Look out for woolly bears in your garden (or even flying tigers)!

Beware of what could be hiding in the undergrowth: they’re black, very hairy and large – well, by caterpillar standards anyway. Woolly bear is the nick-name given to the caterpillar of the garden tiger moth because, as the name suggests, it’s covered with hairs – lots of them. It looks black but in reality the hairs are a mixture of colours – shorter black ones and ginger ones nestling amongst long white-coloured ones.

These hairs are a pretty effective means of protection – they contain a chemical that causes irritation to anything that touches them. This, though, doesn’t seem to bother the cuckoo one bit which can eat it as part of its balanced diet. Unlike parasitic flies which are just longing to use the caterpillar as an incubator for their eggs, but don’t seem to be able to deal with the hairs.

Woolly bear - credit Butterfly Conservation

However, predators don’t know what they’ve let themselves in for if they eye up the caterpillar when it’s grown up:  the caterpillar turns into the garden tiger moth which is a black belt in self-defence with not one, but three ways, to fight back.

Round one: a flash of its brightly coloured orange -with-blue-spots hindwings. Normally, when sitting on a plant, the wings are folded over the moth’s back so only the black-and-cream upper wings can be seen. If a predator gets too close, the moth quickly spreads out its wings to create a sudden splurge of orange. In the natural world, red and orange colours signal poison or danger and are a message to keep away.

If this hint isn’t taken, round 2 is a high pitched grating noise made by rubbing the wings together rapidly. Bats are particularly susceptible to this tactic given their hearing is tuned into high pitched noises, and they probably link the sound with a distasteful meal. A handy tactic when you remember that this moth flies at night when bats also do.

And if the predator is really determined (and hungry), then the final round is a distasteful yellow fluid squirted from just below its head. And should all that not work –  well, the predator then deserves its meal for sheer tenacity.

The adult moths look spectacular with cream and brown-coloured upper wings similar to the pattern on giraffes, the brilliantly coloured orange hindwings, and its abdomen (‘stomach’) which is orange with black stripes – who says moths are all brown and boring?!

The caterpillars are around in May, June and September feeding on a variety of different plants like nettles, dock, burdock, lettuces and many garden plants. They finish growing by end of June and turn into a chrysalis, emerging as these stunning adults in July and August. Fascinatingly, these are one of the few kinds of tiger moths which don’t have a tongue – so all that time developing into a grown-up and then they can’t even have a tasty meal. Seems a rough deal.

The fifty or so eggs laid by the female garden tiger moth hatch in August and September but after feeding themselves up, the caterpillars over-winter and appear again in spring ready to start the whole cycle all over again.

Unfortunately, garden tiger moth numbers seem to have crashed by up to 98% in the past 50 years. ETD (Ecological Tidyness Disorder leading to neat gardens, parks and open spaces, and the liberal use of pesticides and herbicides) is one of the reasons, and climate change is another. This moth needs cooler climates like ours, and  certainly wouldn’t be donning its sunglasses to head to the warmer ones of southern Europe. But climate change is leading to more January’s being milder and wetter, followed by sudden temperature drops in February.  This combination seems to be causing lots of caterpillars to die and, therefore, fewer adult moths around in spring and summer.

So, embrace ‘untidiness’ in your garden! And help not just the garden tiger moths but lots of other wildlife, too.

Garden tiger moth - credit Iain Linsay pixabay
Garden tiger moth by Iain Lindsay

Queen Anne’s lace: stomach calmer and insect feeder.

Image by Jasmine777 Pixabay

Queen Anne's lace with hoverfly - credit Jasmine 777 Pixabay

I guess you’ll have recognised this flower straight away – and maybe you call it by its other common name, cow parsley. I prefer the lace one as I feel it fits the beautifully delicate and intricate flowers so well.

What is surprising is the large number of other common names it’s had over the centuries: fairy lace and spanish lace are understandable, kecksie and Grandpa’s pepper seem somewhat odd, but rabbit meat and step-mother are just plain weird! It was also referred to as ‘mother die’ and it’s thought this was to frighten children away from picking it so they didn’t pick the poisonous hemlock by mistake. Hemlock has purple-coloured spots on its stem which is also solid not hollow, otherwise it looks very similar to Queen Anne’s lace to the non-expert eye.

Queen Anne’s lace is related to carrot, celery and parsley – all are members of a family of plants called umbellifers. In past times, if you had stomach or kidney problems, breathing difficulties or a cold, you’d have been given remedies containing Queen Anne’s lace as an ingredient. It’s also been used as an insect repellent but, in seemingly complete contrast, has also been used to sweeten puddings and other foods as its tap root contains a lot of natural sugar. Crush the leaves between your fingers, and the fragrance of aniseed hits the nostrils.

It’s easy to dismiss this plant as unremarkable simply because it’s so common and grows everywhere from roadside verges and edges of playing fields to gardens and nature reserves.  But it has great wildlife value as it feeds so many insects thanks to the large number of flowers on each plant and its sheer abundance.

And when you see a long swathe of it flowering during May alongside a road, looking like the frothy crest of a wave about to crash down onto the passing cars, how can your heart not be gladdened by the sight of it?

