Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Ichneumon wasps’

Macro Monday 14th September 2020

The insect world is winding down, it’s true, but September can be a great month to see invertebrates. This is especially true for spiders in gardens (and in your house!). At the beginning of the month I visited Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This blog focuses on two locations, firstly the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo, near Ipswich.

Sutton Hoo is famous for its Anglo-Saxon ship burials which, on the eve of the Second World War in 1939, threw up one of the most incredible archaological finds in British history. An entire ship was found to have been buried, with much of the discovery based on the chemical shadow of what was once there. An amazing haul of items was discovered with the boat, thought to be that of King Rædwald of East Anglia, a pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon king who died in approximately 625 AD.

The boat he was buried in was probably hauled up here from the river Deben, where the boats are moored, by Anglo-Saxon warriors and buried under a mound of earth.

The National Trust have an exhibition centre which displays mainly replicas of some of the 3000 things found in the mounds. Museum collections are great for macro because they’re well lit and isolated by the darker backgrounds. This was a replica of one of the items found.

This gold pendant dates from the 4th-5th century AD, so 1600-1700 years ago.

Outside, I didn’t have macro in mind. I was carrying my micro four thirds camera and lenses which are so light they can be carried anywhere. Walking around the estate I noticed a feather on the ground, and that an insect was resting on it. I couldn’t believe it when I looked closer.

It was a robberfly, with prey in its spear-like mouth parts. Note here how I cropped to include the beautiful fronds of the feather.

The robberfly wasn’t bothered about me. When I got really close, I could see it had an ichenumon wasp as prey! Heathlands are exceptional landscapes for insect diversity, so there was always a thought in the back of my mind that something like this could crop up. This blog could not be posted without some reference to wasps.

This is an image which I hope I haven’t laboured, but it’s just an incredible thing to find resting on such a beautiful macro subject in its own right – a feather. You do see this kind of image again and again on Instagram, where I’m sure people are feeding prey to robberflies in order to get a photo in a studio. That’s not my style.

Walking around the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, we found lots of red and orange caterpillars on the move. I’m not sure of the species! ID welcome in the comments please.

We then moved on to the Suffolk coast, which is just down the road from the Sutton Hoo estate (great job by the way, National Trust). In the long grass of one of the dunes this very similar black and orange moth was holding tight to a blade of grass.

He’s a pretty rad looking dude up close.

Coastal landscapes are something of a foreign language to me in ecological terms. A visit to the coast is far more an emotional or spiritual experience (I don’t swim), a reminder of childhood, or our vulnerability when faced with the vastness of the sea. A line was drawn in the sand.

I managed my first marine macro photo! This tiny crab was pointed out to me by my companian who was spending her time seeking out stones and other small things on the shoreline. Taking photos of tiny animals under moving water is a challenge I probably won’t have to take up again any time soon.

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with Olympus OM-D EM10 MIII with 60mm f2.8 macro lens and 45mm f1.8 lens

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Macro Monday 24th August 2020

Since the end of the heatwave my garden has been hammered by rain and wind. That is not what you need to write a weekly blog about taking macro photos. So I went to my local woodland and put the hard graft in to see what I could find.

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The place I visited is an area of oak woodland in the Sussex Weald. It was very windy, not the safest place to be in those conditions. I sought out a spot where I usually find fungi – of which there was nothing – and spent some time looking on the bark of trees and under leaves.

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I carefully turned over oak leaves and my first find was this quite unusual flying insect. I’ve looked through my book and can’t find it in there. My instinct says it’s a lacewing relative. If you know, please comment below.

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This capsule-shaped fly was hoovering up something tasty from the surface of an oak leaf. Soon I was to be haunted by similar mouthparts, on a very different kind of fly.

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I don’t wear shorts in the woods I wear TROUSERS. This is why. In shady areas of woodland which are protected from wind and sun, biting insects lurk. With horseflies, sometimes you don’t know they’re there. I spotted this beautiful insect on my trouser leg by chance. This weird, nervous adrenaline begins to pump when I encounter one of these insects.

