Catching The Bug

Galls on leaves, both as yet unidentified!

Galls on leaves, both as yet unidentified!

They say* that it’s been a mild winter so far, warm even. And whilst I suppose I can’t dispute that, it hasn’t been quite consistently warm enough to prevent the necessity of scraping the car in the frozen murk of 7am on a Monday morning. When I can’t feel my fingers and there is a fragile smear of ice crystals even on the inside of the windscreen, I almost sympathise with those scientific illiterates who are ready to dismiss the notion of global ‘warming’ at the first whiff of snow. “Mild winter?!”, I exclaim, shivering. “What mild winter?!”

 

Presuming that they lack the capacity even for unreasoned thought, the insects know better than I. For whilst the weather is, with some notable flood-related exceptions, for the most part a matter of inconvenience for us, for our invertebrate friends it is the difference between thriving and annihilation. This year they seem to be tending toward the former, provided most have been able to ride out the floods. In Reading, at least, even a few bumblebee colonies, grateful for the exotic winter blooms laid on for them by the university grounds staff, are keeping busy, even through the darkest months. The first speckled wood of spring was seen days ago, and I daresay other butterflies are emerging from their slumber in good numbers. Every passing moment of warm sunlight is snatched upon by small delicate flies, which leap out to join the jostling ranks of rival males in midwinter leks.

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First Frost

Even though it’s not been that much of an unusually mild autumn, this morning’s first frost took me by surprise. I glanced out the window at a bright, fresh day and at first hardly noticed that the rooftops opposite were dusted matte white, that the outline of each blade of grass in our front garden had a new, contrasting glassiness, or that a number of our neighbours were having to scrape frantically away at their car windscreens before setting off for work.

Then, it hit me. It’s November! Cold nights are here! Frost inevitably follows.

It can’t have been long since I was chasing the tail end of summer’s insects or wildflowers – warm afternoons amid blooming ivy and late umbellifers – yet suddenly we are cantering towards the end of the year and the depths of winter, full climatological speed ahead.

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The Bees and the Birds

I first became aware of the existence of the ivy bee (Colletes hederae) last autumn, and have wanted to see one ever since. I can’t exactly say why, except that the idea of them is nice, being a bee that is both easy to recognise – a gingery-stripy flying humbug – and biologically interesting, since it was only discovered in Britain in 2001 (and indeed was new to science as recently as 1993, when it was split from a close relative).

As their name suggests, ivy bees time their emergence such that they are active around the time that ivy is in flower, in other words from late summer through until late autumn. The last time those months came around I didn’t try particularly hard to find any buzzing humbugs, besides taking a cursory look at a few good patches of ivy. This year, perhaps in part because I fancied restoring a bit of bee enthusiasm to my wildlife year – it usually wanes by mid-summer – I  hit September more determined, to the extent that I seriously considered ‘twitching’ a colony up in Oxfordshire.

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