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Posted in Nature, Plants on Saturday, 8 March 2014
This edited article about the primrose first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.
Christmas card with exquisitely painted primroses
The primrose is perhaps the best known of all our spring wild flowers, but have you noticed that there are two distinct types of this flower? These are known as the pin-eyed, and the thrum-eyed. In the pin-eyed primrose the style, or little stem on top of which is the stigma, is long and clearly visible, with the five stamens attached halfway down the tube. In the thrum-eyed kind the style is short and the stamens are at the top of the tube. This arrangement is an aid in pollination, because a bee picks up pollen from the stamens of one and deposits it on the stigma of the other type of primrose.
Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Saturday, 8 March 2014
This edited article about the Brown hare first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.
If you were to come across a group of brown hares this spring you would probably see a very enjoyable show. For spring has an extraordinary effect on the behaviour of hares. In March, and often in April, they gather in groups and stage mock boxing matches standing on their hind legs. They will leap, bound, buck and run around in circles in a crazy manner. These antics are associated with courtship and mating, and this is where the phrase ‘mad as a March hare’ comes from.
Unlike the rabbit, the brown hare is a true native of Britain. It is larger than the rabbit and has longer ears and hind legs. It can run very fast, sometimes reaching a speed of 40 miles an hour.
Hares rest during the day in long grass pressed down to make a kind of nest called a ‘form.’ This is where the litter of 4 to 5 young, or leverets, are born, usually in April. Unlike many young animals, they are born with their eyes open and have a soft furry coat. In less than three weeks they are able to fend for themselves.
Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 7 March 2014
This edited article about the grey squirrel first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 585 published on 31 March 1973.
Busy little animals, including the Blue Tit, Great Tit, Bumble Bee, Field Mouse and Grey Squirrel by R B Davis
It is strange that one of the animals you would most likely see on a country walk in Great Britain is not a native of this country.
This is the grey squirrel, which was first brought here from North America only eighty years ago.
While the red squirrel has gradually declined and become rare except in Scotland, Wales, and parts of England, the grey squirrel has flourished – to such an extent that it has now become a pest. Grey Squirrels love to eat nuts, seeds of fir cones, and toadstools. But they also take the eggs of wild birds and do a great deal of damage to trees by gnawing at barks and young shoots.
The first young squirrels are born in early March. Blind, naked and wrinkled, they appear very unattractive. But by the time they are ready to leave the nest they are fully developed, with the familiar long, bushy tail which helps them to keep their balance when they leap from branch to branch in the tree tops.
In conifer woods you may come across a flat-topped tree stump covered in fir cones which have been stripped and shredded. This is the grey squirrel’s dining table!
Everyone must have seen the long “lambs’ tail” catkins of the hazel which appear in early spring before the leaves are showing, but not so many may have noticed the tiny crimson female flowers which are out at the same time. The hazel relies on the wind for pollination. The pollen is blown off the male catkins and some of it settles on the sticky stigmas of the female flowers. These later develop into the familiar nuts, many of which are eaten by squirrels before they are fully ripe.
Posted in Insects, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Friday, 7 March 2014
This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.
Oak Apples and Gall Wasps
If you were to look closely at the twigs of an oak tree in September, you would probably find some peculiar, hard round balls, which look like marbles, growing there.
These ‘marble’ swellings are called galls and they are caused by the grubs of the gall wasp which live inside them.
The type of gall wasp which produces these galls reached Britain less than 150 years ago in galls imported for making ink, and it is about one eighth of an inch long.
For many years naturalists were puzzled by the strange life-cycle of this wasp. Every insect which emerged from the marble galls was female, so naturalists were led to believe that no males of this species actually existed.
Then, just a few years ago, they discovered that there are two distinct generations of these gall wasps born within the course of a single year, the first ‘brood’ consisting of only females, and the second, of both sexes.
In September the wasps, which are all females, emerge from little holes in the marble galls and fly away in search of Turkey Oak trees. There they lay unfertilised eggs on the buds of the tree, and these hatch out and begin to form small galls to protect themselves. The wasps which eventually emerge from these small galls are different from the ones which come out of the marble galls and are of both sexes.
The females from this second brood of wasps lay fertilised eggs on the buds of a common oak and the life cycle is completed. We are back at the beginning of the story, with the grubs inside their marble galls about to emerge as female adults.
But that is not really the end of this very complicated but interesting story. If some galls are kept in a closed glass jar the wasps can be examined when they emerge. But often, instead of the expected gall wasp, a small ichneumon fly emerges. This is an insect that deposits its eggs on the grubs of other insects.
The reason for this surprising occurrence is that after the gall wasp has laid its egg on the bud, a female ichneumon fly has come along, inserted its ovipositor into the gall and laid ITS egg on the grub of the gall wasp! When the ichneumon grub hatches it feeds on the gall wasp grub and kills it. So, instead of a gall wasp coming out of the gall, an ichneumon emerges!
