Park. 14 July, 2017

This odd-looking insect is parasitic on a range of bumblebee species, seizing a victim and laying its eggs directly on to the abdomen of the unfortunate host. In his booklet on the species Kenneth Smith writes: '...females wait on nearby vegetation and attack foraging bees with a very quick strike when both bee and fly may roll on the ground together in a violent struggle'. Some conopid bee species in the U.S.A. attack hive bees and may cause significant losses. The usual conopid fly I see is the very wasp-like Conops quadrifasciatus so this was an interesting record. (There is a very good photograph of this fly on page 315 of Peter Marren and Richard Mabey's 2010 book Bugs Britannica but I believe the caption may be wrong.)
I didn't spend all my time looking at insects and, strolling around the area, I found that some leaves on Alder, Alnus glutinosa, had been seriously disfigured by galls.
Leaves of alder were disfigured with the galls of a mite,
Eriophyes laevis. Daventry Country Park. 14 July, 2017
The culprit was a mite, Eriophyes laevis. This is widespread in the south and midlands of England. Does it attack the widely-planted Grey Alder? I'm not sure: I'll keep my eyes open. 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

July in Kentle Wood

The number of invertebrates present but not yet recorded in Kentle Wood must run into hundreds or even thousands so in order to track down a few more I used a different technique on today's visit. I have used an umbrella when beating bushes on previous occasions, but not for a long time.
The 'Dunlop' advert is not obligatory
For rather obvious reasons white is the most effective colour and its usage soon brought results, a Forest Bug, Pentatoma rufipes, dropping into the umbrella with a gentle thud. Not a new species for Kentle Wood, but it was a promising start.
Forest Bug in my brolly at Kentle Wood, Daventry. 12 July, 2017
A few yards further on and a Southern Oak Bush Cricket, Meconema meridionale, was taken. This is a new record for the wood and in fact was first recorded in Britain as recently as 2001. Since then it has spread rapidly and had reached Nottinghamshire by 2012. By the end of the afternoon I had noted several specimens. I also took a specimen of the Speckled Bush Cricket, Leptophyes punctatissima.

Southern Oak Bush Cricket. Kentle Wood, Daventry.
13 July, 2017
Traditionally springtime is the mating season - but tell that to insects!  The Common Froghopper, Philaenus spumarius, is very well known, if only for the mass of froth it forms on a range of plants. Children are always delighted when told that the froth is formed by the insect blowing bubbles from its bum!

A mating pair of the very variable Common Froghopper.
Kentle Wood, Daventry. 12 July, 2017
It is an extremely variable insect and the photograph shows two contrasting forms mating. It is obviously pointless attempting to identify this species by its colour for even bright purple forms are known; shape, size and various structural features must be studied.
Almost every thistle head had attracted specimens of the very common beetle, Rhagonycha fulva, and most seemed to have found a mate. They are best known for using Hogweed umbels as a meeting place but it is clear from this photograph that Creeping Thistle is a very acceptable substitute.
Mating pairs of Rhagonycha fulva, aka Hogweed Bonking Beetle.
Kentle Wood, Daventry. 12 July, 2017
Harvestmen rarely get a mention in my blogs but these relatives of spiders are of great interest - or at least I think so - and deserve space. Many seem to reach maturity towards the end of summer, eg, harvest time, and I took three species. Among the commonest were specimens of the long-legged Dicranopalpus ramosus.
Dicranopalpus ramosus. Kentle Wood, Daventry.
12 July, 2017
The word 'ramosus' means 'branching' and in this case refers to the palps. The palps look like an extra pair of legs at the front of the animal and, as the photograph shows, these appear to be forked due to the development of an apophysis - a branch usually small or non-existent but very obvious in this species.

The enlarged photograph shows details of its unusual palps.
My knowledge of moths is sketchy in places and when it comes to footman moths my limitations become obvious. I am fairly certain that this is a Dingy Footman, Eilema griseola, but I won't submit the record.
Dingy Footman? Perhaps, but it's not my bag.
Kentle Wood, Daventry. 12 July, 2017
Finally, a grotesque creature that dropped into my umbrella just before I set out for home. I must confess that I was a little taken aback when it landed with a gentle plop. What on earth? It was clearly something capable of a nasty bite!
It was, of course, the withered remains of a rose hip and I gently returned it to the ground beneath the briars. I was clearly hallucinating. Time to go home for a cuppa...


Thursday, 6 July 2017

More hospital observations

Today involved another trip with Chris to Northampton General Hospital and as usual, while she underwent lengthy treatment, I strolled around the hospital grounds.
Buff-tailed Bumblebee visiting Buddleia. Northampton General Hospital.
6 July, 2017
I have to say that nothing sensational was observed. Buddleia, Buddleja davidii, was flowering profusely around car parks and on neglected banks but not a butterfly was to be seen. On the plus side, bumblebees were plentiful with Buff-tailed Bumblebees, Bombus terrestris, nectaring as though a price rise were imminent. The bees were also busy at a few plants of Black Horehound, Ballota nigra, clearly not put off by the unpleasant smell.
Black Horehound in the grounds of Northampton General Hospital.
6 July, 2017


Virtually all members of the Mint family, to which Black Horehound belongs, have a smell of some kind and this one has a particularly unpleasant one.
Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, usually gets a mention when I write about this site. The largest plant had been hacked down but I'm betting that those responsible were unaware of the species they were dealing with or they would surely have removed it completely. As it was, some overlooked branches had continued to produce flowers and fruit.
The latter are still green but will soon ripen to a luscious purple. A & E stand by! 
The leaves had been extensively mined by the grubs of a tiny moth, the Bittersweet Smudge, Acrolepia autumnitella. It is curious how some plants, potentially lethal to us, can be life-sustaining for others.
The leaves of the Deadly Nightshade had been extensively mined.

All these observations were quite predictable, but I was in for a surprise - literally a small one.
On areas of waste ground grew several dozen plants of Small Toadflax, Chaenorrhinum minus. This tiny annual, a relative of garden snapdragons, was easily overlooked, each flower measuring only two or three millimetres across.

Small Toadflax was in flower in the grounds of Northampton's General
Hospital. 6 July, 2017
I was pleased to find it because, although maps such as the one in the latest Northamptonshire flora* show lots of records, it seems to have been lost from many of these locations and it is now quite scarce.

* Gent and Wilson (2012) The Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough.