Bramble Sawfly

THIS SAWFLY was crawling up the side of our car when we called at my mum’s this morning. Her garden is well stocked with shrubs, herbs and mature trees and there’s a lot of blossom about at the moment, which must attract plenty of insects.

At first glance I thought that it was some kind of beetle, then when I took a closer look at the head and antennae I guessed at some kind of hunting wasp but Michael Chinery’s Collins Guide to the Insects of Britain and Western Europe includes a clear illustration of this species; Arge cyanocrocea, a sawfly whose larvae feed on bramble. It’s about 1 centimetre in length.

In Greek mythology Arge was a huntress. Cyanocrocea‘ means ‘greenish blue/yellow’ which I guess refers to the blue sheen on the thorax and the yellow abdomen. I’d assumed that the blue was just a reflection so I’ve greyed it in my drawing but I have included a red spot on the front right leg which I now realise is the red of the car seen through a raindrop. Which demonstrates the perils of drawing from a photograph!

It was raining and we were in a hurry so I took a few photographs which I decided to draw from. That’s my way of really looking at new species before I reach for the book to try to identify it. Our bright red car didn’t make the best background and I couldn’t make out the shape of the abdomen because of the dark smudge that is part of the this sawfly’s wing pattern, so I’ve added a small sketch from the illustration in the field guide to show the hidden shape. Sawflies lack a ‘wasp-waist’.

You can see from the photograph that I’ve started my drawing with the head then gone out of proportion, going a little too large, when I came to the wings. Those round blobs on its thorax are droplets of rain.

Most female sawflies have saw-like ovipositors which they use to lay their eggs in plants and most sawfly larvae resemble the caterpillars of moths and butterflies. The field guide says that Arge cyoncrocea is often seen on umbellifers and the adults are about from May to July. In 1986 it was described by Chinery as ‘fairly common but confined to the southern half of Britain’.

Horntail at Braemar

The most spectacular sawfly I ever encountered was a ‘Wood Wasp’, also known as the Horntail, Urocerus gigas, which landed on our Standard Vanguard Estate windscreen as we stopped in a layby in the pine forest near Braemar in August 1960, when I was nine years old. I was so impressed by this insect that I sketched it in my Eagle diary. Later my dad got one of the secretaries in the typing pool at the Coal Board to type a letter I’d written for me send to the magazine Young Naturalist which I’d started reading that summer.

My dad suggested that we head the letter ‘HORNET?’ but the editor of the magazine was able to identify it from our description as a ‘Wood Wasp’ (which unlike the Hornet, has no wasp-waist).

The First Wildlife Talkie?

By coincidence, it was in 1960 that Gerald Thompson of the University of Oxford Forestry Department was working out how he could set about making a film of the Alder wood wasp and its parasites. This lead to him setting up the influential Oxford Scientific Films unit.

He was inspired by the work of F. Percy Smith who in 1931 made a film in the Secrets of Nature for British Gaumont Instructional Films called War in Woods, about the life of the Horntail or Conifer Wood Wasp. According to Thompson, in interviews filmed in 1998/99, this wood wasp film, narrated by Dr R. Neil Chrystal, ‘was the first science film with a soundtrack shown in the cinema’. Dr Neil was Thompson’s predecessor at what was then the Imperial Forestry Institute at the University of Oxford,

Thompson specifically refers to a special showing at the Super Cinema in Oxford so it’s not 100% clear that he considered this the first wildlife talkie ever, but that appears to be what he believed.

Royal Deeside

Also that year, near Balmoral, we saw a family riding horses across a heathy slope beside the road. Our immediate reaction was that this was the royal family, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, but my parents decided that it probably wasn’t them on the grounds that it’s so unlikely that you’d ever get to see the royal family out riding. But of course in the summer of 1960 if you were driving past the Balmoral Estate at the right time, you would have seen them.

Links: Gerald Thompson interview at WildFilmHistory.org includes link to a PDF transcription of the interview.
Secrets of Nature; War in the Woods, 1931, at British Pathé

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