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Horseflies have a nasty bite and there is something unsettling about their predatory focus on you. I was desperate to get a photo because of how beautiful and mesmeric their eyes are. I managed to lure the horsefly but keep the trousers away from my skin far enough to stop the bite. Above you can see how intelligent it is. It’s trying to bite through the seam in the trouser lining.

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Unlucky for the horsefly, it didn’t manage to break through. After a while, it became so ‘annoyed’ that it started aiming for my face so I just left! The thing I always forget is that horseflies follow you and don’t give up easily. I did have the images I was hoping for, though.

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I haven’t mentioned wasps this week. But there are just so many species out there that it’s almost inevitable one will turn up. This is probably one of over 2000 species of ichneumon wasp that we have in the UK, which you can read more about here. Those long antennae are an indicator, for my untrained eye.

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That wasn’t the last wasp I saw. I was checking out the trunk of an oak tree, having just watched Thomas Shahan’s latest video where he did the same (I’ll embed it at the bottom of the post, it’s worth watching). I saw a black fly-like insect about the size of a moss frond running up the trunk. It was really hard to photograph but I got some pics in focus.

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I could see that it was a gall wasp, the first one I have ever managed to photograph. We should be thankful to these wasps because without them we would never have produced the major written works our own species has managed to produce so beautifully.

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What am I on about? These are galls, a growth which forms on oak leaves. Within the protective casing you see above is the egg or developing larva of a gall wasp. In the autumn the casings will fall away and the insect will hatch out in the spring. Galls come in many shapes and sizes. Some oak galls are used to create ink, and have been used across the world in producing texts and other works for thousands of years.

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Oak apple galls are the most famous (not pictured here). The galls are used to produce the inks that penned the American Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta, among so many other important texts. Another thing to thank wasps for!

Thanks for reading.

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Photos taken with Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens, Nikon SB-700 flash with diffuser

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Macro Monday 10th August 2020

Welcome to the weekly wasp.

A couple of years ago my friend recommended a book called The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich. The book is a memoir about Heinrich’s relationship with his father, Gerd, an entomologist who collected ichneumon wasps but who was never fully accepted by the scientific or academic community. Bernd tells the story of his father’s escape from the Red Army in 1945 and how he buries his collection of ichenumonids so they aren’t destroyed. Gerd travelled around the world collecting specimens.

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In Britain we have poorer biodiversity than even our closest continental neighbours because of physical separation from the European landmass, intensifying land management practices, the impact of successive ice ages and, furthermore, the fact our climate is not tropical. But even then, we still have over 2000 species, which you can’t say for other fauna like birds or butterflies.

Reading The Snoring Bird consolidated a personal fascination with wasps, one which has not really travelled beyond blogposts, photos and seeking them out where I can. I’m not a collector of anything other than images.

Ichneumons have what we perceive as an unpleasant ecology. Females use their needle-like ovipositor to ‘inject’ their eggs into the burrows of insects, into crevices in wood or, most appallingly to our species, caterpillars or the larvae of bees. The eggs hatch inside the live caterpillar and eat it. It’s probably where the inspiration for the Alien films came from. To balance things out, insects inspired the creation of Pokemon.

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Last week I was sitting in my garden catching up with visiting family. I looked to my right at a pot of ornamental yarrow flowers (Achillea). I had noticed a bit of activity and glanced over to see a slender insect flying around the flowers. It was the equivalent of a video buffering over a poor quality internet connection. When it landed on one of the flowers I recognised it instantly as an ichneumon wasp. I ran inside to get my camera and managed to get some good photos: in focus, well lit and sharp enough.

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I have always wanted to see this species. Its scientific name is Gasteruption jaculator. To find it in my garden was a real surprise and one of the highlights of my time seeking wildlife.

Why might it have visited? We actively garden for wildlife, insects particularly, and there is a log store that this kind of species will seek out. A couple of months ago I saw a similar species hovering around the logs, but I couldn’t get my camera quick enough and it moved on.

