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Monday, 25 August 2014

Fruit frenzy but going quieter on the bug front

It's certainly harvest time and that means time to preserve some of this bounty, especially the fruit. I'm only spending time jamming and chutneying the fruit that needs to be cooked from fresh, so raspberries and blackberries are in the freezer and can be made into jam and jelly respectively later on. Freezer space is at a premium at this time of year so I also had to make some tomato sauce to make a bit of room in my chest freezer. I've still got three huge plastic bags full of frozen tomatoes and loads more ripening, despite the cooler weather.

I'm keeping busy..... the Mixed Fruit Chutney has damsons in it as well as tomatoes,
and the Sweet Aubergine Preserve is a middle eastern recipe and amazingly delicious.

The rain that came over two weeks ago was just in time for the plums; however many of them split open or completely burst because they'd been dry and were then subjected to rather a lot of moisture all at once. Of course that's letting in rot so the greengages are spoiling at a rate of knots, but I managed to make my jam and it's the first time in three years I've had enough fruit for jam from the tree. The purple plums have also started rotting but there's only so much one can eat or preserve anyway, and just when you need some handy neighbours to take some off your hands, they all go away on holiday!

Greengage, known as Reine Claude here in France, and an unknown purple dessert plum.

Autumn fruiting Raspberries 'Zeva' and thornless cultivated Blackberries (with a Dock Bug).

Everyone loves blackberries! Dock Bug (Coreus marginatus) nymph left and (I think)
the Cricket is a male Speckled Bush Cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima).

We usually see juvenile Green Woodpeckers in summer pecking away at the ants' nests in the lawn, and since taking these photos recently I've been seeing and hearing them regularly. They are loud!

A male juvenile Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis).

Male juvenile Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) again looking a bit fluffy.

It was time for my OH to do some varnishing but when he went to unhook the bedroom shutters he found about a dozen bats roosting behind one of them. Some flew off but he had to close the shutter carefully to protect the rest of them, so no varnishing for that shutter that day! Now I missed what came next but I'm kind of glad that I did. As he was varnishing the window frames and the other shutter, a bat came back and started circling around. My OH retreated slightly and started to close the windows so that it could go back behind the shutter, when all of a sudden out of nowhere came a Sparrowhawk who caught and flew off with the poor bat! Oops.

I assume they are Pipistrelles which are common bats but they look bigger in the photo, but I think there were several of them all grouped together here. I couldn't do any better than a silhouette and was trying not to think of the drop as I leant out of the window!

Bats roosting behind the bedroom shutter!

Here are a few tatty creatures seen recently. Summer feels like it's really coming to an end with the cooler, more cloudy weather and there are far fewer butterflies than I'd expect at this time of year. Hopefully it will pick up in September.

I'm not sure what the bee is, possibly a Bombus sylvarum.

Most of the butterflies I'm seeing are Browns or Whites - here's a Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)
 feeding on my Garlic Chives - another odd thing about this year because this plant is usually
covered in bees, flies and some butterflies, but it seems fairly unpopular this year.

And still the only 'Blue' I've seen here in my garden this year - this is a female Holly Blue
(Celastrina argiolus). They don't normally open their wings when resting or feeding,
so I was lucky. Apparently they only do this in weak sunshine.
Weak sunshine is what we are grateful for right now!

Female Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus).

I nearly didn't take a photo of this bug as I thought it was a Sloe/Hairy Shield Bug - luckily I checked because I'm wrong. I then spent half an hour IDing it only to find when I was keywording my photos that I've already seen and logged this species this year - it would have been quicker to do a search for shield bugs in my photo library! Judging by where I live in France, then using this guide I would hazard a guess at Carpocoris purpureipennis, but it's too difficult to say, so let's just say it's one of the Carpocoris species.

Carpocoris sp., an interesting bug with little info about it on the internet.
Obviously it likes running around on hairy arms. :-)

Carpocoris sp. doing the 'biz', seen back in June.

