This year we have had a very cold spring, and most plants and wildflowers are way behind their normal growth levels, but yet again the humble and resilient Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)has saved the day.
Dandelions can flower all year, but in April they absolutely explode into blooming and our environment and our food depends on the fact that the massive amounts of pollen produced by the dandelion blooming sustain vital pollinating insects at a time that would otherwise be a crisis for them, and then result in a crisis for us. In fact, I believe we should have a dandelion festival every year to celebrate this most important of all spring wildflowers. This is my video dedicated to the dandelion:
Above is one of our rarest pollinators, the Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva) and this species also depends heavily on the dandelion for pollen, especially as this bee emerges in late March and flies mostly in April, and to a lesser degree in May, before dying off by early June and not being seen again until the following spring.
However, big bumblebees depend on them too, like this huge Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Let’s celebrate the dandelions. They deserve it.
Last year I made a meadow in my garden with a lot of help from my brother, and the results were spectacular as all sorts of insects were drawn in to feed and collect pollen, and hunt. It’s worth considering doing, and here is a video I made of it, with some nice music from Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers:
Among the flowers are phacelia, buckwheat, poppies, marigolds, anthirrhinum, stock and buddleia bushes. Among the insects in this video are Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Red-tailed Bumblebee, White-tailed Bumblebee, Carder Bee, Honey Bee, Greenbottle fly, Large White butterflies, Green-veined White butterflies and a Common Blue butterfly.
And there is also a species of solitary wasp not often seen in Ireland near the end of the video.
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:
And if that wasn’t enough the pennant-like leaves of Arum Lilies have begun to unfurl:
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:
However, most surprising of all is an Elder tree which has sprung fresh green leaves all along the ends of its topmost branches:
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:
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:
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):
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:
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):
Only time will tell how this winter pans out, so in the meantime Happy New year!