Saturday, July 31, 2010


This weary bumblebee landed on our conservatory windowledge this afternoon and began grooming. While I was photographing it a tiny pink acarine mite (which I think is Parasitellus) crawled out of the fur under the bee's wing, climbed down under its abdomen and then climbed up its thorax...

... before crawling down into the fur again between the head and thorax. The bee was clearly irritated by the mite and tried to comb it off, with no success.

Here you can see it burrowing down behind the bee's head. Opinion seems to be divided about how much damage these mites do. It may be that - like the Varroa mite that infests honeybees - some species transmit diseases between bumblebees and some species may weaken their host when they suck its body fluids through weak points in the bee's joints, where they attach themselves. Apparently Parasitellus doesn't feed on bees but merely uses them for transport between bees' nests, where it feeds on the wax of the brood cells. I suspect that pink patch on this bee's knee is another mite, tucked in between the joints in the leg. Some mite species actually enter their hosts body through the spiracles and live attached to the respiratory organs, as internal parasites. Such mites weaken their host, although their effect isn't likely to be as devastating as thick-headed flies, whose larvae live as internal parasites of bumblebees.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Bells! The Bells!

There are two Campanula species that flower around haymaking time in Weardale. This is giant bellflower C.latifolia, which favours shady verges and - in this case - a permanently moist corner of a field near Stanhope Dene.

Harebell C. rotundifolia is characteristic of dry grassland, where its slender stems mean that the bells constantly dance in the wind, and there are some lovely patches of it around some Weardale haymeadows where ...

.... farmers have been turning the new-mown hay, hoping that it will dry in the sun before wet weather arrives.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fabulous Fungi

Autumn is still some way off but there are already some fine displays of fungi around, thanks to warm, moist weather. We encountered this amazing display of fairy inkcap Coprinellus disseminatus on a fallen tree in Stanhope Dene in Weardale, County Durham last weekend.

Hundreds of tiny toadstools, each less than a couple of inches high, smothered the trunk and branches.

A carpet of damp moss provided the perfect cover for the fungal mycelium that produced this spectacular display, which will have only lasted a few days.

This toadstool - the dryad's saddle Polyporus squamosus - is more durable and was growing on the base of an ash tree beside the Ripon Canal a couple of weeks ago. The upper tiers of 'shelves' were still expanding.

From above, showing the distinctive pattern of scales on the cap. Next time I find one of these I must take a sniff because John Ramsbottom, in the classic New Naturalist book on Mushrooms & Toadstools published in 1953, claims that it smells like uncooked tripe - not that I know what uncooked tripe smells like....

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ripon Canal

The Ripon Canal, one of the most northerly in England, came within a whisker of being filled in the late 1950s, but now it has been beautifully restored.

It runs almost from the centre of the city over just 2.5 miles to its junction with the River Ure, through three locks and this elegant bridge.

We detoured here on our way back from Norfolk to Durham, and found a fantastic display of wild flowers along the canal bank walk and in the canal itself.

White water lily

Yellow waterlily (a.k.a. brandy bottles)



Meadow Crane'sbill

Amphibious bistort


Marsh woundwort

..... and with all those flowers, plenty of butterflies too - like this comma.

Well worth a visit if you're in the area and fancy a short but very enjoyable canal-side walk.......

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Garden Chafer

This rather attractive beetle is (I think) a garden chafer Phyllopertha horticola, which we found a long way from any gardens - struggling to cross the sand dunes at Holkham NNR in Norfolk, when we visited a couple of weeks ago. Blown off course from cereal fields nearby perhaps, where its root-feeding larvae can be a pest.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dazed and Confused

This fledgling wren whizzed past us in a whirr of tiny wings and crash-landed on a branch just a few feet away, when we were walking at St.John's Chapel in Weardale, County Durham yesterday
I think it was still struggling to master the finer points of flight. Up in the branches above us, we could hear some very agitated parents........

Sunday, July 25, 2010


This is Tachina grossa, one of the largest and possibly the ugliest fly in Britain. It's as large as a bumblebee and spends its days feeding on nectar - harmless enough, unless you happen to be the caterpillar of a butterfly or a moth - in which case, like many other species of tachinid, it will lay its eggs on you. Its larvae burrow through their host's body wall and slowly consume it from the inside. Gross.

