In Sussex during the COVID-19 epidemic of 2020 I followed one very special butterfly through pupation to emergence
The White Admiral (Limenitis camilla) is a large woodland butterfly which glides effortlessly along forest rides. Its numbers in the UK have rebounded since the First World War, possibly due to the cessation of coppicing which, unusually, has benefited this species since its larvae require Honeysuckle growing in shady woodland.
My first, long awaited, encounter with ‘Camilla’ came on 28 May when my many searches of Honeysuckle vines finally bore fruit and this magnificent creature suddenly greeted me.
White Admiral caterpillars are entirely dependent on Honeysuckle for their survival, feeding on its leaves through all five larval instars and hibernating within their folds.
At more than 2 cm in length this was a fifth and final stage caterpillar, exotic in appearance compared to the majority of British butterfly larvae, adorned with branching red spines along its back and resting in a raised serpentine position.
When I returned 3 days later Camilla was already preparing to pupate, hanging beneath a Honeysuckle leaf, suspended from her hind claspers attached to a pad of silk.
48 hours later the pupa was now fully formed, with two prominent horns on the head and an odd protrusion further back.
“The pupa bears a close resemblance to a profile portrait of Punch.”
– Frohawk (1924)
The pupa darkened up a little in the next few days, its undulations mimicking the Honeysuckle leaves quite convincingly.
For the next two weeks few visible changes occurred and the weather turned cold and wet. A marauding army of small birds came and went, leaving Camilla thankfully undisturbed.
Around Day 22 the folded wing veins became a bit more pronounced beneath the pupal case and its body seemed to have plumped up a bit. Warm, sunny weather had returned to the woodland glade.
Revisiting on the morning of Day 23 I found Camilla had darkened up overnight, turning from green to brown, signalling that ‘eclosion’ of the adult butterfly was imminent.
By 5pm that afternoon my ‘White’ Admiral was now distinctly black!
From a different angle the butterfly’s wing structure and patternation could clearly be seen.
“Before emergence it turns to a bronze-black all over, losing almost all the metallic lustre of silver-gilt; the white wing markings of the imago show pale amber colour through the pupal skin.”
– Frohawk (1924)
I was hopeful the adult butterfly would emerge that evening and so remained until well after dusk, but as it grew dark I was forced to return home for the night.
Back on site very early next morning I was relieved to discover that the big moment had yet to arrive.
Camilla remained suspended from the Honeysuckle leaf until 09:11 on Day 24 when she suddenly popped out of her chrysalis in the blink of an eye, annoyingly while my back was briefly turned!
Camilla luxuriated in the warm morning sunlight streaming through the oak canopy, slowly expanding her glorious wings as she clung to the vacant ‘exuvia’.
By 10:50 her wings were fully expanded and at 11:12, two hours after emergence, she clambered nimbly up onto the Honeysuckle leaf which had supported her pupa through sun and rain, heat and cold, for the past 24 days. It would now become her launching pad.
And then 8 minutes later, at 11:20 she flew for the first time… and was gone!
Except that I strongly suspect she hung around…
I only witnessed one other adult White Admiral in the wood that summer. The individual photographed below frequented Bramble blossom within metres of Camilla’s hatching site, sunning itself on the woodland floor nearby and alighting on Honeysuckle, likely assessing suitable spots to lay her eggs for the next generation of White Admiral caterpillars to emerge.
To be continued…
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The fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) is usually found on chalk and limestone soils in open deciduous woodland and scrub, but is also recorded from grassland and chalk-pits. It is rare in the UK and even at known locations can be difficult to spot.
Fly orchids in woodland clearing. Surrey, UK.
Fly orchids are in flower between May and June. At this time they attract male digger wasps (Argogorytes mystaceus) with a scent which closely resembles the female wasp’s pheromone.
Males attempt to copulate with the orchid and during this process pollinia become attached, which may be carried to the stigma of another flower, completing pollination.
Digger wasp attracted to fly orchid flower.
Male digger wasp pseudo-copulating with fly orchid.
Fly orchid pollinia attached to the head of male digger wasp.
I was finally lucky enough to observe and document this behaviour in the Surrey Hills earlier this year.
After emerging from hibernation in early spring, toads migrate back to their breeding ponds.
Males fight to secure mates and often outnumber the females at some sites. When this happens the female may be grasped by several males in a position known as ‘amplexus’, as they compete to be in the best position to fertilise her eggs.
Group of toads in amplexus
Spawning might look fun but can also be life-threatening!
Toad sex is apparently a moveable feast!
The common toad is widespread in Surrey, however populations appear to be declining. Where toad migration routes cross busy roads there can be many fatalities, and local conservation groups police ‘Toad Crossings’ at dusk to help them safely across.
This toad was late to the party, but managed to avoid oncoming traffic
The wood ant mounds among the pine trees were beginning to stir on my visit to the RSPB’s Arne reserve in Dorset recently.
Nests become active in early spring when worker ants begin to forage for food items and building materials to repair damage sustained over the winter months. Badgers, magpies, jays and other animals often raid wood ant nests for food.
Wood ants are capable of carrying relatively heavy loads
Wood ant colonies can contain up to half a million individuals. On sunny days worker ants ‘sunbathe’ at the nest entrance to absorb heat and then re-enter the nest to release it – keeping it at a steady temperature. When the nest becomes too warm they open small vents to cool it down.
Sunbathing worker ants at nest entrance
The ants are particularly aggressive in springtime as they re-define their territories. Sometimes ants from weaker neighbouring colonies are recruited by force and carried back to the main colony.
