Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Hunting for bees at Farnham

Yesterday was a bit of a treat, a day out surveying for bees with Rosie at the RSPB reserve at Farnham Heath. It's one of the premier sites in the country for aculeate hymenoptera (bees, non-parasitic wasps and ants) with a list of well over 200 species. Our aims for the day were twofold. Firstly we wanted see how many species we could find, and to see how this compared to a previous survey in 2002 which was conducted around the same time of year, but when a lot of the site was still under conifer plantation. Secondly we wanted to see if we could refind the extremely rare Lasioglossum sexstrigatum, which has still only been found in a handful of sites in the UK since arriving in 2008.

We failed on the latter, but we're optimistic that by the time all the specimens have been identified we'll have amassed a list that will show the benefits of restoring the heathland. Aided by local experts Tom and David we immediately started finding species I'd never seen (or in some cases heard of) before. Some felled trees near the entrance to the reserve provided the first interest of the day, their upturned root plates providing a vertical profile like a miniature cliff, perfect for nesting bees like the tiny Lasioglossum parvulum. Where you find nesting bees, you often find their parasites, and in this case they outnumbered their hosts, with a small swarm of the smallest Nomad bee in the UK, Nomada sheppardana, loitering around the nest holes.

Lasioglossum parvulum
The diminutive Lasioglossum parvulum

Nomada sheppardana
Its equally tiny cuckoo bee Nomada sheppardana

Moving further into the reserve we were sound being treated to a masterclass in bee identification, as Tom and David demonstrated some impressive field knowledge in putting names to a range of Lasioglossum species which look almost identical at first sight. Final identifications will come from examination under the microscope, but we probably added L.morioL.smeathmanellum, L.leucozonium and L.prasinum to the day list in a matter of minutes.
Lasioglossum leucozonium
Lasioglossum leucozonium, refueling shortly after being released
After that the new species continued thick and fast, heading up a sandy track to the accompaniment of Woodlarks singing and a Red Kite swooping past, before stopping at a patch of bilberry where we added a few bumblebee species, including the heathland specialist Bombus jonellus, I finally found my first hoverfly for the day with my first Volucella pellucens of the year, before that was well and truly trumped by Tom presenting me with a Seriocomyia silentis in a tube - a hoverfly that I've been wanting (and failing) to see for ages. After than my first Gorse Shieldbug for a couple of years was a bit over-shadowed!
Gorse Shieldbug
Gorse Shieldbug
Heading downhill again, we found a few more flowers growing by the side of the track, and with them a new set of bees, including the dazzlingly blue Ceratina cyanea, followed by a lovely female Andrea labiata, with its black tipped red abdomen making it look like a giant version of the many Sphecodes cuckoo bees that were patrolling the heath. Tom also found another cracking non-bee with the spectacular long-horned beetle Rhagium bifasciatum.
Rhagium bifasciatum
Rhagium bifasciatum
After a bit more wandering we ended up at our final site for the day, a large flowering holly that was attracting a range of bees and other insects, including a slightly battered Green Hairstreak and one of the better wasp mimicking hoverflies, Xanthogramma pedissequum.

Green Hairstreak
Green Hairstreak that's been in the wars

Xanthogramma pedissequum
Xanthogramma pedissequum
We're hoping to make a return trip in July to see an even wider range of species, and to hunt for the enigmatic Chrysotoxum octomaculatum, one of the rarest hoverflies in the UK, found only on heathland in Surrey and Dorset (where I also have some adventures planned :) )

Saturday, 21 May 2016

I record with IRecord

We're down in London for the weekend, and spent yesterday afternoon wandering around Greenwich Park in the sunshine, which gave me an excuse to play with the new IRecord app. I've tried mobile recording apps before, but never really got on with them, preferring instead a humble notebook, or just relying on memory. Part of the problem is that while I'm out recording, my time is often limited, so I want to spend add little time as possible fiddling with my phone, so I can maximise my wildlife finding time.

The IRecord app might just be the app that converts me to mobile recording. It's incredibly quick to log a record, you just have to enter the species name and the app fills in the location using the phone's GPS. You can add in basic details of the record (count, adult/pre-adult, location and comments) either at the same time, or leave them until later. A nice feature is the ability to lock fields so the same value carries over, so you don't have to keep entering location name if you're entering a string of records from the same place. Another very sensible feature is that the app doesn't need to be online to allow you to enter records, which is likely to be very handy when I'm in more remote locations than yesterday.

I used the app to quickly enter ten or so records of some common hoverflies, bees and birds, including a photo from my phone where the subject cooperated. A minor complaint is that the resolution of the uploaded photos seems quite poor, which might limit their usefulness for confirming identifications, but they'll be useful in some cases.

