So long and thanks for all the fish

The large blue flight season is over!

No large blues have been seen for over a week and recording has come to an end for this year. The 2018 flight season ran from 3rd June to 1st July, with a peak of 80 recorded on 10th June. In 2017 the flight season ran from 2nd June to 3rd July, so a similar period, but the peak was later with 40 counted on 21st June. A total of 740 large blues were recorded this year, compared to 300 last year, however the amount of butterflies it’s possible to spot and record varies with weather and is only a rough indication of true numbers.

2018 flight season

Over the last 16 years the peak has often been in the last quarter of June, but 2018 is not the first year to see a peak in early June, this also happened in 2016 and 2007. The weather has been so hot that the thyme flowers are starting to go over, so it seems to me that the large blue flight season was timed well. Perhaps it is not surprising that we had a great year for large blues given that last year a record breaking number of eggs were laid. We have not yet analysed the egg data for this year.

You can see from the graph that numbers of large blues recorded dropped on 16th – 17th June and 19th – 21st June, this was due to rain and high winds. Some recording days were lost as we didn’t have enough Volunteer Surveyors to cover, perhaps you’d like to help out and walk some transects next year?

largeblueopen2

Incredibly beautiful and precious

I’ve truly had the most amazing time at Collard Hill, wearing my National Trust uniform with pride, gaining in knowledge and confidence and feeling that I am helping a worthwhile cause. Due to a research-based approach, the hard work of a few tenacious individuals, and careful habitat management the reintroduction of the previously extinct large blue butterfly to Britain has been incredibly successful and shows that not all conservation stories need to be the doom and gloom we so often see in the media. It’s not simply large blue butterflies that have been safeguarded at Collard, management of the site for the large blues has also allowed for a huge array of meadow wildflowers, rare orchids, uncountable invertebrates, and other butterflies to flourish.

All butterflies spotted from 6th June to 6th July 2018:
Brimstone
Comma
Common blue
Dark-green fritillary
Gatekeeper
Large blue
Large skipper
Large white
Marbled white
Meadow brown
Painted lady
Peacock
Purple hairstreak
Red admiral
Ringlet
Silver-washed fritillary
Small heath
Small or essex skipper
Small tortoiseshell
Small white
Speckled wood

 

actionshot

Action shot by Joe Shaffery

There have been challenges for me, working longer hours than I was used to as a student. In the recent heatwave the scorching sun has been harsh from 11am onwards. I found the physical work hard to begin with, but walking up and down a steep slope for much of day I quickly gained hill-climbing muscles. I certainly didn’t need that Legs & Booty Workout app I’d downloaded.

Deciding on the tone and content of the blog was also difficult. I wanted to talk about everything, even within the sphere of invertebrates there’s a never-ending amount of fascinating information. I also wanted to write a diary of my time at Collard, and tried to balance these. I’d never written a blog before, or prose as an adult, although I am a voracious reader of novels, poetry and science journals. I also have to admit I’m not really a blog reader, so didn’t know how others structured their posts. Perhaps this meant my blog could only ever have a unique tone.

I poured my heart into writing and have received many kind praises, I’m surprised by the following that I attained. Benefiting from a long-term fanbase carried over from previous years, during my time in the role the blog received an average of 165 views per day, totalling over 5400 views across the month. Love for the large blues crosses borders, with followers from all over Europe and indeed the world, including such far-flung countries as Nigeria, India, Russia, China, Israel and Vietnam. Many visitors asked me to continue blogging, and so I will, under miacroftecology.wordpress.com. Although probably not every day.

msm1.jpg

Entomological illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian

I ran out of time to tell you about Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th century German Biologist and Illustrator, who first told the world that butterflies metamorphosed from caterpillars. No one believed her, after all what did a silly woman know, but she dedicated her life to travelling the world studying insects and passing her knowledge on. I didn’t get to show you images from my favourite insect photographer, Igor Siwanowicz, whose playful artworks I enjoy so much. Or the Microsculpture exhibition, amazing macro images of insects by Levon Biss. I will go into detail about these in my own personal blog.

