Invertebrates

The National Park is a haven for invertebrate enthusiasts. The undisturbed nature of the grasslands intermixed with the pavement provides great diversity and species richness for invertebrates to thrive. There is ample food for both the larval and immature stages and also the adult invertebrates. Between Lough Gealláin and the Mullaghmor crossroads is a wildflower meadow. It is rich in invertebrate life all through the summer months. Please walk along the edge of this meadow if visiting in order to cause as little disturbance as possible.


Butterflies

Butterflies

The park is very rich in Butterfly species, in fact the area around Mullaghmore is considered to be the richest butterfly site in Ireland.  Twenty-seven of Ireland’s thirty-three resident and regular migrant butterflies have been recorded here.  Five of these are considered to be endangered or vulnerable and a further four are considered to be near threatened.

Some Butterfly Facts

  • Adult butterflies feed on nectar. They have a long proboscis, which is extended to reach deep within a flower, while at rest it is curled up. The caterpillars feed on plant material.
  • The name 'Butterfly' was first coined to describe the Yellow Brimstone Butterfly. It was actually known as 'Butter-coloured Fly' and that later became 'Butterfly'.
  • There are about 28,000 known butterfly species throughout the world.
  • Butterflies - and moths - belong to the order Lepidoptera. This is derived from the Greek term for 'scale-wing'.
  • The wings of butterflies are actually transparent. The vivid colours are due to overlapping bright scales.
  • Butterfly wings are very delicate and can get damaged if handled.
  • The markings on the wings are there to frighten away or divert predators, and also for mating purposes.
  • Butterflies cannot fly if their body temperature is less than 30 degrees.
  • Butterflies taste food by standing on it. This is because their taste sensors are found in their feet.
  • Butterflies and their larvae (caterpillars) are a valuable source of food for various birds, which are necessary for maintaining the ecological balance.

Common Name
Irish Name
Scientific Name
Brimstone Buíóg ruibheach Gonepteryx rhamni
Brown Hairstreak Stiallach donn Thecla betulae
Clouded Yellow Buíóg chróch Colias croceus
Common Blue
Gormán coiteann
Polymmatus icarusPolymmatus icarus mariscolore
Dark Green Fritillary Fritileán dúghlas Mesoacidalia aglaia formerly Argynnis aglaja
Dingy Skipper Donnán Erynnis tages
Grayling Glasán Hipparchia semele
Green-veined White Bánóg uaine Pieris napi
Holly Blue Gormán cuilinn Celastrina argiolus
Marsh Fritillary Fritileán réisc Euphydryas aurinia
Meadow Brown Donnóg fhéir Maniola jurtina iernes
Orange-tip Barr buí Anthocharis cardamines
Painted Lady Áilleán Vanessa cardui
Peacock Péacóg Inachis io
Pearl-bordered Fritillary Fritileán péarlach Boloria euphrosyne
Purple Hairstreak Stiallach corcra Quercusia quercus
Red Admiral Aimiréal dearg Vanessa atalanta
Ringlet Fáinneog Aphantopus hyperantus
Silver-washed Fritillary Fritileán geal Argynnis paphia
Small Blue Gormán beag Cupido minimus
Small Copper Copróg bheag Lycaena phlaeas
Small Heath Fraochán beag Coenonympha pamphilus
Small Tortoiseshell Ruán bheag Aglais urticae
Small White Bánóg bheag Pieris rapae
Speckled wood Breacfhéileacán coille Pararge aegeria
Wall Brown Donnóg an bhalla Lasiommata megera
Wood White Bánóg choille Leptidea sinapis

 

The butterflies which occur in the Burren National Park are made up of four Families:

  • Hesperiidae (Skippers): Only one species in this family is found in the National Park the Dingy Skipper Erynnis tages
  • Lycaenidae (Blues, Coppers and Hairstreaks): Six species of butterfly are recorded from this family which include three Blue species, one Copper species and two Hairstreaks.
  • Nymphalidae (Aristocrats, Browns and Fritillaries): This is the largest family of butterflies recorded in the National Park. Four-teen species are found including four Aristocrats, four Fritillaries and six Brown species belonging to the Nymphalidae subfamily Satyridae.     
  • Pieridae (Whites and Yellows): This family has six species found in the National Park, five White species and one Yellow the Clouded Yellow Colias croceus.

Hesperiidae (Skippers)

Dingy Skipper - Erynnis tages

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: Until recently this was the only resident Skipper species of butterflyto be found in Ireland. Quite a difficult butterfly to see due to its size (28 to 34mm wingspan). The Dingy Skipper has an extremely fast flight of skips and bounces; however they seldom fly far. In the Burren, Dingy Skippers are a subspecies Erynnis tages ssp. baynesi they differ from other populations in having a darker brown ground colour with paler almost white markings which create a striking contrast.

Development: The larvae hatch two weeks after been laid. They are green in colour and once emerged began to form a tent by spinning bird’s foot trefoil leaves together. In this structure the caterpillar lives and feeds until fully grown. In August it creates a hibernaculum by spinning a web over vegetation. The insect then pupates in this structure until the following spring.

Habitat: Found on the verge of limestone outcrops, calcareous grassland, open hillsides, quarries, cutaway bogs and wood clearings.

Food plant: Bird’s foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus.

Flight time: Mid-April to Mid-June.

Conservation Status: Near Threatened in Ireland. The species main population centres in the Burren in Counties Clare and Galway with other populations scattered in the Northwest and in the Midlands.  


Lycaenidae (Blues, Coppers and Hairstreaks)

Common Blue - Polymmatus Icarus and Polymmatus icarus mariscolore

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: This is the commonest blue butterfly species in Ireland. They are quite small (29 to 38mm wingspan). The males have bright blue uppersides the females are brown with a high variability in blue colouring. In Ireland the subspecies Polymmatus Icarus ssp. mariscolore are present, these females are blue with characteristic orange spots on the uppersides of the wings. The common blue butterflies found in Ireland are typically larger than does in Britain.

Development: Larvae emerge from small white bun shaped eggs one to two weeks after been laid. They are very small light green in colour with a black head. The larvae strip away the top layer of the food plant leaves, leaving the basic leaf structure intact. This creates the characteristic crescent shaped markings on the leaves, which indicate the early stage in the larva cycle. After about six weeks in the larvae stage they will then pupate. The pupa is formed most commonly on the ground or at the base of the foodplant. They attract ants who often will bury the pupa in the earth. Two weeks later adults will emerge.

Habitat: Found in a wide range of habitats which include unimproved grassland, rocky outcrops, wood clearings and sand dunes.

Food plant: Bird’s foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus and Black Medick Medicago lupulina.

Flight time: Mid-May to Late September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is commonly found in coastal areas with localised and fragmented populations in its inland distribution.  

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Holly Blue - Celastrina argiolus

Description: More easily identified when at rest due to their distinctive underside wing markings and silver/grey colouring. A small butterfly (26-34mm wingspan) similar to small blues but are significantly bigger and more common. They are bright blue with black tips on the forewings, sexes can be distinguished, females have a more pronounced colouring of black on the forewings. The female spring and summer generations can also be distinguished, summer females have more extensive black tips compared to spring females. Up to three broods a year have been recorded in the south of the country and typically one brood in the north.

Development: Eggs are laid singly at the base of an unopened flower bud of the food plant. Eggs laid in spring are typically laid on Holly, whereas the summer eggs are typically laid on Ivy. Eggs hatch after a week, the larvae are well camouflaged usually green in colour with some light pink variations also occurring. Larvae can be typically spotted by examining damaged flower buds of the food plant. The larvae bore holes into the side of a flower bud feeding on the contents, this will leave behind a number of empty flower buds with an access hole. Once fully developed, the larvae will pupate away from the foodplant on the ground. The later generation will hibernate overwinter in the pupa stage.

Habitat: Found in various habitats which include gardens, woodlands and parkland.

Food plant: Holly Ilex aquifolium and Ivy Hedera hibernica primarily but also Brambles Rubus fructicosus, Dogwood Cornus sanguinea and Spindle Euonymus europaeus.

Flight time: Early April to Early June and Early July to Early September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. There is evidence that this species is spreading into suburban environments and in the south and east of Northern Ireland.

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Small Blue - Cupido minimus

Description: This is the smallest butterfly species in Ireland (16 to 25mm wingspan). Males and females are dark brown, with a light dusting of blue scales on the males forewings and hindwings distinguishing them from the females. Both sexes have an underside that is silvery/grey in colour similar to Holly Blue, but are significantly smaller.

Development: A single white disc shaped egg is laid on each inflorescence of the food plant kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria. When several eggs are found together this usually means several different females have laid them. The eggs will hatch one to three weeks later depending on the temperature. Larvae are tiny less than 1mm in length, grey/brown in colour. Once hatched they immediately began to burrow into a kidney vetch floret and feed on the developing seed. When the larvae have fully grown in late July, they fall to the ground and find a suitable place to hibernate. When they emerge the following spring they immediately search for a suitable site to pupate. Adults emerge two weeks later.

