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.

Blown away by bird’s nests at Rudge Hill

Birds’ nest orchids (credit: Caroline Aistrop)

Driving along the A4173 from Stroud to Gloucester, you’d never know there was a national nature reserve hiding behind the hedgerow as you drive past the Edgemoor Inn. On the opposite side of the road to the Inn, stretching from the road up the hillside, Rudge Hill is a wildflower meadow with more orchids than you can shake a stick at. There are special members of the orchid family growing here – helleborines – and a wooded copse where a a rare orchid is in all its glory.

Continue reading “Blown away by bird’s nests at Rudge Hill”

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.

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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’.

It’s a cousin of the forget-me-not, borage and comfrey and is a very good food plant for bumblebees, some solitary bees, hoverflies, orange tip butterflies, and the caterpillars of the scarlet tiger moth. It likes growing along walls and buildings so it’s quite common to find it in urban areas where it escaped from gardens hundreds of years ago. It’s hardy, easy to grow and is hardly touched by pests or diseases so it’s great addition to your wildlife patch in the garden – just don’t let it take over as it spreads by runners as well as seeds. Its tap root is long so it’s best to dig up any excess plants to keep it under control.

Continue reading “Flower of the day: green alkanet”