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Thursday, 30 July 2020

Giant Peacock Moth caterpillar

I certainly wasn't expecting to post so soon after the last post, however when Keith came across something absolutely amazing whilst pruning the laurel hedge, it just had to be shared!

Saturnia pyri, the Giant Peacock Moth

He called me, saying "You've got to come and see this - I almost chopped it in half". I wasn't sure what it would be, half expecting a bird nest (we have held back on hedge pruning precisely because of bird breeding season). However, when I saw this gigantic caterpillar I could barely believe my eyes. It is HUGE! I thought at first, it must be a hawkmoth, then remembered the caterpillar he saw crossing the road back in Brittany that turned out to be an Emperor Moth larva. That had similar markings. A quick google revealed that it is indeed the big brother of the Emperor Moth, the Giant Peacock Moth. They both look very similar but the Giant Peacock is larger, and is in fact the largest moth in Europe. Fancy finding one in my backyard!!! Wow! Of course a photo session was called for - we cut off the branch it was holding onto as it was one that needed pruning anyway, and after K finished pruning he wedged it back into the hedge, and it soon moved off to another branch and started munching.

So here's a little photoshoot.... it is rather cute, despite its size! The background is a terracotta tile, not a hand. It's on top of the water butt.


Back end

Front end - it was 'sleeping' so had its head
curled inwards, hiding its true legs.


Showing its prolegs, which are the cute red hairy things holding onto the branch.



Cetainly an absolutely brilliant find but now of course I wish I had my moth trap as it would be rather nice to see the moth. đŸ˜€ Funnily enough, someone I know posted one of these caterpillars on facebook on the same day! Hope that means there are plenty of them around at the moment.

This is the only link I can find in English that gives info on this moth and its habitat, host plants etc: http://www.pyrgus.de/Saturnia_pyri_en.html
 

P.S. 3 posts in July!!! That's as many as the entire posts I managed in 2018 and 2019 combined! I do hope this means I am getting my blogging mojo back.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Some interesting spiders and insects

One of the most prolific wildflowers flowering at the moment is scabious, which is growing in all the verges and fallow spaces. Of course this is great for me as it's a flower that attracts all sorts of pollinators, and in turn, predators! On a recent walk up to the highest hill in our area, which has an amazing 360 degree view of all the hill and mountain ranges in the Aude and the Ariege, I came across this interesting crab spider. I haven't seen one this shape before (I don't think!). It's Thomisus onustus, part of the family of Thomisidae spiders. This one is similar to the one I used to find in my last garden, Misumena vatia, which changes colour to yellow or white, with some pink markings, though this one can be bright pink all over. Like all crab spiders, they don't spin webs but sit on a flower and wait for prey to land to take nectar and pollen. This link at Wikipedia shows a number of pictures of the spider in its various colour forms.

Thomisus onustus

Last week we discovered another of my favourite spiders, the Wasp Spider, in our garden! Keith was pointing out a spider in a pot of geraniums, when I noticed another small spider nearby that I didn't recognise, but I certainly recognised the familiar zigzag pattern on the web, known as the stabilimentum, indicating the family of Argiope spiders. I had to take photos to see what the markings were of the spider as it was too small to tell, though within a week the spider had grown so much that it was easily ID'd with the naked eye!

Young Wasp Spider (Argiope bruennichi) living in a pot of geraniums

Argiope bruennichi

Amazingly I discovered another one in a photo! I was looking at some photos I had taken of the hibiscus out the front of the house, when I spotted a web in the corner of one of the photos, which when I zoomed in, yes, it also had a stabilimentum! I dashed outdoors and it was another Wasp spider about the same size as the first one. It could even be that one as the original one has disappeared from the geraniums. Look just below the centre of the photo and there's a vertical thick white line with a spidery blob in the centre - this is a very cropped in part of the original photo. It's always amazing what one discovers in the way of wildlife in photos! I just hope that the Wasp spiders stay around the garden until they get huge in the early autumn.


