Monday, October 19, 2015

The Onion Weed

Onion Weed - Asphodelus fistulosus 
The onion weed is a spring-flowering plant of the lily family. It is found in Mediterranean countries but has been introduced in many areas with a Mediterranean climate particularly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. It has also been introduced in Australia and New Zealand.

In the Maltese islands it is a rare species that can be found only in a few localities. I have seen in growing mostly on the walls of the bastions at the Argotti Batonic Gardens in Floriana and at Sa Maison Garden in Pieta’.

In Maltese it is known as berwieq żgħir.

In non-Mediterranean countries it has become a pest and measures are taken to try to eliminate it. This is a common situation where plants are introduced in areas where they are not indigenous. In Malta this has occurred with many species the best known being the Cape sorrel which in Maltese is known as the ħaxixa ngliża.

The onion weed is an asphodel. It is related to the very common species known as the branched asphodel. Both plants are very similar except for a big difference in size. The branch asphodel can grow up to 150 cm while the onion weed rarely reaches a height of fifty centimetres.  

This plant is an annual or short-lived perennial. It reproduces by seed which can be dispersed by wing water, machinery or agricultural produce. The seeds can also be carried around by mud attached to animals and vehicles.

The very common and larger branch asphodel flowers in winter and early spring. It grows in most habitats but is more common in rocky steppe. In some places, especially in areas that are regularly burnt, it can become the most common flowering plant.

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 23 April 2015, 

Mason Bees

The mason bee is common in spring. It can easily be identified by the thick layer of reddish brown hair that covers its thorax, the hairless blackish brown abdomen and reddish legs. Females have an abdominal broom. This is a structure formed by fringes of hair which is used to collect pollen.

This species is found in western counties of the Mediterranean including Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Malta as well as North African counties as far east as Libya. In Italy it is restricted to southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia.

In Maltese the mason bee is known as naħla tal-koppla because of the rounded structure of its nest which looks like a church dome.

Mason bees are solitary bees but at this time of the year several can be seen close together on the ground especially in rocky areas, collecting gravel and small stones which they use to build their nests.

Females the building material collected from these places and cement it by mixing it with a secretion from their labial glands to form a mud. The mud is used to build rounded nests which are attached to walls or rocks. The labial secretion makes the dried mud impervious to water and the nest can last for many years.

The internal structure of the nest consists of several elongated cells which are filled with honey and pollen. An egg is laid in each cell. The larva forms a pupa which overwinters inside the nest. The adult bee emerges in early spring to start nest building and to collect pollen from flowers

The mason bee belongs to a family known as megachilid. Most bees belonging to this family are known either as mason bees or leafcutter leaves depending on the material they use to build their nests. A small number of species which collect plant or animal hairs and fibres are known as carder bees.

About fifteen species of megachiclid bees are found in the Maltese islands.
Megachiclid bees are inefficient pollen collectors. They have to visit several plants to collect sufficient pollen for their needs and this makes them very important pollinators. 

This  article was published in the Times of Malta on 16 April 2015. 

Every bird shot in spring is one nest less

Turtle dove
There a many reasons for voting no in next Saturday’s referendum one of the main ones being that those who do not hunt want to be able to visit the countryside at the best time of the year without feeling threatened by the presence of thousands of hunters who behave as if they have an exclusive right to be in the countryside.

There is above all another reason which we should not forget; the protection of turtle doves and quails when they are on their way to breed.

These two species have been hunted in many parts of Europe for centuries. In the past animals were hunted to augment the amount of meat available to eat especially for country people who could not afford to buy other sources of protein.

With today’s high standard of living nobody needs to hunt to have meat on the plate. Hunting is carried out solely for pleasure to which there are alternatives such as bird watching and bird photography.

The hunting of birds is no longer necessary especially in spring when every bird is about to breed. Every bird shot in spring is one nest less. If Maltese hunters were not blinded by their obsession they would realise that they should stop killing turtle doves.

The population of turtle doves is decreasing. Since 1970 declines occurred in up to 60% of the countries for which trends are known and the declines are continuing.

Maltese hunters who have been hunting since the 1970s or early eighties are fully aware of this decrease in numbers. Thirty years ago turtle doves used to migrate in large numbers. 

