Mid-March Moth Madness

After a snowy delay, last weekend it seemed like spring had finally sprung and temperatures rose into double figures. Looking at the forecast for this weekend and into next week however, it looks like the wintry weather will return once again which is very odd for this time of year. I’m usually a fan of a bit of snow, but only at the appropriate times of year. So I decided to write this blog post to try and keep my spring feeling going for as long as possible, before the snow showers begin to move in from the east again.

Saturday night was the first time I have put my moth trap out this year. In previous years I have been a little more keen, with very little reward and sometimes even null counts at this early stage in spring, so I decided to hold it off until now. And with the Beast from the East only about a week gone, my hopes were not particularly high. Although I was in for a surprise.

Most of the time, I just leave my trap out for the whole night and check it in the morning. However, on the off-chance of something notable (or anything at all!) being in there, I decided to look down from my bedroom window just an hour or so after switching on the light. To my surprise I saw what seemed to be an Oak Beauty already within the trap, so I rushed down to check if there was much else about.

To my immense surprise, there were at least 20 moths flying around the trap and on the nearby house wall. Most were March Moths as well as several more Oak Beauties, along with a couple of Tortricodes alternella and a Common Quaker. Already we had recorded around twice as many moths as I usually get in an early-spring night!

I was more than keen to check the trap the following morning. Unsurprisingly, there were moths everywhere, with the final tally being 55! I would be happy with that in May or September, let alone the first half of March! I will run through a few of the stand out highlights:

Small Brindled Beauty

This was the rarest moth that I caught last night, and the second time I’ve caught this species, the previous occasion being early March last year. It is most common in southern England, becoming rarer further north although classified as ‘local’ – found in less than 300 sites nationally. The females of this species are one of many winter and spring species that are apterous – lacking wings. The females of many of these apterous species seem completely unlike most moths to me, although I’m yet to find one myself.


Small Brindled Beauty

Dotted Border

This species is unique among the early spring moths as it is one of the few Geometrid moths out at this time of year. In my experience it is usually the Noctuids (such as the Clouded Drabs, Hebrew Characters and the Quaker species) that are the most commonly trapped, although the most abundant species caught during this night were the 18 Oak Beauties which is a slightly unusual Geometrid species. The Geometrids can be distinguished by the way they hold their wings; most Geometrids hold their wings out to the side whereas most Noctuids fold their wings over their abdomen.


Dotted Border

This species can usually be identified by the row of dots running along the bottom of the wing which you can see in the photo above. However, it is a variable species throughout its distribution and there are forms which are very dark making the row of dots (the dotted border) very hard to see.

Clouded Drab

This species is quite common especially where its foodplant Oak is plentiful although, despite its name, it is can be really nicely patterned. It is another species that is really variable, with many colour forms. We caught three, one of them in particularly was particularly good-looking, with its pattern enhanced by the flash on my camera.


Clouded Drab

Hopefully the upcoming cold snap will be the last of the winter, and spring will be allowed to continue unabated. I look forward to moth trapping further once it warms up again, hopefully we’ll continue with some good numbers!

Final Tally

  • Common Quaker 3
  • March Moth 9
  • Oak Beauty 18
  • Hebrew Character 4
  • Tortricodes alternella 2
  • Small Brindled Beauty 1
  • Dotted Border 5
  • Clouded Drab 3
  • Small Quaker 8
  • Chestnut 1
  • Brindled Pug 1



The Wild Wolves of Sussex

Last weekend, 1-2 July, I was fortunate enough to be attending a two-day bee workshop led by pollinator expert Steven Falk at the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve near Rye in East Sussex. Throughout the weekend we were blessed by an incredible diversity of solitary and social bee species alike, with around 50 species of the Apoidea being found during the weekend.

However, one species that caught my eye wasn’t in fact a bee. Covering the sandy paths at some points were a multitude of wolves, excavating burrows and looking for their next meal. They prowled along the tracks and up the sandy slopes, concentrating their efforts on the path-side bramble bushes. This is where their prey is most often found feeding, unaware of the wolves sneaking up behind them until they latch on with a relentless bear-hug.

Of course, the wolves I’m talking about aren’t the canids that roam remote areas of Eurasia and North America. Just as fierce, however slightly smaller, are Bee Wolves, Philanthus triangulum. Bee Wolves are the largest solitary wasp in Britain and they need to be in order to tackle their favoured prey: honey bees.

Bee Wolves used to be not only the largest but also the rarest solitary wasp in Britain. However, since a couple of decades ago, their population has been on the increase and they’ve spread to a number of new sites. Their numbers are not as large now as they were a few years ago, however there are still more about than there were 25 years ago. It’s great that these fascinating insects are more widespread now as they’re incredible to watch.

