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Nature Notes: Double delight of insect survey on the green and a wonderful wildlife-friendly garden

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Last week I planned to do a reasonably thorough check for insects on the green at Westland Green and wished to tie this in with a visit to another wildlife garden, following a kind invite from Maria to view her extensive wildflower patch adjacent to her beautifully laid out garden.

Monday dawned overcast, so I waited until temperatures were a little higher as this would encourage the insects to be on the move and feeding.

Arriving at the green after 11am, a little breeze meant the butterflies were holding on to grass stems rather than feeding, so I wandered around to find a more sheltered corner. As I did this I noticed a good selection of high summer butterflies: marbled white, meadow brown, small skipper and ringlet were all present, with meadow browns the most common.

I put down all my kit – sweep net, butterfly net, camera with macro lens and selection of pots to place insects in so I could study them for identification – and checked out the array of wild flowers pushing through the long grasses and sedge. Self heal and common bird’s foot trefoil were most common; several bee orchids and huge amount of silver leaf and buttercups.

Grasshopper and cricket species ricocheted off my shins as I disturbed them and a few silver Y moths darted for cover.

I brushed my sweep net through the vegetation, checking the linen sheet after every fifth sweep. Each session produced plenty of insects, bugs, beetles as well as Roesel’s bush-crickets and common green grasshopper. The Roesel’s bush-cricket used to be quite rare, but since the 1990s it has expanded its range and can now be found on any area of extensive uncut grasslands in the South East.

One insect I was certainly searching for was the rare scarlet malachite beetle.

This has been seen in Hertfordshire only on a few occasions – 1924, 1940, 1956, 1974 and 1986, when it was discovered in grass on a roadside verge at Bassus Green. This site was monitored annually and the beetle was present every year until 2007. Then, due to poor management and disturbance, the habitat became degraded and the beetle has not been seen since.

This rarity has a preference for long grasslands adjacent to thatched buildings, where it is thought to overwinter and where the larvae feed. Everything it requires is present at Westland Green, but for a ninth year running I failed to find it. However, it is a large site to cover so I shall continue the search.

I picked up the camera with the close-up macro lens and set off to find insects feeding upon nectar and pollen.

Oedemera nobilis feeding on the pollen of corn marigold. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046186)
Oedemera nobilis feeding on the pollen of corn marigold. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046186)

Oedemera nobilis (swollen-thighed beetle) was most prevalent. This bright metallic green beetle feeds in the centre of flowers such as bramble, ox-eye daisy and buttercup, with just the male showing the enlarged back legs.

Other common insects were the meadow plant bug and Miris striatus, the latter a beetle that offers a colourful mixture of yellows, oranges and black.

I got close enough to a few butterflies that were nectaring but the problem was the breeze. Focusing on a buttercup that's swaying around makes photography rather frustrating, but I managed a couple of shots for inclusion here.

Episyrphus balteatus hoverfly on a buttercup. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046145)
Episyrphus balteatus hoverfly on a buttercup. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046145)

I checked the hoverfly species that were about. A common hover was Episyrphus balteatus, the marmalade fly. These come in an array of yellow and black patterns, all similar. The reason for the differences is thought to be air temperatures whilst they are in the larval and pupa stage; with the very cold April we had, I encountered a few designs upon the abdomen that were unusual.

After a few hours I moved on to Maria’s garden, just 100 yards or so up the lane.

Wildflower bed. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046204)
Wildflower bed. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046204)

We walked across the extensive lawn, where I noted a well-designed pond over which dragonflies and damselflies were patrolling. Later for that as we had arrived at a superb 50 square yards of wildflowers.

These had been planted in February, and to say it was colourful would be an understatement. The flower heads were alive with insects as I went about recording species and grabbing photos.

One of many cornflower varieties. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046188)
One of many cornflower varieties. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046188)

A gatekeeper butterfly was a new species for me this year and a solitary small tortoiseshell added bright colours as it fed upon cornflowers and corn marigolds. The cornflowers in particular offered a wide spectrum of colour ranging from light pinks to deep purple via a selection of blues.

Again, meadow brown butterflies were the most common, but on one plant a Heliophilus pendulus – a striking yellow and black banded hoverfly – offered itself for a photo.

Heliophilus pendulus female on camomile. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046170)
Heliophilus pendulus female on camomile. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046170)

More Oedemera nobilis, predominantly female, munched their way through the pollen whilst a grey heron flew off, having been eyeing the pond.

Here, mating damselflies sat on lily pads whilst a female emperor dragonfly clasped surface vegetation to oviposit (lay eggs.) She will spend less than a minute depositing a few eggs before flying off. She does this for two reasons: one to get away before underwater predators catch sight of her on the surface and, secondly, to distribute her eggs around the pond. If she were to lay them all in one site a predator would soon devour the lot; distributing them in small numbers at many sites offers a better chance of them making it to the nymph stage, whereupon they will become one of the top predators in the pond.

Female emperor dragonfly ovipositing. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046168)
Female emperor dragonfly ovipositing. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046168)

Large koi carp swam to and fro as an immature four-spotted chaser dragonfly, recently emerged, dried its wings on wires placed around the pond to deter the herons.

A one-legged female mallard sat motionless under some vegetation. I wondered if, when it paddled off, it would just go around in circles, but this was not the case. She seemed perfectly capable of direct movement. Azure damselflies continued to mooch about, the males gripping on the head of their mates.

This area was another example of a wildlife-friendly garden and shows what can be done in a relatively small area. The bee species were numerous, many enjoying the open flowers that also included yarrow and a variety of now just gone over poppies.

Wildflower bed. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046199)
Wildflower bed. Picture: Jono Forgham (49046199)

For anyone thinking of setting up a wildflower patch, and it doesn’t matter how small it is, I highly recommend Boston Seeds as the place to buy your seeds. They have 100% native stock and offer a huge selection of packs to suit each type of soil and light conditions. Just a small 2 sq m (21.5 sq ft) patch in the corner of a garden will add so much for struggling bees and, after dusk, nectaring moth species.

I offered my thanks to Maria and headed back to the green en route home. The breeze was now a little stiffer and the high temperatures of earlier had decreased, so back to my office to sort out over 200 photos.

I am always keen to hear of wildlife-friendly gardens and habitats where readers come across numerous butterflies and other insects. Having lived in and around Bishop’s Stortford for getting on for 40 years, I'm familiar with many such sites but I bet there are several I haven’t found and so would be grateful for suggestions. Please email the Indie office at newsdesk@stortfordindie.co.uk with details. Thank you.

On a hot summer’s afternoon, Westland Green can offer great views of many butterfly species. It can be found by turning directly by the Nag’s Head pub in Little Hadham and heading up Chapel Lane for a mile or so. It is on the left just before you come to the first houses on the edge of the village. Well worth a trip in July and August.

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