Nowadays the turtle dove is not common at all. Hunters try to justify their pastime by saying that they shoot only ‘small’ numbers of turtle doves but do not say that they shoot fewer birds than they used to because year after year the number of migrating turtle doves is less and less.
The alarm bells have been ringing for many years. Hunters should have taken their heads out of the sand a long time ago and since they did not the time has come for all responsible Maltese citizens to make them stop this destruction before it is too late.   

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 9 April 2015.

Collared Dove

The collared dove is a regular breeder in the Maltese islands. It bred for the first time in 2003 at Santa Marija Estate in Mellieħa. Now it is breeding in many other areas. It builds its nest in trees close in urban areas, often close to buildings. The best places to see collared doves are at San Anton Gardens and the President’s kitchen garden, the Addolorata Cemetery, Buskett Gardens, and at the Għadira Nature Reserve and surrounding fields.

In Maltese the collared dove is called gamiema tal-kullar because it is closely related to the turtle dove which in Maltese is called gamiema.

Collared doves have a long breeding season and remain faithful to each other. At this time of the year they are busy courting and building their nests. During courtship the male climbs vertically close to a female and then glides downward in a circle holding the wings held under the body in the shape of an inverted V. At this time you can also hear collared doves cooing, a sound that in some places has become synonymous with spring.    

The collared dove is non-migratory but has been expanding its range since the beginning of the 20th century. It first appeared in Eastern Europe and by 1945 it reached Germany and in 1956 bred for the first time in Great Britain. By the end of the last century it was breeding throughout North Africa.

Although the collared dove is closely related to the turtle dove they differ from each other because while the collared dove is a resident species the turtle dove is fully migratory and flies all the way from Europe to Africa and back every year. They also differ because the collared dove breeds close to buildings where hunting is not allowed while the turtle dove prefers more rural habitats where shooting is allowed.

Because of this the turtle dove has never become a breeding bird and although it has tried to breed several times it never managed to so because of spring hunting.

This aricle was published in the Times of Malta on 2 April 2015.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The scarlet pimpernel is a small indigenous plant with beautiful red or blue flowers. It is found in central and southern Europe, in North Africa and in western Asia. It has been introduced accidentally or as a decorative plant in many places including North and South America, Central and East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Australasia the Pacific Islands and South Africa. In some areas where it has been introduced it has become a pest.

In Malta the pimpernel flowers from March to May. Further north it flowers later in spring and in some areas it remains in flower throughout most of the summer. The flowers grow singly on a thin stalk. The flower is made up of five petals with a small purple spot at the bottom part of the petals which form a circular shape at the centre of the flower. 

The flowers are very sensitive to light. They open up only after the sun is bright enough and close down as soon as the sun disappears behind a cloud. The plant has been called the poor man’s barometer, the poor man’s weather glass and the shepherd’s clock although I doubt whether it has ever been used to tell the weather or time as it is much easier to look up at the sky and check whether the sun is shining than looking at the ground to check if the tiny flowers are open or closed.     

In Maltese the pimpernel is known as ħarira ħamra or ħarira kaħla although the second name is nowadays being used for another very similar species whose flowers are always blue.

The English name comes from a late Middle English word which itself comes from the Middle French word pimpernelle meaning small pepper.

In the past the pimpernel was used medicinally as a diuretic, and as an expectorant and to relieve depression. It is toxic to livestock and can be poisonous. 

The plant is the emblem of Emma Orczy’s fictional character Scarlet Pimpernel, an aristocratic hero who rescued condemned victims from the guillotine during the French Revolution. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 26 March 2015.  

Bay Laurel

There can be no doubt that the bay laurel is an indigenous tree. Fossilised imprints of its leaves have been found in Pleistocene deposits, that is, rock formations from the Ice Age period. They formed thousands of years before the first humans arrived in the Maltese islands and so they could not have been brought over by humans.

The bay laurel is an evergreen tree with dark green leaves and light yellow flowers. It flowers from February to April and although it is already mid-March do not be surprised if you find trees that are not yet in bloom. The persistent wintery weather seems to be causing trees and plants to flower later than usual.

In Maltese the bay laurel is known as sigra tar-rand.  It is found in maquis habitat but very few wild specimens are left in nature. A good number have been planted in gardens and public areas but more should be planted. It is much better to have an indigenous tree than an alien species growing in the countryside.

Indigenous trees  are well adapted for local conditions and provide food and shelter for indigenous fauna thus helping to maintain a rich biodiversity. Alien species take up space that would be much better utilised by native trees. They do not provide a habitat for many species of animals and so can be called a faunistic desert.

