Up until last week it was still quite cold, but finally the weather has improved and at last we are getting proper warm spring weather. It’s that special time of year, the height of the great spring dandelion blooming. Dandelions support the vast majority of pollen-feeding and pollinating insects to a degree impossible to any other spring flowers. It’s great to see these important plants are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve:
They are beautiful flowers too, and give us a bright yellow landscape. Other flowers are starting to reach their full bloom too – here, for example, are Bluebells, the true wild bluebell which is quite common in Wicklow and possesses a beautiful scent, unlike the similar-looking Spanish Bluebell:
That butterfly is a Peacock (Inachis io) and it soon gave up the bluebells to feed on dandelions again.
This is also the time when the cherry trees are candyfloss pink from blossom, and they really do brighten the place up a good bit:
However, as beautiful as it is, it’s also important to remember spring is a time of high drama. At the moment you have a good chance of seeing the rare Tawny Mining Bee, which I mentioned in the last post. The male bees have now passed on, and the females are pregnant and busily constructing their nests, which are burrows. The mouth of each burrow is surrounded by a mound of soil, sometimes quite a lot. Tawny Mining Bees are parasitised by Cuckoo Bees, such as Nomada panzeri. They lay their eggs in the nests of the Tawny Mining Bees, and their young feed on the larvae of the mining bees. Here is a Cuckoo Bee, in the foreground, watching for an opportunity to get into the nest of a Tawny Mining Bee, but the owner is watching from the entrance:
As I tried to get a closer photo I accidentally scared the Cuckoo Bee off, and the Tawny Mining Bee decided it was safe to emerge:
These bees are usually gone by May, so now is the time to look for them. Next year’s generation will soon be hidden underground awaiting their time to fly in the sunshine.
In spring and early summer many trees and shrubs come into bloom, and many are so heavily in bloom that they are like the terrestrial equivalent of coral reefs, absolutely teeming with wildlife of all kinds, shapes, sizes and colours. Take the blooms on this massive shrub in my garden for example, a Wedding-Cake Viburnum, which blooms from May to June in good years like this one, and which is as old as I am. It looks like a giant icing-covered cake:
Anyhow, as you look over this wonderland you might see something strange. You might see a bee perched on a flower with its head jammed into the petals, as this small solitary species is. Bees do get drunk on pollen, but usually fall off flowers when this happens. What is it doing?
And then you might see something stranger than that. You might see a big drone fly, a species of hoverfly, doing a head-stand! How?
This is the same area of blossom two days in a row – clearly something is amiss, but what? We need to see the same petals without the yogic insects. Do you notice anything odd?
Have you noticed anything? Don’t worry if you haven’t, it’s not easy to see. But there is something hidden among the petals. In fact, you might actually be looking at it and thinking it is a petal. It is in fact our largest species of crab spider, the Flower Crab Spider. It’s an ambush specialist and to make sure it can’t be seen by its insect prey is can even change colour, but not to any colour. Just some. It doesn’t make a web, it just perches on a suitable flower and waits for an insect to come down to feed. Can you see it now in this next photo?
Okay, maybe you can see the spider now, but are finding it a little difficult to make out the details, so I’ll make it a little clearer. Check this out:
This is a female Flower Crab Spider. She is much larger than the male and has a smooth shiny body with bright yellow eyes. She can almost turn green but is usually bright white or bright yellow. These spiders get their name because they hold their long forelegs out like crabs claws. In fact, they generally stand on their four short back legs and hold out their four long front legs, and when they walk they scuttle sideways. The venom is not known to be harmful to humans, but it is so powerful to insects that it kills them instantly, preventing them from escaping the spider which has no web to aid it. The small male is very thin and coloured like bird-droppings, and will usually deliberately perch on bird droppings splashed on leaves. The female is not gigantic, but its cushion-like body can reach almost the width and length of a human thumbnail.
So now that you know what it is for sure, go back and look at those other photos and see if you can recognise the spider clearly among the petals. But the story doesn’t just end here…
August is actually the best time to see most butterflies in Wicklow. They are quite tolerant of rain so long as they get as much sun, and flowering plants to feed on. The Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) is the most favoured plant due to its masses of blooms in the form of flower-spikes. And here is a handsome Peacock butterfly feeding on Buddleia:
Sometimes it can be a little difficult to see how truly beautlful a butterfly is, until you see its colours contrasted against a more solid background, as in the case of this Peacock basking on a plank:
The other big butterfly that is easy to find on buddleia bushes in August is the Red Admiral. Worldwide it is also very common, being found all across Europe and Asia and North America: