Fly of the day: Bee-fly

Large bee-fly Bombylius major

Dark-edged bee-fly Bombylius major

Spring is finally here. Flowers are blooming and the recent warm weather has brought out the hairy-footed flower bees, the queen bumblebees, an assortment of solitary bees and the bee-fly. The bee-fly Bombylius major is a comical looking insect – a fluffy body, long proboscis and long spindly legs – and can be seen daintily hovering around Warwick Gardens. A bumblebee mimic, they are the one insect that is most enquired about on the East Dulwich Forum… ‘What is it… is it a bee?’ What is that weird looking insect?’. Its a bee-fly.

They have a preference for low growing flowers. In Warwick Gardens they feed on green alkanet, whereas in Peckham Rye Park you will find them enjoying the grape hyacinth in the ornamental garden. Although they are cute-looking their larvae tell another story. They parasitise larvae of solitary wasps and bees. Female bee-flies predate mining bees by dropping their eggs from the air in Dambuster style, or by flicking their eggs into the tunnels of bee nests. Once in the tunnel, the egg hatches and the larvae find their way into the nests to feed on the grubs. Bee-flies are out and about until June, unless they come to an unfortunate end at the jaws of a crab spider!

Death by crab spider

Death by crab spider

 

 

Busy bees

Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes

Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes

Nothing heralds the coming of spring more than the arrival of the hairy-footed flower bees in Warwick Gardens. They are my favourite solitary bee and I am sure the tag ‘busy bee’ was coined to describe these delightful insects. Whilst the queen bumblebees are lumbering around, and the honey bees are slowly waking up in their hives, Anthophora plumipes are out and about grasping life in their own inimitable way. Often confused with the Common carder bee Bombus pascuorum, they are distinguishable by their hairy legs, cream face and distinctive hovering movement when approaching flowers, often with their long tongue outstretched. The boys fly out first, all gingery-brown and new, full of verve and big personality. They are very inquisitive – checking every flower with a joyful confidence, stopping to hover and have a look at other insects, even having a nosy at the photographer sitting in the bushes! They are zippy bees, darting from flower to flower and chasing after each other along the borders of the park. The females appear a couple of weeks later and are all black except for bright orange hind legs. Easily mistaken for the female Red-tailed bumblebee Bombus lapidarius, they are usually seen gathering pollen at a more leisurely pace and being pursued by male bees. They nest in the ground or the soft mortar of walls and every year I look for a nest to no avail! Although their favourite flower is lungwort ours have a preference for the comfrey patch in the park. The hairy-footed flower bee could well be one of our main urban spring bees as they are frequently found in gardens, parks and allotments.

Melecta albifrons

Melecta albifrons

Melecta albifrons

Every bee has a cuckoo who goes into the hosts’ nest and lays it eggs. The hairy-footed flower bee is no exception – it has the cuckoo bee Melecta albifrons invading its nest. This is a rather awkward-looking bee with a stumpy face and a pointed abdomen and a flying pattern which is fast and almost zigzag. They are mainly brown and black but black forms are also found, probably mimicking the female Anthophora plumipes. They appear slightly later in the spring once the hairy-footed flower bees have laid their eggs.

Hedge funds and losses

I have always thought that funds should be made available for creating more hedges. In Britain we have lost many of our native hedgerows – mainly due to modern methods of monoculture farming and under-management – contributing to sharp declines in bird and mammal populations. Native hedgerows are important habitats supporting lots of wildlife, and act as barriers against soil erosion and flooding. In our parks planting tends to be prettified with non-native species, and our gardens are partitioned to the inch with wooden fences, chicken wire or brick walls. True, you can recreate a hedge by trailing plants up these vertical man-made dividers but they are poor substitutes for the real thing – living, breathing, chunky, organic hedgerows complete with tangles, twigs and hidey-holes for nesting birds and mammals to take shelter in.

