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A local diary

Summer 2012

August 28th 2012. A glorious day, when our informal group met at a disused quarry in south Somerset; remote, silent and full of flowers. Having spent so much time looking at overgrown verges and bewailing the lack of flowers, it was marvellous to see such a profusion; from Hardheads to thistles of several kinds and masses of different yellow flowers, such as hawkweeds. Although there were few species, there were plenty of insects, including large numbers of hoverflies. These however were largely confined to Eristalis and Helophilus spp., a situation I have found all over the area. We waited until mid August to see any numbers of hoverflies and then they appeared to be largely the same species. Normally, we would expect to see many different ones - but not this year. It was good to see three similar species on the same bunch of flowers, Helophilus pendulus and hybridus, together with the smaller, brighter Parhelophilus versicolor.MT_ignore

There were quite large numbers of bumblebees, mostly of the all-brown species, but with the occasional Bombus pratorum among them. The brown bumblebees proved interesting, many being the common B. pascuorum, mostly very brightly-coloured and beautiful males. But among them were numbers of male B. muscorum, the much rarer species we found in the quarry in previous years. The two are difficult to tell, but careful examination is needed to reveal whether there are black hairs above the wing roots, or not, and if there are black hairs on the sides of the abdomen. Both species can be incredibly brightly coloured but often B. muscorum has the most startling contrast between bright, delicate pale yellow and red-chestnut top to the thorax – once seen, never forgotten.

There is one other distinguishing feature which appears to be reliable; in many instances. B. muscorum has an even colour from one end of the abdomen to the other, whereas many brightly-coloured B. pascuorum males have a differently-coloured tip of the tail to the rest of the abdomen. Quite often this tip is reddish and distinctive.MT_ignore

MT_ignoreSize is not a good indicator this year, as so many bumblebees are appear to be dwarfed in comparison with a normal year. The best place to watch both species was by a patch of Hardheads, where I settled myself with a stool and a monopod for a long stint. Although cuckoo bumblebees have been common recently, only one species was seen, Bombus sylvestris. My friends were pleased to find that an unusual species of ant was still present where we had found it in previous years. Lasius fuliginosus is a black, shiny ant which nests in tree roots and runs up the trunks in the search for food.

August 21st 2012. Tim and I have decided to add another section to the webite and it will be completed in parts over the next few days. Please bear with us, as it takes shape and becomes refined - something that only seems to happen when it is on line. The new section is concerned with bumblebees in Somerset, their place in the county, broad lines of identification and a gallery of pictures. I have always had a particular interest in bumblebees. They are colourful, found in numbers in my garden and are extremely photogenic. Most particularly and importantly, they appear easy to identify but are, in fact, much trickier in the flesh; so providing a continuing challenge. Finally, they are vitally important as pollinators and the more we learn about them the more likely we are to maintain wild populations.

August 16th 2012. One glance was enough to see that one of the more distinctive digger wasps had visited the flats again - but which one of the three species found in the UK? Trypoxylon have long, slender bodies, wings shorter than the whole and a slender lengthy waist. This one turned out to be Trypoxylon attenuatum, around 8mm long, but we have had all three on various occasions. They are attractive, lively creatures which we are always pleased to see as they search the smallest of holes in our logs.


August 14th 2012. In spite of a dreadful weather forecast today, a number of SIG members, on one of our informal, leaderless gatherings, spent a glorious warm sunny day out on the Blackdown hills visiting Ring Down, a Somerset Wildlife Trust reserve. This remote spot, approached along a narrow road, with grass sprouting in the centre of the tarmac surface, has an eclectic mix of habitats. Natural grasslands, studded with yellow hawkweeds, are bounded with large oaks and other trees growing among and forming steep banks. A stream runs along the bottom and one particular area is really boggy, with a spectacular bank on one side which was purple with bell-heather and popular with numbers of bumblebees. Sadly, part of the boggy field, the dryer part, had been recently topped, removing the Marsh thistles on which we found so many different species of bumblebeeslast last year . It is always difficult to persuade the Wildlife Trust to leave the various non-invasive thistles, such as Marsh Carduus personata, Spear Cirsium vulgare, Woolly Cirsium eriophorum and Musk Carduus nutans, confusing them, it seems, with the intrusive Creeping thistle Cirsium arvense. These other thistles are fantastic nectar-sources, favoured by a wide variety of insects and, in this age where insects are generally known to be reducing further in numbers each year, ought to be encouraged.