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There are people whose first reaction to seeing this insect may be to kill it because of its ecology. That, to me, says everything about our misunderstanding of nature. A natural history lesson will tell us that without solitary wasps such as these we would have no social bees, a community of insects which prop up our dependencies on pollination of both crops and other flowering plants (including trees). Social bees evolved from solitaries wasps. The ichneumon’s ecological relationship with bees is one millions of years old, one small part of a web of life that has given human societies licence to develop through an abundance of food.

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However, this is an insect which has affected the way some of the science’s key thinkers have framed their own mortality. Darwin doubted that any benevolent God could have created animals which behaved in this way. Not sure about you, but I often think that about Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.

A few years ago I encountered a cousin of the ichneumon that visited me in my garden. It has a far shorter ovipositor and its scientific name is Gasteruption assectator. I was walking on the North Downs when I found the insect nectaring on hogweed flowers. A woman passed me and asked what I had found. I said I’d found the insect that made Darwin doubt God. She looked away with a knowing smile:

‘I remember reading about them,’ she said.

Thanks for reading.

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Recent photos taken with Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm F2.8 macro lens, Nikon SB700 flash and Raynox 250 adaptor.

 

 

 

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Macro Monday 6th July 2020

Cooler temperatures greeted us this week after the recent heatwave. The gusting winds didn’t go away, though, and that makes it tricky for macro. The constant blowing sways the plants where the insects are, meaning that the number of photos you’ll get in focus will be far fewer than if it was still. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though.

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Though our small garden isn’t up on a hill, it’s beginning to feel rather exposed where it sits in the Arun valley in urban West Sussex. I’m open to letting more of the shrubs grow to create wind buffers, not that it will make a huge different. One of the buffers is this ornamental hedge (which, after 6 months I still haven’t checked the name of in a garden centre). I found this ladybird in a state of metamorphosis, shifting from larva to adult ladybird. You can see its shell appearing from the skin of the larva, like superman minus the phonebox and slower.

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In the raspberry patch I found a solitary wasp. My insect guide gives nothing close to a resemblence to any species.

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The most popular plant in the garden now is this mallow. Lots of different species are foraging from it, to the point where I know an insect has been there because of those massive pollen grains. This is a red-tailed bumblebee, as you can probably imagine.

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I’ve noticed this ichneumon wasp (one of over 2500 species in the UK) spending a lot of time flitting over the flower buds. I presume it is using that needle-like ovipositer to lay its eggs. It has a beautiful chrome-blue eye. Again it has a pollen grain on its shoulder.

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This is another yellow-faced bee that I haven’t managed to identify. I love how papery the petals of the mallow appear here.

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The wool carder bees are still busy in good numbers on the lamb’s ears. This plant has been a revelation this year. At most I’ve counted 5 wool carder bees and this week I saw 3. They seem to be more at ease with me now (if that’s a thing, probably not) and don’t fly a mile when I sit next to the plant to get photos. They also allow me to get much closer than I could back in May.

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They are really attractive bees. What interests me is that they aren’t at all interested in the mallow but only the lamb’s ears and a foxglove which has popped up nearby.

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The lamb’s ears continue to be a perch for lots of different insects. I would say this is a common froghopper.

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The hot weather really has killed part of the lawn but I don’t care. I haven’t even cut it since April! One thing I have noticed is that our yellow-legged mining bee friends have begun to proliferate further into the other living areas of the grass.

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This was one of those cooler days, so perhaps this bee didn’t quite have the energy to get going just yet. Or perhaps it was just wondering what a giant was doing pointing a camera into their doorway.

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On my way back into the house one lunchtime I found a moth fluttering around at the door. I didn’t think much of it with my normal human eyesight but the photograph shows up something far more beautiful. The (undiffused) flash exposes the carpet-like patterns of the scales, with a hint of tiger stripes to the wing tips. It reminds me of curtains closed in a living room.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 15th June 2020

Each week, this blog is defined by the weather the week has thrown out. The headline photo of a wool carder bee sheltering under a leaf defines it pretty well. It’s been grey, sometimes wet, and very windy. That has meant more than anything that I’ve been focusing again on the garden. No trips to local National Parks this week.