Moreover indigenous species often have a rich cultural legacy which is a result of centuries of interaction between humans and nature.

The bay laurel is used in medicine and cooking and is a well-known symbol. The leaves are used to flavour Mediterranean soups and stews. In Malta it is an important ingredient of rabbit sauce.

In Classical times the Greeks used laurel wreaths to symbolise victory and to bestow a high status on the person wearing it.

Bay laurel is also used medicinally. An essential oil produced from it is used in massage therapy to alleviate arthritic and rheumatic pain. Laboratory studies have shown that high concentrations of a chemical extract can inhibit skin cancer cells from proliferating.  

This article was publshed in the Times of Malta on 19 March 2015. 

A New Spring

This year it seems that spring will be coming late. At this time of the year the sun normally shines much more often and the temperature on average is higher. When spring finally arrives it will no doubt be welcomed with open arms.

This spring could be also be welcomed for another reason. If the referendum against spring hunting results in a majority voting no many would be welcoming a new spring for Maltese nature.

A no vote will stop the killing of turtle doves and quails on their way to breed.
Protected birds will be able to continue on their journey from their wintering grounds in Africa to their breeding areas in Europe without being shot and everybody will to see more in the countryside.

A no vote will also mean that the Maltese and visitors will be able to visit the countryside without being intimidated by gun wielding bullies and without fearing being hit by pellets.
A no vote will bring about the anarchy that requires a large number of policemen to bring under some semblance of control.

No other country allows the shooting of turtle doves and quail in spring and by voting no the Maltese will align the Maltese islands with the rest of Europe.

Since the start of the referendum campaign the hunters have been noticed by their absence. They are hiding themselves hoping that we will forget what the vote is really about.

They got themselves a spokeswoman to convince us to vote yes or to lull us into not voting. This is nothing but a real life version of the Biblical story about the wolf that covered itself in a sheep skin to gain the trust of the shepherds.

If the hunters’ ruse succeeds on the 12th of April they will throw off their skin and all hell will be let loose. The annual killing of migrating birds will start again with impunity.

The only way to bring about this new spring is for a majority of the Maltese voters not to be lulled into compliancy and on the 11th of April to vote no.

The April 11th referendum is an opportunity to vote in a new spring. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta  on 12 March 2015. 

Mediterranean Painted Frog

February seemed to be wetter than usual. It rained most days and by the end of the month I was hearing a lot of people complaining that they were fed up of the rain even though they all knew that in this country we should welcome every drop of water.

Rain water percolates through the limestone to replenish the over-extracted water table. It also forms streams and rivulets that occasionally rush and at other occasions meander through the valleys.

Rain water collects behind dams built in valleys allowing farmers to water their crops during the drier months. It also fills in the innumerable depressions in rocky areas providing habitat for several aquatic plants and animals such as the Mediterranean painted frog.
The Mediterranean painted frog is the only indigenous amphibian in the Maltese islands. Although this species can be found in other parts of the Mediterranean the race found in Malta is found only here and in Sicily.

This species of frog is protected by European and local legislation. It is illegal to catch or in any way disturb this species without permission. The frog needs all the protection it can get but listing it as a protected species is not enough.

To protect it properly and effectively one needs to known as much as possible about its biology and ecology. One has to know the size of its population, whether it is increasing or decreasing and one has to monitor its habitat and important breeding sites. 

Up to a couple of decades ago one could see many children collecting frogs and tadpoles from Wied il-luq in Buskett, Chadwick Lakes and. Frog catching is not widely practiced anymore but we now need to move a step ahead.  

Being close to nature and viewing animals closely is good in many ways and if done properly it instils a love for nature and subsequently it would give rise to a strong conservation ethic and to future environmentalists.

One way for this to happen is for all schools to create nature areas in their grounds. These areas should provide habitats for indigenous species of flora and fauna. These areas should include a wild-life pond in which one introduces plants and animals including frogs.

If every school had to have a nature area, Malta would have many more children who would become more aware of the natural environment. These sites would also create a network of habitats for nature throughout the islands. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 5 March 2015.  

Carob Trees are in Peril

The Plant Health Directorate last week issued a statement to inform the public that carob trees are falling victim to a beetle known scientifically as Apate monachus and in English as the black borer.

This beetle species is native to Africa from where it has spread to many parts of the world including the Mediterranean region.

