Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Autumn - a time for rebirth and growth

Mediterranean meadow-saffron (Colchicum cupanni)
In Malta, as in many other parts of the world, the year is divided into four seasons. 

In temperate regions autumn is generally regarded as a melancholic season that announces the end of summer, the arrival of winter darkness and cold stormy weather. Most Maltese have been brought up with this idea when in actual fact autumn in Malta is a time of rebirth and growth.

In ecological terms the Maltese year can be divided into two approximately equal seasons; the wet season and the dry season. Autumn is the beginning of the rainy season which comes immediately after six months of heat and drought. 

The first autumn rains bring life back to the parched countryside changes from brown to green as the seeds of annual plants which had been dormant in the soil throughout the dry season start germinating. 

The rains also stimulate plants which survive the dry season as bulbs, corms or tubers to start growing again. Some species such as the Mediterranean meadow saffron (busieq) flowers a few days after the first rains. The flowers appear before the leaves emerge from underground. 

This gives these plants an advantage over other autumn flowering plants as they have to compete with fewer flowers to attract bees and other pollinating insects. The flowers of the meadow saffron are soon followed by others such as the autumn ladies tresses (ħajja u mejta tal-ħarifa) a small rare orchid. 

The list of autumn flowering plants includes the yellow-throated crocus (żagħfran selvaġġ) and, the autumn narcissus (narċis imwaħħar)

Carob trees (siġar tal-ħarrub), which are either male or female, flower from mid-October to mid-November. The flowers have a strong smell of decomposing vegetation which attracts flies which inadvertently carry pollen from one tree to another.

The rains also stimulate many species of fungi to put forth the fruiting bodies with which we are familiar. 

This article was published in The Times on 3.10.2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Birds and berries

Common smilax (Smilax aspera)
Plants produce berries to entice birds to eat their seeds. 

In most cases the seeds are swallowed whole and after passing through the bird’s digestive system they are deposited away from the parent plant ready to germinate. This sometimes takes place hundreds of kilometres away from their origin.

These plants and birds have developed a vital partnership on which both are dependent for their survival. 

Most berries become ripe at the end of summer or the beginning of autumn, when birds are building the fat reserves that they will be using to provide them with the energy required to migrate to warmer parts of the world. It is also the time when another food, the insects, start to decrease.

Some plants provide berries during the winter and provide food to non-migratory birds even in countries further north where the ground is often covered in snow or frozen making it impossible for birds to find molluscs, insects and other small creatures to feed on.

To ensure that the berries are eaten plants fill them with important vitamins and energy and colour them red or black to make it easier for birds to see them.

 Red berries are usually found in evergreen trees. Trees which loose their leaves in the autumn usually have black berries because these show better against the yellow or brown autumn leaves.

Several species of berry producing plants can be found in the Maltese countryside. 

The most visible is the hawthorn (żagħrun) which produces fruit that look like small apples.

 Less easily seen are the berries of the common smilax (pajżana) which I photographed last Sunday. At this time of the year two other native trees, the lentisk (deru) and the Mediterranean buckthorn (alaternu) have berries.

 These berries are eaten by native species such as the Sardinian warbler (bufula sewda) and migratory species such as the song thrush (malvizz) but unfortunately most of these are shot before they get a chance to eat any berries.

This article was published in The Times on 27.10.2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Nature Photography

Maltese wall lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)
I am often asked by readers of my articles about my nature photographs the questions more often than not revolve about the kind of equipment I use. 

My reply is always “nothing special’ a reply which is received with scepticism.

 I have a micro lens which I use most of the time but it is possible to take nature pictures even with the most basic camera, this is especially true nowadays as even the pocket digital cameras can be used for close-up photography. 

The picture of the lizard on a wall accompanying this article was shot without any special equipment. The most important thing is not the equipment but the ability to see pictures where many others do not.

Plants are often surrounded by other vegetation; animals often hide themselves in their surrounding. 

The most important skill is to learn to see pictures in the surrounding clutter. To do this you must learn to look and observe with all your senses a skill you develop with a lot of practice which you can only get by spending a lot of time in the countryside taking pictures or just looking and observing.

By spending some time looking at a particular patch of ground, a bush or even just a small plant you will start seeing things which you previously failed to notice. Insects and flowers seem to pop out of nowhere.

 I often lie down on the ground to get a good point of view and while in that position I start seeing one photograph after the other and I end up taking up a lot of pictures of different objects from one spot.

My advice to anybody who wants to take nature pictures is to get out there and start shooting. 

With digital cameras you can shoot hundreds and thousands of pictures without any extra cost. Spend as much time as possible in the countryside. I spend at least one whole morning every weekend in the countryside to ensure that I have good pictures for my articles.

This article was published in The Times on 20.10.10

Monday, October 18, 2010

15 Species of millipede in the Maltese islands

Last Sunday I found several millipedes sheltering in the rugged bark on the trunks of several eucalyptus trees at Wardija.

 I normally see millipedes moving either on or underneath the eucalyptus leaves which cover the ground beneath these trees so I assumed they climbed to escape from rain water.

Fifteen species of millipede can be found in the Maltese islands.

 The common millipede which apart being found in leaf litter can also be found damp basements and other humid parts of houses, is the largest species in the Maltese islands. It has a cylindrical segmented body with two pairs of legs on each segment except on the first behind the head which has no legs and the next few which have only one. 

Most people who have touched this species are aware that when threatened it release a foul smelling liquid. This liquid repels predators but it generally does not cause any harm to humans.

The common millipede is called ħanex ta’ l-indewwa tad-djar but many people call it millipid or dudu a name given to many other animals including caterpillars.

