Monday, 28 September 2015

Dormouse discoveries!

It is the end of a busy Friday afternoon and Laurie's phone rings. She looks down at the caller I.D., sighs and wonders what random question Rachel now has about bats (I still find bats incredibly complex and alien beings). Or birds. Or moths. Or Harvest Mice.

After reading my excited text, she tries to call me back right away. Of course, as I'm somewhere in Gatwick's woodlands with unpredictable phone reception, this goes on for sometime... 
   And so, after finally getting through to each other, I then get to say the words: we've got Dormice!

The elusive Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius)

Gatwick's sneaky ginger-ninjas have finally been spotted in the fur; they couldn't elude us anymore! Laurie is a licence holder for several UK protected species and experienced in Dormouse handling, so I was awesomely appreciative that she shot up to Gatwick to lend us a hand. We found two individuals in separate boxes; here they are, resplendent in their golden-brown refinery!

Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius)

We reckon these might some of the best-looking Dormice around too... (Not that we're biased).

Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius)
Big eyes, small ears, fuzzy tail. Evolved for maximum cuteness

These furry fiends are notoriously difficult to detect - they live in low numbers, are arboreal (tree-dwelling) and mostly come out at night. Still, after 3 years of surveying it was starting to wear that we hadn't seen the little blighters in the fur. Quite frankly, they were making us look bad. 

On the other hand, our Wood Mouse and Yellow-necked Mouse record database had really come along!

For comparison: Yellow-necked Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis);
 darker fur, bigger ears, pointy nose... Bigger attitude!

She might look chunky, but this little female weighed about 19g, making her over half the weight of a Yellow-necked Mouse which tipped the scales at 40g. 

Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius
Hey, remember folks, the camera adds 10 pounds

Slightly insulting was the fact that they were found in boxes installed by Tom Simpson's volunteer group, rather than mine from the 3 years before. This goes to show there is just no accounting for Dormouse taste (being from Crawley after all).

Laurie checks age and sex, then pops it into the weighing bag. 

Unoccupied nest - the centre is tightly woven with fine strands of Honeysuckle bark,
 the outside is layered with recently fresh hazel leaves

For now, we will continue with monitoring the Dormouse population at this site under the supervision of licence holders, carrying out regular box checks and looking out for signs of breeding.


About this time every year, a YouTube vid makes the rounds of the internet, featuring a Dormouse apparently snoring. The mammal officer who took the footage says the ridiculous sound was added on afterwards; the actual sound is more like a high-pitched whistle (d'awww!). Still, it is gorgeous seeing a Dormouse in torpor (deep sleep).

To find out more about the Hazel Dormouse, check out the People's Trust for Endangered Species.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Gatsbees B-Log: August 2015

Black-eyed Susan 
(Rudbeckia fulgida var. 'sullivantii Goldsturm')

By the time August arrives, the bees know for certain that winter is only around the corner

Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus)

and the pantry must be full of honey and pollen.

I sometimes go to the apiary intent on doing ‘a job’ but occasionally I get there and the orderly haste I find persuades me to leave them alone and watch.

Much less stressful for all of us!

We found the queen in this colony (the one with the longer abdomen in the centre of the picture

and the peanut shaped cell from which she emerged (centred above the wooden bar)

We also found a text book queen cell torn open by the workers, where there is a dead queen larva, which would have been stung in its cell by the first queen to emerge. Queens have no barbs on their sting and so can kill more than one rival.

Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

It was at about this time when the weather changed for the worst; the bees were unable to leave the hive and forage

and nectar became a premium, one visiting the sedum, which had hardly begun to flower in the cold.

The rain began in earnest

And those bees still out foraging, chilled and died.

As I made the choice to not treat for varroa, one colony (although not at Gatwick) swarmed themselves out, couldn’t tolerate the viruses and were very sick. They become disorientated and unable to function and died out quickly but it’s difficult to watch and the temptation to throw medicine at them is huge.

 (Foreground: Bee with Deformed Wing Virus. Far right: bee with varroa mite on its thorax)

I found that treatments may kill the varroa mites, but the bees still become sick, albeit in different circumstances. Putting down a colony of bees is extremely dispiriting.

I’m sure that all beekeepers would love their bees to be hygienic; that is bees with the ability to recognise the presence of varroa mites in the cells, pull them out and eject them from the nest. This house bee is probably looking for mites on her sister, a good start and something we should try to look at in more detail next year. See Google: Swindon beekeeper Ron Hoskins

Peony (Paeonia) seeds

Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense)

One sunny afternoon, after Duchess’s colony became queen right again (had a laying queen) the workers began to evict the drones. They become a nuisance when they are no longer needed for breeding as they just hang around the hive eating the stores of honey.

It's a brutal event, with the workers trying to bite off the drones’ wings as they are forced out. It’s a one way ticket for a drone; die in glory if you mate with a virgin queen, die in the fury of the workers if you don’t.

You’ll be pleased to hear that wasps are useful in this world after all, picking up dead and dying insects to take back to the nest for their larvae to eat in spring and early summer, and receiving a sugary liquid in exchange, but now the nest will  have disbanded and it’s every wasp for herself.

At the same time, the ever neat and tidy bees are trying to pick the bodies up and fly away with them to drop them far away from the nest to eliminate the smell of death.

Other visitors to the hives:

(Balaustium spp.) A tiny mite regularly seen at the hives, it feeds 
on pollen and predates other tiny invertebrates

This nest of a Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile spp.) is not part of the Honeybee colony

A brave choice of site for the nest of this Leaf-cutter bee, tucked in a gap between the roof and the crown board, crafted from rose leaves cut out with its mandibles and flown back to the nest.