Awesome invertebrate image by Igor Siwanowicz

For the last month of my life almost every waking minute has been devoted to the monitoring and documenting of one of the UK’s rarest butterflies. I have even been dreaming of butterflies. For a month before my post began I was very excited about the role and struggling to concentrate on university exam revision. The flight season, whilst fitting with last year’s dates, has ended earlier than I anticipated and I find myself suddenly floating in the ether, attempting to find meaning to my life again before lectures begin in September. I visited Collard Hill on Sunday night, walking for the first time along the ridge away from my realm. Leaving the National Trust’s fences behind I traversed the Polden Hills, past the monument and beyond. Returning as the sun finally began to sink, from my hill I watched stars beginning to appear in the open sky. I well knew this role would be short-lived, I can’t help that my heart is wistful for those charismatic blue rarities.

For now I will have to save my existential crisis until after the Large Blue Butterfly Report is written.

llp

Pairing, by Paul Thompson

Advertisements

How many wildflowers?

I saw no large blues today, and neither did any visitors. I didn’t mind, perhaps I’m spoilt for large blues, I’ve seen over 500 in my time on the hill. I spent a beautiful day hunting for insects and sketching wildflowers.

isthatnormal.jpg

An unusual white field scabious

I think I’ve reached the limit of identification of wildflowers on Collard at 60 species, here they are sorted into families for you:

Clustered bellflower Bellfower
Yellow rattle Broomrape
Creeping buttercup Buttercup
Old man’s beard / traveller’s joy Buttercup
Bristly oxtongue Daisy
Common cat’s-ear / false dandelion Daisy
Common ragwort Daisy
Creeping thistle Daisy
Daisy Daisy
Dandelion Daisy
Dwarf thistle Daisy
Goat’s beard Daisy
Mouse-ear hawkweed Daisy
Nipplewort Daisy
Oxeye daisy Daisy
Perennial cornflower Daisy
Prickly sow-thistle Daisy
Rough hawk’s-beard Daisy
Yarrow Daisy
Dogwood Dogwood
Eyebright Figwort
Fairy flax Flax
Common centaury Gentian
Yellow-wort Gentian
Herb robert Geranium
Field scabious Honeysuckle
Small scabious Honeysuckle
Cleavers Madder
Lady’s bedstraw Madder
Madder Madder
Ground ivy Mint
Selfheal Mint
Wild thyme Mint
Field bindweed Morning-glory
Hedge bindweed Morning-glory
Bee orchid Orchid
Pyramidal orchid Orchid
Hogweed Parsley
Rough chervil Parsley
Black meddick Pea
Common bird’s-foot trefoil Pea
Common gorse Pea
Hop trefoil Pea
Meadow vetchling Pea
Red clover Pea
Ribbed melilot Pea
Spiny restharrow Pea
Tufted vetch Pea
White clover Pea
Red campion Pink
Hoary plantain Plantain
Ribwort plantain Plantain
Cowslip Primrose
Creeping jenny Primrose
Common rock-rose Rock-rose
Agrimony Rose
Bramble Rose
Creeping cinquefoil Rose
Salad burnet Rose
Wild rose Rose
sketch.jpg

A little doodle

I found a particularly beautiful perennial cornflower as my muse and sat in the Eastern Glade sketching in the bright sunlight. I’m aware this is no masterpiece, just a scientist’s attempt at her best with an unsatisfying array of Wilcos pencils. One of my lecturers taught me that sketching makes us better Biologists, during my exercise I noticed how different the centre of the flower was to the outside. This is typical of the daisy family, they are composite flowers: each flower head is actually full of many tiny flowers. Those petals around the outside of an oxeye daisy are actually flowers in their own right, it’s the same story with this perennial cornflower.

brassylonghorn.jpg

Brassy longhorn moth

This morning transect took me an age as I found it hard not to stop at every massive burgeoning thistle head (another daisy), each spiral globe held fantastic invertebrates.

goodcatch.jpg

Hunter and hunted

On my first day on the hill in early June I saw the last brimstone of their first flight season. Today I saw the first brimstone of thier second flight season. As soon as it landed it vanished, perfectly camouflaged as a fresh leaf. It was a task to find it again.

brimstone.jpg

A cunning disguise

Please help me identify this fritillary, which looks very different to the silver washed that I’ve previously seen on site. My best guess is a dark green?