Not all millipedes have a cylindrical body. The pill millipede which is known in Maltese as żibġa ta’ l-indewwa has a short stocky shape similar to that of the woodlouse which is known in Maltese as ħanżir l-art, and like the woodlouse it can roll into a ball to defend itself from predators and to prevent dehydration.

As anybody who knows some Italian can guess, the name millipede means a thousand feet even though these animals at the most a few hundred legs.

About 10,000 species of millipede are found in the world. Most are herbivores feed mainly on decaying leaves and other dead plant parts but some species are omnivorous or carnivorous and can eat small insects and other small animals such as centipedes and earthworms.

This article was published in The Times on 13.10.2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ta’ Ċenċ

Whenever I am in Gozo I go to this little known part of the island which is one of the most beautiful and definitely the most spectacular place in the Maltese archipelago.

I was not the only one there. Three men in their late seventies, were sitting on a rock taking in the view. They said that they go there every Sunday after hearing mass at the Sannat Parish Church. 

They knew that they were lucky to live near such a beautiful place and that they were lucky that it was still in its pristine state.

They recalled that in the late eighties there were plans to build a mega tourist complex complete with two hotels, golf course and helicopter pad and that it was thanks to public pressure that the place was saved.

The campaign to save Ta’ Ċenċ was carried out by a small number of environmental organisations that got together to stop the project at a time when there were still no official structures to evaluate such projects, and Environment Impact Assessments were still unheard of. Reports were drawn up which showed the importance of the area for the biodiversity of the Maltese islands. 

The cliffs and plateau provide habitat for a large variety of plants and animals including the Cory’s shearwater (ċiefa), and Malta’s national bird the blue rock thrush (merill) both of which breed in crevices in the vertical cliff faces. 

The peregrine falcon (bies), which was immortalised in the film The Maltese Falcon, used to breed on the cliffs. The vast garigue provides an important habitat for birds, insects and flowering plants, especially orchids. During my visit on Sunday, I saw more butterflies at Ta’ Ċenċ than I had seen in Malta during the past few months.

When the campaign to save Ta’ Ċenċ started, few people knew that this place existed and even fewer had been there. Even now, twenty years later, few people go there. The cliff face and parts of the plateau are protected legally but more needs to be done to ensure that future generations can enjoy the whole of Ta’ Ċenċ with all its plants and animals.

 The whole plateau and the surrounding areas including valleys and agricultural land need to be given added protection a move which would fit perfectly with the concept of Gozo as an eco island.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The scarab beetles

Some days ago I found several beetles along the water’s edge at Mellieha Bay. Several more were floating on the water. 

All were dead except for a couple which I collected and moved to a safer place. 

These beetles, like many other insects are attracted to light and they must have been confused by some lights after having emerged from their cocoon and fell in the sea.

The beetles belonged to a very common species of the scarab family. Like many members of this family it does not have a common English name and is known as a scarab beetle.

 In Maltese most beetles are known as ħanfus. Like every identified plant and animal it has a unique scientific name - Phyllognathus excavatus. The males of this species have a structure on their head that resembles the horn of a rhinoceros. There are other scarab beetles with such a horn on their head which are popularly known as rhinoceros beetles.

At this time of the year it is the most common scarab beetle. It is found throughout the Mediterranean to the as to Iran and Crimea and in Senegal.

The scarab beetle family consists of over 30,000 species. Many of these beetles have bright metallic colours ranging in size from 1.5 to 160 mm. The larvae are soft bodied pale yellow or white grubs. 

Most live underground or under leaves away from sunlight. The majority are scavengers and many species live on dung, dead animals or decaying vegetation.

One of the best known species of scarab is the dung beetle which was revered as sacred in ancient Egypt. Dung beetles collect dung which they shape into the shape of a ball and then roll to an underground nest. They lay eggs in it so that on hatching the larvae find a readily available rich source of food. 

This article was published in The Times on 30.09.2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The oak eggar

The oak eggar is a beautiful large moth. It is seen in August and September mainly in Buskett and its surroundings. 

The males are red brown and fly during the day and many people mistake them for butterflies.

 Last Sunday, while watching the migration of raptors at Buskett I saw at least three oak eggars being caught and eaten by bee eaters, the brightly coloured migratory birds that specialise in hunting flying insects especially bees.

Female oak eggars are larger and paler than males and are nocturnal. It is said that females fly slowly at dusk dropping eggs on the vegetation below but I still have to see this interesting behaviour.

The eggs are laid on ivy which grows in abundance especially on the north-facing walls in Buskett. In Maltese the oak eggar is known as baħrija tal-ballut but it should be pointed out that despite its name, this species does not feed on oak, but is called so because its cocoon is shaped like an acorn.

The caterpillar is covered in brown hairs and has a black line between each segment on each of which there is a small tuft of white hair along the sides. I have seen and photographed the caterpillar on the leaves of the bramble at Wied il-Luq and also walking on the ground in the vicinity of this common plant.

The oak eggar belongs to the Lasiocampidae family of moths which has over 2000 species worldwide. These are usually large moths with feather-like antennae. The caterpillars are covered in long hair. Four species are found in the Maltese islands. 

This article was published in The Times on 22.0./2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The prickly pear

The prickly pear

The prickly pear tree is often planted around fields in Malta and Gozo as a windbreak and for its fruit.

 Like all cacti it is a native of the American continent and did not arrive in Europe before the discovery of this continent.

 This species is believed to be the earliest species of cactus to be cultivated and nowadays many hybrids and varieties exist. Its exact origins are not known but it probably came from Mexico where similar species can still be found growing wild.