That minor issue aside, using the app was quick and painless, and means I have no data entry to do, and no need to rely on the questionable accuracy of my memory for what I saw and where I saw it. It also means that all my records are immediately available to local recorders and recording schemes, which saves me the bother of trying to work out who I'd need to send my records to (a bother which I probably wouldn't have gone to for a small set of records like today's). All in all a very impressive package, and one I look forward to using on my future wildlife ramblings.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

A nomad in the garden

A species that I've wanted to see for a while is the cuckoo bee Nomada marshamella, but until now every one I've found locally has turned out to be one of the other common species like goodeniana or flava. That changed yesterday when I had a quick check of the hedge in the front garden and spotted a large  unfamiliar looking Nomad on a flower. I quickly grabbed a pot, and helped by the cool temperature was able to easily capture the bee for closer inspection.

It was quickly obvious that this wasn't another goodeniana, the scutellar spots and tegulae were both orange rather than yellow, and on closer inspection the yellow band on tergite 2 was broken. Consulting with the superb Field Guide to the Bees of Britain and Ireland it was quickly apparent that I had my first N.marshamella, result! With the Id confirmed I released the bee back onto the same hedge and she obligingly hung around for a few photos before flying away.
Nomada marshamella (f)
Nomada marshamella
Nomada marshamella (f)
Nomada marshamella
The Nomada bees are a fascinating group of around 850 species worldwide, of which 29 make their home in the UK. They're all cuckoo bees, laying their eggs in the nests of other bee species, where they hatch out before the host eggs, and devour the stores of food left there by the host mother. The hosts are often Andrena bees, as in the case of N.marshamella which is a cuckoo on Andrena scotica, but other bees such as Melitta and Lasioglossum are also used.

Identification is often tricky, although most Nomads are boldly marked with combinations of reds, blacks, yellows and whites, several species often share the same colour scheme, marking morphological features such as the shape of the mandibles key to clinching a confirmed Id. Association with a host species can also help narrow down the choices, but as many species of solitary bees will often nest in close proximity, and several Nomad species will use the same hosts, it's far from a guaranteed method.

Andrena scotica (f)
Andrena scotica, the host of N.marshamella
Nomada marshamella is the tenth species of these fascinating little bees I've seen, so just another 19 to find. A few of those species are extremely rare, but looking for them would take me to some lovely places, so I'll be happy to keep on searching for them.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Glorious May

After two pretty grim days of unrelenting rain, it was exciting to wake up to blue skies and sunshine today, especially with a well stocked moth trap to look through. There were a total of 17 species nestling in the egg-boxes including my first spring red-green carpets, and more usual spring goodies like Waved Umber and Pebble Prominent.

On to work, and after a few hours at my desk I was released into the sunshine and immediately came across my first snakefly of the year. These are bizarre looking insects related to lacewings, but with long snake-like necks and a wasp like ovipositor. There are four UK species, I'll do some research and see if I can figure out which one this is.

Snakefly - I think the funny wings are because it has recently emerged
Today was one of those May days where everything seemed so full of life it was bursting out. Everywhere you look there are green shoots shooting towards the sky, flowers flowering and insects, um, insecting. I couldn't resist another shot of the little red and black bug Corizus hyoscyami perching on some cleavers, whilst nearby a Hairy Shieldbug basked as two hoverflies and a bee foraged for nectar.
Corizus hyoscyami
Corizus hyoscyami, too pretty not to photograph
The sunshine had clearly gone to some insects' heads, as I picked up a new species in the shape of an Alder Moth, that for some reason had decided to top up its tan by basking on top of the log pile. Nearby I was delighted to spot the distinctively marked weevil Platystomos albinus, the weevil recording scheme's weevil of the month in conjunction with the equally distinctive Platyrhinus resinosus. While I was photographing that and small black bug with an orange spot scuttled past, Aphanus rolandri! I'd been wanting to see this for ages, today was clearly a good day!

Alder Moth
Alder Moth
Platystomos albinus
Platystomos albinus
Aphanus rolandri
Aphanus rolandri
It soon got better as I wandered across the heath, idly sweeping my net across the heather, and picking up another two lifers almost by accident. First was the tiny leafhopper Ulopa reticulata, a heather specialist, and then the lacehopper Tachycixius pilosus came out of the mesh. I also finally saw my first Green Tiger Beetle of the year, about a month after evetyone else.

There was still time for a final tick in the gardens as I wandered over to a corded off area where the lovely Meadow Saxifrage grows, somehow I'd never got round to going and looking at it before despite it being all of 100m from my office!

Saturday, 7 May 2016

A day of hoverflies

In just over a month's time I'll be heading up to the highlands in search of the rare and enigmatic Pine Hoverfly. Finding any of them is likely to be a challenge, so today I did a bit of training in the company of Joan, a local hoverfly expert. We spent the bulk of the day underneath a couple of beautiful cherry trees that are in full flower, netting and identifying all the hoverflies that we saw, and we saw a lot of hoverflies!

