Moon Garden

One of the things on my New Year’s Resolution list, way back before 2020 went crazy, was to create a Moon Garden. I’d got the idea originally from one of Butterfly Conservation’s e-newsletters; amongst the tips for things to do to encourage wildlife was to make a Moon Garden. This is specifically planted to encourage night time wildlife, in particular moths. Most of the plants are white/cream or pale yellow, so they almost glow in the moonlight. Many of them are also more fragrant at night and so should attract plenty of moths. Although at the beginning of 2020 we had already recorded 367 species of moth in the garden, there was always more to hope for!

A patch of garden had been roughly cleared in late autumn, so just needed digging over and any remaining weeds removed.  Here’s the obligatory “before” photo of the soon-to-be Moon Garden area.

Using the list from Butterfly Conservation’s website I ordered some of the plants as ready grown specimens and, to cut down costs a bit, some of the plants as seeds. One of the plants I was particularly keen to grow was the Tobacco Plant (Nicotiana alata) – known to attract the Convolvulus Hawk-moth, a large migrant moth. These grow quite large and tall and have long tubular flowers perfect for the moth’s long proboscis.

Other pale flowers included white alyssums and lavenders, evening primroses, night-scented stocks and phlox, hebe, jasmine and honeysuckle. There were a few, such as white campion, that I simply couldn’t get this year – thanks to covid closures of local garden centres and online sources being swamped with orders. But all in all I was very lucky to get a nice mix of flowers for the moon garden.

A final addition to the garden was Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina)- grown not only for the silvery-ness but also the hairiness of its foliage. This had two-fold appeal – the plant is not only attractive to moths, but the hairs on the leaves are collected by Wool Carder Bees. I’ve only ever seen one Wool Carder Bee in the garden, so had hoped to attract more. Sadly if they did come they did so while my back was turned. But the Lamb’s Ears have grown well, so hopefully next year I can split the plants to get greater coverage.

So this is what I ended up with – or at least this is the stage mid-summer before the Nicotiana and evening primroses took over. For some reason I forgot to take a photo later on before they all died off again! This part of the garden really did smell lovely in the evenings, with the mix of the honeysuckle and other night scented flowers.

So I’d built it, but would they come? Well I may not have got a Convolvulus Hawk-moth yet, but plenty of other species have been more obliging. We started the year on 367 moth species recorded for the garden and to date we now have 405 – an increase of 38.  Of course I can’t prove that all these 38 are a direct result of planting the moon garden, but I’m sure some of them at least must be. And since the garden looks and smells lovely anyway, it’s certainly a win-win thing to do.

Although I was primarily expecting to see the moths in the moon garden at night, it was nice to find the occasional one resting there during the day – like this Garden Carpet on the evening primroses. A slightly more impressive find though was this Poplar Hawk-moth roosting during the day on the Nicotiana.

At night the evening primrose flowers were particularly well used by Silver Y moths.

I run my moth trap most weeks close to where the moon garden now is. It may be co-incidence but some species certainly seemed to increase in numbers this year compared to previous years. The Elephant Hawk-moths for instance were arriving in veritable herds compared to the usual singletons.

The new species were a mix of macro and micro moths. Some I’d been longing to see for ages like this Peach Blossom.

But others were completely new to me. Here are a few favourites – Triple Barred Argent (Argyresthia trifasciata for the purists – a stunning golden striped micro), Lesser Spotted Pinion and Least Black Arches.

The undoubted highlight has to be the moment I discovered a Dark Crimson Underwing in the trap. I nearly put it down as being one of the regular Red Underwings (in my defence, it did after all appear to have red underwings) which I have occasionally found in the garden before. But it looked a bit different, so I double-checked with those much wiser than me and was thrilled to find it was a Dark Crimson instead. Not only did this turn out to be a new species for Worcestershire, it is probably new for the whole of the West Midlands region – result!

So all in all I’ve been very pleased with the results from my moon garden experiment. So much so in fact that I intend to extend it next year and hopefully double the area. Some of the perennials may take years to grow to their full potential, so hopefully it will get better as time goes on. Again it may be coincidence but we noticed more bat activity over the garden this year (hope they didn’t snaffle my longed-for convolvulous hawk-moth, although I suspect it would be too big!), which is great too. Perhaps next year I might plant an area specifically for caterpillar food plants too – it’s all got to be beneficial after all.