I spotted so many insects today, I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. It’s a tough choice but I think my favourite find of the day was this beautiful ichneumon wasp.

crazywasp1.jpg

The sylphlike beauty

She was laying eggs into each thistle head with her long ovipositor. I wonder who her host species is. Perhaps there are larvae hiding in the thistles that she can sniff out. Or maybe by the time the egg hatches the flower will be open and various possible pollinator hosts will visit.

crazywasp

Clever little lady

This morning an insect flew directly into my ear, in complete disregard to my personal space. It was so loud. The other day a harvestman bit me, to prove the urban legend wrong. They certainly can bite human flesh but they don’t have any venom. Ok, it was more like a pinch. Harvestmen look like spiders but they’re much closer related to scorpions. Yesterday as I was chatting with visitors I felt an unbearable tickling in my nose, a tiny stripey bug had taken residence in there. And one day as I was with a visitor a leafhopper jumped straight into my mouth. Perhaps this means I talk too much, after all; “you can’t listen with your mouth open”.

thistleglobe.jpg

I love these sculptural thistle heads almost as much as the insects do

 

Botanics for butterflies

Today was beautiful day up Collard Hill and although I didn’t see any large blues visitors did, photos showed at least two different individuals. Any large blues emerging now are likely to do so on the lower slopes that have taken longer to warm up.

Visitors now are sensibly not desperate to see a large blue and instead appreciate the other merits of the hill; the inspiring view, the myriad of hoverflies, the plethora of spiders. Two visitors showed me a neon yellow crab spider resplendent on a purple thistle head.

smallwhtie.jpg

A sweet small white

I was joined this morning by another Volunteer Ranger, from Exmoor National Trust, who is also part-way through a degree. George has lots of knowledge on working with farmers to help them increase biodiversity on their land. He helped me conduct a transect and along with the usual suspects we saw multitudes of vibrant gatekeepers, the largest large white I’ve ever seen, two purple hairstreaks, a comma, and a huge peacock butterfly; the first I’ve seen on site.

The peacock deserted us before we could take a photo, jilted we continued on transect. When I returned home I watched a gothic black shape alight on my landladies’ buddleia. Flamboyant, richly coloured like a medieval tapestry, the peacock was so enamoured with his nectar haven he allowed my close attention. Those baroque edges, that gossamer fur! No wonder butterflies are the most studied of all insects.

peacock2.jpg

Magnificent

Buddleia of course is not native however it’s a great garden plant for butterflies. Others that you can plant that would be appreciated by pollinators include; lavendar, verbena bonariensis, marjoram and perennial wallflower. Already have these five? Then check out the Gardeners’ World Top 10. Also, The Royal Horticultural Society lists an extensive database of plants for pollinators, which you can refine by soil type, pH, sunlight and more. Or, if you’d like to attract a favourite species, the Wildlife Trust suggests plants for specific butterflies.

As I relax in luxury on a borrowed camping chair in the dappled shade of the turkey oak, a warm gentle breeze ruffling my hair, a mysterious popping begins from the undergrowth. The gorse is hurling it’s seeds forth in the heat of the summer afternoon. Deep crevasses have opened up in the paths, the funnel-web spiders spin subterranean labyrinths within. The birds are still but the crickets sing. The atmospheric morning mist has long-since cleared, replaced by a dusty haze. The hill is my own, and I’m eternally grateful for the shelter of the turkey oak’s dense canopy.

hothorses

Attempting to find shade

A short entobio

A dismal day today, the first where I saw no large blues. Yesterday my Volunteer Surveyor counted four large blues. There may still be a few around over the next week or so, but it seems the flight season might be as good as over. The butterflies live just days, and the flight season lasts but weeks. Of course the wild thyme is now covered with tiny sculptural eggs and the earliest caterpillars are being invited into their unsuspecting ant host’s homes.

This year the best time to see large blues has been the first three weeks of June. This is earlier than usual, perhaps due to our hot summer or maybe the changing climate is pushing the flight season forward for good.

largeblueclosed.jpg

The transient enigmatic Maculinea arion

The next couple of weeks may be a little more relaxed for me, I’m looking forward to sketching wild flowers and shaking some tree branches over a sheet to unearth invertebrates. I’ve always been enthralled by nature, especially the tiniest of visible creatures. An earliest memory is watching with rapture the miniscule mint moths and plump orb web spiders in my mother’s herb garden, their patterns so intricate. A favourite yellow dress would attract multitudes of tiny pollinators. I loved finding round black dung beetles up the South Downs, and bright huddles of ladybirds hibernating in hidden window corners.

meadowgrasshopper

Attempting to catch these was always an amusing challenge (female meadow grasshopper)

