Monday, 24 March 2014

The North

Another expedition this week, venturing further north than I've ever been before - to Wick, Caithness, in the very top right corner of Scotland.  Being mainly from the southwest, I'm always taken aback by the sheer size of Scotland, and even after flying into Inverness there was still a two-hour drive north to get to Wick itself.
My recording footprint, up to the 20/3/2014
The reason for this long-haul trip was, as ever, insect-related, though again it was more concerned with talking about them than spotting them.  My day job is running the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's bumblebee-monitoring schemes (check out and to take part!) and I was in town to give an hour's talk about bumblebees, their current decline, and how monitoring them can help, for the Caithness International Science Festival.  Caithness and the Scottish islands are the last remaining refuge of the Great Yellow bumblebee, Bombus distinguendis, and thus are a priority area for BBCT's conservation efforts - hence my invitation to talk.

As it's around six weeks into the bumblebee season at home in Oxfordshire, before I set off I'd been hopeful that there might be the chance of spotting an early queen - unmistakeably huge, yellow and fuzzy, the general effect is like a flying tennis ball.  However, my hopes of seeing the species for the first time ever were quickly dashed as I drove north through heavy rain and snow showers:  despite the 18C temperatures in the south, March is clearly still winter in Scotland!
Pictured: the view a few minutes flight time south of Inverness.  Not pictured: spring, giant furry bumblebees
After a long Saturday of talking and manning the stand, followed by a wander along the seafront in the teeth of the wind, I gradually defrosted my face and fingers and wondered what to do with myself.  I had a couple of hours free on Sunday morning between breakfast and having to leave for Inverness and the long trip south, but clearly there would be no bees: even sheltered spots by the shoreline had only turned up a couple of chilly-looking carabids.
The Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society caused some serious stand envy
The name Wick was ringing a distant bell marked 'rare species', and a quick search revealed the existence of Wick Sedge, Carex recta.  With only three British populations, this unassuming plant was one of Britain's rarest species - and it had a huge population less than a mile from me!  That was Sunday morning sorted...

Sunday dawned bright and clear, but -3C and blowing a gale.  I checked out and headed over to the Lower Wick River SSSI.  I had been expecting a struggle - this was a very rare plant, after all - but as soon as I reached the river, the mudflats were covered in sedge shoots - this must have been the vast single-species stand mentioned in the site description!  Sure enough, the grid references matched and the remains of last year's plants checked out.  I'd utterly failed in my first attempt to find a vanishingly rare bee, but vast numbers of an even rarer plant made a pretty satisfactory substitute!  I walked back to the car, and started the long, long trip south.
Mudflats: Unprepossessing 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Oil be back...

A slight diversion this week, and a step back in time to one of my former local patches.  When I first moved to Oxfordshire, in 2008, I lived in Headington, north-east Oxford, and spent a lot of time in Shotover Country Park, then ably managed by Shotover Wildlife.  I now live further away, in south Oxfordshire, but still visit Shotover from time to time to see Black Hairstreaks and other specialities.

Sunday evening was one such time.  On my way home from Savernake forest, as it got dark, I decided to go and see if I could find any Minotaur beetles – nocturnal big, black horned dung beetles found in great profusion on Shotover. 

Well, despite much searching, there were no Minotaurs to be found.  What I did spot, in the light of a fading headtorch, was a great big bulbous black thing - an oil beetle!  There used to be eight species of oil beetle (Meloe sp.) in Britain: three are now presumed extinct, two were thought to be extinct before being rediscovered in south Devon (and now survive in one and two sites respectively), two are widespread, if uncommon, and one is relatively widespread but even less common. 

This one was relatively small, out at night, with a wide (not square) thorax and a groove in the middle of the pronotum – that made it Meloe rugosus, the Rugged oil beetle!  Not only was it a species I’d never seen before, despite looking, but really quite a rare species in Britain with only a handful of Oxfordshire records.  When I got home I checked the records – one previous record from the site, in 1927, and astonishingly, in exactly the same 100x100m square!  After going missing for 87 years, the Rugged oil beetle was back on Shotover… and it had barely moved an inch!

Meloe rugosus - note the distinctive pronotal shape and groove

All the oil beetles share an amazing life-history.  Adult females – like my find – emerge, feed up, mate, and dig a hole in bare ground in sandy soils which they fill with thousands of eggs.  These emerge in spring, tunnelling up to the surface and climbing up onto flowers.  Here the larvae (known as triungulins, after their three-clawed toes) lie in wait for solitary bees.  When a bee arrives, the triungulins grab a hold, and hitchhike their way back to the bee’s nest, where they secrete themselves away in a brood chamber, eating their way through the stored pollen and the bee larvae themselves, before pupating and then emerging the following year, ready to start the process all over again.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Seen through a window

Last week turned out to be more a week for talking about wildlife, rather than spotting it.  A talk on bumblebees at the Cricklade Meadow monitoring conference on Monday was followed by leading an hour's workshop on ladybird identification at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Saturday.  Wandering round the museum is always interesting: I'm pretty sure I've never given a talk in a room filled with taxidermied animals and a skeleton before!
Clearly, someone missed lunch
 A later wander round the (excellent) displays did reveal this interestingly-labelled exhibit...
Neither of these moths is actually a Fur beetle
In between giving talks, writing talks, and troubleshooting databases, I did manage to peer out of the window at the bright spring sunshine, and even pop out briefly at lunchtime, in search of movement.

Then, on Wednesday, something happened for the first time this year.  That's right: I had a shave.  But after that, sitting at my desk editing grid references, I spotted another first for the year speed past the window.  Peering out, something dark was buzzing at the bottom of the garden: finally, a bumblebee!  Nipping out, cup of tea in hand, I saw it was a huge queen red-tailed bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius.  After prospecting around the garden wall and my car for a nest site for a couple of minutes she flew away: the first but hopefully far from the last.

While watching the bumble quartering the base of the wall, I noticed something else new.  Several of the comfrey plants were looking distinctly ragged: a closer look revealed dozens (36!) of inch-long, yellow and black hairy caterpillars - Scarlet Tigers!
This is just one of many...
A spectacular big red, black and white moth with a distinctive green sheen, the Scarlet Tiger, Callimorpha dominula, is something of a speciality of the Thames valley and the south-west.  Flying by both day and night in June and July, it's one of my favourite moths - great to see that it's on course for a good year!