Awesome wasps

It’s been so hot, dry and sunny here recently that I’m having coffee breaks in the cool of a shed. Last week, over a couple of days, I watched a mason wasp industriously building a little nest in the angle of the shed’s roof timbers. The wasp would sometimes fly in with mud to build up the cell; and sometimes with something green – which I’m guessing would be a caterpillar for the new wasp to eat when it hatches.

Mason wasp cells in shed roof. They look like what they are – bits of mud pushed together! In the unfinished cell on the left you might just be able to make out something green lying inside – the caterpillar food supply for when the new wasp hatches.
A mason wasp


Then part way through building the second cell, another mason wasp arrived and seemed to be hassling the original wasp. That second cell went unfinished. And I haven’t seen those type of wasps since.

Then today, as I was drinking my coffee, I saw something scurrying around up where the mason wasp had worked. When I went to investigate, I found this stunning little wasp.

A ruby tailed wasp – a type of cuckoo wasp that has sabotaged the mason wasp’s nest.

As far as I can tell this is a ruby tailed wasp – aptly named. But although it is beautiful, it is a bad wasp from the mason wasp’s perspective. The ruby tail wasp is a “cuckoo” wasp. It will lay its egg by the mason wasp’s egg and when the ruby tail hatches it will eat the mason wasp and the caterpillar that was meant for it.

Another wasp that impressed me through the winter was (I think) just a common wasp (Vespula vulgaris). It crawled into one of the bamboo tubes of a “bug hotel” in the autumn. And it stayed in there all winter. I often thought it must’ve been dead. Most of the time it was lying on its back. Sometimes it seemed to have shifted a bit, but I put that down to the wind blowing it around. The “hotel” provided scant shelter for the wasp and our winter has been unseasonably harsh. Nevertheless back in April, the wasp woke up. It seemed to spend a couple of days chewing on something at the back of the bamboo tube. And then it spent another couple of days coming and going to and from the same hole. Then it disappeared – happily, because I wouldn’t have wanted it nesting too nearby.

An overwintered wasp emerging from its winter hiding place


At the end of last summer, the caterpillars of the large white butterfly (Pieris brassicae or cabbage white) left their food plants in the garden and went marching en masse. Most of them marched right out of the garden: they climbed sheds, walls and fences, seemingly knowing where they were heading. But one of them choose to stop and pupate in a stone outhouse where I keep ladders and various bits and bobs.

Throughout the winter, I’ve been careful not to knock the chrysalis off. And for the last few weeks I’ve been watching for “it” to happen: for the butterfly to emerge. Today was the day.

This was the pupa on 12th May: it was starting to change colour and plump up
This was first thing this morning (19th May). The wings are clearly visible, squished up against the side and the whole thing looked fit to burst – which it was!
Here it is, freshly emerged – the empty case that the butterfly crawled out from is towards the bottom, just left of centre

I know it is “just” a cabbage white, and something of a pest, but I am awestruck by the complexities of nature and very happy that this one survived the winter 🙂


Solitary bees – swimming and pollinating

Last week I spotted this little solitary bee struggling in the pond. I helped it to a rock at the edge and watched as it dried itself off and eventually flew away.

Solitary bee drying out after falling in the pond
Solitary bee drying out after falling in the pond
...a little bit drier
…a little bit drier

Meanwhile the apples are coming into flower and I’ve been keeping an eye out for bees visiting them. However, there seem to be very few bees around so far this year. The few carder and bumblebees that are here seem to be ignoring the apple blossoms and focusing on the bugle (Ajuga reptans) and rosemary flowers instead.

Carder bee on bugle flowers
Carder bee on bugle flowers

However, there is one little solitary bee busily working its way through the apple flowers – it was there yesterday and again today. Or maybe there are lots of them, but I’m only seeing one at a time: either way, I’m glad that somebody is helping to make sure there will be an apple crop later this year.

