The x-rated movie flying from a garden near you

The swirling mass of seagulls slowly progressing along the valley halted my attempts at washing the dishes. I stared, perplexed, through the kitchen window. My house was positioned half-way up the valley side giving a bird’s-eye view along two valleys, and I watched as the seagulls moved down the Golden Valley and then took a sharp left into the adjoining Toadsmoor Valley.  Then, washing-up finished, I headed out for a spot of gardening and discovered the reason for the avian invasion. Climbing out of cracks in the soil, the path and in fact, everywhere were masses of winged ants. I’d just witnessed my first ant swarm. 

So where do the seagulls fit into this? Keep reading…

That was many years ago, and I now keep a look-out for winged ants in the garden as I wait for the annual swarm. It’s nature’s biggest ‘one night stand’ and it happens only on one warm, muggy day in July or August. ‘The Swarm’ might have been a dreadful 1978 disaster movie about swarms of killer bees in America (considered one of the worst films ever made, even though it starred Michael Cane), but our own version involves millions of black pavement ants (Lasius niger is their scientific name). These are the ants that live in our gardens and they’re simply looking out for some sexual action. They don’t pose any risk to us as they’re far too occupied with mating, and the swarm is too high up in the sky. If you see the winged ants emerge in your garden, leave them be as they’ll be heading skywards before you know it.

For the rest of the year, the ants live in an underground complex of chambers which they’ve built themselves. Ants are essentially wingless wasps and create vast colonies the same as the social types of wasps and bees do. The ant colony consists of one queen and millions of workers – female ants that are actually the queen’s daughters. The queen is little more than an egg-laying machine whilst the workers tend the eggs and young, feeding and protecting them. However, the queen controls the behaviour of all the other ants in her colony through the hormones and scented pheromones she emits – how about that for the ultimate in girl power?!

Once the colony reaches a certain size, the queen stops laying eggs that turn into female workers and starts laying eggs that hatch into males and more queens.  She also grows wings so that when the temperature and weather conditions are right, she joins all the other queens and males to fly high into the sky. The incredible thing is that, although ecologists aren’t sure what these right conditions are, all the other black ant colonies in an area know and swarm at the same time.

The result is an orgy as the male ants fight with each other to mate with the queens which also turns into a feast of ‘food on the go’ for birds, particularly gulls which are partial to pavement ants. There are so many millions – if not billions – of ants in the swarm that the birds can’t eat them all. Once the mating is over, the queens return to the ground, bite off their wings (ouch!) and start new colonies. Whichever way you look at it, the males don’t come out of this well – they’re either eaten or die after mating, having done their bit to keep the next generation going.

It’s glow time!

At this time of year, there’s a female that shamelessly flaunts her figure and desire to attract a male for the night. She certainly doesn’t hide her light under a bushel and turns parts of Stroud into a ‘green light’ district with her unbridled desires.

But a one-night stand is all she craves and once that’s satisfied, her light is extinguished as she crawls away to lay her eggs and then die. More tragic heroine in a Charlotte Bronte novel than a Jilly Cooper pot-boiler.

Continue reading “It’s glow time!”

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

Beware of what’s 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.

Continue reading “Look out for woolly bears in your garden (or even flying tigers)!”

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”

Glow, baby, Glow!

Bisley Rd cemetery chapel + gravestones _ C Aistrop

July is the time of year when nature offers the opportunity to visit a fairy grotto or two. If you know where to go, you can take a stroll at dusk surrounded by lots of tiny, neon green lights that appear as if by magic. I’m talking about the glow-worm, that fascinating creature which seems to belong in fairy tales: invisible during the day yet once darkness falls, it decorates a field with nature’s version of fairy lights.

Continue reading “Glow, baby, Glow!”

Pyramidals: the last of the orchid spectaculars

Pyramidal orchids Rudge Hill - C Aistrop

The Stroud district is sooo fortunate in having a wealth of different orchid species growing in lots of places around and about, and in having some that occur in great profusion. There are certain ones which are solitary souls, for example the frog orchid certainly doesn’t copy its namesake as a party animal, but others are real show-offs making everyone a winner in the game of ‘spot the orchid’. The end of June and beginning of July is the last time during the flowering season when you can enjoy one of these spectaculars as the pyramidal orchid livens up grasslands with splashes of its cerise pink flowers.

Continue reading “Pyramidals: the last of the orchid spectaculars”