Saturday, October 21, 2017

Waxcaps and more

I have been inspired by Clare Blencowe's website 'Misidentifying fungi' to report on some of my own painful efforts to make some sense of what seems to me to be a taxonomic minefield.

Part of my inspiration is that our neighbour's lawn (TQ781288) has an interesting crop of waxcaps.  The lawn is regularly mown and the cuttings removed, but no fertiliser or weedkiller has, to my knowledge, ever been applied.  After 30 years or more this makes an ideal waxcap sward.

Although they are very attractive, waxcaps often seem to me to be hard to name exactly and there have been many taxonomic changes over the years.  I have the feeling that what is going on has not, in many instances, been settled yet, so in my case I can only say what I think I have found.  I do have lots of books on fungi with lovely coloured picture but most do not seem to give the definitive data that ensures certainty in an identification.  In her blog Clare mentions some of the no doubt excellent Scandinavian books, but they are expensive and, as I said, I suspect there will be more changes in the future.

So far as waxcaps are concerned though, there is a useful quick guide issued by the British Mycological Society:.

Perhaps the most obvious species on the lawn at present is the group below.

I think this is the meadow waxcap (Hygrocybe pratensis).  This is also often listed as Cuphophyllus pratensis or H. pratensis var. pratensis but I have not been able to discover the attributes of var. pratensis or any other 'var'.

Another firm identification was of the parrot waxcap (Hygrocybe psittacina).  This little toadstool has a distinctive mixture of red, orange, yellow and green colours, though this does not show up well in the picture below.  I will try to get a better one though I suspect there are several small waxcaps in the same area that have red or orange caps.

There is a number oif pale grey or white waxcaps on the lawn and I think the one below may be the snowy waxcap (Hygrocybe virginea).  And yes, well-spotted, it is a fallen leaf from a nearby wild service tree.

Then there are those which, as they say, need further work:

An additional pleasure in the waxcap area is that over the hedge in the neighbouring fields (which are in Countryside Stewardship), I have found one or two small groups of the blackening waxcap (Hygrocybe conica sensu Quick Waxcap Key).

Away from the waxcap theme our neighbour's lawn also produced a small colony of the apricot club (Clavulinopsis luteoalba) growing in an area that is more moss than grass.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Decline of flying insects

The decline of (flying) insects over recent years has once again hit the headlines following a study of 60 sites in Germany:

I, and many other entomologists, have been aware of this for a very long time.  In the early 1960s I lived on a farm at Robertsbridge in the East Sussex Weald and spent much of my time collecting and studying mostly flying insects around the fields, hedges, woods, ponds and rivers in the area.  In most weathers there were swarms, often very large ones, of non-biting midges, short-palped craneflies and other insects in sheltered places alongside hedges, in woodland rides and around the wetlands.  I must have come across several hundred species most of which, fortunately, I recorded in notebooks which I still have.

One very abundant non-biting midge was Smittia aterrima, a species that breeds in cow dung.  Mainly in the cooler months of the year this would swarm in the lee of the field hedges in one continuous band many metres long.  It must have been a boon for any birds, bats and spiders that were about and I imagine that the little corpses that would have littered the ground were much appreciated by shrews, ground beetles and I am sure other animals.  These in turn supply food for predatory birds and mammals.  This midge has gone into steep decline since the widespread use of ivermectins to control internal parasites in cattle.  It effectively kills most, if not all, the many insect species that would have bred in the dung.  It should also be remembered that many bee species are thought to be in decline because of the use of neonicotinoids as dressings for crop seeds.

In the late 1970s we moved to the Peak District in Derbyshire and made many journeys around the area and to Wales, the Lake District and Scotland.  As recently reported, the cars' windscreens were thickly spattered with flying insects after most journeys, but this no longer happens.

Flying insects have also declined elsewhere.  Due to work and family pressures I stopped my entomological work from the late-1960s until the late-1970s.  On my first foray back into the field in Brede High Woods in East Sussex, I wondered where all the insects had gone.  The large swarms that were so familiar a decade before had vanished, though there were a few familiar species hanging on in small numbers.

