Signs of spring, which seems to have been gradually on the way since before Christmas, are becoming more evident by the day. Trees, for example, are waking up from their dry and brittle dormant state. Most hazel carries obvious cascades of male flowers, the catkins, and the more subtle female flowers which resemble small pink sea anemones. I’m still seeing few insects, though, on the deciduous trees. The trick to finding them in February is to seek out the green. Trees which keep their leaves in winter – conifer, larch, fir, holly, ivy, box – are the great green kingdoms in which insects that overwinter as adults can shelter.
Whiteknights Park has a fine collection of such plants and together they’ve been the focus of my recent campus walks. Plot these circuitous perambulations on a map and you’d be forgiven for thinking they didn’t have much point to them, and indeed I have been spending most of the time beating around the bush. That is to say I’ve been beating bushes with a stick, and seeing what falls out: a crude but very effective method of surveying invertebrates. The winter months are soon revealed to be concealing plenty of entomological interest.
The first spur to going out a-beating was attending a workshop on ‘inconspicuous’ ladybirds (i.e. those that don’t look like your typical ladybird), a few of which have associations with evergreen trees. After a few days of trying I finally had success on that front, when a smallish, dark, hairy ladybird fell out of a Leyland Cyprus: Rhyzobius lophanthae. There aren’t many records of this species, but most likely because of the lack of leylandii beating that goes on rather than the ladybird’s rarity.
Since then I’ve kept up beating, and found numerous treasures. Peculiar blue-winged, bug-eyed psyllids that inhabit the box hedges. An impossibly tiny beetle not much bigger than the full stop at the end of this sentence. Two glistening water beetles that were wintering in a Harris Garden holly. Away from campus for the day, on a Dorset heath, I took to beating isolated pines and was surprised when an angry wood ant dropped into my tray. Later that afternoon I found a Scarce seven-spot ladybird* by the same method, a species which lives dangerously by associating with wood ant nests.
Beating for insects, on the other hand, is neither dangerous nor as violent as it sounds. The worst thing that can result is funny looks and an empty tray. The potential rewards are great.
*Since they’re quite similar to the regular seven-spot I didn’t twig for about 24 hours that’s what it had been. Scarce seven-spot is more dome shaped, the central spots are larger and the spots on the flank are smaller.