As a child I borrowed my father’s microscope to look at my own headlice, and his dissecting kit to surgically open up a blackbird corpse. I designed a nature pond for my school at 12 years old. I kept various invertebrate pets; shiny green and metallic purple fruit beetles, stick insect species too numerous to list, tricky picky preying mantids. I still have arthropod pets; thick giant African millipedes and scarlet Vietnamese fire millipedes. I even raised tiny farms of crickets and meal worms to eat after learning of their superior sustainable protein qualities, and drew up a business plan for an edible insect company.

olive.jpg

She goes by “Olive”

In my old office job I earned the nickname of Mad Bug Lady, it wasn’t intended as a compliment. My spare time was spent volunteering with forest schools and nature reserves and bioblitzes and habitat management. I would sit in my office chair and fantasise about working as a Ranger, providing space for all the other organisms on Earth that aren’t humans to flourish. Now I am afforded the opportunity to experience a little of the Ranger role. I will also be volunteering with other National Trust branches in a less species-specific Ranger capacity, to see what the job entails. I have a sneaking suspicion that a real Ranger has significantly more risk assessments to prepare.

largeskipper

An enchanting small skipper

What I did not expect from this role is the pleasure of meeting such interesting people; young aspiring ecologists, science academics and professionals, fascinating knowledgeable amateurs. I have met people who have raised struggling native species like barn owls and tiny harvest mice for release into the wild. I have met Rangers from other sites who, like me, spend their days off on other nature reserves. I have met people with fantastic specific knowledge of wild flowers or moths or orchids.

vesicapiscus.jpg

The mythical Chalice Well

As I sat in the sacred Chalice Well Gardens yesterday, taking rest by the Vesica Piscus Pool, I noticed a beautiful delicate holly blue butterfly supping at the mineral-rich water. Pale silvery beneath and just perfect, wings glowing powder blue. I looked around the busy pool, no-one else noticed. For half an hour she fluttered and flirted right in front of our faces. How could no-one else notice? One visitor almost stepped on her. I wanted to shout at them “Look At This Beautiful Creature!”, but that might have broken the peace.

Perhaps us nature-lovers are a select group. But from time to time we all simply must stop to smell the flowers. In the most literal sense.

You can learn a lot of things from the flowers

I found five large blues today on transect, they are still around and some are fresh and big, the morning is still the best time to look for them. I saw all five in the Eastern Glade; if you walk from the entrance to the top of the hill you will find a large oak tree, downhill from this is a blue rope, directly under the blue rope is a steep wildflower meadow known as the Eastern Glade. Another good area recently is the patches of wild thyme on yellow meadow ant hills above the Eastern Glade, near the big oak.

To try your luck for purple hairstreaks check the oak at the far uphill corner of the Eastern Glade, on the farthest edge from the main entrance. To search for silver-washed fritillaries try the Quarry; the hilly pine tree area to your right as you begin the walk up the hill from the main entrance.

meadowbrown.jpg

Chocolatey meadow browns are still out in force

Here’s a full list of butterflies that I have seen on Collard Hill this June;

Small or Essex skipper
Large skipper
Large white
Small white
Red admiral
Painted lady
Small tortoiseshell
Comma
Silver-washed fritillary
Speckled wood
Marbled white
Ringlet
Gatekeeper
Meadow brown
Small heath
Purple hairstreak
Common blue
Large blue

I’m compiling a list of other invertebrates as well, I’ve got 48 species so far. I’d like to identify some more before I give you a list. I’m also noting wildflowers on site and will advise these at some point.

commonblue

A very blue common blue

It seems that if I look close enough at every plant it has at least one invertebrate resident or visitor. Today my best find was this green spider. My insect book doesn’t extent to eight legs, so I’m struggling to name it.

combfootedspider

Green crab spider? Cucumber spider?

I’ve been up the hill most days for nearly a month now and can see the flora and fauna changing with time. A patch of white bindweed has flowered over in what I call Thistle Corner (or Eeyore’s Gloomy Place: Rather Boggy and Sad). The flower’s have bloomed almost overnight, I could see the mysterious white from the top of the hill and had to investigate. Bindweed flowers remind me of the Alice in Wonderland animation, when she begins her adventures to a floral serenade.

You can learn a lot of things from the flowers
For especially in the month of June
There’s a wealth of happiness and romance
All in the golden afternoon

centuary.jpg

Common centaury standing proud

I thought I saw the forecast storm approaching in the distance today. Rather than shelter under the tallest tree on a hill in a thunderstorm I ran away, however the rain never hit. My brain is heavy with pressure, and a sun-baked week. I feel dry roasted. Perhaps I should do a rain dance.

