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?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Bread and cheese

Hawthorn leaves (Crataegus monogyna) are now sprouting liberally in the garden.  Every year I think they are earlier than ever, but this may just be a delusion as I do not keep any proper phenological records.  To be of any value I think the first record of anything in a particular year should be made under the same conditions as in previous years.  One should return to the same hawthorn bush and be sure that local conditions round about it have not changed.  Around our lane there is a 50 metre stretch of hawthorns that always seems to sprout before any others.  I suspect this is because they are an early leafing clone that was bought in and planted, but roadside plants often behave rather differently from those elsewhere.  The road and its traffic perhaps creates a microclimate or possibly more carbon dioxide and other exhaust gases accelerate growth.

As a child my friends and I used to eat young hawthorn sprouts and called them 'bread and cheese'. This seems to be a very widespread habit in the British Isles and the shoots are quite palatable, if not very exciting.  How they came to be called 'bread and cheese' I have been unable to discover - they are certainly nothing like bread and cheese either in appearance, in shape, or in colour.  A probable explanation is that they were eaten by the very hungry as a replacement for bread and cheese.  The expression is also not confined to hawthorn - much wild leafy food has the bread and cheese accolade.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Slow traveller

I found this solitary wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) in a shady spot under some ornamental trees at the base of an old dead eucalypt in our garden the other day.  Wood anemones are ancient woodland indicators in South East England, but this was definitely not in ancient woodland.  I reckon the nearest population is about 75 metres away in Churchland Wood.

The plant is known to be able to colonise suitable new sites, but it can, so they say, take hundreds of years.  I suppose though it only takes one successful event for the colonisation to start and this could be one season from year zero or a good deal longer - I don't think the plant is particularly fussy about where it grows: I have seen it in undisturbed grassland as well as woodland.  Once established it will, of course, spread vegetatively as a clone of the original, so perhaps several different clones would make a healthier woodland population, but maybe not.

It has been suggested that new arrivals of this kind may have been transported mechanically as bits of rhizome in some way - on a vehicle, or the sole of a boot.  It is possible that someone walked this one in but the rarity of the plant's arrival in new places means that this is the sort of thing that seldom happens.

The plant is flowering, of course, to attract insects to that central ring of yellow anthers around the green stigmas, and early insects often do visit wood anemones, but successful dispersal of seeds does not appear to be of great value in establishing the plant in new sites (I wonder why)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Flowers that "waste their sweetness"

I have always been puzzled by flowers that go to some lengths in terms of colour or scent to appear attractive but, in my experience, are visited by very few insects.  Among those in the garden at the moment are spurge-laurel (Daphne laureola) - see below - which I visit regularly but have found nothing on but a few springtails of the kind that can be beaten out of every tree or shrub.  In mainland Europe they have been shown to be pollinated by pollen beetles (Nitidulidae: Meligethes) but, while several species are not uncommon here, they are either not yet about, or prefer something else. Maybe moths or other insects visit the flowers at night as it fruits well.

Very close to the spurge-laurel we have an ever-extending bed of lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor), Blue flowers are normally rather attractive to insects but, again, these little flowers appear to entice nothing.  Our patch was started many years ago when we first moved to South View and newly weds in the past would often plant periwinkles in their first gardens as it was supposed to promote love.  It seems to have kept Cynthia and I together very successfully.  Its flower is also said to be the item referred to in recommending that wedding gifts should include 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue'.

My third 'tries hard' flower is that of the cherry-plum, Prunus cerasifera, also known as the myrobalan.  It is an alien March-flowering species not known anywhere in the wild, but probably from western Asia, and often grown in this country as a hedge or used as a stock for grafting with other fruit trees. Bullfinches are very fond of the buds and these often the reduce the quantity of flower but, clearly, they had not found the branch below though they were going round the garden a week or two ago.

Although I have seen no insect visitors, it is said to be pollinated by bees and, as well as bumble bees, we have at least two species of Andrena on the wing in the garden just now.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Behaviour of Eudasyphora cyanella, the green cluster fly

Eudasyphora cyanella, a muscid sometimes known as the green cluster fly, emerges from hibernation at this time of year.  I noticed twenty or thirty of them yesterday settling on shiny sunlit leaves of cherry-laurel in our lane.  They did not seem to be interested in other leaves and, if disturbed, quickly returned.

I think the attraction might be that they think the leaves are wet and they might be thirsty.  Some years back I made, in our garden, an artificial tree hole in a bucket filled with water and dead wood over which I hung a sleeve cage so that insects could get in via the lower open end. 

