Monday, July 26, 2010


It has been so hot here. Daytime temperatures have been up in the high 30°s C (97°F+), with humidity at around 50% plus. One night at 3.30am when I couldn't sleep, I checked and the temperature in the house was 31°C (88°F) and the humidity had reached 86%. Plants have been wilting fast, and so have people. We daren't open the windows at night because of the mosquitoes (including tiger mosquitoes) and so fans and air-conditioning have placed such a strain on the electricity supply, that blackouts have been frequent.

The only time that it has been possible to consider doing anything active has been around dawn (anti-mosquito lotion having been applied.) So just as it got light one day last week, Anthony and I grabbed the bikes and headed for the Parco Nord.

We weren't the only ones with the same idea - joggers, dog-walkers and other cyclists were out in force, despite the time of day. But not enough to frighten off the wildlife, which was also taking advantage of the few hours respite from the heat. We headed for the ponds, where we saw moorhens, turtles, shoals of fish, swallows and this grey heron.

We got quite close, and he didn't seem too fazed. But then he must have decided that enough was enough, and took off ...

Lombardy has two types of heron - the large Grey Heron that we saw, and the Little Egret - a smaller type, completely white in colour. Both types are fairly common in Europe (as well as Africa and Asia), but because Lombardy is an important rice growing region (the largest in Europe), they are particularly common here. They hunt in shallow water and, whether near rivers, canals, ponds,or flooded rice fields, both types are fairly easy to spot wading through the water in search of the frogs and fish that are their main prey.

I don't think I've ever seen one quite so close up though.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I said in my last post that there didn't seem to be many butterflies around this year, either here in Milan or in my garden in London. Well, for bees Milan is just the same - I've not seen any this year. The hard winter again, or more problems of colony collapse disorder?

But when I was in London I was pleased to see that they were absolutely everywhere - and snapped away like crazy taking photos.

There were some honeybees (at least I think that's what this one is)...

But the vast majority were bumblebees. Which made me realise that I didn't really know very much about bees at all. How many types were there? What were the differences ? I knew that honeybees lived in colonies but that there were also solitary bees. What was the difference? How did you recognise them? And where do the bumblebees fit in? Were they social or solitary? And was CCD affecting all types of bees or just the honeybees?

So I did some research - and found some excellent websites, which are listed below. I'm not going to regurgitate it all, but I was surprised to find out that in the UK alone there are some 300 different species of bee - about 270 of which are solitary.

Solitary bees make a nest by burrowing into soil, soft brick or whatever. The female then gathers pollen and nectar, forms it into a patty, pops it into the far end of the burrow, lays a single egg on top and then seals that section of the burrow up before doing the same in the next bit - and so on up to the end. The very last egg is always male (bees have this strange ability to decide the sex of their children). The eggs hatch, and the larvae consume the food left for them and then pupate. The pupae all hatch at the same moment but the male, being closest to the exit, is the first to burrow his way out. He then waits for his sisters, mates with them, and the whle thing starts all over again. All a bit incestuous, but there you are.

So how do you identify a solitary bee? Well, by Googling them, obviously. I think this may be one ...

... and possibly this one too. Or is it just some sort of fly desperately trying to pretend he's terribly fierce?

Bombus bumblebees, on the other hand, are social and live in colonies. Unlike the honeybees, however, they don't store large quantities of food and all but the young already fertilised queens will die off in the winter. The queens hibernate and then in the spring secrete beeswax to form little cups which they fill with nectar and pollen, laying an egg in each one. As the new workers reach maturity, they start to collect food for the later-hatched larvae. But having only one season in which to form, the colonies remain quite small - whilst a honeybee colony may contain up to 70,000 individuals, bumblebee colonies rarely exceed about 300 and are often smaller.

But what I didn't realise was that there are nine species of Bombus bumblebee in the UK, some very common others quite rare. What were mine? To me, they all looked quite different. This one seemed to fit the description of the most common British type - the Buff-tailed Bumble bee. But the others? The colouring and stripes didn't sem to match. So I sent a few photos off to the Bumblebee Conservation trust (see below) for identification. Would I find that my garden was a home to rare bees?

Nah... the answer came back after a couple of days. All common as muck Buff Tailers.

Except for one. So far there has been no answer for the little one below who I found happily feeding off my borage. Could the delay be because I've discovered something rare? Doubt it. More likely that you just can't see enough from the photo to tell. My own suspicion is that this is not a Bombus bumblebee but a Psithyrus or cuckoo bumblebee - there are six species but don't ask me which this is. These are sneaky. They lay their eggs in the nests of the Bombus bumblebees and let them do all the work. You can tell the difference between the Bombus and Psithyrus bumblebees by looking at their legs. The cuckoos don't need to store food for their larvae and so don't have pollen sacs on their legs - sacs which you can see clearly in the photos of some of the Buff Tailers in the other photos, but which don't seem to be present here.

Will I be right? We'll see. If I get an answer I'll add it in the comment box below. But in case they don't get back to me - any bumblebee experts out there?

Read some more

Bumblebee Conservation Trust Bumblebee Identification
Natural History Museum Bumblebee Identification Guide
The British Bee Keepers Association : bees4kids - The Importance of Bees
Watanabe, M. Colony Collapse Disorder : Many Suspects, No Smoking Gun

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Butterflies - the bad news, the good news

A whole post about butterflies and four photos without a butterfly in sight? Unfortunately, that's the point. I've hardly seen any this year.

Have you got butterflies in your gardens at the moment? When I was in London at the beginning of June I didn't see one, and here in Milan they are still very few and far between, despite the fact that there's plenty on the balcony to attract them. In the last week I've seen one or two fluttering around, but so far there's been no caterpillar damage at all - whereas by the beginning of June the hollyhock are usually lacy with holes and the caterpillarium is swarming with inhabitants munching their way through anything I've put in there.

Bad news. You may not like the caterpillars chomping at your prize flowers and veg, but they're an essential part of the ecosystem. Birds eat caterpillars, especially when they're raising their chicks, and the adult butterflies - apart from being a beautiful addition to the garden - are pollinators. Not the best maybe, but they play their part. No pollinators? No plants next year.

So why have they disappeared? I suspect it was the particularly hard winter we had. Here in Milan it went down to - 14°C one night. That's less than 7°F.

Butterflies either hibernate in the winter, or over-winter in chrysalis form. But I suspect that with temperatures that cold, a lot just didn't make it.

Which brings me to the good news. One type that I've not seen at all on the balcony this year is the dreaded Geranium Bronze Butterfly (Cacyreus Marshalli), which attacks both geraniums and pelargoniums and usually starts being a problem in May.

I'd decided not to bother with pelargoniums of any sort at all this year. Over the last couple of years I'd lost all those that I had to the GBB. It started slowly, with a couple being killed off each year, but then each year it got worse and worse, until not only had all the plants I'd had for years been destroyed but also any that I bought new would be dead within a couple of months. So no more, I said. The only way to solve the problem is not to buy them. And I didn't. Well, not for the house anyway. But for the office, I couldn't resist ...

And they're fine. No sign of public enemy number two (number one is red spider mite - and even that has not been quite so virulent as usual this year). They're thriving, keep bursting into flower and making me wish I'd bought more.

GBB is native of South Africa, so the idea that they couldn't survive the excessive cold does make sense. Hurray - perhaps that will check their advance through southern Europe a bit.

There is another possibility though. It could just be that they have hidden interests that entomologists have never suspected. And so they've all gone home to watch the football ...

Related Posts with Thumbnails