Red-tipped clearwing, nettle and spear-thistle lacebug

Red-tipped clearwing, nettle bug and spear thistle lacebug

In Warwick Gardens funding is being spent on planting a native ‘edible’ hedgerow along the railway side of the park. This excites me as that area has always been a bit sparse when it comes to variable vegetation, and being north facing and surrounded by trees also rather dark, so this will introduce new species into the mix. The Conservation Volunteers have already prepared the ground and waiting to plant; plum and wild pear, hawthorn, wild rose, honeysuckle and gooseberry are among the proposed newbies arriving. But there are some losses: the huge bed of nettles supporting nettle bugs and spiders; a large buddleja bush which suffered poisoning when Railtrack poured chemicals on the Japanese knotweed, but had struggled on to live up to the heights of its common name the butterfly bush, has been clipped right back; an overgrown bramble, which had also been poisoned but fought back to yield very large blackberries, and was a perfect hiding place for sawflies. I will miss the patch of black horehound which has kept a family of wool-carder bees happy for the past couple of years, and dashed my hopes of finding Pied shield bugs. And I will miss the thistles. These kept me glued to the flowers in August when I could guarantee to see my favourite digger wasp Cerceris rybyensis feasting on nectar along with small blues, ruby-tailed wasps, Braconid wasps, bumble and honey bees, and tiny spear thistle lacebugs nestling amongst the spiky leaves. One year a red-tipped clearwing moth visited, causing commotion in the London moth world as they are seldom seen in urban areas. Thankfully the large hawthorn has been left untouched, with added bushes to follow, as last year I found box bugs – a first for Warwick Gardens – and I am hoping to see them again this year.

Even though we will have to wait a while before our hedgerow establishes itself I look forward to seeing what invertebrates decide to move in. Will I add to my species count? Warwick Gardens already has a remarkable reputation for attracting ‘interesting’ insects and I am sure we will be welcoming more. In the meantime I am going to try and relocate the thistles to the other side of the park.

Mosquitoes in Peckham

Its nearly Christmas and for those of you still desperate to find a present for that long-lost cousin who is threatening to turn up at your house on Wednesday morning you could do worse than purchasing a Mosquito t-shirt.

Mosquito and Lou's screen print

Mosquito and Lou’s screen print

These lovely t-shirts are hand screen-printed by Peckham-based designer Lou Smith at Captured on the Rye, from a photo taken at the Peckham Moth Night in Warwick Gardens in August. This is the perfect present for people who annoy you! And presents for the people you love? Check out his bumblebee, wasp, ant and crow designs… they are sublime.

A winning bee

My Buglife calendar arrived today. I was super keen to look at it as it contained all the winners of the Buglife Photography Competition. One of my bees was a winner – the photo I took of an Halictus sp bee sitting on a blade of grass in Warwick Gardens won a ‘Highly Commended’. It represents the month of May and shares the space with a lovely Wasp-spider taken by Elizabeth Kay.

The month of May

The month of May

The competition was held on Flickr and Buglife asked people to join their group and post their photos. This is amateur photographer territory – and to me the essence of passionate wildlife photography. What I liked about this competition was the free-for-all feel to it – and was open to everyone who had taken a picture of an insect in the UK. Invertebrates rarely win photo competitions – I think judges overlook the skill it takes to hone in on a tiny winged insect with compound eyes and take a photo before it flies off. Most wildlife photography awards nod to birds and mammals and the capture of the ‘perfect moment’ of a whale jumping out of the sea or a lion about to jump a gnu, and usually demand a payment to enter. Many of us don’t have the equipment to take such stunningly perfect photos or the time and money to visit the exotic locations to see the wildlife that usually win these competitions, let alone the entrance fee to enter. Some of us just have cheap cameras and limited habitats. Having had a look through the 1300 images that had been submitted I was stunned at the quality of photos. All the more reason to celebrate my win! As a graphic designer working in the world of urban conservation I spend a lot of time on Flickr looking for wildlife images to include in my designs, and I find some of the best photos are taken by people who don’t class themselves as ‘photographers’. They have a passion for their subject – be it badgers, birds or bumblebees. The Buglife calendar reflects this passion and has sawfly larvae, ant-lion, snails and slugs and cockchafers, and Chris Dresh’s stunning winning photo of a Raft-spider catching a Golden-ringed dragonfly. Marvellous. Congratulations to all the winners, and to Buglife for hosting a great competition.

The Buglife calendar is for sale from their website. A perfect christmas present. You can order one here: Buglife Calendar

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Master of disguise

Scarce fungus weevil Platyrhinus resinosus, with mite infestation

Scarce fungus weevil Platyrhinus resinosus, with red mite infestation

Every so often some rather interesting species appear in Warwick Gardens. I have already talked about the Mosaic leafhopper and the Mottled shield bug, but nothing quite prepared me for finding a Scarce fungus weevil. I like thumbing through guide books to insects – I have a wish list of species I’d like to see: Green tiger beetleMole cricketPuss moth caterpillar and the Scarce fungus weevil which looks remarkably like a broken twig or a bird dropping. Last summer I was sitting on one of the logs munching a packet of crisps when something caught my eye. It looked like twig… and it moved. Closer inspection revealed two eyes, six legs and a short snout covered in fine hairs. It was the most unusual weevil I had ever seen, and as for looking like something else to ward off predators, a true master of disguise.

