Bring on the butterflies

After a day dedicated to bees last week, this weekend it was time for the butterflies to entice me into the sunshine.  It started when I noticed a painted lady fluttering around the bottom of the garden.  These migrants are certainly some of the most flamboyant of butterflies – as beautiful on the underside as the upper side of their wings.  They were enjoying the buddleia which they were sharing with several red admirals a couple of peacocks and a small tortoiseshell.

So after a quick detour via the front garden where a small skipper was enjoying the verbena bonariensis I went for a wander to a field that I’d seen my first brown argus in last year.  In fact it was apparently the first time in many years that it had been recorded in Daventry.

The field is much more overgrown than last year with fewer plants, but it was alive with the sound of grasshoppers and crickets.  I only walked a short way in when I saw arguably one of our most beautiful butterfly, the small copper.  I have only ever seen it in this field and at the country park in Daventry.  It may be small, but it is dazzling.  My pictures today really don’t do it justice, but it was constantly hiding behind grasses when it had its wings open.

small copper_2 small copper

I wasn’t really expecting to see a brown argus again, but luck was on my side and I got really good views.  It is an inconspicuous looking butterfly, and often confused with a female common blue, but the brown spots on its forewing and the lack of blue even near the body convinced me I had found my quarry.

brown argus_2 brown argus

Speaking of common blues – there were quite a few of them about – some of them having a bit of a quarrel and some not.  The males are a beautiful blue whereas the females have varying amounts of blue on them, all the way through to almost completely brown.

common blue common blues

Sadly all of these butterflies were in a field that they are planning to put old people housing on.  So, this could be the last time I see brown argus and small coppers in Daventry.

Metamorphosis – March Book Review


MetamorphosisAstonishing Insect Transformations – the subtitle definitely describes the content of this book by Rupert Soskin.

Insects – often overlooked, thought of as bugs or pests, possibly with the exception of butterflies (although the cabbage white butterfly springs to mind) but with around one million species known and named.  Untold numbers are still to be found.  Contrast that with birds – ten thousand; mammals – five thousand; even reptiles and amphibians only manage fifteen thousand between them.  It is no surprise then that there are many things that even the most fervent entomologist can still learn about this diverse class of creatures.

In Metamorphosis the author beautifully illustrates an area that I haven’t yet seen covered in another book – the transformation that insects must undergo to get from an egg (in the majority of cases) to the adults of the species that we are usually most familiar with.  This lack of familiarity is despite the fact that the adult stage is usually the shortest with many living days or weeks but spending years as a larva or nymph.

The book is essentially in two parts – those insects that go through several instars (stages); looking to some degree like miniature versions of the adults, and those that undergo a complete transformation from what is essentially a tube of innards to something completely different (the most obvious example being the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly).











I started off wondering  so much of the book was devoted to the first class of insects; the hemimetabolous insects (the young of which are called nymphs) when the changes they go through are nowhere near as marked as those of the holometabolous examples.  But, as the author explains, the only way that an insect can grow is to shed its skin – and, in some cases (such as some of the shield bugs) I don’t think many people would match juvenile with adult.

What makes this book a joy to read are of course the photographs.  Where many books show the adults in all their glory, Rupert Soskin shows the different stages in the life of the insect, from egg to larva / nymph, to chrysalis and adult. IMG_3989

The photographs are beautiful and I can only begin to wonder at the patience of the author as he waited to get the shots.  Within the different chapters there are of course notes about the insects and their lives – after all, the photos only tell half of the story.  In some cases he has even shown the scale of the insects – a very helpful device.

I was a little disappointed at first when I saw how many of the insects are from outside the UK and therefore something I am never likely to see (no matter how much the climate changes).  But, they were fascinating – I was completely won over by the stick insects and the Peruvian Horsehead Grasshoppers.


All the main orders are included from grasshoppers to mantids, dragonflies to beetles, butterflies, moths, flies bees, wasps to hemiptera.  I began to wonder how he decided what to include and also what didn’t make the final cut.


I thought that the sections on the butterflies and moths were interesting choices, showing the changes in size and coloration of the caterpillars and the resulting adult.  But, my favourite photo of all (other than the horsehead grasshoppers, mantids and stick insects) had to be the female wasp removing water from her nest after the rain – just fantastic, one of the best insect shots I have seen and behaviour I hadn’t heard about.  Just one of the many interesting aspects of insect life that Mr Soskin managed to capture and share.


I have only two real complaints about the book; I would love to have known more about how he took the photos – he has a small section about this but it was very short on actual details and I would have liked it to have been twice the size with more fantastic insects and beautiful photos (this is of course selfish as the book is 250 pages long).

This is a beautiful coffee table book that I could look at again and again, and a starter for anyone interested in insects showcasing some of the less well known stages of their lives.  Whilst it is only a starter, it does include some further reading suggestions that will be making an appearance on my birthday wish list.  Many thanks Mr Soskin for creating such a wonderful book (and to Northampton Library for stocking it so I didn’t have to wait until my birthday to read it).

