A Fantastic Voyage into Spring

The air is now filled with wonderful aromas and perfumes from the blossoming trees, bushes and flowers. All along the hedgerows is the heady scent of freshly flowering alexanders, flowering currant and the subtle fragrance of apple blossom wafting from the orchards.

Now there is an excitement of life. The big bumblebees harvest the nectar of the apple blossoms, and the predators hide among the petals to snatch the unwary insects that come to feed.

White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) feeding on apple blossom.
Look closely - this little fly has been captured by a large and superbly camouflaged Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia).

Added to the aromas is the subtle and delightful fragrance of gorse (Ulex europaeus), a spiny bush that grows in dense thickets across the hillsides of Wicklow and provides a vital habitat for vast numbers of species. It is also known as Furze or Whin, from which the small bird known as the Whinchat derives its name. The flowers are very popular with small insects, especially pea weevils, the flowers being remarkably like those of peas.

Gorse flowers, complete with tiny weevil.

At this time of year the hedgerows are edged by dense thickets of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), a hogweed like umbellifer with lovely yellowish-cream flowerheads that provide vital nectar for honeybees, drone flies, ladybirds, and many others. But in April you will see a very peculiar, large black fly hovering above them and the hedgerows, with long legs trailing beneath it. This species is the St. Mark’s Fly (Bibio marci), which is so-called because it usually appears in the sky near St. Mark’s Day, the 25th April. Although excellent fliers, much like hoverflies, they are incredibly ungainly when they land, which is usually only to feed and to mate. Mating pairs are normally found all over the Alexanders, which are like the insect equivalent of dance clubs.

 

St. Mark's Flies hovering above a hedgerow, legs trailing beneath them conspicuously.
St. Mark's Flies mating while perched on Alexanders. The larvae live long lives in the soil and leaf litter and will appear as adults next spring.

However, it is the butterflies that steal most attention in the hedgerows. April and May are the time of the short-lived Orange-tips. The female is extremely beautiful, but upstaged by the male, with his glowing orange wing-tips. Like so many insects, most of their lives are spent as larvae, but most spectacularly for the brief period they are adults. They are among the most difficult butterflies to photograph, of those found in Wicklow.

Female Orange-tip (Anthocaris cardamines) at rest on apple. It is rare to see a female perched with her wings open for any length of time, but if you are patient you increase your chances.
A spectacular male Orange-tip feeding on vetch in a hedgerow.

Although the Orange-tips certainly draw most attention, by sheer force of their colour and presence in numbers at this time of year, they by no means hold a monopoly over colour. Not so common in spring, but equally colourful are the Peacock butterflies, which are especially fond of dandelion flowers. They are a long-lived hibernating species, so many of those that apear in springtime have slightly ragged wings. However, their eye-spot wing-markings sometimes draw attacks from highly territorial breeding birds.

A European Peacock butterfly (Inachis io). Note the torn left hind wingspot...almost certainly made by an attacking bird, possibly a territorial attack or the hallmark of a hunting Swallow.
The hedgerows of a spring lane in the warm April of east Wicklow.

2 thoughts on “A Fantastic Voyage into Spring”

  1. So delighted to discover your blog!

    I live by the beach in Kilcoole and finding this is like finding treasure. All the time I spend googling things we see or find, and now here is your wonderful blog so full of information and fascinating finds, and so many answers too.

    Thank you!! I’ll be a regular reader from now on.

    Ciara Brehony.

  2. Thank you very much, Ciara! Your encouragement is a reward in itself, and you honour this blog by being not only the first Irish person to comment, but the first Wicklow person too.

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