Sacred stone

I counted five large blues today. The last three days have seen a dramatic drop from figures of around 40. A couple of my new friends visited this morning, we ambled round the site for nearly two hours before finding a large blue, and cheered when we did!

Today I also saw a silver washed fritillary, huge and bright orange, which I did not expect. It flirted around the quarry, settling briefly on some shrubbery. As it took flight something scampered up a pine trunk next to me, a mouse? No, a pointy-beaked treecreeper! It pulled at some bark, the little vandal, hunting for insects.

swf

I only wish I’d taken this photo (source: pixabay)

If you’re in the area for large blues it’s worth visiting Glastonbury town for a couple of hours. It’s a truly unique place, steeped in history and magic, with vegan cafes and ethical taxidermy and crystal shops galore. My top shop is Dilliway & Dilliway, a three story Indian homewares store, teeming with clashing colours and gorgeous fabrics and papier mache heads.

tree2

A shady retreat

I visited Glastonbury Abbey on a day off this week, and kicked myself for leaving behind a sketchbook. The crumbling arches perfectly lend themselves to pencil and paper. Digital art had to suffice.

bird

In the morning calm

The Abbey, with roots going back to the 7th century, was calm and peaceful in the morning sun. The stone walls are covered with ancient lichens, different vegetation has taken residence in the cracks.

lookingup

Architectural arches

It refreshed me to spend some quiet time within the historic walls, to find a scraggly moorhen chick in the reeds of the fishpond, to amble through the monk’s apothecary garden.

stainedglass

Skilfully renovated

St Patrick’s Chapel is one of the earliest buildings in the Abbey. With an emerald snake looking down on me from the stained-glass window I lit a candle for my Nana, who would have appreciated such things. I wish she could see this year’s roses.

candlefornana

St Patrick rather over-reacted to snakes

My neighbours are having some kind of football-related party, with much shouting and dog barking and singing of agadoo. I think I could do with going back to the Abbey for calmer times.

Scorchio

I counted 10 large blues on transect today, only 1 of these was in the afternoon. It was another scorching day, your best chance for large blues right now is before midday.

sahara.jpg

The Serengeti?

It’s International Mud Day today. In our over-sterilised world getting muddy is very good for us, it improves children’s immune systems and introduces beneficial microorganisms. Mud is a great thing to celebrate, but there’s certainly none on site! The ground is as dry as a sun-bleached bone, the paths are crumbling and disintegrating into dust. The grasses are scorched and gasping. During the midday sun I may well be sheltering in my office under the turkey oak, please do come and talk to me there, and enjoy some shade yourself.

john-cleese4

An accurate depiction of my office

I’ve attempted to take a photo today of the awe-inspiring humming bird hawk moths. It’s not easy, they’re so fast. It’s equally challenging shooting the impressive emperor dragonfly, who can see me coming from a mile off.

emporerattempt.jpg

Fast as lightening

I did however finally capture this curious ruby red conopid fly, a bumblebee parasite. There are many different kinds of bumblebee on site, as well as honey bees and wasps and mimics of all of the above. I haven’t attempted to identify the bumblebees, this would be a full time job in itself, and require an extensive guide book.

beeparasitoid2.jpg

Myopa buccata

I just love the yellow meadow ant hills which are now, well, yellow. Thick patches of wild thyme or fragrant ladies’ bedstraw often dominate. I imagine that the ant’s carry seeds back to store in their nests, which then germinate. Ladies’ bedstraw is so named because it has insecticide qualities so was used to stuff ladies’ mattresses. Not commoners, oh no, but Ladies.

ladiesbedstraw.jpg

The poshest bedding

I’ve been reading some papers on the ecology and conservation of the large blue butterfly. There’s various ones available, if you’re feeling all scientific try searching for Maculinea arion on Google Scholar. Even though the UK population was re-started with only 281 individuals there has been no loss of genetic diversity. In fact the UK populations are micro-evolving separately and now show different frequencies of alleles. This basically means that the gene stock is good. Unlike, for example, American bison which were hunted almost to extinction and now have problems with low genetic diversity in their small gene pool.

