Tag Archives: privet blossom

The final days of May

I’m starting this post with a tribute to the privet shrub, without whose bountiful blossom this spring I would not have seen the array of beautiful insects I have recorded recently.

When we first moved into the house the privet hedge, planted in front of the garden wall had been allowed to grow to a very straggly 2-3 metres high. I’d had plenty of past battles with rampant privet hedges, but rather than dig it out I cut it right down into a low hedge interspersed with some taller trunks I clipped into various topiary shapes. I like it kept neat and tidy, but usually allow some parts to blossom each spring as I am aware some insects are attracted to it. This year I missed out the usual early spring cut as I was away in Wales, so the whole hedge was already in flower when I got back. A very happy accident as it turned out, and although it’s untidiness does bother me a bit I will definitely leave it to finish flowering before I trim it and will also leave some to fruit for the birds to pick at later on.

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Privet was originally the name for the European semi-evergreen shrub, Ligustrum vulgarum and later also for the more reliably evergreen  Ligustrum ovalifolium (Japanese privet), used extensively for privacy hedging. It is often suggested that the name privet is related to private, but the Oxford English dictionary states that there is no evidence to support this. The term is now used for all members of the genus Ligustrum which includes about 40-50 species of evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous shrubs and small trees, native to Europe, north Africa, Asia and Australasia with the centre of diversity in China, the Himalays, Japan and Taiwan. The generic name originated in Latin  and was applied by  Pliny the Elder (23 CE – 79) to L. vulgare. The genus is placed in the olive family, Oleacea.

The flowers are small and fragrant and borne in panicles. They have four curled-back petals and two high stamens with yellow or red anthers, between which is the low pistil; the petals and stamens fall off after the flower is fertilized, leaving the pistil in the calyx tube. The fruits, borne in clusters, are small purple to black drupes; individual shrubs may produce thousands of fruits, most of which are eaten by birds.

The Privet is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera  (moth) species including Common Emerald, Common Marbled Carpet,Copper Underwing, The Engrailed, Mottled Scalloped Hazel, Small Angle Shades, The V-pug and Willow Beauty.

Source : Wikipaedia

* Not mentioned above is the Privet Hawkmoth Sphinx ligustri, a large and attractive moth, with a wingspan of 100mm.

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I spotted a Painted Lady zoom in over the wall  and after a bit of flying up and down it finally settled with its wing firmly closed.

30/5/11- Painted Lady

The butterfly was at the far end of the hedge, quite high up and as I looked at it, squinting against the bright sunshine, I caught a quick glint of metallic green. The light was very bright and all I could see was part of the underside of a large insect nestled right into the flower head against the stem. I moved around, trying to find an angle that would reveal what I hoped was a Rose Chafer. After several minutes of waiting, my patience was rewarded when out it crawled, albeit very briefly, into view. What glorious insects they are; deserving of a far more glamorous name than it has been given and definitely a jewel in my list of sightings so far this year.

 

30/5/11-A beautiful Rose Chafer on privet

Rose Chafer – Cetonia aurata

A beautiful scarab beetle, with a body length of around 20mm. It is a bright, metallic, jewel-like green, with whitish marks and stripes across the elytra. From mid-May they may be found on sunny days in flowery places on the blossoms of rose, hawthorn, elder etc. The larvae live in the rotting wood of old trees. 

There is still blossom left on the privet that is still attracting a few insects. I can’t imagine I can top what I’ve already seen, unless of course I may be very lucky and see a Privet Hawkmoth: they do fly in June and July…

The next insect I saw along the hedge took me from the dazzling to something much more modest, a subtly coloured and patterned Long-tailed Blue, another ‘new’ species for this year, similar in  general appearance to the Lang’s Short-tailed Blue I saw a few days ago. It came to rest on a privet leaf and I was able to get a fairly close look at it, although when I saw the photo I realised it  had actually lost its tails. It obligingly half-opened its wings too, revealing the bronze -brown uppersides, slightly suffused with violet-blue. This is a female; the male’s uppersides are bluish-lilac with a dark margin to the forewing  and a dark spot at the base of the tail streamer.

31/5/11-A closer look at a Long-tailed Blue- Lampides boeticus

31/5/11-Long-tailed Blue -A glimpse of the upperwings revealed this to be a female

Not too far along I spotted another of my favourite insects, a cute-looking, furry little Bee-fly that was feeding on lantana flowers.

