Conservation corner - Islands of Nature

By Cara

Even in those parts of the country that are very built up with houses or factories, or where there are large farms growing hundreds of acres of food crops, we can find pockets of nature. Plants seem to pop up wherever there is space that humans haven't developed - and, of course, where there are plants there are bugs!

People are becoming more aware of the need to set aside patches of greenery, and sometimes these come about only because they're a 'neglected' corner that is of no immediate use to its owner. In whatever way they happen to start, in order to become a worthwhile habitat and to sustain nature, they need to be connected to other areas where there are similar plants growing. If anything should happen and the patch is destroyed, at least there would be areas nearby for insects, other animals and plants to spread to.

I realised how important this is this summer, when visiting a part of Yorkshire where there are a lot of big farms. I was driving along not very far from York (that's where the AES has its spring exhibition, in fact) when I decided to stop to have a sandwich.

I noticed a small lay-by, or parking area, with just enough room for two or three cars, so I pulled in. It was an 'unofficial' lay-by, as it had a pile of sand and some discarded items, though much of it was overgrown with wild mint, grasses and some bracken. It was a little haven of wilderness in the middle of a landscape of huge fields where crops were growing.

The first thing I noticed in this lay-by were numerous hover flies visiting flowerheads. Then I noticed a Common Mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus), with some Mullein moth larvae on it. One of the larvae was dead, and feeding on it was an immature stage assassin bug.

An immature stage assassin bug feeding on a mullein moth larvae

Dead larva of the Mullein Moth (Shargacucullia verbasci) on a Mullein plant with an immature stage assassin bug feeding on it. As their name suggests, assassin bugs are predators, preying on other arthropods.

As I continued to have my sandwich in the lay-by, a small, fast-flying butterfly appeared. I hopped out of the car and saw that it was a Brown Argus butterfly (Aricia agestis). Until around 10 years ago this butterfly had declined in numbers in the UK. It was most often found on chalk grassland, but these days it seems to have adapted to other habitats. It was a bit of a surprise seeing one in this island of greenery near York - this must be one of the most northern areas where the butterfly is found.

The Brown Argus butterfly (_Aricia agestis_), photographed in a lay-by in Yorkshire.

The Brown Argus butterfly (Aricia agestis), photographed in a lay-by in Yorkshire.

But possibly the most exciting visitor to the little lay-by while I was there was a Hornet (Vespa crabro). Hornets are easily identified - they are large wasps, and are a darker yellow colour than the other wasps. This one was flying really fast above the wild mint, obviously hunting for prey. It twisted in the air every time it saw a hoverfly that could be its next meal.

The hornet stayed in the lay-by for at least an hour, but it was just too difficult to photograph - it rarely stayed still. Around the same patch of mint was a slightly smaller insect that looked very much like a hornet. I recognised it to be the Lunar Hornet moth (Sesia bembeciformis) which is one of the clearwing moths. Unlike the real hornet, it didn't hang around very long, so I failed to get a very clear photo of it. Because this moth looks like the real hornet, predators tend to keep away from it.

When harmless species mimic potentially dangerous ones in this way, this is called Batesian mimicry.

The lay-by didn't just have insects in it though. It was a sunny day, and there was a family of eight lizards sunbathing on an old piece of carpet. (It was at this point that I began to wonder whether the Yorkshire Tourist Board might have placed all these creatures there for my benefit, there were so many of them!!) The lizards seemed to have made friends with a seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata) which wandered about over the carpet all the time I was there, presumably eating some tiny insects in-between the strands of the carpet. Nearby there were some ladybird eggs, and there was also a particular two-winged fly that seemed to stay close to the ladybird at all times!

I thought this behaviour was interesting, so I came back the following day - and the ladybird and the fly were both still there! As it became cooler at the end of the afternoon, though, they went away, as did the lizards.

The other insects I noted in the lay-by during my brief visits included some shield bugs, a caterpillar of the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae), two types of dragonfly, a Common carpet moth, two species of grasshopper and some spiders.

A seven-spot ladybird that fed on small insects living on a piece of discarded carpet or sacking, photographed with one of a number of lizards sunning themselves nearby.

A seven-spot ladybird that fed on small insects living on a piece of discarded carpet or sacking, photographed with one of a number of lizards sunning themselves nearby.

That's when I began to think how important it is for conservation that little patches of neglected ground like this, rich in nature, are connected to other natural areas. If someone came along and cleared this lay-by to use it for another purpose, all this wildlife would have nowhere to go. I do hope that doesn't happen.

Originally published in the Amateur Entomologists' Society Bug Club Magazine

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