New Year Plant Hunt

Flushed with the success of actually completing a nature survey last year (Bumble Bee Conservation’s Bee Walk) I decided to start the New Year off with more naturing and decided to look for flowering plants to submit to BSBI ‘s New Year Plant Hunt.  I’d had a bit of a look round Daventry last week and saw quite a few plants in flower including daisies and clover so I was hopeful it wouldn’t be a complete dud.

I should mention, that I am at least as bad at recognising plants as I am bees, but I took my camera with me to get some shots so I stood a slight chance of finding out what they were at some point.  Unfortunately, a lot of the shots were not very good, but I still managed an ID of all the plants.  Final count was 15!  Not bad for an hour of looking around housing estates in Daventry really.  (I also found a couple of mushrooms as well that I am hoping I have ID’d).

These are two of the shots I’m not ashamed of, first Blackthorn flowering over two months earlier than I would have expected and then a plant I have seen quite often but never recognised; green alakanet.  I had thought it was a member of the speedwell family, but it isn’t.  I am not surprised to discover it is a member of the Borage family – I thought those leaves looked familiar!

blackthorn green alkanet

The full list of flowers that I found is as follows:

  • Common Daisy
  • Common Dandelion
  • White Dead Nettle
  • Red Dead Nettle
  • Common Groundsel
  • Common Ragwort
  • Common Whitlow Grass
  • Common Field Speedwell
  • Green Alkanet
  • Creeping Buttercup
  • Common Mouse Ear
  • Common Bittercress
  • Shepherd’s Purse
  • Blackthorn
  • Smooth Sow Thistle.

The word common means that these should not be a surprise, but I have learned the names of 5 new flowers already and it is only the second of January!

Small is beautiful

small copper butterfly

Ryton gardens, sunshine and a glint of pure copper, a mini beast photographer (that’s photographer who takes pictures of mini beasts) can’t ask for anything more.

Unlike the plethora of white butterflies that were out that afternoon, the small copper is an unmistakeable butterfly.  Although it is paler on the underside (looking a bit like a common blue – they are the same family after all) the bright copper that it shows when it sits with its wings open resembles no other butterfly – the gatekeeper looks drab by comparison.

Small coppers are likely to be around until mid-October (unless we get very cold weather) and have up to three broods in a year.  The first broods are typically on the wing in early May, a larger brood is around for about a month from mid July and then a final brood occurs from the middle of September into October.  Eggs are usually laid on sorrel or dock leaves (guess what I will be planting next year in case any small coppers are reading this) and apparently are white and disc like and look a bit like the surface of a golf ball – I’ll let you know if I see one.  The green caterpillars that emerge are about for around a month before pupating into the beautiful adults.  The exception being those from the last brood as this is a butterfly that overwinters as a caterpillar.

However, small coppers are apparently very prone to variation in spot size and number and the copper varies in shade with white and brown versions sometimes seen.  And there I was thinking this was a truly unmistakeable butterfly!


Although the butterfly is quick and a bit flighty, males are quite territorial and if you wait for a while they are likely to come back to the same spot.  As shown in this photo, yellow flowers appear to be a bit of a favourite with these butterflies.

On the wing

So I set off last weekend to see how my tern chick was getting along – although secretly I was a little worried that it might still have been small enough to make a tasty meal for the herring gulls that periodically flew over the rafts.

But, worry not.  I think the chick was still alive and well, but it was difficult to tell.  In fact, I counted 5 juvenile terns – chicks seems an inappropriate term now as they were not at all fluffy and looked very similar to the adults.  There were some differences in appearance and behaviour though to help me out.  Although they were mainly grey and white, there were some noticeable brown feathers on the wings, the tails seemed a bit short and the beaks had a bit of a yellow-orange look compared to the bright red of their parents.  They spent most of their time perched on the edge of the tern rafts – with the occasional foray into flight.  However, the landings looked a bit on the clumsy side and I was convinced that one of them was sooner or later going to miss.

When I watch an adult tern they seem almost effortless, with languid wing strokes; in comparison the youngsters seem almost panicky: flap, flap, flap in case they crash into the water.  They were also still reliant on their parents for food, with loud shouts every time one came near with fish.

Two days later and it was all change again.  Lots of terns were out above the water, resting in the rafts or just perching on the fence posts at the edge of the water.  The youngsters were out and about as well.  We watched one following or being followed by an adult.  It seemed that it was learning how to fish.  It wasn’t very successful, but was definitely persistent.  At first it was patient, trying the occasional dive and then flying off a little further.  After a while though I think it was getting a little more desperate – it would hover above, dive, then come back up and quickly dive back down again.  Eventually the parent shadowing it showed how it was done and gave the youngster a fishy reward for its efforts.

Whilst I am really pleased to see that at least 5 chicks have been successfully reared by the terns, watching them made me a little sad as I realised that before long they will be on their way again.

The black-headed gulls are now drifting back to the country park to fill in the gap the terns will leave.  Does that mean summer is nearly over?

What’s not to lichen?