Habitat: Found in calcareous grasslands, coastal dunes, coastal grasslands and quarries.

Food plant: Kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria.

Flight time: Mid-May to Late June and Late July to Late August in areas where two broods occur.

Conservation Status: Endangered in Ireland. This species is in decline in the east and south of the country now considered regional extinct in Northern Ireland.

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Small Copper - Lycaena phlaeas

Description: This is a small butterfly (32 to 35mm wingspan) with a fast flight. Once at rest easily identified with its bright copper forewings, some variations can have blue metallic spots on their hindwings known as caeruleopunctata. Small Coppers occur in discrete colonies, typically observed in ones or twos with large groupings a rare occurrence. In Ireland the subspecies Lycaena phlaeas ssp. hibernica occurs, it differs from continental Small Coppers in having broader copper bands on the upperside of the hindwings and the underside ground colour is grey rather than brown.

Development: A single white egg is laid on the underside of the foodplant, particularly does growing in full sunshine. Eggs hatch one to two weeks later with the emergence of a tiny green larvae. The larvae immediately start to feed on the underside of the foodplant leaves, leaving the upperside of the leaves intact. Feeding marks left on the leaves underside, creates a transparent appearance when looking down from above. The later generation will overwinter in the larva stage. The larva then pupates on low down vegetation or dead leaves on the ground. Three to four weeks later the adult emerges.

Habitat: Found in wet meadows, woodland clearings, cut-away bogs and coastal dunes.

Food plant: Mainly Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa but also Broad-leaved Dock Rumex obtusifolius.

Flight time: Late April to Late June and in Late July to Early September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is widely distributed, but occurs in low densities. Their habitat has been assessed as poor, however populations have remained steady. 

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Brown Hairstreak - Thecla betulae

Description: This is the largest Hairstreak to be found in Ireland (38 to 42mm wingspan). Males and females are distinctly different, and at one time believed to be separate species. The females forewings have large orange patches which are missing from the males. Both sexes upper surfaces are dark brown, and both have orange tails on the hindwings. This species is quite elusive spending much of its time high in the tree canopy, feeding mainly on honeydew from aphids.

Development: The females descend from the tree canopy to lay her eggs on the bark of the foodplant, males rarely descend. Eggs are laid in low densities (some small clusters of twos and threes can be found) at the fork of a branch that are typically one to two years old in growth. The larvae partially develop inside the egg before entering hibernation for the winter. The larvae emerge from the egg in spring, and immediately enter a developing bud of the foodplant. Larvae are short, light green and taper off towards the back. The larvae feed only at night, remaining motionless during the day. Once fully developed the larvae drop to the ground and conceal themselves in the leaf litter to pupate. Adults emerge three weeks later.

Habitat: Found along wild unkempt hedgerows and scrubland, woodland edges and on limestone pavement.

Food plant: Blackthorn Prunus spinosa.

Flight time: Early August to Mid-September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is restricted to the Burren region with a small population in Tipperary. Due to this geographical restriction of the Irish populations, it should be closely monitored. Hedge trimming is the main treat to this species with partially developed larva overwintering within the eggs on young branches.

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Purple Hairstreak - Quercusia quercus

Description: Rarely seen due to its arboreal lifestyle high in the tree canopy and lack of suitable oak woodland in Ireland. These are quite large butterflies, with females (31 to 38mm wingspan) typically smaller than males (33 to 40mm wingspan). The males are coloured purple on their upper surfaces with black margins, while females are brown with purple colouring at the base of their forewings. During hot and dry weather Purple Hairstreaks will often come down to ground level due to a reduction in aphid honeydew in the canopy, and feed on nectar from brambles.

Development: Eggs are laid singly (sometimes less commonly in groups of two) at the base of an oak bud. The Purple Hairstreak females have a preference for buds on branches that are sheltered and receive full sunshine, but also for solitary trees on the edges of woodland and scrub. Eggs are white and have the appearance of sea urchins when examined closely. The larvae fully develop three weeks after been laid, but they do not emerge until the following spring. The following spring the larvae hatch and eat part of their egg shell before burrowing into developing oak buds to feed. Like the Brown Hairstreak when fully developed the larvae drop to the ground and hide under the soil surface or leaf litter were it pupates for a month. 

Habitat: Oak woodland.

Food plant: Oak buds Quercus petraea and Quercus robur.

Flight time: Mid-July to Late August.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is widely distributed with populations localised in areas that contain mature oak woodland. Although this species habitat of oak woodland is listed as Annex I the populations have remained steady. 


Nymphalidae (Aristocrats, Browns and Fritillaries) 

Painted Lady - Vanessa cardui

Description: The Painted Lady is a large butterfly that migrates in summer from North Africa and Southern Europe to Northern Europe. The urge to migrate is trigged when individuals encounter a certain density of Painted Lady butterflies in a given area. There is no evidence that they can successfully overwinter in Ireland, with numbers varying greatly in Ireland from year to year. The females (62 to 74mm wingspan) are bigger than males (58 to 70mm wingspan). Both sexes are similar in colouration they have brown and copper upper surfaces with black tips and white markings. There underside have pink flushes with black and white markings.

Development: A single egg is laid on the upperside of a foodplants leaf. They are light green in colour and look like a gooseberry on close inspection. A week later the larvae emerge, they are spiny and black with a yellow lateral stripe. They immediately move to the underside of the leaf and feed on the cuticle. The larvae can be spotted by observing transparent leaves which have been created by their feeding. Larvae rarely leave the plant on which the egg was laid, which can often lead to starvation on plants were several eggs have been laid. The larvae also need good periods of warmth to reach the pupa stage, with larvae perishing in damp and cold weather. The larvae pupate in a tent constructed from spinning silk around leaves of the foodplant. The pupa hangs upside down inside the tent, with adults emerging two weeks later. This Irish generation of butterflies perish after the temperatures drop and do not hibernate.

Habitat: Can be found across Ireland in favourable years in areas where there nectar sources are abundant, often found on Buddleia bushes Buddleja davidii and Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra.

Food plant: Stinging nettles Urtica dioica and Thistles species.

Flight time: Early May to Mid-September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This migrant species is a regular visitor but not always abundant from year to year. This species does not overwinter in Ireland.

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Peacock -Inachis io

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: This large butterfly is a common sight to our gardens and woodlands and quite unmistakeable. Females (67 to 75mm wingspan) are significantly larger than males (63 to 68mm wingspan). Both sexes look similar, the Peacock butterfly has a red ground colour with four large spots, two metallic blue spots on the upper hindwings and two large multi coloured spots on the tips of the upper forewings. The spots act as an anti predator mechanism, deterring mice and small birds which mistake them for a larger predatory bird. By contrast the underside wings are black, providing an excellent camouflage when the butterfly is at rest or during the winter when this species hibernates. During hibernation they fold up their wings and blend into a hollow tree or wooden shed. Peacock butterflies hibernate regardless of weather conditions from September and rarely seen after Mid-September, they then emerge in Mid-March and start looking for a mate.         

Development: Females lay one (sometimes multiple) egg clusters of up to 400 eggs on the underside of a foodplant leaf, in sheltered areas. The eggs are green and are laid in piles which resemble grapes. Eggs hatch one to three weeks later and a jet black, spiky larvae emerging. The larvae immediately start building a communal web near the top of the foodplant in which they feed and hide. As the larvae grow, they move to other foodplants, building more webs. Once fully developed the larvae disperse from the communal web and pupate by attaching to a steam or leaf with their head facing downwards. Adults will emerge two to four weeks later, temperature dependent.         

Habitat: Can be found across Ireland in favourable years where there nectar sources are abundant, often found on Devil's-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis, Buddleia bushes Buddleja davidii, Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra and Heather species.

Food plant: Stinging nettles Urtica dioica. 

Flight time: Rare in winter months most commonly seen from Late March to Early June and Mid-July to Late September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is prone to huge fluctuations in their yearly abundance, but Peacock butterflies are common and widely distributed.

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Red Admiral - Vanessa atalanta

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: The Red Admiral is a migrant butterfly; coming from North Africa, Spain, Portugal and France. This butterfly is unmistakable with large black wings with white tips on the forewings and red bands on the forewings and hindwings. Females are larger (70 to 78mm wingspan) than males (64 to 72mm wingspan). This butterfly is primarily a migrant, with numbers fluctuating from year to year, with some recorded overwintering in Ireland.  

Development: Females lay a single egg, on the upper tip of a foodplant leaf, in shaded areas. Eggs are light green to start, becoming darker as the larvae develop, eggs hatch after one week. The larvae are greyish-black, with black spines and yellow patches along each side. Various pale forms also occur. The larvae create a tent structure by folding the edges of a leaf together, emerging only to feed. Once fully grown the larvae then create a shelter by spinning several leaves together at the top of the foodplant. The larva then pupates inside this shelter hanging from the roof upside down.

Habitat: Can be found across Ireland in favourable years where there nectar sources are abundant, often found on Buddleia bushes Buddleja davidii and near Stinging nettles Urtica dioica where they lay their eggs.

Food plant: Stinging nettles Urtica dioica.