But, enough of the rant; while there is no doubt our dreadful wet summer has affected the numbers of insects apart from the biting mosquitoes and horseflies, we found quite a bit to look at and photograph. Common green and Meadow grasshoppers, though smaller than usual, were seen to be quite common as we approached the warmer part of the day. Bombus terrestris was the commonest bumblebee on the heather, looking marvellous against the intense colours, with B. jonellus and B. pascuorum making regular appearances. Curiously, no-one spotted any cuckoo bumblebees, which had been the commonest of all the previous summer. On one lone Marsh thistle we came across, there was a great deal of activity. Numbers of small mining bees were busy nectaring, most of them male Lasioglossum calceatum, showing up the vivid orange-brown markings on the abdomen.MT_ignore The last insect to make its mark was a bumblebee parasite, the conopid fly Sicus ferrugineus, busy feeding on one of the thistle blossoms. The yellow head is most conspicuous, but the whole insect is far from beautiful.MT_ignore Our spider specialist, who spends much of his day head-down among the sward, expressed satisfaction with his day, though most of the spiders were juvenile, while the rest of us had greatly enjoyed being out on such a perfect day, which had included three Common buzzards circling overhead, and a Raven passing through.

August 3rd 2012. In between the showers, when the sun comes out, it is surprisingly hot, even after only a relatively few moments. It is an object lesson to see how quickly bees show the results of their frantic activity, by ever-increasing loads of pollen on their back legs; and to see how desperate some of the insects are to take advantage of the opportunities raised by this. Hoverflies are seen on every suitable flower-head, while bumblebees appear as if by magic, and show their labours with increasing burdens of pollen. It is interesting to see the different colours of these pollen loads, varying from dirty grey to bright yellow or even eye-catching red or mauve. The brightest-coloured flowers may well produce the dullest pollen loads though. Bumblebees may not be seen before the sun comes out, but they are designed to keep going even in wet and chilly evenings. Their internal structure is such they can shiver their muscles internally, to increase their own temperature, even when this falls outside.MT_ignore

July 24th 2012. I was extremely surprised, on downloading a batch of pictures taken in the garden, to find I had photographed an unusual bumblebee, Bombus soroeensis (Fabricius 1777) worker collecting pollen from one of our garden plants, a wonderful blue salvia. When I went out to look at the plant it became clear that this was a very small bumblebee but the real point of identification was the split band on the abdomen. Last year I found what I thought was one of these a few miles away on a drove on the moors but the expert, while thinking it was likely, needed further proof. A week or so later a group of us watched another worker at the same spot. There appeared to be only two previous records in the county, which makes it even more interesting.MT_ignoreMT_ignore

July 26th 2012. Our regular informal SIG meeting took us into a wonderful woodland reserve on the Polden hills today. Great Breach Wood is gradually being transformed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust from a mixed wood to all broad-leaved trees, with open glades. It was glorious weather; in fact so hot that we found ourselves flagging by mid-afternoon, but by then had enjoyed a marvellous day out. The car thermometer registered between 29 and 30°F, mainly the latter, all the way home – something with which we are not familiar here in Somerset. We lunched at the far side of the wood, sitting on the edge, and enjoyed a superb view of Dundon Hill and the surrounding countryside down below.