Solitary bee on apple blossom
Solitary bee on apple blossom

(I think these solitary bees are Tawny Mining Bees – Andrena fulva – but I’m not at all sure: we’re lucky to have lots of different species of burrowing bees locally, but I don’t know enough to be able to identify them.)

Peacock butterfly caterpillar

Peacock butterfly caterpillar
Peacock butterfly caterpillar – this one has wandered away from the defoliated nettle it was living on. Its orange feet (prolegs) mean it is quite “grown up”, for a peacock caterpillar.

The shiny, spikey black caterpillars of peacock butterflies feed on nettles.

We’ve fallen out of love with nettles – probably because they sting! – but they used to be more widely valued: as a vegetable, a medicinal herb and for making a (rather nice) textile. They’re a good plant for recycling nutrients and are rich in nitrogen, making them a valuable addition to the compost heap. And, of course, they’re good for wildlife.

Perennial nettles do spread easily, but they’re also easily pulled up, especially if you mulch around them. So, if you have the space, they’re a worthwhile addition to any wildlife garden area.

Thunderworms are go!

Thunderworms (Mermis spp) are pale, thread-like worms, up to about 12cm long, that seem to appear from nowhere after heavy downpours in the spring and early summer.

thunderworm (Mermis spp)

Yesterday morning, after two days of persistent rain and warm temperatures, this thunderworm was draped across the flowers of a thyme bush.

thunderworm 005

Thunderworms are parasites, but not of humans – they’re completely harmless to us and pets*: they parasitise insects.

For most of their lives these thread-like worms live underground, but they need to surface to lay their eggs. They can only do that during very damp conditions so that they don’t dry out – hence they’re only found after rain (or irrigation). The adult female worm climbs as high as it can to lay its eggs on plant material in the hope that the eggs will be eaten by an insect munching on the vegetation. The eggs will then begin their development within that insect, before migrating into the soil to spend a couple of years growing to maturity there.

The name thunderworm came about because the deluges that the worms need to emerge are often accompanied by thunderstorms. Once upon a time it was thought that the worms actually came down from the sky with the rain or the lightning.

*The roundworms that infest dogs and cats (Toxocara spp.) are from a completely different family of worms and are potentially very harmful to humans and pets.


Sleeping butterflies

A sleeping comma butterfly
A butterfly sleeping away the winter

I stumbled upon this sleeping butterfly while cleaning out an old pigsty.  It looks quite the worse for wear – covered in dust and slightly caught up in old spider webs – but hopefully, having made it this far through the winter months, it will survive and soon fly away.

Several species of UK butterflies try to survive the winter in their adult form. Of those, the most common are the comma, the peacock, the small tortoiseshell and the brimstone.

To learn more about how butterflies overwinter have a look at this page from the Butterfly Conservation website.


Frog spawn

The frogs are spawning. Year after year, they return to precisely the same spot and over the course of a week or so, the clumps of frog spawn pile up one on top of the other.

frog spawn clumps
A growing mound of frog spawn, 16th Feb 2014.

Last year the frogs here spawned early – at the end of January. Sadly we then had hard frosts throughout almost the whole of March and it ended up being a poor year for the frogs. This year, they’re three weeks later spawning and hopefully they’ll fare better.

It usually takes around four months for the frog spawn to become little froglets here. So these should be “ready” around midsummer.

Even if you don’t have a pond or room for a pond in your garden you can encourage frogs to visit by providing damp places, log piles and piles of stone. If you do provide a water feature for wildlife, no matter how small, it will be appreciated.

Collecting frogspawn to populate your own pond is now discouraged because of concerns about spreading disease and introducing strangers into existing territories. Instead, you are encouraged to provide the right environment and then be patient: given time, the frogs should arrive.

Frogs eat all kinds of flies, grubs and slugs and are an asset to any garden so they’re worth encouraging. And they’re cute.

There’s lots of information about all things froggy, including advice for making your garden frog friendly, at Froglife.