Flower of the day: green alkanet

Green Alkanet – credit Pete O’ConnorGreen Alkanet - credit Pete O'Connor Flickr

Yes,  I know what you’re thinking – it’s blue. So why is it called green alkanet? The second part of its scientific, latin, name (Pentaglottis sempervirens) means ‘always alive’ or evergreen, possibly because the leaves start to appear in late winter or early spring, adding a splash of green to the last grey tendrils of winter. Plus the plant hangs around until well into the summer, so quite a while even though it’s not technically evergreen. Another common name for this flower is ‘evergreen alkanet’.

Continue reading “Flower of the day: green alkanet”

Insect of the day: the May bug

Cockchafer front view - credit Dave Skingsley Flickr

Cockchafer, May bug, spang beetle and Billy witch are all names for what used to be a common sight at this time of year. pening the curtains and switching on the living room lights after dusk to attract the cockchafers was wildlife watching made easy. But sadly, they haven’t appeared for many years now.

Continue reading “Insect of the day: the May bug”

English v Spanish bluebells: Spot the difference!

English v Spanish: the native, English bluebell is on the right, and the Spanish one on the left

The bluebell wood is a phenomenon particular to Britain – believe it or not, 80% of all the world’s bluebell woods are found in the UK! The sight of the glorious violet-bluey haze which carpets many woodlands (especially beech woods) begins in late April and lasts until late-May depending upon where you live. The flowering season starts earlier in Cornwall and gradually spreads up the country with Scotland’s flowers being last to the floral party.

Continue reading “English v Spanish bluebells: Spot the difference!”

Insect of the day: red mason bee

Red mason bee - Brian Valentine FlickrI guess it’s a safe bet that you know what bumblebees look like and you’ve probably seen them cruising around flowers if you’ve a garden and, like me, you’ve been outside impersonating a lizard by basking in the recent, lovely sunny weather.

If I asked you what bees are vital for pollinating a third of our food crops and most of the UK’s flowers, I’m sure you’d say the bumblebee and honeybee. However, they’re not the only ones – there are around 270 types of bee in the UK and one of these is almost 200% more efficient at pollinating flowers than even the honey bee.

Continue reading “Insect of the day: red mason bee”

Flower of the day: garlic mustard (or jack-by-the-hedge)

Garlic mustard flower from above - g8lakesscamperblog

Here’s a flower that doesn’t know what it wants to be – so it’s both! It’s name comes from its edible leaves which taste both of garlic and mustard (weirdly!) and it’s been used as a flavouring for centuries. In fact it’s one of the oldest culinary ingredients used around Europe: some tiny remains of this plant have been found in pottery dating back thousands of years ago in what we now call Denmark and north-eastern Germany. Wow – that fact blows me away and I look at this plant with a new fascination.

Continue reading “Flower of the day: garlic mustard (or jack-by-the-hedge)”

Flower of the day: cuckoo flower

OK, so we’re in lockdown right now but the sun is shining and the silver lining to the current situation is that’s co-incided exactly with when nature hits the accelerator pedal – forget June busting out all over, from now to mid May is when nature goes from dormant to wide awake. So for the next few weeks, I thought I’d focus this blog on some of the wild flowers, birds and animals that you may see when you go out for your ‘once- a-day-for-exercise’ walks, or even see in your back garden, to help answer those ‘I wonder what that is?’ questions.

Continue reading “Flower of the day: cuckoo flower”

Coaley Peak – the perfect place for evening picnics, sunsets, and wild flowers

Coaley Peak - sunset July 2018 C Aistrop
Sunset over the Severn Estuary seen from Coaley Peak picnic site. credit: C Aistrop

Coaley Peak viewpoint and picnic site is one of my favourite wild places around Stroud and most evenings it offers an added bonus – a wonderful cooling breeze blowing off the Severn Estuary. After another day of delightfully hot weather (I’ve vowed not to complain about the present heatwave given how much English people moan when it’s raining, cold and generally miserable), an evening’s stroll here not only offers a wildflower spectacle but also the opportunity to cool down and take in an impressive view and sunset. There are picnic benches dotted around the meadow, and my family has enjoyed evening picnics there – much cooler than a lunchtime one as some of the benches are in shade from early evening onwards. This keeps my husband and daughter happy as they dislike strong sunlight (I sometimes wonder if I’m living with vampires, though I haven’t noticed them staring intently at my neck yet).

Continue reading “Coaley Peak – the perfect place for evening picnics, sunsets, and wild flowers”

See the butterfly that came back from the dead

Bob and bench Daneway Banks July 2018 - C Aistrop
The bench is the perfect place to sit, relax and maybe even picnic. credit: C Aistrop

Daneway Banks near Frampton Mansell offers the ideal wildlife watching experience – flowers galore, beautiful views, butterflies galore and a fabulous pub. Yep, once more I’ve managed to mix wildlife watching with a pub stop. Do you notice a pattern here? I don’t know whether or not it reveals more about the character of naturalists than about wildlife but there always seem to be good pubs in the vicinity of nature reserves. Well, all this surveying and watching wildlife builds up a thirst so we need somewhere to quench that thirst, of course!

Continue reading “See the butterfly that came back from the dead”