Photo Blog

I love observing nature and the changing seasons during my Norfolk countryside dog walks accompanied by my ever-faithful canine companion Starrydog. I especially enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across while exploring local nature reserves. Visit my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures and enjoy my butterfly photos.

Red, White and err, Pink!

As world cup fever gripped the Nation and England reached the football semi-finals for the first time in decades, and Brexit negotiations seemingly reached an even more parlous state of play, I was instead becoming fascinated by my new moth trap, and the amazing moths being attracted to the lights... 

A White Satin moth, Leucoma salicis, perched on the reflective moth trap lid

Pink: One of a dozen Elephant Hawkmoths, Deilephila elpenor, attracted to my twin actinic skinner moth trap

Seeing Red

I spent a gorgeous bank holiday weekend pottering around our wildlife pond, watching the Azure damselflies wafting about in pairs and aerial dragonfly wars between the powder blue Broad-bodied Chaser and custard yellow Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies to rival any aeroplane dogfight as each fiercely competed for territory.

Suddenly among all the vivid blue Azures I quite literally saw red, that is, a pair of red mating damselflies! It was another first for Nar Cottage pond as they proved to be Britain's Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula). Flying earlier than its cousin the Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum), it can also be distinguished by its black legs and strongly striped antehumeral markings.

This photo marks the ninth species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselfles) recorded in our wildlife pond (more on that here) and not bad for a pond thats only five seasons old...

Rhapsody in Blue

Buff-tailed bumble bee foraging among Viper's-bugloss flowers

One of the deep joys of wildlife gardening is when an idea comes together and a wildflower you've planted really takes off... and brings even more nature into your garden. That is exactly what happened this year with an experimental planting of a local native wildflower, Viper's-bugloss or Echium vulgare. 

Viper's-bugloss growing wild on Kelling Heath in Norfolk

A member of the Borage plant family Boraginaceae, Viper's-bugloss is renowned for having a high wildlife value due to its flower's rapid nectar refill rate. This makes it a magnet for numerous species of bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects, which will revisit it at regular intervals throughout the day. It is also a caterpillar host plant for the glamorous Painted Lady butterfly and Golden Twin-spot moth. 

A tough, bristly and flamboyant biennial, Viper's-bugloss is commonly found in dry chalky grassland and heaths and along coastal cliffs and sand dunes. I first saw this striking plant growing in the wild locally in 2015. It was at Kelling Heath, a lowland heath reserve not far from the North Norfolk coast, and I'd been on a foray to see the diminutive Silver-studded blue butterflies resident on the nature reserve.

I was returning to the car park after a successful mission when I spotted it and recognised the tall flower spike heavy with lilac blue flowers at first glance, even though I'd never seen one before. The bell-shaped open-rimmed flowers had vivid pink trailing stamens, and was besieged by a host of argumentative bees, butterflies and other insects all competing for the rich nectar source.

Like most native wildflowers, Viper's-bugloss is embedded in traditional herblore, with around a dozen common names in existence, many of which, like Adderwort, Snake flower or Viper's herb, contain serpentine references.

The precise origins of its common name are unclear, possibly relating to the snake's-head form of the seed pods mentioned by 17th Century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper,After the flowers are fallen, the seeds growing to be ripe, are blackish, cornered and pointed somewhat like the head of a viper.” Other theories include a comparison of the mottled leaves to snakeskin, or perhaps an allusion to the bite-like irritation caused by contact with the plants sharp bristles or its poisonous characteristics when ingested. 

Bumble bee nectaring on Viper's-bugloss flowers

Perhaps because of these serpentine associations,  Viper's-bugloss was traditionally used in herblore as an anti-venom for snake bites.The first documented herballist recommendation dates as far back as the first century AD and was made by a Greek Physician called Pedanius Dioscorides in a work called De Materia Medica.  Even the species name Echium is derived from "Echis", the Greek for "Viper".

However the term "Bugloss" used in many of our English common names is actually a reference to the ox-tongue shape and texture of its leaves and originates from the Greek word "bou" (a cow or ox) and the Latin "glosso" (tongue).

Meanwhile I had long been pondering a horticultural problem in my wildlife garden at home. I was keen to add more wildlife friendly flowers closer to the house and enrich diversity as the garden was starting to mature, but was stumped with a problem area where next to nothing would grow.

Bee flying towards Viper's-bugloss flower spikes

Despite our landscaper's best endeavours, not all of the poorest soil had ended up in the right place, our designated wildlfower meadow area. Some of it had ended up adjoining the bungalow and patio edge right at the top of the rear garden. Here the south facing slope was arid , in full sun all day long and only the relentless couch grass was flourishing.

So I turned to natives I'd seen locally thriving in sandy arid conditions for a solution and bought a small Echium Vulgare plug from Glandford Wildflower Centre just outside Holt. I planted it alongside Common Century, Teasel, Red Valerian and Common Rock Rose, next to a humongous self-sown Common Mallow, which had given me the inspiration, in order to create a bee-friendly wildflower border of sorts. 

