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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A Bush Full of Beetles

One of the marvellous things about Crete is that there is food growing just about everywhere. Even here on the side of the main road running through Ferma we have wild chicory, a relative of the dandelion. People often get confused between chicory and endive which is not surprising as basically they are merely different species of the same plant. This one is Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus) whereas Endive is Cichorium endiva. Endive comes in two cultivated varieties; curly (var crispum) or broad-leaved (var latifolia) and the wild Endive is Cichorium pumilum which also grows here on Crete. Whichever you choose they're packed full of vitamins A and K and high in fibre so they're good for you.


This is the lane we'll be taking to the sea and there are quite a few plants growing down in this gully here so let's go on a bug hunt (and by bug hunt I mean let's concentrate on the 'true bugs', the hemipterans1, as opposed to anything that creeps or crawls). First off we have a couple of adult striped shield bugs (Graphosoma) investigating a wild carrot that is going to seed and next to that some young green shield bugs (Nezara) on a mallow leaf that are in different stages of development. The little black, white and red one is in his fourth instar and the green one is in his fifth and final instar. So when they next moult the little one will look like the big one and the big one will lose that fetching design upon the back and become plain green with maybe a touch of yellow depending upon his colour morph. Both of these shield bugs (stink bugs in the US) are in the same family, the Pentatomidae, but this little red and black job that you've found is a Deraeocoris from the Miridae family. 

So we have three genera from two families in the order Hemiptera. To put that into some sort of context our genus is Homo, we are in the family Hominidae (with the great apes, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos) which is a part of the Primate order which includes us lot plus all the other monkeys, lemurs, gibbons and so on.

You'll never guess what I've just spotted – a bush full of beetles. There are dozens of them buzzing about all over the place. Nicely differentiated little insects; black head, deep orange thorax and pale orange wing cases covering the abdomen. You can tell that they're beetles (order Coleoptera) and not bugs because they have a line down the middle of their abdomens separating their wing cases. The fact that they look a bit like elongated ladybirds make me think that they are Leaf Beetles (family Chrysomelidae) but beyond that I wouldn't like to say. I think I'll collect a few on the way back and put them in a jam jar to observe their behaviour back at the lab.

We were discussing ants last week (order Hymenoptera along with the bees and wasps if you remember) and one is conveniently walking up my arm so we can have a closer look at him. All ants are in the same family, Formicidae, but there are tens of thousands of different ant species (most of which have yet to be classified) so to make things easier we break them down into subfamilies. As far as I know there are three subfamilies on Crete (only three that I've come across so far at any rate) and the clue to differentiating between them lies in that thin bit connecting the thorax to the abdomen (called the gaster in ants). I don't know if you can make it out but in this ant the thin bit, called the petiole, consists of two parts which tells us that it is in the subfamily Myrmicinae. This particular fellow also gives us a clue in the shape of his gaster which is distinctly heart shaped. That is a peculiarity of the Crematogaster genus or Valentine Ants. Sorry? Why has he got twelve legs? I was hoping that you wouldn't notice that. The six in the middle are his own, the six at the head end belong to another ant which he has clamped in his jaws. Just think of him as an undertaker.

And finally...the sea. Down there is a place I call Gully Cove and we'll go down to it next week but for now it's a nice shady place to sit and admire the view. We started the walk by observing that there is food growing just about everywhere in Crete and here is no exception. There's a carob tree (chocolate substitute) to our right with a grape vine growing through it and a stand of fennel to our left. Fish flavoured with fennel followed by chocolate mousse and washed down with a bottle of wine and all the major ingredients to hand. You can't get better than that. After that I would suggest a little nap but if you find that you can't relax then this little pink flower may help. It's Verbena with which you can make a nice pot of herbal tea with scientifically proven soporific properties. Night-night.

The Extra Bit

1 For a quick overview of the various orders of insects see my blog post Whifflingthrough the Woodpile – a short history of insects

Sometimes the best discoveries await you when you return to base. Like this Vine Hawk Moth caterpillar (Hippotion celerio) that was waiting for me on my grapevine when I got back. I've christened him Jeremy (after the BBC Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine) and I'll keep you updated on his progress.




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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the Facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map





Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Old School Spiders and Killer Spuds


We'll start where we left off last week at the derelict dwellings and make our way down to the heart of the village but before we do I've just seen something large and red fly by my nose and land on that wild carrot over there. What a magnificent specimen (and go compare that for a facial appendage). Those fantastically large antennae mark him out as one of the Longhorn Beetles (family Cerambycidae). The antennae are used primarily for smelling the air but in some insects they actually help to stabilize their flight (which is a bit counter-intuitive as you'd think that they would make the creature a bit of an awkward flier). But when you think of a tightrope walker with a long balancing pole it makes a bit more sense.