First in the net was a cracking Melangyna cincta, a hoverfly which I've been wanting to see for a while without any success - a good start, and it soon got better with Dasysyrphus tricinctus popping in for a visit, another lifer. Remarkably Joan then netted a hoverfly that wasn't just a lifer for me, but for her as well, the diminutive Parasyrphus annulatus, one of a group of similar looking species, looking a look like a mini Syrphus, all of which seem to have declined in recent years, so it's good to know there's still some at The Lodge. Slightly less dramatically, I added another lifer in the shape of a male Platycheirus scutatus, one of a large number of very similar looking species which I've never really got to grips with before.

Amongst all the hoverflies, a nice surprise was a False Ladybird, a shining gem of a beetle which is more usually found underneath dead wood, munching on fungi, but clearly had got carried away with the sunshine and decided to do some sunbathing.

False Ladybird
False Ladybird
After that distraction we got back to the hoverflies, and the list get ticking over with common species like Epistrophe eligans, Neoascia podagrica, Melanostoma scalare and the lovely Leucozona lucorum bolstering the total. As the temperature continued to rise, activity started to drop, so we decided on a quick stroll around the gardens, where we added another lifer for the day in the shape of the buttercup loving Cheilosia albitarsis. After that lunch arrived in the company of my better half and the scrambling ball of chaos that is my daughter, suitably kitted out in a bee patterned t-shirt.

Leucozona lucorum
Leucozona lucorum, one of the best looking hoverflies in my opinion
After lunch a bit more hoverflying turned up a few more species around the pond in the woods, including the first Myathropa florea and Rhingia campestris of the year, and the briefest of views of my second ever Criorhina ranunculi, plus few ripples and a blur of fur that was probably a Water Shrew. By the time we called it a day we'd racked up a list of over 20 species, five of which were new to me, and I'd also had a great chance to learn a lot more about a lot of species that I've previously found a bit daunting. Hopefully I'll be able to put the experience to good use up in Scotland, and everywhere else I go hoverflying in future.

Rhingia campestris
Rhingia campestris, I always think of Plague doctors' masks when I see these!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Super mega giant wasp!

Despite not getting out wildlife hunting much over the bank holiday weekend, I ended up having a brilliant string of wildlife sightings, topped off by a monster of a wasp today, but more on that later. The weekend started well, with a trip down the pub for a friend's birthday lunch, and as the little one was starting to get a bit fidgety I nobly volunteered to take her outside for some fresh air. Once outside I ambled over the road to some flowers on the edge of a garden, and was immediately pleased to see a male Hairy-footed Flower-bee zooming around. Better was to come though, as another bee buzzed more sedately into view, showing off a neat black and white pattern. This was the cuckoo of the hairy-foot, Melecta albifrons, which I've seen before in France, but never in the UK. A few seconds later a second Melecta appeared, clearly I need to spend more time wandering around pubs.

The next day I'd hoped to nip off to the local woods, but circumstances (the baby) conspired against that happening, and I ended up doing the 'make the baby' sleep route around the village. That turned out to be a very fortuitous turn of events, as while I was wandering past a hedge, idly looking out for bees and hoverflies, a furry ginger bumblebee mimic was basking on a sunlit leaf. I immediately recognised it as a Criorhina species, but wasn't sure which one, and knew there are a couple of similar looking ginger species. I didn't have my camera on me, so had to settle for some hastily taken phone shots before it flew away. Fortunately they were good enough to identify the fly as Criorhina floccosa, my second Criorhina of the year - making good on my resolutions! Maybe next year I'll resolve to take some decent photos of them, after the previous one was my definition of a record shot!

Criorhina floccosa
After that Monday had a hard act to follow, but the moth trap had a decent stab at it, with a nice range of spring species including Swallow Prominent, Nut-tree Tussock and a very nice Lunar Marbled Brown. There was even a lifer for me on the edge of the trap, not a moth, but the distinctive caddisfly Glyphotaelius pellucidus, although unfortunately it absconded before I could get a photo. Three days and new ticks for my UK list - going back to work was not what I wanted to do, although I was looking forward to going hoverfly hunting at lunchtime.

That plan lasted all of five minutes when I was passing a large dead log and thought I should check it for basking hoverflies. I didn't see any hoverflies, but I did see an almost unbelievably large ichneumon wasp crawling across the surface. I quickly rattled off a set of photos, and was just pondering what to put in the frame to give a sense of the scale of the beast (it was massive!) when it attempted to fly off. Fortunately the sun had gone behind a cloud, and the wasp was clearly a bit chilly, as it nose dived into the ground. I put my net on top of it, and made a quick phone call to summon Rosie with a large pot. The wasp then spent the afternoon in the office, and became quite a celebrity, with a steady stream of visitors, before we released it later in the day. Given the size of the wasp we were pretty sure it could only be Rhyssa persuasoria, the Giant Ichneumon, which is the largest species found in the UK, using its 4cm ovipositor to drill into the depths of logs and lay its eggs in the larvae of the almost as impressive Giant Horntail (which I'd also love to see). A quick check with an expert later, and the ID was confirmed, a fourth tick in four days - I wonder what tomorrow might bring?

Rhyssa persuasoria
Rhyssa persuasoria
Rhyssa persuasoria