Our local branch of Butterfly Conservation had asked earlier this year for moth related articles for the magazine. I was delighted that they included an article on our Malvern Moon Garden. It was Butterfly Conservation’s article that inspired me to plant it in the first place, so it would be lovely if our garden could then inspire someone else to have a go and encourage more moths into their own garden.

I’m not normally one given to poetic quotes, but there’s a line from William Blake – “The Moon, like a flower in heaven’s high bower, with silent delight, sits and smiles on the night” which makes me think of our moon garden – a silent delight giving both me and hopefully the moths great pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Newt News

When we had the new pond put in, way back in February, the frogs moved in almost straight away. There was a lot of croaking and and even some amphibious cuddling, but they completely failed to produce any spawn. I guess the pond was just too new and they didn’t feel it was up to scratch yet. The frogs may have let us down (I did try not to take it personally), but the newts, when they arrived, have more than made up for it.

The first newt plopped into the pond at the beginning of April and was quickly followed by many more. We never really knew how many we’d got, but I reckon at least a dozen must have found there way there in the end. Here’s the first ever one, popping up for air (the pond looks so bare looking back at it now, the plants have filled it out so much more since then).

They are all Smooth or Common Newts as far as we can tell, but they are still absolutely fascinating to watch. For the first few weeks in April, the newts we saw looked fairly laid back, with not much action; just occasionally popping up to the surface for a gulp of air. But as the breeding season progressed, we started to see courtship behaviour and could see the difference between the males and females.

The females are relatively plain coloured varying from beige to olive brown to dark grey. Their bellies in the breeding season go yellower with dark spots – you can just about see this in the female below.

The males tend to be much more jazzy. Certainly the ones in our pond were spotty all over, with a yellowy orange belly and a crest running down their backs and along their tails – visible below. (although the crest of the male smooth newt is quite marked, it is apparently nothing compared to that of the Great Crested Newt – clue’s in the name I suppose!)

Courtship consists of a lot of tail waving from the male – sometimes very energetically, almost aggressively in his determination to impress the ladies. Having got her attention, he deposits a packet of sperm, which she then manoeuvres over to fertilise her eggs. In the video below, you can just make out him producing a tiny white packet of sperm at about the 20 second mark.

 

There can be quite a lot of chasing each other around – sometimes more than just a pair; we’ve seen 4 or 5 chasing each other in a conga line across the pond.

The female lays the eggs individually on the leaves of aquatic plants. Water Forget-me-Nots are apparently a favourite for this, so we made sure there was plenty in the pond. The females grasp a leaf between their 2 back legs, folding them over and depositing an egg inside the fold. She then glues the leaf together and holds it until it sticks.

I particularly like this zen looking female laying eggs.

The females take so much time and care choosing the perfect spot for each individual egg.  The next couple of videos show them carefully selecting and positioning each egg.

 

The eggs were small white blobs in a layer of jelly. Most of the time they were hidden in their protective leaf curls, but occasionally the leaves popped open to reveal one.

We first started seeing baby newts swimming around the pond in mid-May. These first ones were tiny, less than a centimetre long and with no legs.

By early June mini newts with tiny legs had developed. The legs were virtually transparent still, but fully functioning.

They gradually grew, the legs thickening and strengthening, but still retaining their gills.

To get clear shots of the baby newts swimming/walking I very carefully caught a few and filmed them in a tank, before gently releasing them back into the pond.

 

The tank videos are good for seeing the detail, but it is so much nicer to get them swimming free in the pond (although considerably trickier to film). I love this little one determinedly hunting tiny water fleas as he paddles around.

 

I’ve not managed to find any young newts who have fully metamorphosed into efts and lost their gills yet. I’m sure some of them must have done by now, but they have probably left the pond and dispersed into our plentiful weeds. There is plenty of cover around the pond for them to hide in. The closest I’ve got is this one resting on the frogbit (should that be newtbit?), but he still has gills.

 

A lot of the young newts or efts of course won’t make it to adulthood. Lots of things will eat baby newts, not least of which is this Great Diving Beetle which landed unceremoniously in the hedgehog’s water bowl the other night and may have then moved on into the pond.