There appears to be an exchange of fluid going on here -
looking at my other photos that droplet disappeared, so I hope it went where intended! ;-)

The eight day weather forecast looks dismal for the next week, although I will appreciate whatever rain we may get today as the garden is already drying out.

I may go quiet for a while and that's because I have a new desktop arriving this week - and not just any old desktop. I'm jumping ship so it's bye-bye Microsoft, and hello to the world of Apple and iMacs, which could be interesting for a few days weeks? until I get used to it! :-) 

Monday, 18 August 2014

Veg patch update - August

A few bugs at the end of this post but it's mainly about the veggies for a change!

Blight came about 3 weeks ago despite having sprayed with Bordeaux Mix as a preventive measure. I removed most of the leaves from the tomatoes and we sprayed again, but it was too late to stop the spread on the potatoes so the haulms had to be removed. I haven't dug up my maincrop Desirees yet so don't know what size they will be, as some were still flowering when the blight hit. However removing most of the tomato leaves has meant they started ripening much quicker (maybe I should do that more often!) so I've been having an amazing harvest from them and have only lost one plant so far, which got blight in the stem. The downside to B. Mix of course is that the fruit gets splashed whilst spraying, so we have to wash them very carefully which is time consuming. But without the Mix it wouldn't be worth my while growing tomatoes at all. Cross fingers they will last a bit longer!

After the blight but just before the rains came.

Far more welcome was rain. Real, substantial, proper, pouring rain. The garden had been so dry and I'd been watering and hosing most of the time since early June. There was so much rain over three days that the stream even started flowing again which filled up the lake by about one and half feet. Hopefully now it won't get too low before the autumn rains come and fill it up completely.

The seasonal stream which fills the lake.

Nothing is stopping the courgettes (does it ever?!) or the cucumbers which are going great guns. I'm growing a variety of cucumber called 'Burpless' which I bought in England. Unfortunately these are long cucumbers so that means each one is twice the size of the ones I usually grow..... and I've got three plants! Next year only two..... and one of the two courgette plants decided to split and grow in two directions so I'm getting the equivalent of having three plants - way too much! Both my fridges and both upright and chest freezers are now full to the brim with produce including the vats of courgette, basil and parmesan soup which I make and there's no room for more - so it's compost time for the excess courgettes from now on. The hens get half a cucumber a day but turn up their noses at courgettes!

I have my first aubergine fruit in more than 10 years - although to be fair this is only the second time I've tried growing them here. The first time I had zero fruit! However since cutting the potato haulms down I keep finding Colorado Beetles on them which have to be killed, so I keep a couple of bashing stones nearby - instant death although I don't like doing it!

I'm harvesting this much every 2-3 days, bar the aubergines.
The green toms are from a plant that had blight in the stem, so it had
to be removed. These are ripening indoors now.

Nasturtiums are taking over and these around the compost bins are the ones that were being eaten by the Ornate Shield Bugs, which seem to have disappeared now, so the plants look bigger and healthier and at last have flowers. I haven't been able to close the gate to the veg patch for ages, but as that doesn't stop the cats getting in there's little point bothering.

Nasturtiums, and on the right a Physalis which is now a bit swamped by them, as well
as Dill growing through this jungle, but Physalis is a bit of a thug itself so it's doing fine!

Can you see what's wrong with this picture? :-)
One potimarron stem had to be rescued from the field next door and
laid down on the bit of grass between my fence and the electric fencing.

I cleared the patch where the leeks were to be transplanted which had had a lot of weeds and self seeded Phacelia growing there.... then the rains came and I should have known this would happen!

Phacelia seedlings galore!

A few views of the veg patch - cucumber frame on the left.

Even my spring onions get rust, and all the lettuce bolted at once.
But it looks pretty (ish) and the hens love to eat it.

In the foreground on the left is a Thai Aubergine called 'Kermit'. :-) I have had one whole fruit
from it. On the right are.... well if you don't know you are very lucky!!!

I love having the space to have tons of annual flowers in here too.
No colour schemes - here anything goes and the brighter the better!

