How to discover insects – at any time of year

posted in: Cornwall Wildlife Groups | 0

You’d think that winter would be a time of death and dormancy for insects, and you’d be right … but not entirely. A trip out with your local Wildlife Group at any time of year (especially in mild Cornwall) may lead to insect sightings, even if you are actually looking at plants, mammals or even frogs and newts.

In the blog below, you’ll read first about spotting insects with Cornwall’s Wildlife Groups, whatever the season. Keep reading for some tips on insect and moth spotting either on your own or with your family.

Discovering insects with your local Wildlife Group

This is something you can do on a long, hot summer’s day, but also when the days are short and the evenings are long.

Moth evenings

On a bat and moth trip one dark evening, our group explored a mining area in an east Cornwall hamlet beside the River Tamar, sheltered from the worst of the weather. There was safety in numbers – we were able to navigate uneven ground on narrow paths between clumps of heather by using torches and carefully following the person in front.

Our moth evening away from the street lights of modern Britain © Jen Bousfield
Our moth evening away from the street lights of modern Britain © Jen Bousfield
Attracting moths with a lamp at a site in East Cornwall © Jen Bousfield
Attracting moths with a lamp at a site in East Cornwall © Jen Bousfield

Moths and bats sort of go together – prey and predator. An evening looking for both is great fun, as we use mostly sound (bat detectors) to find the bats and light (special light traps) to find the moths – a feast for the senses!

An evening photography trip outside the back door captures a tiny fly on a daisy

Temperature is important, too. Even in a valley, a drop in temperature or a very rainy period can lead to a drop in both the number and variety of moths sighted, but on the mild night in question the lamp attracted some stunningly beautiful species quite quickly.

Even this November (2019) after some horrible weather, the member of our group who had set up the light amongst the spoil heaps, Mary Atkinson, found the interestingly named Yellow-line and Red-Line Quaker and the larger Green-brindled Crescent. According to Mary’s November moth report on Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Launceston Area Parish Wildlife Group (LAPWG)’s website, ivy plays an important part in keeping moths active when summer is over. Mary writes a moth report for LAPWG most months – if not every month of the year – plus an annual report which will be available from the LAPWG website. See the November report at https://www.launcestonparishwildlife.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/November-moths.pdf

A newcomer also benefited from the late-flowering ivy this year. The solitary Ivy Bee is currently colonising Cornwall from the continent. On this occasion the invasion of a new species does not seem harmful. Although being ‘solitary’ means that they don’t live in a colony with a queen and workers like honeybees and bumblebees, Ivy Bees do nest close to each other. Look for rows of Ivy Bee holes on dry earthy banks and in fields facing towards the sun in October.

Ivy bee
The ivy bee is still active in October
The holes of an Ivy Bee colony in a sunny site by a path through a field near ivy at the edge of the woods

If you live somewhere frosty, you might nevertheless find species such as the Winter Moth Operophtera brumata, one of the few species that flies from October to January even in cold places. 

Look out for bat and moth evenings on the diary pages of Wild Cornwall magazine, at https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/events or via your Cornwall Wildlife Trust Group: https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/cornwall-wildlife-groups. These are ideal for getting an insider’s view, in detail, of the wildlife that makes Cornwall so special.

Even if your group hasn’t organised a specific insect event, members are likely to be open to suggestions for activities, and they can get in touch with local experts who enjoy leading insect walks and moth trapping evenings, usually at times of year when these insects are most active. In the case of our group, hot drinks and cake are always involved, too. Sometimes you can go back in the morning to find moths sitting comfortably in egg boxes, which are placed under the special light bulb that attracts them. The moths can then be viewed and identified in daylight before being put somewhere safe until the following evening.

Photography trips

If you are armed with a camera on a trip with your local Wildlife Group or if you join Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s roving Photographic Group on one of their trips https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/events, you can focus on close-up treats as well as Cornwall’s spectacular views.

A Wildlife Group member photographing the rare Heath Fritillary butterfly in a meadow in east Cornwall © Rowena Millar
A Wildlife Group member photographing the rare Heath Fritillary butterfly in a meadow in east Cornwall

To me, a beetle on a flower, with long antennae and a bold colour like the Cardinal Beetle below, or with a glowing metallic carapace, like the oil beetles found in Cornwall, can be as stunning as a landscape or seascape.

