The Wee Five for Scotland
‘If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world’s ecosystems would collapse.’ – Sir David Attenborough
If you go down to the woodland glade……
In June you may remember that we celebrated Scotland’s diverse and most outstanding wildlife by championing Caledonia’s very own Big 5, and encouraged you to go and find them for yourself, exploring and traversing Scotland’s natural, beautiful and sometimes treacherous landscapes for a glimpse of these wonderful creatures. Our wildlife, flora and fauna are an integral component of what makes our nation unique and our natural heritage so rich. Yet our ecosystem encapsulates so much more than just our larger land and air dwellers, and whilst the eponymous five were chosen as they can be seen in many parts of Scotland at almost any time of year, taking a closer look at the ground beneath our feet can open our eyes to a world teeming with life in the undergrowth. Enter the minibeast – that well-loved and equally feared (think huntsman spiders) creature that has been the primary 3 project of every school that has an inch of dirt in their playground, providing the potential of in-situ observation that is essential to bring a project to life.
Not only do they fascinate with their hypnotical costume, many legs and sometimes many eyes, they are also intrinsically important to our ecosystems with many acting as indicators to the health and wealth of the environment around them. Mini in stature but mighty in importance, we feel our minibeasts deserve some time in the spotlight (much to their dismay, unless of course we call upon a moth!). To decide on our Wee Five we teamed up with Suzanne Burgess, the Scotland Manager at Buglife, a fantastic conservation trust dedicated to raising awareness about our fantastic bugs and championing conservation projects around the country, and The Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, who provided the fantastic imagery. Suzanne suggested a mix of rare and common marvelous minibeasts to celebrate, so get ready to meet our Wee Five, the rockstars of the minibeast world here in Scotland!
Northern Damselfly (Coenagrion hastulatum)
The Cairngorms caledonian forest is diversly rich in flora and fauna, with the ponds accommodating wildlife unique to this habitat in Britain, one of which is the Northern damselfly, Coenagrion hastulatum.
Rare and local to sedge-fringed lochans in the Scottish Highlands, the blue and black male has an ‘ace of spades’ at the top of the abdomen, while the female is pea green and black. 31mm in length, both sexes have bright green undersides to the eyes and face and a coenagrion spur (the black line that abruptly stops part-way across the broad blue stripe on the thorax of this genus). Bejewelled and with wings of iridescent shades, the Northern Damselfly can be seen in June and July, skimming the rippling surface of the lochans, glistening in the sun. Rare to see, the threats to this beautiful minibeast include loss of habitat through natural succession and built development, afforestation and climate change.
Freshwater Pearl Mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera)
Scotland contains many of the world’s most important populations of the critically endangered Freshwater pearl mussel, and despite the diligent conservation work there has been a dramatic decline in how many of the rivers continue to support them. Living on the beds of clean, fast-flowing rivers where they can bury themselves in the coarse sand, they feed by drawing in river water and ingesting tiny amounts of organic matter which makes them extremely vulnerable to water pollution. Freshwater pearl mussels grow much larger and live far longer than the common marine mussels: they can grow as large as your hand and live for more than 100 years, making them one of the longest-lived invertebrates.
A mussel may very occasionally bear a pearl, and the mussel’s over-exploitation for centuries is the primary reason for the massive historic decline in its numbers and range. Today they rare in Scotland mainly due to ongoing, illegal pearl fishing, poor water quality and habitat damage. Climate change is a growing threat to them because of severe flodds that can wash out beds, and droughts that leave them exposed. Also they depend on salmonds, because the larval stages attach to gills of salmonds, and hitch a ride upstream. So do look, but do not touch!
Violet Oil Beetle (Meloe violaceus)
Take a stroll in the countryside on a sunny day and you might be lucky enough to see a Violet oil beetle. Enjoying a varied habitat, it can be found in woodland edge habitats, glades and rides, upland moorlands and on flower-rich grasslands.
Aptly named, this beetle appears black at first, with a little light shows an iridescent blue, green or purple sheen. The most ingenious hitchhiker, the larvae lie on sunny leaves in wait for a solitary mining bee, then jump on board to decamp in the bees nest to feed from the food so diligently collected by the bee for its own young. As adults, they can often be found sunning themselves on paths and females are sometimes seen digging burrows in patches of bare ground, in which they lay their eggs. Violet oil beetles are important for conservation as they are indicators of strong mining bee populations and of high quality, wildflower-rich habitat and it is the loss of these habitats to development, agricultural intensification and changes in land use that are their biggest threat.
March to July is the best time to spot them, so go get some fresh air!
Common Blue Butterfly (Polyommatus Icarus)
The most widespread blue butterfly in Britain, the Common Blue is found in a variety of grassy habitats, including heathland, woodland rides, grassy meadows, parks and even large gardens.
Flying throughout the summer between April and October, the male Common Blue has bright blue wings with a brown border and white fringe whilst the more discrete female is brown with a blue ‘dusting’ near the body. The metallic blue colour of the male is not due to pigment but to diffraction of sunlight by thousands of corrugated scales on the wings that absorb all colours of the spectrum except blue.
And although The Common Blue has been in decline for the last 40 years across the UK, the population was up last year, and (partly because of that) this year is also mean to be a particularly good year for them. As such, Wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation (BC) is asking people across Scotland to take part in their Common Blue Survey. So if you spot one, get it logged!
Nursery Web Spider (Pisaura mirabilis)
The Nursery Web Spider, so called because they have a reputation for maternal care and the females can be seen guarding the nursery web, is a relatively large, slender-bodied spider.
It is pale grey-brown with a pattern of dark brown and black stripes running the length of its body. A common spider of heathland and grassland, it likes to sunbathe, especially amongst the brambles and stinging nettles and typically holds its front two pairs of legs together pointing forwards. Mating is a dangerous game for male Nursery Web Spiders, so they present a gift of food to the female while laying perfectly still and pretending to be dead. The female carries her eggs in a ball shaped, pea-sized sack with her, and just before the babies hatch she builds a silk tent and puts them inside for protection. The adults are active hunters and do not spin a web to catch food, instead using a quick sprint and strength to capture and overpower flies and other insects.
Mid June to July is when numbers peak so you may have to work a little harder to spot these fantastic arachnids!
So there you have it! Our fantastic Wee Five in all their winged, iridescent, multi-legged, pearl-making wonder. Delving into the world of the minibeasts allows for an entirely new perspective of our amazingly resilient and heterogenous ecosystem, highlighting the importance of these tiny organisms within our natural world. Never before has protecting our planet been so vital, with climate change, deforestation and built environment threatening wildlife across continents, so go and get involved and see what small changes you can make that can have a great impact. And take a walk in the peace and quiet of the countryside, scuffle down into the undergrowth and open your eyes to the minibeasts. Mini but mighty, and if we look after the mini the max’s will take care of themselves!
If you missed our Big Five for Scotland article make sure you read it and let us know which ones you have seen and where.
Thanks again to the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group for the fantastic photos.