Thursday, 22 August 2019

Cinnamon Bugs and Painted Ladies

Byfield yet again, on a fine sunny day. The weather had brought out many interesting creatures, but no real surprises.

A Cinnamon Bug, Corizus hyoscyami, seated on the head of a sow thistle, greeted me when I entered the pocket park (and was still there an hour later). Once a considerable rarity, this striking insect is now relatively commonplace.

Corizus hyoscyami on a sow thistle seed head. Byfield Pocket Park.
21 August, 2019
Another bug, also unmistakable but for a different reason, is the Dock Bug, Coreus marginatus. Dozens of these, in various stages of development, were on dock plants throughout the area. The shape is shared by a number of other, less common, bug, but none has quite the sharp angles displayed by this species.

Dock bugs were out in force. Byfield Pocket Park. 21 August, 2019
A Silver-ground Carpet Moth, Xanthorhoe montanata, briefly made an appearance before fluttering deep into a bush. The carpet moths, and there are dozens of them, all sharea similar wing patterning and can be tricky. Noting the food-plant of the caterpillars is helpful, but the Silver-ground, though variable, is not too difficult. It is ubiquitous.

Silver-ground Carpet. Not a silvery moth despite the name.
Byfield Pocket Park. 21 August, 2019
Less than a metre away a Painted Lady butterfly was visiting marjoram, a plant irresisable to many insects. It was easily spooked and kept flitting away before a decent photograph could be obtained.

Painted Lady on marjoram. This butterfly has been reasonably common
this year. Byfield Pocket Park. 21 August, 2019
Still on the subject of lepidoptera, a geometrid caterpillar was chomping away at an elder leaf. Geometrid larvae are often dull but, without wishing to hurt any feelings, this one was particularly dull.

Swallow-tailed Moth? Probably, but I can't be sure enough to record it.
Elder is a plant which many caterpillars seem to find distasteful, so this narrows down the possibilities. I pretty certain it was the larva of a Swallow-tailed Moth, Ourapteryx sambucaria. Sambucus is the elder genus and the specific name gives us a strong hint.

It had the typical looping movement of a geometrid moth.
Byfield Pocket Park. 21 August, 2019
This is one of our most spectacular moths in a sometimes dull group. It is widespread and reasonably common.

I'll keep an eye open for an adult.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Tutsan - with postscript

If people are asked to name their favourite British wild flower the answers tend to be predictable: the primrose, the foxglove, the bluebell, perhaps one of our wild roses... They are lovely plants certainly but one that is rarely mentioned is Tutsan, Hypericum androsaemum.
Tutsan is a rather rare British native...

I was delighted to find a strongly-growing specimen today in Byfield Pocket Park, but how did this theoretically rare plant come to be there? A wild flower mix seems the most likely answer. In fact it is quite common around buildings and on waste ground as a garden escape and I suspect that few non-botanists realise that it is a British native. With lovely buttercup-yellow flowers followed by scarlet berries it is the parent of several lovely garden hybrids but imo few are as attractive as the wild original.

… but is widely naturalised. Byfield Pocket Park. 19 August, 2019

It is poisonous, causing nausea and dierrea, dyorrheea, diareea - the shits if eaten. All this is theoretical for it seems that no cases of poisoning have ever been reported!

At the time of my visit it was only mid-morning and quite cool. The only butterfly notes was this Gatekeeper, soaking up the sun.

This Gatekeeper was the only butterfly seen. Byfield Pocket Park.
19 August, 2019
In a similar way this tachinid fly, Tachina fera, was also warming itself but unfortunately would not approach closely enough for a decent photograph. The word 'fera' can mean 'fierce' but can also mean 'prickly' or 'spiny'. This striking fly bears many spiky bristles and so the second meaning may be the correct one here. However it is fierce in a sense, for its larvae are parasitic on noctuid moths. In fact all tachinid flies are parasitic - fascinating but ghoulish!