I know almost nothing about lichens.  In fact, up until a couple of months ago I actually knew nothing about them.  So, I have been set the task of finding out as much as I can by the end of this year.  I still haven’t worked out how I will do that, but I am on the case.

I now know that lichens are composed of a fungus (mycobiont) and an algae or cyanobacteria (photobiont) that exist in a symbiotic relationship.  The jury is out as to whether the algae gains anything from the relationship whilst the fungus most definitely gets nutrients thanks to photosynthesis by the algae.  However, the algae might gain a degree of protection from high light levels and periods of drought thanks to this partnership.

One of the commonest and most easily recognisable lichens in xanthoria parietina or the maritime sunburst lichen.  This is a beautiful orange-yellow lichen with obvious fruiting bodies.  It is the one that can often be seen in winter making the trees look as though they have yellow branches.  As well as growing on trees it is also sometimes found on stone.  It is also often seen on rooftops where the lichen gains nutrients from bird droppings.  Lichens are well studied as indicators of pollution, some being more tolerant than others.  The reason that there is so much of this sunburst lichen about, is that it is noted to be very pollution tolerant.

Lichens employ a couple of methods (some lichens employ both) to spread and reproduce.  Xanthoria parietina uses just one of these methods, producing fruiting bodies as per other fungi which then release spores that are dispersed to establish new colonies if they can find a suitable algae.  These fruiting bodies are obvious even to the naked eye.

At one time this lichen was used to treat jaundice because of its colour, but nowadays, in common with many other lichen, it is being investigated for other medicinal properties; in this case for its antiviral activity.

suburst-2803 suburst

I learned today … about fairy rings

which is quite a coincidence as we were discussing this very topic at the weekend, except at that point I didn’t realise what they were.  If you see a circle (or circles) of lush grass or indeed dead grass, then that is a fairy ring.


These are caused by fungus growing underground – later in the year you might see the fruiting bodies, aka mushrooms.  If the grass is much greener and thicker that’s because the mycelium (the underground bit equivalent to plant roots) is adding nutrients, if it is dead grass then the the fungus is damaging the plant roots.  Each fairy ring is caused by a single fungus.

The rings are thought to start from a single spore that grows outwards until it reaches a certain size (around a metre) after which they run out of nutrients in the centre and start to form a ring, with nutrients passed around the ring to the point where they are needed.  If the ring hits an obstacle such as stone the bit by the stone will die and the rest will grow around it.  However, if it hits a larger obstacle such as a path it will stop growing and die.  There were many reasons postulated for this, but it was discovered that the fungi are very polar and grow in one direction only, therefore if the is blocked they can’t grow anywhere else and therefore run out of nutrients.  If they run into another fairy ring they compete with each other and both die!  Despite this there are records of some fairy rings that are over 100 years old.  According to one article I read there is a fairy ring in France that’s 600m in diameter and thought to be over 700 years old.

Fairy rings are also found in woodlands where they are known as tethered fairy rings as the mycelium are attached to the tree roots.  The fungi gives the tree water and mineral nutrients such as nitrogen that it extracts from the soil and in return gets sugars from the tree.  The mycelium are often seen in borders where they look like a mould on things like bark chips.  In fact, fungi are one of natures great recyclers, being one of the few organisms that can break down lignin from trees due to the complex enzymes they contain.


Although fungi are very diverse; there are around 5 million species worldwide compared with 400,000 plant species, in the UK there are about 60 species that form fairy rings.

As can be gathered from the name fairy ring, there is a lot of folklore associated worldwide with these mushroom manifestations, worryingly enough the legends seem to have continued into the twentieth century.  I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say it involves fairies and dancing and having to do all sorts of superstitious things such as running round the ring nine times with your cap on back to front if you find yourself in one of these rings.

I learned today … that a new type of bee has found its way to the UK

OK, two bee posts in two days, but this was the most interesting thing I learned today (apart from the fact that potassium permanganate is used to treat weeping skin blisters as a last resort) whilst listening to a Radio 4 podcast.

First seen in 2001 the Ivy Bee ( Colletes hederae )is slowly progressing up the British Isles as shown on the survey map.   These bees start to fly around the end of August and have around a six week flight window coinciding with the flowering period of ivy.  Although I haven’t seen one they apparently look like furry ginger wasps.

As with many solitary bees these dig a hole in the ground in which to lay their eggs.  One pair will have around 10 offspring with up to 18 in a  good year.  In order to make sure the larva can survive for 10 to 11 months underground they provision the chamber where the egg is laid with up to 3million grains of pollen and nectar – this takes about 6 trips for each chamber – quite a task if you only live for about three weeks!

Although these bees are doing well – there is  no need to worry – as with other bees, the males don’t sting and the females are very docile.  As they have recently evolved they don’t yet have any predators here that have evolved with them and, as they don’t appear to pose any threat to native insects, let’s hope that they continue to flourish.  I’ll be setting a reminder in my calendar to look for them next September.  Looking at photos of them that I have found around the inter web I am fairly hopeful that I might recognise one if I see it.  I have included a photo below from Wikipedia taken by Hectonichus – maybe ginger humbugs was a good description!