The efts won’t mature into adults until they are 2 or 3 years old, so it will probably be a couple of years before these youngsters return to the pond to breed. But hopefully some at least will make it and the pond will have done its bit to increase the newt population in our garden. Watching the newts court, lay eggs and develop into efts, has given us such pleasure during the sometimes bleak year that has been 2020; the least we can do is repay them by providing a suitable weed-filled garden for them to live in. They don’t mind that we’re too lazy to weed.

Our Garden Butterflies

The Big Butterfly Count results were announced last week, so it seemed a good time to take a look at the butterflies we’ve had in our own garden this year. Sadly the Big Butterfly Count suggested a poor year for butterflies, although the very warm spring may have meant their numbers peaked before the Count took place – let’s hope that’s the reason.

It might not have been a great year nationally, but we have actually done pretty well here in the garden. By the end of 2019 we had recorded 18 butterfly species in the garden in the 12 years or so we have lived here. In 2020 we were very pleased to add two more to that list.

In the middle of July I was amazed to spot a Silver-washed Fritillary in the garden. It was a bit tatty and probably a bit lost, but you take what you can get with wildlife sightings! Having an overgrown, brambled covered garden had paid off. For once I even had the camera to hand, so snapped a few photos before dashing (artistic license here for the speed) back into the house shouting for Chris to come out and see. It moved from the brambles to a buddleia and we both managed a few more photos before it realised it probably wasn’t in the right place and flew off.

Seeing a Silver-washed Fritillary in our own garden was particularly enjoyable as, thanks to Covid, we hadn’t manage to get out to many of our usual places, so hadn’t seen them anywhere else this year.

Then a couple of weeks later we were sitting by the pond (as so much of 2020 has been spent) when a small butterfly landed on the Eryngium flowers. We thought at first it was a female Common Blue, which in itself would be a bit of a rarity in the garden, but it turned out to be a Brown Argus – our 20th butterfly species for the garden.

Besides the newcomers above, we’ve had a fairly steady stream of butterflies throughout the summer. As with the Big Butterfly Count results, the white butterflies were the most numerous ones – Small Whites in particular seemed to have a good year here in Malvern. I try and record the butterflies I see daily for the Garden Butterfly Survey and for most days through the summer I was seeing at least some Small Whites and some days up to 8 or 9 in one go.  The numbers of Painted Lady butterflies we saw were down on last year, but then last year was a particularly good year for them nationwide.

Commas, Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells all appeared, although never in more than 1s or 2s, despite us having a lot of Buddleias in the garden. The grassy areas (we can’t call them lawns any more) produced Ringlets, Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns and the Speckled Woods & Holly Blues liked the brambles and apple tree. I’d planted up a few Bird’s Foot Trefoils in the hope of attracting some Common Blues, so was really chuffed when one finally deigned to appreciate my efforts and land on the flowers.

The final treat for the year was a second brood Small Copper which took advantage of some of the late summer Asters growing wild all over our garden. It’s got blue spots in the wings which apparently makes it the caeruleopunctata form, which was an interesting snippet to learn about.

So it may not have been particularly good news nationally for butterflies, but it seems our Malvern garden has been lucky.  Whether we’ve genuinely had more species visiting or whether we’ve just been seeing more because, thanks to lockdown, we’ve spent more time in the garden I don’t know. Whatever the reason, they have certainly been very welcome little rays of sunshine in an otherwise troubled year.

Damsels & Dragons – Part 3

I knew as soon as I posted the last dragonfly update on the pond that it probably wouldn’t be the last and sure enough over the last month or so there has been plenty of dragon activity in the garden.

The darters have continued to be the predominant dragonflies at the pond, but with a new addition – at least one Ruddy Darter.

Very similar to the Common Darters, there may well have been more than one Ruddy visiting, but unless they sit still enough to get a decent photo, I find it hard to tell them apart.

The Ruddy ones have all-black legs (left), whereas the Common ones have a dingy yellow streak down the legs (right).

