Tag Archives: hiding

Spit on the flowers…?

Right now Cuckoo-spit is appearing on the flowers of meadows and hedgerows. At first glance it looks like someone came along and spat on the plants, but on closer inspection it appears to be more like washing-up liquid foam.

A classic Cuckoo-spit I photographed today.
A classic Cuckoo-spit I photographed today. Note the greenfly aphid just above it on the leaf branching to the right.

And you might be thinking, because of its name, that Cuckoo-spit is the saliva of the cuckoo bird. It’s not, but get’s its name because you usually hear the cuckoo around the same time you begin seeing this “spittle”. It is in fact an elaborate defence mechanism of a tiny creature that lives beneath the Cuckoo-spit. This insect is known as the Cuckoo-spit Aphid, but is actually a juvenile Froghopper or Spittle-bug.

A Cuckoo-spit Aphid on my hand. They look somewhat like a strange type of childrens' toy of some sort.
A Cuckoo-spit Aphid on my hand. They look somewhat like a strange type of child’s toy.

This little insect cannot hop to escape predators like the adult bug, so instead it blows bubbles of water, from its backside. These rigid little bubbles cover it, but also allow air between them so that the nymph (juvenile bug) can breathe. A truly fascinating defence-mechanism.

There are several species ranging in size from a few millimetres to about 1.5 cm in length.


The Undergrowth Comes Alive

The sunlight, and longer days are warming the valleys of Wicklow. The smaller wildlife, on which all others depend, are starting to steal the show. While strolling in a garden or along a village lane you might see a scarlet-coloured fluttering object drop from the sky and out of sight. It might appear a little later, but if not, look on the low-growing foliage for the beautiful and aptly-named Ruby Tiger moth (Phragmatobia fuliginosa), which emerges from its pupal coccoons in April and May, to take to the sky. This species employs bright colouring to warn of distasteful toxins in its body.

Ruby Tiger Moth lying low in a meadow. Beneath the forewings is a searing red underwing only usually discernible when the moth is in flight.

At the other end of the colour spectrum is the Holly Blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus), a stunning little spring butterfly that loves to bask on wide hedgerow leaves. This butterfly likes woodland glades and narrow laneways, aswell as gardens.

Holly Blue butterfly - you can tell this one is female by the narrow black margins on the outer edges of the forewings: males have much thicker markings, effectively black patches.

If you are very lucky you might even be fortunate enough to see a mating pair. Mating is a quiet and symmetrical affair. The lovers rest, joined by their abdomens, but facing in completely opposite directions. They only move to angle their wings in the sun.

A mating pair of Holly Blues. Behind them is a dangerous-looking, but harmless and extremely handsome Syrphus hoverfly.

However, the sunlit leaves are not necessarily safe places. Predatory invertebrates brazenly wait, motionless in the undergrowth, for unwitting visitors to arrive to provide them with lunch. Crab spiders wait on the leaves, and will soon be hiding among the blossoms.

Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia), waiting for prey. Crab Spiders get their names from their habit of grasping prey with their two long pairs of forelegs, while balancing on their two shorter pairs of hind legs, as this one was doing.

However, many small creatures are fortunate enough not to hide on leaves. Your best chance of seeing the Early Thorn moth (Selenia dentaria) is now in April, usually perched on timber door or window frames, and garden sheds. The first generation male, pictured, is perfectly coloured to match dark timber, and dry leaves in the hedgerows.

A male Early Thorn moth perched on a door frame.