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Opinion: Stink bugs, hairy mollies and hedge mustard - local nature in a pandemic

In this extract from her book, An Irish Nature Year, author Jane Powers explores the significance of nature throughout these strange times.

AUTHOR AND COLUMNIST Jane Powers explores the significance of nature during the Covid-19 pandemic. An Irish Nature Year is an illustrated day book filled with plants, animals, birds and creepy-crawlies from all over Ireland. Although our worlds have gotten smaller, she says you don’t have to go too far to explore and admire the natural world that exists right under your nose.

MY PHONE PINGS and a WhatsApp pops up from a friend: “What are these guys?” There’s a photo of two distinctive, chunky insects. Their name describes them perfectly: they are green shieldbugs, with well-formed, ornate bodies, like minuscule heraldic shields.

They make good specimens for studying with kids, as they move slowly and are sturdy enough to cope with small, prodding fingers. Also (fun fact!) some shieldbugs send out a foul pong when they are upset, which gives them the nickname of stink bug.

A while later, another message comes in. Another friend: “Found this hairy yoke on the path when we were out for our walk in the park.” The size of a finger and covered in orange and brown fur, it is a fox moth caterpillar.

These moth larvae come out on warm autumn and winter days to sun themselves and feed on brambles and other plants. They are one of several caterpillars known as “hairy mollies” in Ireland, a group that has lots of folklore attached to it: “When the hairy molly crosses the road, rain is near” was a Tipperary saying.

In other counties, the unfortunate creatures were caught and used as cures for the whooping cough. In Co Mayo, for example, the advice was: “tie the little animal in a red cloth and put it around the person’s neck who is bad with the cough.”

Since our first lockdown in spring, my phone has been dinging and pinging with more than the usual “What’s this?” messages with pics of birds, creepy-crawlies and plants, all wanting names.

For me, the ubiquity of nature is a silver lining to this pandemical cloud of illness, hardship and claustrophobic constraints. Nature persists in all its strange and beautiful glory even though our lives may be restricted and our movements hampered.

Nature finds a niche

You don’t have to get out into the country or move beyond your 5km zone to find heaps of different flora and fauna species. Nature finds a niche in even the most inhospitable parts of our landscape.

The cracks in the paving are inhabited by colonies of plants perfectly suited to the situation: wall barley, hedge mustard, groundsel and sow thistle, to mention a few. Look up and you’ll see buddleja growing out of chimney pots.

Also known as the butterfly bush, the purple-flowered shrub was introduced from China in Victorian times, but it soon jumped from the garden to our built landscape.

Find a patch of ivy and you’ll see that it is buzzing with life. Its curious flowers, which bloom in autumn and winter, are one of the best nectar sources and are visited by bees, wasps and flies.

Ivy’s shiny, waterproof leaves offer shelter to innumerable creatures. Sparrows, dunnocks, robins and wrens roost overnight in it, brimstone and holly blue butterflies and queen wasps hibernate in it. The caterpillar of the swallow-tailed moth is another inhabitant, but it is impossible to spot, as it takes on the shape of a dead twig.

This last feat, that of mimicry, is a trick that nature is particularly good at: it gives us hoverflies that look like bees or wasps, caterpillars that resemble twigs or bird droppings (yes!), and butterflies with “eyes” on their wings that scare off potential predators.

The magic of aphids

One of my favourite and most devious bits of trickery involves certain aphids. Aphids, or greenflies as they are commonly known, are often “farmed” by ants for the waste plant sap that they exude.

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The liquid, which is known as honeydew, is sweet and full of energy. So, colonies of aphids — like herds of insect dairy cows — are often protected by ants, who even carry them to newer pastures or into their nests.

Some aphids, however, turn the tables on their shepherds in a really nasty way. They are able to imitate the creamy blobbiness of ant eggs, fooling the ants into carefully minding them and placing them among their own larvae. When the coast is clear, the aphids pierce the skin of the ant grubs and suck out their vital fluids.

This, my friends, is the kind of spectacularly clever thing that is going on every day right under our noses. The unexpectedness of the natural world is one of the reasons that I wrote my book, An Irish Nature Year.

The little volume is a compendium of 366 pieces (one for every day of the year, including leap years) detailing what is happening during that season. It is illustrated by a talented artist, Robert Vaughan, who has brought all the plants and creatures delightfully to life.

During this difficult time in our history, nature can amaze us, soothe us and ground us. Our lives may seem on hold, but the lives of the creatures and plants around us are continuing as usual. That surely, is a source of comfort.

 Jane Powers is a nature writer and columnist for The Sunday Times Irish edition, where she was gardening correspondent for many years, as she was at the Irish Times. Her previous book, The Irish Garden, was named Inspirational Book of the Year at the Garden Media Awards. An Irish Nature Year is nominated in the Best Irish Published Book category at the An Post Irish Book Awards. Vote for your favourites at this link.

An Irish Nature Year front cover(1) An Irish Nature Year by Jane Powers with illustrations by Robert Vaughan. (Harper Collins £17.95) Source: Jane Power

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