Thursday, October 6, 2016

Butterfly alcoholics

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is all about intoxicated butterflies.

We had our best ever plum crop this year - too many to eat, store in various forms or give away all of them. Branches broke under their weight.

The beneficiaries from those that fell on the ground were red admiral butterflies. I piled some plums on the bird tables, where the natural yeast on their skins fermented the juice to produce an alcoholic liquor that stupified the butterflies that fed on it. The whole area under the tree smelled of vinegary alcohol after a few days in the sun.

Sometimes there were a dozen or more red amirals on the bird table, where they usually tolerated each other as long as their wings or antennae didn't touch. If they did they flicked there wings, clearly irritated.

If  other butterfly species tried to join them - and peacocks and speckled woods sometimes did - the red admirals became more aggressive and chased them away.

The red admirals were clearing drunk and had lost their inhibitions. If I put the fermented plum pulp on my fingers they extended their proboscis and drank from my skin.

And if I deliberately chased them off they just flew around my head, landing in my hair or on my clothes and hands.

Some days they were so drunk that I could poke them on the nose and they wouldn't take flight.

The last of the plums has now rotted and the red admirals have returned to their favourite nectar source in the garden - Buddleia x weyeriana, which flowers right up until the frost. But all the time the plums were available they completely ignored it, confirming my suspicion that they had fallen under the influence of the demon alcohol.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Early autumn fungi

This has been one of the best early autumns for toadstools hereabouts for quite a few years. Here's the tally so far - some of which I've yet to identify and some of which I'm still not sure about

I think these are probably the grey spotted amanita, Amanita excelsa, growing under a beech tree in Wolsingham, Weardale

From the pinkish hue, this looks like the blusher Amanita rubescens. Amongst ants' nests under hawthorns in Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland.

Three Russula species, all at Wolsingham in Weardale. Slugs seem very partial to these. I think the red one, growing under pines, is probably the bloody brittlegill Russula sanguinaria. The mauve one, growing under a beech, could be the fragile brittlegill Russula fragilis.

Shaggy parasols Chlorophyllum rhacodes under ash trees in a pasture at Wolsingham, Weardale

Saffron milkcap Lactarius deliciosus.
Edge of a Scots pine plantation, Wolsingham, Weardale.
Thanks to miked at iSpot for ID

Beefsteak fungus Fistulina hepatica on an old sweet chestnut in Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland

Chicken-of-the-woods Laetiporus sulphureus on old sweet chestnut, Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland

I think this one, which must have been magnificent when it was in its prime, is giant polypore Meripileus giganteus. On dead ash, Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland

Dune brittlestem Psathyrella ammophila growing amongst marram grass in dunes at Budle bay, Northumberland coast

Ergot Claviceps purpurea, in grassland near Durham city

Giant polypore Meripileus giganteus, Auckland park, Bishop Auckland

Parasol Macrolepiota procera. Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland

Southern bracket Ganoderma australe on rotting beech, Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland.

Indigo pinkgill Entoloma chalybaeum. In turf on old quarry spoil heaps, Frosterley, Weardale

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Sexton beetles

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about this sexton beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides that crossed our path when we were walking near Blanchland in Northumberland.

Burying beetles are attracted from a long distance downwind by the smell of decaying corpses of small birds and mammals. 

They've been the subject of intense study because their behaviour is extraordinary, on several counts.

If a single male arrives at the corpse first he will begin excavating soil under it until it is buried, while emitting his own pheromone that will attract a female to join in with the enterprise.

If two males find the corpse first they will co-operate with its burial, then emit their pheromones and then become aggressive and fight over a female when she arrives.

The victorious couple will them mate, lay eggs in a crypt under the body and guard their brood against all-comers for the first two weeks of their life.

Sexton beetles also carry small ticks that do them no harm but simply hitch a ride between corpses, where they to feed on the decaying carrion and its maggots. You can see a couple on the side of the head of this individual.

The digging power of these beetles is astonishing. The front pair of legs are shorter and dig under the dead animal while the hind pair are longer and push the soil backwards. I have seen one completely disappear below soft woodland soil in about ten seconds.