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  • Writer's pictureIan Cognito

Through the Window - September 2021

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

In terribly, terribly British fashion, the weather over the last two months has been somewhat predictably unpredictable. According to a report I read from the Met Office, August’s weather set new records. It was the coldest; the cloudiest and the driest August for many a long year. But then just as September began, out came the sun. Beautiful sunny days made it possible to visit Hunstanton and eat fish ‘n chips sitting on a bench on the esplanade. Don’t we live exciting lives?

But, did August’s bad weather have an impact on our surrounding environment and our gardens? Yes, I believe it did. And bizarrely, the creature that has led me to this conclusion is the Wasp. Why? Well, every year since moving to Necton wasps descend on the old apple tree in the garden during August and into September as the apples ripen. In fact, it becomes a little bit disconcerting trying to walk past the tree because of the swarm of wasps munching away at the fruit. On more than one occasion when picking up what looked like a juicy windfall I have turned it over to find the middle was seething with a mass of wasps. Even fruit on the tree was eaten by the swarm. But, this year? Nothing! Except for an odd one or two wasps there has been a complete species loss in my garden. Now I know wasps get bad press and can be a pain in the neck, especially if they sting you on the neck but this might not be good news. Wasps do good work in the garden eating up pests. If nothing eats the pests, what then?

What then is the cause of the wasps demise this year. Is it global warming? Is it something to do with farming? Is it local or is it widespread across the county? I wanted to know so I wrote to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and asked those questions. Here is what they said:

"Thanks for your enquiry about wasp numbers this year.

The number of wasps does vary a lot from year to year and also from place to place which makes it hard to generalise.

If you happen to have a wasp's nest or even a couple of wasp nests really close to your apples then the windfalls will be swarming with wasps.

My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that wasps, like bees, once they find a good food source can communicate to others in the nest where it is and as large nests can be many thousands strong you soon get a huge number visiting. When the apples start to rot they give of a strong aroma (maybe alcoholic as that apples are fermenting) and this is also a very strong draw for wasps.

I don't think there is evidence for the same level of decline that many bee species have suffered in England but it does seem that very many kinds of flying insects have declined over the last decade probably because of modern intensive agriculture and insecticides though disease, climate change and other types of pollution may also be implicated. However a sudden decline such as you have experienced will not be caused by any of these and is much more likely to be weather related and also possibly part of natural population cycles. The very poor spring we had may have led to wasp queens when they first emerge in Feb / March / early April dying in the cold and wet weather we had or failing to establish nests in wet cold ground or being flooded out in their underground nests. It really was a cold, wet spring compared with the warm sunny April and May in 2020.

I can't give you a sure answer but I suspect a combination of weather and not having nests close by will be the reason you have seen so few. There is still time for wasps to have nests if we get a warm autumn and you may find as more apples fall and start to ferment that you do see more wasps visiting. If you see lots of very small wasps then that often means there is a nest nearby.

Not everyone likes wasps and they get a bad press compared to bees but they are valuable predators. If you have ivy coming into flower on your property have a look when the flowers are in full sun and this is also a magnet for wasps, hoverflies, bees (including ivy bees) and butterflies, especially red admirals.

So my message would be don't worry about a single year but if the lack of wasps continues for the next couple of years that would be more worrying,

Thanks for your concern and interest in wasps.

Best wishes

David North

Wildlife Information Service Volunteer"

So, Mr North thinks the problem began in April. I hope that, whenever the problem happened, the situation next year reverts back to normal. It’s interesting to note the comment about bees. I mentioned in the past about bees nesting in the bargeboards on my home and that the hive suddenly left. Or did it leave? Did the bee queen fall foul of the weather? Since then we have seen very few bees in the garden. The colourful sedum plant had not attracted anywhere near the number of bees as in past years.

Despite seeing wasps every year here, I’ve not seen a nest. Where do they normally nest? Do they have a territory they fly around? Where do they go at night?

I don’t know any answers to those questions. My main experience with wasp nests happened many years ago. Where I lived at the time had a large wooden shed. On one particular year I saw wasps making a nest at the far end of the shed up on a roof strut. I was more than a bit concerned about this. I needed to go in the shed regularly to get out my garden tractor mower. So the wasps and I came to an agreement. I would leave them alone if they left me alone. I have to admit, I did walk up to where the nest was being built and said out loud something along the lines of, "Let’s have an understanding. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone". And it worked. What happened each time I opened the door and stepped into the shed was that a single wasp would leave the others from what they were doing and fly down to me. It would circle around my head and then fly back to the others. Whether it was always the same wasp I don’t know. They all look the same to me. After checking me out they would carry on with what they were doing, and so would I.

Once their yearly life cycle was completed and the wasps left the nest, I followed advice and removed the nest to burn it. It was stuck to the wooden beams so well that I had to attack it with a club hammer and chisel to prise it away from the wood.

And yet despite the wasps, all is not lost. We’ve had our usual dragonflies and damselflies visit the pond, except perhaps not so many of the magnificent Hawker dragonfly. There have been more different types of butterfly around as well. Perhaps it is all part of a natural cycle taking place over the years.

The wild flowers in the garden and around the area have been putting on a nice display. Toad Flax has made a welcome arrival. Not just in my garden but alongside the A47 as well.

At the time of writing, young fledged goldfinches explore their territory and small flocks of goldfinches wheel around the garden from tree to bush and back again.

Nine Buzzards were seen circling together over the fields between Necton and Ivy Todd and the same number of Partridges burst out of cover around a field walk.

One amusing sight though was that of a male Sparrowhawk landing on a matt of oxygenating plants right in the centre of our pond. It sat there totally unaware I was watching it. Once it had sufficient it flew off. I say that it was a male sparrowhawk because it was quite small. Not much different bigger in size than a pigeon. Females on the other hand are larger.

Even though we have passed the Autumn Equinox the evening sky still presents us with various species of bat wheeling around the garden. While on the ground, hedgehogs rummage around. If you like hedgehogs, have you a special house in your garden for them to use to hibernate in over winter? Sadly some late born hedgehogs don’t have the time to put on sufficient body weight to see them through their hibernation.

One thing I like about our area is the dark sky. It makes star gazing and moon watching easy. For some while I’ve had a wish to be able to photograph the moon through my telescope. I’d heard it said that it was possible to get quite good results using a smart phone camera held up to the eyepiece of a telescope.

I decided to try it. On 16th September I set up the telescope (it is a refractor type) on what was nigh on a half moon and fired off about half a dozen photo shots. Easy? Not a bit of it. At the magnification I had the moon was quickly sliding out of view on its orbit around us. And getting the small smart phone lens lined up to the eyepiece was quite fiddly. However, I did get one Moon shot showing the lunar landscape around the horizon. I’ll try again using a ‘proper’ camera.

That’s all for this month. As usual, all comments, thoughts and mistakes are all my own unless stated otherwise.

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