I wrote the below at the time:

On 18th April 2000, a cold, grey day with heavy showers there were, unexpectedly, seventeen of the distinctive muscid greenbottle  Eudasyphora cyanella (Meigen), all female, in the trap.  Several females of this species had occurred during the autumn, but none had been recorded since then.  E. cyanella breeds in fresh cow-dung and larvae have also been recorded from sheep dung .  Both cattle and sheep graze regularly in pastures about 100 metres from the trap, but the insects would have had to fly through woodland and scrub to reach the rot-hole. 

During the next few weeks numbers of E. cyanella rose steadily, though there were several days when none, or few appeared.  Females were quite quickly joined by males and, on the 25th April, there were at least 200 examples in the trap showing a marked clustering behaviour as they gathered on the ‘roof’.  Though they were extremely active, no mating was observed.  During this period several other species of Diptera were, as usual, found in the trap but in nowhere near the quantity of E. cyanella.

On 24th April, a reasonably sunny but quite cool day, I spent some time watching the trap area in the early afternoon.  E. cyanella were sunning themselves on leaves at ground level near the trap and some would rest on the side of the bucket.  On one occasion one was observed on the rim of the bucket apparently drinking from the moisture there and on one of the projecting pieces of wood (these had by now absorbed much water).  On leaving they tended to fly up into the hanging sleeve.  The flies seemed to make little distinction between warm, sunny days and cool, cloudy ones, but numbers were much lower during or after rain, the inference being that there was plenty of free moisture available to drink from vegetation.

By 18th May the numbers of E. cyanella had fallen to virtually nil, but the species was frequently observed in the wider countryside and singletons turned up in the trap until mid-August.

One of the characteristics of Eudasyphora is that, unlike nearly all other Muscids, the adults hibernate in winter.  One of the possible explanations of the observed behaviour was that, after their winter rest, they needed to drink, though why they should be particularly attracted to a rot-hole at a period when plenty of alternative sources of water were available is not clear.  Whatever the reason for their behaviour, it had some further ecological consequences.  They produced, for example, a substantial amount of excrement much of which must have finished up in the rot-hole, thus significantly increasing the nutrient-level of a habitat which is normally nutrient-poor.  At this time the trap also attracted a considerable swarm of the biting midge Culicoides obsoletus (Meigen). They would settle in some numbers on the black netting and in rather smaller quantities on my arms and face.  They bit occasionally, but their main interest seemed to be the trap.  On looking carefully at these midges, they seemed to be more interested in the droppings of the Muscids (which adhered to the netting) than the flies themselves, though I did see them settle on some of the larger species as though to bite.  C. obsoletus breeds in a wide range of moist decaying matter and it has been reported from both rot-holes and sheep dung.  It was not, however, biting in other parts of the neighbourhood and would therefore appear to have been attracted by E. cyanella and the other flies, rather than by myself.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Mystery topless tables

The other day, while walking in the 'ancient' wood at the end of our garden, I came across two iron structures with no apparent function that I could guess.

I have discovered today that they are temporary protectors to go over coppiced stools where dormice might be hibernating to protect the animals from any accidental damage.  Electricity wires run right through the wood and the power company has to clear the trees back to stop them fouling the wires.  Because it has had dormouse records over a long period to 2016, special precautions have to be taken as it is a legally protected animal and I am told that a licensed dormouse worker oversees the felling and cutting operation throughout.

The work looks pretty drastic, but it should open up the habitat in the traditional way and make it easier for the dormice to flourish.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

New corridor in Churchland Wood

In Churchland Wood, Sedlescombe (TQ783189 - centroid) a corridor has been cut underneath the electricity transmission lines to stop vegetation from fouling the overhead wires.  This ancient woodland is rich in wildlife and I am minded to make this new corridor and its surroundings my wildlife project for the year, especially as it is only a very short distance from the end of our garden. It will also be easy to undertake some fixed point photography to show the changes as the vegetation returns.

Above - February 2017

I have know this ancient wood for over half my life and it has many treasures including dormice, badgers, fallow and roe deer.  The tree cutters have chipped the brushwood and left heaps on the ground, heaps that might prove interesting in their own right.  Yesterday, 13tth February, I saw a butterfly, a peacock I think, though it would not stay still.  The temperature was only around 9 degrees C, so it was surprising to see it but I hope a good omen.

On 23 February I found a photo of virtually the same scene taken in 2012, when the corridor was last cleared (see below).  The main difference seems to be that the brushwood was not chipped.

10 March 2017.  The power company's woodman started to make this central ride much wider and (see post dated 11th March) are taking special precautions to protect and conserve the local dormouse population.