This specimen of Tachina fera fly kept its distance. Stefen Hill
Pocket Park. 19 August, 2019

The yellow-berried Guelder Rose, Viburnum opulus 'Xanthocarpum' was heavy with fruit but, as with most viburnums its leaves had been badly damaged by the Viburnum Leaf Beetle, Pyrrhalta viburni. It is a native beetle but seems not to have been a pest until the mid-20th century and in 2010 this insect was declared 'number one pest species' following a survey by the Royal Horticultural Society.
This yellow-berried viburnum was heavy with fruit.
Byfield Pocket Park, 19 August, 2019

Gorging themselves on nectar from a clump of marjoram nearby were numerous Bumblebees, together with a small, slightly odd-looking wasp. Could it be... Yes, a closer look showed that it was a conopid fly. To be precise it was Conops quadrifasciatus, perhaps the most widespread species and a parasite of the bumblebee Bombus lapidarius. And it was new for the site.

To top it all I gathered a fine collection of beetles to peruse later.

Postscript 20 8.2019

Chris and I went to Dobbies garden centre, near Dunchurch, today. There was Tutsan on sale.
Hypericum 'Magical Red' at Dobbies Garden Centre.
20 August, 2019

It had been given the name 'Magical Red' although how the name could be justified I've no idea.

To my mind it wasn't as good as the plant in Byfield Pocket Park, and a ridiculous price had been placed on it.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Mushrooms and mines

I strolled over to Stefen Hill Pocket park in the late afternoon today. It was warm but very windy and the signs were not promising.

A couple of grey squirrels were once again screaming at each other regarding territorial boundaries but a pair of blackcaps were working through bushes together, searching for insects and berries perhaps to feed a brood.

I stepped out on to a broad grassy area and my eye was immediately caught by a white object the size and shape of a cricket ball. It was a specimen of Agaricus arvensis. It is related to the Field Mushroom, Agaricus campestris, but is considerably larger.
Agaricus arvensis, the size and shape of a cricket ball.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 17 August, 2019

Known as the Horse Mushroom it is a good edible species but, given the large numbers of dogs which use the pocket park for the expulsion of their waste products, I decided against eating it. Although the cap was yet to open it measured 110 centimetres across. The stem, covered in floccules, is distinctive.
The floccules on the stem are helpful in determining this species.

This mushroom was probably the most photogenic object I found although a group of subadult bugs on a nettle was interesting. There were several of these clusters, each consisting of a dozen or so individuals. They were Nettle Ground Bugs, Heterogaster urticae, and are found the length and breadth of Britain.

Groups of Nettle Ground Bugs were to be found throughout the pocket park
They were at their final instar stage. 17 August, 2019
A few weeks ago some native alder trees beside the pond had their female catkins attacked by the fungus known as Alder Tongue, Taphrina alni. A hundred or so yards away some Green Alders, Alnus viridis, were apparently unaffected. Today however, their catkins were also showing Alder Tongue. Green Alder is not native to the UK although it is found across Eurasia from Japan to Central Europe and also in North America.

Taphrina alni on Green Alder was a surprise. Stefen Hill Pocket Park.

What else caught my eye? A cherry leaf bore a leaf mine which hugged the leaf edge for some 20 millimetres, but a careful examination showed that it was the extremely common Lyonetia clerkella. This micro-moth, known as the Apple Leaf Miner, attacks a wide range of trees in the rose family such as cherry, apple, hawthorn and so on, but it will also be found mining birch leaves.

Cherry leaves were everywhere being mined by Lyonetia clerkella.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 17 August, 2019
Zeller's Midget, Phyllonorycter messaniella, had mined beech leaves and was a new moth species for the pocket park, but the excitement won't keep me awake at night.

The mines of Zeller's Midget were found on beech leaves.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 17 August, 2019
Oh dear, as my depressing school reports so often stated: Tony must try harder.

Garden goodies

The approach of autumn has seen more interesting plants come into bloom, some large and spectacular, other smaller and more delicate.

