NATURE NOTES - Written by Dr Martyn Stenning
Nature Notes September 2020
The first sounds to be made by an animal on planet Earth probably came from an insect, more than 400,000,000 years ago. These were probably primitive cicadas or crickets. In England, we have a few insects that make noises such as grasshoppers, they do this by rubbing parts of their chitinous exoskeleton against another part, e.g. legs against wings. Insects also often make a noise when they fly, such as mosquitos, bees and wasps, warning us of their presence with a buzz.
Boris, Emmanuel and COVID-19 have finally allowed us to visit our nature refuge in France. Here, the insects have gone mad and there are vast numbers of them singing in chorus, especially during warm nights. The old barn is full of wooden cavities. These in turn are used for reproduction by a huge variety of ants, bees, wasps and sawflies. Collectively, known as Hymenoptera, Latin for membranous wings, describing their incredibly fine thin flying apparatus.
We have seen carpenter wasps and bees, paper wasps, grass carrying wasps, masonry wasps, both solitary and social wasps and bees, semi-social wasps and ants that are almost always social, also European and Asian hornets that are really very large social wasps. The other day, I was amazed to see what looked like a very large fat green caterpillar flying into a hole in a timber pillar. It was apparently being carried by a female grass carrying solitary wasp, which had paralysed it with its sting, was a fraction of the size of the caterpillar and was mainly black with transparent wings. The wasp took it into its wooden hole and laid an egg on or inside the caterpillar, then it spent about two days carrying many single blades of dried grass into the hole and finally arranged the grass into a closely woven nest around the caterpillar. The wasp’s egg will eventually hatch out and eat the hapless caterpillar and grow for a while before metamorphosing into an adult solitary grass carrying wasp. It will then emerge from the cavity and will carry on the tradition.
By day we also see many species of butterfly including scarce swallowtails, fritillaries and varieties of blues. Also, preying mantids and huge crickets, even an Egyptian locust! We also hear the diurnal cicadas endlessly zizzing their stridulation song high in the elm trees.
Dr Martyn Stenning
Nature Notes August 2020
So, where have we got to in the process of saving the planet? I heard a saying this morning at the on-line funeral of Uckfield’s wildlife Ranger Geoff Pollard. The minister said that it is not what you own that is important but how much your life matters. We have heard much recently about “black lives matter”. My feeling is that all life matters in some way; from the humble oceanic green plankton cells that make about 70% of our oxygen to the giant top predators, such as lions and polar bears that control populations of the prey that they eat. Every living thing is part of a food web, and we humans are blessed with the intelligence to manage life on earth. So how are we doing?
Geoff Pollard was the Ranger managing Uckfield’s 2 Local Nature Reserves and other wild places such as Boothland and Nightingale woods. Geoff was doing something professionally that maybe we could all be doing in aspects of our lives. Sadly, he died suddenly at work. When we choose our purchases, we can try to see if they are from a sustainable source. We can avoid using pesticides unless it is truly essential. We can manage our gardens sympathetically for wildlife.
I am writing this from France, at a Bergerie Landaise, which is essentially a shepherd’s house in a field with a small copse of elm trees. We are trying to manage this site as a sanctuary for wildlife, which made it difficult when we arrived here this week after 6 months without human intervention, 3 of which were in lockdown due to COVID-19. The outcome is that the field has grown a fine crop of hay, the harvesting of which I am taking a break from to write these notes. Hay making is a sustainable way of interrupting natural succession from grassland to woodland which humans have been doing for thousands of years. Many animals, such as earthworms, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, bush crickets, lizards and snakes, moles, mice and voles, house sparrows, buntings and herons (yes herons love to hunt moles on grassland when they cannot find a fish), harriers, owls and kestrels, hares, rabbits and foxes have adapted to this practice and adjust their lives accordingly. Having trees nearby allows many more species of bird, such as blackbirds, thrushes, doves, finches, several species of titmouse, treecreepers, woodpeckers and orioles to join the throng.
Dr Martyn Stenning