Nature 2004 October

Nature on your doorstop this autumn, or whose house is it anyway?

So maybe St Swithun had the last laugh as August was a wet month to say the least. The one thing predictable about August weather is that it’s unpredictable. How much rain might you expect in August? Based on August 2003 the answer would be around 7 mm or 1.5 inches. Ask the same question in 2004 and the answer is 142 mm or about 5.6 inches. A quick check on the Met Office archive suggests one would have to go back to 1956 and before this to 1878 to find a wetter August in England and Wales. Looking ahead I think we should therefore also expect a far wetter, but warmer October than usual. The ‘first frosts’ are getting later and later these days and this pattern, I think, will be borne out this year with a prediction of the first sub zero night being as late as the last week of October (last October it was 24th) or not even until early November.

The inevitable fall in night-time temperatures in Autumn is the single cause of reduced insect activity with their numbers rapidly plummeting. Expect to see fleeting appearances on warm October days of the over-wintering butterflies, (peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and comma) feeding on the overripe blackberries which will be particularly abundant this year. Another insect getting into hibernating mode in November is the ladybird. The crevices in tree bark are a typical ‘safe house’ but any cool, dry location, such as windowsills, can be the home of dozens of these gardeners’ favourites. By producing a chemical they attract others to come and join the huddle thus ensuring improved survival rates.

Asked to list the creatures people fear most and would do almost anything to avoid and somewhere after sharks, snakes and spiders (of which more later) will come the wasp and often in the same breath, they will say “and of course, the hornet”. Hornets, in reality the largest of our wasps, are rarely seen these days although queen wasps are often mistakenly identified as hornets. The latter are distinguished by their brown colouration and large size (35mm 1.4 inches). I had seen very few until this year but we have been ‘lucky’ enough to have them now as regular night-time visitors (hence moth-like eyes) attracted to our kitchen window and have since discovered where their nest is it has enabled the household to carry out some very close up (the thickness of the glass) but safe study. Despite the low profile the hornet has acquired a legendary, but erroneous reputation, as a horse killer (7 stings) and that 3 stings are enough for an adult and 2 for a child. Apparently the sting, although more painful, is less dangerous than that of the bee and they are far less likely to attack than a wasp. Caution is of cause needed and one is told to avoid rapid movement, getting in their flight path, breathing on the nest or vibrating (what ever that might involve!). Like the ladybird they are very much the gardener’s friend. A large colony will devour around 2lb (1 kg) of insects, mainly flies and caterpillars a day! As the hedgerow fruit ripen and ferment they supplement their diet with the liquor, which might cause of their grumpiness. This is fed in turn to the next generation of queens that will mature, mate and then hibernate all in November.

Previously, in these rambling nature notes I have described what is going on in the countryside around us but it struck me that the immanent arrival of autumn is a time when many insects and indeed some animals choose to move in with us to see out the winter. So I thought I would start, from this month to turn my attention to some of the creatures who share our houses.

The inhabitation, and in some case infestation, of the human abode by arthropods (insects spiders, centipedes woodlice etc) dates back to when Man took to living in caves. Wood for fires, food and animal hides would have provided many opportunities for these creatures to unintentionally share the habitat with early humans. The domestication of animals added other opportunities for many insects to become associated with us. Later as our ancestors began to build simple dwellings these insects would have sought shelter and food alongside them. Until recent times we have used natural materials to construct and adorn our houses and even the advent of non-organic materials has not precluded the invasion by invertebrates into modern houses. Often the co-existence of other animals in the house, invited or otherwise, bring insects with them. Examples include nesting birds, bats rats, mice, locally ‘our friend’ the glis glis as well as domestic pets. The inclusion of house plants has added further opportunities for insects and others to enjoy the creature comforts of modern-day living.

The co-habitation by insects has, in turn, provided incentives for other opportunists to set up home alongside us humans No surprises then that my first pick is the house spider which make its presence felt particularly this month. There’s a good chance that if I asked you to look in you bath or sink just now that there would be a house spider lurking somewhere near the plug hole! They don’t arrive this way but often lurk nearby as its always damp. The ones you see there are normally the males. Meanwhile those you spot out of the corner of your eye running across the carpet each night are the larger females which, if they escape the lunging slipper, can live happily with you for several years. (The males perhaps lasting a mere few months eventually becoming too tempting a meal for the females to resist.)

Just space to include a mention of some books I would recommend if you would like to start or add to your natural history collection. For a really useful book on wild flowers, easy to use and with a mine of interesting historical information, I would go for The Readers Digest Wild Flowers of Britain. My favourite plant identification book for is marvellous drawings though is The Concise British Flora in Colour by W Keble Martin. Sadly out of print these days but quite often to be found in second-hand bookshops. For younger budding naturalists why not make a Christmas present of The Amateur Naturalist by the late Gerald Durrell and his wife Lee. Full of his beautiful descriptions and very well illustrated.