Thursday 4 April 2019

Purple emperor and Lesser purple emperor butterflies in France

Purple emperor and Lesser purple emperor butterflies – a simplified life cycle and how to see them.

These two butterflies spend most of their time in the woodland canopy where they feed on aphid honeydew, or occasionally when they descend to feed on sap runs or, in the case of the male, animal droppings, carrion or moist ground that provide much needed salts and minerals which are generally the only times we get the chance to see them.

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Above - Male 
Above - Female 

Both species use willows, principally Goat willow, and in the case of the Lesser Purple Emperor poplars as well, especially Populus tremula, for their caterpillars to feed on.

Eggs are placed singly on leaves near the tree canopy and the caterpillars have an extraordinary life cycle that can last 300 days or more with various pauses between each instar change, the last before pupation being a long hibernation through winter in a crevice or branch fork wrapped in a little spun silk.  Pupation takes place in spring and adults fly from May.

Both species can be observed throughout France where there are woodlands or copses but are more numerous in the warmer parts of the country.

As mentioned above they are drawn to animal droppings, carrion or moist ground where they can access minerals and other salts and many people make up mixtures to attract them during the summer months. Most of these mixtures are fairly foul by human standards and frequently contain rotting shrimp and other seafood or fish such as sardine. Best put in a container for a week or two somewhere warm before being put out on the ground on a sunny morning in July or August. Dead animals and mammal excrement are also popular but maybe not something everyone would want in their garden.

Of course your success will be dependant on the butterflies being present which is one more good reason for growing Goat willow and even if you don’t have either species of Purple Emperor where you are these mixes will attract some other species of butterfly.

Have fun - Chris

Thursday 21 March 2019

Assassin bug the Masked hunter, Reduvius personatus, in France

Masked hunter, Reduvius personatus,  Réduve masque

Found in most regions of France this member of the True bug family is known as an Assassin bug and due to its secretive nocturnal behaviour it tends to go unnoticed even when in your home.

They are especially fond of old houses, barns and outbuildings where they hunt other insects including bedbugs, silverfish, book lice and flies. However they will eat any number of small insects and can also be found in other habitats including woodland, scrub and grasslands but always avoiding the light. Where ever they are they are never in large numbers.

Although they bite and kill their prey by piercing them with their robust rostrum they rarely use this against humans unless handled roughly but if they do it isn't dangerous but can be extremely painful.

They spend the winter as juveniles and then breed in May or June having reached the adult stage.  During their development stages, (instars), they exude a sticky substance and coat themselves in dust and debris presumably to camouflage themselves.

Rather like the House Centipede they help maintain a balance in the home by predating on other insects even though you may not even be aware of their presence. 


Monday 11 March 2019

Ladybirds in France including the Asian Harlequin Ladybird

Every year in autumn and spring there are articles in the media, especially in the UK, about the Asian Ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, or Harlequin Ladybird as it is known, one of several thousand different non native species introduced in both France and the UK although only a few are ladybirds. This species is generally regarded as the most invasive ladybird on Earth and although they undoubtedly have an environmental impact due to their high breeding and survival rate combined with their voracious appetite most experts are of the opinion that they are now so abundant that there is little if any point in killing them.

Harlequin ladybirds, above, are extremely variable but most have a clearly defined "M" or "W" on the pronotum.

Although they feed most commonly on aphids they have a wide food range that includes scale insects, adelgids, the eggs and larvae of butterflies and moths, many other small insects including other ladybirds, pollen, nectar, and sugary fluids, including honeydew and the juice from ripe fruits bringing them into direct competition with native species of Ladybird many of which are already under pressure resulting from all the usual reasons, habitat loss and pesticide use being uppermost.

The risk as always that comes from articles in the media and the consequent sharing on social media is that some people will unwittingly start killing anything that they don’t recognise as the stereotypical image of a Ladybird, generally the most common of which is the Red and Black spotted 7 spot ladybird, and there are too many people already locked into a “kill everything that isn’t a butterfly” mode of thinking.

To move on, there are 90 or more species of native Ladybird in France most of which wouldn’t be recognised as such. Some are brown, some black, some yellow and black, some black and red, some orange and perhaps not surprisingly many are highly selective about where they live and what they eat with many being vegetarian.

It would be difficult here to include that number of native species, so I have listed a few here to give some idea of just how different they are. 

Kidney-spot ladybird (Chilocorus renipustulatus) Black body with large red spot on each wing case, feeds on scale insects on the bark of trees.

Pine ladybird (Exochomus 4-pustulatus) Usually elytra are black with two larger red comma-shaped spots and two smaller red round or oval spots, feeds on aphids and scale insects.

Heather ladybird (Chilocorus 2-pustulatus) Black with 2 to 6 red spots feeds on scale insects.

16-spot ladybird (Tytthaspis 16-punctata) Beige with black spots. Feeds on Aphids, Pollen, nectar and fungi. Can overwinter in large numbers, 50 or more in one cluster.

Orange ladybird (Halyzia 16-guttata) Orange Ladybirds can be bright yellow or orange in colour with 16 creamy spots. Feeds on mildew.

22-spot ladybird (Psyllobora 22-punctata). Bright yellow with 22 black spots. Feeds on Mildews

24 spot ladybird (Subcoccinella vigintiquattuorpunctata) Sometimes known as the Alfalfa Ladybird. Orange –red, number of spots may vary. Feeds on a variety of plants including Campions, vetches, trefoils, chickweed and plantains among others. They will also take grasses and in France can be a pest of lucerne.

Hieroglyphic ladybird (Coccinella hieroglyphica) brown or black with black stripes, spots and patches. Feeds on larvae of Heather leaf beetle.

Bryony ladybird (Henosepilachna argus) Orange red with 11 black spots. Feeds on White bryony and plants of the Melon family.

