That’s one way to gauge insect numbers

As I write, the male blackbird is sitting under a big lavender bush, where it has been since I looked out at first light. It is singing quietly to itself, a melodic sub-song, rich, fluting and varied, lovely to hear. This has been happening for a few weeks now, the blackbird spending several hours a day under that lavender. If I open the door it stares at me, but does not move, and seems content with its spot. Maybe the proximity of the hedgehog box with the dish of crushed suet balls is an attraction, it seems likely.The female blackbird also likes the hedgehog box and spent a lot of time in there over the summer

In the woods, where we’re now spending more time, I like to observe the developing ecosystem and see what wildlife has taken up residence amongst the trees. Since reading just over a year ago about the alarming decline in insect biomass, it was something which has been on my mind and I had wondered about the insect numbers in that woodland. On Monday, I had an unplanned glimpse of the insects living there. The back story is that a friend expressed great interest in some photographs I showed her of a project by two photographers, Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen, who photographed seniors adorned with scavenged organic materials such as twigs, grass and seaweed. Some of the headdresses were quite dramatic and my friend said she wanted to try the idea out for herself, leading to me offering to gather any suitable materials I came across in the woods.

That day, tall dried flowering stems of dock stood out and I imagined a striking bonnet made of them, with the stems pointing outward like a rolled-up hedgehog. A bundle was cut and put into the car, along with some distorted ash whips and strings of ivy. I should have taken them out of the car when we got home, but it was raining at the time so I didn’t and then I forgot and they were left in there for several hours. That evening, Karl went out to bring our boots in and the interior car lights revealed curtains of cobwebs hanging within, tiny spiders at the centre of each, threads attached to every surface. He did his best to remove as many of the spiders and their webs as he could.

The next morning, setting off to work, we saw that despite the previous night’s efforts, the inside of the car was again festooned with cobwebs. Tiny spiders were everywhere, crawling on the windscreen, the ceiling, the seats, the dashboard, you name it. We managed to get another 30 or so out using a *soft brush and hoped for the best before setting off but, as the journey progressed, it became clear we had actually missed the majority of the wildlife that had taken up residence. On the drive, small things crawled and dangled in our peripheral vision, as the warming car brought them out of their refuges. Oh, how we laughed. Once at the woods, we did manage to repatriate most of those still in the car and I wondered if they’d find more dock stems to climb up.

How to react to finding the car full of small flying and crawling creatures? You can be annoyed or take the opportunity to see what’s there. The spiders were mostly too small to identify, but there were a good number of types, from orb spiders to wolf and jumping spiders, plus others I have no doubt missed. The spiders were young ones and must have been waiting for the right breeze so they could balloon off to new habitats. Then there were the insects. There were many small flies and gnats, a number of small brown moths, ladybirds, three hawthorn shield bugs (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale), two common green shield bugs (Palomena prasina), a few bright Harlequin bugs (Lygaeus equestris) and a cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). This last one was tangled in my hair and could have been there for a while, so I’m not sure if it came with the dock stems or from elsewhere.

A cardinal beetle, but not the one that was in my hair. I picked it out of my hair and dropped it on the table, then noticed the legs

The result of my forgetfulness has been eye-opening, for I now have a better idea of what lives in the autumnal stems of flowering docks, but it is not a lesson I’m keen to repeat. There are still spiders in the car.

* A bee brush, used for gently brushing bees out of harm’s way so they aren’t injured by the beekeeper’s actions. These brushes mimic animal hair and I’ve found them excellent for picking up spiders/bees/wasps that have come indoors – whatever it is clings to the hairs and can be removed without harm. The one I use is reserved for this use as we now have softer brushes for the bees.

A bee brush