I looked at the full moon last night through my binoculars. You can really see quite a lot of detail. Craters and lines and shadows, so much texture. The moon will still be almost full tonight, I’d recommend getting your birding bins on it.

view.jpg

Late-afternoon view

We may have peaked

I counted 13 large blues today, it seems likely that the flight season has peaked. Only time will tell. If you visit Collard Hill in the heatwave come in the morning and look at the patches of wild thyme for nectaring butterflies.

scorpio

Some kind of Panorpa

I found this interesting-looking female scorpion fly in the Eastern Glade, so called because the males hold their enlarged genitals over their bodies like a scorpion’s tail. The females will pretend to sting you but they can’t. I’m only sorry you can’t see her cool pointy face from this photo.

likinthelichen

I’m likin’ the lichen

I’d like to share this clip with you of the Alcon blue butterfly lifecycle, a similar story to the large blue. Be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s from Life in the Undergrowth with David Attenborough, my favourite nature series ever as it’s all about insects!


That ichneumon wasp is terrifying isn’t it! When she finds the caterpillar and touches it all over with her creepy feelers it sends shivers down my spine. There are various ichneumon wasps on site but don’t fret, none of them parasitise our large blues.

I had a visit from one of my university Technicians today, who has given me a lot of help this academic year with field guides and advice and shared enthusiasm for invertebrates and fungi. The first time I met Rhiannon she brought me a beautiful vivid waxcap mushroom on a field trip to appreciate. The last time I visited her together we solved the mystery of a strange beached item which turned out to be a skate or ray skull. Rhiannon’s sister also visited and told me about raising beautiful painted ladies from caterpillars.

white-leggeddamselflyfemale

Female white-legged damselfly

I’m delighted to be studying a subject which I love, to have access to facilities like £10 000 microscopes and pond dipping nets and knowledgeable professionals to help me investigate any aspect of ecology which draws my attention, to be in a supportive environment with people who care about nature and conservation as much as I do.

I only just noticed that we can see Glastonbury Tor from Collard Hill! Instead of facing the outstanding view turn around and look the other way and the Tor peaks out between the treetops.

torfromafar

Oh hello there

 

The empire of the ants

It was another scorching day up Collard Hill, today I counted 22 large blues in the morning and 9 in the afternoon (totalling 31) and yesterday my Volunteer Surveyor counted 30 large blues in the morning and 15 in the afternoon (totalling 45). If you’re visiting in the heatwave I’d thoroughly recommend arriving in the morning.

I’m on site as early as 9am and the large blues are already on the wing in this weather. By 12 they’re taking shelter and by 3pm there are very few large blues to be seen. If you’re arriving after midday look in the shady areas, and check patches of wild thyme for nectaring butterflies.

We are beginning to see gatekeepers and small skippers. I had thought the large skipper was cute, the small skipper is utterly endearing.

torty2

Vivid box-fresh small tortoiseshells were my favourite as a child

We had visitor’s from Canada today! A visitor brought his family to the hill, who are staying in England. He also gave me a poem about ants. I love poetry, and ants. My favourite poet is Sylvia Plath, John Clare is a little less sombre:

The Ants

What wonder strikes the curious, while he views
The black ant’s city, by a rotten tree,
Or woodland bank! In ignorance we muse:
Pausing, annoyed,–we know not what we see,
Such government and thought there seem to be;
Some looking on, and urging some to toil,
Dragging their loads of bent-stalks slavishly:
And what’s more wonderful, when big loads foil
One ant or two to carry, quickly then
A swarm flock round to help their fellow-men.
Surely they speak a language whisperingly,
Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways
Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be
Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.

John Clare

I have been wanting to talk about ants, they’re absolutely fascinating and there’s so much to say, it’s hard to know where to start. Ants have been around for a really long time, around 92 million years. They form complex colonies which act as one superorganism. There is no overseer, the queen merely lays eggs. All the worker ants within the colony are her daughters; it is genetic uniformity which leads to uniformity of purpose.