28-spotted potato ladybird (Henosepilachna vigintioctopunctata) Orange with 28 spots feeds on the foliage of potatoes and other solanaceous crops.


Saturday 9 March 2019

Pine processionary moth and hairy caterpillars in France

With the aid principally of social media in all its aspects the Pine processionary moth increasingly strikes fear into the population with all the stories about how dangerous they can be.

There is certainly no denying their harmful nature should someone or their pet animal come into close physical contact with them or breathe in their harmful hairs but we mustn’t let this lead us into a panic that results in the destruction of our other native hairy or web forming caterpillars that need all the protection that they can get.

The first thing to understand is that Pine processionary moth nests are always in Pine trees and only rarely in Fir trees. A caterpillar web anywhere else is a different type of caterpillar.

Secondly, when on the ground they will invariably be found in the classic processions “nose to tail” and only very rarely as individuals should they have been blown from the trees by storms.

Thirdly, they will only be found on the ground when Pine or Fir trees are in very close proximity.

Moving on to a few other web forming species with one that always causes undue worry and that is the Spindle Ermine Moth that form large webs on Spindle trees often completely covering them and stripping all the leaves. This usually occurs in early May when the first leaves are produced and despite it looking like a disaster zone more leaves are produced when the caterpillars descend to pupate and the tree busts back into life.  

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Spindle Ermine Moth 
Another species that was once very common but now in decline principally due to hedgerow removal and poor management is the Small Eggar Moth.  The caterpillars form dense webs on Hawthorn and Blackthorn. Again the host plant recovers once the caterpillars have descended to pupate.   
Small Eggar Moth

Various species of Ermine moth can be found on apple trees and these again are harmless to the overall health of the tree and humans although they may cause damage to fruits should the web engulf them. 
Ermine moth species on Quince tree

There are of course many hairy caterpillars that don’t form nesting webs and all hairy caterpillars can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions but this would normally only be if they came in contact with sensitive areas of our skin or if someone was unusually sensitive. As children we used to have great fun putting them down each others shirts to cause itching. However that said they will have no effect on the harder surfaces of our skin such as our fingers and the palms of our hands. 

I’ll provide a small selection here of some of the more common species that people are likely to come across and I can't emphasise enough the need to care for all our native species that are struggling so much. Without caterpillars and moths a huge number of other species will starve without enough to eat. One Blue Tit chick alone can eat up to 100 caterpillars a day.
Brown Tail Moth
Fox Moth
Garden Tiger Moth
Garden Tiger Moth
Oak Eggar Moth
Pale Tussock Moth
Ruby Tiger Moth
Cream spot Tiger


Friday 8 March 2019

New Bat species for France - Myotis crypticus

Le Murin cryptique  Myotis crypticus   Feb 2019

A new species of bat has been discovered in wooded areas of Italy, France, Switzerland and Spain.

This brings the number of species to be found in France
To 35

It is very close to Natterer's bat (Myotis nattereri) and positive identification has so far relied on DNA analysis. Despite their closeness they do not hybridise. 

Reproduction colonies are usually in hollow trees but can be in artificial man made structures. Hibernation takes place underground in fissures. Much remains to be known about this species.


Wednesday 6 March 2019

Beetles in the Firewood in France

Every year in France, usually from about February, some people find their houses invaded by small red or reddish-brown beetles. This is by no means everywhere and many people will never see one, however where they are present they can sometimes be observed in relatively large numbers.

The creature concerned is a Longhorn Beetle, Pyrrhidium sanguineum, although being only 8 to 12 mm it is rarely recognised as being one. Known in English as Welsh Oak Longhorn Beetle and its common French name is La Callidie Sanguine).

Females lay eggs in crevices in dead or freshly cut wood with bark that is exposed to the sun from March – June and are polyphagous in nature using a range of deciduous trees, but with a preference for oak (Quercus spp.).  Larvae burrow into the timber making galleries up to 60cm in length where, when fully grown, they pupate.  They can’t use seasoned timber and usually have an annual life cycle, occasionally this can be two years.

When this wood is stored or kept for a while in the home or perhaps a garage as firewood the adult beetles tend to emerge earlier due to the higher ambient temperature. Where firewood is stored outside in proximity to the home they may be seen a little later in the year when it is warmer.

Fortunately for us we don’t need to worry as they are completely harmless in our homes and can be popped outside where they belong.


Sunday 3 March 2019

Glanville Fritillary France

The Glanville Fritillary, Melitaea cinxia,  is named after Lady Eleanor Glanville, a 17th century Lepidopterist who discovered this species in Lincolnshire. She first discovered this species in 1702 when it was first named as the Lincolnshire Fritillary and only later in 1748 was it was officially re-named the Glanville Fritillary.  These days it is mainly confined to the south coast of the Isle of Wight, with the occasional colony, typically short-lived, appearing on the South Hampshire coast.

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It is a butterfly that can be found in most regions of France and the Channel Islands where it forms small colonies where there is suitable habitat. There has been a reduction in numbers especially in the north and west of its range with habitat loss being the most likely main cause.

They require low growing sparse grassland, natural flower meadows, scrub, woodland edges and even roadside verges but due to the increase in what is called improved pasture and in cereal production in the broad sense there is increasing isolation of populations. The widespread use of Roundup (Glyphosate) to keep the ground clear in vineyards is another threat to this butterfly along with a number of other species.  

In the southern half of the country there are usually two broods with the first on the wing in April / May and the second generation June / September. Regardless of whether there is a single brood or two broods in a season they over winter as caterpillars in webs that they form on the ground with their food plant which is principally Plantain hence the French common name of La Mélitée du Plantain. 

Lady Eleanor’s collection of butterflies still exists and is housed in the Natural history Museum.