Scarce fungus weevil

Scarce fungus weevil (front view)

True weevils are small beetles that have a reputation as pests. Fungus weevils belong to a small group of weevils from the Anthribidae family – their antennae are not ‘elbowed’ as in true weevils and are usually larger. The larvae of the Scarce fungus weevil, or Cramp-ball fungus weevil as they are also known, develop inside the dark balls of the Cramp-ball fungus, or King Alfred’s Cakes, which grows on the dead wood from ash trees. This fungus is easily identified as it resembles burnt cakes. The adult weevil feeds on the wood around the fungus. When disturbed they tend to fold their legs in and fall to the floor, where they look just like a bird dropping. It is listed on the National Biodiversity Network’s Gateway as being ‘Nationally Scarce’ and comes under the category ‘Notable B’ which means it is uncommon in the UK. In fact there are hardly any records of it in London so all the more reason to celebrate its presence in Peckham! How it got here is a mystery – I would have expected to find it in woodland, somewhere like Sydenham Hill Wood or Nunhead Cemetery, but no records exist there either. As for possible reasons to be in Warwick Gardens – there are two ash trees in the park and one in a garden that backs onto the park. And the log seating is dead ash where there is plenty of fungus growing. I will be looking out for Cramp-balls.

The current concerns about ash dieback disease are worrying when it comes to the survival of Scarce fungus weevil. As they rely on dead ash, if the dieback continues there will eventually be no new trees and subsequently no dead wood to feed on. Symptoms of ash dieback must be reported to the Forestry Commission. You can do this here: Tree Alert

Shades of grey

Bellenden Road, or ‘Bellenden Village’ as it is now known, is turning grey. It seems the local shopkeepers have got hold of a job-lot of grey paint and are liberally splashing it over their shop fronts – Flock & Herd the butchers, Anderson & Co the cafe/deli, General Store which sells artisan food items, Bias the boutique (who have added a hint of blue to their grey), and now the local Payless who have decided to change their name to Village Grocer and paint the frontage… grey. Delving into the world of paint colour swatches these greys have fancy names: Urban Obsession, Brushed Clay, City Break, Night Fever, Blizzard… None, though, are called ‘Woodlouse’.

Common woodlouse Oniscus asellus

Common rough woodlouse Porcellio scaber

Woodlice are numerous in Warwick Gardens. These little crustaceans play an important role in our ecosystem breaking down wood and leaf matter. The best place to find them during the day is under logs where they share their habitat with other mulch munchers such as earwigs and worms, as well as in wall and bark crevices. They emerge at night to feed and socialise. The rough woodlouse is typically dark grey with irregular patches in lighter shades of grey and is covered in tiny tubercles giving it a rough and non-shiny appearance. Woodlice are one of the few crustaceans that live permanently on dry land. 

Woodlouse spider

Woodlouse spider Dysdera crocata

Woodlice have many natural predators, forming a large part of the diet to some creatures and an occasional snack to others. Common shrews are know to consume vast numbers of woodlice. Hedgehogs, toads, frogs and newts also eat them and foxes are known to include them in their diets. Its most fearsome adversary is the Woodlouse spider Dysdera crocata, seizing woodlice in it’s pincer-like jaws and injecting them with a poison that kills in a few seconds. Its also one of the ugliest spiders I have ever seen!

Mottley crew

Mottled shield bugs Rhaphigaster nebulosa

Mottled shield bugs Rhaphigaster nebulosa

Its autumn and my Mottled shield bugs have gone into hibernation. I say ‘my’ because I have become quite attached to them! Warwick Gardens has a healthy population of these bugs – very surprising as Rhaphigaster nebulosa was only discovered in Britain from the London area in 2010. Originating from mainland Europe I am rather chuffed they choose to live in such abundance in Peckham.

They appear in summer as nymphs. My first sightings of them were in 2011, sunning themselves on a lilac bush, and every August I wait for them to appear on the same bush. Photographs don’t do them justice. Coloured a mottled bronzy-grey, with a hint of pink when the sun catches them, they are like little gleaming medals. And their banded antennae which wave around when alarmed give this shield bug added cute personality. As with all shield bugs the nymphs go through several instars before the final moult into adulthood. This year I counted 19 nymphs, mostly on the lilac but a couple had strayed to an oak tree further up the park. They have a tendency to suddenly pop out from under a leaf to bask, especially when the sun comes out after the rain.

Early, mid and late instars, and adult Mottled shield bug

Instar progressions, and adult Mottled shield bug

I have yet to find out on what plant they feed – on the continent they feed on the sap of deciduous trees. The only trees in the vicinity are ash, birch, oak, hazel and lilac, so the host plant is up for debate and needs more studying. Maybe we need to understand how they came to London, whether it was through the garden centre route or via the Channel Tunnel in foliage swept along the train lines, and if they have adapted to a new diet. The females lay clusters of small, barrel-shaped eggs on the undersides of leaves, so my mission next year is to look for these. For now my adult mottled shield bugs have disappeared into the undergrowth to hibernate, taking their secrets of adaption with them. I can’t wait until next August.