Worker ant carrying another wood ant between nests
This species of wood ant is classified as Near Threatened (NT) in the IUCN Red List and classified in Great Britain as Local. Numbers seem to be increasing in the south of England but it has become locally extinct in parts of its former range in the north and east of England, the Midlands and north Wales.
Photographing ants is always a challenge because they’re small and they move very fast. It’s a good idea to keep your trousers tucked firmly into your socks when lying on the ground this close to a nest full of them! They will bite occasionally but can’t pierce skin. The formic acid they squirt in defence is too weak to harm humans.
The Crouch Oak once marked the perimeter of Windsor Great Park and is thought to date from the 11th Century, making it in excess of 900 years old.
This ancient tree now looks a little incongruous as a modern residential estate has grown up around it.
The Crouch Oak at night with passing traffic
It’s interesting to compare depictions of this tree from the 19th Century and in 1904 as wooden fences are replaced with metal railings and a dusty track becomes a surfaced road. The oak also enjoyed an additional limb in those days.
In more recent times the Crouch Oak survived an arson attempt in 2007 and is now fitted with metal grilles across its hollow openings to prevent a repeat.
Metal grille stops burning objects being thrown inside
To see the Crouch Oak for yourself follow the map below to the bend in Crouch Oak Lane:
You’d think that arachnids and water was an unhappy combination, but one species of European spider has made boggy ponds their home.
The raft spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus) is the UK’s largest native spider – its body growing up to 2cm long.
It uses the water’s surface like other spiders use their webs – feeling for the vibrations of potential prey with front legs extended. Using this technique it hunts tadpoles, insects and occasionally small fish:
Raft spider eating damselfly
When alarmed, the water repellent hairs on the raft spider’s legs enable it to dive beneath the water, trapping a bubble of air to keep it alive until the coast is clear and it cautiously re-emerges:
The wetland pools favoured by raft spiders are increasingly rare in this country. On the RSPB’s Arne reserve in Dorset their habitat is lovingly preserved, and offers wildlife watchers easy access from the nearby heathland trail:
Boggy pond habitat
On a good day dozens of raft spiders at various stages in their life cycle can be witnessed at the pond’s edge.
The female raft spider is often considerably larger than the male and mating is a dangerous business. He approaches her cautiously, waving his front legs tentatively to judge her receptiveness:
Male raft spider approaches female at her den
She may rush out to scare him off on numerous occasions, after which she retreats and the process begins again, the male edging closer all the while. It’s a nerve jangling thing to watch, let alone participate in.
The female spins a silk bag to contain the fertilised eggs, which she carries about beneath her body, keeping it just warm and moist enough to ensure their survival:
Raft spider carrying egg sac
Then, when the baby spiders are ready to hatch, she lashes the egg sac to vegetation at the edge of the pond and the tiny hatchlings emerge:
Baby raft spiders in nursery web
Mum typically lies in wait nearby to ensure that her young ones don’t come to any harm:
Raft spider guards her hatchlings
This phenomenon of hundreds of spiderlings crowded together for their own mutual safety is only really appreciated up close:
Raft spider hatchlings closeup
But soon the young raft spiders are large enough to fend for themselves and disperse around the pond.
Raft spiders are not fussy eaters. When times are tough and food is scarce, or when too many raft spiders compete for the same local resources, they may even turn to cannibalism:
What kind of crazy folk go out at night and gather round bright lights in the expectation of winged visitors? Stoned party-goers after a particularly heavy session? Die-hard pagan worshippers perhaps? And moth trappers obviously.
It was my delight both to participate in and bear witness to this strange spectacle on an evening with the Surrey Wildlife Trust and assembled experts on Chatley Heath in Surrey last month. It began innocuously enough with a barbecue meal and mildly alcoholic beverage, but then the great orb in the sky descended, the darkness gathered, and things began to get weird.
Moth trappers at Chatley Tower
A white sheet stapled to the side of Chatley Semaphore Tower and illuminated with fluorescent light set the stage for our distinguished guests to arrive, and it wasn’t long before the lure of this burning beacon drew them in.
Moth trapper with net
At which point all pretence of ceremony evaporated and a man with net in hand, a wild gleam in his eye, pounced with the irresistible speed of a coiled spring released!
Once netted, the moth in question was transferred to an improvised lab bench nearby for inspection, ID and recording.
Identifying and recording moths
Steadily a queue of nocturnal visitors grew, each enclosed in a cylindrical plastic cell, and each requiring identification. A few of the larger, more striking moths, were familiar to the interested observer, but – to all except the most dedicated experts present – the majority remained strange and new.
Moth trap jars with inmates, including the yellow brimstone moth
There are roughly 800 species of ‘macro moth’ in the UK. These are the species you will find illustrated in standard field guides on the subject. But there have been 2,400 species of moth recorded in the UK when ‘micro moths’ are accounted for, and only the high priests of this cult can read the runes of their colouring and patternation with any degree of certainty.
On this particular night 73 separate species of moth were recorded – the list of outlandish guests including:
Mother of Pearl
Dark Sword Grass
True Lovers’ Knot
Setaceous Hebrew Character
Elsewhere on the heath nearby an even brighter beacon was being kindled: a Skinner Trap, fitted with a blinding electric bulb powered by its own noisy generator.
Skinner moth trap and trappers
Not only is this contraption very effective at attracting moths, it’s also remarkably photogenic! A portal to another world appears to have opened up on the heath at night. And for all those present at this special event, it undoubtedly had.
Light rays illuminate the heath
Nobody knows precisely why these creatures of the night are attracted to bright lights amidst the darkness, but it’s fortunate for us that they are.