This is something I wasn't expecting to find, a terrace full of potatoes planted on the hillside totally out of context with everything around it. The flowers are rather pretty and very similar to Silver-leaved Nightshade. The reason for this is that they are both in the same family (Solanaceae) and like all members of the Nightshade family they contain the poison solanine as a natural insecticide. Potato poisoning is rare but not unknown: in 1979 a group of 78 schoolboys from south London were poisoned and although they survived to tell the tale (previous cases have been fatal) they were pretty ill and some were confused and hallucinating for several days afterwards. My grandmother's old maxim: 'never eat green potatoes' turns out to be good advice. Although the green is merely chlorophyll found in all green plants (for which reason I'd always rather discounted my grandmother's warning) it is an indicator of the build-up of solanine. Ah, the old 'uns knew a thing or two. Generally the amounts of solanine in spuds (and tomatoes and aubergines too for that matter who are also in the same family) is too low to cause any problems at all.

This is what passes for Central Drive in Ferma and I see that a colony of ants are using those black water pipes as a motorway. They seem to be moving house judging by the number of eggs and pupae being transported down the hill. We always think of bees and wasps as being natural compatriots but ants fall into the same group of insects too; the Hymenoptera. How they are related within the group has always been a bit of a puzzle as it all depends upon which aspects of their anatomy and/or behaviour you use as your yardstick. Anyhow, a few years back a group of scientists led by Bryan Davis in California decided to solve the puzzle once and for all by scouring the countryside for ants, wasps and bees of all denominations and taking DNA samples (I'm not sure that I'd have volunteered to be a part of that team). They sequenced the genomes and found that the majority of wasps went their own way from a common ancestor at an early stage. A few, the scolid wasps and allies, along with the bees and ants decided upon a different evolutionary path. The bees and ants then parted with the scolids and finally the bees and ants separated. All except the thread-waisted wasps which followed the bees' evolutionary path (so maybe we should call them thread-waisted bees?). So, when did we learn that ants are more closely related to bees than wasps are? Not until 2013 which just goes to show how much there is still to be discovered about the natural world. [1]

Oh look, a red spotted dandelion. Ye gods! The spots are alive. The area is literally crawling with little red animals. A quick leg count under the hand lens – eight so they're arachnids. They are a type of mite going by the name of Balaustium. There are a couple of clues to identifying this genus: firstly, unlike other members of the Erythraeidae family they are pollen feeders rather than predators and secondly they have a noticeable gap between the second and third legs. Apparently, although they are vegetarian they can give you a nip so maybe it's not a good idea to let them swarm up your left leg like that.



I see that you've gone for the squishing method of mite removal rather than the gentle brush. Maybe not so wise, your leg now looks like a war zone. No matter, come and have a look at this harrow I've just stumbled upon. Is this the original Harrow-on-the-Hill? I wouldn't have thought that this is the most useful piece of equipment you could have on a steep hillside like this but it explains how the potatoes got planted. There's another one of our jumping spiders down there look. There is a controversial theory that these spiders are socially superior to other spiders and this would appear to be supporting evidence for that theory. How so? He's obviously an Old Harrovian. He's even in the school colours.







The Extra Bit

[1]  Phylogenomics Resolves Evolutionary Relationships among Ants, Bees, and Wasps from Current Biology Volume 23, Issue 20, p2058–2062, 21 October 2013

I suppose I ought to tell you a bit about the village facilities in case you fancy a visit: plenty of places to stay including a hotel (Porto Belassario) and a number of self-catering apartments. There is also a campsite at nearby Koutsounari. A choice of places to eat and drink as well as a village store, a butcher, a baker (no candlestick maker), two hairdressers and a petrol station. And me of course. Everything you need really. Yes, we have no MacDonald's, KFC, faux Irish Pubs, rowdy nightclubs or strip joints(but we do have bananas in season).


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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Jumpers, Jewels and Jurassic Shells

 We'll leave the denizens of the Wildlife Hotel to their own devices and continue our walk around the village along the top track. A couple of weeks ago (Say It With Flowers) we found some interesting looking fossils. Just down the hill from where we are now in fact and this is a great fossil hunting area, particularly for sea shells from the time that Ferma was raised from the sea bed by a huge tectonic upheaval about twenty odd million years ago. So let's poke about in this exposed limestone and see what we can find. Not a bad little haul for ten minutes work; it looks like a couple of clams and a slipper shell. OK, so they're not from the Jurassic (roughly 145-200 million years ago) but Neogenic (2.5-23 million years ago) but that would have spoiled the alliteration. We'll probably find some of their modern relatives when we investigate the beaches later.



