Monday 28 May 2018


The legendary Dave Lull yesterday sent me a link to this piece from the New York Times about a dramatic decline in the numbers of flying insects. It's a subject that was also the theme of a book, The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy, which I reviewed in The Dabbler (back in the dear dead days before Facebook). McCarthy was writing before the German findings described in the NYT piece had been made known, but he had reached similar conclusions from his own observations. And anyone who remembers the sheer abundance of insect life in earlier decades – swarms of flying insects swirling in the headlights and spattering the windscreen – would have to agree with him.
  These matters were in my mind this morning when I went for a stroll on Mitcham Common. So far this has been a rather strange butterfly year. Things got off to a slow start after that endless cold wet April, but, in terms of species seen, I am now pretty much where I would expect to be at the end of May. The worrying thing has been the low numbers of individuals flying, even of the commonest species – and this despite a good run of warm and sunny weather. So few Peacocks, so few Tortoiseshells, so relatively few even of the common whites – and not a single Red Admiral or Painted Lady yet. When I've gone looking for target species, I've found them (so far), but there has been so little else flying...
  Happily I gained a more hopeful picture from this morning's visit to the acid grasslands of Mitcham Common. I saw my first Small Heaths of the year – and in large numbers (I gave up counting after 20, and must have seen at least double that number in less than two hours).
Also more Small Coppers than I've seen in some entire seasons, and an abundance of Six-Spot Burnet moths (red spots on black), as well as Commas, Speckled Woods, Brimstones and Holly Blues – and three or four fresh and lively Common Blues. My first Brown Argus of the season took a little finding, and I saw no more than two, but no doubt there will be a good many more before the year is over. Clearly the butterfly year is not shaping up as badly as I feared it was – though there is no arguing with the overall decline in insect life.
  By the way, I particularly like the way the author of the NYT piece argues for the crucial importance of that threatened (or at least unfashionable) species, the field biologist – even the dedicated amateur. It was amateurs, after all, who laid the groundwork for the serious study of natural history. They are still needed.

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