There are other kinds of gall wasps, each insect having its own special kind of gall. In one species, females spend the winter in galls on the roots of oak trees and then climb up the tree and lay their eggs in the buds. Here the grubs cause round, rosy-coloured swellings which are often called ‘oak apples,’ from which, in July, both males and females appear. These ‘oak apples’ are not the same galls as the marble ones we have already mentioned, and are produced by a different kind of gall wasp.
Posted in Insects, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Friday, 7 March 2014
This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 582 published on 10 March 1973.
Hide-away insects including the Flower mantis, cousin of the Empusa by A Oxenham
As it rests motionless, poised on the leaves of a plant, the Empusa looks as harmless, and almost as beautiful as the flower which it tries to imitate. Like its cousins, the Flower Mantis and the Praying Mantis, the Empusa is a deadly deceiver.
Known as the “Little Devil” in the Mediterranean countries where it lives, the Empusa can be distinguished from its cousins by what looks like a Bishop’s Mitre growing out of the top of its head. It has a light green body with touches of rose pink at the edges, with green and white stripes on the underside. With such brilliant colouring this wicked insect has little difficulty in deceiving its prey.
When it is hungry, the Empusa adopts its characteristic stance on the leaves of a bush or a plant to take on the shape of an anemone. This pose is not to protect itself from its enemies, as is the case with leaf-insects, but to mislead insects into believing that it is a flower so that it can entice them within reach of its vicious-looking legs. This means that instead of going in search of its prey, like most other creatures have to, the Empusa can lie in wait for its food to come along.
An unsuspecting insect passing by is instantly attracted by the colour and shape of the ‘flower,’ and as soon as it draws near, receives a sharp blow from the Empusa’s ‘mitre.’ Before it can recover from this shock, the Empusa lashes forward its fearsome forelegs, and the victim is trapped. Once caught in the Empusa’s deadly, unshakable hold, the insect is helpless, and is promptly devoured.
Despite its wicked way of catching prey, and its frightening appearance, the Empusa is not as greedy or as ferocious as its cousins, but it certainly deserves its nickname ‘Little Devil.’
Posted in Birds, Historical articles, History, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Thursday, 6 March 2014
This edited article about Alfred Russel Wallace first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 581 published on 3 March 1973.
Loaded with their exotic catches, Bates and Wallace trudged home while their neighbours relaxed in their hammocks by Severino Baraldi
He was a thin, bespectacled, diffident young man, a land survey or by profession, and a botanist by inclination, who was most happy when he was pottering around the English hedgerows and country lanes, looking for specimens. Looking at him, you would never have thought of him as being a robust man, capable of enduring all sorts of hardships. If anything, you would have put him down as being rather a weakling. Which makes the story of Alfred Russel Wallace, all the more incredible.
It is quite possible that Wallace might well have led an obscure and uneventful life if he had not had the good fortune to meet and become the friend of a well known naturalist of the time, known as H. W. Bates. Wallace had an abrupt manner and a withdrawn nature, but there was something about Bates that broke down all his reserve. More than that, the friendship seems to have changed him overnight from an earnest but dull naturalist, into an adventurer who was to risk his life daily in a distant primeval jungle.
His imagination suddenly fired by some books of South American travel he had been reading, Wallace decided that he would like to go there in order to search for specimens. He approached his friend Bates, and put the proposition to him. Would he like to accompany Wallace on a scientific expedition along the banks of the Amazon? Bates agreed to accompany him, and in the April of 1848, the two friends set off on their journey.
Reaching the town of Para, at the mouth of the river Amazon, they rented themselves a house which they used as a base for their early expeditions into the forest. At first Wallace was only conscious of the luxuriant foliage and the immense size of the trees, which often rose to more than eighty feet before they spread out their branches like a vast canopy over everything below. The reckless extravagance of colour that Nature used for her plant life also astonished him as he trod daily along jungle paths bordered by rare orchids and mimosa growing as plentifully as weeds.
But this, as he was soon to learn, was only one aspect of the jungle. The other was ugly and cruel. In holes, only a little way off from the footpaths, great bird-catching spiders lurked. Snakes were everywhere, ready to strike out at the intruder’s legs. Hornets and wasps abounded, and crocodiles lurked on the river banks.
In the night the air was filled with venomous insects which penetrated the muslin sleeping nets and inflicted bites which turned into ugly sores. Most loathsome of all were the vampire bats, which settled on the horses and fed on their blood.
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Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 6 March 2014
This edited article about ants first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.
Several feet under the ground exist some of the most complex cities in the world. Extensively planned, and built by their citizens, these cities are equipped with proper streets, food stores, sleeping quarters, nurseries, and homes for their armies and workers.
These cities belong to perhaps the most impressive creatures of the entire animal kingdom – the ants.