Now, onto insects. Keith spotted this next critter, but on the wall of the house near the garage, and at about 5cm/2 inches long, it wasn't hard not to notice! It's an antlion, something I've never seen before. It's related to lacewings, owlflies and mantidflies (would love to see one of them!!). All of these insects are very interesting looking but I know very little about them. Antlions have very predatorial larvae, some of which dig holes to trap passing insects. This particular species doesn't do that though. According to my Med. insect book, this is one of the most commonly photographed species of antlion in the Mediterranean. Most likely that means it's one of the most commonly seen! It's Distoleon tetragrammicus, and it's habitat is oak and pine woodlands where the larvae live in the leaf litter.

Antlion Distoleon tetragrammicus

Finally my favourite insect - the butterfly of course! I have been hoping to see one of these Geranium Bronzes, even though I know that technically they are a pest of geraniums/pelargoniums. They are not native, having been brought in to Europe by accident from their native South Africa; however there it has natural predators plus geraniums grow in the wild being also native to South Africa, so it's not a pest as its numbers are naturally controlled. 

It's a tiny little thing and I've seen them a lot fluttering around my pots of geraniums and also feeding on nearby scabious on the grassy bank at the edge of our property. It's certainly going to be interesting seeing what happens to my geraniums. The caterpillars bore into the stems of the plants and eat them, and the stems turn black, which harms the plants. I can live with some damaged stems, but obviously don't want to lose all my geraniums. If I do find this butterfly problematic, I'll have to plant out fewer geraniums and more different bedding plants in my decorative pots around the pool/house area. I already have bedding verbena mixed in with the geraniums, but the snails seem to love eating them, whilst leaving the geraniums alone - you can't win!

Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli)

Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli)

I haven't taken many macros of butterflies so far this year, just because most of the species I've seen have either been too flitty or weren't close enough. This following butterfly was happy enough feeding on the oregano growing in the ditch next to our garden, but wasn't easy to get too close to. Plus it's windy here - the Aude is the windiest department in France, and we live on top of a hill. So getting a macro in focus isn't the easiest thing here at times!

Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae)

Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae)

It's been a while since I did a post about insects or spiders! But it was not surprising that I would find some different species now that I live in an entirely new part of France, with a different climate. Sadly I no longer have my moth trap as it went up in the 'Great Barn Fire of 2018' because I might finally have found a Death's Head Hawk Moth! I'm just hoping to find some really groovy butterfly species, like the Nettle Tree butterfly or Spanish Festoon, when we are out and about closer to the coast. Cross your fingers for me!

Thursday, 2 July 2020

New Herb Bed

One of the things I enjoyed the most this last winter was not having to work in the garden! No brambles or elm suckers to cut back, trees needing branches cutting off, fruit trees needing pruning, not to mention the stream at the old place that would get covered in vegetation (mostly brambles) which needed hacking back every year. Oh the joy of the low maintenance garden here! 

However, now summer is here I do miss all my old flowers (except the work!), which of course attracted butterflies, bees etc. So I had a few plans for this garden which I decided that creating over a couple of years would be doable without being too much hard work all at once. For this year I wanted a herb bed, and close to the kitchen. Next year will be a ‘Nectar Bar’ in the front garden around our bench which has a fab view of the valley. I’d love to erect an arch over the bench for shade, and for climbing plants. That will be a bit more work but we’ll worry about that next year!

When I finally managed to buy pots of herbs after the main lockdown lifted, I marked out where I wanted the bed to be, and my lovely husband set to work deturfing. He knew he would be doing the hard work! Unfortunately, the soil turned out to be rock hard so he couldn’t use a spade for this, so had to attack it with a mattock. When the turf was finally off, we discovered the soil was so hard that you couldn’t even get a digging fork in. It had been dry for a few weeks so I suggested getting the hose on it, but to save us the job, luckily it rained, which softened the soil enough and K was able to dig it over and get a couple of sacks of bought compost dug in. However, the soil here is thick, sticky clay - yuck! So much for a fine tilth, that’s just impossible as the lumps of clayey soil on the surface dry out really hard. Even digging holes with a trowel to plant my herbs was tough...... and I did something I’ve never had to do ever before - I put gravel at the bottom of each planting hole! I know some aromatics would not be happy sitting in soggy clay soil over winter, and would need help with drainage.