Cardinal beetle approaches
Cardinal beetle on a flower in the garden
Violet oil beetle eating celandine stalk
Violet oil beetle eating a celandine stalk

Members of your group will be happy to give you tips on getting the most out of your camera to immortalise your local insect life. Exhibitions by the Photography Group can be seen at Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Allet offices, by appointment.

Pond dipping

Some insects, such as dragonflies, mayflies, stoneflies and caddis-flies, spend most of their lives underwater. The flying versions of these insects last from days to weeks, whereas the underwater phase can last for most of a year or even a few years in the case of dragonflies. That means these brilliant creatures are found in ponds and rivers throughout the year.

The author leads a pond-dipping activity at Trebah during Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Discovery Day, 2015 © Andy Millar
The author leads a pond-dipping activity at Trebah during Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Discovery Day, 2015 © Andy Millar
Pond life in a tray
Pond life, with a caddis-fly larva top centre, at Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Discovery Day in 2015

Dragonfly nymphs are monsters. You would think they were creatures from a fantasy writer’s dark imaginings: half knight-in-armour, half armoured vehicle (like something from Robot Wars), but with scuttling legs and weird mouthparts and boggly eyes for seeing prey in all directions. A dragonfly nymph can eat its weight in mosquito larvae every day, and is therefore the human’s friend. The damselfly larva shares the big eyes, but is long and slender, more like mayfly nymphs. For a comprehensive waterproof foldout guide to the different nymphs and other pond creatures, you can’t do much better than https://www.nhbs.com/the-freshwater-name-trail-book

If you go on a pond dipping outing in winter you might well find water beetles, upside-down water boatmen paddling across the surface of the pond, and maybe some hardy pond skaters or a water measurer on the surface too.

A water measurer on the palm of a hand © Rowena Millar
The author with two Great Diving Beetles found in a pond near the south coast of Cornwall © Andy Millar
The author with two Great Diving Beetles found in a pond near the south coast of Cornwall © Andy Millar

The Wildlife Trusts recommend looking for pond skaters between April and November, but you never know what might be early or late in Cornwall! Not only local Wildlife Groups, but also our Wildlife Watch group https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlifewatch organises family pond dips, as does Cornwall Reptile and Amphibian Group (CRAG. Look them up at https://groups.arguk.org/crag and on Facebook.

Practical wildlife tasks

What better way to see insects than on a practical task, whether you are clearing invasive weeds from ponds, reducing scrub growth around meadows, cutting hay or looking after woodland?

I’ve seen flies and bees on beaches and butterflies flying in over the sea! Sand hoppers are crustaceans, like woodlice, but are interesting beach dwellers to spot if you are taking part in a beach clean. See https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/volunteering-opportunities/outdoors-practical-volunteers and also ‘Friends’ groups for particular nature reserves.

On your own or with your family

Finding insects is, thank goodness, inevitable on any walk or family outing during the summer.

Child looking for minibeasts
Looking for minibeasts
Grasshopper skin
Empty grasshopper skin spotted on our minibeast hunt

Go outside in the daytime in autumn or winter and you might well find small clouds of non-biting winter gnats, also known as winter crane flies, swirling around together in companionable and apparently aimless circles. These are males of the Trichoceridae family ‘dancing to attract the females’, as explained in a lovely short article by Buglife: https://www.buglife.org.uk/bugs/bug-directory/winter-gnat/

At night, the white spark-like glint of a moth in the headlights tells us that moths are still around. I find this wonderfully reassuring on cold days. Life goes on, even out of ‘insect season’. Some of our six-legged friends are not dead, but dormant or hiding in a nook or cranny as an egg or pupa. 

Bloody-nosed beetle larva
Ladybird larva
Ladybird larva
Elephant hawkmoth caterpillar
Elephant hawkmoth
The spectacular adult Elephant Hawkmoth
Male and female drinker moths
Male and female Drinker Moths straight after pupation of the larger female in spring.

Like Mary, you could set up moth traps, as long as you are careful not to harm the moths. The Wildlife Trusts describe various easy ways of doing this at the end of their useful web page https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-attract-moths-and-bats-your-garden

Any sheltered place out of the rain will do – even under the hatchback of a car in Jen’s case (see the end of https://www.launcestonparishwildlife.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/November-moths.pdf).