Inside their cities many of which are built above the ground in mounds, the ants maintain a highly organised society and a well-ordered government. Their social system is higher even than that of the bees and, in many ways, resembles that of mankind. There are three “classes” in an ant colony – The queen, the workers, and the males, the queen is a perfect female which can lay eggs, and that is exactly what she spends her whole life doing. Then, there are the workers of the nest, without which the city would crumble to pieces. They build the nest, search for food, and look after the eggs. The workers are female ants who cannot lay eggs. While they are busy all day going about their never-ending round of tasks, the males sit around doing absolutely nothing. They are the least useful of the citizens and only one of them will be required to fertilise the queen once. After this the queen is able to lay eggs for the rest of her lifetime, which usually lasts for fifteen years.
Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 5 March 2014
This edited article about the dragonfly first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.
Fluttering gently among the long reeds at the side of a cool, clear stream, the dragonfly, with its bright blue body and purple wings, lit up by the rays of the sun, looks just like a beautifully coloured butterfly. And yet how different this lovely insect looks when seen in close-up. Its enormous compound eyes, which provide the insect with excellent sight, make it look quite ugly and grotesque.
Forty-three species of dragonfly live in the British Isles, the large Hawker dragonflies being the most common. Some of the small feeble fliers are called damsel flies because they look so fragile and delicate. It is to this group that the most beautiful of the British dragonflies belongs. The Agrion virgo is typical; it has, like all dragonflies, a long slender body and two pairs of transparent wings. But few dragonflies have the beautiful colouring of this one. The male has a bright metallic blue body and blue-purplish wings.
Dragon flies hunt and catch other flying insects on the wing. The young, or “nymphs” are just as voracious as their parents, but instead of hunting gnats and mosquitoes, they eat young fish, tadpoles, and any other aquatic creatures they can find in the water where they live.
For catching its prey the nymph has an extraordinary mechanism not found in any other insect. Its lower lip can be shot forward to catch a fly. This is called a mask because when not in use it is folded back under the chin. It holds on to the prey by means of a pair of hooks which hang at the tip of the mask.
Posted in Insects, Nature, Prehistory, Wildlife on Wednesday, 5 March 2014
This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.
With huge eyes set into a peculiar-shaped head which is elongated into a long ‘beak’ with small toothed mandibles at the end, and long thread-like antennae sticking out, the Scorpion fly is quite a terrifying sight when seen in close-up.
This curious-looking creature is not a true fly since, like the snake-fly it has four wings instead of two. It belongs to a small order of insects called Mecoptera and its ancestors can be traced back farther than any other insect.
Fossilised insects, millions of years old which closely resemble the modern scorpion flies have been found embedded in pieces of amber, and since amber is fossilised resin from prehistoric forests, the ancestors of the scorpion fly can well and truly be called Little Prehistoric Monsters!
Today, the scorpion fly is a fairly common insect in the countryside during the summer months. It lives in the earth and the female lays her eggs in huge clusters and buries them in the soil. When the eggs hatch out the grubs or larvae look very much like caterpillars.
There are four species of scorpion fly in Great Britain and the most common is the Panorpa Communis which is shown in the illustrations. All scorpion flies are predators and scavengers, and feed on dead and living animal tissue. The larvae are also carnivorous creatures and they feed on small insects, both alive and dead.
The insect is called a scorpion fly because the tail of the male looks like the sting of the scorpion. It looks a most formidable and deadly weapon but is really quite harmless.
Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 4 March 2014
This edited article about insects first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.
Settling in the long grass on a warm summer’s evening with its long, spindly legs stretched out, it looks like some fearsome prehistoric monster when seen in close up.
But horrible though the crane fly looks, it is really a very harmless and inoffensive creature. Often called Daddy-Long-Legs, the crane fly is a very poor flier and when it does take to flight its long legs wavering about in the breeze seem to be more of a hindrance to it than a help. Its legs are very delicate and fragile and can easily be broken off. It is when it moves about in long grass that its legs are seen to be an asset, for they help the insect to move about with untroubled ease where short-legged insects would have great difficulty.
Daddy-Long-Legs has only one pair of proper wings, though its ancestors in the remote past had two pairs. In the course of evolution, the second pair of wings have become greatly reduced so that now, they are little more than the club-shaped stalks called halteres which stick out on each side of its body. But small though these halteres are, they seem to be of great help when the insect is flying. Scientists have found that if these are removed, the crane fly has the greatest difficulty in flying, so it would seem that their halteres act as balancing organs during flight.
In June the female crane fly lays hundreds of small, black eggs in the soil. Here, again, the long legs of the insect prove to be of great help. When she is moving through the grass, the female uses her long legs to push her body into the soil to lay her eggs. Eventually, these eggs hatch out into one of the gardener’s worst enemies. The grubs are called Leather Jackets and are great pests because they feed on the roots of grasses, causing brown patches of dead grass on the gardener’s well-kept lawn.