It is nowadays cultivated in many arid and semiarid regions of the world, especially around the southern and eastern coast of the Mediterranean. In Mexico it is also grown for the young leaf-like stems which form part of many traditional Mexican recipes.

Prickly pear is known in Maltese as bajtar tax-xewk. Several varieties can be found in Malta each of which has a distinctive name. The three most common varieties are the “yellow’ variety is known as isfar or Malti, the ‘red’ known as as l-aħmar or l-ingliż and the ‘white’ known as abjad or Franċiż.

 Other less common varieties include tax-xitwa which ripens between October and December, l-Ispanjol which has large reddish fruit, and the lanġasi which has pear-shaped fruit.

It is widely believed that prickly pears have medicinal properties. Many chemical compounds have been extracted from it which have been found to be useful against several conditions especially inflammations. In Malta it was used mainly against stomach aches, bone pain, inflammations, and insect stings. 

It is nowadays being used in cosmetics and in food supplements. The fruit is also used to make jams, jellies and liqueurs. The local bajtra is one while Tungi Spirit which is produced on the island of Saint Helena is another.

 The Mexicans have been using prickly spears to produce a spirit known as colonche for thousands of years.

A species of scale insect thrives on the prickly pear. 

This insect produces carmic acid which is used to make cochineal, a red dye used in red food colouring and cosmetics. The dye was used by the Aztec and Mayans in Oaxaca, Mexico, and exported to Europe. In the mid 19th century an attempt was made to grow these insects on Maltese prickly pears and start producing cochineal in Malta but the project never took off the ground and was abandoned after some years. 

This article was published in The Times on 07.09.2010

The sounds of Malta's summer

Cicada (Cicada orni)
This year, summer started later than usual and it seems that it is ending earlier as well. It has already rained and the temperature is going down but summer is not just sunny days and high temperatures. Summer, like every other season has its characteristic sounds and smells which together differentiate it from every other season.

The sound I associate most with a Maltese summer is that of the cicada the large insect that looks like a fly that spends days on end making a loud buzzing noise. 

During the night, when the cicada stops singing, the cricket takes over. This nocturnal insect used to be very common but like many other insects, especially those that live in agricultural areas, it has decreased in number probably because of the use of pesticides. 

Country people used to catch crickets and take them home to hear them sing. They caught them by placing a wet cloth on the ground in a field in which tomatoes were being grown. In the morning they collected the crickets from beneath the cloth and placed them in special cages or in a tin can.

Those walk in parts of the countryside where the bear’s breaches grows can also hear the sound of its seed pods as they crack open in the heat. The sound which resembles that of a small pistol is followed by that of its large seeds of falling on the large dry leaves of this plant.

Spanish sparrows gather in large trees to roost every evening but in summer their numbers and the noise they make reaches a peak as the population is augmented by the recently fledged birds.

In early July the first autumn migrants appear in the Maltese islands. The first birds to arrive are the waders which leave their breeding grounds in the far north immediately as soon as their short breeding season is over. They have to move south as weather at such latitudes is very unpredictable and it can snow even in August.

For those with trained ears the shrill call of another migrant bird, the kingfisher, becomes another common summer sound. Kingfishers arrive in August. They often perch on a rock along the coast waiting for a right-sized fish to swim by. It flies low over the water often making a short sharp whistle, chee, repeated two or three times. 

The most common sound nowadays is that of the ubiquitous car which can be heard even from Comino where no cars are present and because of this we often miss the beautiful natural sounds which were once part of the Maltese environment.

This article was published in The Times on 15.09.2010

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The rosemary leaf beetle lives on herbs

Rosemary leaf beetle (Chrysolina americana)
The rosemary leaf beetle is a common beetle that lives on rosemary and other herbs. Its scientific name is Chrysolina americana. Despite its scientific name, it is a native of southern Europe. In the early 1990s it appeared in Britain and during the last decade it has become an established pest on rosemary, lavender and related plants.

It is an attractive beetle with metallic green and purple stripes down its back. . In the sunlight these stripes reflect all the colours of the rainbow - rather like oil on water. This effect is very beautiful to see but difficult to capture on camera.

It is usually found in groups on stems or feeding on the new growth of plants. The larvae are small slug-like grubs which are usually found on the underside of leaves. They are light grey with horizontal dark stripes running the length of their body.

Their favourite food plant, the rosemary is a medium-sized bush of the Mediterranean, recognised by its narrow fleshy leaves, small pale blue flowers and more than anything else by its typical aromatic smell. The bush is usually about one metre high but when hanging down from a vertical rock face it can grow up to two metres. It flowers throughout the year.

The rosemary leaf beetle, known in Maltese as żabbella tal-klin, belongs to the Chrysomelidae family, a group of beetles known as the leaf beetles. This is a family of over 35,000 species, one of the largest and most commonly-encountered of all beetle families. About 60 of these species are found in the Maltese islands. Another common member of this large family is the red leaf beetle, żabbella ħamra in Maltese, which is found in vegetation in the countryside. Adult and larval leaf beetles feed on all sorts of plant tissue. Many are economically important pests of agriculture. 

This article was published in The Times on 05.01.2010

The hyacinth bean

The hyacinth bean is also known as the Indian bean, Egyptian bean or lablab. It is a species of bean that is widespread as a food crop throughout the tropics especially in Africa, India and Indonesia. It is a traditional food plant in parts of Africa but is little-known outside the continent although it has the potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable land use in many parts of the world.

It grows as a vine and produces purple flowers and striking purple-green coloured pods. It grows profusely and produces edible leaves, flowers, pods, seeds and roots although one must be careful when eating the dry beans as these contain a poison which can be removed by prolonged boiling.

