Pack­ing a lot into one day

Canal Boat - - Water­side Wildlife -

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.

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