They weren’t too scared of humans at all, in fact we were able to watch with such proximity that on a couple of occasions one actually landed on Chris Glanfield’s phone while he was trying to take a photo!

Being solitary wasps, they each dig their own long burrow. These burrows contain many small chambers, as many as 30, each containing several bees. In each chamber an egg is laid, and when it hatches the larva feeds upon the bees inside the chamber before emerging as an adult Bee Wolf. The bees are not dead but paralyzed as it helps them to keep fresh and juicy for the developing larva.

We were lucky to be able to watch several wasps excavating and entering their burrows as well as carrying their prey around. This was the first time I had ever seen a bee wolf and I’m hoping I get another opportunity to watch them before too long!


An adult Bee Wolf on the path


a Bee Wolf outside a burrow it has only just started to excavate


A Bee Wolf proudly outside an unfinished burrow I watched her excavate in only about 10 minutes!


Adult Bee Wolf


Bee Wolf


30 Days Wild – Day 2

Image result for 30 days wild day 2

In my garden, we have a couple of large ‘wild areas’ where we don’t do any management and just see what grows there. One is in clear light and unshaded all day, and has therefore developed into a nice mini-meadow with Common Spotted Orchids, Field Horsetail, Meadow Buttercups,Common Ragwort, Common Fleabane, Bristly Ox-tongue, thistle, Red Campion, Common Knapweed and other meadow plants and wildflowers.

On the other hand, the other is under a canopy of Oak and Birch trees and therefore does not get much light. Not many species grow here, just a bed of nearly foot-high grass. However, this grass has become home to a number of froghopper species. And at this time of year I start to see what is colloquially known as ‘cuckoo-spit’ appear on the grass stems.


Cuckoo-spit on a grass stem

Cuckoo-spit is a white frothy liquid that is secreted by the nymphs of the froghoppers that I see in my wild area. As these nymphs secrete this spit-like liquid they have earned the name ‘spittle-bugs’. And the ‘spit’ provides a number of benefits to the developing froghopper as well:

  • It keeps it out of sight from predators/parasites
  • It has a vile taste to deter predators
  • It keeps the insect moist, without it the insect could dry up
  • It keeps the insect warm in cold conditions and cool in warm conditions.

I noticed that in some of the spit I could see small brown things inside, which I couldn’t see in other cuckoo-spit:


In order to see what this was inside the cuckoo-spit, I very gently eased it out without damaging it too much. What I found was a froghopper nymph (spittle-bug), which is exactly what I had expected to find:


Froghopper nymph from the cuckoo-spit

However, there was also something else within the spit. It looked to me to be the old and out-grown skin of the froghopper nymph. The nymph was clearly too large for this skin so it had pushed its way out of it, causing it to be visible from the outside. A new skin will now harden and provide some extra protection within the cuckoo-spit. Having photographed the nymph and old skin from which it emerged, I delicately returned the nymph to its spit home and I watched it burrow back inside and become hidden from the world around it.


Froghopper nymph with its skin

Photo-Stacking at the Angela Marmont Centre

On Wednesday I was very lucky to be able to visit the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum in London. The Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity is an amazing place for naturalists in the United Kingdom that is available for anyone to use. With such a range of resources such as the photo-stacking equipment; a huge library; and the whole of the British collections, it really is invaluable.

I have used the photo-stacking equipment here once before and I really do think it is a very clever piece of kit. It takes lots of photos (I took around 65 for each specimen) all at different focal points and then merges them together using software called Helicon Focus. With all of the different focal points on the specimen covered, there is no part of the specimen that is out of focus and it is all very sharp. This produces a clear image that can show many different features, excellent for identification or illustration of species.

I think that photo-stacking is incredibly useful for a number of projects. For example, if you were writing an identification guide and space was limited, you could in many cases show all the features of an organism in just a single photograph. Also for illustrating an article or a short piece of writing where there is a limit to the number of photographs, you could include just a single image with all of the key features clear and visible.

Below are a few of the photo-stacked images that I took using the equipment. You can find all of the images of the identified specimens on this page. I still have some photographed specimens that I need to identify, and I will post them on that page once I have put a name to them.

Stenodema calcarata labelled

 This Mirid bug is just 8mm from head to end of the abdomen. Its distiguishing feature is the two short spines on the hind femur. This separates this species and the very similar Stenodema laevigata.



Poecilus cupreus labelled

This is the largest specimen that I photographed, 13mm. This rather big Carabid beetle was swept from a patch of nettles, much to my surprise!

