Wasp’s nest provides a sting in the tale as summer ends

The most outstanding feature of this Irish summer — coming to an ‘official’ end this very day — has been the lack of winged insects.

Wasp’s nest provides a sting in the tale as summer ends

Butterflies are a rarity, here in the southwest. There may be ‘pockets’ of lepidoptera life, but I have yet to find one.

The other afternoon — sunny for once — I walked through woods at Kilbrittain, a pretty, verdant village inland from Courtmacsherry Bay, West Cork, and had the thrill of spotting the first peacock butterfly I’ve seen this year.

Peacocks are spectacularly coloured, largely russet-red, with the largest ‘false eyes’ of any species in these islands, reminiscent of the concentric, red-centred circles emblazoned on the wings of Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. In fact, peacocks have circles on both fore and hind wings, red-centred but ‘blurry’, this to give the illusion of greater size, making them even scarier to potential predators.

An added deterrent to an attacker is the noise they make with their wings, scraping them together. So, ‘son et lumière’, a sound and light show, built-in protection for the gorgeous insect, normally a common sight in August on buddleia, or on fermenting windfall apples in September.

Tomás Murray, who organises the (very important) amateur input to The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme at the National Biodiversity Monitoring centre, notes the effect of bad summer weather on both butterflies and butterfly recorders but rallies his volunteers in an email ‘circular’ with the exhortation “Fingers crossed the delay in the season will let us see some decent numbers well into September!”

The peacock I saw at Kilbrittain was flying along a newly developed, sign-boarded walk that took me through woods (where I duly saw a couple of speckled woods jousting in a clearing) past Kilbrittain Castle, a McCarthy Reagh redoubt from the early 15th century and the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland, to the salt marshes and the expanse of Garafeen Strand (aka Harbour View), where a red admiral blew past me on the breeze.

Could it have just arrived from France, hoping for an Irish Indian summer? Let us hope that Mr Murray’s wish comes true. Will painted ladies from across the Atlas Mountains of Morocco yet arrive?

A day later, by the Bandon River, I saw a silver-washed fritillary, a magnificent butterfly, bright orange with black markings, not as colour-patterned as the vanessas (peacock, red admiral and painted lady) but larger than all. Also, a small tortoiseshell, colourful as any vanessa, and, like them, a member of the nymphalidae family, brush-footed butterflies, so called because their front legs have no feet but ‘brushes’ with which they can taste and smell.

Peacocks, red admirals and small tortoiseshells lay their eggs on nettles, upon which their caterpillars feed before developing into chrysalises and emerging to become butterflies; painted ladys favour thistles, silver-washed fritillaries (the silver-wash is on the underside of the wing) lay eggs on tree bark, and the caterpillars feed on wood violets. Nettles and thistles are, of course, scarcer, as land use is maximised, but a little set-aside more than pays for itself in the pollinating machines it generates. It is heartening to see that many farmers know this every bit as well as the scientists, and make provision.

The Kilbrittain walks were lovely, with woodland, riverbank, saltmarsh, the storm beach at Garafeen, and a route around Kilbrittain Castle. The weather held. We were blessed with panoramas of creeks and strand, headlands and ocean as we strolled above Kilbrittain Creek. The tide was low and the tidal pool where I have seen otters, shelduck with their ducklings — and once, years ago, a white curlew among the hundreds of waders there — shone like a silver ingot in its enclosing bed of mud.

One insect apparently flying robustly as ever this year is the common wasp. I came across a busy nest, big as a basketball, in a dry shed in Inishannon, Co Cork. It was a thing of beauty, almost a perfect sphere or globe, a wasp world suspended in space, formed from wood chewed into tissue-thin papier-mâché.

It reminded me instantly of the shining, gold-colour, metal globe outside the Central Bank of Ireland in College Green, Dublin. The whorls, even the proportions: the resemblance was remarkable.

Was nature emulating art, or art emulating nature? Was there a mischievous metaphor in the resemblance — banking, a world unto itself, a labyrinth where those who dare disturb it may get stung?

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Saturday, September 24, 2022

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