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May, extraordinary exuberant May. How can anyone fail to be blown away by such a stunning month? I walk with my eyes out on stalks. They sweep across the multi-layers of a green-gold filigree landscape and down to minute iridescent creatures nestled in the heart of a buttercup. Every sense is tingled and tweezed.
The scent of blossoms is exquisite yet elusive, I catch a wisp, a suggestion – then it’s gone – I find myself sniffing, head up like a wild animal. Greens, there are so many and each with its own aroma; nasal sharp and acid citrus-bright, crushed bitter-sweet liquor and garlic-pungent aromatics – I taste each smell on my tongue.
I become sensitised to sound. Like a tuning fork I pick up the buzz and whir of the insect world under the constant celebration of bird song. The steady bass drone of the bumble bee, the frenetic high-pitched whine of the midge and the scary cacophony of a billion cluster flies taking off from the thatch as the sun pops out from behind a cloud. Fragile daddy-long-legs flip-flap knocking and bumping with flimsy clumsiness and March flies thistledown around your head, sticking in your hair, eyes and lips.
Life’s abundant. It’s everywhere. There’s a continuous rustling and scurrying in the trees, hedgerows and verges. And did you know we’ve hares in the far River Meadow? I’m so excited; it’s unusual for this non-arable part of the world. And the Hobby is back!
The slippery slide to Christmas panic well and truly kicked in today…
I was okay. I thought I’d got a handle on it. Work has been rather demanding, but it’s under control – just. We’d decided that we weren’t going overboard on presents this year; stockings would be a joint venture – couples sharing – apart from children who we could all spoil; we’d decided the main thing was to enjoy ourselves and the family being together (actually we do say this every year!).
But today the rug was whisked from under my feet. There were icy cold fingers running down my back and persistent butterflies churning in my stomach. It’s strange as I’m not an early organised buying-presents-far-in-advance sort of person; I enjoy the excitement and anticipation of the build-up. We don’t put the tree up until a few days before Christmas and our decorations come from the wood; armfuls of holly, ivy, pine and fir to decorate mantelpieces, bookcases, fireplaces and beams, with Will weaving glossy darkly-green wreaths for the doors.
Last weekend the Christmas goose, purchased from a friend, was despatched and a finger-numbing, but happy-chatty companionable afternoon was spent plucking in a sneezing, tickling snow of white down. The puddings? They were made, stirred and wished into by the family back along on stir-up Sunday; the cake’s maturing in its tin and I’ve jars of mincemeat on the larder shelves. So what gives? Why do I feel so unready, flakey and shakey?
I think it begun with the moths – a couple of weeks ago I went to put on a warm jumper and its sleeves were peppered, well no actually, they were shredded by clothes moth larvae. Since then all, each and every precious thing appears to have succumbed to moth damage. Cupboards, drawers and shelves are having to be cleared and the contents stored in the deepfreeze – not a pre-Christmas job by choice.
Then the washing machine decided to have a wobble – and on a farm in winter, with our mud, the washing machine is elevated to god-like status, I assure you. I prayed. I also kicked and banged. In the end I offered well-managed and sorted sacrifices (clothes and pockets devoid of hidden nails, straw, binder twine, lumps of soggy tissue and mouldy barley); this appears to have appeased the mechanical washing god for the moment.
But it was this morning that hammered the panic home. The scraper (the implement I use daily to scrape out the cow palace) gave a tortured teeth-on-edge tearing screech and hung limply from the arms of the bobcat – broken and twisted. Kaput.
Following hot on the heels of scraper, Robert’s car’s crankshaft pulley was making ominous noises – “you get out of there – that’s not safe” scolded Chris at the garage “how you got home last night’s a bloody miracle!” Car out of action for the foreseeable future.
So what with the moth infestation and freezer full of clothes, not food for feeding the thousands; Amazon deliveries consisting of moth repellents, cedar balls and pheromones, not gorgeous trinkets and presents to die for; my broken can’t-live-without mechanical aids and a defunct car – I feel a little overwhelmed.
I thought a bit of beauty was in order after the ordeal of the slug (no, no; murder hasn’t been committed…yet!)