Apparently, T.grossa has a particular penchant for large caterpillars - especially those of the oak eggar moth and fox moth

This specimen was spending a sunny afternoon on a hillside at Stanhope in County Durham, feeding on marjoram flowers.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bombs Away!

Unlike most butterflies that attach their eggs to leaves or stems, ringlets simply drop their eggs amongst the grasses that their caterpillars feed on. Yesterday I photographed this ringlet and only managed to take one picture before she flew off, but by accident I caught her in the act of egg laying - I'm pretty sure that little greenish- yellow blob under her tail is a falling egg. How lucky is that? A chance in a million. Maybe I'll do the lottery this week....

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chicory and Melilot

This scene, along an arable field margin beside the Peddars Way coastal footpath, between Wells-next-the-Sea and the village of Stiffkey, stopped us in our tracks when we were walking in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago. A broad strip of land  along one margin of the field  had been sown with chicory Chicorium intibus and tall melilot Melilotus altissima.

Thousands of blue flowers...

...... at the peak of perfection ....

... with a few white specimens, interlaced with ...
... the yellow racemes of melilot

I've no idea who sowed this wonderful display  (although there may be a clue here) - but whoever did it created a fabulous spectacle and deserves a round of applause.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Hidden Labyrinth

There are saltmarshes along the Northfolk coastline south of Wells-next-the-Sea and the most conspicuous plant on the upper saltmarsh is shrubby sea-blite Suaeda vera, a bushy evergreen that's also a favourite haunt of this spider Agelena labyrinthica. Her outer platform web leads to a tubular lair....

... where the owner lurks, sometimes coming out to sunbathe and always ready to rush out and grab anything that her web has snared .....

... or rush back in if she's disturbed by a clumsy photographer, ready to defend her egg sac or hatched young, which are concealed in an inner labyrith of tunnels.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Marsh Helleborines - that might have delighted Darwin

A couple of weeks ago we had a short break on the North Norfolk coast, where the saw the most spectacular display of orchids I've ever encountered. The location was Wells Dell, a dune slack at the Wells-next-the-Sea end of the Holkham National Nature Reserve. There were several hundred southern marsh and spotted orchids but for me the stars were scores of marsh helleborines Epipactis palustris.

The flower shape in this species is particularly exotic - almost as elaborate as the tropical orchids in florists' shops.

Charles Darwin was intrigued by the pollination of marsh helleborines, and noted that the front half of the lip of the flower (known botanically as the labellum – the white platform that you can see in this picture) was joined to its rear half (the pink-striped, scoop-shaped bit) by a kind of elastic hinge. He hypothesised that the elasticity of this link tended to catapault bees upward as they left the flower - like a diver's springboard in a swimming pool - so that they contacted the stamens (pollinia) above and carried them away as they left. His eldest son William and some of his network of correspondents helped him investigate the flower’s structure and he reported their findings in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, as follows:

Notes on the Fertilization of Orchids.
To the Editors of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History.

Fertilization of Epipactis palustris. My son, Mr. W. E. Darwin, has carefully observed for me this plant in the Isle of Wight. Hive-bees seem to be the chief agents in fertilization; for he saw about a score of flowers visited by these insects, many of which had pollen-masses attached to their foreheads, just above the mandibles. I had supposed that insects crawled into the flowers; but hive-bees are too large todo this; they always clung, whilst sucking the nectar, to the distal and hinged half of the labellum, which was thus pressed downwards. Owing to this part being elastic and tending to spring up, the bees, as they left the flowers, seemed to fly rather upwards; and this would favour, in the manner explained by me, the complete withdrawal of the pollen-masses, quite as well as an insect crawling out of the flower in an upward direction. Perhaps, however, this upward movement may not be so necessary as I had supposed; for, judging from the point at which the pollen-masses were attached to the bees, the back part of the head would press against, and thus lift up, the blunt, solid, upper end of the anther, thus freeing the pollen-masses.