Left and bottom right are from my Pollinator Meadow year 3. I have Mirabilis jalapa (top left)
and a different kind of Knapweed (bottom right) which need to be saved and transplanted
elsewhere for next year. Middle and top right is Orange Cosmos (and a Jersey Tiger Moth).

Funny shaped Sunflowers which I grew from seed!

Here's another one early one morning with a
Jersey Tiger Moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) on it.
There are loads of Jersey Tigers this summer.

A Woolly Bear on the perimeter fence! This is the caterpillar of the
Garden Tiger Moth (Arctia caja). This was back in July and I saw it the
next day in the weeds I was clearing for the leek patch. They run really fast!

Now what was I saying about not seeing any of 'my' Swallowtails coming back to visit? Obviously some have, as I suddenly noticed there were a number of caterpillars on my Dill in the veg patch, of varying instars. This one though I found on the Bronze Fennel out the front of the house, which has no foliage left and the flowers are going over, hence the reason why it was looking so yellow. As it had nothing left to eat I transferred it to some Dill in the veg patch and it ought to green up in colour due to a change in diet. I am NOT bringing any of these cats indoors though! I've done my bit, now they fend for themselves which is as it should be. But I have my caterpillars to talk to again which makes me happy. :-)

Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) caterpillar.
The top photo is its rear end with the unhappy face.

And then there's the fruit, oh boy is there fruit, but that will have to be another post!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

It's a tough life for the outdoor Swallowtails

* Warning - this post contains some gruesome photos of
predation and parasitism
! *

I have been watching four Papilio machaon Swallowtail chrysalises that I discovered outside whilst still caterpillars in pre-pupation. Some pretty horrible things happened to them!

But before I get to that, let's look at some caterpillars and their unpleasant demise. I found six of them dead with what looked like a sort of sooty mould on their bodies. I've researched and cannot find what it is. This didn't stop other bugs from checking them out, although I can't be sure they actually fed on the dead caterpillar because I wouldn't have thought it was entirely healthy to do so!

Bug nymphs checking out and possibly feeding on the dead caterpillar.
Note that little wasp on the right - that has significance later on in this story!

Here's another one I found hanging from a fennel stalk.
Some ants and bug nymphs checking it out.

An ant looking into what I think is a mouldy bit....
and see how deflated the caterpillar looks too.

Now chrysalises - remember the one that I got to witness pupating a couple of posts back? Unfortunately this is what I found happening the following morning. It made me sick to the stomach to see this after having watched the pupation as I felt closer to it because of that. I shouldn't attach human emotion to it but I couldn't help it. Ants have to eat too but it just seemed so unfair ..... and ugh!

This poor fresh chrysalis didn't stand a chance with a load of ants swarming over it.
After pupation you can see that the inside of the chrysalis is just yellow goo at this point.

Going back to the first chrysalis that I found, I just couldn't believe (1) how I even noticed it and (2) why it chose this spot to pupate in. I had bunged a pot containing Ophiopogon planiscapus 'nigrescens' by my potting shed as it was full of weeds and needed repotting. However I haven't had a chance to do that yet.....

You would never have known.....but there it is in the photo on the right.

Now we get on to the subject of parasitism. I did a little research after taking photos of these wasps and discovered an American site (link given later) which gave me a lot of very interesting info on Chalcid wasps. Somehow they are quick to discover the caterpillar in pre-pupation and hang around waiting for it to pupate, then lay their eggs in the still soft chrysalis. The poor caterpillar and freshly pupated chrysalis twitch a lot trying to dislodge the wasps but it's futile. Chalcid wasps by the way are supposed to be a gardener's friend and are used in biological control, as they keep down numbers of the less desirable Lepidoptera species. And the desirable ones too!  

No sooner had it settled down to pupate, the wasps arrived.
I don't know the ID of the larger one with the long antennae
but I later found out the smaller ones are Chalcid wasps.