Agriotes pallidulus labelled

This is a very small Elaterid, or click beetle, only 4mm long. When they are threatened they often roll onto their backs and catapult themselves upwards to escape predators and they make a ‘click’ sound as they do so.


1 Garden, 24 Hours, 184 species!

…and counting! Last Sunday, the 5th, I took part in the Garden Bioblitz for the first time. The aim of a bioblitz is to record every species you find in an area within a period of time. For the Garden Bioblitz, you record every species you find in your garden during a 24 hour period.

To begin my Garden Bioblitz I looked through the moth trap from the previous night. There was a very wide range of species, including 23 that were new to me. The highlights were:

  • Great Oak Beauty – annual in Domewood, but Nationally Scarce B (NB).
  • Cacao Moth – usually found indoors in stores of products such as nuts, almonds, tobacco and cacao. I’ll be checking my muesli from now on…
  • Scorched Wing – a beautiful moth which is also classed as Local. There were 8 in the trap.
  • Peach Blossom – a great moth with a great name although quite common.
  • Cypress Carpet – quite an uncommon moth, which arrived in Britain through its host plant, cypress. There are lots of Lawson Cypress trees in the garden which probably explains its occurrence here.
  • Diamond-back Moth – for some reason, I rarely see immigrant moths. The Diamond-back Moth is only the third immigrant moth I’ve recorded. I recorded it for the first time during the last weekend of May, but there were 29 in the trap!

I also caught a very interesting beetle that had a very pungent smell. I thought it was a sexton beetle and I was right. However, I wasn’t too sure which species it was. It was all black and luckily there are only two all-black species in the British Isles: Necrodes littoralis (the Shore Sexton Beetle) and Nicrophorus humator (the Black Sexton Beetle). It turned out to be the Shore Sexton Beetle due to the antennal clubs not being brushes as in the Black Sexton Beetle. Thanks to Chris Brooks on iSpot for the identification. Sexton beetles are interesting because they feed on dead animals. If the dead animal is small then they will bury it to keep other scavengers from taking it. They do this by excavating the soil under the body so that the dead animal sinks into the ground. The adults lay eggs nearby and when the larvae hatch they crawl to the dead animal to feed and even be fed by the adult. Even though this beetle was caught in the moth trap there isn’t necessarily a dead animal nearby as they can fly quite long distances in order to find their food.


After I had finished looking through the moth trap, I walked around the garden listing all the wild plants. Before I added the plants I already had a list of almost 70 and there was still lots to identify! Other non-moth highlights included a Canada Goose flock flying over and the first Grey Heron I have seen fly over the garden in more than a year. After I finished off the plants I had breakfast, meaning that I had a list of 130 before breakfast. Things were going well!

It wasn’t just plants that I added to my list on the walk around the garden. It was quite early but there were still some insects on the wing, including Rose Sawflies, Speckled Wood butterflies, Large White butterflies and various bees. I was even lucky to see the young fox that has been hanging around the garden for the past few weeks. It is not that shy, here is the photo I took when I first spotted it:


After breakfast I looked under the logs and stumps in my garden. As always, they were brimming with slugs, beetles, woodlice and other creatures. The most common ground beetle was Agonum emarginatum, a species usually associated with damp habitats near freshwater. This makes sense as most of the stumps were near our tiny pond. The list of slug species was quite good too: Budapest Slug, Leopard Slug, Yellow Slug, Dusky Slug, Greenhouse Slug and Ambigolimax nyctelius, the species I found new to Surrey last year. When I first found it I had to send it off to Wales to get the genitalia looked at, but this confirmed the scientist’s suspicions that there were slight morphological differences between Ambigolimax nyctelius and the Greenhouse Slug. In my experience, Ambigolimax nyctelius is more boldly marked than the Greenhouse Slug.

Finally, the highlight of my bioblitz was finding an amazing fly species that I have been looking for in my garden since Tony Davis told me that it was likely to appear here. It’s not rare or scarce, but it is impressive. It is a species of hoverfly that mimics bees. It has many different forms that each mimic different bee species. It’s called the Narcissus Bulb Fly or the Greater Bulb Fly and it’s eggs are laid in bulbs of various species such as garden daffodils. I found a mating pair on a Bulbous Buttercup, perhaps the plant that the eggs were about to be laid in? The male seemed to be an Early Bumblebee mimic:


However, I’m not sure which species the female was impersonating:


It seemed to be all black except for the last 4 or 5 abdominal segments, which were off-white.

So, I’m currently on 184 species and hope to identify a few more for my bioblitz list.