Yesterday the sun was shining making the autumn colours glow in the hedges along Marshford lane, and on a twig of blackthorn we found an egg of the rare Brown Hairstreak butterfly.
These elusive butterflies are rarely seen as they fly high in the tree canopy, preferably around the tops of ash trees, feeding on aphid honeydew. They sometimes venture down to nectar on plants such as bramble, fleabane and hemp-agrimony.
Numbers are unfortunately declining steeply, largely because so many farmers trim their hedges every year. Eggs are particularly vulnerable as the female lays her eggs on the new growth of blackthorn, the caterpillar’s food plant, which is removed during trimming.
A couple of years ago Robert (I forgot to mention that his other pets are caterpillars, which he breeds through to moths and butterflies – better than slugs – just) found a young brown hairstreak caterpillar which duly pupated. He photographed the adult butterfly emerging, watched its wings expand, and then released it to fly quickly away to the tops of the trees.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed an insect hovering around flowers that you presume is a bee or wasp, but on closer inspection something is just not right? No pollen sacks? No sting? Most probably it’s a hoverfly.
Robert, as you may have gathered, has a keen interest in moths and bumble bees, but this year due to the awful weather they have done very badly. So unfortunately his numerous mothing and bee finding forays have been total washouts and he’s returned home empty handed and despondent. However during these expeditions he’s noticed that the hoverfly has actually done rather well; so the frustrated entomologist in him has found an alternative outlet – identifying and photographing hoverflies.
Hoverflies, as their name suggests, are known for their hovering abilities. Many of our 250 British species are brightly coloured, mimicking bees and wasps. Although they themselves are quite harmless, having no sting, by this ruse they gain some protection from birds and other predators. The adults are abundant on flowers for much of the year, feeding on both pollen and nectar, while the larvae live in rooting wood, compost heaps, stagnant water and so forth feeding largely on decaying organic matter. A few, like Volucella pellucens, live in the nests of bees and wasps, scavenging dead and dying insects and other debris. And another, the Arctophila superbiens’ larvae, live in water filled hoofprint along shady muddy paths…no brownie points for knowing why this particular insect has thrived this year!
Isn’t this extraordinary – it’s an Azure Damselfly roost beside one of our ponds. Looking at these it’s easy to see how myth and legend of fairy abound. They reminded me of…oh, what’s it? Ah yes – Harkness, Captain Jack…mysterious Torchwood. The Dr Who spin-off series set in Cardiff. I remember seeing an episode where gruesome, gargoyle fairy-like beings (bearing uncanny similarity to these damselflies) wooed and enchanted young and old in the effort to abduct and absorb them into their wicked ethereal other-world, where plans were afoot to consume the earth as we know it – well, loosely!
Imagine being woven into a web of illusion, confusion and enchantment and led, pixi-mazed, unknowingly into quietly lethal sinking bogs! The stories flourish of incidents similar to this even on Hannaborough Moor!
The Emerald Damselfly – extraordinary, but definitely more insect-like.
Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly exuvia (larval casing)…macabre and ghoulish.
On a walk around the spectacular limestone Calanque de Marseille we came across a bumble bee that was unnaturally still on a flower; on close investigation we saw it was quite dead, held firmly in the jaws of a crab spider. The spider was nearly impossible to detect as she matched the colour of the flower she was inhabiting exactly. Returning home we read up about the habits of said crab spider. Her ability to change colour allows her to hang out in exposed positions on a flower where she ambushes pollinating insects. Her venom is so potent she’s able to prey on insects much bigger than herself and as formidable as queen bumble bees. The prey is not mutilated in any way whilst it’s being consumed and ends up as a dry but perfect husk! The book says reassuringly ‘In spite of the horrifying ease with which they will take prey larger than themselves, they are perfectly harmless to humans.’ Well, thank god for that!
And guess what? Today, at home, we found another crab spider, a different species, with a burnet companion moth as her prey. At first we didn’t notice a tiny male scuttling around behind her. He apparently walks about on her abdomen before copulation and the matings are interspersed with little perambulations too. After forty-five minutes or so of kama-sutraesque love making they separate and the male wanders off leaving the female to finish her gourmet meal in peace (which I expect is quite reassuring as he’d most probably be eyed up as a tasty little aperitif).