Saturday, 17 December 2005

Winter insects hard to find

The winter months offer reduced opportunities for those of us interested in insects and other small creatures. Many species will sit out the cold conditions by burrowing under bark, burying themselves within the leaf litter or by squeezing into a nice dry crack in the brickwork. However, there are still insects and arachnids to be found at this time of the year.

Clearing away dead plant material from one of my borders the other day revealed several caterpillars, overwintering in this form before changing and emerging next year as adult moths. One of the ones I recognised was the caterpillar of the angle shades, a delightful moth that has featured at my moth trap during the summer months. Just below the surface of the soil, as I forked it through, was the large brown pupal case of a hawkmoth. Over two inches in length, it was almost identical to one that I had found last autumn. I managed to overwinter that one in the shed and on 5th June this year an adult privet hawkmoth emerged to be photographed and released. Other moths are still on the wing, including small brown ones that appear at lighted windows late in the evening. These are male winter moths, a species that is unwelcome in those gardens with fruit trees. Broad bands of sticky material can sometimes be seen wrapped around the trunks of fruit trees. These have been fixed there by gardeners, in an effort to trap the almost flightless female winter moth as she attempts to crawl up the trunk to lay her eggs. There are even moths on the wing in the house. Aptly named the white-shouldered house moth, these tiny moths appear on the curtains or at my reading light on most evenings.

There are other small creatures in the house, including two-spotted ladybirds that have hunkered down for the winter, pressed up against the corner of a window frame. A daddy-long-legs spider has taken up residence on the ceiling of the dining room. This spider has long legs and a cylindrical body and, if disturbed, will vibrate its web rapidly – a useful defence against potential predators. Another species of spider remains very much in evidence in the garden. This large spider has taken up residence on my larch-lap fencing. Known by its Latin name of Nuctenea umbratica, the females of this species are rather impressive. Reminiscent of a garden spider, but darker and with a flattened body, Nuctenea spends the day concealed in a crack. Once darkness falls, the spider emerges to wait for prey. Each panel of the fence seems to support seven or eight of these spiders, seemingly forming a healthy population and just one of the species to add interest during winter.

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