It attacks several specie of plant including grapevine, peach, apple, pear, avocado and ornamental trees. In the Mediterranean it has been found feeding mostly on pomegranate and carob trees. The damage is caused by adult beetles which bore into the living wood to feed. The larvae live in dead wood and do not cause any damage to living trees.

The black borer is not a new arrival in the Maltese islands. It was first recorded in 2004 and has been recorded regularly since then. It is a nocturnal species and most of the records are of specimens attracted to light in the north of Malta.  

This beetle is one of several beetle species that arrived in Europe and in Malta from other parts of the world. The most notorious of these are the red palm weevil and the mulberry long-horned beetle both of which are alien pests which caused considerable damage to trees. 

The carob tree is not indigenous to the Maltese islands. It was probably brought to the Maltese islands thousands of years ago and has become one of the most common trees, especially, in agricultural areas.

In the past it was cultivated for the pods which were fed to livestock especially horses, sheep pigs and goats.

Carobs have decreased in importance as they no longer provide fodder. Farmers do not plant it anymore and many old specimens have been uprooted to give way to roads and buildings but the disappearance of the carob tree from the Maltese countryside would change completely the Maltese landscape and the way we think about nature.

Land would look more barren especially in summer when carob trees create a patchwork of green in a land that has been parched dry by lack of rain and scorching sun.

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 26 February 2015.

Mediterranean Cowry

Visiting the beach after storms can be very rewarding. Waves can throw up interesting creatures and deposit them on the sand or in rock pools. A few days ago while looking in a rock pool at Pembroke I found a Mediterranean cowry trapped inside.

This species of cowry has very specific needs and would definitely have died in the pool after a few days so after photographing it I threw back to the sea from where it had come.
The Mediterranean cowry is not easy to find. It does not like light and spends the daylight hours hidden under a rock or in a cave.

Not much is known about its feeding habits. It feed on sponges possibly on just one species – the yellow tube sponge. 
This species is restricted to the Mediterranean Sea and to those parts of the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to it namely along the Cape Verde, the Azores, and the Canary islands and West African coast south to Senegal and Angola.

Cowries have very shiny shells which have fascinated humans by their beauty. In many parts of the world they were used as jewellery and as currency.

The Mediterranean cowry is one of several species of cowries that can be found in the seas around the Maltese islands.

In the Maltese islands Mediterranean cowries were used to cure ringworm. A live cowry was dipped in oil and then rubbed on the affected part of the skin while a few lines that sounded like an incantation were recited. If a live cowry was not available a shell was dissolved in vinegar or lemon juice and the resulting liquid spread over the affected part.

In Maltese the Mediterranean cowry is known as baħbuħa tal-għajnejn. Għajnejn could mean a pair of eyes because of the cowry’s shape but more likely it refers to a belief in the ability of this mollusc to protect against the evil eye.

Many years ago in Tunisia I saw a young girl who had a cowry attached to her shirt with a safety pin. When I asked her why she was wearing the shell she replied that her mother put it there to protect her from the evil eye (għajn).

In Malta a caged blue rock thrush (merill) was sometimes protected from the evil eye by placing a cowry in its cage. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 19 February 2015.

Along Came a Green Spider

The green spider is an indigenous member of the huntsman spider family. This family got its name because of its fast active hunting habits.

It is characterised by its bright green colour which perfectly camouflages it in the green vegetation in which it lives. Females can grow up to 14mm while males do not exceed 9 mm.

In Maltese it is called known as brimba ħadra which I assume is another name given by naturalists as like many species that are not common it does not have a popular Maltese name. The green spider is found around the Mediterranean and in Central Asia. In Europe it can sometimes be found further north including in Great Britain where it has been introduced.

Adult green spiders can be found in the Maltese countryside as early as mid-winter. They lay eggs in February which hatch within one month. The female shelters herself by tying the edges of a large leave together and spins a cocoon inside. She then seals herself in the cocoon to protect herself and her eggs. While inside the cocoon she does not feed. When the eggs hatch the spiderlings are immobile and remain so for about a week when they change their first skin. 

They then leave the nest to start hunting independently.

At this stage the adult female spider dies although sometimes she survives for some more time.

Further north, where winters are colder than in Malta the adult spider appears in late winter and the young hatch in early spring. 

The huntsman family of spiders consists of more than a thousand species most of which are found in warm temperate and tropical parts of the world. They do not build webs and hunt for other insects and other invertebrates running up and down vertical faces and down walls. Like most spiders they immobilise or kill their prey by injecting it with venom.