The most diminutive of these is the delightful Acis autumnalis. I have often looked for flowers around the western Mediterranean but Chris and I usually visit these areas in spring, too early for the Autumn Snowflake, as it is called, to be in bloom. 

Acis autumnalis, the Autumn Snowflake, seems very happy in our sink
garden. 17 August, 2019
I grow it in our sink garden where it is thriving in a gritty mix. It belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family, a complex group over which botanists have argues for decades, and certainly I intend to say nothing more about it.

Our Myrtle, Myrtus communis, is now in flower. I am at a loss to know why it is not  grown more widely. Perhaps at one time it was regarded as borderline hardy but, providing it is not planted on an exposed, windy hillside or a very wet site, it is easy. 

Our myrtle is becoming smothered in bloom. 17 August, 2019
The white flowers are very attractive, the aromatic foliage is evergreen (as are its relatives, Eucalyptus) and, if you are so inclined, the purple-black berries are edible. Myrtle jam is often seen for sale on the continent. What's not to like?

The most spectacular of the three plants considered in this blog was given to us by our friend Linda Talmadge, whose lovely B and B we visited a few days ago. It is a Clerodendron and is almost certainly Clerodendron bungei.  There seems to be confusion about the name, for in some books it is 'Clerodendrum' bungei.

Although Clerodendron bungei hails from China, it is clearly happy in
Daventry. 17 August, 2019

A native of China, this woody plant may be cut down in a hard winter but, as such weather conditions are increasingly rare, I'm sure it will be fine against our garage wall. Any disadvantages? Well yes, there are two.

The first concerns the foliage, which has an unpleasant smell when rubbed - so don't rub it. Simple. The other potential problem is more serious: it can be invasive, getting into places where it can be a nuisance, but I am growing our specimen in a tub. Again, simple.

The flowers are reputed to be very attractive to Humming Bird Hawkmoths. A visit from one of these would be lovely - but I won't hold my breath.

Late summer/early autumn, can be a lovely season in the garden.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Garden surprise!

For the last three weeks I have been puzzled by a plant which has appeared in our front garden. It had no label and so I decided it could be a weed, although our plant labels do have an annoying habit of disappearing. Birds perhaps?

Anyway, today I had my answer. It was Tricyrtis formosana.

The appearance of this toad lily was a surprise. Our garden at Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 12 August, 2019
It was planted last year and, the label having vanished, I had forgotten about it. These curious plants from south-east Asia are known as toad lilies. As can be seen, the petals have spotted leaves spotted like a toad, and this may be the origin of their name - although I am by no means convinced.

The unusual structure of their flowers has seen these plants placed at various times in five different families but for convenience it seems that most botanists place them in the lily family, Liliaceae.

The species is Tricyrtis formosanum, a variable but always attractive plant.

Growing next to the toad lily is a variety of Dianthus alpinus known as 'Joan's Blood'. It is perhaps a little past its best at the moment but is still a lovely plant. I suspect it is in fact a hybrid, but who the parents are I'm not sure.
Dianthus alpinus 'Joan's Blood' with delicately pencilled petals of pale and
 dark mauve stripes. Our garden. 12 August, 2019

I have been growing Eryngium bourgatii in our front garden. Despite it being a native of Morocco, Lebanon and other Mediterranean areas it is perfectly hardy and in fact it has now become too robust and will have to go. Instead I am growing a dwarf form of Eryngium planum called 'Blue Hobbit', a single plant of which I purchased about three years ago.
Eryngium planum 'Blue Hobbit'. It is a delightful plant for the rock
garden. 12 August, 2019

It seems very happy and has produced a few seedlings which are true to the parent, and a satisfying clump has now developed.

Staying with blue flowers, I am also blessed - or cursed - with a patch of Pratia pedunculata (sometimes referred to as Lobelia pedunculata). It is referred to on the RHS website as a 'thug', but what do I see on sale at the RHS gardens at Rosemoor last week? Yes, There it was, Pratia pedunculata.