Flight time: Some migrating Red Admirals have been recorded over winter but are commonly seen Early May to Late September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is a regular migrant to Ireland, with recordings in recent years of individuals successfully overwintering here.

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Small Tortoiseshell - Aglais urticae

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: Both sexes are identical in colour with females (52 to 62mm wingspan) larger than males (45 to 55mm wingspan). Unmistakable, with an orange ground colour, yellow and black markings on the forewings, and blue triangle patterns along the edges. Their undersides are greyish-black, provides the butterfly the perfect camouflage when hibernating. Adults are highly mobile, moving steadily across the countryside. Males set up territories in the afternoon, in areas close to nettle patches, and wait for a passing female. The males then pursue the females, creating a drumming sound, from banging there antennae on their hindwings to entice the females. This process can last for hours with a receipted female allowing the male to basking in the sunshine with her, and then mate, this happens usually in the early evening near a nettle patch.

Development: Females are quite fussy where they lay their eggs. She chooses to lay her large batch of eggs (typically 80 eggs) in nettle patches, with relatively new growth, in full sunshine. Eggs are laid on the underside of a foodplant leaf, piled on top of one another, egg laying can last between 20 and 90 minutes. Eggs hatch one to three weeks later depending on the weather. The Larvae are black and spiky with yellow stripes along their back and sides. The larvae once hatched build a communal web at the top of the foodplant were they live, only emerging to feed. As the larvae grow they move to other plants and create more communal webs. Once fully grown the larvae move from the communal web to find a suitable plant to pupate on. The pupa attaches to a leaf or stem and emerges as an adult two to four weeks later, temperature dependent.

Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats, but especially associated with highly modified grasslands, gardens, derelict and disturbed sites.

Food plant: Stinging nettles Urtica dioica.

Flight time: Spotted throughout the year most common in Late March to Mid-May and Early July to Mid-September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is widely distributed and common, although there are some areas of the country where this species have declined.

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Grayling - Hipparchia semele

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: The Grayling is the largest brown butterfly species in Ireland, females (54 to 62mm wingspan) are larger than males (51 to 56mm wingspan). Both sexes are very similar, their upperside are brown, with pale markings that have a reddish-brown tint. They are quite elusive butterflies, and have been branded ' masters of disguise' due to their sudden disappearance once landed. When at rest, they are perfectly camouflaged with their wings closed against a backdrop of stone or bare soil. Their under wings are grey-brown in colour with dark markings at the bases of the hindwings. If the butterfly is disturbed while at rest, it will raise its forewings revealing their dark eye spots. There is a subspecies of Grayling found in the Burren Hipparchia semele ssp. clarensis, it differs from the other Grayling species in having a light brown-grey upperside, with ill defined marginal bands and smaller spots on the forewings of males. The underside of clarensis is much paler compared to Hipparchia semele.

Development: Small white eggs are laid singly on a range of fine grasses, with coastal populations choosing Marram grass. Isolated plants are preferred or grasses that are short and surrounded with patches of bare ground. After two to three weeks a pale brown larvae with dark brown and yellow stripes hatches from the eggs. The larvae feed on the tips of grass blades and hibernate before full developing. They hibernate at the base of a grass tussock, resuming feeding in the spring. When full developed the larva pupate for four weeks just below the soil.    

Habitat: Found on limestone pavement, rocky outcrops and sand dunes.

Food plant: Grasses such as Sheep's-fescue Festuca ovina with coastal populations feeding on Marram grass Ammophila arenaria.  

Flight time: Late June to Early September.

Conservation Status: Near Threatened in Ireland. The Irish populations are in decline with some sites in the midlands been lost. Reduced quality of habitats is the biggest treat to this species.  

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Meadow Brown - Maniola jurtina

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: This is one of the most abundant and widespread butterflies in Ireland. Females (42 to 60mm wingspan) are slightly bigger than males (40 to 55mm wingspan). Both sexes look similar, a light brown ground colour, two black eye spots surrounded with orange markings on the upperside of the forewings, females having more extensive orange markings. The undersides of both the hindwings and forewings are centrally divided between darker inner bands and lighter outer bands of orange-brown colouring. The underside of the forewings have a large black eye with a white dot, some forms of Meadow Browns have two white dots (bi-pupilled). Meadow Browns that are disturbed from rest will raise theirforewings and display this large black eye to deter predators.  They are two subspecies of Meadow Brown in Ireland, Maniola jurtina ssp. insularis and Maniola jurtina ssp. iernes.The difference between the two subspecies is very slight, with male insularis species having very small orange markings around the black eye spots compared to iernes males.

Development: Light brown eggs with brown blotches are laid singly on grasses or in nearby vegetation, sometimes just squirted out during flight by females. Eggs hatch two to four weeks later, the larvae are green with a ridge along each side and hairy. The larvae eat their own eggshell before feeding on grasses. The larvae overwinter at the base of grass clumps, continuing to feed when the weather is warm. The larvae pupate for four weeks the following June, low down in the vegetation, suspended upside down.

Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats including, permanent grassland, margins of wet heath, wetlands, hedgerows and wide woodland rides. It avoids short heavily grazed grassland verges.

Food plant: Various grasses, including Cock's-foot Dactylis glomerata, Perennial Rye-grass Lolium perenne, meadow grass species and bent grass species.

Flight time: Early June to Late September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is widely distributed and common in this country.

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Ringlet - Aphantopus hyperantus

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: One of our more common butterfly species. The rings on the underside of the hindwings give this butterfly its name. Both sexes uppersides are dark brown with white fringes, newly emerged males are almost completely black. Similar in size females (46 to 52mm wingspan) are slightly larger than males (42 to 48mm wingspan). There dark colouring allows them to quickly warm up, with Ringlet’s been one of a few butterflies seen flying on overcast days.

Development: Females lay their eggs chaotically, typically she perches on a grass stem and ejects a single egg at random into the air. The ejected egg lands on the surrounding vegetation and hatch two to three weeks later. The hatched larvae are cream in colour with a brown lateral stripe and are hairy. The larvae hibernate overwinter, however will feed during warm winter evenings. In late spring the larvae will pupate in a loosely formed cocoon made up of a few strands of silk at the base of a grass tussock. Adults will emerge two weeks later.

Habitat: Found in damp grassland, road verges, riverbanks, woodland rides and glades.

Food plant: Various grasses, including Cock's-foot Dactylis glomerata, False Brome Brachypodium spp, Tufted Hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa and Common Couch Agropyron repens.

Flight time: Mid-June to Early August.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is widely distributed and common in this country.

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Small Heath - Coenonympha pamphilus

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: Found in a variety of habitats not restricted to heathlands as the name suggests. This is our smallest brown butterfly, females (37mm wingspan) are larger than males (33mm wingspan). Both sexes are identical, they always land with their wings closed, displaying their characteristic black eye spot, which is found on the underside of their forewing. The underside of the hindwings are coloured brown and grey which allows this butterfly to blend in with the surrounding vegetation. Males set up territories, where they are often found perched on grasses or patrolling for a mate.     

Development: Females choose areas away from male territories to lay their eggs. A single egg is laid on a grass blade, spherical and green in colour, turning yellow and covered in dark blotches before hatching two weeks later. A lime green larvae emerge, which has dark green dorsal and lateral lines. The larvae spend much of their time at the base of grass tufts, feeding at night on the tips of grass blades. The larvae of the second brood will typically overwinter. The pupa hangs from a plant stem, head facing downwards, adults emerge three weeks later. 

Habitat: Found on calcareous grasslands, dry meadows, sand dunes and uplands. 

Food plant: Grasses including Meadow Fescue Festuca pratensis and Common Bent grass Agrostis tenuis.

Flight time: Mid-May to Mid-September.

Conservation Status: Near Threatened in Ireland. This species is in decline due to the reduced quality of their habitat. Reduction in this species population is a result of a decline in fine-leaved grass species which are not favoured in newly improved and intensively managed grasslands.

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Speckled wood - Pararge aegeria

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: A very common butterfly particularly in woodland areas, often seen during overcast conditions. Females (48 to 56mm wingspan) are larger than the males (46 to 52mm wingspan). As the name suggest these butterflies aredark brown with many cream speckled spots. The spring generations spots are larger and creamier, compared to the summer generation. Males are quite territorial and inhabit a particular clearing, where they perch waiting for females to pursue. Areas with high concentrations of males typically patrol for females. Both sexes feed on honeydew from aphids in treetops and are rarely seen feeding on flowers.

Development: A single egg is laid (sometimes in pairs) on the underside of a foodplants leaf. Temperature plays a vital role in where the female chooses to lay her eggs. Spring and autumn eggs are laid in more open less shaded positions, compared to eggs laid in the summer. Eggs hatch one to three weeks later, a well camouflaged green larva with faint stripes emerging. The larvae feed day and night on the underside of the foodplants leaves, moving from plant to plant as they grow. Depending on the temperature and the time of year the larvae will then pupate or remain in the larva stage overwinter. Larvae that emerge earlier in the year will pupate after four weeks. The pupa is formed head facing down, attached to a grass stem or nearby leaf litter.

