And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”
Augustus De morgan Budget of Paradoxes, 1872
My grandmother used to quote the first couplet of the above ‘poem’ to me when I was younger – not that I had fleas, or had even seen one at the time I think she just liked the sound of it – and it’s stuck with me ever since.
The lines have really struck a chord over the last few months as I’ve embarked on something of a ‘panrecording’ frenzy, attempting to finally get to grips with UK wildlife – or more specifically the biodiversity on the wonderful Great Chalfield estate where I’ve been living since July 2009.
Part of me must have known this before, but – blimey – it’s a cut throat world out there. Especially if you’re small.
What I mean by that is while I may get occasionally irritated by a mosquito or midge, bitten by the odd mite, or taken by surprise by the odd wasp, I’m absolutely enormous compared with the invertebrates I’ve been looking at. And size definitely matters when it comes to – er, matters invertebrate, because everything small out here seems highly at risk of being eaten or parasitised by something else small. In fact hardly anything seems safe from being pounced on, crept up on, snared in a web, plucked out of the air, or pierced and sucked dry. And if it’s not the adult that’s being hunted, then it’s their larvae or nymphs, or whatever tiny version of them is attempting to survive the summer. The action taking place in just one stretch of roadside vegetation or garden flower border is absolutely gripping I can tell you (and if that sounds a little breathless and hyperbolic I’m not going to apologise…).
To be honest I knew very little about the players in this real-life drama before even last month (and in some cases even before yesterday), but I am becoming increasingly captivated. And increasingly aware of just how incredibly fortunate us humans are to be able to walk down a path or alongside a quiet road without having to be constantly looking over our shoulders in case a gigantic wasp injects huge eggs into our back or a ten foot long bug locks its front legs around us and bites our head off. We are very lucky to be so big, and we should all be grateful.
What am I talking about?
Well, for example how about the Nomada bees I’ve been so intrigued by this spring? Looking nothing like what most people probably think a bee looks like (they’re constantly being uploaded onto forums as ‘small wasps’ by tyro entomologists – including by myself two years ago) they’re actually cuckoo bees, laying their eggs in the cells of solitary bees where the nomad larvae eat the pollen/honey stored there. So while they’re insouciantly flying slowly and low to the ground seemingly looking for flowers, they’re actually scouting for the tiny burrows made by solitary bees. Imagine if the scales were different and we were constantly in fear of hearing the buzz of a huge nomad looking for ways into our home: that might make us keep the back door shut in the summer, eh?
Presumed Nomada flava, May 2012, Great Chalfield
If being parasitised or ‘cuckooed’ in the family home by a bee larva seems a bit harsh, how about having the eggs of a fly laid directly on your skin and having the larvae that hatch burrow inside you and eat you alive from the inside out? Yes, parasitic flies do occasionally target us humans but extremely rarely here in the UK. On the other hand if you were a moth or butterfly caterpillar there’s a reasonable chance that there’s a bristly and not especially pretty tachinid fly looking for you right now. There are over 8,000 tachinid fly species around the world (with many more probably waiting to be discovered) and at least 260 of them occur in the UK. For more information have a look at the excellent Tachinid Recording Scheme, whose Chris Raper confirmed the identities of the two species below (or at least said that without looking at a specimen they were most likely to be as I’ve named them).
Gymnocheta viridis and Phania funesta,
May 2012, Great Chalfield
Tachinids are not especially abundant (at least to my inexperienced and indiscriminate eyes) but it’s virtually impossible to walk through any area of long grass and cow-parlsey/nettles here (and across large parts of Europe) without disturbing the ubiquitous Yellow Dung Fly Scathophaga stercoraria, which lays its eggs on animal dung. The larvae prey on other insects in the dung, the adults hunt down other insects and suck them dry. Here is one feeding on the intricately-marked cranefly Epiphragma ocellare (I ‘rescued’ this one to see what the fly was eating and discovered a cranefly I’d never seen before!).
Yellow Dung Fly and Epiphragma ocellare,
Great Chalfield, June 2012
If being sucked dry by a dung fly seems a particularly inglorious way to end your days (to us anyway, I don’t suppose it matters to a prey item that we humans associate these yellow flies with animal poop) how about being embraced by the much more lovely sounding damsel bug? Hmm, frankly one piercing mouth part and is probably exactly the same as any other if yours is the body said mouthpart is being rammed into, and while a damsel bug is really quite insignificant to something our size it’s a fearsome thing if you’re a similarly small creature doing your best to go unnoticed amongst the grass.
Broad Damsel Bug Nabis flavomarginatus, Great Chalfield, May 2012
If you’re really looking for ‘fearsome’ though, then look no further than the Ichneumonidae or ichneumon wasps. Look closely at virtually any patch of grasses, hedge, or vegetation and you’ll probably see what looks like a long-antennaed wasp-like insect scurrying quickly over the leaf surface, it’s antennae ‘feeling’ the environment around it: this will almost always be one of the some 3000 species of ichneumon wasp currently found in the UK. Identifying them is at best tricky (foolhardy probably) as they are extremely similar in many cases, very small indeed in others, and – according to the very interesting comments about online identifications on iSpot – many of the images people like me use to tentatively reach an ID are incorrect anyway! Anyway, whether identified correctly or not, ichneumons are parasites that lay their eggs in or on the larvae of other insects or spiders. They use their long ovipositors (which are simply egg delivery tubes, not stings of any sort) to get the eggs as close as possible to the host and then fly off looking for the next victim. Large ichneumons prey on large insects, small ones on smaller ones. And they are absolutely everywhere! It’s extraordinary really that any larvae of other insects survive at all frankly with so many wasps, flies, bugs, and beetles looking for them…which of course is why most insects lay huge numbers of eggs.
Having written that IDs of ichneumons are virtually impossible without microscopic examination, this is surely Pimpla instigator, Great Chalfield, May 2012
Right, that’s enough from me – and I’ve not even looked at dragonflies – which are supreme aerial predators – or spiders, which are also ubiquitous and out hunting insects all summer long! How does anything survive out there? I’m amazed anything does, to be honest, and genuinely thankful that I’m a member of one of the largest species of animal on the planet…
Tetragnetha sp, Great Chalfield, May 2012
All photographs copyright Charlie Moores/Talking Naturally. Similarly the identifications are (mostly) my own – if you see any errors I’d be very grateful to know. Thanks.