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Life on the Garden Fence – the Virgin Bagworm

As a naturalist, it is not uncommon for me to be sent photos and specimens in the hope of an identification. One of the most frequent of these are the mysterious things that reside on garden fence panels, occasionally in abundance: what are those strange pupae? Why are the Blue Tits pecking at my fence?

Well, they could be pupae. Or larvae. Or adults. It is a very unusual micromoth, a bagworm called Luffia ferchaultella that lives its entire life in a silken bag, up to 6mm long, which it adorns with bits of its environment: grit, flakes of lichen etc, usually, but not always, giving it a considerable degree of camouflage.

Adults are wingless, and so look rather like larvae. And what’s more each and every one is female: they reproduce parthenogenetically, producing more flightless females – hence the English name I give them: the Virgin Bagworm. She lays her eggs inside her bag, and when they hatch, the larvae commence building their own bag while still inside their late mother’s one. In some species, perhaps including this one, one of the first meals may be the maternal body, but for the most part their larval period of a year or more is sustained by grazing on algae and lichens growing around them. Then pupation, and the short-lived adult period, maybe two weeks, necessarily short as the adult is without functional mouthparts.

All very bizarre. But that’s far from the whole story, and there’s no doubt more to be discovered. Very recently through genetic studies it has been suggested that in fact ‘Luffia ferchaultella‘ is actually no more than a parthenogenetic, female-only form of Luffia lapidella. While this has similarly flightless females, they are not parthenogenetic, mating as normal with the fully-winged males. But lapidella is known in Britain only from Cormwall and the Channel Islands, whereas ferchaultella is common throughout England, south of a line from the Humber to the Mersey…

Virgin Bagworms can be very abundant on fence panels, tree trunks, walls etc, and although only tiny, they are easily scavenged en masse by tits, Wrens and other small birds – many a morsel makes a mouthful.

Gallery of other bagworm bags from around Britain and Europe

Although not often noticed, these other species mostly have males, fully-winged albeit weak-flying, rather hairy and sombrely coloured, small to medium sized, day-flying micro moths. Their bags, however, are often seen, if you know what to look for, and most can be assigned with some confidence to a particular species…without ever seeing the inhabitant.

Beth Chatto Gardens – is it Spring yet?

Early March, after the winter that never was. And seemingly the spring ushered in on a weekly conveyor belt of ferocious Atlantic storms, periods of very high winds and very heavy rain with barely a day or two of calm between them: yes, it’s record-breaking time again (and not in a good way) …

So when the chance at last arose to get to the Garden, it was all looking a bit bedraggled and weatherbeaten, crushed carpets of Crocus, with the just the most recent emergees spearing through:

And water everywhere, soggy underfoot, with the reminders of the most recent rain glistening as quicksilver drops on Euphorbia leaves…

…and on the saw-toothed spectacle that is Melianthus. One of the most dramatic plants to photograph, I simply cannot ever pass this one by!

All the Aconites and many of the Snowdrops were over, so now we are into high spring, with showy blooms at every turn:

However, visual showiness is not everything. Certainly not from the point of view of the, admittedly few, insects. An occasional hoverfly or bumblebee was sipping at the Squills, but most of the insect activity, largely flies, was around the greenish flowers, often furnished with a strong scent in counterpoint to their ‘lack of colour’:

Of course, to suggest that green flowers lack colour is to denigrate that most underrated of hues. Flowers and foliage alike make spring shine with greens of all kind.

One group of plants merits its own mention at this time of year: the Hellebores. All from the same floral mould, apart from the frilly ‘Party Dress’ hybrids, but the infinite variation in ‘petal’ (actually, sepal) colour from white to green to pink to purple, plain or with spots or blotches or stripes is surely one of the wonders of a woodland garden spring.

As always the garden provided welcome respite from the tribulations of a stormy planet, an oasis of relative calm, made ever more restful by the sweet song of a Mistle Thrush serenading the spring.

Gardening with Wildlife in Mind

One of the regular talks I give to groups throughout East Anglia is on the topic of ‘Gardening with Wildlife in Mind’. The most frequent thing I am asked for is a list of the plants mentioned in the talk, and at long last, here it is!  This is far from being a comprehensive list of garden goodies (and baddies), just the ones that anyone who has seen the talk will have seen pictures of.

If you need more inspiration, there’s plenty out there, such as the website of the Wildlife Gardening Forum. Or better still, take a trip out to somewhere like the Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, a few miles east of Colchester, wander round the garden on a warm day, see what the insects are visiting, and then go into the nursery and buy it, assuming your garden has the right conditions. Nature generally will point the way!

Non-native but valuable nectar/pollen sources; also fruits and seeds

Juneberry Amelanchier canadensis/lamarckii/laevis

Himalayan Honeysuckle Leycesteria formosa  (left) and Giant Viper’s Bugloss Echium pininana (centre and right)

 

Early season food sources for insects

Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis

Hellebores Helleborus spp.

