This year we have had a very cold spring, and most plants and wildflowers are way behind their normal growth levels, but yet again the humble and resilient Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)has saved the day.
Dandelions can flower all year, but in April they absolutely explode into blooming and our environment and our food depends on the fact that the massive amounts of pollen produced by the dandelion blooming sustain vital pollinating insects at a time that would otherwise be a crisis for them, and then result in a crisis for us. In fact, I believe we should have a dandelion festival every year to celebrate this most important of all spring wildflowers. This is my video dedicated to the dandelion:
Above is one of our rarest pollinators, the Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva) and this species also depends heavily on the dandelion for pollen, especially as this bee emerges in late March and flies mostly in April, and to a lesser degree in May, before dying off by early June and not being seen again until the following spring.
However, big bumblebees depend on them too, like this huge Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Let’s celebrate the dandelions. They deserve it.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.