31/5/11-A Bee-fly -Bombylius major

The Bee-fly is an expert flyer that generally resembles a small furry bumblebee. It plunges its long straight proboscis into flowers, using it to suck out nectar often whilst hovering skillfully, but sometimes using its long spindly legs to help it balance. The insects cute appearance belies its parasitic nature; the females lay eggs close to the nests of mining bees, and the larvae enter the nest and parasitize the bees.

31/5/11-Bee-fly using its long legs to help with balance as it probes a flower

Ilex Hairstreak butterflies continue to feed on the thyme flowers, but this afternoon there were also two on the yellow button flowers of the santolina (cotton lavender), which is where I have seen one or two in previous years.One of the butterflies was missing part of a hind wing, probably as a result of a bird attack, maybe one of the Spotted Flycatchers. 

31MAY11-Ann Ilex Hairstreak & a tachinid fly feeding on santolina

A closer view of the small Tachinid fly - Phyrxe vulgaris

Tachinid flies are useful rather than beautiful insects: a species that help greatly to control various forest and agricultural pests: the larvae are internal parasites of numerous butterflies & moths.

31MAY11-A pretty view of a Speckled Wood on santolina flowers

Butterfly species recorded in and around the garden this month:

Large White, Small White, Cleopatra, Clouded Yellow, Ilex Hairstreak, Common Blue, Holly Blue, Lang’s Short-tailed Blue, Long-tailed Blue, Geranium Bronze, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Small Skipper

(13 species)             

Hoverflies and wasps

May 21st-31st

Sunny mornings and the privet in full flower attracted some interesting insects to the garden this week. I am a big fan of bees, wasps and hoverflies: most are very attractive insects and even the bigger ones pose little or no threat to people. Many species are important pollinators, wasps clean up a lot of debris and hoverfly larvae consume aphids, so they are very useful visitors to our gardens too.

The first hoverfly  to attract my attention this morning would have been impossible to overlook, a large colourful insect, the Belted hoverfly – Volucella zonaria was completely absorbed in its quest for nectar.

Belted hoverfly - volucella zonaria

Volucella zonaria is a large, impressive hoverfly with a wingspan of up to 45mm. Overall effect of the insect is slightly reminiscent of to that of a hornet, although it behaves like a typical hoverfly, frequently sunbathing then darting off. It is thought the larvae probably live in wasp’s nests.

Hoverfly - Volucella zonaria, a large colourful and impressive insect

There were greater numbers of other slightly smaller, but still quite large hoverflies, recognising two different Eristalsis species.

Drone-fly - Eristalsis tenax

Eristalsis tenax is also known as the Drone Fly referring to its mimicry of a male honey bee. It is a common and familiar species with a wingspan of 24-28mm. A rather hairy insect, highly variable in its appearance, but basically deep brown with 2 quite narrow, whitish rings, and greater or lesser amounts of orange on the edges of the abdomen. It occurs in a wide variety of habitats, almost anywhere there are flowers.

31/5/11-Drone fly - Eristalsis tenax

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Honey bee -Apis mellifera- has 4 wings

Eristalsis pertinax is rather similar to the Drone Fly, but slightly more slender and with a strongly tapering abdomen that has one pair of broad yellow-orange markings. The front legs are wholly orange. 

30/5/11-Sotogrande, Eristalsis pertinax

30/5/11-Eristalsis pertinax

There were a few smaller hoverflies around too, some were familiar, but there were others I have so far been unable to identify.

Syrphus ribesii is a common and fairly typical hoverfly with a wingspan of 20-24mm. It is found in most flowery habitats such as rough grassland, hedgerows and gardens.

31/5/11-Sotogrande, Common Hoverfly-Syrphus ribesii

Metasyrphus corollae is even smaller, with a wingspan of just 16-18mm. This is a very widespread and common insect found in similar habitats to the above.

Hoverfly-Metasyrphus corollae

27MAY11-A very tiny hoverfly (or wasp) I have not yet identified

I was watching Ilex Hairstreak butterflies nectaring on the thyme flowers and was distracted from them by a large dark-winged insect that was also interested in the nectar. More used to seeing them on the ground, it took a minute to realise it was a Sand Wasp. It kept retreating to the stone in the photograph, then running back to the flowers, scrambling through them rapidly, while constantly flicking its wings. It was joined by another, showing no aggression towards it. I thought they were perhaps hunting for caterpillars for their nests, but I didn’t see them find any.

