Insects you can get to know this spring

Insects you can get to know this spring

In the seventh of a series of Action for Insects blogs, Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust volunteer and amateur entomologist Kate Nightingale highlights a few of the species you can spot over the next weeks.

Longer days and warmer weather signal the start of another busy year for our insects.  

Although some of our familiar garden insect species are still tucked away as eggs, larvae or pupae, in microhabitats such as log piles, compost heaps, and leaf litter, species that spent the winter as adults are starting to emerge from their hiding places in search of food and mates.

All our native ladybird species hibernate, and in the coming weeks we should notice increasing numbers basking on exposed leaves and woody plants such as ivy and heather.  The most familiar ladybird, the 7-Spot Ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata), is already abundant, but you may also encounter the small 22-Spot Ladybird (Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata), and the even smaller black and red Pine Ladybird (Exochomus quadripustulatus).

The invasive, non-native Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) has also emerged.  Originating from parts of Asia, it is now well established in much of England and Wales, and the wide range of colour forms allows it to mimic several of our native ladybird species, so accurate identification can be tricky. 

The common Marmalade Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) overwinters in dense vegetation, and their numbers tend to steadily rise from early spring to late summer.  You may also be able to observe the shiny black and golden-yellow Spring Epistrophe hoverfly at close quarters, as it has a habit of resting on sunlit leaves. Numbers increase in May when hawthorn and blackthorn blossoms along the hedgerows.  

Various flies commonly referred to as ‘greenbottles’ or ‘bluebottles’ are making an appearance.  The important roles of flies as pollinators, pest controllers and waste recyclers are largely underappreciated, but they can be beautiful creatures.  One of the first species to turn up each year is the green-blue Eudasyphora cyanella (sorry, no common name). Adults can turn to dull bronze as they age and it’s not unusual to see an individual sporting a combination of gorgeous metallic hues.

Several bee species are active from March and April, including the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), named after the buff-brown tail of the quite sizeable queen.   As with many species, males and females can look different, and Buff-tailed workers cannot easily be distinguished from other bees.  You may notice smaller bees investigating potential nesting sites in lawns, playing fields and road verges, and these may be female Early Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) or Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva), both larger and more distinctive than their male counterparts.  Tawny Mining Bee females excavate vertical nests in areas of short vegetation and bare ground, creating little ‘soil volcanoes’, so please try to avoid treading on them or covering them up.

Another spring bee is the Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), which visits dead nettles, primroses, and lungwort, with a rapid, darting flight.  Males are light gingery brown and have long feathery hairs on their forelegs, whilst females are rotund and velvety black apart from dark orange hairs on the hindlegs.

The Common Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina) is becoming more active now, but some individuals have yet to change from their brown winter camouflage to bright green. Darker winter colours also assist with the absorption of UV rays in early spring, helping it to warm up and transform back to green, but the speed of change varies between individuals, and you may see different colour forms at the same time.

The Hawthorn Shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale) emerges from hibernation and mates in the spring.   The larvae develop from May to October and feed mainly on hawthorn berries but also oak, hazel and birch. There are other similar red and green shieldbug species in Britain, including the smaller Birch Shieldbug, but the Hawthorn’s large size (15mm) and angular shape are characteristic.

Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone and Peacock butterflies can survive throughout the year in sheltered places, and warmer days can bring them out of hiding.  However, the Orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) is considered the true herald of spring, as it hibernates in the pupal stage, with new adults usually flying from April.  The male has bright orange wingtips, but the female is white with black wingtips, and unless the bright green-yellow mottling of her underwings can be seen, she could potentially be confused with a Small White or Green-veined White.

Hopefully you will spot many wonderful insects, but please remember to tidy your garden with care as it’s a crucial time in their life cycles.  Insects help to keep our habitats healthy (including your garden), and will also provide essential nutrients for nesting birds and their chicks in the weeks ahead.