Various other insects besides hive-bees visit this Epipactis. My son saw several large flies (Sarcophaga carnosa) haunting the flowers; but they did not enter in so neat and regular a manner as the hive-bees; nevertheless two had pollen-masses attached to their foreheads. Several smaller flies (Cœlopa frigida) were also seen entering and leaving the flowers, with pollen-masses adhering rather irregularly to the dorsal surface of the thorax. Three or four distinct kinds of Hymenoptera (one of small size being Crabro brevis) likewise visited the flowers; and three of these Hymenoptera had pollen-masses attached to their backs. Other still more minute Diptera, Coleoptera, and ants were seen sucking the nectar; but these insects appeared to be too small to transport the pollen-masses. It is remarkable that some of the foregoing insects should visit these flowers; for Mr. F. Walker informs me that the Sarcophaga frequents decaying animal matter, and the Cœlopa haunts seaweed, occasionally settling on flowers; the Crabro also, as I hear from Mr. F. Smith, collects small beetles (Halticæ) for provisioning its nest. It is equally remarkable, seeing how many kinds of insects visit this Epipactis, that, although my son watched for some hours on three occasions hundreds of plants, not a single humble-bee alighted on a flower, though many were flying about. In a footnote I have given the results of experiments made by Mr. More, by cutting off the distal and hinged half of the labellum, in order to ascertain how far this part is important.1 He has now repeated the experiment on nine additional flowers: of these, three did not produce seed-capsules; but this may have been accidental. Of six capsules which were produced, two contained about as many seeds as the capsules of unmutilated flowers on the same plant; but four capsules contained much fewer seeds. The seeds themselves were well-formed. These experiments, as far as they go, support the view that the distal part of the labellum plays an important part in leading insects to enter and leave the flower in a proper manner for fertilization.

Darwin, C. R. 1869. Notes on the fertilization of orchids. Annals and Magazine of Natural History (Ser. 4) 4 (September): 141-159.

I think the wonderful display of orchids at Wells Dell might have delighted Darwin. He formulated his ideas on this orchid's pollination - which are contentious - from the observations and experiments of others, but I can imagine him, down on his hands and knees, peering through a magnifying glass and watching insect visitors, finding out for himself.......

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Plague of Pollen Beetles

If you live downwind of an oilseed rape field, the chances are that you'll be well-acquainted with these tiny pollen beetles Meligethes aeneus., which are only a few millimetres long but take to the air in billions. When they emerge from pupae in the soil in spring they lay their eggs in flower buds of rapeseed flowers. When they're fully feed the grubs pupate in the soil then emerge in mid-July, in vast numbers.  Blown downwind, that's when they descend on gardens, infesting flowers in their hunt for pollen. They've become a major pest of the oilseed rape crop and have now developed resistance to pyrethroid insecticides in many areas of Europe where the crop is grown.

They'll eat pollen wherever they can find it (the keel petals of sweet peas are a favourite destination in my garden), but are particularly attracted to yellow blooms, like this sow thistle...

... and this hawkweed....

... and this buttercup.

The only comfort is that they are probably a very useful food source for swallows, swifts and house martins which catch them in large numbers in flight.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


On our way back to Durham from Galloway we detoured down to Rockcliffe, near Dalbeattie, to follow the Rockcliffe to Sandyhills Coastal Path, which is strewn with wild flowers along its whole length. This is tufted vetch, with Rockcliffe in the distance.

The beginning of the path borders on a shingly area of shore, where we passed a fine specimen of sea kale...

... in full flower (although for more impressive pictures of this plant, take a look at Wight Rambles blog). Even when it's not in flower, the thick, glaucous leaves of this plant are attractive.

A little further on the path borders salt-marsh, with sea lavender in bloom.

Higher up on the rocky part of the shore we passed some fine displays of dyer's greenweed ....

... that formed part of a natural rock garden display.

At Castle Point there are impressive cliffs and a sandy bay. From the cliff top here you can see the Isle of Man and the peaks of the Lake District.

On the path down the cliffs we passed this beautifully camouflaged grayling butterfly, that steadfastly refused to open its wings ..

... while burnet saxifrage Pimpinella saxifraga grew in the crevices near the base of the cliffs.

Castle Point is at the end of the beach .

Some of the rocks protruding from the sand were encrusted with reefs of honeycomb worms Sabellaria alveolata.

Each of these tubes, contains a worm that protects itself with a casing made from sand grains that are glued together. When they're covered by the tide the waving tentacles of the worms catch minute food particles or capture sand grains to repair the tubes.

On the horizon, across the Solway, an impressive wind farm, with row-upon-row of turbines, is visible from the cliff top at Castle Point.