Tag Archives: entomology

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(A special thanks to Auntie Ros for her recent endorsement.)

The Summer Solstice was on Wednesday morning at 5.24 am (BST) aka 4.24 am Greenwich Meantime. However, Midsummer’s Day is actually tomorrow, St. John’s Day, making this the magical time of year known as Midsummer’s Eve. According to legend the most dangerous time of Midsummer’s Night is between midnight and sunrise. This is when the most powerful magical beings were said to roam the earth. However, modern time-keeping has created great confusion because true midnight, when the sun is on the exact opposite side of the earth to when it is in daytime at noon, is 12.00 am GMT.

But thanks to British Summer Time true midnight is actually at 1:00 am tonight at Greenwich in England. But, true midnight does not actually occur here in Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland, until half-an-hour later because we are a few hundred kilometres to the west. So for us the magical beasts don’t actually have the run of the place until 1.30 am and for the very few hours until sunrise, which is very early in northern Europe. And yes, Midsummer’s Night is actually Midsummer’s Eve’s Night, or more correctly by modern reckoning, Midsummer’s Morning.  And there are some wonderfully magical creatures out there right now, such as this beauty:

   The White Plume Moth is a small moth which appears soon after dark and flies about at the ends of gardens. It looks just like a child’s idea of a fairy and appears to glow in the dark. Also, they are so white their details can only be seen properly in sunlight – your kids will be certain they’re seeing fairies as soon as the sun goes down. So do have a look for these at sunset. And then there is a very similar but much larger creature, the Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli):

   The very best place to see these moths is on meadows along the seashore on warm balmy nights when they hover like small ghosts over the grassland. You can easily approach them. The males are a shiny, silky white and the reason they hover is that they are searching for the yellow and pink females lying in the undergrowth below them. These are quite large and impressive moths and really do seem magical. They can also be found in gardens with unsprayed lawns where their caterpillars feed on dandelion roots.

The magical creature I’m searching for tonight, and have never managed to see in my life, is the moth that this gigantic caterpillar will turn into:

   This is the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) a very large moth which is a stunning pink and yellow colour. It feeds on honeysuckle in hedgerows and other similar plants, and lays its eggs on Rosebay Willowherb, which the extraordinary caterpillar feeds on. I have found several of these little monsters in my garden in the last few years, but have still never managed to see the moth, so tonight I’ll definitely be looking. And if I have any luck I’ll definitely be posting the photo tomorrow. In case you’re wondering about the caterpillar, it does give the species its name, but those are not eyes but in fact eyespots designed to make it look like a larger animal, perhaps a lizard. The actual head is at the very end of the ‘trunk’ and is a typical caterpillar-type head.

The Great May Adventure

May is always a bit of a mixed bag. You never know quite what you’re going to get, but it’s always progressing towards the calmer months of summer. And in the natural world it’s a time of frenetic activity. This year we had May weather in April because the weather was so unusually dry for spring. First it started with early bird nesting.

A handsome Wood Pigeon in breeding colours carrying a large twig to its nest.
A Jackdaw carrying nesting material to a disused chimney where it has a nest.
A Robin carrying spider prey back to its nest, which is hidden in the hedge. It watched to make sure I had moved on before entering the nest and giving the location away.

But the most important aspect of the spring, apart from the weather, is the mass flowering of various plants. The most important is the spring dandelion bloom. Dandelions provide huge amounts of pollen that many insects depend on, especially our pollinators. Every conceivable species of bee, fly and many beetles depend on these flowers in the early part of spring. In May they reach a crescendo in their blooming and then rapidly seed while other spring blooms appear just in time to sustain the insect population. Here you can see dandelions and bluebells together:

The Bluebells are now mostly gone out of flower in the lowlands, but up in the highlands of Wicklow they are only coming into bloom, so if you’re looking for bluebells this late in May then you need to go upland. Tawny Mining Bees among many other species depend on these flowers. The Tawny Mining Bees are gone for this year, but you might see another pollinator about, the somewhat sinister-looking and beautiful Panzer’s Nomada (Nomada panzeri) a cuckoo-bee which parasitizes the mining bees. It is also known to have a bad sting, but this one was very calm and unthreatening:

Also, May is the time to see the Orange-tip butterfly (Anthocaris cardamines). The females are all white with very few black dots on the upper sides of their wings. The males have are identical but have stunning orange markings on the tips of their forewings.

The female Orange-tip looks pretty much like other species of white butterfly when seen from above, although she does have silvery-black forewing tips.
The male Orange-tip is very distinctive despite being fast-moving and rarely sitting still.

However, from below both the male and female Orange-tip look very different to other white butterflies, having a green marbling pattern which gives them camouflage.

The marbling pattern on the underside of both the male and female’s wings can be seen when the butterfly is at rest.

As the weather gets warmer more and more moths appear too, but keep a look out for caterpillars, because many of the caterpillars of moths found in Wicklow are far more spectacular looking than the adults of the same species. Here, for example, is the caterpillar of the Yellow-tail Moth (Euproctis similis). The moth is plain pale white with a bright yellow abdomen tip, but look at the gaudy colours of this caterpillar found on a Cistus bush:

The hairs of this caterpillar are a defence against predators and can cause irritation rashes 0n the skin of some people.

Along with dandelions the other big bloomer where the bees depend on is the big spiny Gorse or Furze bush. The yellow flowers fill the air with the scent of vanilla. Unfortunately in dry conditions they are highly flammable, but now we are at last getting some decent heavy rain showers the danger is passing. Some parts of Ireland have suffered terrible Gorse Fires this year. But fortunately Wicklow has escaped the worst of it:

Fledglings and Maybugs

It was a tough spring for the birds because temperatures were almost relentlessly below normal, causing plants to bloom, blossom and leaf late, and insects to be in short supply. I was surprised to see the Blackbird above with such a large fledgling chick. I had put some cream out for them, cream which had just gone off, but they loved it.

Two Cockchafer beetles - the males have rooster-like red combs on their antennae.
Two Cockchafer beetles – the males have rooster-like red combs on their antennae.

Last Thursday was our first really warm sunny summer-like day and later that night I found Maybugs, better known as Cockchafer Beetles, coming to the lights of the house in huge numbers. In fact, I’ve never seen so many at one time. They will be flying around Wicklow skies until late in June, and possibly even into July.  They are heavy beetles and when one very big one accidentally blundered into the web of a female Giant House Spider the poor spider was quite at a loss what to do, as the beetle was a bit bigger than its usuall prey. The Cockchafer fell out of the web soon after, ably assisted by gravity:

When spider dreams come true they're generally too big to handle.
When spider dreams come true they’re generally too big to handle.