Habitat: Found in woodland, along hedgerows, gardens and country road verges.

Food plant: Various grasses, including False Brome Brachypodium spp, Cock's-foot Dactylis glomerata, Yorkshire-fog Holcus lanatus, and Common Couch Agropyron repens.

Flight time: Mid-April to Late September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is widely distributed and common in this country.

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Wall Brown - Lasiommata megera

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: This species is commonly known as a Wall, they get the name from their characteristic behaviour of resting on walls, rocks and bare ground with their wings open. This butterfly is brown with orange colouring and broad brown bands across the upperwings, with a blackspot on the forewings and smaller black spots on the hindwings. Males are darker and brighter compared to the females (up to 55mm wingspan) which are larger than the males (up to 53mm wingspan). Wall browns are sun worshipers, resting in areas in full sunshine, their colouration allows them to quickly raise their body temperature sufficiently enough to fly. On particularly hot days Wall browns will avoid sunny resting areas in favour for shaded spots to prevent overheating.

Development: Spherical eggs are laid singly or sometimes in twos and threes in various locations including grass clumps, exposed roots in warm sheltered areas and leaves of the foodplant. Eggs are milky white becoming translucent as they develop. Eggs hatch one to two weeks later, with a green larva with faint stripes emerging. The larvae eat their own eggshell before feeding on the leaves of the foodplant, moving from plant to plant as they grow. They typically feed during the night but, occasionally feed in the day. The second brood will typically overwinter in the larva or pupa stage. They earlier brood will go on to pupate after four weeks. The green pupa is well camouflaged, attached to the foodplant or nearby vegetation, head facing downwards. An adult emerges two weeks later.          

Habitat: Found on limestone pavement, rocky outcrops, woodland edges, sand dunes and stony lake shores.

Food plant: Grasses such as Yorkshire Fog Holcus lanatus and Common Bent grass Agrostis tenuis.

Flight time: Early May to Mid-June and Late July to Mid-September.

Conservation Status: Endangered in Ireland. This species has had a dramatic reduction of over 50% in its Irish populations since the mid 1990's. Reduced quality in this species habitat is the main issue facing populations at present.

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Dark Green Fritillary - Mesoacidalia aglaia formerly Argynnis aglaja

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: One of our rarest butterflies in Ireland. Populations are mainly found around the coast on sand dune systems particularly in County Donegal, with good inland populations found in the Burren. They have a distinctive powerful flight and are adamant in there pursuits. Their determining feature is the green colouring on the underside of the hindwings which are decorated with rows of large silver spots. Females (69 to 70mm wingspan) are larger than males (60 to 63mm wingspan). Sexes are more easily determined by their different behaviours. Females tend to spend most of their time at rest on vegetation, while males feed early in the day and spend the rest of the day flying in pursuit for a mate.

Development: Females will search deep in vegetation to find suitable lush foodplant leaves to lay her eggs. Eggs are laid singly, directly onto the foodplant, multiple eggs are often laid in the same area. Two to three weeks later the larvae emerge and immediately start to hibernate in vegetation. The larvae are spiky, black with red spots along their sides. The larvae emerge from hibernation in spring and begin to feed on the new growth of the foodplant. Once fully developed, the larvae will pupate upside down under a tent structure created from wrapping vegetation together. Depending on the weather adults will emerge three to four weeks later.

Habitat: Found in calcareous grassland, sand dunes and cut-away bogs.

Food plant: Common Dog violet Viola riviniana.

Flight time: Mid-June to Late August.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable in Ireland. Distributed mainly around the Irish coast, where they occur, populations are localised and fragmented. Populations in the east and south coast are steadily declining. The biggest issue facing this species is a decline in habitat quality.

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Marsh Fritillary - Euphydryas aurinia

Description: This is quite a distinctive fritillary butterfly, with their colourful upperwings, of chequered orange, brown, yellow and cream markings. The chequered patterns are highly variable, no two individuals have exactly the same pattern. Both sexes are similar with females (40 to 50mm wingspan) noticeably larger than males (30 to 42mm wingspan). This species is declining across Europe at an alarming rate and is listed in Annex II of the European Union Habitats Directive, Marsh Fritillary is the only Irish insect species to have legal protection. Colonies of this species can fluctuate wildly in numbers from year to year, with population crashes one year followed by  unexpected recoveries other years. This species does not cope well in adverse weather conditions. Habitat loss and population fragmentation is the biggest problem facing this species. Marsh Fritillary butterflies need a specific grassland mixture that contains a 25%  density of Devil's-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis the larvae’s foodplant. The grassland should also have a short sward of 10 to 15cm, ideally lightly grazed to promote the growth of plants which provide a nectar source and some scattered scrubland to provide shelter.

Development: Eggs are laid in large batches on the underside of a foodplant leaves. The female will seek out foodplants in areas that are south facing and sheltered, in natural hollows or near short vegetation. Females can spend up to 50 minutes laying her eggs in neat rows, egg batches average around 300 with up to 600 eggs been recorded. Eggs are yellow when first laid, turning grey before hatching three to four weeks later. Once emerged, the larvae will spin a silk web, binding together leaves of the foodplant, living and feeding inside this structure. Larvae are black with a white stripe down the centre of the back. As they grow the larvae will move to another plant and build another structure if needed. After the third moult the larvae will build a dense nest of silk low down in vegetation and hibernate. In spring the larvae will emerge from hibernation basking in the spring sun and feeding on Devil's-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis, if there is a shortage of the foodplant the larvae will feed on Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum. Once fully grown the larvae will pupate, attached forming head down attached to a twig or plant steams. The pupa is white with black and orange markings. Depending on the temperature adults will emerge two to four weeks later.

Habitat: Found in calcareous grassland rich with Devil's-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis, cut-away bog, wet heath and transition mires and fens. Encroaching scrubland poses a huge risk to this species.

Food plant: Devil's-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis

Flight time: Late May to Late June.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable in Ireland. Although having a wide distribution across Ireland populations and habitats are fragmented. Habitat loss is the biggest problem facing this species, with the future prospects of their habitats been assists as poor or bad.    

The Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia is listed in Annex II of the European Union Habitats Directive.

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Pearl-bordered Fritillary - Boloria euphrosyne

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: This scrubland butterfly species gets its name from the seven pearl white markings that run along the edges of the underside of the hindwings. The colouring of this butterflies wings create an excellent camouflage against the scrubby vegetation found in their breeding sites. Both sexes are similar, females (43 to 47mm wingspan) are bigger that males (38 to 46mm wingspan). Males and females have bright orange uppersides with black dash marks, females typically having paler margins on the uppersides of the forewings and hindwings. Males are often seen flying swiftly, low to the ground in suitable breeding grounds, in search of a mate. When a male encounters a recitative female, she will fly to a suitable area were the pair will mate and stay together for up to one hour.

Development: Females will seek out Common Dog violet Viola riviniana (the larvae foodplant) which grow in full sunshine away from thick vegetation. A single egg is laid on the underside of a foodplant leaf and hatch two weeks later. A small black hairy larva emerges, with yellow spots running down their back and a white lateral line. The larvae will feed for a view weeks before hibernating in the larva stage overwinter. Depending on the temperature the larva will come out of hibernation in the early spring and resume eating. Once fully grown the larvae will pupate, hanging head down from vegetation, this stage can last up to three weeks weather dependant.

Habitat: Found on limestone pavement, calcareous grassland and on the edge of scrubland.

Food plant: Common Dog violet Viola riviniana.

Flight time: Mid-May to Late June.

Conservation Status: Endangered In Ireland. This species is confined to the Karst region of the Burren and the Aran Islands. Within this region the populations are local and fragmented, and are endangered due to the loss of suitable habitat.   

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Silver-washed Fritillary - Argynnis paphia

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: This is our largest fritillary species of butterfly, there are considerable variations in wingspan sizes among different colonies. Females (73 to 80mm wingspan) are bigger than males (69 to 76mm wingspan), however with the large variability in wing size, in some populations males can be larger than females. Its name comes from the silver streaks found on the underside of the wings. Sexes can be distinguished from one another, males are dark orange with four black veins on their forewings which contain androconial scales use in their courtship display. Females are paler with rounder wings, and more prominent spots. Adults typically spend most of their time high in the canopy feeding on aphid honeydew, but will also feed on lower growing flowers such as brambles, thistles and knapweed. This species has an elaborate courtship were a female will fly in a straight line, with a male continuously flying in loops over and under the female. After their courtship dance, the pair will land in a suitable place, were the male will showers the female in scent released from his androconial scales. The male then places the females antennae over his androconial scales and they began to mate.  

Development: Females are often seen flying low to the ground, often landing on the ground to assess the suitability of the area to lay her eggs. If the area is deemed suitable the female will fly to a tree near the foodplant Common Dog violet Viola riviniana, and lay a single egg on a grove in the bark. Eggs are laid one to two meters above the ground on cooler north facing sides. Eggs hatch two weeks later with a black-brown larva with two yellow lines along its back and long reddish-brown spines emerging. They first eat there eggshell then move into a crevice in the bark were they spin silk pad and hibernate until the following spring. Once they emerge from hibernation they move to the woodland floor in search of their foodplant. Other than feeding the larvae spend a lot of their time basking in sunshine on leaf litter. When the larvae are fully developed they will pupate head facing downwards hanging from a twig. The pupa is red/brown in colour and well camouflaged among the branches. Adults will emerge two to three weeks later depending on the temperature.