Since then I have occasionally found sites with a fairly rich insect life, but never like those places I was familiar with in my youth.  I have, however, noticed that one or two species seem to be suffering less than others.  Those whose larvae live in mud, for example, rather than in water, dead wood or dung.  I am not sure why this should be.  One little warrior I am very fond of, and which is still quite common, is the winter-flying non-biting midge Gymnometriocnemus brumalis whose picture I have posted at the top of this page.  It is sexually dimorphic with yellow females striped with dark brown, and black males.  It is thought to breed in wet fallen leaves.  It can be very common, especially in woodland, and I have often seen small swarms on sunny mornings after hard frost.  It also occasionally forms a small swarm, of the kind that now seem so scarce, outside our sitting room window.  I have seen these gyrating lazily up and down in cold, hard rain and still do not quite understand how the midges avoid being hit by raindrops, though I surmise that each drop has a bow wave of air that can push a fragile flying insect out of the way.

In some cases species have no doubt declined to a low level but are still about and may recover once conditions are more to their liking.  Others I am sure will be locally and even globally extinct.  I think all we can do about it is continue with the good conservation work that has been developing and keeping a very close eye on the effects of agrichemicals on insect life and the food chain generally.  Whatever the case, the insects may often seem insignificant but the part they play, or no longer play, in our wider environment will bring changes that affect us all.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Ice plants & orpines in 2017

Since last year my interest in the genus Hylotelephium has grown.  Hylotelephium includes many species and varieties that used to be in the genus Sedum but in most cases they are quite large plants with ovoid fleshy leaves, often grown in borders and beds.  Some, but not all, have flower heads that are attractive to butterflies, bees and other insects during their period of bloom which stretches from the end of July well into October.

My personal interest was aroused by the occasional patches of orpine (Hylotelephium telephium subsp. fabaria) I came across in Brede High Woods, East Sussex.  Where it occurs it seems to grow and flower quite well in shade or semi-shade and is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodland.  It also grows by wayside hedges and ditches and I know several sites where it occurs in our parish of Sedlescombe.  It is our only native species of Hylotelephium though some others have escaped into the wild from gardens and parks.

The picture below shows how it grows in Horns Wood near Brede.  The stems lay themselves down naturally and, as they can root and produce new plants from the leaf nodes, the species is able to spread vegetatively.  Seeds also germinate quite freely in the spring after they have set.

The flowers last for several weeks and are attractive to a wide range of insects, particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies.  I have several plants in my garden and the meadow brown butterfly below was nectaring on the flower heads for over an hour.

An interesting garden plant related to H. telephium fabaria is Hylotelephium 'Matrona' with upright stems and purple stained leaves and pale pink flowers in compact heads that are also very popular with butterflies and bees, especially in my garden, carder bees.  It has an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Another garden variety that must have much H. telephium in its genes is Hylotelephium 'Rosetta'.  This has the most beautiful rosettes (hence the varietal name I suppose) of blue green foliage as it develops in early spring and summer followed by rather small pinky-white flower heads.  It attracted few bees and no butterflies, but I did find the moth in the photo below busily imbibing nectar from the flowers.  It is a beautiful plume (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla), a species well-established in our garden and quite well-camouflaged on the flowers.

I have two other H. telephium varieties: the nominate subspecies H. telephium telephium and H. telephium maximum.  Both came from a seed distribution organised by the Sedum Society.  In the case of the nominate subspecies I raised seven seedlings several of which flowered in the same season, the flowers varying from pale to darker pink.  They were smaller that our native H. t. fabaria and had a tendency to spread sideways rather than grow upwards.  The mother plant grew by the 'river Ourthe, Warempage' in Belgium and I ought to try and investigate it further.

I found a small caterpillar on one of these plants and it turned out to be a migrant species, the pearly underwing (Peridroma saucia) which I bred to maturity and released.

Hylotelephium telephium maximum is a white-flowered plant of mainland Europe, often growing in rocky places or on waste ground.  It has larger leaves and is generally more robust that the other subspecies of H. telephium I have seen.  I grew my plant from seed collected in Lozere in the south of France.   In Norway it is called smørbukk - butterball - perhaps because the creamy white flowers look slightly like a rounded lumps of butter.  As it is in its first year it has flowered quite late, but so far does not appear to be attracting any insects.

The real insect-attracting ice plants are Hylotelephium spectabile and its various forms, still generally sold as Sedum spectabile.  They seem to have a plentiful supply of nectar and are constantly visited by bees and butterflies.  However, because they get so efficiently pollinated they tend to go over quite quickly whereas the well known hybrid H. 'Autumn Joy' aka 'Herbstfreude' has longer lasting flowers but lacks nectar and is seldom visited by insects.  'Autumn Joy' is also sometimes the only Hylotelephium on sale in nurseries and garden centres and gets itself wrongly billed as attractive to insects.

