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Messages from Samuel Connolly

May Changes

At this time of the year the plants and animals usually behave in careful time. One of the first definitive signs of May is the so-called Maybug, the large and ungainly Cockchafer Beetle, which flies through the air on balmy nights, often blundering into people, windows and car windshields. This ungainly beetle gets the name “Maybug” because it takes to the sky at this time of the year, having spent over a year underground as a white beetle grub, feeding on dandelion roots. The name “Cockchafer” is because it is one of the chafer-type beetles, that feed on pollen in flowerheads, and seemingly because the frilled antennae of the males (used to sniff out female pheremones on the wind) bear a striking resemblance to a cock’s/rooster’s comb. I photographed this one feeding on newly blooming Hawthorn, one of the quintessential Irish spring blossoms.

 

Maybug or Cockchafer Beetle (Melolontha melolontha) on Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

This is the time of year for what we humans term “love”, and the various insect species are especially busy. On the large fronds of Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) you will often find the dead leaf-imitating camouflaged Dock Bugs, mating on the leaves.

Dock Bugs (Coreus marginatus)

These bugs feed on the sap of the Dock plants, and live happily among these plants. They belong to a group of insects known as shieldbugs due to their shield-shaped bodies, or alternatively as stinkbugs, due to their habit of emitting extremely noxious scents and foul-smelling liquid on anyone or any thing that dares handle them roughly. Otherwise they are completely harmless.

 

If you look at the hanging yellow-green blossoms of Sycamore Trees (Acer pseudoplatanus) which appear at this time of year, you will find dozens, if not hundreds of shiny black flies bearing a remarkable resemblance to the St. Mark’s Fly, except that they are much smaller. These are Fever Flies (Dilophus febrilis), a species which is found throughout the spring and summer months, but is most common in spring in huge numbers, when breeding occurs.

Fever Flies on Sycamore blossoms.

All this insect activity creates a surge of predatory activity among the invertebrate predators. You will often see large net-like webs placed horizontally, like platforms, across bushes in sunny areas. These are the hammock-like webs of the appropriately named Hammock-web Spider. The spider is quite small, and runs along upside-down and underneath the web, biting it’s prey through the silk. This method protects the spider from injury to some degree.

Hammock-web Spider - Linyphia triangularis

Some insects are a bit too big to handle. At this time of year in Wicklow, you will see the huge female Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) bumbling from flower-to-flower, collecting vast amounts of nectar. The male is very different, and much smaller, looking like a more typical bumblebee.

Red-tailed Bumblebee

Sadly, the busyness of spring often causes animals to be off their guard. This is especially dangerous on the winding roads of Wicklow when people begin to make day-trips into the countryside in sunnier weather. I found this unfortunate Badger (Meles meles) dead by the side of a narrow country road. This one appeared to be a boar, and about the size of a muscular Jack Russell terrier. When taking a car into the wild Wicklow landscape it is a good idea to drive very cautiously and to be aware of other creatures that might be crossing the roadways. Drive carefully and safely. There’s no hurry!

A dead Badger lying by a narrow roadside.

 

Tearmann Community Garden

Last month I visited an extraordinary project in the village of Baltinglas in west Wicklow. The Tearmann Community Garden was the brainchild of Sister Mary Carmody, a Mercy Sister, whose keen interest in the natural world drives a desire to encourage the people of Baltinglas to connect with nature in a harmonious and productive way. Anyone is welcome to drop in for a visit, and picnics are welcome too. The orchard and picnic area are exactly what a painter or photographer would want to see. The video below gives only a sample of this extraodinary community project.

There is a very good reason for visiting this extraordinary garden: it is one of the very best places in Wicklow to see and photograph Cowslips (Primula veris), those increasingly rare wild flowers that signal the health of the countryside. In Tearmann Community Garden they grow in abundance across the lawns, making this beautiful little paradise in west Wicklow an important stop-off for anyone wanting to get good photos of this plant. Sister Mary collects the seeds and has told me she will gladly provide seeds to anyone, in return for a small donations to help maintain and support this garden. Money well spent! If you plan to create a truly complete wildlife garden then you will certainly want cowslips.

Cowslip - Primula veris

There are many very good reasons for visiting west Wicklow. Spring arrives slightly slower there than to the east of the mountains, and blooms you missed in the east will only be appearing some weeks after in the west. Of course, the rules vary according to altitude, angles and shade.If you make the journey from west to east Wicklow, along either the Sally Gap or Wicklow Gap mountain passes you will travel past pine forests, and here you have a very good chance of seeing Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris).

Red Squirrel - Sciurus vulgaris - photo by Trevor.

In the British Isles (the geographic term for the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the many hundreds of smaller islands around them) Red Squirrels are in decline. On the island of Great Britain they are rarely found south of Scotland, and the larger, introduced North American Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has been blamed for this decline by out-competing its smaller cousin and spreading the squirrel Parapox virus. But in Ireland the evidence is certainly not so straightforward. The Grey Squirrel was introduced in 1911, and slowly began to spread throughout the island, and did seem to be either filling the gap left by Grey Squirrels, or else were being directly driven out by them. Between 1989 and 2008 when there was an extremely warm period in Ireland, with little or no snow during the mild winters, the Grey Squirrels seemed to spread more rapidly. It could be because the Greys normally don’t hibernate, whereas the Red Squirrels are used to cold winters which require some degree of hibernation.

