Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A South Downs Sojourn

Southern Green Shieldbug Nezara viridula
Image credit: Luis Nunes Alberto, January 2008

‘Will you please stop harassing those ants?!’ 
‘But they like it…!’

I would love to say that this request was directed at the Small Person but no, it was I who was the recipient, and I place the blame almost entirely at the rather delicious feet of Nature Chris from CBeebies’ 'Green Balloon Club'. During the show’s ‘holiday visit’ to the Isle of Arran, the gorgeous ginger-haired one demonstrated how, by gently inserting and wiggling a stick into an anthill, one’s efforts would normally be rewarded by a show of teeming ants. With this in mind, when faced with a field full of anthills what else could I do - if only to rekindle a fond TV moment?

Having left the Small Person in the more-than-capable hands of her Nanny, my lovely Other Half and I were enjoying an hour or so on our own, exploring a wildflower meadow on the eastern edge of the South Downs. It was a warm day, intermittently sunny and overcast with a light, refreshing breeze. Off we went, hand-in-hand, to see what we could find. Needless to say, the hand-holding didn’t last long, as the urge to rummage, fondle, poke and probe quickly took over (amongst the plants and undergrowth…you dirty-minded people!).

Whilst my Other Half was off peering at flowering plants, or ‘botanising’ as we’ve taken to affectionately label the activity, I was seeking out things of the more mobile variety, and I was not to be disappointed. Being late summer, the air was alive with the ceaseless chirrup of grasshoppers and field crickets, and virtually every step taken produced an orthopteran leap of varying magnitude. Common and Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus icarus and P. coridon) butterflies flitted this way and that, their deeply-hued thoraxes shimmering alluringly in the sunlight, hoverflies darted about under my nose, and closer examination of foliage revealed 7-spot ladybirds (Coccinella 7-punctata), shiny red soldier beetles (Rhagonycha fulva), flies and small bugs galore, and a particularly bright Southern Green Shieldbug (Nezara viridula), the latter a recent arrival in the UK from its native Africa.

But it was the anthills that insisted on continually grabbing my attention. Being something of a self-confessed ant aficionado, it was hardly really surprising, and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t get down on my hands and knees for a closer inspection of each and every earthy mound. Not all of the anthills released pourings of their occupants when gently poked but those that did, well, I could have watched them for hours! It is my understanding that the species making its home in this particular meadow is Tapinoma erraticum, a small black ant, superficially similar in appearance to Lasius niger, found in the south of England, usually in coastal areas. Interestingly, the species has no sting and appears not to squirt formic acid; instead, as its defence, it uses its ability to run like the entomological equivalent of the cheetah, thus outrunning other ant species! This information is rather reassuring, as at one point in my investigations, I did discover that my left arm was being used as an ant racing track…

Of course, being a wild flower meadow, it would be rude not to mention the plants. I was relying on my lovely Other Half to keep all botanical records; however, the notebook used is currently awol, so I’m having to delve into my memory to come up with a very abbreviated list of plants seen. The South Downs is an area of chalk downland, thus geologically very different from our usual stomping grounds (Cornwall, in particular West Penwith, being predominantly granite), which means that there were a good number of species not routinely encountered during previous ‘botanising’ ventures.

(Very) abbreviated list:

• Black Medick Medicago lupulina
• Blue fleabane Erigeron acer
• Common Toadflax (henceforth to be known as ‘Toadflaps’ in honour of a friend’s slip of the tongue) Linaria vulgaris
• Fleabane Pulicaria dysenterica
• Hemp Agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum
• Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris
• Perforate St. John’s Wort Hypericum perforatum
• Ploughman’s Spikenard Inula conyza
• Ragwort Senecio jacobaea
• Red clover Trifolium pratense
• Rosebay Willowherb Chamerion angustifolium
• Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica
• Sycamore Acer pseudoplanatus
• Traveller's Joy Clematis vitalba
• Wild Carrot (NB. I particularly enjoyed playing ‘Spot the single red flower in the centre of the flower head’) Daucus carota

Rosebay Willowherb Chamerion angustifolium
Image credit: Bff, March 2010

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