We'll wander off the track here for a bit and see what this rocky outcrop has to offer. It seems as though we have disturbed a robber fly at his breakfast. These are ambush predators that feed almost exclusively on other insects; in this case an unsuspecting cicada has been the victim. Despite their murderous habits I think that they're rather distinguished looking fellows with their great white beards – a sort of Father Christmas of the insect world, though not as benevolent, obviously.




We may find a bit of shade now as we move into the pines, it was getting rather hot on the exposed rock back there. I can hear a couple of greenfinches about but I've given up trying to spot them in this sort of habitat, they're too well camouflaged for my eyes. Not so this spectacular Jewel Beetle that's just landed in the Cretan Ebony. He looked like a little golden sphere of sunlight in flight and he's rather eye catching even down here among the foliage. I'll see if I can hoik him out so that you can have a better look at him. Unfortunately their beautiful, iridescent wing cases (the result of varying numbers of stacked chitin layers scientists discovered a few years back1) has meant that they've been much prized in the jewellery world – hence their name. The old, old story I'm afraid; we don't consider ourselves particularly attractive, other animals are, so we kill them and adorn ourselves with the pretty bits. I still think that the wing cases look better on the beetles than on fop's finery. I've even seen them sewn into a tea cosy for goodness sake.

Enough grumbling about people's peccadilloes, we'll double back on ourselves and see what this grass bowl has to offer. Whew! This is quite a sun trap. Not much moving down here but the occasional grasshopper so I suggest that we move into the shade of that overhang (praying that we don't have an earthquake in the meantime). These are curious little red flowers growing up through the gravel. They are Stonecrop, hardy little plants that store their water in succulent leaves prior to flowering. This particular one, for the botanists among you, is Coastal Stonecrop (Sedum litoreum var. litoreum). It's getting hot again, even in the shade, let's continue along the track and see if we can find somewhere cooler to rest awhile.

Ideal, an old hillside hovel. The area is littered with these relicts with their built-in fireplaces and storage niches. This one still has its roof more or less intact but the floor doesn't appear to have been swept for a while. Nice places for spider hunting and we have a representative of my favourite family here; the salticidae or jumping spiders. They're easy to recognise, not only by their way of running (in short, jerky hops) but from their eye pattern which you can see if you look at his head under the hand lens. The jumping spiders have two small eyes set well back on the top of the head, either side of that black band, as well as the six forward facing eyes. Each spider family has its own distinctive eye pattern and this is theirs.

Next week we'll trundle off down the hill and if this heat keeps up we'll soon have to think about getting under the waves once more and meeting up with our fishy friends again.

The Extra Bit

We've spent a fair bit of time recently walking through wild oats and you will have undoubtedly noticed their method of seed dispersal. They spear any passing large animal (like us) with a very sharp and cunningly barbed javelin in the hope that we will transport the seed to a new and favourable location. Having stopped every quarter of a mile or so to rid ourselves of these painful adherents we have completed the job to the oats' satisfaction if not exactly to our own.






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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map



Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Welcome to the Wildlife Hotel


This is it, the Wildlife Hotel. It wasn't designed as such but is an abandoned project that has been this way since before I arrived in 2004. Gradually the native plants have taken over the gardens and the wildlife has moved in. Before we nose around though I'd just like to draw your attention to these poppies down here. To me, poppies used to be those red things that you wore on Remembrance Day or the mauve things in the middle east that provided the world, for better or for worse, with opium. I was quite surprised to learn that there were nearly eight hundred species dotted around the world with nine here on Crete alone including the familiar red and mauve ones. This particular one is widespread but not very common on the island and is called the Red horned-poppy. Presumably on account of that massive, rampant seed pod.






The other flower that is prevalent in this region is the endemic Cretan ebony. This is acting like a magnet to the honey bees and I see that some enterprising individual has placed a couple of hives on the approach way. Don't worry, they won't bother you. You may think that you look and smell pretty but you can't hold a candle to the Cretan ebony. Just look at the air traffic control that's going on down there at the hive – the bees take off and fly out bottom right and approach and land from the top left.









The air may be a-buzz with bees but there's not much in the way of bird life up here today. I can hear Blackbird, Sardinian Warbler, Chaffinch and Sparrow but ten years ago I used to see Buntings, Flycatchers and Linnets up here quite regularly. A sad illustration of the decline in European songbirds unfortunately. Populations of the Spotted Flycatcher that I photographed on the balcony back in 2006, for instance, have dropped by a staggering 89% in recent decades.