Late season food sources for insects

Michaelmas Daisies Aster spp. (left) and Hemp-agrimony Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropurpureum’ (right)

Useful leaves, for larval feeding and nest-making

Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica

Mulleins Verbascum spp. (Mullein moth caterpillar,  right)

Roses Rosa spp. (leaf-cutter bee, right)

Double flowered plants to be avoided (cultivars)

Kerria Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’ (left) and Guelder-rose Viburnum opulus ‘Sterile’ (right)

But the original wild -types are useful…

Shelter – breeding and roosting (and often much, much more…)

Leyland Cypress xCupressocyparis leylandii

Ivy Hedera helix

Gardening in the Global Greenhouse

Closing the winter nectar gap

Mahonia Mahonia sp. (left) and Laurustinus Viburnum tinus (right)

Drought-tolerant, insect-friendly, beautiful: the borders of the future

Sun-roses Cistus spp.

Sea-hollies Eryngium spp.

Giant Herb Roberts Geranium palmatum and G. maderense

Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis  (left) and Lavenders Lavandula spp. (centre, right)

Jerusalem-sages Phlomis spp.

Sages Salvia spp.

Possible pests – ones to watch…or ideally avoid

Hottentot-fig Carpobrotus spp.

If you want to know more, glean a few more  ideas, and  find out the reason why my talk is called Gardening with Wildlife in Mind (as opposed to Wildlife Gardening, for example), you can always book me! My rates and a full list of talks can be found here.

Lichenscapes, Groundscapes, Beachscapes and Reflectascapes

   

Those who have seen, and hopefully enjoyed, the photos on our blogs will realise that our photos are pretty standard mementos of a walk or a holiday, or some such excuse to write a blog!

But over the (digital) years we have amassed getting on for 200,000 images, and it has long been our ambition to get more of them ‘out there’ and onto this website. We have the Galleries section, and we now intend to use it! The older galleries will be updated in due course, but after a wet and windy late winter period, conducive to spending time in front of the computer, we have launched the first four new galleries: Lichenscapes, Groundscapes, Beachscapes and Reflectascapes.

These are thematic galleries, drawn from our efforts across the years and across Europe. By focusing on these themes, we hope to draw the eye to perhaps unexpected and underappreciated artistic elements of the world we inhabit, colours, forms and textures which we might fail to see if we concentrate only on that which is before us at the time.

So, here we have the first few, each illustrated with a few representative shots from the gallery:

Lichenscapes – the symbiotic ‘art-attack’ which adorns so many inhospitable corners of the world, from mountain rocks, to sea cliffs, to fence posts, to gravestones, and many more;

Groundscapes – come the autumn, as leaves fall from trees, the ground below becomes cloaked in a mantle, tessellating colours and shapes, each characteristic of the type of tree above;

Beachscapes – it is said that a local, stranded in fog on Chesil Beach, can tell where they are from the shape, size and colour of the pebbles at their feet. And so it is with beaches more generally, each tells a unique story of the interaction of geology, tide, weather and Man;

and Reflectascapes – the reflective properties of water are a staple of landscape art and photography. The water’s surface may try to capture the sky and its surroundings, but never quite manages to reproduce it faithfully. It is the mutations, the unpredictable uncertainties and hesitations, that can fill many a happy hour staring at an otherwise familiar vista.

We hope this taster will encourage you to look at the full galleries.

Murder at the Garden Pond: Thalia dealbata – the (not very) beautiful assassin

An evergreen, marginal aquatic perennial forming a clump of long-stalked, erect, narrowly ovate leaves to 40cm in length, covered with white powder, and slender stems bearing panicles of purple flowers 2cm across’. This, from the Royal Horticultural Society, neatly sums up the rather statuesque plant that we encountered in Beth Chatto’s garden last summer: Thalia dealbata.

As per usual, when in gardens we seek out insects to photograph and were immediately aware that this plant was covered in SO many pollinators. But dead pollinators. On closer examination, each flowerhead was actually riddled with corpses – hoverflies, lacewings, bees, wasps and blow flies, amongst others – a glistening mortuary for those valuable garden assistants, pollinators and predators alike, all stuck headfirst into the mouths of their nemesis.

The scale of the carnage was, quite simply, shocking. Some, still alive, like this Honeybee we managed to release, but most were dead. Lost to the world.

Reference to the internet shows this is a recognised phenomenon. The plant has no reason to kill its visitors – it doesn’t digest them like a truly carnivorous species: it seems that the flowers have an elastic style, used in explosive pollination which can and does trap insects.

In its native central American/southeastern USA range it is normally pollinated by large and powerful Carpenter Bees, capable of extricating themselves from the flower’s fatal embrace. Anything smaller is trapped and starves, mere collateral damage, cannon fodder in the battle for life.

 

But at times of an Extinction Crisis, that is one pressure our array of pollinators, necessary not just for the plant’s but for our species’ continued existence, can do without, dozens of pollinator lives being extinguished unnecessarily for each flowerhead. We raised our concerns with the Beth Chatto gardeners, and they promised to investigate, perhaps to remove the spikes of (to our eyes, rather unlovely – they often don’t seem to open fully) flowers, leaving only the stately leaves to give emergent architecture to the water margins.

