Warm colour filled days with butterflies feeding from the lovely summer flowers and the air is buzzing with insects. One that briefly takes to the wing is the ant and although we sometimes have ‘flying ant days’ in June, July is the main month for this event. It used to be thought that they all did this on one particular day but in fact, although localised swarms tend to happen at the same time, there can be more than one ‘flying ant day.’ It all depends on the weather and this can vary from area to area; warm humid days are ideal for these insects to take to the air. So why do they change from ground dwelling creatures (or kitchen dwelling if you tend to scatter the sugar about) and decide to fly? These are young queens and males on their ‘nuptial flight’ and the purpose of this is reproduction.
The smaller ones are the males and once in the air, to avoid inbreeding, they disperse from the queens of their own colony and seek out those from another. Mating takes place on the wing and one queen will usually mate with several males which die after doing their duty. (Ahhh!) She stores their sperm in her abdomen and this will fertilise the millions of eggs that she will produce in her lifetime which can be as long as twenty years. Once mated the young queen will shed her wings and search for a suitable nest site to start her own new colony.
Swarms of flying ants attract birds which gorge themselves on the insects. In defence the ants produce formic acid which can have a drunken effect on the feasters and last year in Devon many gulls were killed on the road because they were too tipsy to fly. Some birds indulge in ‘anting’ and deliberately encourage attack by disturbing an ant’s nest and consequently getting a good spraying with the acid which helps rid them of parasites. Clever! There are about sixty species of ants in Britain and they are all sociable insects that live in well organised colonies ruled by a queen and looked after by the workers which are sterile females. Most ants are omnivorous and will eat a variety of foods – fruit, vegetation and other insects feature in their diet. An interesting dietary habit that some have is milking aphids. They will seek them out and gently stroke their bodies with their antennae. This makes the aphids excrete honeydew which, as the name suggests, is very sweet and relished by the ants. In a way the ants are farming the aphids and to keep them from wandering they are thought to bite the wings off their ‘cows’ and sedate them with a chemical from their feet; this also acts as a trail marker enabling the ants to follow each other and find their way back to the nest. They guard the aphids and fight off predators, such as ladybirds, and will move their charges to fresh plants so that they can feed and produce further supplies of honeydew.
Another insect you may find in your garden in the summer is the Green shield bug – bright green in the summer, turning to a bronze colour in the autumn. It is sometimes called the Green stink bug because it emits a nasty odour from special glands to deter predators. After hatching the young nymphs release a pheromone which keeps them all together and if danger threatens a different one is given out which causes them to disperse. An amazing survival technique! Like all bugs they feed by sucking their liquid food, in this case the sap from plants, with their hollow mouth parts. A pretty insect and very common in our Norfolk gardens and countryside.
Speaking of common animals, rabbits seem to be having a good year and there are numerous young ones about at the moment. They are born in underground burrows, or in our case in our sheep stable, where the female (doe) lines her nest with fur pulled from the powder puff under her chin. Rabbit owners often worry that the mother is neglecting her young as she doesn’t seem to spend much time with them but her milk is very rich and she will only suckle them twice a day.
So far this year I haven’t seen any with myxomatosis but it does seem to come in waves. This horrible disease was introduced to Australia in 1950 in an attempt to eliminate the vast population of rabbits that was destroying pasture land. It then arrived in Europe and subsequently in Britain in 1953 and I’m sure you will have heard the tales of the devastating effect that it had on the animals that were all over the countryside swollen and blind. It is transmitted by biting insects, such as fleas and mosquitoes, and by direct contact. Myxomatosis only affects rabbits but other animals, such as your dog, can carry rabbit fleas and pass them on to pet rabbits so it is essential to have them vaccinated.
A beautiful flower in bloom in July is the Harebell. Although it looks fragile and delicate it is quite tough and hardy and, as well as growing on roadsides and banks, it is perfectly happy on poor soil such as dry hillsides and windswept coasts. In folklore it is associated with the devil and, like many bell-like flowers, also fairies. So don’t tread on them or pick them or the fairies will get you for sure! Witches used to squeeze the juice from these flowers to turn themselves into hares – they did really!
One butterfly that appears this month is the pretty orange and brown Gatekeeper; this is related to the Meadow brown which is our most common butterfly. The larvae of the Gatekeeper, which is also known as the Hedge brown, hibernate for the winter to emerge in the spring and, after shedding their skins a few times, then pupate to transform into adult butterflies in July. They have a short flying season, lasting about two months, during which time the females will lay their eggs singly on or over the larval food plant which can be a variety of grasses. The sexes are easy to tell apart, the male having brown patches across the forewings. These are constructed of scales that give out a pheromone to attract a female. They feed on the nectar of several different flowers, Bramble and Ragwort being particular favourites.
At the beginning of next month the Sea Watch Foundation has a national whale and dolphin watch day. Locally this will happen 9am – 4pm on the 2nd August at Overstrand, on the slope to the promenade, off Coast Road. Everyone is welcome to join the watchers and Carl Chapman, the cetacean recorder for North Norfolk, will be there and if there is anything to see Carl will most certainly spot it. He is very helpful and will be happy to answer any questions that you may have, so why not bring your binoculars and come along and share the experience. I will be there in the morning and it would be nice to meet you.
Things to do this month include:
• Trip to Northamptonshire to see Purple Emperor butterflies.
• Norfolk wader day.
Contact Carl Chapman at www.wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
• Butterfly walks at Foxley Wood and Cley Marshes.
• Evening water trail and supper at Hickling Broad.
• Moths and wild flowers at Natural Surroundings, near Holt.
Details at www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2015