RSPB Scotland is supporting National Insect Week from 20-26 June - a celebration of some of the smaller creatures in our natural world that is organised by the Royal Entomological Society. If you haven't heard of it before, National Insect Week encourages people of all ages to learn more about insects from beetles, bees and butterflies to dragonflies, damselflies and stoneflies. In preparation here's a look back at a few of the exciting insect discoveries and stories from our nature reserves in Scotland.
I want you to visualise a map of the world, not in detail but just enough for a rough picture. There's an incredible wealth of wildlife scattered across that map, appearing in every size, shape and colour imaginable. Now start zooming in.
Depending on which continent or country you choose to focus on the species, or mix of species, can be very different. Especially when you consider masses of land that are completely cut off by water; any creature that can't fly has no option but to stay put. Because of this, in Scotland, it can be that some of the wildlife you find on the mainland just doesn't occur on particular islands and the same is true of the reverse.
Have you ever heard of the short-necked oil beetle for example? It's a rare flightless insect that's only found in two UK locations; one is Devon and the other is the Isle of Coll. But it's absent from the Scottish mainland, or at least hasn't been discovered there yet. They were actually thought to be extinct in the UK until 2008.
The beetles are named for the toxic oil secretion they produce when threatened and RSPB Scotland and Buglife researchers counted 150 of them during recent surveys on Coll. The habitat found there is perfect for them - a mix of dune systems and wildflower meadows.
On the other side of the coin, there’s a day moth called the six-spot burnet which is distributed across Scotland, and is relatively common in England, Wales and Ireland. However it had never been recorded out on Tiree until last year. A team from RSPB Scotland were carrying out insect survey work on the island when they came across the insect on the ground, basking in the sunshine.
These moths can often be mistaken for butterflies because they are so brightly coloured, with a lovely metallic sheen, and are active during daylight hours.
But don’t get us wrong, it’s not just the islands where exciting discoveries can be made. Two rare beetles were discovered at our Abernehty nature reserve near Aviemore, and close to Aberdeen at our Loch of Strathbeg reserve during recent surveys. It was the first time either of the insects had been seen in Scotland for decades.
The beetle found at Abernethy was a water scavenger beetle called Cryptopleurum subtile, and it actually turned out to be the most northerly ever record of the species here, having been collected from woody debris along the River Nethy. It was also only the second record for the country, with the first being from a cut grass pile in Melrose back in 1969.
The second beetle, found at Strathbeg, was a whirligig called Gyrinus paykulli, which occurs mainly in lochs and spends a lot of time in reeds and other plants on the edges of the water. They have two pairs of eyes (one facing up and one facing down) because they live on the surface of the water.
They are also known to gather in groups called flotillas which perform a special 'dance' when disturbed, whizzing around at high speed. Again, this was the most northerly record of this beetle to date in Scotland with previous discoveries being made in Fife and Perthshire.
And let’s not forget the modest caddisfly
While fairly widespread across lowland England and Wales, the caddisfly known as Molanna angustata had never been seen in Scotland before, until one of our trainee ecologists, Genevieve Dalley, came across two of them last year at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes in the Highlands.
Molanna angustata is quite a small flying insect with pale brown colouring and long antennae. They’re usually found living in lakes, ditches, ponds and canals.
Despite their perhaps plain appearance, they have a pretty interesting lifecycle. The larvae live in water, where they create a protective case out of tiny sand and stone particles, sticking them together with silk to make a tube.
When they have transformed to a winged adult they chew their way out of the case and swim up to the surface where they eventually fly away. However, this does have to be done quickly or aquatic predators, like fish, will eat them.
It’s pretty exciting that new species like this are still being discovered in Scotland and there’s so much to learn about many of them. If this blog has done enough to pique your interest in insects, you can find out more about National Insect Week, including ways to get involved, by clicking here.
Allison Leonard is a warden with RSPB Scotland who looks after five reserves in Central Scotland, including the Forth Islands Fidra and Inchmickery. Allison brings us this update on how different seabirds are faring in the Forth this year and tells us about a couple of exciting opportunities for you to get out and see them!
Seabirds of the Forth
It can’t be easy raising your young whilst perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, being bombarded with everything that the Scottish weather can throw at you. But each year thousands upon thousands of seabirds manage it. The 2016 season seems to have been a mixed one for the birds in the Firth of Forth though, with some species showing an almost 100% increase in numbers, whilst others have fared less well.