Very little happened last year and my husband was sceptical. But Viper's-bugloss is known for growing deep roots and this year - success! The Echium developed numerous flower spikes and is even out competing both the Common century and Red valerian.

This weekend the month has earned its title of "Flaming June". In the sweltering 33 degree heat,  I couldn't face venturing outside my garden gates. Towards the end of a long, sweltering afternoon, as the worst of the heat started to cool, I stood on our patio and enjoyed the constant humming of dozens of bumble bees as they methodically worked their way up each spike in turn, checking which flowers had refilled with nectar.

 

"With the buzzing of the bee,
And the glowing of the bugloss,
High Summer is here"
 
 

Names for Echium Vulgare  

Bluebottle
Blue devil
Blue thistle
Blueweed
Bugloss
Cat's tail
Ironweed
Patterson's curse (Australian)
Our Saviour's Flannel
Snake flower
Viper's-bugloss
Viper's grass
Viper's herb

The Snowdrop And The Honeybee

An early worker honeybee gathers nectar from a Common Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis

By February we are all utterly weary of winter's leaden skies and lashing storms and desperately seeking those first subtle signs of spring, so it comes as no surprise that Common Snowdrops, or February's Fairmaid as they are sometimes called, are such popular flowers. It is a heavy heart indeed that could not be lifted by the sight of a milky white snowdrop flower head as it nods cheerily in the soft sunlight of a mild winter's day, or bravely peering through a late winter snowfall to earn their French name of "Pierce-neige" or Snow Piercer.  

Snowdrops favour damp woodland and stream side habitats

There are about 20 species of Galanthus in all, with the name Galanthus nivalis stemming from the Greek gala and anthus "Milky flower" and the Latin nivalis meaning "Snow".

Fond of damp woodland and watercourses, many people mistakenly believe that the Common Snowdrop is truly native to Britain or introduced in Roman times, but in fact snowdrops were first recorded in John Gerard's 1597 edition of "Great Herball" and were first documented in the wild only in the late 1770's. It is now believed Galanthus nivalis were first introduced into gardens in the late 1500's from Europe where their range spreads from the Pyrennees in the West to the Ukraine in the East.

The "Flower of Hope" grew in popularity around the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856) when many soldiers returned with a new larger variety of the spring bulb, Galanthus plicatus, the Crimean Snowdrop, which bravely covered the battlefields despite the harsh winters to augur spring. Our love affair with these delicate yet incredibly tough spring flowers continued to grow and today snowdrops are one of the most widely traded bulbs in the world.

Snowdrops' many folklore names symbolise hope, renewal and death

Its long history in Europe and the UK means the humble Snowdrop is well established in folklore, literature and religion. The Snowdrop's strong Ecclesiastical associations are indicated in some of its alternative names such as Candlemas Bells, Mary's Taper and Eve's Tears.  

The snowdrop is a flower of contradictions. On the one hand, for Catholics Snowdrops symbolised hope and purity. Snowdrop garlands were traditionally used in the Candlemas procession on 2nd February celebrating the Purification of the Virgin Mary, which is one reason why they are so widespread along traditional routes to village churches.

At the same time snowdrops also have a darker side to their folklore history. Perhaps owing to the flower's white shroud-like petals, Snowdrops have long been associated with death and bad luck. In Greek mythology Persephone or Kore, Queen of the Underworld and the goddess of vegetation, is said to have carried Snowdrops on her return from Hades in Spring. The snowdrops she carried brought back life to a barren, wintery landscape, but also carried strong negative connotations of the Underworld they came from. 

Snowdrops spread by bulb division but ants assist seed dispersal

Also called Death's Flower, the Snowdrop became associated with death for many Victorians. According to superstition, seeing a lone Snowdrop was perceived as a portent of death and it was also meant to be unlucky to bring the first Snowdrop flower of the season inside a house.

Whatever their origins and mythology, Snowdrops hold a deep and enduring place in our psyche signalling Spring, while for our overwintering wildlife, the sight of a Common Snowdrop is undoubtedly very lucky indeed and a massive boon at a time of great hardship and need.

Their flowers provide a desperately needed source of nectar and pollen for early insects such as solitary bees emerging from hibernation, while their seedpods that also contain protein-rich elaiosomes are taken by ants and fed to their larvae. In so doing, the ants complete the circle of life by helping the Snowdrop plants disperse and start new colonies elsewhere.

The Snowdrop

Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid,
Ever as of old time,
Solitary firstling,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!
— Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Noble Emerald and Gold

Butterflies are having a bad year so far and are thin on the ground, so I have been entertaining myself with other little beasties.

This beautiful, iridescent emerald-coloured beetle is a member of the flower beetle family with a rather grand, royal sounding latin name Oedemera nobilis. It has several fun but less flattering English names too such as thick-legged flower beetle or swollen-thighed flower beetle, although only the females have the fat thighs.

Despite their imposing looking mandibles, adult emerald flower beetles are herbivorous and feed on flower pollen and nectar. This female thick-legged flower beetle is pictured on a Common Rock Rose (Helianthemum  Nummularian) up at Ringstead Downs in North Norfolk.