Curiously, the hottest part was deep in the wood, on a narrow trail which was completely sheltered from the sun, it felt just like a Turkish bath, very hot and humid. But here I enjoyed a period photographing colourful bumblebee mimic hoverflies in flight. At first sight this appeared impossible, with the flies darting away before they could be caught in the viewfinder, but it became apparent that they were all coming back to particular points time and again and it was a question of getting the autofocus set on a particular nearby grass head and hoping. In fact the results rather astonished me with the degree of detail visible. Recently, I decided to decrease the flash duration from 1/5000th second to 1/8000th and it was great improvement – neither freezing wing movement completely nor allowing too much blur.MT_ignore

We were pleased to see a Brown hawker dragonfly patrolling a clearing, as well as what appeared to be a very early Migrant hawker. Brown hawkers have become quite common here is Somerset – twenty years ago they were seen as rarities. This year, I have seen few of the bigger dragonflies and then only during the last week.

July 21st 2012. I took the dog for one her favourite walks along a drove on Chilton Moor, but there was little to see in spite of being an almost still very warm day with plenty of sunshine. This well demonstrates the effect of our recent weather. Last year, at this time, the bramble flowers would have been alive with several species of bumblebees, this time I spotted one only. The only other insects were all Eristalis spp., common hoverflies. Back at home, the ‘flats’ have quite a bit of life but there have been few Osmia mason bees and practically no leafcutters, whose activities should have been in full swing at this time. The small sphecid wasps appear to have stood up better to events. Perhaps their tiny nest holes do not take in water like those of the bigger insects? However, I have noticed quite large numbers of various Ectemnius wasps, together with Crossocerus quadrimaculatus, apparently having overtaken the black sphecids for the first time.MT_ignore

July 17th 2012. At last a fine day, which our Somerset Invertebrates Group spent exploring Stoborough Heath and Hartland Moor, on the Arne Peninsular in Dorset. We have visited these sandy areas a number of times in the past and remembered them as a cornucopia of insect life, but sadly that was not so on this occasion. We did have our moments, but in general there was little life to be seen. We watched one or two Dasypoda hirtipes mining bees emerge from their volcano-like burrows, amazing those who had not seen the extra large pollen brushes on their hind legs.MT_ignore The only hymenopterans which seemed to be present everywhere were red and black Sphecodes spp. cuckoo bees.MT_ignore

However, we were delighted to find that the rare Mason wasp, Pseudepipona herichii, was still nesting on the path on Hartland Moor where it has for a number of recent years. The sign of the nest is a small hole in the middle of the path, with grains of sandy soil a few millimetres away – she always tidies the spoil away from the entrance. In previous years, dozens were to be seen as you walked down the path, this time there were only a couple of insects, but at least they were still there. We also found a single Bee-wolf, Philanthus triangulum, which was good for its survival, but very different to previous years, when theywere seen in their hundreds. We had a splendid day out, but the rains have undoubtedly have had a major effect. What will happen next year, even if it follows our more normal pattern?MT_ignore

July 12th 2012. The Somerset Wildlife Trust organised a day devoted to learning about and searching for the rare bumblebee, Bombus sylvarum, which had been present a few years ago in good numbers on the worked-out peat-lands of the Somerset moors. Sadly, no-one seems to have seen them in recent years. These bumblebees are distinctive for two reasons, their loud, high-pitched hum in flight and a band of black hairs between the wing roots. I showed a number of pictures to the assembled volunteers before we split up into groups and headed for different parts of the moors. By lunchtime, the rain had settled in once more and it became clear there was little to be gained by continuing, but no bees had been found. Some years back, the population had built up to such an extent that few thought it would collapse again in such a dramatic fashion. My photograph is an old one taken when they were around.MT_ignore

June 30th 2012. A pair of Great white egrets has nested, for the first time in Britain, in the reed-beds at Shapwick Heath NNR, and raised three chicks. Adjoining Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall National Nature reserves have proved a resounding success for English Nature and the RSPB, after earlier scepticism about the effort and money being expended. But, last year eight pairs of Bitterns, Botaurus stellaris, bred and many more were seen and heard booming. In 2010, a pair of Little bitterns, Botaurus lentiginosus, also bred at Shapwick Heath, the second pair to do so in Britain. My photograph of an adult Great white egret was taken during the winter. It is marvellous to walk along the paths and to the hides with every chance of seeing these remarkable birds, a tribute to those who haveworked on the preparation of the reserves in recent and earlier years.MT_ignore

