Insects in late-autumn

by Richard Jones

Although autumn hangs heavier in the air with each day, it only takes a brief break in the clouds to bring shy wildlife back out into the open.

Red admiral butterfly drinking nectar from flowering ivy.Although autumn hangs heavier in the air with each day, it only takes a brief break in the clouds to bring shy wildlife back out into the open. So it was on Friday last week when I headed for the horticultural delights of North Woolwich. Here, between the Thames Barrier and City Airport lies a whole series of derelict plots being redeveloped with offices and blocks of flats. Around them is the usual bunch of rather dull municipal-looking gardens, all pretty bleak with acres of pyracantha and cherry laurel, but against one hoarding is a mass of ivy and it’s still in flower.

Small tortoishell butterfly visiting flowering ivy.Ivy is a very important late nectar source for all sorts. The bush is ablaze and abuzz with insects. Twenty or more red admirals and small tortoiseshells vie with countless bees, bluebottles and hoverflies, but the overwhelming majority of visitors are wasps. Both of the common species are here, Vespula vulgaris and V. germanica and most of them are males. It takes me a couple of minutes to work this out; it’s something to do with the way they move about on the leaves rather than earnestly visiting the strong-smelling blossoms. Once this occurs to me it is obvious from their form that they are males: they have the blunt flat tip to the abdomen and longer antennae, distinctly curled at the ends.

Even though I ‘know’ the males are harmless, it takes a real effort of will to pick one up in my bare fingers. Wasp stings are adapted from part of the egg-laying tube so only females (queens and workers) have them. Nevertheless, this male keeps trying to stab me with the end of his tail in mock attack. The males don’t last long, after mating they and the last remaining workers die, leaving just the fertilized queens to live through winter, hibernating under loose bark, in log piles or in the loft.

Wandering back along the road to Pontoon Dock, the Docklands Light Railway station, I pause to look at a few plane trees planted in an equally bleak scheme along the pavement. We’re almost under the shadow of the railway viaduct here, so perhaps nothing else will grow. I love the way plane bark peels, so can’t resist picking off a few scabby bits to see if anything is sheltering underneath. Sure enough, under the very first bit is a small, but prettily marked red and brown bug.

Mysterious plante tree-eating insectA year ago I thought I knew what this was — Arocatus roeselii — a central European species which had just turned up in Britain, and was living on the plane trees around the Natural History Museum and Imperial College in South Kensington. But earlier this year entomologists realised that it may not actually be that particular alder-feeding species, but another, apparently unknown species in the same genus attached to plane trees. Last I heard, the likelihood was that it was from the other side of the planet, China or North America maybe, but nobody knew quite where, even though it had turned up in several French cities. I’m up to the museum next weekend, I’ll see if there’s any latest news. In the meantime I shall be exploring the street trees of south London looking for more unlikely wildlife.

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Gardeners' World Web User 06/11/2008 at 19:06

When looking at ivy flowers keep an eye out for the ivy bee. It is only along the south coast at the moment (particularly Dorset) but who knows where it may turn up next.

Gardeners' World Web User 08/11/2008 at 18:22

Reply to Kate. No sign of those bees last week, but I do see B. humilis in and around derelict London brownfield sites quite regularly. I know B. sylvarum is recorded from the area, but I've never seen it there. It is obviously very secretive. You are right about B. terrestris, I saw a huge queen at the ivy.

Gardeners' World Web User 10/11/2008 at 09:13

I was planting bulbs in the garden this weekend when I came across a number of Red Lilly Beetle in the compost. The compost was quite fresh quite a distance from my lilly's that are currently dying down. Is it normal to still find Red Lilly Beetle and in compost at this time of year?

Gardeners' World Web User 21/11/2008 at 21:17

Reply to Louise. Only just noticed your comment, sorry for late reply. I think it's very unusual to find the beetles this late, but with the milder weather of the last 10 years...who knows. I'm guessing they must have been attracted to lily cuttings or leaves you put into the compost, otherwise their behaviour is extremely abnormal.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:37

There are two extremely rare species of bumblebee living around the Thames barrier - shame it's being built on - Bombus sylvarum and B. humilis. I doubt you'd have seen them so late in the season Richard, but you may have seen some workers and queens of B. terrestris?