Habitat: Found in sunny deciduous woodland, and scrub-land.

Food plant: Common Dog violet Viola riviniana. 

Flight time: Mid-June to Mid-September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is widely distributed but populations are local. Some populations are expanding their ranges colonising mature bog woodland in Counties Offaly and Kildare. In the Burren it is one of a view species that has benefited from the expansion of scrubland developing into mature woodland.  


Pieridae (Whites and Yellows)

Brimstone Butterfly

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: It is widely believed that the yellow colouring of male Brimstones inspired the collective name for this group of insects the Butterflies. Brimstone butterflies are not common in Ireland, due to the restricted distribution of their foodplant Alder Buckthorn Frangula alnus. Areas such as the Burren have a plentifully supply of the foodplant, and so large numbers of Brimstones occur there. This is a large butterfly (60 to 74mm wingspan), and both sexes can be clearly distinguished from one another. Males are yellowish-green, while females are paler green-white and often mistaken as Large White butterflies when flying. When at rest both sexes keep their wings closed, revealing their remarkable shape and venation, which they use to imitate leaves when roosting overnight or overwintering as adults. The Irish population exhibit minor colour differences compared to the British populations classing them as the subspecies Gonepteryx rhamni ssp. gravesi.

Development: Adults emerging from hibernation will feed immediately, before males start patrolling for females. A single egg is laid on the underside of the foodplant leaves. Females have no preference for either foodplant species, but are very choosey that the eggs are laid on plants with the right amount of shelter and sunshine. Brimstones have one brood every year, with eggs laid over a long period of time from mid-April to early June. Eggs typically hatch one to two weeks later temperature dependent. A green bodied larva emerges with blackish flecks and a white line along the sides. Once emerged they immediately start feeding on the edges of the foodplant leaves. Larvae have been observed lifting the front half on their body when they are at rest. A month later the larvae will pupate away from the foodplant. The pupa is well camouflaged resembling a curled up leaf. Adults will emerge two weeks later. When the adults emerge they do not mate immediately, but instead spend many hours feeding on nectar, building up reserves for hibernation.

Habitat: Found in open grassland, along hedgerows, damp woodland and scrub.

Food plant: Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica and Alder Buckthorn Frangula alnus.

Flight time: Early April to Mid-September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. Uncommon across Ireland its distribution is restricted to limestone regions in the west and in the midlands were there populations thrive.

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Green-veined White - Pieris napi

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: This is a common species of butterfly of wet grassland and woodland edges, often mistaken as a small white butterfly. Both sexes are similar in size (40 to 52mm wingspan), sexes can be distinguished from one another, females have two small black spots on the forewings, males have one. The key characteristic of this species are the green veining on the underside of the wings, which are in fact a combination of yellow and black scales which creates the appearance of green veining. Females show more prominent veining than the males. The Green-veined White prefers to lay its eggs on wild crucifers and therefore it is not a garden pest.

Development: Eggs are laid singly on the underside of a foodplants leaves.  The eggs are laid on the same foodplant as Orange-tip butterflies, however as both species occupy different feeding areas on the same plant, the cannibalistic Orange-tip butterflies do not eat the eggs or larvae of the Green-veined White, as they are not in direct competition with one another. Depending on the temperature eggs will hatch one week later, a green larva with yellow spots along its side emerges. The larvae will first eat their eggshell before moving on to the leaves of the foodplant. Once fully developed, the larvae will pupate away from the foodplant, low down in vegetation. The later generation will remain in the pupa stage overwinter, while the early generation will pupate into adults after ten days.

Habitat: Found in damp grassy places with some shade, forest edges, hedgerows, meadows and wooded river valleys.

Food plant: Lady’s smock Cardamine pratensis and wild crucifers.

Flight time: Mid-April to Late September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is common with abundant populations found in damp and unimproved grassland.

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Orange-tip - Anthocharis cardamines

Description: This is our earliest butterfly species to emerge that hasn’t overwintered as an adult. Males and females are quite noticeably different, males have orange tips with a small black spot on the forewings which gives this species its name, while the orange tips are absent in females who are often mistaken for other white species particularly the small white. Both sexes undersides are beautifully marked with green and yellow blotches. Females are typically larger than males, average wingspan 40 to 52mm for both sexes. The orange colouring of the males is believed to be an example of warning coloration, indicating that the butterfly is not very palatable to would be predators. Mustard oil accumulated from their foodplants, makes these butterflies unpleasant for predators to eat.

Development: Females are fussy and will spend time searching for a suitable plant to lay her eggs. She will move from plant to plant tasting them with her feet until she has found a suitable one. A female will lay a single orange egg on the flower stalk of the foodplant. One to two weeks later a green larva with a pale stripe emerges. The larvae feed on the developing seed pods of the foodplant, as they are a finite resource orange tip larvae are very competitive. If two Orange-tip larvae meet, one will often be eaten by the other. Similarly if several eggs are laid on the same plant an early hatched larva will eat the un-hatched eggs to reduce competition. Three to four weeks later the larvae will pupate, upright on a plant stem or other vertical surfaces that are suitable for overwintering.

Habitat: Found in various habitats which include damp pastures and meadows, damp woodland edges, riverbanks, fens and gardens.

Food plant: Crucifers, Watercress, but particularly Lady’s smock Cardamine pratensis.

Flight time: Early April to Late June.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is common and its distribution is widespread.

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Small White - Pieris rapae

Description: This is one of our most common and widespread white species of butterfly. They are small butterflies (38 to 57mm wingspan) and are often referred to as cabbage whites by gardeners, with brassicas species there stable foodplant. However compared to Large white Pieris brassicae butterflies, they cause considerably less damage to garden brassicas. Both sexes are white with light black bands on the upperside of the forewings. Females have two black spots on the upperside of the forewings distinguishing them from males who have one black spot. They have two broods one in spring and another in summer, the summer generation have darker black bands compared to the spring generation.

Development: A single egg is laid usually on the underside of a foodplant leaf. Females have a preference for laying eggs on plants in sheltered areas such as gardens. The eggs are white when laid turning yellow and then grey before hatching. Eggs hatch after one week, with a green, well camouflaged, larva emerging. The larvae eat their own eggshell and then start to feed on the foodplant, leaving behind tell-tale holes on the leaves, they then move into the heart of the foodplant as they grow. During the larva stage they are vulnerable to been parasitised by parasitic wasps, which reduces there over all numbers. After three weeks the larvae find a sheltered area to pupate, usually on a fence, tree trunk or building. They attach to these objects by producing a silk girdle for support. The summer generations will pupate overwinter.

Habitat: Found in gardens, grasslands, meadows and along hedgerows.

Food plant: Various Crucifers and Nasturtium plants such as Tropaeolum majus which are planted in gardens.

Flight time: Late April to Late September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This species is common and its distribution is widespread.

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Wood White - Leptidea sinapis

Photo: Eamonn Twomey

Description: This is one of our rarest butterflies in Ireland, mostly confined to the Burren region in Counties Clare and Galway. This species needs certain critical conditions of light and shade offered only by very specific woodland and scrubland habitats. The larvae require their foodplants to grow under these restricted conditions, which are often found in the scrubland common in the Burren. Wood White Leptidea sinapis until the 2000’s was considered unusually common in Ireland compared to the smaller British populations. It was then discovered that the subspecies Réal’s Wood White Leptidea reali also occurred in Ireland. The Réal’s Wood White is more abundant and will travel to find suitable habitats including flying over open countryside to do so, differing from the Wood White Leptidea sinapis. The two species are similar in appearance and can only be differentiated by examining their genitalia under the microscope. They are small white butterflies (up to 42mm wingspan) with rounded tips on the forewings, distinguishing them from other white butterfly species. Males differ from females in having a bigger black spot at the tip of the forewings. Adults feed on various flowers and will also drink from puddles.

Development: A single egg is laid on the underside of a foodplant leaf. After two weeks a green larva with a yellowy green stripe along its side emerges. The larvae will begin by eating the tips of the finest leaf shoots, before moving on to the rest of the plant. Once fully grown, the larvae will then pupate, with late generations overwinter as pupae at the base of thick vegetation. The pupae are green with characteristic pink veins and edges. The adults emerge the following spring.

Habitat: Found in sheltered grassy sites at the margins of scrub and woodland.

Food plant: Meadow Vetchling Lathyrus pratensis, Bush vetch Vicia sepium and Bird's-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus.

Flight time: Mid-May to Mid-July.

Conservation Status: Near Threatened in Ireland. Not to be confused with Réal’s Wood White Leptidea reali which are widely distributed but local in Ireland. 