It is not normally grown in Malta but I recently found several plants of this species growing profusely close to a wall in an abandoned field at Mġarr. I first found it last summer when the plants were in full flower. Last week they had hundreds of bean pods. The plants are very large even though it seemed that nobody had been taking any care of them for a very long time.

Being a native of Africa the hyacinth bean tolerates drought and can grow in places where the rainfall is less that 500 mm and it is able to extract water from at least 2 metres depth although it does loose its leaves during prolonged dry periods.

In many parts of the tropics it is grown as forage and as an ornamental plant. It is also said to have medicinal properties.

It seems that this bean grows easily in the Maltese climate and will be able to grow even if the climate changes and becomes drier as it is drought tolerant and does not require large quantities of water. It would make sense for local farmers to grow it instead of other plants that require large quantities of water. 

At current extraction rates in a few years time Maltese ground water will not be fit for agriculture or drinking and the amount of water being pumped up must be reduced drastically to make it sustainable. 

Introducing new crops which require less water is one way of conserving Malta’s limited ground water. One should not expect local farmers to experiment and try new crops on their own initiative. It should be the Department of Agriculture that carries out more research in this direction and encourage local farmers to start producing crops better adapted to Malta’s changing climate. 

This article was published in The Times on 13.01.2010

Friday, September 3, 2010

A true predator kills and eats another organism

In ecological terms predation is described as the interaction whereby one organism feeds on its prey. Predators may or may not kill their prey before eating them but the end result is beneficial to the predator and harmful to the prey. This has led to selective pressures on one another which have lead to an evolutionary arms race between the predator and prey resulting in various anti-predator adaptations.

Predators are usually classified by the way they feed and the way they interact with their prey. A true predator is one which kills and eat anther organism. It may hunt actively for its prey or sit and wait for it to approach within striking distance. Some predators such as the lion kill larger prey which they dismember and chew while others like dolphins eat their prey whole. Some predators like snakes poison their prey to subdue it or kill it before eating it.

Prey species have evolved several ways to avoid being preyed upon. One common form of defence is aggression. The electric eel uses an electric current to kill prey and to defend itself from other predators. Others animals use their tusks, horns and hoofs to defend themselves.

An interesting form of defence, common in birds, is mobbing. This is when animals attack and harass a predator to drive it away. This can be seen in many species of birds such as gulls which attach predator, including men, when these get anywhere near their nests.

Some animals are camouflaged to avoid being seen while others are brightly coloured and do not bother to hide themselves. Their colouration is recognised and remembered by predators as a danger signal and are left alone. These animals such as the ladybirds, wasps and the caterpillars of the spurge hawkmoths, are usually poisonous or bad tasting.

The humped crab spider is an aggressive predator that lives on flowers with which it easily blends. It prefers the large yellow flowers of the crown daisy, which are now in flower. It lies motionless in wait for an insect to land on the flower and then catches it with its forelegs. It bites it to inject a poison and holds on to it until it is paralysed or dead before it starts to suck its body. 

This article was published in The Times on 20.01.2010


Garigue is one of the main natural habitats in Malta. The other main habitats are the steppe, maquis and woodland. 

It is found in other parts of the Mediterranean in areas with limestone soils usually near the coast where the conditions are not as hot and dry as further inland. 

In Maltese garigue is known as xagħri. In Greece it is known as phrygana, in Spain as tomillares and in Israel as batha. 

In the American west a similar habitat is known as chaparral. Garigue is best described as open rocky areas with pitted and fissured ground in which one can find a thin layer of soil. In other parts of the Mediterranean and probably in Malta as well garigue was formed as a result of the cutting down of the original trees to create land for agriculture by prehistoric man as well as by grazing of domestic animals and fires.

Garigue vegetation is low and usually consists of aromatic shrubs such as the Mediterranean thyme (sagħtar) Mediterranean heath (erika), spurges (tengħud), the olive-leaved germander (żebbuġija) and the white hedge-nettle (te Sqalli) amongst others. Very often one particular species of plant dominates a particular area.

It is believed that these shrubs produce aromatic oils and other chemicals which leach into the soil and these prevent the growth of other plants in the vicinity especially annuals. 

This gives rise to the characteristic open spaces of garigue areas. The flowers of garigue shrubs are an important source of nectar which is collected by bees to form honey. Malta has been well known since antiquity for its thyme honey and it is believed that the name Melita is derived from the Greek word for honey.

Much of the garigue of the Maltese islands has disappeared. Vast areas have been built upon and tracts have been covered with soil and converted into fields. Some areas have been ‘reclaimed’ and planted with trees. There are now fewer thyme bushes for bees to visit with a consequential loss in the production of thyme honey.

It is not possible to bring back lost garigue but it is important that what is left is protected. It is also possible to increase the amount of thyme and native plants in gardens and in urban areas. 

This would help native species of insects and other animals and provide bees with nectar. The Environment Landscape Consortium would do well to plant these plants in areas for which they are responsible such as roundabouts and road verges instead of non-indigenous species with no ecological value. These plants have the added value that they require very little water thus reducing the amount of water used in keeping these areas green. 

This article was published in The Times on 27.01.2010

Alien plant species on the increase

Malta’s plant and animal life can be divided into indigenous (native) and alien (introduced) species. The introduction of plants and animals in the Maltese islands has been going on since prehistoric times. 

The excavations at Għar Dalam unearthed the fossilised remains of black rat, brown rat, cattle, sheep, pig and cat as well as domesticated plants such as wheat, barley and lentils. 

The introduction of alien species continued throughout historic times and the trend is that it is increasing as a result of an increase in commercial activities.

Most introduced species do not survive in nature and if they do they disappear after a short time but some manage to establish themselves and even become common sometimes to the detriment of indigenous species.