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One of the regular lessons I learn from macro photography is that travel is not necessarily helpful. It’s knowing your location. Macro makes a National Park of a flower bed in terms of micro-locations to visit. A beetle is a bison, a bee is a beaver, if you see what I mean. In a raised bed where raspberries are growing prolifically one leaf has fallen and is housing these eggs. I’m not sure what they are, perhaps a shield bug.

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I’ve started to notice more ladybird-related activity (serious stuff). In the same raised bed as the previous image, this ladybird larvae was looking for trouble.

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I didn’t quite get a good enough photo of the moment the larvae began to bother the aphids it was hunting, but you can see it here in close proximity. Ladybird larvae predate aphids, one reason why ‘gardeners’ (that highly opinionated tribe) like them, because aphids can damage plants. These larvae also can give a human quite the nip. When the larvae approached the larger aphid it began to do this aggressive waving of its legs. It seemed to work, the aphid didn’t get anywhere and went to hang out at the tip of the leaf as above.

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I found the next stage of that larva’s development. This ladybird has just exited its pre-adult stage. It had taken about a week or more, which is a lot longer than I thought that would take.

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The cooler, greyer weather is brilliant for macro because it slows insectlife down and creates much softer lighting. Direct sunlight can make images unmanageable. This lacewing-like insect looked to be dining out on some kind of egg or larval stage on a leaf in the hedge. I enjoy the little herd of aphids in the bottom corner.

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In the same hedge I noticed the movement of a small, wasp-like insect. To many people you may think that means yellow and black. I doesn’t but it’s quite difficult to describe. I got lucky with this picture, the autofocus (which is not the best way to take macro, manual focus is better) zapped right on the eyes just before it flew away. I actually thought at first that this was a gall-wasp, the kind that makes galls grow on oak trees and other plants. But I think it’s probably an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species found in the UK. I say this on account of its long antennae.

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Yellow-faced bees are tough to photograph, as the above illustrates- it’s not in focus! But it was only later that I noticed something else. At the gap in the flower heads (this is a yarrow from the garden centre) a spider is waiting. I know this because after the bee had flown I saw the spider come out, prey-less.

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On the same flower this rather agile looking hoverfly was seeking a nectar-based lunch.

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The cool, grey days are a good time to look for insects on wooden surfaces. I remember reading a blogpost a couple of years ago all about fenceposts in rural areas for macro. The idea is that when it’s cold, and especially windy, it can be a great place to find insects that are too cold to move. I wish I could say the same for this solitary bee, which only let me get this close after about 15 minutes of muttering to myself while running up and down the garden.

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I’ve bought another thyme plant after seeing how popular it’s been with local pollinators. I was heading in for the evening when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a moth roosting on a leaf like a little bed.

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This is a micro-moth and, like so many species snapped in my garden, I don’t know which kind. I do have a micro-moth field guide but I can’t say it sees too much action.

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It’s important to remember that it’s not all about insect life, though. Cleavers, goose grass, sticky willy, whatever you strange English people call it, it has beautiful flowers. This plant is in the gardener’s ‘weed’ category (not marijuana, though it does have medicinal properties). The flowers are miniscule, and only by using something to magnify your vision can you really appreciate how beautiful they are.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 27th April 2020

It’s true that I started last week’s post with a parasitic wasp in my living room. That phrase is enough to make most of the UK faint. This week it happened again. But rest assured, there are other species to enjoy this week.

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When I see an insect trapped indoors, I am the sort of person who needs to try and let them all out before being able to sleep at night. I accept that is probably a compulsive behaviour reflecting an anxiety disorder. In this instance I didn’t get the chance. I went to drink from my camomile tea, dear reader, and there was a small insect floating in the water.

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I plucked the insect out of my tea and it lay perfectly splayed on my fingertip. It was a tiny ichneumon wasp, a group of insects which I went into more detail about last week. As it dried out its beautiful form began to appear. I found a piece of paper and placed it on the white surface. My cameras are now living in the living room so they were close by and I took a few snaps. It was a beautiful specimen. I am not intending to try and identify it because I will probably get told off by the local Hymenopterist via iRecord.

