Tag Archives: Bombus terrestris

An all too Spring-like Winter… so far

Unfortunately the first post of this new year must be a sad one – I have just learned that one of Wicklow’s best known naturalists, Stan Moore, passed away on the last day of 2016 after an illness. Stan wrote the column Nature’s Corner in the North Wicklow Times for many years. He had an all-encompassing interest in nature, was a brilliant artist and produced lovely oil paintings, photographs and videos of the natural world. The first time I met him he came to my house with an illustration of a fish he had found, and needed to look at some of my books to positively identify it as it was a strange one. A few years later I recorded him being interviewed by a journalist for a programme which was aired by the Greystones Community Radio Project, and if I can dig that out I’ll put it on the blog. Sadly I did not take up photography until later, so I have no photo of the naturalist. Rest in Peace Stan!

This January is very different to last year – instead of the incredible wet weather caused when Ireland was struck full force by last year’s severe El Nino event  we have had long dry spells, and some of them have been quite balmy. This had apparently caused the vegetation to get very self-assured, and as early as the 9th of December I saw my first daffodil leaves breaking the surface of the soil, and now many of them are well above ground and soon to bloom:

Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.
Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.

And if that wasn’t enough the pennant-like leaves of Arum Lilies have begun to unfurl:

The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord's-and-Ladies.
The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord’s-and-Ladies.

And today I spotted dozens of Alexanders which had broken through the ground and come up all leafy along a roadside verge – Alexanders normally don’t appear until February at the earliest:

32193439185_c03ec74e9d_z   However, most surprising of all is an Elder tree which has sprung fresh green leaves all along the ends of its topmost branches:

Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.
Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.

So the question is, are we getting an extremely early spring? Can the plants predict, or are they just reacting to the immediate circumstances. The short answer to that question is that I don’t know. Last year’s freak wet weather, followed by this year’s very dry weather could have thrown the natural world off-kilter, but plants have had millions of years to evolve an ability to predict and behave accordingly, so perhaps the smart money should be on an early spring. But I have seen all of these plants struck by sudden cold spells before, and killed, and the only plants I have seen in my garden which never appear until the winter has finished its work are a certain group of wild (feral) Early Crocuses. Until I see them I’m not convinced the weather is definitely on the up. However, in the meantime the amount of wildlife to be seen is growing. A few days ago I spotted a male Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) on a wall by a window light. It was actually more brownish than it appears in the photo, but the camera flash had a strange effect on the colouration:

The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.
The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.

There are also caterpillars of spring and summer moths to be found at this time of year, most having hatched from their eggs in late autumn. They eat and sleep all winter. Here is a handsome green Angle Shades caterpillar, and two smaller Large Yellow Underwing moths, all of which will get much larger before becoming moths:

All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.
All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.

Because the nights are so long keeping birds asleep, and there are few other invertebrate predators around in winter, slugs can be often seen in huge numbers on warm dark winter nights. Some of them can be very handsome. Here, for example, is a medium-sized species known as the Dusky Slug (Arion subfuscus):

A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.
A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.

And this distinctive species is a relatively recent arrival, the Budapest Keeled Slug (Tandonia budapestensis), which was first identified in the British Isles in the 1920s, probably carried in on plants:

Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.
Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.

Slugs might not be to your taste, but if not then there are still quite a few bumblebees to be seen feeding on winter-flowering garden plants such as Mahonia and Vinca. Here is one I saw today, with noticeably full pollen sacs on its legs, a Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):

A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.
A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.

Only time will tell how this winter pans out, so in the meantime Happy New year!

The March of Early Spring

Forgive the title pun, but this year it really has felt as though March began the spring properly. With just one hour to 1 March I spotted my first moth of the year by the rear window, a Dotted Border (Agriopis marginaria), a species which can be easily identified by the row of minute dots along the edges of its wings.

A Dotted Border moth.
A Dotted Border moth. Note the tiny dots along the wing edges.

The Dotted Border is an early spring moth, flying from February until April.

In the last few days I have seen quite a few bees around, mainly big queen Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and so far one male of the species sunning itself on an old white-painted board.

The male Buff-tailed Bumblebee is very similar to the female but far smaller. She is immense.
The male Buff-tailed Bumblebee is very similar to the female but far smaller. She, by contrast, is immense, almost thumb-sized.

Last year’s Buff-tailed Bumblebees  were still around in late December and early January, collecting pollen from flowering exotic garden shrubs such as Mahonia. The bees then disappeared for the two months of the coldest part of winter and are now re-emerging to start new colonies. Buff-tailed Bumblebees are  not the only ones around, I was very surprised to find a handsome queen Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum) two days ago, drowsily collecting pollen from the newly blooming dandelions.

A Common Carder Bee from the side. These bees normally don't show up until very late March or early April, and even stranger is that this has been a colder year than last year by a long way.
A Common Carder Bee on dandelion. These bees normally don’t show up until very late March or early April, and even stranger is that this has been a colder year than last year by a long way.

Like the bees the birds have already begun their spring activities too. I was very impressed by the display a Magpie was putting on for his intended, flying high into the air and hovering like a kite before dropping suddenly and swooping to where she was perched at the top of a huge Ash tree.

A male Magpie displaying to a female as part of a courtship ritual.
A male Magpie displaying to a female as part of a courtship ritual.They are certainly very beautiful birds.

I was also delighted to observe some other creatures enjoying the recent sun, such as this very distinctive spider, the Nursery-web Spider (Pisaura mirabilis) which almost always rests in a pose similar to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Universal Man’.

Nursery-web Spiders love to sunbathe. They don't make webs to hunt with, only for protecting their young, and only in late spring.
Nursery-web Spiders love to sunbathe. They don’t make webs to hunt with, only for protecting their young, and only in late spring. They are a medium-sized spider.

I saw all of these creatures in the last few days, but today alone (the best spring day so far) I saw even more spring wildlife, and I will post those images later tonight.

 

The End of the Old Natural Year

Yes, we’re almost at that time again. This year the Winter Solstice occurs at 11.03 pm GMT (which is also our local time) so the first sunrise of our natural New Year is tomorrow, Monday. So do enjoy it. For those visiting Newgrange there will be no perceptible difference in light effect. Anyhow, take a look at what I found rising from the leaf-litter today:

Leaves emerging from the soil, but leaves of what?
Leaves emerging from the soil, but leaves of what?

Believe it or not, these are the fleshy leaves of Bluebells. Normally they emerge much later than December, but although it has been quite cold we have had few hard frosts. But whether we get snow or not is another matter, but I suspect not. Bluebells are very hardy though. But there are more than Bluebells around…

A Buff-tailed Bumblebee
A Buff-tailed Bumblebee looking a bit the worse for wear.

The bumblebee above is a worker Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) part of a nest of bees harvesting pollen from the yellow blossoms of this Mahonia tree which it is perched on. Unfortunately this bee will not survive the winter, but the much larger queen will, and she will start a new colony later, in the spring. Keep an eye for bumblebees though, because they are still around in small numbers.

Wildlife is not quite so noticeable in autumn and winter due to the short days and the poor light making it harder to see, but although you might not see it, it will definitely see you. For example, look at this Robin watching me from an arm’s length away, and I barely noticed it:

A lovely winter Robin watching me from a thicket, and scarcely noticeable in the shadows.
A lovely winter Robin watching me from a thicket, and scarcely noticeable in the shadows.