But there is a huge paradox at the centre of the Red Squirrel story: evidence from records suggests that it was already extinct by the late 17th or early 18th century in Ireland, possibly due to overharvesting by the fur trade, or an environmental factor that has not been identified yet. The Red Squirrel species was then systematically reintroduced to Ireland from 1815, and the numbers have apparently fluctuated ever since, although the Grey Squirrel numbers did not seem to rise significantlyor in a threatening manner until the 1990s.

However, whatever the factors involved, in Wicklow you will sometimes find both species living, and apparently thriving, quite close together.

 

 

 

Wicklow’s Spring Biodiversity Explosion

As April draws to a close we have reached high Spring, and this year has been a superb one. The steady weather conditions and good levels of sunlight have transformed the landscape. The shrubs and trees are beginning to bloom, adding to those of the undergrowth. This year the lilac trees have been early and especially impressive due to the dryness – in wet years the fleshy, fragrant flower-spikes rot rapidly. This year they are the magnificent ornaments they are meant to be.

Lilac blooms - Syringa vulgaris

But the undergrowth is only really getting started. In woodlands, and on the narrow lanes of Wicklow you will find intoxicating seas of Ramsons (Allium ursinum), the wild garlic. Driving along these lanes with the car window rolled down can be something of an aromatic adventure in springtime.

Ramsons or Wild Garlic

The flowering plants depend on sunlight, and in turn the invertebrates, particularly insects, depend on the flowering plants to provide serious energy, in the form of nectar and pollen. Of course, the plants are equally dependent on the insects to fertilise them so there will be more plants, and insects, next year. Away from the trees the Daisy (Bellis perennis) are one of the most important nectar-producing species, supporting every conceiveable pollinating creature, and reaping the rewards. Wild meadows are very important habitats for this reason.

A Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) feeds on one of thousands of daisies in a small meadow.

As the length of days and exposure to sunlight increases the number of plant species in bloom greatly increases, which in turn supports more and more pollen and nectar-dependent organisms.

This, in turn, leads to an increase in predator numbers. One of the most interesting and unusual predators of other insects is the Yellow Dung-Fly. These flies are normally seen perched on cow dung in huge numbers, where they mate, lay eggs, and attack and eat other insects attracted to the dung. However, in spring they feed mostly on pollen, because there is so much of it about, and their prey numbers are still growing. The fly in the photo is covered in pollen, having clearly gorged, probably on daisies.

Yellow Dung-Fly (Scatophaga stercoraria)

Because of predators nectar and pollen-feeders have to be able to defend themselves: in spring you will see many species of bee, all armed with potent stings.

Bombus pascuorum is a distinct bumblebee species with a very long probing tongue, which allows it to fertilise many flowers no other insects can...it is vital to the environment. Here is is seen feeding on dandelion.
Nomada bees are small, solitary species that look very like wasps, but are extremely shy and best seen feeding on apple blossom. They are quite curious and will "people watch".
A female Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa), a solitary species commonly seen in spring, where they build little tunnels in lawns and meadows, with small vocanic-looking cones around them. This species collects pollen on special hairs on its hind legs, as you can see in this photo.

However, many of the bees you will see in Wicklow are not bees at all. Instead of developing toxins, many species of fly have opted to imitate bees, and it is difficult even for naturalists to tell them apart. The trick is to look at the heads: the flies have large round heads with little or no fur, and they have only stubby antennae, whereas bees always have long antennae curling from their heads.

A brilliant white-tailed bumblebee-mimic hover-fly, Volucella bombylans, feeding on Alexanders.
A stunning hover-fly, Leucozona lucorum, also feeding on Alexanders by a roadside.

However, flowers do sometimes get more than they bargained for, slugs will also happily eat pollen, and the entire flowerhead. But only very, very slowly, and very occasionally.

A beautifully-patterned Common Garden Slug (Arion distinctus), feeding on dandelion pollen.

Thanks to the abundance of nectar many insects can take time off to find mates and breed, something that would be impossible to do if they didn’t make a profit when it comes to feeding. The beautiful little Orange-tip butterflies are only with us for about four or five more weeks, so watch out for them in gardens, along roads and flower-filled meadows with good hedgerows. They are now taking the time to find mates and breed, and the sight of a pair of them dancing over hedges is a strong sign you will very soon witness a marvellous event: I saw Orange-tips mating for the first time in my life this week. They are so common at this time of year, it is strange how well they hide their social lives. Maybe they’re marvellous camouflage prevents the casual observer from noticing. However, I’m not a casual observer, so it is rare: if you do witness this event you are one of a lucky few.

A mating pair of Orange-tip butterflies perched on sedge. The male is the right way up.