Summer days and everywhere seems to be full of life. Flowers are buzzing with insects, birds may be rearing their second or third broods, animals are taking advantage of the lush grazing and, as the old song goes, fish are jumping – well, swimming anyway. But none of these lives would be here, nor would we, if it wasn’t for one thing – the soil. Soil is the root of all life; everything living depends on it, so it is important to look after it. There five basic layers to soil. At the very top is humus, composed of decaying plants and animals. This is slowly absorbed into the next layer, the top soil, and is constantly replaced Then comes the sub-soil and next the parent material which comes from the bottom layer, the bedrock. The composition of soil is approximately 45% minerals, which will vary depending on the foundation bedrock, 5% organic matter, the humus, 25% air and 25% water which are in what are called pore spaces. There are also millions of micro-organisms, fungi and invertebrates which live in the soil, in fact there is more life below the land than there is above. Quite often, especially in the recent past, the land has been treated badly with too many artificial substances added to it and much tilling and digging, often at the wrong time when it was too wet or dry; these things alter the balance of the basic structure. Also, soil can become contaminated by industrial activity. If you live in an area where there may have been factories in the past, it is a good idea to find out the history of the land before growing vegetables; plants can absorb toxins from the earth.
Ants are insects that we find in the soil and there are thousands of species in the world but only about fifty types are found in Britain. The most common one that we will come across is the Black garden ant. This one usually lives under paving stones and often invades our homes, especially if we are sloppy with sugar. Another, the Red ant, is not one to interfere with. They have a fierce sting and probably killed the caterpillar in the photograph. I came across these ants with their trophy as they were dragging it across the road. They would have been taking it back to their nest for the colony to eat but you have to admire their patience; it must have taken a long time to move such a comparatively large insect.
Earthworms are important animals for the health the soil with their feeding habit of pulling leaves down to eat, providing fertile ‘casts’, and their burrows create vital air spaces. School holiday start at the end of this month and a useful activity that children might like to take part in is an earthworm count. If they are interested go to the ‘Opal’ site for all the information.
Another interesting thing for them to do is pond dipping. Most nature reserves run these and details can be found on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust site; see at the end for contact address and phone number.
Also, Butterfly Conservation welcomes records of the butterflies which visit gardens, so children might like to put away their phones – along with the moans – and count the butterflies in the garden. See the web site for details and identification charts.
One that can be seen from as early as March, when it emerges from hibernation, is the Comma, so called because of the small white mark on the underwing which resembles a comma. This is a species of butterfly which, unusually, is on the increase. It did show a dramatic decline in the nineteenth century, probably because of the decrease in hop farming. The hop was the main food plant for the caterpillars but although it still plays a part, as do currants, some types of willow and elm, nettles seem to be the main plant for the larvae now. The Commas we see this month are the offspring of those that over-wintered and the majority will have dark undersides and will hibernate for this winter. But some have lighter undersides and brighter uppers and these will produce a second brood later in the summer which will then also go on to hibernate. This fact was discovered by Emma Hutchinson, a Victorian lady who was a butterfly expert and those particular forms are named hutchinsoni after her. (She wrote a book entitled Entomology and Botany as Pursuits for Ladies which would be considered a rather patronising and controversial title now, I think!). The two forms of the Comma depend on the length of the days when the caterpillar is developing. Those which develop when the days are lengthening will be hutchinsoni and those developing after midsummers day will be the darker type. When ready to lay her eggs the female Comma will search out the food plants which will allow quicker development for the larvae; these will be nettles and she often lays a single egg on each plant rather than clusters as many butterflies do. The caterpillar will go through five stages and will spend the first three feeding on the underside of the leaf so as not to be conspicuous to predators. It gets braver during the last two because it then resembles a bird dropping and can risk feeding on the upper side of the leaf. The adult also is well camouflaged when it closes its wings, it looks like a dead leaf. With such an unusual life style the Comma is one of the most interesting butterflies we have in Britain.
Flowers are vital for butterflies to feed on and in doing so assist in the vital job of pollination. There are many flowers blooming this month and one that is particularly attractive is a variety of St. John’s Wort – Hypericum androsaemum. It has bright yellow flowers with red berries that fruit at the same time. These eventually turn black and are very poisonous! Although this is officially a wild plant many people have it growing in their gardens where it is spread by birds which eat the berries and seem to tolerate the toxin. A variety of Hypericum is used medicinally and is said to help mild to moderate depression.
Wild carrot is another in flower in July. Although it is mainly white it has a small red centre which is very attractive to insects, particularly Soldier beetles. This is the ancestor of the cultivated carrot and originated in parts of Asia and southern Europe. As it ages it curls up into a nest-like shape giving it the alternative name of ‘bird’s nest’.
Things to do this month include:
• Butterflies and other insects – Holt Country Park.
• Hickling open day – Hickling Broad.
• Family fun – Thorpe Marshes.
• Birds & brunch – Evening stroll and BBQ – both at Cley Marshes.Details: www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2018