Then blow me down if another caterpillar decided to pupate in the same plant pot! On this one I only spied the larger unknown wasp and a Red Velvet Mite. I'm not sure what is happening with this chrysalis, as 19 days later nothing has emerged and whilst it has a dark mark on one side, it doesn't show the tell-tale signs that it has been parasitised by Chalcid wasps. Maybe the other kind of wasp will hatch out of it!

Another chysalis in the same pot - still waiting to see what happens to it!
But I don't think there's a butterfly forming inside.

And here's the 4th one I found which also has a Chalcid wasp on it, and some days later
as you can see on the right, part of the body of the chrysalis turned a strange brown colour.
Since I took this photo it also shows the tell-tale signs that it's been parasitised by a Chalcid wasp.

And what are these markings? I got this info from this very interesting site which although it is talking about Black Swallowtails, they have very similar chrysalises and I could see the same thing happening to this species. It's the dark markings that you see below, and far less obvious, a change in the shape of the lower abdomen. Far more info about this in the link above.

The membrane between these segments turns darker
which is the giveaway that it's been parasitised.

Because I keep an eye on them regularly I was lucky to get to watch some of the little wasps hatch out of the first chrysalis!

Left: A Chalcid wasp is actually stuck in the exit hole!
However the wasps had made another hole on the other side.

Here's one just emerging.

Still emerging but note that sticky stuff in the right hand picture.

The poor thing got stuck - seemed its leg was stuck on
the remnants of the sticky stuff I mentioned above.
I was kind and got a blade of grass and helped it off!

So out of four chrysalises, one got eaten by ants, two were parasitised by Chalcid wasps and the last one I'm still waiting to see what happens, but I don't think a butterfly is going to emerge as it's well over due and I haven't seen any signs of life from the chrysalis. They will often twitch if you breath on them or tickle them with something like a blade of grass. A bit of a shame as I'd hoped to be able to say "ta-da, here's one that made it", against all the odds. But the other day whilst doing some deadheading guess what I found in the Valerian that had flopped over into the grass? It certainly doesn't look like any parasites emerged.....

Hopefully an adult Papilio machaon managed to eclose. It certainly looks like it although
I also note brown markings between the segments. I hope this is just staining from
the pupal fluid that is expelled upon eclosion.

I do appreciate that all that I've documented above is quite normal in the insect world. Numbers have to be kept in check and predation and parasitism is common place. It's just a real eye-opener when you get to witness it all first hand and now makes me want to cheer for every adult butterfly that I see as I know so many didn't make it! 

As for my indoor raised Swallowtails, out of a total of 42, two failed to eclose and one sustained a wing injury whilst wildly flapping prior to putting it outside, so it had to be put down. So I've released 39 healthy adults into the wild but have yet to see signs of any having returned to lay eggs here - probably a good thing as I don't want to be tempted any more! But it has been a great learning curve to also study what happens to them in real life and note how different it is when they are raised indoors with no predators and seemingly, no disease either.

It's been a wonderful experience and I've learned tons more about them this year but I'm not planning on raising them every year. I'm still searching in the stinging nettles in the hope of finding some caterpillars belonging to one of the more common species - here's hoping I'll find some one day!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

July butterflies and moths, and an unexpected visitor

After a bit of a butterfly lull in June, which is quite normal, July perked up and what pleased me most were the amount of skippers about. I haven't seen a Small Skipper this year but there have been many Large Skippers in the garden and I've seen loads elsewhere too. I also saw a Mallow Skipper through my binoculars out of the kitchen window!

Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)
in my garden for the first time.

This Essex Skipper came on my finger! The main difference between Small and Essex Skippers
is the black on the tip of the underneath of the antennae, which is red on the Small Skipper.

The same thing happened this year as last; two gorgeous little Lulworth Skippers appeared and spent about a week here, mostly feeding on lavender. And then they were gone.

Lulworth Skipper (Thymelicus acteon), female.
These are smaller than Essex Skippers, which in turn are smaller than Small Skippers!

Lulworth Skipper (Thymelicus acteon), male. Not so easy to ID but I can just make out
a faint trace of the markings which are more prominent on the female.