Pratia pedunculata: avoid it like the plague. Our garden at Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 12 August, 2019
Hailing from Australia it is quite a pretty thing but every few weeks I am out in the front garden grubbing out parts of it.

Lastly Seseli montanum. This member of the carrot family was sold to me as Seseli montanum and although I at first had doubts it appears to have been correctly named. It is a close relative of our very rare native Moon Carrot, Seseli libanotis, which is a more robust plant.

Seseli montanum, from central and southern France. A rarely-grown but
delightful plant. 12 August, 2019
It has delicate feathery foliage, typical umbelliferous flowers and is altogether a very graceful plant. It has steadily grown but has so far failed to produce seedlings. It may be self-sterile.

I also grow the related and very rare British native Bunium bulbocastanum. Known as Great Pignut it too is a graceful plant with deeply dissected leaves giving a feathery appearance but it is now past the flowering stage. I must check the inflorescences for ripe seed.

But now for some weeding!

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Abington Meadow, with postscript

Abington Meadow is quite a large area of River Nene floodplain on the southern perimeter of Northampton. Today it was the venue for a 'Bioblitz' - a meeting to which all recorders are invited in order to build up a comprehensive list of species present. Currently the list stands at 938 and given a reasonable day our combined efforts should see this total comfortably pass the 1000 mark.

I was only able to stay for a couple of hours and, shortly after leaving I ran into very heavy rain near Weedon. If this weather has affected the Abington area that will have put the kibosh on most recording.

Mints and their relatives were in full bloom and acted as a magnet for many insects. Unsurprisingly the commonest mint present was Water Mint, Mentha aquatica.

Water Mint was abundant in the flood plain. Abington Meadows,
11 August, 2019
It is common in  suitable habitats throughout Northants and was certainly familiar to John Clare: 

                   The brook resumes her summer dresses,
                   Purling* 'neath her grass and water-cresses,
                   And mint and flag-leaf swording high
                   Their blossom to the unheading sky.   

                                            Clare's Shepherd's Calendar, 1827 

Rather more interesting was Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium. This site is one of only a handful of sites in Northants for this species. Nationally it is listed in the Red Data Book as 'Endangered' and prior to its discovery at Abington Meadows it was thought to be extinct in the county.

Pennyroyal is now flourishing at Abington Meadows

It has a very pungent odour when trodden on and once had a reputation as an abortifacient. Pennyroyal may be a corruption of puliol royal, the Norman name for the plant (after the Latin pulegium , a flea deterrent).

The Gipsywort, Lycopus europaeus, could easily be mistaken for a mint, and indeed is a close relative. It too favours wet areas and, along with mints, it was described by G.C.Druce as 'paludal' (Ref. 1). It is still quite common though perhaps less so than in Druce's day. It was once believed to be used by gipsies to further darken their skin and so pass as Africans, but there seems little evidence that this was really the case. (Ref. 2)

Gipsywort was common beside the river at Abington Meadows.
11 August, 2019
Despite being mint-like its jagged leaves seem to be odourless, unusual in a family, the Lamiaceae, which also includes lavender, sage, thyme, hyssop, horehound, marjoram and rosemary.

'What of insects?' I hear you cry. The large and handsome hornet mimic, Volucella zonaria, was present (and is a new record for the site) but for the rest it will require a spot of microscopy, meticulousness and midnight oil to sort them out.

* The word 'purling' in Northamptonshire dialect means 'tumbling'. My grandmother, if she saw someone fall to the ground, would say 'Whoops, she's gone a purler.'

Postscript  After going through specimens later I found that my efforts had added twelve more species to the list.


1.  Druce, G. Claridge (1930) The Flora of Northamptonshire. Arbroath, T. Buncle & Co

2.  Mabey, Richard (1996) Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Trapped! A silly blog

During the summer months the windows of our conservatory tend to remain open all day. Insects flit in and out, arriving full of enthusiasm and leaving a few minutes later looking confused and disgruntled.

Chris and I have just had a short break in Devon and, of course, prior to leaving, secured all the windows inevitably leaving insects trapped inside. They died in the heat and naturally I couldn't resist having a look at them, but they were predictably common and unspectacular.