June 19th 2012. Several of us in the Somerset Invertebrates Group (SIG) spent a most enjoyable day at the Worley Hill reserve on the Poldens by kind permission of Millfield School. It turned out a very hot day and the reserve, which takes the form of a winding path through woodland and steep, open hillsides, blazed with wild flowers, the most noticeable of which was the wild rock-rose - a small pale yellow flower. Amongst these were various orchids, particularly Fragrant and Heath spotted. On a banking close to where we parked, we found a solitary Greater butterfly orchid almost hidden in the grass. This reserve is a real tribute to those who have worked on it, removing scrub and conifers in a sympathetic manner and ensuring continuity for the birds, mammals and invertebrates. MT_ignore The main hillsides are nearly bare and provided perfect conditions for grasshoppers. We found nymphs of Woodland, Field and Mottled, amonst these was one adult male Mottled, which seemed rather early. The only bumblebee found in profusion was Bombus lapidarius, though the workers were very small and must have suffered a poor upbringing. At the end of this day I found I was really de-hydrated and retired early with a headache - a warning to drink more on such a hot day. Nevertheless, we had an interesting and enjoyable visit, though we were disappointed that the numbers of insects did not bear relation to the profusion of flowers.MT_ignore

June 18th 2012. Not quite as warm today but the bumblebees and some solitary bees were still out feeding, knocked about by a strong wind. Among them was a single leafcutter bee, Megachile ligniseca (previously misidentified). This male was feeding on a flowerhead, but we are expecting to see them  searching the holes at the flats any day - although this particular species is not usually the most numerous. Leafcutters chop out circular holes in leaves and then use these to build nest cells in the larger holes. There is no sign of this taking place as yet. The quite extraordinary weather of the last couple of months has seen the earlier-nesting mason bees, Osmia species, decimated, so we hope the leafcutters will make up for this. These latter species build their nests in much the same sized holes, but from mud and other mixes.


June 17th 2012. After a further few days of buffeting, the wind died down and the rain stopped. It became warm and balmy, almost soporific, and the bumblebees came out in force, mainly Bombus hortorum, but with one or two B. pascuorum and a solitary B.pratorum worker. But I was particularly pleased to spot a number of Bombus hypnorum males, working hard at the heads of various garden flowers. I had almost given up seeing more of these, as they are usually an early species which finish very early. Prior to that, I had only seen one solitary worker down on the moors, some weeks back. I have watched the species with some interest, as it has spread from the Continent. None had reached us before 2011, though they were becoming numerous elsewhere. They are similar to B. pascuorum, but distinguished by a white end to their tail.MT_ignore

June 8th 2012. Another warm, sunny day at the end of a freezing cold, wet period more like mid-winter than June. It is amazing how fortunes change for some creatures, with butterflies appearing in the garden and one Red Admiral even patrolling up and down the terrace over a period of more than an hour. A few bumblebees appeared and there were more hoverflies around than have been seen before. I searched for beetles, which often hide among the nettles and other leaves but the only one was a small, cryptically coloured weevil which was hard to see, but turned out to be brilliantly coloured when studied through the lens. It would be good to expect more such weather but, sadly, another week of rain and overcast is forecast.MT_ignore

June 2nd 2012. In between long periods of rain and, what must be admitted, was very cold weather, the sun did shine and we were fooled into thinking it was summer at last. When this happened the flats briefly came to life, though well below normal activity levels. I was happy to see a number of black digger wasps at last, searching the smallest hopes, probing with rapidly-moving antennae. Amongst these was Crossocerus megacephalus, one of the larger ones at 7 or 8 mm, usually one of the commonest. MT_ignore Another digger wasp, Trypoxylon clavicerum, is much the same length but appears smaller because of its slender build.MT_ignore




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