On Monday 23 March 2020 the whole country, in the grip of a world-wide pandemic, went into lockdown. The whole population was asked to stay at home – not go to work, avoid travelling anywhere, don’t go to school or university and only take limited exercise once a day in your own area.
No more walks in the Forest. No more natural history holidays home or abroad. No more plans to visit sites of Large Blue Butterflies Phengaris arion or Pasqueflowers Pulsatilla vulgaris.
On that day we, Jan Schubert and Mike Creighton, decided that if we can’t visit the wildlife, we’ll have to watch the wildlife that comes to us. As this article is being written we are back in lockdown.
So, this is a story of a Garden Lockdown Safari and the beasts and bugs we’ve seen and what we have done to encourage a greater diversity in future.
The ground rules were simple. We’d try to photograph as many animal species as possible in the garden and identify those creatures and observe their coming and goings and their habits. This wasn’t going to be a scientifically complete study. We weren’t going to run any malaise traps to capture and kill. We would rely on our eyesight, our cameras, and Lady Luck that we happened to be in the garden at the right time.
And Lady Luck played a major part with such a glorious Spring and Summer.
Our garden is a modest size at the back of a terraced house in central Southampton. We are about 500 meters from the River Itchen and the railway line which runs alongside it but are otherwise rather isolated in terms of wildlife corridors. Neighbouring gardens are largely grassland and our Himalayan Birch and small pond have to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of providing the backbone of our wildlife garden.
We knew there was some wildlife in the garden from previous casual observation, and that we attracted a reasonably wide range of species of insects, but we had never systematically tried to identify each and every animal we had seen. Previously we had only undertaken a full survey of Hoverflies in the garden – as part of the Natural History Society’s survey of Hoverflies of Southampton in 2015 – and we run a regular moth trap (more of that later).
This was to be a new challenge where simply recording something as ‘a fly’ would not be acceptable. The very first insect of record on that fateful Monday was a Common Carder Bee Bombus pascorum) and that was prescient in a way. Bees were one of the most notable visitors to our small garden with 41 species being recorded by the end of the year. Three Buff-Tailed Bumblebees Bombus terrestris were feeding on our winter flowering Mahonia on Boxing Day.
We soon got into a routine of spending time each day in the garden and then trying to identify the results of our photographic efforts with half an eye on the daily Corona Virus briefing.
As the days got longer and the briefings shorter, we had to adjust our work and the more we photographed the more we realised that the crucial diagnostic feature would be out of focus, or not in shot at all.
But slowly, day by day, we built up a record.
We also came to realise that species which would be common for many Natural History Society members would not be coming our way at all. We have only ever had 36 species of bird in or over the garden and only 18 species in 2020 (and that includes a fly-over Grey Heron which just about made it into our airspace!). The sum total of all the species of moths that have ever been trapped is less than 200 (only 60 or so in Lockdown). Only one species of Dragonfly has graced our pond this year – social distancing taken to extreme.
Despite these disappointments other records just keep on growing. This is a summary of the insects we have seen during our Garden Lockdown Safari 23 March – 31 December 2020. A full species list can be found on the web-site.
|Butterflies and moths
|Wasps and allies
|Assorted insects (mainly flies) not to species level
Our diary of the Lockdown Safari is too big for this annual report and would make a book in itself (now there’s a thought) but some of the accounts may be of interest.
We’ve always had bee hotels around the garden. Logs with holes drilled in them. Concrete blocks with holes drilled in them. Assorted bijou residences purchased from the RSPB and others. And we’ve seen a few Red Mason Bee Osmia bicornis fill up some of these cavities with their brood chambers. But this year we decided to step up a gear and use specialist tubes to allow us to recover and store the pupae over winter. This enables us to keep any disease under control and start with clean nest chambers for the following year. We currently have 50 pupae waiting to get our mason bee population off to a flying start in the spring.
At times our most common bee was the Blue Mason Bee Osmia caerulescens, often around the Red Mason Bee tubes but usually finding a home in slightly smaller holes in wooden fence posts and the like. They would bask in the sun near our favourite position for viewing the comings and goings of their larger cousins.
One day, a male Blue Mason Bee flew in carrying something to its usual basking spot. It dropped its gift and flew off. Assuming it was a ball of pollen to be collected later I took a closer look. And then an even closer look. It was the head of another Blue Mason Bee, presumably decapitated in mortal combat, and then brought back in triumph.
In previous years we’d often see Willughby’s Leafcutter Megachile willughbiella sealing off its egg chambers with the distinctive green plug of freshly collected leaves.
This year, however, these leafcutter bees didn’t seem to like any of our bee houses. But it was insulting to watch a Willughby’s Leafcutter cut careful circles out of a prized Japanese acer, reject most of them and then fly over our house carrying her perfect circle of foliage to build her nest in someone else’s garden!
