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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Here be dragons

Posted on September 20 2009 at 9:42:53 0 comments

Dragonfly in Blackwell

Dragonflies, that is… and Mary Green also looks at some of our other helpful flying insects.

In August, everybody was saying that autumn had come early this year. Certainly the leaves on many trees, especially oaks, started to turn brown early. But then the start of September was warm and sunny, and summer activity continued around us.

I decided in the first week of September to check how many wild plants were still flowering, thinking there wouldn’t be many. In a walk of an hour or so from my house along the canal I found 56 different kinds. By the time you read this most of these will be over, but it’s always surprising how many go on well into the autumn and even the winter.

The official verdict on our English summer is that we had slightly above average everything – rain, sun and temperatures! In August, here in the Midlands we had below average rainfall, about average sunshine and slightly above average temperatures. Swallows were still skimming over the end of harvest and late grass-mowing in the first few weeks of September.

It has been a wonderful autumn for hedgerow fruit, especially in the plum family. Blackthorns and damson trees are thickly coated with fruit. One old bullace tree (wild plum) in a field near me rarely bears much fruit. This year it has been so heavy-laden that I’m afraid a main branch has broken right off (as indeed happened to the cultivated plum tree in my garden!)

This month I want to look at the animal world, though, and in particular at insects. They are the creatures that test our wildlife tolerance the most – it’s very hard to rejoice in a good year for wasps or midges. But of course they are a vital part in the chain of life.

Nowadays most of us know that we wouldn’t be able to live the way we do without bees, but they are only one of the species upon which plants depend for pollination and growth, and birds and small animals for food.

Summer is the time for dragonflies, and our canal and ponds are some of the best places to see them. They are even around still in the early autumn. The name “dragonfly” reminds us that close up they are quite scary, but as we see them flitting across water they are very beautiful.

They have been around for literally ages, even predating the dinosaurs, and are our largest insects. They fly exceptionally fast. Dragonflies’ eyes really are a wonder of nature. They have almost 360° vision, their “eyes” actually being structures made up of thousands of tiny hexagonal eyes.

There are several different groups of dragonflies. The delicate, pale blue kind have the beautiful name of damselflies. You can often see them mating in flight over the water. Bigger, with more solid-looking electric blue wings are the demoiselles – actually the same name, but in its French form. They were obviously seen to be feminine, damsel being a medieval name for a girl.

In contrast, the bigger, mostly brown, gold or red ones are called hawkers, darters, emperors or chasers. These sound much more male and athletic, but still have the most beautiful delicate wings. The names taken together suggest a lovely medieval tapestry.

Old names for dragonflies include horse-stinger and adderfly. There was a widespread belief that they would sting you, though in fact they don’t. Some people believed that the sting was poisonous, like an adder’s bite. It was said that where you saw dragonflies, adders would be found nearby, though this is very unlikely as they have quite different habitats.

Dragonflies really are dragon-like. They are carnivorous, and will even eat other dragonflies – dragons eating damsels, in fact!

The other insect we all recognise is the butterfly. We are warned about the decline in butterflies, but this year has seen the resurgence of some species. There was a shortage of the lovely early brimstone, the yellow one which gave us the name butterfly.

But there were lots of the equally early orange tip. Painted ladies came to the country in huge flocks, and cabbage whites ate all my neighbour’s nasturtiums. This is a reminder that butterflies don’t come without caterpillars!

The lives of butterflies are very varied. Some live in England all year round. They lay eggs which become caterpillars, usually feeding on a particular plant. These then “pupate,” becoming chrysalises, during which phase all their internal organs change completely.

Then they hatch into adult butterflies. Sometimes this happens quite soon, sometimes they hibernate (over-winter) in the chrysalis. Sometimes the adults hibernate, and even the caterpillars or eggs can hibernate. Some butterflies may lay more than one set of eggs in a year.

Butterflies don’t live very long; about a month, though longer if they hibernate. They only need sugar for energy, not food to make them grow. They have flowers they prefer to feed on the nectar of, which may or may not be the same as their caterpillars’ food plants.

Some species (like the painted ladies and red admirals) migrate here from warmer climes, mating and laying eggs, which hatch and mature and fly away. So, when you see an orange tip in the spring it will be newly emerged, but when you see a brimstone or peacock butterfly in early spring, it will have over-wintered.

Blue butterflies are always a joy to see. The common blue likes old fashioned meadows, and I have often seen them at Eades. The holly blue lays its eggs on holly flowers in May, and then may lay another lot on ivy flowers in autumn.

Nearly all butterflies like to feed on flowers of the daisy family, as well as bushes like buddleia. Especially useful to them are Michaelmas daisies, which flower in the autumn. This plant gives them the chance of a good late feed, especially if they are going to hibernate or migrate.