The most obvious of the corpses was a Silver Y Moth, Autographa gamma. It is an ubiquitous insect and most people are probably familiar with it. Large numbers arrive here each year from central Europe, but whether some are resident in Britain I am not qualified to say.

The Silver Y moth is common all over Britain at this time of the year.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 8 August, 2019

Another, less welcome moth, was Hoffmannophila pseudospretella, the Brown House-moth. With so much of our clothing now consisting largely synthetic materials, has it become slightly less common? Perhaps not. In natural conditions it is attracted to sheep wool, feathers, birds' nests and so on.

Episyrphus balteatus was there too. It is one of our few two-winged flies to have a common name, being known as the Marmalade Fly. It was accompanied by Scaeva pyrastri, another common migrant. Both these species are hoverflies and are 'gardeners' friends', as the horticulturists put it.

A migrant hoverfly, Scaeva pyrastri, was among the fallen in our
conservatory. Stefen Hill, 8 August, 2019
Most people are familiar with flesh flies. These are feeders on carrion and other waste animal material (the flies that is, not the people) and are generally not welcome in our homes. Often large and with a loud buzz they are members of the Sarcophagidae family, and the name (Greek: sarkos, flesh, and fagein, eat) says it all.

Sarcophaga carnaria, the flesh-eating flesh fly! Stefen Hill, Daaventry.
8 August, 2019
The particular species on our mortuary slab of a window sill was Sarcophaga carnaria. 'Carnaria' also refers to flesh so we have yet another of these very common tautological scientific names.

A tiny bug, Anthocoris nemorum, was among the bodies together with Musca autumnalis. This Musca is a very common relative of the house-fly, Musca domestica but, despite its name, is by no means confined to autumn and may be found from March to November.

Strange to think that all over Britain during the next few weeks, an army of people will be returning from holidays and feverishly sorting through the dead insects on their window ledges.

Or perhaps not...

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Old Mill, Jacobstowe

Chris and I have just returned from a short but delightful break at Jacobstowe, near Okehampton (not to be confused with the Jacobstow, between Bude and Tintagel, in Cornwall).

Our visit was in response to an invitation from Linda and Kevin, the owners of The Old Mill, to pay them a visit. Chris and Linda are firm friends, having frequently walked together in the Byfield area. For my part I knew Linda, but not well, and I had only met Kevin once before. As it turned out, they were excellent hosts and very pleasant company. Our old friends Lynda and Damien Moran were also visiting The Old Mill but we had travelled down separately.

Chris and Damien chat on the steps of The Old Mill.
5 August, 2019
Linda and Kevin have worked incredibly hard to create this B and B and can be very proud of their efforts, for it really is a lovely property, impeccably neat and full of interesting features. Among these features is the original mill whose innards we examined. It is hoped that the mill, whose power originally came from the River Okement, will eventually be restored to full working order.

The restoration of the mill will involve a great deal of hard work
but many of the original parts are still in place. 4 August, 2019
The Okement in an interesting river. Originally called the River Ock, its two main sources, the East And West Ock, rise on Dartmoor. They meet near Okehampton and as the River Okement, flow north via Jacobstowe to join the River Torridge.

The River Okement looking downstream. The gardens of The Old Mill are to
the left, with the sitting-out area where we enjoyed a lovely barbecue.
4 August, 2019
Linda and Kevin have filmed otters, deer and dippers beside the water and even as we watched on our first evening a kingfisher flashed past. The river contains trout, so the otters and the occasional grey heron probably feed well. Apparently the river once supported salmon and Kevin hopes that, with suitable management, they will make a return.

