The insects have gone berserk

by Richard Jones

For anyone who thought the cold winter might have been a bit harsh for wildlife, I hope the recent heatwave has been an eye-opener. I've certainly never seen so much insect life in April before.

Bumblebee visiting a flowerFor anyone who thought the cold winter might have been a bit harsh for wildlife, I hope the recent heatwave has been an eye-opener. I’ve certainly never seen so much insect life in April before. The garden has been awash with orange-tips, holly blues, and speckled woods.

The hoverflies have appeared in earnest, and bumbles, wasps and solitary bees are everywhere. There is an audible hum, usually only heard in June. They are all squabbling over the raspberry flowers. Pond-skaters are frolicking across the water surface, and the newts are in full-flow courtship below.

Blackbirds and thrushes are working double-time on the lawn and the local woodpigeons seem constantly out of breath, they are so busy.

Beetle, Saprosites natalensis, on tree barkBut for me, the highlight of the last few days is, I’m afraid, a minute brown beetle. Saprosites natalensis is a tiny ‘dung’ beetle, just 2.5 mm long. Although its life history is unknown it is unlikely to feed in dung, and probably develops in rotten wood. A similar Australian species, Saprosites mendax, found in Arundel Park in the early 20th century (it’s still there by the way) was originally thought to feed in the burrows of other fungoid wood feeders, including stag beetles. There are plenty of stag beetles in Richmond, Battersea and East Dulwich, but that lead seems to be a red herring, and Saprosites natalensis is sometimes found making small chewed burrows under cut logs or pieces of garden timber.

When this supposedly South African species was found in West London it took quite a time to realize it was different from the Sussex beetles. With 130 very similar (almost identical actually) tiny species worldwide, final identification took DNA analysis to confirm it. Preserved museum examples were not good enough, so a plea went out to find living specimens. And just by chance I had been finding them that very week, flying about in my garden.

It’s a minor claim to fame, I know, but despite the elegant flutterings of the abundant butterflies, the whine of flower-visitors, and the gyrations in the pond, it is the slow airborne drift of a flying Saprosites that gets me excited in the garden now. And so far this is my only brush with DNA profiling.

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Gardeners' World Web User 27/04/2011 at 11:27

Now how did your beetle arrive over here from South Africa? People do not usually bother to import rotten wood. Was it brought in on imported flowers or fruit? Or did it drop off a plane from S.A.? The detective in me is aroused, Richard. But I can understand your excitement over finding it among the beautiful but familiar native insects and that it finds our climate kind to its lifestyle. So many things change our ecology nowadays that I think we should all be wildlife detectives.

Gardeners' World Web User 27/04/2011 at 15:03

We have noticed a very large number of ladybirds in our garden. Also we are seeing all the butterflys you mention. We also have over 20 newts who are very busy in the pond. A robin is also nesting in the ivy on the garage wall and is in and out all day with her beak full of caterpillars etc. The whole garden is very very busy, I just love it

Gardeners' World Web User 27/04/2011 at 21:07

i have three tawny miner bees in my allotment

Gardeners' World Web User 28/04/2011 at 07:43

I trap moths in my garden for identification and all records then go to Shropshire Wildlife Truct and the National Moth Recording Scheme and I have to say most species are quite a bit earlier than previous years. In fact, last Friday a Bee Moth (Aphomia sociella) appeared that is normally on the wing June-August! Looking at records going back to the early 1900's my sighting is the earliest ever.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/04/2011 at 10:14

Surely the cold spell was just a brief return to the normality of the past and acted as a natural way of eradicating weak life forms, allowing new stronger generations to flourish? xx

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