A number of people have asked me about a sinister-looking fly with a big pointy beak on its head, which they have been seeing around their gardens lately. Many people are wondering if these are the horse-flies I was alluding to in an earlier instalment. You’ll be glad to know you are perfectly safe, as this is actually Rhyngia campestris, known to its friends as the Beaked Hover Fly. The photos below are very close up, so the insect looks much bigger than it appears in real life, but imagine it to be roughly the size of the more troublesome House Fly.
Beaked Hover Flies are especially fond of violets, violas and pansies, and their extremely long probosces seem to have evolved to feed on these kinds of flowers. But they like Russian Comfrey and Wild Mustard too.
Anyhow, there is absolutely nothing to fear from this harmless nectar-feeder. It’s a vitally important pollinator of our plants, and our very lives depend on the existence of these creatures and their relatives. It may not be particularly colourful (it looks like beautiful amber to me), but it does have a lovely beak.
A few years ago I discovered a unique trick. I was able to leap clear over a big metal farm gate, without touching it, while wearing heavy boots. I have only attempted this remarkable feat on one occasion, when a large herd of cattle stampeded down hill towards me at a gallop.
The Irish countryside is probably one of the safest you can visit anywhere on earth, but like all countrysides it does have some small dangers. Try to keep to tracks and paths and be very wary of crossing fields, because there are often bulls and other semi-wild cattle about. I know of one bull which once managed to topple over a tractor. Most cattle in Wicklow are beef cattle, big muscular creatures that have become progressively less used to being handled by people since farming methods changed in the 1990s. It is agreed by almost all naturalists that domestic cattle are the most dangerous aspect of the countryside, and they do kill a small number of people in Ireland each year. Remember, if you see a fence it’s there for a reason, usually to keep a big animal in. Even if a field looks empty, a large territorial bull could be lurking behind a bush, or lying down in long grass.
But now we are in June it’s the smaller creatures that can be a bit of a nuisance in the countryside. In June many species of horsefly emerge. The females usually wait along hedgerows, landing on large mammals that pass by to drink their blood. Some of them will target human beings and can give a bite that you won’t feel until it’s too late, as the saliva of the horsefly is designed to quieten nerves. Watch out for any insect that flies quietly, almost like a moth, and seems to want to land on your clothes. If it is slow-moving and with extremely colourful eyes, then you have found one. They are not swarming insects, but one person could attract a number of individuals if passing through dense vegetation in or near a hedgerow.
Here’s one that landed on my brother. As male horseflies are harmless nectar-feeders they might land on a brightly-coloured shirt. But the female will be after only one thing…