Sand Wasp - Ammophila sabulosa

Sand Wasp – Ammophila sabulosa:  a very distinctive large species, with a body length of 20-24 mm. The females catch caterpillars, dragging them back to pre-dug nests. They stock each nest with a single large caterpillar and lay an egg on it before covering it over. 

A Sand Wasp enjoying nectar from a thyme flower

Over the next few days I began to see Sand Wasps all around the garden, the one below was on the ground scurrying around some flowerpots when I disturbed it and it flew across to a rosemary shrub, staying very still as though trying to hide. I saw them scouring the lantana and the thyme often, always in a big hurry and with wings almost constantly flickering impatiently. I watched one disappear under a fallen palm frond from which it did not re-emerge so I assumed it had dug itself into the ground there. I have yet to see one with a captive caterpillar.

31/5/11-A Sand wasp trying to hide in the rosemary shrub

The following wasp is another I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to identify without absolute success yet. I think it may well be wasp of the family Eumenidae, which includes potter and digger species.

30MAY11-Sotogrande- query wasp of Eumenidae family

* I am not overly-familiar with a lot of the insects from these species myself and am trying to identify them as I come across them, but I am not going to claim that I’m right in my conclusions, so as always, I am pleased to be corrected.

Sunshine and butterflies

May 22nd-28th

A wonderful few days for butterflies, including two that are new to this blog. Most were familiar ones and most were not numerous, but several different species were represented none-the-less. Friday (27th) was an exceptional day, hot and sunny with very little breeze and I saw more butterflies in one day than I think I’ve ever seen here in this garden.

It’s only right that I start my list with a Speckled Wood, our most consistently-present butterfly, which has been particularly numerous this week. I’ve seen them all over the garden, in dappled shade, in full sun, fighting amongst themselves and chasing off other intruding species. They’ve also been taking nectar from the privet, and one I saw, from thyme flowers. There is always one in the part of the garden on either side of the entrance gates that regularly patrols the shrubbery and hedge, defends its patch vigorously and takes siestas on ivy leaves, so I chose to photograph him.

22/5/11-Speckled Wood- Pararge aegeria - resting but alert on an ivy leaf

On Monday I caught  sight of what I thought was a Large White dipping down to flowers at the bottom of a lantana shrub. It was a lovely female Cleopatra that was so perfect it must have been newly emerged and that stayed feeding for at least half an hour.

23/5/11-Cleopatra - Gonepteryx cleopatra on lantana

There are a mass of flowers on my thyme plant now that have been attracting a few little hairstreak butterflies. These are Ilex Hairstreaks that I have seen in the garden in ones and twos in previous years, when they have been attracted to the yellow button flowers of the santolina (cotton lavender).

27/5/11-Ilex Hairstreak - Satyrium ilicis

27/5/11-In the sunlight the butterflies have a bronze sheen to their wings

I have not had a very good look at their uppersides as the second they land they snap their wings shut. I have seen individuals moving their hindwings back and forth, passing one over the surface of the other,  giving glimpses of only the edges of the upperside surfaces of the wings. I’ve seen this behaviour in other species too and have wondered why they do it. I’m sure it will be something to do with mating; maybe the change in air current it makes wafts pheromones into the air, or makes some kind of high frequency sound audible only to another butterfly. Maybe it lowers their body temperature a little, circulating air around their furry bodies.

Whilst photographing the hairstreaks a little blue butterfly passed close by and landed on one of the little yellow flowers that populate an area of my lawn. A male Common Blue.

27/5/11-Common Blue - Polyommatus icarus

I came across another blue that had dropped in to sample the marjoram flowers, this one a little butterfly that originates from Africa but that is a common migrant here and may have become resident, a Lang’s Short-tailed Blue.

27/5/11 - Lang's Short-tailed Blue - Leptotes pirithous on marjoram

A butterfly I was surprised to see was a Meadow Brown. It was flying very low to the ground in the shady strip of garden between the boundary wall and the house, pausing to rest first on a violet leaf which it was probing with its proboscis and then on a dry leaf on the ground.

27/5/11 -Meadow Brown- Maniola jurtina on a dry leaf on the ground

Other species I saw but did not/could not photograph were Small and Large Whites, almost constantly on the wing and too fast for me, clearly energized by the sunshine. Holly Blue(s) that I have had several sightings of as it fluttered along the tops of the hedges then up to the tops of the trees. A Clouded Yellow that popped in over the wall, raced along the hedge then popped back over the wall.