On our first day there we took a stroll through meadows beside the river. The shrubs beside the river included wild privet and spindle; hops wound their way through the shrubs, together with Black Bryony (our only native representative of the yam family).
The river looking upstream. Alders, oaks, willows, ash and sycamore line
the banks. 4 August, 2019

Although I am no mycologist I did photograph this interesting fungus in the meadow. Once home, a check through my books (why do I have four books on fungi?) suggested that it was the Saffron Bolete, Leccinum crocipodium.
Saffron Bolete? Seems likely, but what do I know?
It is not a particularly common toadstool but is associated with oak, some specimens of which stood nearby. It is sometimes called the Yellow-cracking Bolete, and the cracks on the cap are certainly of a lemon-yellow colour.

Same specimen. Underside of cap, showing the yellowish pores. Meadow
beside the River Okement. 4 August, 2019

The area in general seems to have a rich and varied fauna and flora. But am I jealous? You bet!

Friday, 2 August 2019

Mines and galls

There were insects a-plenty in Stefen Hill Pocket Park earlier today. I'll be looking at the specimens taken when time allows but for now I am going to examine the galls and leaf mines noted on my walk.

First up was a clump of Red Valerian with the distinctive mine of Liriomyza strigata. Although it is polyphagous, attacking a range of plants, the mine caused by the larva always tends to follow the midrib of a leaf.

Leaves of Red Valerian had been mined by Liriomyza strigata.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 2 August, 2019
The insect in question is a member of the Agromyzidae, a family of insects responsible for many a mine throughout the civilised world (plus the states of Georgia and Mississippi).

This long, sinuous gallery mine was on oak and is the work of a moth, Stigmella basiguttella. Common on oaks everywhere it has been called the Base-spotted Pigmy but of course no one uses the name.

Looking like a meandering river, this mine is the work of  a moth,
Stigmella basiguttella. Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 2 August, 2019

Mines are now to be seen on leaves everywhere but galls are appearing too. A distinctive one is Alder Tongue, Taphrina alni. I have mentioned this species before but I couldn't resist photographing a nice specimen today.

Protruding from an alder catkin is the visible part of the fungus,
Taphrina alni. Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 2 August, 2019

Unusually it is a fungus and causes a distortion of the female catkins. Currently it is quite brightly coloured but withered brown-black specimens often remain on the catkins for months.

I examined the some oaks in the expectation that I would find knopper galls, Andricus quercuscalicis, present. Instead some of the acorn cups had been galled by Andricus grossulariae, a new wasp for the pocket park.

A shaft of sunlight through the trees highlights the gall on an acorn cup.
Andricus grossulariae is the culprit. Stefen Hill Pocket Park,
August, 2019

Interesting (well, interesting to me) mines were found on Coltsfoot and Cinquefoil but I will not try the patience of my readers (over 70 logged on yesterday to peruse my ramblings). Instead I'll put the kettle on - far more important than blogging!

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Ramshorns and bellflowers

The flora of Byfield Pocket Park is well-known and rarely presents a surprise. Today however I found a flower which was not just a surprise but a rather spectacular one.

I was checking over some St John's Wort when, among a clump of weedy growth nearby a splash of blue caught my eye.  Closer examination showed that the plant in question was Nettle-leaved Bellflower, Campanula trachelium, a tall and vigorous relation of the Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, which grows about half a mile away on Solden Hill.

The Nettle-leaved Bellflower is new to Byfield Pocket Park.
31 July, 2019

Several spikes of the bellflower were present, attracting numerous insects, particularly small beetles. It could be a throw-out from a garden but I have not noticed it being grown in Byfield and it is a native plant. The leaves are distinctive and are more important to identification than the flowers.

The form of the leaves is helpful in distinguishing it from other
Interestingly, the latest flora for Northamptonshire states: 'There are no records of garden escapes in this county'. (Reference 1). The specific name trachelium is also interesting. Basically it means 'neck' and indeed comes from the Greek trachylos, the neck (think trachea). The plant was once reputed to be good for throat ailments and one of its old names is Throatwort.

An oak tree stood nearby and I made a cursory check (I couldn't be too long as I had an appointment at the hairdressers) for galls. Rather pleasingly I found a few specimens of Ramshorn Gall, caused by the wasp Andricus aries. This insect and its gall were unknown in Britain before 1997, when it was found in Berkshire. Since then its spread has been rapid and is well established as far north as Perthshire.