Alien species arrive in the Maltese islands for a variety of reasons. Some are introduced for agriculture and aquaculture. The sulla (silla) is grown for fodder but can also be found on clay slopes. Some such as the castor oil tree (siġra tar-riċċnu )have been introduced as ornamental plants while the cape sorrel (ħaxixa ngliża) which is now the commonest plant in Malta was originally grown in the Argotti Botanical Garden in Floriana. 

Several species of plants were imported with bird seeds and crop seeds these include the canary grass which has become naturalised.

Successful aliens usually do not have natural enemies, they are able to disperse easily and are good opportunists and find an empty ecological niche which they can occupy. They often manage to make a foothold in stressed areas such as disturbed land and agricultural land. The shrub tobacco (tabakk tas-swar), another introduced species, is common in building rubble.

Many species of plants which have become part of the Maltese countryside were not always present. Carob, fig and almond trees have been in Malta since antiquity. The prickly pear was introduced in the 16th century for its fruit and as a hedge plant.

Some plants such as the castor oil tree can become problematic weeds. This species which has striking large leaves and small greenish flowers was probably imported as an ornamental plant and now grows in valley watercourses where it competes with indigenous species.

This article was published in The Times on 03.02.2010

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


About nine species of plantain have been recorded in the Maltese islands. They are small plants with small wind-pollinated flowers. Many species have medicinal properties while some are edible and can be used in salads and sauces.
About 200 species of plantain have been identified. They are found in different habitats throughout the world especially in wet areas. Some species are weeds and can grow along road sides and in other disturbed habitats. The inflorescence develops on a stalk which ranges in height from 5 to 40 cm and can be in the shape of a cone or spike with large numbers of small flowers.
Plantains have been used since antiquity externally to treat insect bites, rashes and minor sores as well as internally as a treatment for coughs, bronchitis and other conditions. In folklore it was believed to be an effective cure for snakebite.
One of the most common species of plantain in Malta is the Mediterranean plantain (biżbula) which can be seen in flower from late winter to late spring in cultivated and waste ground. Another common species is the buck’s horn plantain (salib l-art). This species flowers from March to October. Another species that flowers during the same period is the greater plantain (biżbula kbira). This species can be found in damp shady valleys such as Fiddien where the specimen shown in the picture was photographed.
The greater plantain is native to most of Europe, northern and central Asia and has become a naturalised weed wherever European colonisation took place. Some Native Americans called it “Englishman’s foot because it appeared wherever the white settlers set foot.
It is a powerful coagulant and quickly staunches the flow of blood and encourages the repair of damaged tissue hence it is used to treat bruises and broken bones. It has been used as a field dressing and is often known as ‘Soldier’s Herb’. It has also been used to prevent uterine bleeding after childbirth.
Some cultivars are used in gardens for their ornamental value and because its leaves are an important food for the caterpillar of many species of butterflies. (This article was published in The Times on 31.08.2010)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The predatory red assassin bug

The red assassin bug belongs to a large family of predatory insects which have an elongated head, narrowed neck and long legs. They also have a prominent tube which they use for sucking the liquidised contents of their prey. The family consists of about 7,000 species found in most parts of the world including Europe, North and South America and Africa. Twelve species are found in the Maltese islands. The red assassin bug, known in Maltese as seffud tal-assalt is the most common and easily recognised species.
This species can often be found waiting for its prey underneath the flowers of a number of summer-flowering plants especially fennel (busbies), samphire (xorbett) and fleabane (tulliera).
I photographed this specimen last Sunday at Fiddien Valley near Rabat. It had just caught a small bee as it was visiting the flowers of a sticky fleabane (tulliera komuni). The bug inserted its segmented proboscis in the space between the head and the thorax to inject it with a lethal toxin that dissolves its tissue. It then starts to suck up the liquefied tissues through its long proboscis. This process takes several minutes and so I had enough time to take several pictures of the bug as it was feeding.
Assassin bugs are aggressive insects and sometimes capture insects that are larger than themselves. They manage to subdue and kill them by means of their poisonous saliva. Some species of assassin bug feed on cockroaches or bedbugs. Some are beneficial to agriculture as they attack insect pests. In some parts of the world people breed assassin bugs as pets or for insect control.
Some species are notorious for biting humans and one species found mostly in South America can transmit the potentially fatal Chagas disease. (This article was published in The Times on 25.08.2010)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Butterflies need protection

Anthony Valletta was a keen lepidopterist. He spent most of his life collecting and studying butterflies and other insects and was one of the first people in Malta to talk and write about the need to protect Malta’s natural environment. He wrote a number of books for children and adults as well as articles in newspapers and magazines.

In 1980 he wrote an article about the butterflies of the Maltese islands and their dwindling habitats, in which he expressed concern about an alarming decrease in the number of individuals of certain butterflies which he was noticing. He wrote that complete colonies had disappeared from newly built up areas. He noted that in the 48 years during which he had been studying butterflies the colourful abundance of these beautiful insects had become a thing of the past. As is the situation today the most common butterflies were the migrants who every year augmented the local population.

Lately I have been talking a lot with Maltese farmers especially elderly ones who remember the countryside as it was sixty or seventy years ago and what all of them told me sadly reflects what Valletta wrote thirty years ago. Mr Valletta believed that the decline was being caused by the destruction of the butterflies’ habitats because of new residential areas. He also blamed the planting of ornamental trees along the sides of valleys which were replacing local flora. The farmers blame the large quantities of pesticides that they use for the decline.

