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Mini-beast safaris

The hunt is on! The beginning of June until the end of July is the time to keep your eyes peeled for stag beetles, according to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. The Trust has just launched its annual campaign urging us to count the beetles, with information about how to build a log pile in your garden.

Photo: Ross Bower

In the 2015 Great Stag Hunt, 24 stag beetles were spotted and counted in Hertfordshire. Surely we can do better this year?! But before you start searching in your garden, you might want to look out for stag beetles and other insects in the wild. Please believe me, keeping your eyes peeled for mini-beasts can make a walk in the country so much more interesting, whatever your age. But where to start and who to ask for advice? I consult the eminent entomologist Ross Piper.

Ross Piper

Ross is also a zoologist, author and TV presenter and he lives in Aston, close to St Evenage. He likes nothing better than to get out into nature to look for everything from tiny fairy wasps to the impressive stag beetles. He was one of the presenters in the fantastic BBC Series Wild in Burma, and he has written a spectacularly colourful book, Animal EarthThere are over 20,000 different species of insect in the UK, Ross tells me, and Herts is crawling with them. Ross knows that children (and adults) love going on a mini-beast safari. All you need, Ross tells me, is a pooter and a net, a beating tray, sturdy legs and an appetite for all things winged. But really, all you actually need is to get out, breathe in the beauty of our wonderful county and keep your eyes wide open. Ross has made a couple of recommendations about places to visit this weekend. Broxbourne Woods, Balls Wood and Hertford Heath. He promises to return with more suggestions this summer.

Broxbourne Woods  Map reference: TL337060; SG13 8PA

Broxbourne Woods, courtesy of ordnancesurvey.co.uk

According to Ross, this very large area of woodland, close to Hoddesdon, is probably the premier spot in the county for insects. Who knew? I certainly didn’t. He says that the large trees in varying states of health and decay and the wide paths through the woods support thousands of species of insect, many of which are very rare. Thirty species of butterfly are known from this site – thirty! – including the fabulous purple emperor, one of the UK’s most elusive species, and the sublime silver-washed fritillary. The moths at this site are even more diverse, with 208 species recorded in a single night. Oh, and by the way, these are Ross’s photos – he actually has seen these – he’s not making it all up!

Elephant hawkmoth                                                                                        Photo: Ross Piper

Lime hawkmoth                                                                                                         Photo: Ross Piper

Ross says that we shouldn’t try and catch the butterflies, but to look out for other, more easily overlooked insects. Such as? Beautiful metallic weevils that can roll leaves many times their size into cigar-shaped nurseries for their offspring, to predatory keen-eyed wasps that stalk the sunlit paths like miniature hawks.

Byctiscus populi female and male                                                    Photo: Ross Piper

Ectemnius. A keen-eyed wasp.                                                                                          Photo: Ross Piper

Balls Wood  Map reference:TL 327 071;   Hertford Heath Map reference: TL 348 106;  SG1 77P

To access Balls Wood you have to walk through Hertford Heath. There’s very little heath left in Hertfordshire, says Ross, a type of habitat that supports a distinctive variety of species.

Hertford Heath                                                                 Photo: Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust

Look out for the dragonflies and damselflies prowling the ponds on the heath, wasp-mimicking hoverflies and very unusual thin-waisted conopid flies, the larvae of which develop inside bumblebees, ultimately forcing its host to dig its own grave.

Physocephala rufipes. A fly with an enviably thin waist.                                                 Photo: Ross Piper

The wide paths and ancient trees of Balls Wood are home to many insect species.

Balls Wood                                                                                         Photo: Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust

In the earlier part of the summer, Ross advises us to take a good look at the broad, parasol like blooms of umbellifers that line the paths as loads of species love these flowers for their nectar, including the rare, golden haired black longhorn beetle.

Stictoleptura scutellata. Golden-haired black longhorn beetle.      Photo: Ross Piper

On warm sunny days in July and August, the paths are alive with dragonflies patrolling their territories for prey and members of the opposite sex. Oh, hello.

Puss moth caterpillar face                                                                                       Photo: Ross Piper

Puss moth caterpillar                                          Photo: Ross Piper

Happy hunting. As Ross says, all you need is a pooter, a net and a beating tray. Or you can set off hands-free this weekend and just go for a walk with open eyes. And may I recommend Ross’s rather fine book? The photos are amazing. I did have a copy, but I gave it to my godson, who loves nothing better than a mini-beast safari.

Ross Piper

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The Urban Guide to the Countryside - Hertfordshire