The Ramshorn Gall was in interesting find in the pocket park today
31 July, 2019
In many specimens the 'horns' can become long and rather curved - very ramshorn-shaped. The specimens I photographed were hardly spectacular but interesting nevertheless.

This is a good times of the year to be finding flea beetles. Of course they are completely unrelated to true fleas  but have powerful muscles in their 'thighs', enabling them to jump considerable distances. Often very tiny, (and tricky to identify, Ref. 2) they are a challenge to my little camera and this is the best I could manage.

This metallic-bronze beetle on aspen proved to be Crepidodera aurea.
It is one of the many species of flea beetle in the U.K. 31 July 2019
The specimen shown is Crepidodera aurea, and was on Aspen, Populus tremula. This small (3.5 mm) beetle is widespread in England but was a 'first' for the pocket park, even so it only raises the total to a meagre 117 species. Lots to be done!


1. Gent, G. and Wilson, R. (2012) The Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of    Peterborough.

2. Hubble, D. (2012) Keys to the adults of seed and leaf beetles of Britain and Ireland.
    Field Studies Council Publications.

Monday, 29 July 2019

In praise of ragwort

It is that time of the year again, when irate farmers rage against neighbours who fail to control Ragwort, allowing the fruits to drift wherever the wind takes them. It is undeniably true that he plant does contain a toxin, pyrillozine, which can be fatal to cattle, but there are no reliable statistics which can be referred to. Informed opinion suggests that the number of fatalities is very small. I'm told that the taste is foul but I rely on the opinions of others for that. Certainly it appears to repel most livestock.

Certainly ragwort is much loved by entomologists and a small clump of the plant, known nowadays as Jacobaea vulgaris (previously Senecio jacobaea), was proving a magnet for insects when I visited Stefen Hill Pocket Park earlier today.

One of the most abundant was Eriothrix rufomaculata. I always find this insect on ragwort at this time of the year, but what the connection is I don't know. My photograph is poor but it does show the rust-red markings on the side of the abdomen which give the insect its specific name, for rufomaculata means, of course, red-spotted. Although in the adult stage it is a nectar feeder, the larvae are parasites of certain moths,  probably pyralids, although evidence is surprisingly limited.

Eriothrix rufomaculata, a tachinid fly very common on ragwort.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 29 July, 2019
I took about a dozen photographs and aborted several more at the last second. But every time I had an insect nicely lined up a butterfly would arrive and disturb my subject. How often this year have butterflies been such a problem!
A marginally better view of Eriothrix rufomaculata:
same plant, same place

The butterflies causing the trouble were, for the most part, Gatekeepers, Pyronia tithonus.

Gatekeeper butterflies are currently abundant in the pocket park.
29 July, 2019
I saw dozens of these pretty insects around; over the pocket park as a whole there must have been several hundreds.

The caterpillars of Cinnabars were present, chomping away at the leaves and stems. Its association with ragwort is reflected in its Latin name, Tyria jacobaeae. I saw none of the adults around, but the next generation appears to be secure.

Cinnabar caterpillars are toxic and thus avoided by most birds. The warning
colours say it all. Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 29 July, 2019
This moth, being day-flying and brightly coloured, is often mistaken for a butterfly. There were lots around last month on, for example,  Drayton Fields allotments, where I took this photograph. It is visiting Groundsel, Senecio vulgaris, a close relative of ragwort, no doubt about to place its eggs on the slightly succulent leaves.

I have given the impression that most of my time today was spent peering at ragwort plants. In fact I spent more time looking at leaf miners and galls in trees and shrubs - not that anything rare or exciting was found. And galls are hardly exciting features for most people unless it is something like mistletoe, technically also classed as a gall.

But who could fail to be thrilled by this example of Aceria macrochela on the leaf of a Field Maple?

Galls cause by the mite, Aceria macrochela. Stefen Hill Pocket Park
29 July, 2019