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) showing the sex brands
which is often the way to differentiate between the sexes.

2nd generation Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus), female.
I haven't seen a blue in the garden since then and
this is the only blue I've seen at home so far this year!

2nd generation Map butterfly (Araschnia levana). I live just outside of their breeding range so
feel lucky that I even get to see these butterflies maybe a couple of times a year, but have
never seen a first generation, which has completely different markings on the upper wings.

Another Map butterfly and in the middle, a Gatekeeper in the background. Marjoram and
Garlic Chives are great plants for butterflies (and other nectar lovers).

Gatekeepers (Pyronia tithonus) are abundant
and here are four on a Marjoram.

Was really pleased to find a pair mating as previously I've only ever seen Small Whites doing it.

These Gatekeepers didn't like the camera too close so moved to
another leaf and covered their modesty!

However, where there are lots of butterflies, there are also predators taking
advantage. This spider is Enoplognatha ovata which I'm seeing a lot,
in its many colour variations. Strangely on some flowers they seem to have
taken over from my favourite crab spider (Misumena vatia),
which I have barely seen this year.

Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), male - many are out and about again now and unlike the
spring butterflies which have overwintered as adults, these ones actually stop to feed often.

So happy to see the gorgeous Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)!
This is a male looking a little tatty.

And here is a perfect looking female Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia).

Onto some moths now and I'm just sharing a few of the more colourful or large ones (that I was able to ID).

Sulphur Knapweed moth (Agapeta zoegana) which I found on
my shoelace as I was changing shoes to go outside!

There's a story here and I'll try to be brief! This moth flew into the cellier/mud room one night and buzzed around like a lunatic so there was no way to catch it to put it outside. The next evening though, it was sitting playing dead on the floor. I took some photos and then it woke up .... and started buzzing around like a loony again! A couple of days later one of the cats was putting his paw in a cardboard box with jam jars in, and sure enough there was the moth. I was sure it must be dead by then and it certainly looked dead. I went to dispose of it outside but all of a sudden it started vibrating in my hand, flapping its wings really fast. Luckily it was dusk and I was outside at this point so was able to watch it fly off strongly, none the worse for having spent about three days indoors.

Oak Eggar (Lasiocampa quercus), female.

And another story - I went for a walk through the hamlet with my brother and I noticed this large brown 'butterfly' flying down the lane; it seemed to be following us as I also saw it when we went off down a track. It puzzled me and every day after that I would see it in my garden. Flying fast and strong, all I could make out was a chestnut brown colour with a paler marking near the edge of the wings. This went on for about a week and was driving me potty as I couldn't find a butterfly that looked anything like that. Until thankfully it dived into some vegetation, I crept up on it and discovered it was a large moth! The males of this species do fly during the day. 

Oak Eggar (Lasiocampa quercus), male.
Look at those groovy antennae which the females don't have.

Finally, I have to share despite the photos being poor quality as they were taken at 9pm and through double glazing. The evening before, I'd walked into the veg patch and a large bird with barred markings flew out. I came in and looked in my bird book because I could only think cuckoo or sparrowhawk. Then my OH mentioned that he thought he'd seen a cuckoo the evening before. Well this for sure was a cuckoo, a juvenile sporting the red form of colouring. After this, it hung around for about 5 days before flying off. I'm not sure if they leave for Africa whilst still juveniles, or grow up a bit more before departing. Whatever they do, they go alone as the parents are long gone!

Cuckoo! (Cuculus canorus).
This is the rufous colour morph which occurs more commonly in juveniles than in females.

I've only ever seen an adult Common Cuckoo once and in the distance; however we were very lucky to watch several juvenile Great Spotted Cuckoos (Clamator glandarius) close up in Spain.

P.S. I forgot to mention, most of my Cinnabar Moth larvae disappeared after I'd seen the Cuckoo in the veg patch, because they are one of the few birds who can eat hairy and/or poisonous caterpillars....... :-)