Packing a lot into one day
Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May be out” is still a very sensible adage, May being the hawthorn blossom that appears along our hedges from late April/ early May.
The ‘May Tree’ has long been associated with May Day festivities and ancient fertility rites, evoking the old spring festival named after the Greek goddess Maia. Once thought to protect against evil, the ability of hawthorn to form a dense, thorny, stock-proof hedge has been valued by man throughout history. The name ‘haw’ derives from ‘hage’, the old English for hedge.
The small, deeply lobed leaves of hawthorn open out before the flowers, in contrast to blackthorn where the white flowers bloom earlier, before the leaves unfurl. The heavily-scented white or pale pink May blossom was popular for outdoor garlands, but it was bad luck to bring indoors, even presaging a death in the family.
A chemical is present in the blossom that is generated during putrefaction, a smell that attracts carrion-seeking flies to perform their pollinating duties.
The nectar- laden flowers provide a valuable food source for many insects on a spring evening.
Nectar is provided to be eaten, but the moth caterpillars munching away on hawthorn leaves are a pest. You occasionally see extreme infestations of the Small Eggar moth caterpillar almost totally denude a shrub. These slim, velvetyblack caterpillars with patches of chestnut-brown hairs, edged with cream, live communally in large silken tents – it looks as though the twigs are covered in cobwebs. Wood mice and deer are also fond of young hawthorn shoots and, in the past, the shoots were eaten by people, giving rise to the rather quaint name of ‘Bread-and-cheese tree’.
The almost impenetrable mass of thorns provide excellent cover for nesting birds, ranging from the tiny, lichen-covered domed nests of long-tailed tits via the cups of finches to the stick platforms of wood pigeons and magpies. Many insectivorous birds, such as tits and robins, may delay nesting until their diet of caterpillars is available on the nearby leaves.
There is also a feast of Mayflies emerging from the canal from May through to July. Once known as ‘dayflies’ from their brief aerial life which, in some species, lasts only a few hours, they have spent a year living as aquatic larvae. (Their scientific name, Ephemeroptera, comes from ephemeros – living a day, plus pteron – a wing.)
Mayflies join the dragonflies in the most primitive group of winged insects. The 51 species of British mayfly have broad, transparent fore-wings and a much smaller hind pair which at rest are held vertically over the back (like those of a butterfly). The body ends in three, or sometimes only two, long tail-filaments, together with a pair of prominent claspers in the male. They lack mouthparts and never eat.
Mayflies are unique in being the only group of insects that moult once they have reached a fully functional flying stage. The nymph that emerges from the water changes into a sexually immature subimago – the “dun” of the fly-fisher: its wings are dull, opaque and clothed in fine hairs that repel water. When the dun has successfully flown from the water and rested, it goes through another moult, including the wings, and emerges as the sexually mature shiny imago with transparent wings (“spinner”).
Adult mayflies congregate in swarms of predominantly males and “dance” over the water in up-and-down motions. Females are attracted and, after aerial mating, the eggs are laid in the water. Their brief adult life fulfilled, the bodies are feasted on by many aquatic and waterside residents – look out for swallows swooping low over the water by day and Daubenton’s bats by night.
The hawthorn tree was believed to be a meeting place of fairy folk who could enchant you if you sat under one on May Day. You may not see a fairy, but enjoy the enchanting wildlife in May.