 

 

 

But it’s impossible to see any of that when they are flying. And they’ve been doing a lot of that, often paired up and laying eggs together. Unless they pause and rest, I’ve no idea whether it is Ruddy or Common pairs I am watching. This pair did take a bit of a break, with the male seeming to have made himself comfy on the perch, while leaving the female clinging on for dear life! (I’ll refrain from commenting on a woman’s lot!)

They flit around the pond, laying eggs with a dab of the female’s abdomen in the water. They are very hard to either video or photograph as no sooner have you focussed than they’re off across the pond. So apologies for the shaky video and fuzzy photos. The male holds onto the female at the back of her head using claspers at the end of his abdomen.

 

They then fly in tandem around the pond depositing the eggs. The eggs are just laid apparently at random in the water, rather than being carefully placed onto vegetation as some species do.  The males hold onto the females while they lay the eggs to prevent other males from mating with her. I don’t know which one of them controls the movement – whether the female decides when to dip or whether the male just dunks her in the water when he feels like it.

Occasionally we’ve been lucky enough to find a pair of darters at the earlier stage in the mating cycle, when they are curled together in the wheel position, before they take off on their tandem flight. The male clasps the female at the back of her head and the female curves her abdomen up and round to collect the sperm from the top of his abdomen.  When they are stationary like this it is possible to get sharp enough photos to determine which species we’re looking at. So far all these pairs have turned out to be Common Darters, but hopefully the Ruddy Darters have been mating in the pond too.

We had some very hot weather for a few days in August and one Common Darter in particular spent a lot of time in the obelisk pose (I’ve not made that up, it’s a real thing in dragonflies!). They align themselves so that the tip of the abdomen is pointed towards the sun – it’s supposed to reduce the surface area exposed to the heat and so stop them overheating.

One of them even did it right in front of me, its abdomen pointing right up and pulsating slightly. Again apologies for blurry camera work, but I hadn’t been expecting a pulsating bottom to be pointed at me this way!

 

The Emperor dragonflies were still visiting in August and laying lots of eggs. This one made good use of one of the barley logs we have in the pond to keep the water clear. I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize a dragonfly, but she really does seem to have a look of concentration on her face to me.

 

There have been some other large dragonflies zooming around the pond this last few weeks, but it took until a few days ago for a couple to stop long enough to get a photo. For some reason both chose to rest on the Himalayan Honeysuckle that hangs over the pond from next door.  After some debate the first one was identified as a female Southern Hawker.

I thought the second one was probably the same, but turns out no, it was a female Migrant Hawker.

I think these two hawker species will be another pair that I can only reliably separate with decent photos. Both stunning dragonflies though.

So that brings our dragonfly/damselfly tally for the new pond to 9 species. Pretty impressive for a pond that is only just over 6 months old. And there are still a few species that we might yet hope to see in future years. Hopefully next summer we will have plenty of dragonflies emerging from the pond and the cycle will begin again. Now that’s something to smile about.

 

 

 

Damsels & Dragons – Part 2

As promised, here’s part 2 of Damsels and Dragons. Since part 1 was all about damselflies, it will come as no surprise that part 2 is all about the dragonflies we’ve seen in the new pond so far.

The first species appeared in the middle of May – a Broad-bodied Chaser. It was a female with a lovely golden and, as the name suggests, broad body (well abdomen). We’ve not seen any males, but the female (or possibly more than one female) has been back several times and has clearly found a male somewhere as she’s been laying eggs. Each egg is laid incredibly quickly as she dabs her abdomen in the water.

As she was our first proper dragonfly in the pond, we went a bit overboard on the photos, but I’ve whittled them down to just a few here.

I like in the photo below that you can see how her wings beating is causing ripples in the water with the downward pressure.

One of the things I like about dragonflies is the way the like to find a perch from which to survey their pond. So I figured our pond would benefit from a dragonfly perch – or stick shoved into the ground at a jaunty angle. So I was really chuffed when our first chaser gave it her seal of approval and perched right on it.

The next dragonfly to turn up has only been seen once so far (perhaps it found our pond lacking somehow or perhaps it didn’t find a mate?) It was a Four-spotted Chaser, a species I don’t think we’ve seen before anywhere, let alone in our own garden. It may have found the pond lacking but it did pose nicely on “my” perch,

It also posed beautifully on a bee garden ornament a friend had kindly given me for Christmas. I’d stuck the bee on a stick by the pond, but hadn’t actually expected the dragonflies to take me up on it – but it clearly makes another good perch.