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Clouded Yellow - Colias croceus

Description: This species is an infrequent migrant to Ireland, originating in North Africa and southern Europe. Both sexes are similar in size males (52 to 58mm wingspan) females slightly larger (54 to 62mm wingspan). The upper wings of both sexes are a mustered yellow with black borders around the margins, females have yellow spots inside these borders, differing them from the males. This is a very active flying butterfly which can be easily mistaken for other white butterflies. There wings are closed at rest, with a lemon / lime colouring underside, similar in both sexes.

Development: Eggs are laid singly on the upperside of a foodplant leaf. The eggs are skittle shaped pale yellow when laid turning bright orange before hatching. The eggs hatch after one week, a dull green larva with yellow and red segments running down its side emerges. The larva stage varies between three to six weeks depending on the temperature. A greenish / yellow pupa is formed by attaching to a foodplant steam by a silk girdle. This stage lasts two to three weeks after which an adult emerges. Adults will continue to breed until October, adults and their offspring will then perish due to the cold and damp conditions of our winters.

Habitat: Found in open habitats along the edges of woodland and hedgerows.

Food plant: Clovers Trifolium spp.

Flight time: Early June to Late September.

Conservation Status: Least Concerned in Ireland. This Butterfly migrates from southern Europe to Ireland, numbers vary from year to year. There is evidence that this species maybe starting to over winter in the southeast of the country.


Moths

Moths

There are an estimated 1,400 moth species found in Ireland. 95% of the species are nocturnal (only active during the night) and along with the Butterflies make up the Lepidoptera insect order. The Burren is one of the most interesting areas in Ireland to see Moths. The diverse habitats along with the traditional farming practices help promote a vast amount of flowering plants and their associated insects. In Ireland many Moth species have only been recorded in the Burren like the Burren Green Calamia tridens and the Irish Annulet Odontognophos dumetata ssp hibernica which have been placed in a group known as the Burren Specialists. Most Burren specialist are only recorded in the Burren Region or their main populations are abundant in the Burren while rare in other regions. Many species of moth found in the Burren are different in appearance when compared to other populations in Britain and Continental Europe. These differences have developed over time as moth populations in the Burren have adapted to this unique environment. Future genetic work on Burren moths may show that some of these species may need to be reclassified as subspecies.


Burren Specialists

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Burren Green – Calamia tridens

Description: The Burren Green is a nocturnal subspecies of the Noctuidae family. It was discovered in the Burren in 1949 and is not found anywhere else in Ireland or Britain. Its grass green colour enables it to rest during the day in low vegetation without being obvious to predators.

Foodplant: Caterpillars feed on grasses including the blue moor grass (Sesleria caerulea).

Habitat: Limestone grasslands of the Burren, Co. Clare.

Distribution: Only found in the Burren Region.

Adult: July and August.

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Irish Annulet - Odonthognophos dumetata ssp. hibernica

Description: The Irish Annulet was first discovered in 1991, it is very rare and is just found in a small area in the Burren. It is distinct from the subspecies dumetata found in mainland Europe which is browner in colour. A large geometridae moth 18-20mm wingspan, grey-brown in colour with a dusting of dark scales.

Foodplant: Purging Buckthorn only will not feed on Alder Bucthorn.

Habitat: Found in areas where there foodplant is abundant on shrubby limestone pavement.

Distribution: Only found in the Burren Region.

Adult: August. 

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Dew Moth – Setina irrorella

Description: The Dew Moth has honey coloured wings with black spots. The adults fly early in the morning then from the afternoon onwards. The caterpillar is distinctive with black and yellow stripes running length-wise down the body. It is covered in black hairs.

Foodplant: Caterpillars feed on lichens.

Habitat: Calcareous grassland and rocky coasts.

Distribution: Mainly coastal but occurs inland in the Burren region.

Adult: June and July.

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Speckled Yellow - Pseudopanthera macularia

Description: A yellow day flying moth with brown blotches on their upper surfaces.

Foodplant: Wood sage.

Habitat: Open woodland and scrub and bushy grassland.

Distribution: Mainly found in the Burren with smaller populations in the southeast of Ireland.

Adult: Mid-May to Late June. 

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Transparent Burnet - Zygaena purpuralis ssp. sabulosa 

Description:A day flying moth, with three bright red streaks running along the forewings. The hind wings are almost completely red. The head and thorax are black with blue markings on the abdomen. The wings edges are silvery and translucent with no spots, which distinguishes it from other Burnet species.       

Foodplant: Wild Thyme.

Habitat: Limestone pavement, mature grassland and coastal habitats.

Distribution: Mainly found in the Burren with some recordings in the west of Ireland.

Adult: June to July.

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Small Eggar - Eriogaster lanestris

Description: A conspicuous, night flying moth, rarely captured in light traps. Most recordings are sightings of the larvae. The moth is a deep rusty red colour with white spots on the forewings. This species stays in the pupa stage for a long time often up to three winters before the adult emerges.   

Foodplant: Blackthorn and Hawthorn mainly but also Spindle, Apple and Grey Willow.

Habitat: Hedgerows and open country.

Distribution: Mainly found in the Burren.

Adult: January to March.


Other Moth Species

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Cinnibar Moth – Tyria jacobaeae

Description: The Cinnibar Moth is poisonous therefore it can fly safely during the day. Its striking black and red colouration is a warning to predators. The caterpillar is also marked for danger it is stripy yellow and black.

Foodplant: Ragwort.

Habitat: Grassy and scrubby areas.

Distribution: Common and widespread particularly around the coast.   

Adult: May to August. 

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Emperor Moth – Saturnia pavonia

Description: Emperor Moth adults are only on the wing for a couple of months and during this time they do not feed. The males are day-flying and move rapidly in their search for females. Females rest during daytime and in the early part of the night they lay their eggs.

Foodplant: Caterpillars feed on heather, blackthorn, brambles and other shrubs.

Habitat: Moorland, fens, field margins, hedgerows, woodland rides and old sand dunes.

Distribution: Locally common more abundant in the north with smaller densities in the south of Ireland.  

Adult: June to August.

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Garden Tiger – Arctia caja

Description: The Garden Tiger’s bright colours warn predators that it tastes unpleasant and the caterpillars’ hairs are irritant protecting it from predators. 

Foodplant: caterpillars feed on a variety of low-growing herbaceous plants.

Habitat: Gardens, parks, grassland, meadows and scrubby areas.

Distribution: Widespread and common across most of Ireland.

Adult: June to August.

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Magpie Moth – Abraxas grossulariata

Description: The Magpie Moth is a day-flying species and their colouration can vary, but it is predominantly black and wite.

Foodplant: Currants and Gooseberries along with a variety of trees and shrubs.

Habitat: Woodland, coastal dunes, grassland and often gardens.

Distribution: Widespread and common across most of Ireland. 

Adult: June to early September.

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Six-spot Burnet - Zygaena filipendulae

Description:  One of the more commonly observed day-flying moths. This moth has distinctive red spots, six in total on each forewing with black veins. The hindwings are red with black fringes.    

Foodplant: Bird’s-foot trefoil.

Habitat: Meadows, woodland clearings and coastal habitats.  

Distribution: Common mainly found around the coast with good inland populations particularly in the Burren.

Adult: Late June to August.

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Yellow Shell - Camptogramma bilineata

Description: A variable species bright yellow, brown with white wave bands on their upper surfaces.  

Foodplant: Bedstraws, docks and dandelions.

Habitat: Meadows, woodland, scrub, heathland and coastal habitats.

Distribution: Locally common, found around the coast, with some inland populations in the lowlands, rare in upland areas.

Adult: June to August.

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Hummingbird Hawkmoth - Macroglossum stellatarum

Description: This immigrant species resembles the Hummingbirds of North America. These Day flying moths are often seen flying rapidly from flower to flower in search of food. The adults are quite large (40 to 50mm wingspan). The main body is greyish with black and white markings, with orange/brown hindwings grey undersides distinguishes this species from the other hawkmoth species which typically have transparent wings.     

Foodplant: Lady's Bedstraw and Wild Madder.

Habitat: Meadows, gardens, woodland clearings, coastal habitats.

Distribution: A frequent immigrant from North Africa and southern Europe. Numbers reaching Ireland fluctuate from year to year. Mostly found around the coast, numerous in the southeast with scattered recordings further north.   

Adult: Immigrants arrive from April to November peaking in August.


Dragonflies and Damselflies

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Dragonflies and Damselflies are members of the Odonata family, odonata meaning toothed jaw. The adults are skilful predators catching insects in mid-flight before devouring them.

Their prey has little chance of escape because their excellent flying skills enable them to fly forward, backward, sideways and hover and they can fly fast and change direction rapidly. This is because they have two sets of wings, which don’t have to beat in unison.

They also have a row of sharp spines along the inside of their legs, which are held out in front to form a trap to scoop their prey out of the air. Prey are then devoured while still in flight.

The nymphs (the first stage after hatching from the egg) live in the water for about a year, where they eat almost any moving animal from insect larvae to tadpoles and small fish. As adults they only live for 2-4 weeks. 