Moths and butterflies are very much the same, and there isn’t always a clear distinction. Generally butterflies fold their wings together when they settle, and the antennae are different. Moths usually fly at night, but not all of them. One that flies during the day is the vivid red-and-black burnet moth, which loves plants like knapweed and scabious and is common in old meadows.

Tiger moths may be about too, though they are not as common as they used to be. You may know their caterpillars better, the big furry ones commonly known as woolly-bears. Caterpillars with fur or spines are protecting themselves by making themselves distasteful to birds. If you look out for moths at night, you may see members of the hawk moth family. These are large and furry and some have amazing markings, like the death’s-head hawk moth which has a skull marking.

As I write this, bees are still buzzing around my flowers. There are hundreds of different bees in England, but most of us only know the honey bee and bumble bee. You may recognise leaf-miner bees by the damage they do to plants, or masonry bees by their habit of tunnelling into walls.

Even bumble bees have several different varieties. Bees make their nests in various places and ways: honey bees we all know about, but others may nest in hollow tubes of vegetation, or between bricks. Wasps are far less popular! This may be because they don’t seem to do us good, like bees, and are seen to do us harm by stinging us. But wasps are carnivorous creatures, not nectar feeders, and do rid our gardens of other pests. They make their nests from gathered materials, often chewed-up paper.

They shouldn’t really bother us, except at the end of summer when the males have outlived their usefulness and are drunk on rotting fruit. Then they get confused, especially if we flap at them or chase them with rolled up newspapers.

Lots of harmless insects get mistaken for wasps and are sometimes killed. This applies especially to hover-flies, which have similar stripy bodies. It is a protective camouflage for them, as it means that predators too will mistake them for wasps and leave them alone.

Flies also occur in many different types. Again, we tend to know a few: house flies, bluebottles, and possibly horse flies and their smaller relatives, cleggs. These two are nasty biters, often raising a bad allergic reaction – and they don’t buzz like other flies or whine like mosquitoes so you don’t know you’re bitten until you’re bitten!

Fortunately the leaves of the greater plantain, very common in the kind of rough ground where horse flies abound, can be applied to the bite, and seem to have an anti-histamine effect.

One fly you may be able to identify by its time of appearance and characteristic shape is the St Mark’s fly. It appears towards the end of April (around St Mark’s Day). It is black, and flies and hovers with its legs trailing behind it very distinctively. It’s a sign of spring, just as much as the brimstones and orange-tips.

Another is the daddy-long-legs, or crane fly. These creatures with small bodies and long thin legs come into the house in September, and to me are always a sign of autumn. They aren’t spiders, though they look a bit like them. Spiders of course aren’t insects, as all insects have six legs and spiders have eight. They too are a sign of autumn, when they spin their webs across the fields and catch the dew.

I haven’t time here to describe all the beetles we have, but I must mention everyone’s favourite, the ladybird. It is much loved by children because of its recognisable red and black wing cases, and by gardeners because it eats aphids. Its name associates it with Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, and it is thought to bring luck.

Other names for it refer to burning.  We all know the rhyme “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home/ Your house is on fire, your children are gone”, but no one is sure where it comes from. What we do know is that a foreign species, the large, multi-spotted harlequin ladybird, is spreading here and threatening our native species.

Although I dislike wasps and midges as much as anyone, I try to tolerate insects and other creepy-crawlies, because we need them. Really.

Dragonfly photo by Jane Oldaker

The poem this month takes its name from a “bestiary”, which is an old word for a book describing animals. It is about animals I met last year. 

Bestiary

1.
You see my back flow over a wet rock
I tumble, sexy and playful, below.
Your memory knows me, though you never see me
The otter that left tracks on your childhood beach.
You watch me, quiet and still, holding your breath
I come in over the waves, half wave myself
Until you find I have swum into your blood.
You take me with you, and drink me at night.
2.
I am the hippopotamus: the name
Itself is a joke, fat vowels and plosives.
I rise from the brown water by your boat
Then lollop on to the mud below your hut
Unembarrassed by my corpulence
And by my lack of modest bathing dress.
You look away, and hold your stomach in.
3.
What am I doing here? Where is the sea?
They have flattened my mountains into mud
And I am contained in this narrow canal
With those barbarian Canada geese.
I am barnacle, I tell you, barnacle
Look at the smartness of my monochrome
I will not stay long. Wave to me as I fly
4.
We are your neighbours’ cats. We are watching
Everywhere you look, from our fat fur cushions
We sleek along your legs, curl up cutely
On your warm car, sit under the bird feeder.
Watch us stalking down the field, our mouths full
Of huge wet rabbits, our whiskers dreaming.
5.
I watch you, and when you remember me
I fly across your view. It makes me laugh.
I am faster than you, and more beautiful
You get out your camera and I shoot
Off along the bank to pose somewhere else.
My electricity enters your brain
Creating ripples of joy. I am halcyon.


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