On these long sunny June days most people are seeing thousands of bees everywhere they look. Or are they? The truth is, most honey bees people see are actually Drone Flies, species of hover fly which resemble honey bees. And there are way more of them than the bees. They are just as important too, as they pollinate the flowers of plants we depend on for our survival. Now, most of the bumblebees you see really are bumble bees. But there are some which are actually hover flies mimicking bees. Look at this beauty I found in my garden yesterday:
I am definitely not an expert identifier or hover flies, but I think this species is Merodon equestris, judging by the venation (the pattern of the veins on this fly’s wings) and the legs, which appear to be mostly black. If I’m wrong then it is almost certainly one of the Drone Flies, Eristalis intricarius. So why look like a bee? Flies are mostly incapable of defending themselves. If you’re not tough enough to defend yourself from predators, then maybe you should look like you’re someone who is tough enough. And that’s what they do.
There’s a whole world of learning out there, and you really don’t know what you might see next in Wicklow’s wild world.
As April draws to a close we have reached high Spring, and this year has been a superb one. The steady weather conditions and good levels of sunlight have transformed the landscape. The shrubs and trees are beginning to bloom, adding to those of the undergrowth. This year the lilac trees have been early and especially impressive due to the dryness – in wet years the fleshy, fragrant flower-spikes rot rapidly. This year they are the magnificent ornaments they are meant to be.
But the undergrowth is only really getting started. In woodlands, and on the narrow lanes of Wicklow you will find intoxicating seas of Ramsons (Allium ursinum), the wild garlic. Driving along these lanes with the car window rolled down can be something of an aromatic adventure in springtime.
The flowering plants depend on sunlight, and in turn the invertebrates, particularly insects, depend on the flowering plants to provide serious energy, in the form of nectar and pollen. Of course, the plants are equally dependent on the insects to fertilise them so there will be more plants, and insects, next year. Away from the trees the Daisy (Bellis perennis) are one of the most important nectar-producing species, supporting every conceiveable pollinating creature, and reaping the rewards. Wild meadows are very important habitats for this reason.
As the length of days and exposure to sunlight increases the number of plant species in bloom greatly increases, which in turn supports more and more pollen and nectar-dependent organisms.
This, in turn, leads to an increase in predator numbers. One of the most interesting and unusual predators of other insects is the Yellow Dung-Fly. These flies are normally seen perched on cow dung in huge numbers, where they mate, lay eggs, and attack and eat other insects attracted to the dung. However, in spring they feed mostly on pollen, because there is so much of it about, and their prey numbers are still growing. The fly in the photo is covered in pollen, having clearly gorged, probably on daisies.
Because of predators nectar and pollen-feeders have to be able to defend themselves: in spring you will see many species of bee, all armed with potent stings.
However, many of the bees you will see in Wicklow are not bees at all. Instead of developing toxins, many species of fly have opted to imitate bees, and it is difficult even for naturalists to tell them apart. The trick is to look at the heads: the flies have large round heads with little or no fur, and they have only stubby antennae, whereas bees always have long antennae curling from their heads.
However, flowers do sometimes get more than they bargained for, slugs will also happily eat pollen, and the entire flowerhead. But only very, very slowly, and very occasionally.
Thanks to the abundance of nectar many insects can take time off to find mates and breed, something that would be impossible to do if they didn’t make a profit when it comes to feeding. The beautiful little Orange-tip butterflies are only with us for about four or five more weeks, so watch out for them in gardens, along roads and flower-filled meadows with good hedgerows. They are now taking the time to find mates and breed, and the sight of a pair of them dancing over hedges is a strong sign you will very soon witness a marvellous event: I saw Orange-tips mating for the first time in my life this week. They are so common at this time of year, it is strange how well they hide their social lives. Maybe they’re marvellous camouflage prevents the casual observer from noticing. However, I’m not a casual observer, so it is rare: if you do witness this event you are one of a lucky few.