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 12 February 2015.

The wood blewit is a scarce mushroom that grows under both coniferous and deciduous trees in places such as Buskett and the Simar Nature Reserve in Xemxija. It is a saprophytic species that feeds on the fallen leaves of trees.  

Like most other mushrooms, wood blewits appear after the autumn rains but continue to be found in winter long after other mushroom species disappear.

This species is found in Europe and North America and has been also been introduced in Australia where it is increasing in number.

Wood blewits are edible and are widely collected and cultivated in many parts of Europe where they are generally much more common than they are in Malta which lacks large tracts of woodland. They are very popular in France, Spain and Portugal.

 They have a faint smell of aniseed and a pleasant taste especially when cooked. Some individuals are allergic to wood blewits which can give rise to indigestion and more serious problems especially but not only if eaten raw.

The wood blewit was first described scientifically by the French physician and botanist Jean Baptiste Francois Pierre Bulliard in 1790. Jean Baptiste dedicated much of his time to describing mushrooms managing to add 393 species to the important science of mycology.
The wood blewit varies in colour from lilac to purple-pink. It usually becomes darker and flatter as it becomes older. Wood blewits can be boiled to make a green dye.

Wood blewits can be propagated by placing the fruiting body (the part we see above ground) in a jar full of hardwood sawdust. After some time the fruiting body can be removed and one just have to wait for mycelia which look like very thin roots to start forming. Once the mycelia start to form the whole thing can be placed in leaf-rich compost outside and one just have to wait for the mushrooms to appear above the ground.  

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 5 February 2015. 


Where have the flamingos gone?

Last November I wrote an article about a pair of immature flamingos that were released at the Ghadira Nature Reserve in early September. The two birds landed in Malta because they were too weak to continue with their journey south with the rest of the flock. They were picked up by BirdLife Malta volunteers and released in the reserve.

The two flamingos were doing very well. They spent most of the time walking with their head close to the water feeding. They were never far apart from each other and it was easy to imagine that they were in love and that they would breed in the reserve once they became adults.

The pair of flamingos was the highlight for the hundreds of school children and families who visited the reserve during the past five months. 

Alas, the flamingos are no longer in the reserve. On Saturday morning the birds were not to be seen. A search around the reserve provided evidence that there was a break-in during the night. Everything indicated that somebody entered the protected area to get the birds. The storm that was blowing made it easy for whoever it was to enter the reserve without being detected.

The argument that the two birds could have left the reserve does not hold water. Birds do not normally choose to migrate on stormy nights. Secondly, it is not a coincidence that somebody broke into the reserve on the same night that the two birds disappeared. A hunters’ association said that some of its members saw the two flamingos migrating. I do not believe this.

The disappearance of the two flamingos was a repetition of the same old story. Every time an interesting bird decides to spend some time in Malta it ends up a stuffed trophy in somebody’s cabinet. Whoever entered the reserve did not only disturb or kill protected birds. He also robbed hundreds of visitors to the reserve the pleasure of watching two beautiful birds.

I hope that the police will soon find out whoever broke into the Ghadira Nature Reserve and if found guilty he is punished severely enough to deter anybody who is tempted to break the bird protection laws.

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 29 January 2015.

Rockin' Robin

The robin is one of the most common birds wintering in the Maltese islands. It is well known and probably easily recognised by everybody. It is also very tame and regularly visits gardens even in the most built up areas.

Up to a couple of decades ago robins were ruthlessly trapped by thousands of boys and men of all ages. To catch them they exploited the fact that robins are very territorial birds. Each robin takes up residence in a patch of land and defends it against all other robins. 

The characteristic orange breast, song and call evolved to help them to establish and maintain their territory.

The song and call are enough to inform other robins that a particular area is already occupied by another robin. If a robin ignores the audio warning and does enter into an occupied territory, it is confronted by the territory’s own robin. Here the orange breast is used to full effect. If this still does not work it launches itself against the intruder and attacks it.

Robins used to be trapped by being tricked into attacking a robin placed in a cage trap called trabokk in Maltese. If it was the beginning of the trapping season and no robin were available to be used as a decoy they placed a red cloth or a halved pomegranate fruit inside the trap. Each and every trapper caught several robins every season. Most of them died within a few days or weeks because being insectivorous birds they could not live in cages.