Dragonfly eyes contain up to 30,000 individual lenses, human eyes only have one. Their large compound eyes give them 360 degree vision and they can detect small movements from long distances.

Dragonflies have large eyes located at the front of their head, while damselflies have smaller eyes located at each side of their head.

Dragonflies tend to hold their wings open at rest, while damselflies usually keep theirs closed along the length of their body.

Dragonflies have territories and you can watch them flying up and down these in search of food on calm sunny afternoons.

The adults are always seen near water, along lake-edges and ponds, riverbanks and marshes, because the nymph stage is aquatic.

Dragonflies were among the first flying insects to appear on the earth and their fossils have been found in 350 million year old rocks.

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Banded Demoiselle – Calopteryx splendens

Habitat:  slow-flowing lowland streams and rivers, particularly those with muddy bottoms.

May to August.

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Blue Damselfly – Enallaema cyathigerum

Habitat:  most waters and on large lakes.

May to August.

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Common Darter – Sympetrum striolatum

Habitat: Ponds and other still, stagnant waters or small garden ponds. Also found away from water, resting on the tops of plants in woodland rides.

Most common from June to October

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Four-spotted Chaser – Libellula quadrimaculata

Habitat: mainly lives by ponds, still pools, and slow flowing rivers.

Most common from June to July.

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Hairy dragonfly – Brachytron pratense

Habitat: Mainly found near unpolluted, well-vegetated water bodies.

Most common from May to July

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Brown Hawker – Aeshna grandis

Habitat: Breeds in standing or slow-flowing water. Hunts away from water and may be found hawking woodland rides.

Most common from June to September

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Emperor Dragonfly – Anax imperator

Habitat: Mostly associated with large, well vegetated ponds and lakes, also, canals and slow moving rivers.

Most common from June to August

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Common Hawker – Aeshna juncea

Habitat: In moorland habitats with acidic pools. Sometimes seen hunting woodland rides at dusk.

Most common from June to September


Bumblebees

Bumblebees of Ireland

Bumblebees belong to the largest order of insects the Hymenoptera, which include ants, sawflies and wasps. Hymenoptera comes from the Greek ‘Hymen’ meaning membrane and ‘Ptera’ meaning wings. Over 3,000 species of insects in the Hymenoptera order have been recorded in Ireland.  There are twenty species of bumblebee in Ireland divided into four-teen species of True Bumblebees and six species of Cuckoo Bumblebees. It can be quite difficult to distinguish True Bumblebees from Cuckoo Bumblebees in the field. It is often recommended to take several photographs of an individual from different sides to get the most accurate identification possible. The key differences between True Bumblebees and Cuckoo Bumblebees are:

  1. True Bumblebee females have pollen baskets on their hind legs, which they use to collect and store pollen to feed their larvae. Cuckoo Bumblebees do not have pollen baskets as they do not collect their own pollen.
  2. True Bumblebee hind legs are flattened, shiny and have long hairs. Cuckoo Bumblebees hind legs are not flattened, dull and are covered in short hairs.

A bumblebee identification key is provided below.


Garden Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus hortorum

Common Name: Garden Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail, two yellow bands on its thorax, with a long horse like face (face is longer than it is broad).

Size: Queen 17-20mm Worker 11-16mm Male 14-15mm

Habitat: Found in many habitats including gardens and grassland meadows.

Irish Distribution: Common and wide spread across Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Least Concerned.


White-tailed Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus lucorum

Common Name: White-tailed Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail, one yellow band on the thorax, with a lemony yellow band on the abdomen. This species is similar to Bombus magnus and Bombus cryptarum which can only be distinguished through DNA testing. These species are normally collectively recorded as Bombus lucorumaggregate.

Size: Queen 19-20mm Worker 11-17mm Male 14-16mm

Habitat: Found in many habitats including gardens, bog land and coastal grassland. 

Irish Distribution: Common and wide spread across Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Least Concerned.


Buff-tailed Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus terrestris

Common Name: Buff-tailed Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail, one yellow band on the thorax, with a dark yellow/orange band on the abdomen. 

Size: Queen 20-22mm Worker 11-17mm Male 14-16mm

Habitat: Found in many habitats including gardens and tillage fields.

Irish Distribution: Common and wide spread across Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Least Concerned.


Heath Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus jonellus

Common Name: Heath Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail, two yellow bands on its thorax, with a short face (face is as long as it is broad).

Size: Queen 16mm Worker 12mm Male 12mm

Habitat: Found in many habitats including gardens, bog land and heath land.

Irish Distribution: Common and wide spread across Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Least Concerned. The Irish population is common, with populations declining in some mainland European Countries.


Northern White-tailed Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus magnus

Common Name: Northern White-tailed Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail, one yellow band on the thorax, with a lemony yellow band on the abdomen. This species is similar to Bombus lucorum and Bombus cryptarum which can only be distinguished through DNA testing. These species are normally collectively recorded as Bombus lucorumaggregate.

Size: Queen 19-20mm Worker 11-17mm Male 14-16mm

Habitat: Found in many habitats including gardens, bog land and coastal grassland. 

Irish Distribution: Not enough data to create an accurate distribution for Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Data Deficient. Not enough data on this species to provide an accurate assessment of their population in Ireland.


Cryptic Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus cryptarum

Common Name: Cryptic Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail, one yellow band on the thorax, with a lemony yellow band on the abdomen. This species is similar to Bombus lucorum and Bombus magnus which can only be distinguished through DNA testing. These species are normally collectively recorded as Bombus lucorumaggregate.

Size: Queen 19-20mm Worker 11-17mm Male 14-16mm

Habitat: Found in many habitats including gardens, bog land and coastal grassland. 

Irish Distribution: Not enough data to create an accurate distribution for Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Data Deficient. Not enough data on this species to provide an accurate assessment of their population in Ireland.


Mountain Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus monticola

Common Name: Mountain Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee species has a red tail with red/orange colouring which covers more than half the abdomen and two yellow bands on the thorax.

Size: Queen 16mm Worker 12mm Male 14mm

Habitat: Found in many habitat including upland heathland and coastal grassland.

Irish Distribution: Confined to upland and coastal areas in the south east and north east most notably in County Wicklow.   

Conservation Concern: Least Concerned. Their population appears to be spreading south from there stronghold in the Wicklow Mountains into areas with suitable moorland flowering species.


Shrill Carder Bee

Scientific Name: Bombus sylvarum

Common Name: Shrill Carder Bee

Description: This bumblebee has a red tail, two grey bands across the thorax and grey hairs on the abdomen.

Size: Queen 17mm Worker 14mm Male 13mm

Habitat: Found in rich wildflower meadows and grassland.

Irish Distribution: Very localised species, with the main population found in County Clare.

Conservation Concern: Endangered. Small isolated populations, the loss of rich wildflower meadows is having a major impact on this species.


Early Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus pratorum

Common Name: Early Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a red tail, one yellow band on the thorax and a yellow band with red hairs on the abdomen.

Size: Queen 15-17mm Worker 10-14mm Male 11-13mm

Habitat: Found in rich wildflower meadows and grassland.

Irish Distribution: Common and wide spread across Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Least Concerned.


Red-tailed Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus lapidarius

Common Name: Red-tailed Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a red tail, black head, thorax and abdomen. Males have the addition of a yellow band on the thorax and a yellow face. Can be confused with Bombus ruderarius, however Bombus lapidarius has black hairs on their hind legs while Bombus ruderarius have red hairs on their hind legs.     

Size: Queen 20-22mm Worker 11-16mm Male 14-16mm

Habitat: Found on coastal dunes and unimproved grassland.

Irish Distribution: Widely spread across Ireland common locally.

Conservation Concern: Near Threatened. The loss of sand dune and unimproved grassland is the main cause for their decline.


Red-shanked Carder Bee

Scientific Name: Bombus ruderarius

Common Name: Red-shanked Carder Bee

Description: This bumblebee has a red tail, black head, thorax and abdomen. Female pollen baskets have a red hair fringe. Males have two grey bands on the thorax. Can be confused with Bombus lapidarius, however Bombus ruderarius has red hairs on their hind leg while Bombus lapidarius has black hairs on their hind leg.

Size: Queen 17mm Worker 15mm Male 13mm

Habitat: Found in rich wildflower meadows and grassland.

Irish Distribution: Rare but locally common, found mainly along the west coast with some inland populations.

Conservation Concern: Vulnerable. This species has declined by 69% since the 1980’s. The loss of rich wildflower meadows is the principle reason for their decline.    


Common Carder Bee

Scientific Name: Bombus pascuorum

Common Name: Common Carder Bee

Description: This species has a ginger tail and a ginger thorax with black hairs on the abdomen. Males have orange hairs on their face.

Size: Queen 16-18mm Worker 10-15mm Male 13-14mm

Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats including gardens, grasslands and wildflower meadows.

Irish Distribution: Common and wide spread across Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Least Concerned.


Great Yellow Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus distinguendus

Common Name: Great Yellow Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a blonde tail with a yellow abdomen and yellow thorax with a large black band.

Size: Queen 20mm Worker 16mm Male 15mm

Habitat: Found on coastal dunes and unimproved grassland.

