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July Wildlife in the Garden

What Garden Wildlife to Look out for in July: Brown Hawker, Black Garden Ant, Crab Spider, Cinnabar Moth, Painted Lady, Green-eyed Flower-bee and Oak Bush-cricket.

For the bird watchers things tend to go a bit quiet in July, but there can still be plenty to see as my recent trip to Cley in Norfolk proved. We ended up seeing two Spoonbills, a Great White Egret, and my first ever Caspian Gull, along with several others, so not bad at all! Not likely sightings for a garden in Surrey however so back to local wildlife. This month minibeasts are the stars of the show, you should be able to see plenty of interesting new spots for your garden.

I am starting with Odonata, which is a posh way of saying Dragonflies and Damselflies. This is probably about the peak time to see them, especially if you have a garden pond, but even if you do not you still have a good chance of seeing one. One of the most likely and probably easiest to identify is the Brown Hawker. They are a large, impressive Dragonfly, distinguished from other species by its brown stained wings. The eggs are laid in ponds or slow flowing water and the lava of many Dragonflies can take several years to develop into adults. When the adults emerge, they unusually spend much of their time hunting away from the water and can be surprisingly inquisitive giving remarkably close views. The Migrant Hawker also has similar habits but is scarcer.

You may have heard on the weather forecast a while back that the ill-fated European Championship final could be inundated with flying ants. Contrary to the way the media portrayed this event, I think it is an impressive wildlife spectacle which you can see in your back garden. Flying ants are not a species of ant. They are in fact the male and prospective queen ants of predominantly Black Garden Ants, which take to the air to find a mate. Once they have mated the males die and the females that survive shed their wings to start new colonies as queens. The colonies consist of worker ants and a queen with other wingless females. It is a numbers game, which is why they appear in such great swarms, as many will never achieve their goal, through predation for example. They provide an important food source for many birds and other creatures. Next time you see a flying ant think of them as princes and princesses waiting to join the dance. Ok perhaps that is a little soppy, but you get the idea.

Although spiders are often known for being active in early autumn there are many to be seen now in mid-summer. The Crab Spider is probably one of the most intriguing you will find. They are easy to identify with their distinctive crab like appearance and they are often white in colour. However, probably the most fascinating thing about these spiders is their ability to change colour. Yes, they actually change colour to camouflage with the flowers where they lie in wait for unsuspecting insects. If that was not sneaky enough, they can use the ultraviolet spectrum to improve their chances of finding a meal even further. It is even thought that by using ultraviolet they can attract insects to them in a similar way to the far more exotic Orchid Mantis (I recommend looking them up as they are very cool!).

Now for some lepidoptera, sorry jargon alert, which is collectively the Latin for butterflies and moths. There is in fact not much difference between a moth and a butterfly genetically. The numbers you can see of both groups of these fantastic creatures increases quite a lot in midsummer so keep your eyes peeled. A butterfly I saw recently is the Painted Lady, which is surprisingly a migrant from across the channel. This butterflies’ extraordinary life cycle begins in north Africa, the Middle East and Asia moving north to Europe and eventually the UK. The ones we see tend to start in Morocco, then moving to Spain and then Britain, returning to Africa in the autumn. To date they have not successfully bred in the UK. Another interesting lepidoptera is the Cinnabar, which is a pretty red day time flying moth. The fascinating thing about this moth is its reliance on the plant ragwort, a common yellow flowered “weed” seen everywhere at this time of year. Ragwort tends to be seen as a bit of a nuisance, especially to those who keep livestock as it is highly toxic and can be fatal, especially to horses. However, they are a vital food source to the Cinnabar caterpillars. In fact, the caterpillars take on the poison of the plant and exhibit black and yellow stripes as a warning to predators. Cinnabars can be confused with the Six-spot Burnet, another red and black day time flying moth.

One of the creatures I am most proud of having in our garden, is the Green-eyed Flower Bee. I first saw one in my garden several years ago and I had no idea what it was, it took several years to work out the mystery of this special bee. We ended up buying a field guide to Bees (Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk), just to try and identify it. Many photographs later and looking at the guides in the book and online we knew that was what it must be. We seem to have a healthy population in our garden, and they are particularly fond of our lavender and lemon balm. I would love to know if you think you have seen one too. They are largely confined to the South of England and like sandy heathland and coastal areas best of all. They are a small bee, a bit like a miniature Bumblebee, which make a distinctive high-pitched buzz and of course have bright green eyes.

The final group of insects that need a mention at this time of year are the crickets and grasshoppers. You can often hear them chirping away, especially on a hot day. The Oak Bush Cricket is one of the most likely species you will encounter, sometimes wandering into houses too. This particular cricket is our only arboreal or tree dwelling species, which is surprising as you normally think of crickets and grasshoppers living in the grass and undergrowth. Instead of generating a song to attract a mate using their wings or legs, like most other crickets and grasshoppers, the male Oak Bush Cricket drums on leaves! The males have a distinctive pincer like clasper at the end of their tail, which is the easiest way to identify them from other crickets.

We have now reached 336 in our year garden wildlife count, and we had a great butterfly hunt on Reigate Hill which was good fun. We also did a Big Butterfly Count for Butterfly Conservation which is a great thing to get involved with. Whatever you do in this summer I hope you see lots of great wildlife.

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