I am not aware of any studies that have been carried out to monitor the butterfly decline and their causes. It is already late to save the butterflies but it is better late than never and we can if we want to, halt the decline and even to reverse the trend. We owe the butterflies to future generations of Maltese people. We also have a responsibility to conserve local races such as that of the swallowtail butterfly which is endemic to the Maltese islands.

Mr Valletta wrote that many of the natural habitats would continue to disappear but he hoped that those in a position to do so will encourage the preservation of all existing species by ensuring that the necessary food plants are not entirely eradicated from the countryside and in some cases that these would be deliberately propagated.

Unfortunately, many species that Mr Valletta once enjoyed have become a rarity and might soon become extinct from the Maltese islands unless urgent action is taken to save them.

This article was published in The Times on 18.August.2010)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The ecological importance of Il-Maqluba

Il-Maqluba is a site of natural and geological interest on the outskirts of the small village of Qrendi. It is a circular crater known as a sink hole that was formed when the roof of a large underground cave collapsed. 

It is believed that this happened in November of 1343. In geological terms this is a very recent event and no major changes have taken place since the event occurred. Given that caves are common in the Maltese island it is not surprising to find such a structure and in fact other similar structures of varying ages can be found. 

Sink holes slowly fill up with sediment that is blown or washed into it and eventually it fills up completely to form a soil-filled depression. Such a structure is found near St Martin’s Church at Baħrija and it is now a very good area for agriculture. Along the west coast of Gozo one can also find similar structures one of which is known as the Inland Sea.

Caves form when acidic rain water flows through hollows and fissures dissolving the rock and creating tunnels which eventually, as a result of more and more water flowing through them, widen and enlarge and eventually become caves.

The best known cave is Għar Dalam near Birżebbuġia which when excavated yielded thousands of fossilised bones and teeth of long extinct animals including dwarf elephants, hippopotamus and deer.

Il-Maqluba is important ecologically because in it one can find several interesting species of plants and animals which thrive in it because of its inaccessibility. Amongst these one finds several large specimens of Malta’s national tree - the sandarac gum trees (għargħar) which grow on the cliff sides. 

Until about a couple of decade ago it was believed that these were the only specimens of this tree, which is a native of North Africa, which were still growing wild in the Maltese islands. The site is also important because on its walls one can find a population of the Maltese salt-tree (xebb). A species of slug which is endemic to the Maltese islands was found in the depression together with other species of rare animals including ants and a silverfish.

It is not surprising that such an unusual structure needed an explanation that could be understood by the local people. They thus came up with the story that in ancient times at Il-Maqluba there was a small village inhabited by evil people. 

One day the land collapsed and the whole village was swallowed by the land. All the inhabitants died except for a pious lady who was praying in the small chapel next to the village. In fact there is an old chapel dedicated to St Mathew still standing next to the depression. 

This article was published in The Times on 10.02.2010

The common fresia - a member of South Africa's iris family

The freesia is another non-indigenous species that was cultivated in Maltese gardens that now grows in the Maltese countryside. It is a South African member of the iris family. There are about 16 species of freesias. 

Fourteen are native to the Cape Province in South Africa and two are found in tropical Africa as far north as Sudan. The genus was named after Friedrich Heinrich Theodor Freese, a German physician who lived between 1795 and 1876.

The common freesia, which is known in Maltese as freżja, has grassy foliage, and wiry spikes of bell-like, lemon-scented flowers in white, yellow, orange and blue. A few decades ago only white-coloured freesias were cultivated but nowadays many other varieties and hybrids can be found in flower and gardening shops. These usually are larger than the old variety and come in an incredible variety of colours. 

Due to their specific and pleasing scent, they are often used in the manufacture of hand creams, shampoos and candles.

In Malta the common freesia can be found growing in such places as Buskett Gardens and the grounds of Verdala Palace. It manages to grow wild because parts of South Africa, where this species comes from, like the Maltese islands has a Mediterranean climate. 

This climate is characterised by warm to hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. South Africa is not the only part of the world with a similar climate to ours. This climatic type is also found in much of California, in parts of Western and South Australia, and in parts of central Chile.

Freesias are used as a food plant by the larvae of some moth species including the large yellow underwing, known in Maltese as baħrija safra kbira. This is a very common species of moth found throughout most of Europe and North Africa extending east all the way to India. It can be seen between March and May and again between August and November. 

This article was published in The Times on 17.02.2010

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The fig tree

Country people used to say that the cicada appears when the fruit of the fig starts to ripen while others even claimed that the cicada actually ripens them. The adult cicada lives for a few summer weeks while the fig survives for many years and can grow into a large spreading tree that can produce large quantities of good tasting fruit every year.
The fig tree is an indigenous tree native to Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. It has been cultivated in the Maltese islands for centuries and often grows wild in the most improbable of places. The large lobed leaves are easily recognised as they have been used for by artists to cover the genitals of nude figures. In the Book of Genesis Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves after eating the forbidden fruit.
The fig tree, known in Maltese as siġra tat-tin was one of the first plants to be cultivated. Remains which were found in a Neolithic village in Jordan were dated to 9,400 to 9,200 BC. It was domesticated before wheat, barley and rye. Its fruit known in Maltese as tin is eaten raw, cooked, or dried. Once harvested the fruit does not keep well and should be eaten with the least possible delay unless it is to be preserved. Cato a Roman statesman urged the Romans to destroy Carthage and showed the Senate a handful of fresh figs from Carthage to show its proximity to Rome and hence the threat.
In the millennia that this species has been cultivated many varieties and cultivars have been developed. These vary in many ways including in the colour of the skin can be green purple or brown. When a branch, leave or fruit is broken off the tree releases a white sap which is an irritant to human skin. In the past the sap was sometimes used to reduce the pain and swelling of a bee or wasp sting.
Figs are one of the highest plant sources of calcium and fibre. Dried figs are rich in fibre, copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and vitamin K and have smaller amounts of many other nutrients. Figs are used as a laxative and contain many antioxidants. (This article was published in The Times 12.08.2010)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Poppies - long used as a symbol of sleep and death

Poppies are among the most common spring flowers in Malta. The most familiar is the common poppy which grows in very large numbers in cultivated fields but one should take up the challenge and try to spot the other species which also thrive in the Maltese islands. 

