Basin Notes - July 2012

Flower Power

You simply can't help but notice how 'green' our countryside looks this summer - it appears, everywhere you look, the grass, flowers and other flora seem to growing with almost bionic energy, enthusiasm and vigour! No doubt the persistent and endless rain-soaked weeks we've all been enduring have been the main factors/contributor to this amazing phenomenon.

Among the wealth of plants of waysides and waste places that are now enjoying their prime flowering time is the rather impressive and slightly foreign-looking Aaron's rod or great mullein, Verbascum thapsus. Having overwintered as a large rosette of grey, woolly leaves, it now sends up its tall spike of large yellow flowers, attractive to many hungry local insects.

However, it's worth bearing in mind that there are actually a number of different mulleins, and though this particular species is the most likely one to turn up around here, (usually growing alongside similar-sized, colourful foxgloves), identification can sometimes be a problem - a , rarer, well-branched white type can occasionally crop up too.

By their very nature, invasive 'alien' plant species, which take advantage of broken, impoverished ground, tend to be newcomers from abroad, but according to expert botanists and good field guides, all our exotic-looking mulleins seem to be native.

Sadly though, despite their impressive size and robustness, they are still one of a whole range of beautiful wild flowers that tend to be squeezed out of our modern, tidied-up landscape.

It is really only because our mulleins have tough, persistent seeds, which can wait until the soil is disturbed, that they have not disappeared altogether.

Keeping with my 'flower power' theme this time round, I've also noticed recently how the cow parsley, lining our road verges and other wild areas, is now giving way and being quietly replaced by the similar-looking but taller, bristlier and much more nutritious hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium Nutritious, that is, to insects!

Everything from butterflies, moths, hoverflies, to flying bugs and beetles, all fly in to mop up/feast on nectar from the big, white, 'dinner-plate' sized flower heads - known as umbels.

Since these are about chest or head height for most of us, they're perfectly placed for watching and photographing various fascinating insects.

At the moment, on lots of hogweed heads, (like the ones I saw on the St Cyrus Nature Reserve last week), you will probably spot very distinctive orange beetles - often nicknamed 'bloodsuckers' by many locals

They are in fact, completely harmless red soldier beetles. Almost invariably seen in coupled pairs and unlike many other species of beetle, they are actually soft-bodied, and their wing cases are not very strong or robust.

At this precise time of year they tend to visit the flower heads to mate, but are certainly not just around for the nectar and fun - they also use these conspicuous flat, white, spaces to catch smaller insect prey feeding on these umbels too. Among the other insects flocking to the hogweed right now are several types of hoverfly, including the honeybee-like drone flies and hairy bumblebee-mimicking hover-flies such as Volucella bombylans, spotted feeding near the mouth of North Esk last week, which is capable of mimicking red-tailed, buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees.

Simply amazing stuff!