Our covered terrace outside the kitchen

In the meantime, whilst this was all going on, I sowed some seed - flat and curly parsley, normal and lemon basil (not tried that one before), plus some coriander and dill to use until I get a chance to sow some direct in the soil. I also managed to find not only Thai basil seed, but actual plants in one of the garden centres! I absolutely love this herb and it makes a Thai style stir fry really amazing. Thai basil has an aniseed flavour, if you are not familiar with it, and is not the same as Holy basil, which I tried to grow once but failed. It didn’t seem to have a nice flavour anyway.

Thai Basil





Greek Basil - this has tiny leaves and a far superior flavour to regular basil

I mentioned on my last post that I had been doing a bit of crafting - amongst other things I have done some stencilling for the first time. I've made some of my plant pots a bit more interesting with stencils that I bought off Amazon. It wasn't easy to do as the chalk paint leaked a bit under the stencil in places so I had to scrape some off, particularly on the pots with fine writing. I don't care too much, nobody is going to be looking close up except me!

Of course I had to have a dragonfly! It says La Libellule on the other side,
which is the French for dragonfly.

.... and butterflies!


The bed is now finished and I’ll be planting out the parsley soon and I've just sown some coriander and dill seed direct - for the moment there is loads of space between the plants. The rosemary is so small, I have a laugh remembering my old one which was enormous and I’d prune about a wheelbarrow full off it every three or four years! đŸ˜„ 

Finished, for now, herb bed.

On the far left are chives and garlic chives, which are in the shade in this image.

I must also mention that over the last month we have been eating our own cherries; we have two trees which are different varieties, and they’ve been pruned so that most of the fruit is pickable without even needing a stepladder. We’ve had kilos and I’ve made several desserts with cherries. Next year I’ll make cherry jam especially for Keith as it’s his favourite jam. One of the trees has deep red sweet cherries, and the other the fruit is orange before turning red and is slightly tarter (but still sweet). I’m dead chuffed that we have these trees, though in the last week they have suddenly become covered in rust so the leaves are turning a horrible orangey brown colour. K has sprayed with a fungicide so I hope it won’t get any worse. Just when I had been admiring how healthy our fruit trees look compared to our old place!! We also have three plum trees, but not a huge harvest this year - one tree has no fruit at all, one has quite a lot of very small plums and the third has a nice bunch of green plums on one branch, which I think is going to be a golden greengage (I found a label in the garage), and it is going be fun finding out what they all turn out to be soon.

We also have a few veggies in pots - three tomatoes, two aubergines and one Cayenne chilli plant! It's quite exciting again after a number of years of not growing veggies. We knew we wouldn't be going anywhere this year so not really a problem with the extra watering - I potted up tons of geraniums/verbenas in pots too, although dotted around the pool and the front of the house they look rather sparse! It's more than enough when it comes to watering every day when it is hot though. 

I should have taken a more recent pic with the aubergines and chilli and other tomatoes in it!

I have made a new ‘page’ for butterflies where I am listing both butterflies seen in our garden, and the ones I’ve seen on walks in the local area and various outings further afield. I’ve also updated the bird page with our new garden bird list - up to 30 so far, with several species I wasn’t expecting to see, such as Zitting Cisticola! The bird song here is quite different from at the last house!

I’m sure you are all enjoying being able to get out and about more now, so enjoy the summery weather when we have it. xx  

(As usual I am behind with blogging - these photos were taken through the month of June, so the herbs and tomatoes etc are far more advanced now.)

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Honey Bee on Sedum

Honey Bee on Sedum

Dewy Web

Dewy Web

Coneflowers

Coneflowers

Broad Bodied Chaser

Broad Bodied Chaser

Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth

Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth

Cats past and present

Cats past and present

Cats Past and Present

Cats Past and Present

Holly Blue Butterfly

Holly Blue Butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly

Swallowtail Butterfly

Nuthatch

Nuthatch

Cricket

Cricket

Dahlia

Dahlia

Marmalade Hoverfly

Marmalade Hoverfly

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Swallowtail Caterpillar

Swallowtail Caterpillar