Lichens and Little Things in the Woods

The wonderful Ellen Hutchins Festival for 2019 has just finished – now in its fifth year and going from strength to strength in celebrating all the aspects of botany that Ellen practised. You can read about Ellen in my post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. We participated again in 2016 and I wrote about our fascinating walk Into the Woods with Pádraig Whelan and Howard Fox.

This year there was the same wide variety of botany-related activities, including an impressive array of events for children. We attended (above) a talk by Madeline Hutchins (Ellen’s GGG-Niece) about her life, with an emphasis on her letters and a talk on letter writing of the period by Carrie O’Flynn and then, last weekend, a Lichen Walk in beautiful Glengarriff Woods (first photograph, top).  Been there yet? If not, you’re missing a real treat.

The focus of the walk was lichen of course (apparently it is acceptable to say lyken or litchen so take your pick) with Paul Whelan (above). Paul has a great website at Irish Lichens which is easy to follow for a neophyte like me. I had been using it already not knowing it was his. But even though the subject was lichens, once you enter the woods it’s easy to get distracted by other things, so for me the day was as much about the insects and flowers that we saw (sorry, Paul) on our short, but incredibly rich, walk.

What are these people doing? This is how close you have to get, with a hand lens, to see the tiny patches of lichen on the rocks of the bridge

So what is a lichen? It’s a fungus, but one that works with another organism (usually green algae but sometimes a cyanobacteria) to produce something neither can do on their own. Since lichens can’t photosynthesise, they depend on the other organism to do that. The fungus contributes by consuming dead matter and this mutually beneficial and necessary relationship is called symbiotic.

And this is what we were seeing

The lichen body is called a thallus, and it produces spores (which is how it reproduces) through an apothecium (which looks like a tiny cup) or a perithecium (which looks like a tiny volcano). We saw mostly lichen with perithecia on our walk, some of which were just tiny black dots.

We also saw some foliose lichens – leaf like things such as the one immediately above, although you had to get very close with a hand lens to even see the leafy structures of some of them. Others were bigger and more obvious – these Usnea lichens (below) are like tiny bonsai leafless trees and attach to rocks and trees by a single contact point.

I had already written (in my post Miniature World) about the Cladonia Lichen such as the Devil’s Matchstick, and now that I know a bit more about lichens I’ve been browsing around our own garden and I found some on a rock wall (below) – not only Devil’s Matchsticks but the ones called Pixie Cups as well.

And the ‘other things’ on the walk? Clare Heardman from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who seems to know about the whole gamut of wild organisms, was excited to see a fly land on Robert’s back. No ordinary fly, it turns out, but a Dark Giant Horse Fly (Tabanus sudeticus) – the largest and heaviest fly in Europe! We know it’s a female by the space between her eyes (males have no space) and it’s the female that bites and sucks your blood. One source I consulted says: Unlike insects which surreptitiously puncture the skin with needle-like organs, horse flies have mandibles like tiny serrated scimitars, which they use to rip and slice flesh apart. Charming, but fortunately she flew away before inflicting that on Robert.

Nearby, another fly was feeding on some Ling Heather, this time a hoverfly. Trying to identify hoverflies is a head wreck, there are so many different types, but I think this one is called parasyrphus lineola, one of the little forest hoverflies that like a conifer environment. Hoverflies are next to bees in importance as pollinators – it’s not that they carry as much pollen, but they are so busy and make so many visits to flowers that they do a sterling job. They also keep aphid populations under control.

You can see the dusting of pollen on this hoverfly

When we arrived at the pond Paul showed us the Usnea lichens – one tree over the water was entirely decorated with them, although they also like to grow on rocks as well. They belong to the Fruticose Lichens and on his website he describes them thus: Fruticose lichen appear tufted and shrubby and are usually erect or pendant and attached to the substrate at a single point. Filamentous lichen are soft and hair-like and some form felt-like mats comprised of very fine filaments.

The pond itself was alive with water striders, amazing little creatures that walk on water. A little Googling led me to this short video about how exactly they accomplish this, and what they live on (don’t watch if you’re squeamish).

As I was watching them, my eye was caught by a flash of brilliant blue and down came a damselfly to rest on one of the long reeds overhanging the pond. It was the aptly named Beautiful Demoiselle and a male, which has the striking metallic blue colour. This reed was its perch, from which it guarded its territory and kept an eye on passing edible insects, leaving it to chase them and then return. (There’s a good Wikipedia page on them.)