Irish Distribution: Very localised, populations scattered in different western Counties.

Conservation Concern: Endangered. This species is in decline, now found at the edge of their natural distribution along the western coast. Loss of suitable habitat of coastal dunes and unimproved grassland is the main factor in there decline.


Large Carder Bee

Scientific Name: Bombus muscorum

Common Name: Large Carder Bee

Description: This bumblebee has a blonde tail, ginger thorax and yellow/orange hairs on the abdomen.

Size: Queen 18mm Worker 14mm Male 14mm

Habitat: Found on coastal dunes, wet meadows and wildflower meadows.

Irish Distribution: Widespread but not common across Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Near Threatened. This species is in decline due to the loss of suitable hay meadows, their principle habitat.


Cuckoo Bumblebees found in Ireland

Cuckoo Bumblebees

Cuckoo Bumblebees as the name suggest are ‘kleptoparasites’ stealing food or shelter from other insects. Like the Cuckoo bird the female Cuckoo Bumblebees will lay her eggs in an existing True Bumblebee nest, rather than creating her own. Cuckoo Bumblebee females emerge from hibernation in late spring, later than the True Bumblebees, who will have already established their nest by this time. The female Cuckoo Bumblebee will infiltrate the hosts nest and subdue, or kill the True Bumblebee Queen. She will then replace the host’s eggs with her own leaving only the workers of the True Bumblebees to take care and rear her young. The workers are tricked into working for the usurper through her use of pheromones and physical attacks. Cuckoo Bumblebees resemble their True Bumblebee host making it difficult to tell them apart.


Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus (P.)  bohemicus

Common Name: Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail and one yellow band on the thorax with yellow flashes on the side of their tail. Can be easily confused with Bombus (P.) vestalis, however this species has not been recorded in Ireland since 1926.

Size: Female 19mm Male 16mm

Habitat: Found on a variety of habitats including gardens, grasslands and rich wildflower meadows.

Irish Distribution: Widespread but not common across Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Near Threatened, This species has declined by 18% since the 1980’s, the factors causing their decline is unknown. Their host species Bombus lucorum is quite common.


Forest Cuckoo Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus (P.)  sylvestris

Common Name: Forest Cuckoo Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail, one yellow band on their thorax, male tail tip can be orange.

Size: Female 15mm Male 14mm

Habitat: Found on a variety of habitats including wildflower meadow, hedges and gardens.

Irish Distribution: Widespread the most commonly recorded Cuckoo Bumblebee in Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Lest Concerned.


Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus (P.)  vestalis

Common Name: Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail and one yellow band on the thorax with yellow flashes on the side of their tail. Can be easily confused with Bombus (P.)  bohemicus.  

Size: Female 21mm Male 16mm

Habitat: Unknown for Ireland.

Irish Distribution: No data for this species, only two historical recordings in the southeast from 1926.

Conservation Concern: Not Evaluated. Historical recording maybe a misidentification of Bombus (P.) bohemicus which looks very similar.


Barbut’s Cuckoo Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus (P.) barbutellus

Common Name: Barbut’s Cuckoo Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a white tail and two yellow bands on the thorax.

Size: Female 18mm Male 15mm

Habitat: Found on a variety of habitats including gardens, grasslands and meadows.

Irish Distribution: An uncommon species found along the west and north-west coast.

Conservation Concern: Endangered. This species has declined by 85% since the 1980’s. Reason for the decline is uncertain as there host species Bombus hortorum is widespread and abundant.


Red-tailed Cuckoo Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus (P.) rupestris

Common Name: Red-tailed Cuckoo Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a red tail, a black thorax and abdomen with dark wings.

Size: Female 22mm Male 16mm

Habitat: Found in species rich meadows and grasslands.

Irish Distribution: An uncommon species found along the coast.

Conservation Concern: Endangered. This species has declined 59% since the 1980’s. There range has been reduced in recent years due to the decline in their host species Bombus lapidarius, populations are mainly found in the west of Ireland.


Field Cuckoo Bumblebee

Scientific Name: Bombus (P.) campestris

Common Name: Field Cuckoo Bumblebee

Description: This bumblebee has a blonde tail, two yellow stripes on the thorax and patches of yellow hairs on the abdomen.   

Size: Female 18mm Male 15mm

Habitat: Found in species rich meadows and grasslands.

Irish Distribution: An uncommon species, widespread across western counties in Ireland.

Conservation Concern: Vulnerable. This species has declined 66% since the 1980’s. The reason for the decline is unknown as there host species Bombus pascuorum is the most common and widespread bumblebee species in Ireland.


Bumblebee Identification Key:

Bumblebee basic shape

Basic Bumblebee body parts used in identification.

Figure A depicts the hind leg of a True Bumblebee.
Figure B depicts the hind leg of a Cuckoo Bumblebee

What type of Bumblebee have you observed:

  • The only way to effectively tell the difference between the two types of bumblebees, is to look at the individuals hind legs.
  • However, if pollen baskets are present, then go straight to True Bumblebees.   

The Bumblebees hind legs are:

  • Shiny with long hairs on the margins, Like Figure A above - True Bumblebee species; or
  • Dull with short bristle hairs, Like Figure B above - Cuckoo Bumblebee species

True Bumblebees

What colour is the bumblebee’s tail?

White tail species:

Does the bumblebee have:

One yellow band on the thorax

Two yellow bands on the thorax

One yellow band species:

The species has lemon/yellow bands and a white tail - Bombus lucorum

- Bombus cryptarum

- Bombus magnus

These three species of white tail bumblebees can not be distinguished without DNA testing.

 Or

This species has orange/yellow bands and a creamy tail - Bombus terrestris

Two yellow bands species:

This species has an elongated face - Bombus hortorum

Or

This species has a short heart shaped face - Bombus jonellus


Red tail species:

Does the bumblebee have a red tail with:

More than half the abdomen coloured red - Bombus monticola

A yellow band on the thorax and another on the abdomen - Bombus pratorum

Two grey/green bands on the thorax - Bombus sylvarum

The bumblebee is jet black with a red tail

The bumblebee is black with coloured band(s) on the thorax and has red hairs on the hind leg

Jet black with a red tail

The bumblebee has red hairs on the hind leg - Bombus ruderarius (Female)

Or

The bumblebee has black hairs on the hind leg - Bombus lapidarius (Female)

Red hairs on the hind leg:

With a yellow band on the thorax and yellow hairs on the face - Bombus lapidarius (Male)

Or

With two grey bands on the thorax - Bombus ruderarius (Male)


Ginger tail species:

The bumblebee has a ginger tail, ginger thorax with black hairs on the abdomen - Bombus pascuorum


Blonde tail species:

Does the bumblebee have:

A yellow abdomen and yellow thorax with a black band - Bombus distinguendus

Or

A black abdomen with blonde hairs and a ginger thorax- Bombus muscorum



Cuckoo Bumblebees

What colour is the bumblebee’s tail?

White

Red - Bombus (P.) rupestris

Blonde - Bombus (P.) campestris


White tail species

Does the bumblebee have:

One yellow band on the thorax

Two yellow bands on the thorax - Bombus (P.) barbutellus

One yellow band species:

The bumblebee has yellow flashes on the sides of the tail - Bombus (P.)  bohemicus

- Bombus (P.)  vestalis

These two species of white tail bumblebees are difficult to distinguish from one another in the field.Bombus (P.) vestalis  has not been recorded in Ireland since 1926.

Or

The bumblebee has no yellow flashes on the side of the tail - Bombus (P.)  sylvestris

 

Other common invertebrates

Other Common Invertebrates

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Woodlice - isopoda

Woodlice have more than eight legs. They feed on dead and dying plant material and their own droppings. They are a very important part of the woodland food cycle, as they aid in the creation of soil.

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Centipedes - Chilopoda

Centipedes are carnivores eating other small insects. They are one of the more vicious hunters of the insect world. They loose water easily so they live in humid areas in the woodland.

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Earwigs - Dermaptera

Earwigs feed on both plant material and other small animals. Their pincers develop as they moult and grow. They hibernate in winter and rest in dark places during the daytime and they often fly at night.

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Millipedes - Diplopoda

Millipedes mainly live in soil or in dead leaf litter. They are detritivores, feeding on dead plant material, but they will also eat dead animals and fungi. They have 4 legs on each of their many sections.

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Ticks - Acari

Ticks feed on plant material, but the females need blood to produce eggs. They attach themselves to the skin, bury their heads in the skin and suck blood. Some ticks can transmit desieses to their host.

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Shield bugs - Heteroptera

Like all bugs (Hemiptera), the Green Shield Bug has specialised sucking mouthparts, which are used to feed on plant sap. They use a wide range of habitats but hazel scrub is one of its preferred species. Shield bugs hibernate from November to May. The eggs are laid in hexagonal batches of around 28 on the underside of leaves.

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Dor beetles - Geotrupidae

Dor beetles (dung beetles) are found wherever there are grazing herbivores. The adults burrow down into the soil, taking with them parcels of dung as food supplies for their larvae. Animal dung is rich in nutrient and dung beetles play an important role in returning much of this material to the soil.