New neighbour, new bee

A few weeks ago I got told off by my new neighbour for playing music too loud –  at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. The following week he threatened to call the police on the guy who lives below me for playing his music too loud – at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. Surely a futile exercise – I am sure the police have better things to do on a Saturday afternoon than answer a call about loud music in Peckham! All this has unsettled me. I don’t play my music that loud and not that often so his claims about the “walls continuously shaking and my pictures are coming off the wall” didn’t quite compute to my sporadic soundtrack of Serbian accordion music. I expect a bit of noise in Peckham – its what makes this area such a colourful and vibrant place to live. If you want a quiet life move to Nunhead. My point to him was about tolerance – barging into a new area and trying to call the shots is not going to earn you many friends.

Ivy bee Colletes hederae

Ivy bee Colletes hederae

A much more welcome newcomer to Peckham is the Ivy bee Colletes hederae. A handsome solitary bee, it feeds on ivy (Hedera) hence its name. Bee enthusiasts everywhere have been on the look out for it as it is a relative newcomer to the UK, and sightings in London have been scarce. A real quest, especially looking for a stripy insect amongst all the other stripy insects flying around at the moment. Richard Jones has written an informative article on Ivy bees, though I have beaten him to a local discovery by finding one in Warwick Gardens. The three large ivy bushes in the park are blooming – they flower in sequence, about three weeks apart. At the moment the middle bush is where the action is. The other striped insects wasps, honey bees and hoverflies are swarming all over it, excited by the nectar available on tap. And the noise! The buzzing is loud and frenzied and sounds remarkably like a distant helicopter. Amongst all this commotion is where I found our ivy bee, quietly feeding. I hope its not going to complain about the noise!

The Bees Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) are currently mapping the ivy bee. If you do see one please report it on their monitoring page: Colletes hederae mapping project

Web masters

One of my favourite novels when I was young was Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. An endearing story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with Charlotte, the spider who could spin messages in her web. I yearned to find a Charlotte of my own, a spider who could show me the way to eternal enlightenment through messages in silk. Nowadays it is the webmasters of the internet that dictate my search for truth through HTML.

Common garden spider, Araneus diadematus, wrapping a bluebottle fly.

Common garden spider wrapping a greenbottle fly.

The true web masters of the world are spiders, spinning complex lattices in which to catch their prey. Early autumn is the time to see large orb webs glistening in the early morning sun, drooping under the weight of dew. Gardens are abundant with the criss-crossing of silk, sometimes invisible until you walk into them – I always feel guilty when this happens and find myself apologising to a disorientated spider who finds itself clinging to my coat. Those big round webs are built by the beautiful Common garden spider, Araneus diadematusour commonest orb spider. Masters of symmetry, these spiders spin their webs at night, constructing an elaborate sticky trap in readiness of catching dinner. They sit patiently in the middle of the web, waiting for something to fly in and get entangled. At this time of year juicy wasps and flies are the bounty. In Warwick Gardens most of these spiders are centred around the ivy bushes as they are in flower and teaming with flying insects. I can spend hours web watching… waiting for that moment when something lands on the web – the speed at which the spider catches and wraps an unfortunate insect in a silk tomb in a matter of seconds is astounding.

Nigma walckenaeri under web, and with prey

Green leaf web spider under web, and with prey

Another spider has a different tactic. The tiny Green leaf web spider, Nigma walckenaeri, spins a flat, rather untidy web across the top of a leaf and crouches underneath it, rather like a bivouac, shooting out when something triggers a vibration. The spider and its tiny web is virtually invisible against the green of the leaf. This spider punches above its weight in regards to size of prey, regularly catching large flies and hoverflies, and administers a powerful bite to paralyse it.

Nursery web spider with egg sac, and spiderlings in web tent

Nursery web spider with egg sac, and spiderlings in web tent

The large Nursery web spider, Pisaura mirabilis, uses web skills in another way. They do not spin a web to catch prey, instead lie stretched out on leaves and wait for flies and other insects to pass by, then use quick sprinting and strength to overpower them. The female lays her eggs into a silk cocoon which she carries around in her fangs. When her eggs are about to hatch she attaches the sac to a blade of grass and spins an elaborate tent. She releases her spiderlings inside, hence the name ‘nursery web’. The female will stand guard nearby until the spiderlings are old enough to disperse.