It didn’t hang around for very long, so I didn’t get my usual hundreds of photos, but I quite like this one where it looks like it’s falling off the borage – not that a dragonfly would ever do anything as inelegant as fall off something.

I got excited when the next dragonfly arrived, thinking we’d got another new species. It had a broad abdomen and was laying eggs, but it didn’t look like any female Broad-bodied chaser I’d ever seen before. Turns out this was exactly what it was, just a more mature specimen. Apparently older females change colour and start to look more like the males. This one had quite a bit of blue on her tail, so she must have been an old gal!

I thought as I starting typing this post that this next one was the final (although I was still hoping for more) species of dragonfly to find our pond – the Common Darter.

The Common Darter can look very similar to the Ruddy Darter, but if you look at their legs very closely, you can see that the Common Darter has a dirty yellow stripe down each leg. The Ruddy darters on the other hand have all black legs. There are probably other ways of telling them apart, but this seems to be the most reliable – if you can get a decent photo of a leg!

 

Here’s a couple more photos of it, just because it posed so nicely on the perch (yes I was still smug that they were using “my” perch even a month later).

So I’d thought that would be it for this post, but before I could upload it, a dream came true and a female Emperor dragonfly graced our pond. Not only graced it, but laid eggs in it!

 

She’s been back a couple of times since, so plenty of photo opportunities, although getting a decent shot of her in flight has proved nigh on impossible.

She didn’t sit on my perch but I can forgive her for that for being just so big and beautiful! So all being well we should have emperor dragonfly larvae in the pond for the coming year – perhaps not good news for some of the other pond inhabitants as the dragonfly larvae are huge and voracious predators.

So that’s our dragonfly/damselfly round up so far – 6 species to date. Of course it would be nice to get a few more; I would love to see one of the Demoiselle species, but I think they prefer running water. Maybe we need to install a stream next?

Damsels & Dragons – Part 1

Our new pond only went in just over 5 months ago, but it’s been truly amazing what has already found its way here. One of the groups of animals we’d really hoped to attract was the Odonata – the dragonflies and damselflies. Of course we didn’t expect to get them for a few months, they don’t start emerging until the warmer weather comes, so all we could do was watch and wait. One good thing about the lockdown – it gives you plenty of time to watch and wait by a pond.

Right on time though at the end of April our first species arrived – the Large Red Damselfly. I’d spotted one down at the allotments, so was keeping an especially beady eye out and the next day one found its way to our pond.

Within a few days I was even more excited to find we had a pair of mating Large Red Damselflies. The male is the upper one of the pair. He has a pair of hooks at the end of his abdomen which he uses to hold onto the female around her neck. He holds onto her while she lays the eggs to prevent other males getting a look in!

Their larvae take two years to develop, so all being well, we should have our own “home-grown” red damselflies emerging from the pond in 2022.

I was barely getting over the excitement of the first damselfly’s appearance when the next one turned up – a stunning blue, or as it turned out Azure Damselfly. Since then we’ve seen them a few times, both males and females, but have never spotted a mating pair. Hopefully they have perhaps just been more discrete than the red damselflies and we will be lucky enough to have some emerge next year – they have just a one year life cycle compared to the 2 year for the reds.

The next two photos are of female Azures, below which are 2 males. The females have a bluey green tint, while the males are a much more vivid blue – azure I suppose!

As the pond was new and dragonflies and damselflies take at least a year to develop, we hadn’t expected to get any newly emerging ones. What we hadn’t banked on was getting damselfly larvae arriving with plants we’d ordered. This is the only explanation I can think of, for finding a newly emerged damselfly still pumping up its body on a reed.

The exuvia that the new adult had crawled out of was still clinging to the bottom of the reed, like some weird little alien.

The damselfly was very pale; it can apparently take a few days for them to develop their mature colouration, so we can’t be sure what species this is, but it’s probably one of the blue tailed ones. To start with the abdomen was shorter than the wings, but as we watched, it pumped itself up until eventually the abdomen was clearly much longer than the wings. You can see this in the sequence of photos below.

While its rear end was busy getting bigger, it had a quick wash and brush up round the head using its front legs.