It was a great walk, all in all, and we can’t now go anywhere without checking out our surroundings for lichen. On a walk on Long Island yesterday I was attracted to the patches of bright orange and white lichen on the rocks. Here’s what I saw, at a distance and close up:

I was also delighted to see heather and lichen growing on one rock surface, and very attractive it looked together. The lichen might be one of the Cladonias, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

My previous feelings for lichen were all negative, since they obscure rock art and headstones, but now – have we caught the lichen bug? I hope not, since it already takes me an hour to walk around the block, stopping to look at flowers. What do you think, Dear Reader – is there any hope for us?

 

Feed the Bugs

Bee in Fuchsia

Our walk in Glengarriff Woods opened my eyes to the challenges facing us in regards to ensuring the continuing biodiversity of Ireland. Loss of habitat, invasion of alien species, climate change, and modern farming practices all combine to present our insect life with increasing difficulty in obtaining what they need to thrive. Perhaps the best-known (although not the best understood) example currently is the enormous die-off of the bee population, known as colony collapse.

Hildegard's Shrub

With this in mind, I have been observing the bees, butterflies and bugs in our neighbourhood, and the role of flowers, both wild and cultivated, in supplying the food and the nectar they need. We have the advantage here that the hedgerows are rich in flowering plants, and that by regulation they must remain uncut until the end of August.

Fly on yellow flower

But this has been a short, cool summer and already the flowers that we saw last year in September have gone, to be replaced with the browning bracken. Our Budleia, for example, also known as the Butterfly Bush, was still attracting butterflies in September last year but this year it’s been flowerless since late August.

A speckled Wood Butterfly and a Hoverfly enjoy some blackberry time

On the upside, we’re enjoying a bumper blackberry crop, and lots of insect seem to love blackberries as much as we do. Because of the way blackberries grow, ripening at different times, some brambles are only flowering now, providing nectar for the bees.

Great Willowherb 2015

This photograph, showing a riotous mixture  of Great Willowherb and Montbretia (Crocosmia) was taken at this time in 2015: this year all these flowers have finished already.

holly close to flowering

This year the holly flowers are abundant – here they are about to bloom. The berries are honeysuckle berries

The fuchsia is still flowering, providing that gorgeous blush along the boreens that we love. One of the advantages of the fuchsia flower is that it is down-facing. This helps to keep it dry and preserve the nectar (see photo at beginning of post).

We have two types of bindweed here: hedge bindweed in the upper photo; a subspecies, the uncommon hedge bindweed ‘roseata’ is lower right ; lower left is sea bindweed, which grows along sandy shores

We might hate bindweed but it is an important flower for the bees. The hedge-bindweed we see around here has pretty pink and white stripes – apparently the white stripes act like a runway, guiding the insects into the heart of the flower.

rose with bee

Wild and cultivated roses are still blooming, here and there. This little guy is appreciative.

Speckled Wood Butterfly on sedum

How many bees?Red admiral at Helen's GardenMy  friend Gill grows sedum (upper two photos) and the bees love it. You can hear the hum from ten feet away. Meanwhile, Helen and William’s garden (lower photo) attracts butterflies by the score. I saw my first Red Admiral there last year.

Small Tortoiseshell on oregano

A Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly enjoys my Oregano, along with the bumbles bees

In my herb garden it seems to be the Oregano that is attractive to both bees and butterflies. It’s just finishing its flowering period now, but I still have to be careful when I pick a bunch, not to pick a bee as well.

Flies and spiders need the flowers too. Hoverflies are an important part of the ecosystem, helping to pollinate and preying on aphids and thrips. They (and the wasps!) seem to prefer my fennel. They also like the little pink Herb Roberts that are still to be seen in the hedgerows.

Honeysuckle

And what about the Honeysuckle? It’s abundant and beautiful, and with a name like that surely it’s a-buzz with bees? No – apparently the flower is too long and the bees can’t reach in far enough to gather the nectar. But the sweet scent, which gets even more intense towards the evening, calls in the moths who take their fill.

Snail on cabbage

Ah, but y’know – you can’t always welcome little critters to your plants. Sometimes, it’s us against them.

Cobweb on Montbretia

And of course, sometimes the plant isn’t so much food, as a means to an end…