In this month’s Wildlife in Common series, Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Barry Madden discovers the dramatic lives of the small but beautifully formed creatures which represent the infrastructure of the natural world: the invertebrates.

Time spent peering into the depths will reward you with the sight of some quite fascinating and bewildering characters. There are many invertebrate species you can spot on your local common. Wet, dry, large or small there are bound to be hundreds of different species vying for space and playing out their dramas on this wild stage. The system works as an intricate, interdependent network of predator, prey, pollinator, breeding station and simply somewhere to live out a life. The whole world of invertebrates – minibeasts, creepy-crawlies, call them what you will – is intertwined. It is most often a tiny, unnoticed world, something that passes us by unless we take time to look.  

Green tiger beetle, photo by Nick Goodrum

It is simply about getting your eye in. Take time to stand and stare at that clump of nettles, that gnarled old tree stump, the tangle of ditch side vegetation. Use your eyes, peer into the depths and see. Concentrate your senses, notice slight movements or changes in texture; the twitch of a beetles antennae, the flash of reflective light from a dragonfly’s wing or the stealthy movement of predatory spiders. Scrutinise every blade of grass or gently trembling leaf; seek the secret dwellers of the lush verdant growth and you will find.

There is one showy species in particular that might be your reward for looking: the green tiger beetle. This ferocious sounding insect, only something like 15mm long, certainly earns its name as a voracious predator of ants, spiders and other small creatures. It is a widespread inhabitant of dry open places such as heaths and woodland rides and is easily recognised by its iridescent bright green colouration interspersed with a series of cream coloured spots across its wing casings. It moves fast on long legs and you will most likely see it on warm days during summer scurrying over the ground as it relentlessly searches for prey.  Look closely and you will discover it has large, keen eyes and a pair of very effective, sharply pointed mandibles – altogether a formidable hunter. I’ve seen them running over the sandy ground on Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Roydon Common and they really do move fast.

Green Tiger Beetles, photo by Karl Charters

The mated female lays eggs in tiny burrows where the larvae will sit in ambush for passing prey. When a hapless ant wanders too close it can fall into the burrow and be ensnared in a pair of jaws from which there will be no escape. A horror tale in miniature. As the larvae grow to pupation stage, a process that can take 2-3 years, they enlarge their accommodation, anchoring themselves within by means of a spine on their back. But they are not immune from attack themselves. A parasitic wasp going by the name of Methocha ichneumonides, a rather ant like creature, hunts them, injects eggs inside the victim which hatch and eat the young beetle from the inside out. No Spielberg movie comes close.

Spend some time this month watching invertebrates on your nearest common. You will see butterflies and day flying moths, notice beetles, bugs, flies and wasps. Watch a spider spin its web and marvel at how such a small creature can produce a magical work of art: functional and lethal. There will be grasshoppers and crickets with their long, curved antennae; busy bees buzzing from flower to flower. And there will be clues to guide you; vegetation that is perforated with holes could hold small caterpillars, small holes bored in tree trunks could be the nests of solitary bees or wasps, the presence of a green woodpecker will almost certainly mean ant nests litter the grassland.

All of this exists because our commons provide such wildlife with a home. They provide us too with a tapestry of colour and life, somewhere to breathe fresh air and cast off the claustrophobia of modern day living; somewhere to unwind. Surely worth preserving, and with your help they will be. But the most important thing is to simply enjoy the world of tiny creatures that inhabit our beautiful common land. Happy watching.
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