At least five other less familiar but still common species of poppy can be found without difficulty if one looks carefully at the flowers growing in fields and along country paths at this time of the year.

The opium poppy (xaħxieħ vjola) has large violet flowers and is easily identified. Less showy but just as interesting is the bristly poppy (peprin tal-lanżit) which has claret flowers and bristly fruit. The other two common species are the long-headed poppy (pepprin tal-frotta twila) and the Mediterranean poppy (pepprin tal-istammi sofor). Another species is the yellow horned poppy (pepprin isfar) which flowers later in spring on disturbed land close to the coast.

Most poppy species have been grown in gardens and some are used for both drugs and food. The opium poppy is cultivated in large quantities for opium and opiates as well as for poppy seed which is used in cooking and baking and poppy seed oil. Poppies have long been used as a symbol of sleep and death because of the opium extracted from them and the red colour. 

In some cultures they are used as emblems in tombstones to symbolize eternal sleep and resurrection.

The poppies are just a handful of the large number of flowering plants that one can find in the Maltese countryside. Over one thousand species of flowering flowers have been recorded. 

This article was publishen in the Times on 07.04.10

Bees - 20,000 known species worldwide

Malta is justifiably well known for its honey. This natural product is produced by a domesticated species of bee. Although this is the best known species it is just one of at least 60 bee species that have been recorded in the Maltese islands.

Bees are flying insects closely related to wasps and ants. They are known for their role in pollination. 

There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees in the world with several still to be discovered. They are found in every continent except Antarctica and in every habitat where one finds insect-pollinated flowering plants. They are adapted for feeding on nectar and pollen which provide them with their energy and protein requirements. Pollen is used as food for larvae.

Bees play an important role in the pollination of flowering plants. When foraging they either gather nectar or pollen. While doing this they carry pollen from one flower to the other. Pollen is fine powder which contains the male sex cells of a plant. When the pollen reaches the female sex cells of a plant, a process known as pollination, fertilisation takes place. It is estimated that one third of the food consumed by man depends on insect pollination, mostly by bees especially the domesticated honey bee.

Most bees are fuzzy and have an electrostatic charge which attracts the pollen. The bees occasionally brush the pollen attached to their body and pack it into a structure that is usually found on their legs but sometimes on their abdomen. 

Some species of bees specialise on one species or a small number of related species of plants while others are opportunistic feeders and gather pollen from a large variety of plants.

Bees evolved from predatory wasps. When they first appeared there were already in existence insect pollinated plants which depended on other species of insects such as beetles for pollination but they have now become specialised pollinating agents much better at it than other insects such as flies and butterflies. 

This article was published in the Times on 23.02.10

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A genus of nocturnal moths

Dysgonia is a genus of moths. Two members of this genus can be found in the Maltese islands. 

The two species resemble each other and can be difficult to tell apart. They do not have common English names and as happens in such cases it is better to refer to them using their scientific names. Dysgonia algira has been called baħrija tar-riġnu in Maltese while the Dysgonia torrida is called baħrija tar-riġnu Afrikana

Both species can be found between June and October. The caterpillar of both species feed on bramble, willow trees, castor oil tree and pomegranate. The moth in the picture was photographed at Fiddien a couple of metres away from a willow tree on which I assume its caterpillar was living. 

Dysgonia algira is found around the Mediterranean, in Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia. Dysgonia torrida is found in Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Egypt, Asia Minor and India.

The genus Dysgonia belongs to the family Noctuidae which is sometimes referred to as the owlet moths. This is a large family of mostly drab-coloured moths, although some have brightly coloured hindwings. The family has more that 35,000 known species. About 1,450 are found in Europe of which about 135 species are found in the Maltese islands.

Most of these species are nocturnal and are often attracted to lights as well as to sugar and nectar-rich flowers. Many are able to avoid bats as they have organs in their ears which are stimulated by the echolocation sounds made by bats. This causes their wing muscles to go into spasms and the moths start to fly erratically thus evading the bats.

Several species have caterpillars that live in the soil and are agricultural pests. These often feed at night and during the day they rest in the soil or in a crevice in its food plant. 

This article was published in The Times on 27.07.10

The invasive cockroaches

I do not think that there is any household in the Maltese islands that at some time or the other has not had cockroaches visiting the kitchen. These insect pests are scavengers that eat any food and manage to find something edible even in the cleanest of homes.

There are about 4,500 species of cockroach, of which about seven species are found in the Maltese islands. Four can be found in houses and unless controlled can become pests.

The large brown cockroach one sometimes sees scurrying in the street is the American cockroach which did not originate in America but came from Africa. It was introduced in America around 1625 and is now common in most tropical countries thanks to international shipping and commerce. It feeds on decaying organic matter and a variety of other foods and is particularly fond of fermenting foods. It is known in Maltese as wirdiena ħamra.

Another common species is the brown banded cockroach which is known as kokroċ in Maltese. The preferred habitat of this species is houses especially kitchens. It is much smaller but can reach large numbers if it finds the right conditions.

Some species such as the field cockroach which is known in Maltese as wirdiena ta’ l-għelieqi, live in the countryside and do not visit buildings.