Those not doing so well include the UK’s albatrosses and fulmars, as well as kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots, with numbers nearly 20% down on 2015. However, the number of eider duck nests across the Forth has gone up by nearly 75%, with over 100 more nests than last year. All three gull species found regularly in the Forth have also increased, with herring gulls more than doubling in number.
One seabird, which is harder to count thanks to the fact it nests underground, is the puffin but this year’s monitoring has shown some very encouraging results. This colourful little bird, which last year was added to the IUCN red list of birds considered to be facing the risk of extinction, spends its winters floating in large flocks on the sea before heading back to shore in summer to breed.
On the southern edge of the Forth, they mainly nest on the islands of Fidra, an RSPB Scotland reserve, and Craigleith. In the past, both of these sites have shown a massive crash in numbers, which we know is due to an infestation of tree mallow. This is a plant which is not native to the area, but was probably introduced a very long time ago, perhaps as far back as the 1600s by soldiers on the Bass Rock.
Lighthouse keepers may also have planted it, or just used it for both its medicinal properties and the fact that the large, soft leaves make good toilet paper (when you have nothing else to use and can’t just pop to the shops!). Tree Mallow didn’t spread to Fidra until the 1990s.
It can grow up to three metres tall, and grows so densely it blocks the entrance to the puffin burrows and prevents them from breeding. But thanks to the hard of work of many, many volunteers over the last few years (through RSPB Scotland and SOS puffin) the tree mallow is slowly being reduced across the islands, allowing puffin numbers to return to pre-mallow numbers.
With a 2% increase in occupied burrows on Fidra this year, we can safely say that our management is having a very positive impact on puffin numbers in the Forth.
For anyone interested in getting closer views of all the wonderful seabirds of the Forth, you can join RSPB Scotland for two special seabird cruises with the Maid of the Forth. This Sunday (26 June) there will be a three-hour tour of the Inner Forth islands (departing 6pm from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry).
While on Saturday 9 July, there’s a two-hour cruise aboard the 'Seafari Explorer' to the islands off the East Lothian coast. This trip in particular is not to be missed if you want to see the world's largest gannetry out on the Bass Rock. It departs North Berwick harbour at 6pm. For more information and booking see either www.maidoftheforth.co.uk or http://www.seafari-edinburgh.co.uk.
All this week we’ve been celebrating National Insect Week 2016 and to round off the final day RSPB’s Will George gives an insight into surveying a rather rare insect.
I've spent the last two weeks in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland on the trail of a rare and enigmatic creature, the pine hoverfly. This beautiful little fly is a specialist of the ancient pine forests of northern Scotland, and as these forests have declined, so have these flies. Now pine hoverflies are known to occur at just one site. The RSPB, in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Malloch Society has been trying to help pine hoverflies by providing the species with some custom made homes in the form of specially cut pine stumps, with a hole in the centre for the flies to lay their eggs in. These stumps have been created where the hoverflies are still known to occur, and also at a couple of new sites, including RSPB Scotland Abernethy where the pine hoverfly used to occur, and a reintroduction was attempted a few years ago.
My aim was to survey all of these sites to see if I could find the adult flies, which are distinctively marked in black and red. Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate at first; heavy rain and temperatures in single figures are not good news for hoverflies or hoverfly surveyors! Things improved this week, and I've spent many happy hours in some beautiful locations, seeing lots of wonderful insects. These have included some highland specialities like the impressive bumblebee robberfly, one of the largest flies in the UK, and the beautifully camouflaged longhorn beetle Rhagium inquisitor, whose larvae munch their way through dead Scots pines.
Unfortunately, as my time in Scotland comes to a close I haven't been able to find any pine hoverflies; perhaps the cold weather last week meant they're late emerging this year, or maybe they emerged early this year, and the bad weather was too much for the adults. Despite my lack of success, I'm very glad to have been part of the work to try and help pine hoverflies, and more broadly to preserve the unique range of wonderful species that make the pine forests of the Highlands their home.
There's still a lot of work to be done to understand and conserve this critically endangered and elusive denizen of the Highlands. In the meantime I'm off to have one last look - wish me luck!