Category Archives: insects of Britain

How oak galls are made

6-minute video by David Attenborough on the weird and wonderful life cycle of the knopper gall wasp (Andricus quercuscalicis.) as it provokes an oak tree to produce a gall in which the wasp can lay its eggs safely inside. From the BBC’s ‘Life in the Undergrowth’. The knopper gall wasp is just one of 70 gall wasps which can afflict a single British oak, though many have only a negligible effect on the tree.

From Wikipedia

  • Knopper galls develop as a chemically induced distortion of growing acorns on Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur (L.)) trees, caused by gall wasps which lay eggs within buds using their ovipositor. The gall thus produced can greatly reduce the fecundity of the oak host, making the gall a potentially more serious threat than those which develop upon leaves, buds, stems, etc. The Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris (L.)) introduced into Britain in 1735 is required for the completion of the life cycle of the gall
  • The word knopper derives from the German word ‘knoppe’ meaning a kind of felt cap or helmet worn during the 17th-century; also a small rounded protuberance, often decorative, such as a stud, a tassel or a knob

BBC British butterfly documentary

This new BBC documentary on British butterflies looks well worth watching More here from the BBC’s Natural World including lots of clips. The documentary looks at the fascinating lives of Britain’s butterflies filmed in exquisite detail and “is also a celebration of their enduring appeal to the British people, ” but the country’s butterflies are also seriously threatened, with three quarters are in decline. The below clip shows an orange tip butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Continue reading BBC British butterfly documentary

Spindle webs

web across nettles

Remarkable photo from the BBC’s Autumnwatch a few years back of spindle trees and bushes (Euonymus europaeus) in a Dorset hedgerow infested with the silk webs of the spindle moth or spindle ermine (Yponomeuta cagnagella). More here with a video.

Spindle ermines weave silk webs to protect themselves from birds and wasps, allowing them to gorge on leaves for six weeks before transforming into the moth. Not known for being bright sparks, they sometimes mistake other objects  for spindle trees such as this car in Rotterdam (Image: Daily Mail).
Moth attack: spindle ermines moth caterpillars covered this car with a giant silk web in Rotterdam

Urban bee project

The Co-op is further expanding its Plan Bee campaign by providing aspiring urban bee-keepers with free training and equipment. Life in the city can be better for bees than in the countryside, points out Chris Shearlock, the Co-op’s Environment Manager:

They can find flowers in city parks and gardens, and they are away from some of the pesticides that are threatening them on farmland. It’s a misconception to think that they won’t thrive in cities and towns. I’ve heard of honey being sold from apiaries around King’s Cross station in London.

In the end, what’s going to save the British honeybee, whose population has dropped sharply in the last 25 years, is its value to the economy: as fruit-tree pollinators and annual producers of 5,000 tonnes of honey, they’re worth 165m a year. Independent

Mystery of the Painted Ladies solved

2009 has been the year of the Painted Lady butterflies, after unusually favourable breeding conditions in North Africa triggered a remarkable wave of migration that saw millions arrive in Britain.  So it’s appropriate that this year a niggling mystery regarding this species has finally been solved.  After breeding, do these butterflies attempt to survive the British winter, or do they migrate southwards?
With a huge response from the public, Butterfly Conservation have been monitoring the movements of Painted Ladies all year and have received numerous reports of the butterflies heading out to sea off the south coast of Britain and arriving in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation:

This is exactly the evidence needed to lay this enduring mystery to rest. Painted Ladies do return southwards from Britain in the autumn enabling the species to continue its breeding cycle during the winter months.

Wintry buzz of bumblebees

Instead of hibernating, bumblebees are showing increasing activity during British winters.  Sightings are most frequent in the south-east and the west of England,  but are also being recorded in East Anglia, Wales, the Midlands and as far north as Hull.  Climate change undoubtedly has a role to play, but the trend is also being attributed to the British passion for gardening and the availablility of flowers all year round for foraging bees. The non-native shrub Mahonia is mentioned as being particularly popular with both gardeners and insects.  The phenomenon, restricted to British urban and suburban areas, is shedding light on how certain species of bees might be adapting to climate change.  More info in the Independent

Queen of Spain Fritillaries breeding in Sussex

The Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia), a rare migrant sporadically seen on the south coast of England, has been observed breeding in Sussex.  With climate change, the butterfly’s range has been creeping ever northwards, and sightings in England have increased in recent years.  The mating Fritillaries photographed by Neil Hulme, member of Butterfly Conservation, are believed to be the offspring of a migrant butterfly spotted in July.  It now remains to be seen if this species will be able to establish a breeding colony, as the Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) has done. Its success will depend largely on environmentally-friendly farming practices, such as not spraying crops at the edge of fields.  More information on the Queen of Spain Fritillary at UK Butterflies

British bee population down again

bees on comb

The population of the UK’s honeybees continues to fall, with almost 20% of colonies dying last winter, according to figures from the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA). The figure is an improvement on the 30.5% for winter 2007-08 but is way short of the 7-10% which until the last five years had been considered acceptable. Average national losses of 19.2% were highest in the north of England at 32.1%, and lowest 12.8% in the east of England. Mass bee deaths termed colony collapse disorder are blamed on disease possibly compounded by pesticides, changes in agriculture, and climate. Bees are estimated to be worth around £200m to the UK economy thanks to the job they do pollinating crops.

Rodborough Common: walking among orchids and butterflies

An airy place to stretch your legs, Rodborough Common is perched steeply over Stroud, on the edge of the Cotswolds.  Any time of the year is good for extensive views of the Severn estuary and Welsh mountains on the horizon, but spring to summer are best, as the carefully managed chalk grassland is a haven for butterflies and wild flowers.  Continue reading Rodborough Common: walking among orchids and butterflies

Good butterfly news – the Duke of Burgundy

This summer there’s good reason to be optimistic about the Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), on the list of endangered British butterflies. With the destruction of its preferred woodland habitat, the species hung on in areas of undergrazed downland in the south of England, favoured by the crash in the rabbit population. What’s unusual this year is that a second generation of the butterfly has appeared in one of its more northerly outposts, Rodborough Common, Gloucestershire, owned by the National Trust.  Climate change seems responsible for the butterfly emerging earlier every spring and for this appearance of a second brood in summer, as occurs in southern Europe.  Read more at the BBC, where you can also listen to the clearly thrilled conservation advisor Matthew Oates, as he talks about the revival of the Duke of Burgundy.