Let's rest in the sun and admire the view for a while. There's some nice grass to sit on or a flat rock if you'd prefer. As you can see, I've bagged the one surviving sun lounger. Looks like I'm going to have to share it though. This curious little insect is one of the hoppers. There are four main groups: plant, leaf, frog and tree hoppers. I think that this one is a leafhopper but they're all very similar until you study them in detail. They all belong to the same order, the hemiptera or true bugs, and are most closely related to the cicadas which keep us entertained throughout the summer. Unlike the cicadas however they do not announce themselves to the world in the same deafening manner.

The little hoppers are lovely but I like an insect that you can pick up and make friends with; like this magnificent grasshopper. Isn't he a beauty? I've just picked him up from among those wild oats down there and he's taking being handled gently with equanimity. That's right, you sit up there on my shoulder – pirates have parrots, why shouldn't I have a grasshopper?




That just about wraps it up for this week so it just leaves my new friend and I to lead you back to where we started and next week we'll investigate the top track above the village.

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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Say It With Flowers

Following on from last week's walk I thought we'd cross the road, stroll up past the Remembrance garden and explore the meadow and hillside beyond. I call this track Recreation Road on account of this small fenced in sports pitch on our left here. There are quite a few wild flowers to the right of the track which we'll stop and photograph as we're going to use them later but first let's get down in the grass and see what's happening.

These pendulous grasses, looking like culottes hanging out to dry, are wild oats from which we've been cultivating oats for ourselves and our livestock for thousands of years. I see that the 7 spot ladybirds are out in force in all their disguises. Being beetles they undergo complete metamorphosis (see In The Arms of Giants) and here we have an adult, a pupa and a larva. The only thing missing from the life cycle is the egg. OK, now we have a hill to climb. Keep photographing the flowers (there are plenty of them) and we'll have a look at them when we get to the top.


This looks like a nice flat rock with a view, now let's have a look at your flower photos. A nice selection but you can do a lot more with flowers than just admire their beauty and put a name to them. In the days before mass electronic communications lovers used to exchange flowers, often in secret, to send messages. The first one is a bit confusing because it is called a Corn Marigold although it isn't a marigold. Scientifically it is a Glebionis segetum but only since 1999. Before that it was Chrysanthemum segetum (the name was changed because of the confusion with the florists' Chrysanthemum). For our purposes though we will treat it as a yellow Chrysanthemum which, in the language of flowers, signifies slighted love. The second one, the wild gladiolus, means 'give me another chance' and the Star-of-Bethlehem in the middle requests a reconciliation. The blue hyacinth followed by the white chrysanthemum affirms that I will be constant and true. So much more romantic than a text message isn't it?

Have you noticed something odd about this rock on which we are sitting? There are strange markings upon it. That one by my hat looks like a paw print. There are no claw marks which would suggest a member of the cat family (as only they have retractable claws) but the fourth toe imprint requires a bit of imagination. It could, of course, just be a coincidental arrangement of pebbles that have now been washed away. The other one though is surely a fossilized imprint. If those streaks emanating lower right could be interpreted as legs one would think in terms of a giant millipede but if not some sort of large cane grass springs to mind. All of which is pure speculation so I'll send a couple of photographs to some palaeontologist friends of mine and see what they make of them.

There's a track up here that leads to an abandoned hotel with a lane that will take us back down to the main road. Now, here's a lady that you may not have noticed before as she's rather small. Down here at the base of this concrete balustrade. She's an ichneumon wasp and you can tell it's a she by that long pole sticking out of her backside. That's her egg laying tube or ovipositor. She'll use that to pierce the skin of some poor insect larva and lay her egg inside. That larva, such as the ladybird larva that we saw earlier, then becomes a live-in larder for the wasp's own offspring. The wasp will target a particular insect in which to lay her eggs. I think that this particular species lays her eggs in gall wasps (see Where Mary Sleeps).

I've just remembered; I've got a little something for you. As we're wandering around the village I thought that you might like a map of the main walking tracks. I'll be adding the blog posts to our Interactive Hiking and Nature Map as we go along which you can access from your mobile phone or whatever but you may find this handy to refer to in the meantime. At the moment we're standing in the middle of the big white star.

The Extra Bit

If you'd like to revive the art of flower messaging this is a great little site to get you started: http://languageofflowers.com/

As you can see I am still relying on my little Nikon Coolpix S33 so the pictures aren't quite as sharp as normal. A new camera is on order.

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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map