Summer is a period of peak activity for many species. Warm weather (and occasional rain!) promotes growth in plants with subsequent flowering and fruiting. Insects feeding on the plants also benefit from warm conditions and, in turn, provide food for other insects, mammals and birds, including summer visitors such as swallows.
Explore the sunshine season with our summer-themed carousel below.
Much of nature is taking to the skies but dragonflies are the real icons of this season.
iSpot observations from Summer
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There are plenty of opportunities to observe animals, plants, and lichens throughout this season. Do record your sightings of summer wildlife for the iSpot website so that together we can build a picture of life in the summer months.
In summer, many species of plant are in flower and on a sunny day the air will be buzzing with insects visiting the flowers for food. At the same time, there will be birds feeding on the insects, with conspicuous summer visitors, such as swallows and house-martins, taking insects on the wing.
Look a little closer at the plants and you will find different stages of insects feeding on them, each with their own set of predators. Summer is a time to explore the whole of the ecological community.
This species has a conspicuous red abdomen with the rest of the body being black. It often establishes its colony in old bird nests, including stone and wooden bird boxes.
This hoverfly resembles the workers of the honeybee (Apis). While the adults of Eristalis tenax are common visitors to flowers, the larvae live in water. They are known as ‘rat-tailed’ maggots on account of the modified last segment of abdomen which acts as a breathing tube.
Common blue butterfly
The commonest blue! The caterpillars are found on bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), which the adults also like to visit.
White admiral butterfly
A rarity now in the United Kingdom and a summer specialist. This butterfly likes visiting bramble (Rubus) flowers and prefers warmer areas in southern England.
Six-spot burnet moth
A widely distributed and brightly coloured species, which can be seen on warm sunny days. The strong visual combination of red on black is a clear warning to potential predators to stay clear. Predators would be well advised to heed this warning as the six-spot burnet moth can generate cyanide compounds.
A beautifully patterned hoverfly with an entirely yellow face is often found on flowers around the edges of ponds. Its preference for these areas is because, like Eristalis tenax, its larvae live in water.
Our largest flying insects, the dragonflies, remind us that freshwater is a vital habitat too. Dragonflies lay their eggs in water and the young nymphs develop there before emerging as adults. Mayflies and stoneflies do a similar thing, specialising in clean flowing streams.
The swallow is found across much of the world and is often associated with agricultural land and buildings. Its conspicuous flight and capture of insects on the wing are memorable features of a summer’s day. Its place as a summer icon is assured but as the phrase ‘one swallow does not make a summer’ reminds us, we need some of the other species on this list!
Common spotted orchid
Orchids are one of the most fascinating and revered groups of plants. Their extraordinary diversity of flowers and pollination patterns have inspired generations of naturalists, including Charles Darwin who wrote a book on the fertilisation of orchids. The Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsia) is perhaps one of the more modest members of the orchid family, but still a dazzling member of the British summer flora.
Balmy summer evenings are always completed by the sight of bats foraging for insects as dusk arrives. As with swallows, bats make extensive use of buildings and therefore frequently come into view. But to know the species you need a bat detector – a piece of equipment that can pick up the characteristic high frequency sounds of the bat which are outside the range of human hearing.
Reptiles like hot weather and the grass snake is no exception. One of three snake species in the UK, the grass snake is the largest and may be found in water as it feeds on amphibians.
Dragonflies are one of the most impressive flying insects in Britain. It’s often a surprise to encounter a large dragonfly, the wingspan of which may be over 10cm. However, imagine encountering a Meganeura dragonfly from about 300 million years ago, with a wingspan of 45cm! The dragonfly seeks out areas of water to lay its eggs. The nymphs develop in the water and are voracious predators. Larger species may even take on small fish!
The sounds of the summer are as important as the sights. A major contributor to the summer grassland orchestra is the grasshopper. Grasshoppers use a process of stridulation, rubbing their legs against their forewings, to generate their characteristic sound.
A seasonal menu
Summer specialists include the brightly coloured cinnabar moth larvae feeding on ragwort plants. To vertebrate herbivores such as horses, ragwort represents a poisonous presence in the meadow. But to the cinnabar moth and many other specialist insects, ragwort is essential for survival.
Other plants defend themselves from large herbivores with spines or stinging hairs, which are no deterrent to insects who devour the leaves from the outside and mine through the plant from within.
The stinging hairs of the nettle Urtica dioica are a sufficient deterrent for many herbivores but of little consequence to specialist feeders such as caterpillars of the small tortoiseshell butterfly. In fact, the small tortoiseshell is one of several butterfly species that feed predominantly on Urtica dioica. Of course, humans can also eat stinging nettles, but preferably after boiling them!
Aphids have specialised mouthparts which allow them to tap into the phloem (sap) of the plant. As they line up along the stems of leaves they present a ready meal for ladybird larvae. Ladybird larvae are often spiny in contrast to the smooth-bodied adults.
The red and black adult cinnabar moth seeks out ragwort plants on which to lay its eggs. After hatching, the caterpillars stay close together, but as they get larger they disperse across the plant. The conspicuous orange and black striped caterpillars may then strip the plant completely and move to another ragwort plant. Ragwort, which is poisonous to many vertebrate herbivores, has many specialist insect species which feed on it.
Cuckoo spit froghopper
The ‘cuckoo spit’ which can be found deposited on plants is produced by a type of insect called a froghopper. They are related to aphids. The cuckoo spit is derived from plant sap and used to protect the developing nymphs of the froghopper.
These extraordinary beetles are able to bury animals many times their size by excavating under the dead animal. They also appear to be able to slow the decay of the animal by covering them with secretions that prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. The slowly decaying carcass provides the beetle with many future meals.
Canadian thistle fruit fly
The adult fly has striking patterned wings and lays its eggs on the stems of creeping thistles. The larvae then burrow into the stem and make their home inside the plant, causing the formation of a gall.
Gall of Canadian thistle fruit fly
There are many examples of plant galls among summer plants and they often signal the presence of an insect(s) living inside.
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This feature was created to support the new BBC One series The Great British Year.
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