Our spiders caught so many insects that by the Autumn we described the garden as the killing fields. We kept a list of all the victims we could identify. Sadly one of the first was a fresh Angle Shades moth Phlogophora meticulosa caught by a Crab Spider Misumena vatia. Crab Spiders also caught three species of bee – Ashy Mining Bee Andrena cineraria, Red Mason Bee Osmia bicornis and Small Scissor Bee Chelostoma campanularum – as well as a Marmalade Hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus.
The Garden Spider Araneus diadematus caught another bee, a Common Furrow Bee Lasioglossum calceatum, Common Wasps Vespula vulgaris and a Tiger Cranefly Nephrotoma flavescens that had blundered into a web. They start young – a spiderling caught an aphid. Lynyphia triangularis, a sheet-web spider, may be small, but it still caught a large bumble bee. The Zebra Spiders Salticus scenicus weren’t at all fussy, catching anything from craneflies to root maggot flies to a pair of copulating Sage Leafhoppers Eupteryx melissae.
We never saw one of our most interesting spiders catch anything. Ballus chalybaeius is listed as Scarce, but we think that it is because it is so small (3–4 mm) that only spider enthusiasts or those with too much time on their hands would notice it! We found four different ‘colonies’ round our small garden, usually a male and a female, but living in the Ivy were two males and a female. You can tell the males by their enlarged front legs.
Parasites round the insect house
Our insect hotel attracted a number of bee predators and bee parasites, including spiders, flies and parasitic wasps, like Gasteruption jaculator. The female has such a long ovipositor that she flies in a most peculiar way with her abdomen almost vertical. What would happen when one predator met another?
A Large House Spider Eratigena atrica was living inside the hotel, usually with just a couple of feet poking out. An incredibly beautiful Ruby Wasp Chrysis ignita landed looking for somewhere to lay her eggs. The spider rushed out and touched the wasp on her back, whereupon she rolled into a ball like a hedgehog. It’s a technique the wasps use when raiding bee and wasp nests to avoid being stung.
We thought we had seen another tiny black wasp trying to break into a sealed bee nesting tube, but she wasn’t – she was stealing mud to make her own ‘pottery’ nest. There was a peculiar looking fly on the bee house, small but with huge red eyes, Caxoxenus indagator. Its common name is Houdini Fly, possibly because of the way the young burst out of the Mason Bee’s cell. They can’t chew their way out because they don’t have mandibles, but they inflate a blister on the top of the head and force their way out!
If it’s difficult to identify some insects down to species, it’s almost impossible to recognise individuals. But we succeeded with one species – the Narcissus Bulb-fly Merodon equestris. We probably shouldn’t welcome such a beautiful pest which is probably the reason we don’t have any daffodils no matter how many we plant. It’s a furry bumblebee-mimicking hoverfly with at least 4 named varieties (up to 9 according to some). By noting the combination of colours on the thorax, scutellum and abdomen and whether they were shiny or hairy, we identified 15 individuals and could see where they liked to hang out. One never left an area planted with sedums and had a favourite rock where it liked to bask.
One of the most unexpected sightings was a Common Green Grasshopper Omocestus viridulus because there is no large area of grassland near us. In fact it was sitting in a wooden sculpture we had bought to celebrate our garden safari.
Sometimes you only recognise you have found a new species for your patch when you examine your photographs and realise that some diagnostic feature or other is different to that which you were expecting. And at other times there is no mistaking that it is something new. The pair of Locust Blow Flies Stomorhina lunata which graced our garden for a couple of days certainly fell into that latter category. Definitely a WOW moment when they were discovered. It is not thought that the species can use any British grasshoppers so UK records are all considered vagrants from continental Europe or North Africa. If only we could travel so far at the moment.
Must do better
Then there were the ones that got away. Parasitic wasps and flies – ichneumons and the like – frankly just defeated us. Apart from a few very distinctive individuals this is a group of insects which definitely needs a Big Girls’ and Boys’ Book of Ichneumons and Allies. The literature currently available is confined to detailed keys to identify the 6,500 or so species that can be found in the UK. Since we aren’t killing any beasts for microscopic examination, this will be an area of our garden safari which will remain tricky to say the least.
We are building miniature garden photographic studios which may enable us to get better images, but we will have to spend more time with these beasts if we are to have any hope of improving on last year’s total of half a dozen or so identified to species.
The conclusion of this story is wrapped up in the slogan of the Natural History Society – getting closer to nature. Whether you live on the edge of the New Forest, in a house with a garden, or in flat with a couple of window boxes, there is always something to see, always something to understand. Always something to learn. Always something to share.
And we’ve started again this year.