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My time in the garden in the past week has largely been spent chasing this small bee around. It’s probably a male blue mason bee with the Latin name of Osmia caerulescens. Another book is telling me (not literally) that it’s Osmia leaiana. They have large green-blue eyes and zip around for a while before settling down on a hot surface like a cat in a sun patch.

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To say this tiny solitary bee gave me the run around is probably understatement of the lockdown era next to ‘drinking disinfectant will not help you’.

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The bee liked to rest just long enough on a surface for me to get there. I had to approach it with exactly the right camera settings and focus on my lens to be able to get a decent photo. The satisfaction of getting a decent image was massive. Little wins and all that.

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I think this is a female blue mason bee having a bit of a rest on the roof of the logstore. Safe to say the highlights of the past six weeks in many ways have been getting an in-focus photograph of an insect like this.

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The internet is awash with stunning photos of jumping spiders. They are cute and fluffy with massive cartoon eyes. This was the best attempt I made at getting something in focus. I don’t believe in taking them out of the wild for a photography shoot – the ichneumon wasp doesn’t count! – so I am trying to get them in focus in the wilds of my woodstore shelf roof. If there is any type of spider that will help people get over a fear of spiders, it should be this one.

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My car hasn’t moved very much in the past 6 weeks but it’s proving useful for insects basking in the afternoon sun. This mint moth was doing just that on the bonnet.

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The biggest surprise in the garden this week was spotted early one morning before I started work. On the side of a hexagonal flower pot I noticed some unusual wing shapes. I realised it was an insect and nipped inside to get my camera. It was in the shade and temperatures were only just rising. It was a mayfly, one of 51 species in the UK. I know very little about this group of insects other than that they appear en-masse over rivers and that they only live for one day. How did it get to my garden? The River Arun is ten minutes walk away but it was a real joy to think it had used my garden to shelter for half its short life.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 20th April 2020

The warm weather in Sussex has fizzled out, replaced by cloud and a quite cool wind. It’s thrown the insect life back under shelter, but for a couple of hot lunchtimes when I nipped out into my garden with the camera and one encounter in my own living room.

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One of the more interesting encounters with the animal kingdom in the past week has been this ichneumon wasp. Like many people who try to photograph these insects, I find it very frustrating. Their diversity reaches several thousand species in the UK (not something we can say often in Britain) but they are so flighty that they’re very difficult to photograph. The best results for me have been when some are distracted on flowers in the carrot family (Umbellifers). Ironically, the inchneumon above was in my living room at midnight! Again, I can see one on the garden window as I type this.

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This is a Nomada bee that is a parasitic species. I had tried earlier that evening to snap some solitary bees and wasps in the garden, but this was the best I could do. In the way that landscape photographers lose their cool over beautiful light entering a valley, I feel the same about species like this and the wasp above. A book that helped me to appreciate that there are people far more passionate about ichneumon wasps is The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich. It’s a biographical account of Heinrich’s life and that of his father who travelled around the world discovering new species. It tells the incredible story of his father’s flight from the Nazis in the Second World War and his attempts to protect his collection.

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Ichneumon wasps are also what made Darwin consider that such is nature’s cruelty, there can be no benevolent God. On a sunnier day I managed to get closer to a very small wasp. That is, I think it’s a wasp. Some solitary wasps are, upon closer inspection, sawflies or other relatives.

This may be news to some people, but we owe our way of life to solitary wasps. Bees, which are crucial to food production, evolved from them about 130million years ago and their heritage is far more ancient. Everyone hates on the common social wasp Vespula vulgaris, but the are many thousands of species that you slander when you say ‘I hate wasps’. As Chris Packham once put it, when asked what is the point of wasps, ‘what is the point of you’!

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Solitary bees are close relatives of wasps. One book I read said that bees evolved when a solitary wasp decided to eat some pollen instead. I’m not sure what species this is. There were a couple flitting around and resting nicely for their close-up.

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It was basking on the yellow leaves of the hedge.

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We have just moved to a new house (it’s quite old) and so I have been watching to see what the unknown plants get up to before removing or replacing anything. This is a geranium that seems quite popular with the local bees. This solitary bee was covered in pollen.