Despite us both sitting there watching, we somehow managed to miss the moment of take-off. But a few minutes later we spotted this one just a foot away on a plant by the pond – probably/possibly the same individual having a rest after all the exertions of emerging. It has darkened up, but still lacks the blue colouration.

So that’s a round up of our damsels – very pleased to have such success with the pond in only the first few months. I’ll do a second blog post for our dragons next – the damsels have been great, but the dragons really are stunning!

Bee ‘n’ Bees

We have always tried to make our garden as bee friendly as possible – we garden organically, there are plenty of weeds providing nectar through most of the year and we put up bee hotels. We’ve had these regular bee hotels dotted around the garden for a few years and they’ve proved very popular with a few species, but most noticably the Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis). Every spring they are buzzing with bee activity and every spring I try and photograph/video them with mixed results. The Red Mason Bees have an ingenious system whereby the females lay female eggs at the back of the tubes first, followed by eggs destined to be males at the front. Because they are at the front the males emerge first and will initially feed a bit then they head back to the nest or bee hotel to wait for the virgin females to emerge.

The airways can get a bit congested as many males, desperate for their chance to mate with the females, jostle for position. Here’s a short video of a bunch of males doing just that – buzzing around, ever hopeful.

 

Red Mason bees are medium sized, solitary (despite the crowds around the bee hotel) bees with as the name suggest bright red hairs on their bodies. As they get older the hairs can fade or get worn away and they lose their bright red colour; the one in the photo below is probably fairly recently emerged.

The males can get so excited at the prospect of the new females, that they will pounce on virtually anything roughly bee sized that appears, including each other. I found the trio in this next video on the path beneath a bee hotel. The female is the one on the bottom with two makes stacked on top of her. One of them is going to be very disappointed!

 

The mason bit of their name comes from their use of mud to form individual nest chambers for the larvae to develop in. Each tube in a bee hotel may contain several muddy chambers and the end of the tube is sealed off with damp mud, which then hardens to form a solid plug. Here she’s just deposited a fresh blob of mud which she works into position with her feet.

The Red Mason bees aren’t the only spring species to use the bee hotels, we also saw some Blue Mason bees (Osmia caerulescens). These were smaller than their red cousins and so tended to use the smaller tubes. I think this is a male which has more of a metallic green body with pale brown hairs.

Beneath one set of bee hotels is our bench set on slabs, which in turn are set (somewhat unevenly it has to be said) on sand. While videoing the mason bees, we realised that there were also bees burrowing into the sand beneath us (I will blame them for any unevenness of the slabs). I’m not sure whether they are also mason bees, or something different, they didn’t stay still long enough to get a decent photo. But they were certainly busy bees.

 

So I’ve always been very happy with our bee hotels and then I saw this, the absolute Ritz of bee hotels.

The inner section can be removed for storage and cleaning and the side panels can be removed to reveal a Perspex panel so that you can view the bees working away. So of course we had to get one! I waited patiently until the end of March then up it went on the fence wall ready for bee season. I got very excited when I spotted the first bee in one of the chambers.

Unfortunately the bees didn’t seem quite so excited by my deluxe offering and most seemed to stick with the old bee hotels. This may be because the old hotels with last year’s bee chambers in would have smelled of bees and so attracted the new generation back. In the end though I did get a few bees using the new box, although annoyingly most seemed to go for the tubes either above or below the viewing chamber. I did manage to get this video of one female stock-piling the pollen for her egg. She starts by rearranging the pollen that’s already in there and then turns around and uses her legs to brush the pollen off her body and add it to the pile.

 

Once there’s enough pollen in there, she will lay an egg in it and then seal that chamber and start work on the next.  By the end of the red mason bee season, I had several tubes full of developing larvae.

The eggs hatch into larvae and feed on the pollen that the mother bee has provided for them.

Once the larvae have eaten all the food they will spin a silk cocoon and pupate, turning into adult bees. They then stay in the cocoons like this through the winter, until the warmer spring days tell them it is time to emerge. Hopefully I will be able to get photos of these cocoons when the time comes. For the time being, the inner section of this deluxe bee hotel has been removed (complete with developing larvae) and is being safely (I hope) stored in the garage away from parasites. A new inner section has been put out which will hopefully attract the next season’s bees – the Leaf-cutter bees. Watch this space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Video of ones nesting in sand – yes

 

 

Video of red mason in tube yes

photos of tubes – yes

photos of grubs – yes

video of trio – yes

video of males buzzing round old box – yes

 

Lonesome George – Born Free!