And to their credit, the Beth Chatto online sales catalogue does at least draw attention to this antisocial behaviour attribute of Thalia: ‘Please note that the plant has an unusual mechanism for pollination which results in some pollinating insects remaining trapped within the flower, where they can perish. Hover flies appear the most affected.’

No other suppliers that we came across made any such references to the ‘special properties’ of Thalia, so we started a bit of a Twitter campaign to raise awareness, and perhaps get restrictions on the sale of the species, or to at least persuade suppliers to inform potential customers of the plant’s fatal attraction. And perhaps in response to this, we note that six months on, the RHS website now contains the following sentence: ‘Although not carniverous [sic] as such, this plant may trap and kill small insects such as hoverflies and small bees during the pollination process.’ Not the unequivocal recommendation not to buy and grow it that we might have hoped for, but a start nonetheless…

The RHS also provides a list of recommended stockists, of which six are noted for Thalia, one in France and five in the UK (including Beth Chatto’s). Two of those seem no longer to list it on their catalogues, but that still leaves three well-known British aquatic plant suppliers who do without hesitation, one even noting it is ‘much frequented by butterflies, moths and other pollinators’ without giving the full story. And of course other UK suppliers are available, though in the first three pages of a Google search, none referred to Thalia’s nasty little habits, save for World of Water Aquatic Centres which in its information table asks ‘Perfect for Pollinators?’, and gives the answer ‘No’, albeit without explanation.

We shall be contacting suppliers to try and persuade them to at least mention this issue, if not withdraw it from sale , in the hope that insects can be saved and eco-conscious gardeners are not upset at the behaviour of their latest purchase. And future updates to this blog may include a ‘name and shame’ as well as a ‘Hall of Fame’!

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: February awayday to the Naze

What could be better – a walk on the beach on a sunny afternoon, time to scrabble about and get dirty hands in the search for fossils and other beach treasures, followed by tea, cake and chat in the warm?  Our intrepid Bug-and-Botanists all had a whale of a time on Saturday at The Naze, and despite there being a distinct lack of botany (except of course Gorse) or bugs to admire, there was plenty of ‘nature’ to enjoy!

Standing on the beach looking at the cliffs, you really are looking back many millions of years in time.  The whole area, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is one of the finest geological sites in Britain, comprising layers of London Clay, topped by Red Crag.

The stunning redness of the Crag is due to oxidisation of the sand and fossil layer laid down over 3 million years ago when Walton was, as now, at the edge of the sea, just prior it being engulfed in the turmoil of the last Ice Age. Fossils of many kinds and shell debris can be readily be found on the beach, most stained an attractive red colour, distinguishing them from otherwise-identical modern shells.

A combination of the seeping of rainwater downwards, lubricating the clay surface, and storm wave pressures makes the whole area prone to landslips and substantial coastal erosion, which although a delight for geologists and fossil-hunters, nevertheless is extremely worrying for those with buildings atop the cliffs!  One example of course is the famous Naze Tower, a 300 year old landmark, built by Trinity House for navigational purposes and which today is a popular art-gallery and tea room.  Some years ago a local dispute raged as to what to do – completely surround the whole Naze with a sea defence?  (extremely expensive and would prevent geological discovery and the ‘production’ of sand which feeds our local seaside resorts), or let the whole area eventually fall into the sea?.  A compromise was sought and about ten years ago an additional 170 metres of defence was built.

Now known as the Crag Walk, this allows a safe walkway, and provides a chance to study the cliffs at close quarters, whilst learning about the geology and wildlife from interpretation boards. It also protects the area immediately below the tower.

And so to our beachcombing….many delights awaited the patient explorer, but sadly no 50 million year old shark’s teeth,  from inhabitants of the subtropical London Clay lagoon which then covered most of what is now Essex, were forthcoming this time.  Our photo shows one that ‘we found earlier’ on a previous visit….

‘Boring piddocks’ Chris was heard to exclaim at one point….to whom or what was he referring?  Turns out Piddocks, also known as Angels’ wings, are attractive shells which bore vertically in the soft London Clay, making perfectly round holes as they do so.  These examples (above left) are modern, as is their holey now-deserted home in the right hand image. Other delights in this photo include ancient pyritised wood (turned to ironstone), and fossilised poo known as ‘coprolite’. Fifty million years old!

The ubiquitous left-hand coiling whelks Neptunia contraria are interesting as most gastropods coil in a dextral way;  these left-handers from the Red Crag seas can be dated at over two million year old.  It’s hard to get your head round numbers like this!

Although quite slippery on the London Clay platform, areas of sand became more accessible as the tide receded and we were particularly struck by the beautiful dendritic drainage tree-shapes in the sand.  So  much to see, but the time came to leave the beach and we finished our session with a cliff-top walk, admiring features on the skyline, and taking the opportunity for some wildlife-spotting:- a Common Seal bobbing along, Brent Geese feeding and a perfect chance to see a beautiful male Sparrowhawk at rest on the Crag.

We look forward to kicking off our season of Botany and Bug Walks proper in April, and hope that some of you will be able to join us.