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That hot lunch break (also think I had some hot food) was topped by a seasonal first. I noticed that a hedge in a neighbouring garden had an unusual flight movement around it. It rested to catch some rays and then I could see it was a large red damselfly. Now that is definitely not a wasp.

Thanks for reading.

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Swanscombe Marshes, August 2015

The Swanscombe marshes are threatened by an impending planning application by London Paramount. They want to build a theme park on this vast wildlife haven. Is that really the best use of wild land when wildlife is in severe decline in Britain? I don’t think it is. I visited Swanscombe in March and have written this poem. There is a petition by a locally-led campaign to save the marshes, please sign it if you like what you see here.

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Swanscombe has a number of different habitats: reedbed, brownfield, hedgerow, woodland, farmland and species rich brownfield grassland.

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The grasslands along Black Duck Marsh are covered by wild carrot, birds-foot-trefoil, kidney vetch, red clover and a number of other nectar rich plants. This has attracted a number of interesting insects which have seen flower rich meadows and waysides disappear over the past 50 years. The insect above is an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species in Great Britain.

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It’s unusual to see early bumblebee around in August, but here one was, feeding on hawkweed oxtongue, a weedy plant that provides a great deal of nourishment for invertebrates at this time of year.

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Turnip sawflies were seen across many of the flower heads of wild carrot, a common plant at Swanscombe. Sawflies are lesser known pollinators related to bees and wasps.

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Sited alongside the Thames, it was not surprising to find a few migrant butterflies. There were a number of clouded yellow (too quick and unsettled for me to photograph) and this painted lady. It was fresh and may well be readying for its amazing journey south through Europe to North Africa where its parents had set off on their journey in the spring. How they can find their way back is not yet known to science.

On the southern slope of the rocky bank that runs through Black Duck Marsh, lucerne grew in large clumps. Even on a grey and breezy day there were a number of butterflies there. This, however, is a day-flying moth, the latticed heath.

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There were patches of kidney vetch growing along the rocks of the Black Duck Marsh bank, and we wondered if small blue, a very rare butterfly in Britain that relies on the plant, could be present. We didn’t see a small blue but I did find this common frog hopper, the insect responsible for what I knew as a child to be ‘cuckoo spit’.

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Common blues were flying low in the grass, possibly laying eggs on birds-foot-trefoil.

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The breeze made macro photography very tricky, but I tried to make the most of the grey sky, wild carrot and lacewing feeding on its flowers.

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Sitting on the bank of Black Duck Marsh we were visited by this stunning hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis. This insect is in the family Volucella, a group of hoverflies which mimic bees and other Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) in order to deter predators and instead fool them into thinking they’re a threat.

Brownfield is a poorly understood habitat, it is also in the firing line as the housing crisis intensifies in the south of England through lack of affordable housing and poor planning in central London (I’m referring to the luxury accommodation, property banking boom), to name but a few symptoms. As for its importance to wildlife, willow tit is a severely declining bird in England but is now seemingly favouring brownfield over ancient or more established, secondary woodland. Brownfields are often so rich because, like Swanscombe, they are free of pesticides and are left to establish of their own accord. Many brownfields are more precious and indeed green than parts of the Green Belt, a measure ordained to protect open space. They’re also pointers to the feeding opportunities that non-native species like the above white melilot can offer to native insects like bees, a group of insects that offer £560million to the UK economy through pollination (Bumblebee Conservation Trust).

The Channel Tunnel could be heard as it raced underneath our feet. The above photo is the largest spread of birds-foot-trefoil I have ever seen, all growing on the spoil from the original development of the tunnel. Again, brownfield habitats can be some of the richest in Britain. This area would be lost to the development.

There were a number of pathways cutting through the marshes, like this buddleia byway.

Swanscombe Marshes - 16-8-15 blog pics-13

My single memory from visiting Swanscombe Marshes in August will be the colour of the grasslands, the yellow of the trefoil, the white of the carrot and purple and blues of the lucerne. Please sign the petition to raise awareness about this unique and diverse wild place. There is time to make a difference and Save Swanscombe.

See more at the campaign page for Save Swanscombe Marshes

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