Cockroaches are mainly warmth-loving insects. Some species thrive in buildings because these provide warmth and food throughout most of the year. They are known to transport microbes on their body surfaces including those that are potentially dangerous to humans. They also produce chemicals which can trigger allergic reactions and have been linked to asthma

Cockroaches are tough creatures that can survive in the most difficult conditions. They can live without food or water for a very long time. Some species can survive without air for up to 45 minutes and have been submerged in water for half an hour and survived to live another day. It is also said that if man had to destroy himself with a nuclear war the cockroaches would survive and take over the earth. 

This article was published in The Times on 04.08.2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Insect diversity

Last Sunday I photographed a soft-winged flower beetle at Wied Qirda. This is a small shiny green beetle known in Maltese as ħadranija tal-ward

It is a common species often seen on yellow flowers such as the Cape sorrel (ħaxixa Ngliża) and the crown daisy (lellux). The beetle I photographed on Sunday was spotted by my three year old son.

 I did not see it myself because it was walking on the stem of a grass about 10 cm from the ground and out of my line of vision. Children have a different perspective of their surroundings and often manage to see things which grownups miss. 

I often encountered adults who say that they remember seeing more flowers and insects when they were young. They remember more than anything the gourd ladybird (nannakola tal-faqqus il-ħmir) an insect that lives on the squirting cucumber (faqqus il-ħmir). Both the squirting cucumber and the ladybird are still common in the Maltese countryside. These people fail to see them because they do not know where and how to look.

This does not mean that insect numbers have not gone down. The amount of countryside has shrunk drastically during the last 50 years and it continues to be gobbled up at an alarming rate in spite of the fact that we are more aware about the need to conserve it. 

Changes in agriculture, especially the use of pesticides have had their toll as well. Pesticides kill insects and many kill indiscriminately. They kill pests as well as other species some of which are beneficial such as bees especially if they are used indiscriminately. 

For several decades farmers have been urged to spray their crops. As the pests became immune to the pesticides stronger pesticides in larger doses had to be used. Now they are being told to stop using them and many are confused. Some have been spraying their crops throughout their whole life and do not know otherwise. 

Although many are now realising that something is wrong they find it hard to accept that what they have been told for the past thirty or forty years was not exactly right and find it hard to change. A small number are now starting to practice more environment friendly agriculture and more should do so for the benefit of everybody including nature.

This article was published in The Times on 03.03.2010 

The weird and parasitic broomrapes

Broomrapes are very strange looking plants. They are not green and do not have leaves. They are parasites and live by taking nutrients from other plants. 

A typical broomrape looks like a brown or yellow fleshy stalk growing out of the soil close to another plant. When fully grown they also have several small unimpressive snapdragon-like flowers growing close to the top of this solitary stalk. 

The plants are seen at the end of winter or during spring. They appear above ground only when it is time to flower. 

During the rest of their lives they live underground closely associated with the roots of a host plan on which they are totally dependent. They have very small seeds that become black with time. The seeds can remain alive in the soil for many years until they are stimulated to germinate by the presence by certain compounds produced by the living roots of a host plant. 

The seedlings put out root-like growth which attaches to the roots of the nearby host. Once attached to a host, the broomrape robs its host of water and nutrient.

There are about 200 species of broomrape of which about 13 are found in the Maltese islands. These include an endemic species and an endemic race. Some species are able to parasite a single plant species. These species are often named after the plant they parasitise. 

One such plant is the endemic Maltese race of the dwarf broomrape. Originally this species parasitised several species of leguminous plant but in Malta it has become a parasite of the Cape sorrel (ħaxixa Ngliża) and in fact in Maltese it known as budebbus ta’ l-Ingliża.

The species shown with today’s article, the common broomrape, is on the other hand a parasite of a large variety of plants of the leguminous and composite families. It can be seen in flower in March and April but is not as common as its name suggests. 

This article appeared in The Times on 10.03.2010

The destructive red palm weevil

The red palm weevil has been in the news since it appeared in Malta about three and a half years ago. It is a large rusty-red beetle that lives on palm trees and can kill the host plant. It is a strong flier. 

Last week one flew through my bedroom window in a locality where there are no palm trees within a radius of several hundred metres.

The red palm weevil, which has been given the Maltese name bumunqar aħmar tal-palm, came from tropical Asia from where it spread to Africa and Europe. It reached the Mediterranean in the 1980s and was first recorded in Spain in 1994. In 2006 it was found in France and in 2007 it was recorded from Malta.
The adult weevil damages palm trees through feeding but it is the larva that kills it by burrowing into the trunk.

The cause of the high rate of spread of this pest is human intervention, by transporting infested young or adult date palm trees and offshoots from contaminated to uninfected areas.

Information on Red Palm Weevil was first published in 1891 in India. This pest was first described as a serious pest of the coconut palm in 1906, while in 1917 it was described as a serious pest in the date palm in the Punjab, India.

It is considered as the most serious pest of palm trees in the world. Control is mainly through the use of pesticides although other measures such as attracting the adult insect into traps by means of pheromones are sometimes used. Pheromones are chemicals released by females to attract males.

It has been found that the most effective way to apply pesticides directly into the trees by injecting it directly into the trunk. As happens whenever pesticides are used there can be serious negative consequences to the environment. 

These chemicals leach into the soil and water killing other organisms. In other countries experiments are being carried out to assess the effectiveness of biological methods of control.

One such method is by the use of nematodes that attack the insect killing it within three days but what is effective in the laboratory does not necessarily work in nature.

This is not the only pest that arrived in Malta in the past few years. Another pest which has had serious negative consequences is the tomato leaf miner which last summer destroyed a large percentage of the tomato crop.

This article appeared in The Times 17.03.2010