Persicaria, agapanthus and verbena bonariensis.


Autumn is on the way. 

Gillybee X

Friday, 18 September 2015

Galling yet spanglely

Galls are weird. A parasitic insect lays its egg in the epidermis of a leaf, it hatches out and the tiny larva then exudes hormones, messing with the plant's cell division and causing mutations of plant tissue.

Spangle Galls on an Oak leaf. At the top near the thumb is a young Cherry Gall

These mutations form specific structures to each species, which become a source of food and protection for the larva. A rather enclosed and sedentary lifestyle, kinda of like ecologists writing up their survey reports in winter.

Ecology student Felix identifies gall species in Goat Meadow

Felix is a 3rd year Ecology project student, visiting our biodiversity sites from Royal Holloway University (my old stomping ground). He is studying the prevalence of galls on Oak leaves, looking for differences between species in changing environmental conditions.

Silk Button Spangle Gall (Neuroterus numismalis)

The types of gall he is studying are formed by tiny wasps of the family Cynipidae. This group contains many species, and the adult wasps are so small that we barely notice them. It is much easier to identify the species by the unique structures their larvae have created.

Smooth Spangle (Neuroterus albipes)

At the top of the picture: Common Spangle Galls (Neuroterus quercusbaccarum)

You can often have several different gall species on one leaf. The darker one below these Common Spangles is quite an unusual one...

Cupped Spangle (Neuroterus tricolor)

Either this species is very uncommon, or just particularly under recorded in the UK. In any case, an interesting find and I reckon the species distribution map could do with updating.

Despite the tough materials which galls are formed from, they are not immune from enemy attack... 

Looking more closely, Felix spotted this tiny shady character hanging out on out the Silk Button Spangles, and she is no galler... 

A torymid wasp

This is a 'parasitoid' of the gall wasps, using a long ovipositor to lay her own eggs deep into the spangles. Her larva will then hatch and slowly feed on the other within (nature is pretty brutal). I googled the Torymidae wasps to find out more, and found out a few species are hyperparasitoids, meaning they are parasitoids of the parasitoids... I then stopped reading and went to bed.

Here are a few other weird and wonderful species of gall about the place, all belonging to the family of cynipid wasps:

Knopper Gall (Andricus quercuscalicis) growing on an acorn

Marble Gall (Andricus kollari) on a leaf bud

Cherry Gall (Cynips quercusfolii) growing on a leaf vein

Robin's Pincushion (Diplolepis rosae) on a wild rose leaf bud

Not only galls are found hanging about on the Oak leaves...

Possibly a Grey Dagger Moth caterpillar, which has a cool species name (Acronicta psi

Theridion pallens; a tiny comb-footed spider. The female is guarding her sputnik-like egg case

Good luck with the rest of the project Felix (particularly the statistical analysis part, I've been there myself)!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Dark Knights at Gatwick

Bat activity transect C, Land East of the Railway Line, July 11th 2015

It has felt like a good year for bats around our biodiversity sites, with lots of exciting acitvity monitoring by Laurie Jackson, Martyn Cooke and volunteers from Surrey Bat Group. We've been using 3 different survey methods here: activity surveys (walking set routes called 'transects', with bat detectors and recording equipment); trapping surveys (with Martyn's harp traps, loud speaker and bat call software system); and box checks (annual checking and cleaning of our woodland bat boxes).

Powerline Ride at dusk, Horleyland Wood

Although rarely seen, bats actually make up around a third of UK mammal species and so are a significant players in our ecosystems. Also being insectivores, they are directly affected by any crashes in invertebrate populations and are great indicators of our countryside's overall health.

Bat box recorder and logger 

Bat logger live sonogram image

This recording equipment is all a bit beyond me, but Martyn Cooke (who also works in air traffic control at Gatwick) loves his tech and is a dab-hand at collating and translating this data.

Measuring the forewing of a Common Pipistrelle.
(To handle bats, you must be trained and hold appropriate licenses.)

Weighing a Pip in a cup

The biometric data collected includes the species type (some can only be identified by close examination in the hand), weight, sex, rough age, breeding condition and general health of the individual. I need to check again with Martyn, but I think we are up to 10 different species of bat recorded at Gatwick.

Assessing wing joints and bone ossification to gauge the age.

This health check might look pretty intrusive for a bat, but they are only kept for a few minutes before they are released back out into the night.

Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus)

Brown Long-eared (Plecotus auritus)

Bats face many threats due to extensive habitat loss and fragmentation from development, as such they are all protected by UK and European law. You might associate bats with roosting happily in buildings, but they really need natural features such as grasslands, hedgerows and woodlands to hunt and forage in. The monitoring and conservation efforts led by organisations such as Bat Conservation Trust are of vital importance to conserve the UK's bat species. 

Get out of here, you.

Its not always deemed socially acceptable to be out in the woodlands after dark. but this bat work gives us special licence. Its also great to see and hear all the other wildlife out and about our biodiversity areas on warm summer evenings:

Light Emerald Moth (Campaea margaritaria)

Glow Worm (Lampyris noctiluca), female

Photo with flash reveals that a Glow Worm is a large beetle

We often hear the strange hoarse squeaks of juvenile Tawny Owls, which sound like their voices are breaking...
Plus a rather impressive (and one of my favourite) species we have resident in our woodlands...

Araneus angulatus male, a rare spider in the UK, restricted to the southern counties

To learn about monitoring bats in your area, why not check out your local bat group.