Way back at the end of last August I blogged about Lonesome George, the Eyed Hawk-moth caterpillar I had been raising. You can read the original blog post here:  https://toolazytoweed.uk/2019/08/29/lonesome-george/

Now, finally, George’s story is complete!

On 30th June 2019 I caught a female Eyed Hawk-moth in my moth trap. I put her briefly in a pot so I could take some photographs of her. Here she is in all her splendour.

While in captivity she laid 2 eggs. Hopefully she laid many more eggs too, once she was released, as she looked full to bursting.

I decided to try and rear the caterpillars if I could. They both hatched into tiny caterpillars, but sadly only one lasted beyond the first day – Lonesome George was the survivor. George was lovingly tended and fed fresh apple leaves every day and soon grew into a handsome fellow about 5cm long with a voracious appetite.

Towards the end of August 2019 he pupated and he’s been safely kept in a large tub with soil and leaves ever since. I checked on him every couple of days to make sure nothing untoward had happened to him.

At the  beginning of May I started seeing reports on social media of Eyed Hawk-moths being out and about, so I stepped up my surveillance of George. For the last few days I had been checking him almost hourly for any signs of activity. What I’d hoped to see was him (or her) emerging from the chrysalis and to watch the wings expand into full blown moth! Of course George had other ideas and chose to emerge during the night.  I got up yesterday morning and checked on him about 7am to find the chrysalis cracked open – I had a split second panic that something had somehow got into the tub and got him.

I love that in the bit of the chrysalis shell that has broken off, you can see the imprint of his antennae – it’s almost like a death mask! Anyway I checked the rest of the tub and there was George sitting proud and fully formed. Here’s the first hasty photo I took of him in case he flew off.

Fortunately he was fairly dopey, perhaps after the exertions of emerging and of course it was daylight. I say he, I can’t be totally sure but I think George is probably a George not a Georgina. I read that the males tend to be slightly smaller than the females and that they sit with their abdomens curled up a bit – both of which seemed to apply to George.

Having reared him for a year, I was loathe to just release him during the day and have him snaffled by a hungry sparrow. So I kept him in his tub in the shade for the day until it started to get dark and I gave him a stick to perch on to make him feel more comfortable. I did of course take the opportunity to take lots (and I mean lots) of photos of him. Here are just a few.

He had been raised on apple leaves as a caterpillar, so when the time came, the apple tree seemed the most sensible place to release him. I waited until it was almost dark and most of the birds had turned in for the night, then gently transferred him from his stick to some apple leaves.

He fidgeted a bit then settled down.

By this time it was getting pretty dark and I spent the next hour juggling camera, torches and tripod, trying to film George’s departure. About 21:45 he started fidgeting a bit more and even started having a good clean of his antennae, perhaps getting them in tip top condition to detect any nearby females.

He then started revving up his wings, presumably warming up the muscles which would never have been used before. I just had time to click record again on the camera.

Just before he took off, he squirted out a creamy white liquid, which I believe is the remains of the meconium (I’d had to google this) which was used to pump up the wings. Obviously there was some waste left over, so he expelled this before flight. But then he was off, free at last, circling the apple tree before I lost sight of him in the dark,

I had hoped to get a photo of the eye spots which give the Eyed Hawkmoth its name and which it flashes when threatened, but he refused to show them. I suppose I should feel good that George didn’t feel threatened by me! The best I managed to do in the end was take this still from the video.

Adult Eyed Hawkmoths don’t feed, they have no working mouth parts with which to do so. So sadly George will probably only live for a couple of weeks at the most. It may sound daft, but I felt quite emotional releasing him and watching him fly away. I had spent the best part of a year rearing him and checking on him almost daily and I did feel genuinely sad to see him go although very proud that he had made it. I just hope he finds a female (or finds a male if I got it wrong and he is a Georgina) and that our garden will be home to future generations of Georges. Good Luck George.