The upper of the two pictures below is of Hylotelephium spectabile 'Brilliant' with a peacock butterfly and the lower of of H. 'Autumn Joy/Herbstfreude'.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An inky story

Yesterday I came across a fine clump of the common ink-cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria) growing in the newly sown grass of a house just up our lane.  Quite a bit of wood had been buried during the laying of the lawn here and this was, no doubt, what the fungus was growing from.

These dark and delicate caps looked too fragile to last and by this morning they were autodigesting, dissolving away into the eponymous ink of their vernacular name.  As the old saying goes sic transit gloria mundi.

The common ink-cap is edible and it has been used when young in much the same way as field mushrooms.  After deliquescence the 'ink' has even been used to make ketchup.  There is a health warning though - this species must not be consumed with alcohol as this produces a toxin that can make one very unwell.  Another name for this fungus is 'tippler's bane'.

The black deliquescence of the caps was also used to make ink for writing by boiling it with gum arabic and/or other substances.  At one time it was suggested that this ink was used for legal documents to try and counteract possible future forgery. The spores in Coprinus-ink would be visible indefinitely under the microscope.

Friday, September 15, 2017


There is a litter from oaks and other trees after storm Aileen all over the lane and the field edge.  I found spangle and pincushion galls on one small oak sprig and a hazel nut neatly chiseled into by a mouse.  There are knopper galls everywhere on the ground but this year lots of acorns too.

They are very beautiful with their smooth, semi-gloss melon green fading towards the base to pale yellow and ivory and with a tiny point at the top.  Some have fallen still inside their cups of dusty grey embossed with darker markings like antique bowls.

After a few days they turn nut brown, but keep their shine, and provide a welcome food source for various animals and birds: mice and voles, squirrels and wild boar, jays and woodpigeons.  There are insects too - acorn weevils and some tortrix moth caterpillars.

There is a round disc at the base of each acorn like a flatbread with char marks around the rim or a stone disc with a mystical circle of characters in an unknown language - acornish.  Do all these characteristics have a purpose that makes them 'fitter' than other seeds I wonder.  Why are they egg shaped?  Why to they sit in a cup?  Why do they have a point at the top?

In the autumn sunshine as well as acorns there are buttercup and smooth hawksbeard flowers, but the finest is the late flourish of dandelions with their wonderfully ragged symmetry and a bright, even yellow.

Friday, June 02, 2017

A moth romance

A few days ago a female white ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda) settled on the glass of our kitchen window where it had been attracted by the light.

The following day this female (which was not there in the daytime) re-appeared in almost the same place and was found by a male when events followed their natural course.

After mating, however, the moths did not leave the window pane but rested motionless side by side for several hours
They were still there when I turned the light off just after midnight, but by the morning they had gone.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A landscape of fear

I have read recently about the ecological phenomenon described as 'Landscapes of Fear' where the introduction of large predators can change the flora and fauna of an area quite radically.  The re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park is a good example.  See:

A couple of years ago our granddaughter came to live with us and brought her cats into a cat-free garden and this has had quite a marked effect on biodiversity.  On part of the lawn, for example, an impressive stand of cuckooflower or lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis) has developed whereas in the past the plants would have been eaten down by rabbits.  In the picture above note the rabbit and mouse hunting tortoiseshell cat in the background.  Ground feeding birds also avoid the lawn and there has been a marked increase in slugs and snails.

Although many species have suffered, others have done well.  The cuckooflowers attracted solitary bees, bee flies, hover flies and many other insects which often find nectar and pollen providing plants scarce in early April.

The cuckooflowers are over now but yesterday a male orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) spent some time exploring the green seed heads looking, no doubt, for a female searching for the food plants on which to lay her eggs.  Eventually the butterfly settled on some hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) which, I have noticed elsewhere, often seems popular with orange tips.  Though not so showy the bittercress has no doubt been able to flourish in the absence of rabbits kept in check by the cats.  Both cuckooflower and hairy bittercress are used as food plants by orange tips.

We are mowing round the cuckooflower area and will report on any other interesting developments.  As with all such matters, issues of management will arise: when should we cut the 'meadow', for example, and where do we expect whatever programme we follow to lead us?