Originally published June 2015
Hello everyone! Say what you like about Ma Nature, she is nothing if not tenacious. Whilst we were all wondering which season we were experiencing on any given day she was busy filling our woods, fields and gardens with light and colour. As I write this most of us are casting our clouts and, despite the May being in full bloom, donning them again just as quickly. The woodland floors are awash with wild flowers and the heady scents of Bluebell and Ramson are being replaced with more subtle aromas emanating from our flowering trees.
[See here for the full spring pic journal]
Living in a part of the world with a seasonal climate has many pleasurable aspects to it, one of my personal favourites is the sight of the new leaf growth on our deciduous trees. The pale green of the fresh Oak leaves appears to glow by light of day come rain or shine as do the young, pink-tinged, buds of the Hawthorn. The latter are almost fading into the background as cascades of creamy flowers capture the sun’s rays and, rather like solar-powered lamps, appear to gleam with an eldritch luminance in the dusk of our long evenings. To complete the theme of arboreal illumination, the flower ‘candles’ of the Horse Chestnut are standing to attention in glorious displays of red and white.
Our little reserve is bursting with the fruits of the fertility-driven, spring fever of the last few weeks. Clouds of fluffy seed from Aspen and Willow float through the air on the breeze, when they land they mingle with downy feathers from chick and fledgling that have fallen prey to the numerous hunters of the wood. Multitudes of mini biters cavort in the sunbeams over the pond where their larvae crawl in the mud or undulate through the water waiting to transform into winged-adults and join in the dance. The first of the Damselflies flash over the water in a blur of red and blue whilst the air reverberates to the constant drone of Bees, Wasps and Hoverflies.
On the subject of Insects, and in advance of next month’s survey, let us have a brief look at the world of the Lepidoptera (from the Greek Lepido – scale and ptera – wings), the Order of the six-legged animals that includes Moths and Butterflies. The wings are obvious, less so are the thousands of pigmented scales that cover them to provide a myriad of colours and patterns. The relative position of these microscopic, chitin and air-layered structures to each other determines the colour and the amount of iridescence specific to each species. Class Insecta is the largest Class in the, impressively named, Terrestrial Mandibulates, a group of the largest animal Phylum, the Arthropods.
Everyone is familiar with the notion of how most insects undergo metamorphosis during their lifetime; not only do they change in size but in form also. The larval stage of the Lepidoptera, the ever-hungry caterpillar (living up to its mandibulate, or possessor of mandibles, moniker) is known to children the world over through stories and nature lessons as something which hides away one day in a chrysalis or cocoon and before long emerges as a spectacular butterfly or moth. It is only when we stop to consider this process that we appreciate what an extraordinary phenomenon this is. In fact there are four stages to the life-cycle of these insects. The egg and embryo, the larva that hatches from the egg, the pupa, a fully-grown larva, and the adult. It is the pupa that encases itself and appears to become completely lifeless. During this time many of the larval cells break down and new cells grow using the degenerating cells as a culture medium, in other words the complicated structures of the adult butterfly or moth are in fact recycled dead bits of caterpillar!
There are a number of features that distinguish butterflies from moths, though taxonomists have heated arguments over the interpretation of them and have problems placing some insects into either category. As a rule-of-thumb, most butterflies have a knob or hook at the end of their antennae, rest with their wings folded above them and are active during the hours of daylight, the opposite in fact of most moths.
As a young child my knowledge of natural history came from all the usual sources, getting healthily grimy in the fields, woods and on the beach, reading the marvellous Ladybird Books from cover to cover and of course believing every word in the Beano and Whizzer and Chips. Consequently I was under the illusion that one moth, whatever the species, would have your best duds resembling a pair of lace curtains in a matter of minutes. In fact most moths do not need to feed at all, having left such inconveniences behind in their Pupa stage. It is the larvae of one moth Family, the Tineidae or Clothes Moths, that will feed on natural fibres, whether they be in your wardrobe, hanging in the window or carpeting your floors. My respect for these tiny moths increased greatly when I picked up my old afghan coat one day and it disintegrated before my eyes! In many of the moth and butterfly families the mouthparts, if present at all, form a tubular, watch-spring of a proboscis which can be uncoiled to syphon up liquid nutrients such as nectar.
There are several families of both butterfly and moth. Those most familiar to us in our corner of the world are the Nymphalidae (including the Fritillaries, Admirals, Emperors, and Tortoiseshells), the Pieridae (the Whites and Sulfurs) and if we are lucky the Lycaenidae (Blues, Coppers and Hairstreaks). Apart from the dreaded Tineidae, the moth families we are likely to encounter include the Sphingidae (Hawk moths, including the impressive Elephant Hawk Moth, Deilephila elpenorand) and the Arctiidae (Tiger Moths, including the distinctive Woollybear larvae).
For anyone interested in having a look at our local moths, the Powdermill Trust will be running their annual Moth Trap at Crowhurst from late Saturday 18th July. The trap will be opened by Ralph Hobbs at 10 on Sunday morning to enable us to see close-up (before releasing them) a selection of the species that either inhabit or visit our reserve. This is the first time the event is being held at Quarry Wood and Ralph is a great ‘moth man’ so it should be a unique opportunity to learn more about our local Lepidoptera.
A stroll around our little reserve should provide a sighting of a few of the early butterflies this year. I have seen the bright yellow Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), a Common Blue (Polyommatus Icarus) fluttering around the grass verge and of course the ubiquitous Small White (Pieris rapae) glistening like a beautiful pearl amongst the Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolate), one of its favourite larval feeding plants. Unusually, I have not spotted any Orange Tips (Anthocharis cardamines) yet though I have come across a number of Peacocks (Aglais io) overwintering in my log pile, so take care when sorting out the last of your winter fuel.
So there it is, an extremely brief introduction to the world of the Lepidoptera, a world many people see only through a glass case full of pinned exhibits. We will return to the subject before too long, but in the meantime let us strive to look after one of Ma Nature’s most uplifting and magical creatures.
Ghosts of departed winged things,
What memories are those
That tempt you with your damask wings
Here where my candle glows?
Frank Dempster Sherman (1890)
Do not worry, no flames used in our moth trap! See you on the 19th July.
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Quarry Wood photography by Lorna Neville / Horse Chestnut by Roger Bunting / Damselfly by Bart Busschots; Bee by autan; Wasp by Davide Simonetti; Hoverfly by Martin Cooper / Life cycle: Eggs by Gilles San Martin; caterpillar by Thangaraj Kumaravel; cocoon by Cory Campora; butterfly by Riccardo Cuppini / Fritillary by Charlie Jackson; Red Admiral by Don Sutherland; Tortoiseshell by Dean Morley / Clothes Moth by Donald Hobern; Elephant Hawk Moth by: Danny Chapman; Tiger Moth by John Tann / Brimstone by Thomas Bresson; Common Blue by bramblejungle; Small White by Ouwesok. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0