Ants are highly successful, there are about 20 000 species, and ants make up around a third of all insect biomass. Ants follow algorithms instead of a leader, which specify where to forage, when to fight rivals, whether to build bridges. Different species build colonies of different sizes. Argentine ants have built a supercolony along the southern European coastline which stretches 3 700 miles, while Temnothorax builds an entire colony within an acorn. The large blues’ hosts, Myrmica sabuleti, build colonies of around 300 citizens.

antbutt

My attempts to photograph our ants only resulted in ant-butt

I’ll talk about just one kind of ant, leaf cutter ants, of which there are 47 species. Leaf cutter ants build a complex nest with chambers for different purposes; eggs, larvae, gardens, waste. There are three “castes” or sizes of ant, having three different sets of tools allows for specialised roles within the colony. Soldier ants are the largest and defend the nest. Media ants collect leaves from afar and minima, the smallest ants, housekeep within the nest.

pixabayant

A better ant shot (source: pixabay)

Leaf cutter ants have evolved a 50 million year symbiosis with a fungus within the nest, which they feed with fresh leaves. This is a useful way to extract nutrients from hard-to-digest leaves. Different ants have different functions within the fungus gardens; some remove infected parts and take these to the waste chamber, others clear up spores of pathogens. Within the waste chamber tip ants turn over the compost pile to help it decompose. Tip ants aren’t allowed in the gardens in case they introduce disease, once an ant is a tip ant she will be attacked if she tries to re-enter the garden, and must remain a tip ant forever.

ant

Her little face! (sourse: pixabay)

Ants are so successful as they have developed these specialised tools for different jobs and as they follow algorithms with no need for a leader. Each individual has a purpose to the society, which acts as a single organisational unit. By forming big colonies they can outcompete competitors for a food source, and mobilise large armies quickly to fight adversaries. The ways that social insects manage their labour can be copied in human factories and computer systems.

I was wondering what happens to the bodies of our beautiful butterflies once they die after their few short days as adults. I never find perished large blues. I would like to think they get taken by the ants, their energy giving something back at last to their accommodating hosts.

Insect architects

This bright morning I counted 29 large blues, and a further 15 in the afternoon, totalling 44. As the day heated up the butterflies took shelter from the sun under bushes and nestled within ragwort. With temperatures set to soar next week I would recommend visiting in the morning, before the heat of the day sets in.

trywhite

Those whites just don’t sit still

As I began my transect, walking away from the big turkey oak to the uphill edge of the site, I noticed a delicate grey shape on the earth at my feet. It took flight, flashing deep purple-blue wings. The first purple hairstreak of the year! It alighted on a bramble leaf and I admired it’s dainty patterned undersides and elegant colour scheme, greys with dabs of bright orange. Absolutely exquisite.

There was another new species on site over the last couple of days, I had read about it in the visitor book but was yet to see it, until this afternoon. A fantastic example of convergent evolution; the charismatic humming-bird hawk moth. Not an invertebrate I expected to see on Collard!

largeskipper2

A super-cute large skipper

A Volunteer Surveyor joined me for a sociable afternoon on the hill. In the quarry Julian and I came across what we first thought were two damselflies mating, then realised it was a blade of dried grass. A flying blade of grass! It was carried by what looked like a small bee, but a bee that flew like a fly. The bee/fly carefully pulled the blade into a crack under a pine cone, and promptly found another dry blade near our feet to add to her nest. How fascinating! If anyone could illuminate me as to what species this insect is I’d be very grateful.

osmia-avosetta

I’d shingle my home with petals too (source: PhillyHoneyFest)

In my quick internet quest for enlightenment I came across a mason bee, rather beautifully named Osmia avosetta, who builds her nest out of petals.  This reminds me of the caddisfly larvae, who builds a protective tube around itself out of anything to hand. Artist Hubert Duprat gives them gold and jewels to work with.

cabinet_025_duprat_hubert_003

Bling bug (source: Cabinet)

Of course lots of insects build constructions, from the impressive yellow meadow ant hills on Collard (in which they farm aphids), to huge air-conditioned termite mounds, to fragile paper wasp nests. Finding an intricate papier mache wasp nest in the garage is always both alarming and delightful. Biology student Mattia Menchetti gave them coloured paper to construct from, resulting in a fabulous rainbow nest.

wasp-4

Insect architects (source: Colossal)

I met some really interesting visitors over the last few days. Many visitors work or volunteer in conservation. A visitor today told me about the complicated management on his Wildlife Trust site in Wiltshire for the duke of burgundy. Another visitor and I discussed honeybees and her son’s research (a honeybee Professor at a university in Alabama).

As I reach the mid-point of my spell on Collard Hill I reflect on the enjoyable times I have spent there so far, amongst the flowers and insects and nature-lovers. I’m confident on a just as pleasurable next three weeks and look forward to meeting even more fascinating visitors.