Once you see the different shapes, sizes and particularly the patterns on the wings of moths – delicate, subtle, striking or plain weird, you might find yourself being drawn in to the fascinating and addictive world of moths.

Angle Shades moth
Angle Shades moth
Brimstone moth
Brimstone moth
Burnet moth
Six-spot burnet moth on the coast path near Duckpool and Sandymouth

If you are a newcomer to moth ID, I recommend learning about the 800 gorgeous larger (macro) moths first. The Wildlife Trusts have produced a simple ID chart for finding moths, particularly suited for children, at https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife/how-identify/moth-identification or you can take part in the Garden Moth Scheme, for anyone interested in recording moths regularly in their garden in the UK and Ireland  http://www.gardenmoths.org.uk/

If you would like to take a peek at 45 families representing some of the 1,600+ types of micro moth, go to https://www.opalexplorenature.org/sites/default/files/7/file/GMS-moth-tips-3-micromoths.pdf. You will find that some of them look like caddis-flies, and some resemble tiny feathers or twigs. Many are quite slim, but once you start to notice them, you’ll find yourself drawn into a wondrous world of discovery.

The perfect place to see insect life is in a nature reserve. Find your nearest here: https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves There’s a habitat for every species, but bear in mind that meadows and heathland might be a first choice in summer for bees, hoverflies, day-flying moths and butterflies, that wetland areas will be great for seeing dragonflies on the wing from spring onwards, and that woodland has its own range of very special butterflies, beetles and fancy parasitic and wood wasps. Woods usually include streams and wet places with dragonflies and damselfies, as well as clearings where meadow species may be found too. Look for predatory green tiger beetles and a host of unusual-looking flies in summer on clearings, heaths, moors and sand dunes, and eye-catching burnet moths on coastal heathland and cliffs.

Visit a Cornwall Wildlife Trust nature reserve

Some of Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves are particularly prized for their insect life.

Windmill Farm on the Lizard, where dragonflies dart and skim over the ponds and scrapes.

Broad-bodied Chaser
Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly

In June the scarce Heath Fritillary butterfly can be seen flying at Luckett/Greenscombe Wood nature reserve in the far east of Cornwall.

Heath Fritillary butterfly
Heath Fritillary butterfly on a Cornwall Wildlife Trust nature reserve in East Cornwall

Another special fritillary, the Marsh Fritillary, is a speciality of Helman Tor nature reserve, and Breney Common, part of this mid-Cornwall reserve, is particularly good for seeing a variety of insects.

Ventongimps Moor near Zelah, Truro, also buzzes with colourful insect life, including the large red damselfly, keeled skimmer dragonflies, small heath and common blue butterflies.

Many other nature reserves, such as Chyverton, also near Truro and Churchtown Farm near Saltash in south-east Cornwall, have a mixture of meadow, hedges and woodland that ensure a wide variety of insect delights to enjoy.  

Some of the volunteer crew at work
Some of the volunteer crew at work at Churchtown Farm Community Nature Reserve

Cornish hedges are one of the best places of all for insects, particularly when the hedges haven’t been flailed regularly to within an inch of their lives.

Cornwall Wildlife Trust is always keen to catalogue your sightings. It’s very useful data used for nature conservation purposes (how can nature be saved and cared for if we don’t have evidence that it’s there?) and simple to send details in online at https://erccis.org.uk/share-sightings . There is an easy link to download an ORKS App that works on your phone, so you can collect and submit sightings quickly and easily – even when there’s no signal!

I sometimes like to consult a book in the old fashioned way, and am delighted to own a copy of the Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Paul Waring and Martin Townsend, illustrated by Richard Lewington: see https://ukmoths.org.uk/book-reviews/waring-and-townsend/ Guides to other insects are available too. One of my favourites is A Guide to the Dragonflies of Great Britain by Dan Powell, which is available as cheaply as 10p online, and another good one is A Cornwall Butterfly Atlas by John Wacher, John Worth and Adrian Spalding https://www.nhbs.com/a-cornwall-butterfly-atlas-book. Don’t forget to look out for books on all insects – not just butterflies, moths and pond creatures, but the bees, the beetles, and the different flies, too – from simple pocket books to detailed guides and entertaining narratives. They make excellent Christmas presents.

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