Luckily robin trapping is a thing of the past thanks to years of educational campaigns that thought children that it was much better to enjoy robins in the countryside than to trap them. 

Slowly attitudes changed and today children would not recognise a robin trap if they saw one.

Since the trapping of robins stopped Malta became a safer place for the robin and it became possible for everybody to enjoy the sight and song of this bird. On April 11th the Maltese will be called to make Malta even safer for birds by voting against the hunting of turtle doves and quails when these birds are on their way to breed. This is an opportunity not to be missed as each and every citizen will be able to take positive action for birds. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 22 January 2015.

The fagonia

The fagonia is a Mediterranean flowering plant species found in most countries from Spain to Lebanon along both the northern and southern shores of the sea.

It grows in dry, stony and rocky habitats, garigue, often on calcareous soils. In Malta it is rare as it is restricted to the clay slopes along the north western coast of the island of Malta. It is not found on Gozo.

In Maltese it is known as fagonja. This name is derived directly from its scientific name Fagonia cretica from which even its English name is derived. This indicates that this species probably did not have a folk name because the people were not familiar with it because of its rarity.

 Its bright magenta flowers appear in spring usually between March and May but this year it is already in flower possibly because of the warm days we have been having this winter.

The fagonia belongs to the caltrop family. The name was given because of the shape of the fruit of members of species belonging to this family. A caltrop is an antipersonnel weapon that had two or more sharp nails positioned in a way that when the weapon is thrown on the ground one of the nails always points up. Caltrops were used to stop or slow the advance of horses, elephants and humans. Nowadays caltrops are used to stop vehicles with pneumatic tyres.

The only other member of the caltrop family in the Maltese islands is the Maltese cross which is known in Maltese as għatba. This is a scarce plant of dry open habitats which got its name because its fruit resembles a Maltese cross and because of this in the past it was erroneously said to grow only in Fort St Angelo although it probably did grow inside the fort as it is still found mostly in disturbed habitats in the harbour area.

As with other members of the caltrop family the Maltese cross has five-spiked fruit which when stepped upon by an animal it becomes embedded in its foot, an ingenious way of dispersal which can be painful to those animals helping in its dispersal. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 15 January 2015


The wolfbane is an indigenous shrub found mostly in North Africa but which can also be found in other parts of the Mediterranean particularly in Sicily, Crete, Syria and on some Spanish islands.

In Malta it is usually found in maquis, and garigue habitats. In some localities the wolfbane is very common but as it is not widespread in the Maltese islands it is considered as a scarce plant. I have recently seen it at Għar Lapsi, in the vicinity of Ċirkewwa and at Park tal-Majjistral.
The wolfbane is well adapted for dry habitats. It is a deciduous plant with small thick leaves. The leaves store water while reducing transpiration.  But, as in dry habitats storing water in the leaves and reducing water loss is not enough, in summer the wolfbane loses its leaves and goes to sleep. This is in contrast with deciduous plants which live in colder climates which lose their leaves in winter when the ground is froze and because of this they cannot take up water through their roots.

The flowers of the wolfbane are very unusual. To describe the flower accurately one would have to use technical terms which are unintelligible to non-botanists. The flower looks like a five armed star with five curled tendrils growing from the base of the arms. The base colour is pale green which is painted over by a wine colour which varies in amount and intensity from plant to plant.

The flowers appear at the end of autumn and the plant continues to flower until the end of winter. The seeds are also interesting. The seeds are produced in pairs of horn-like structures which break open in summer. Each seed has several fine white silk-like hairs at one end. The threads are very light and easily away by the wind taking the seeds with them. This helps the seed to disperse far and wide and partly explains how this plant can spread quickly from one area to another if the conditions are right.

The hairs attached to the seeds gave rise to the wolfbane’s Maltese name - siġra tal-ħarir which means silk tree.

The wolfbane used to be a protected species as it was a rare plant. Its scarcity was probably due to grazing by sheep and goats but as it is now more common it has been removed from the protected-species list.  

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 8 January 2015. 

The ichneumon wasp

The ichneumon wasps are solitary insects. They are parasites and parasitoids of other insects especially of butterflies and moths. The difference between the two types is that parasites live in or on other species feeding on them without killing them. Parasitoids end up killing their host.

There are even some ichneumons which are hyperparasitoids that is they are parasitoids of parasitoids. These have very complicated life cycles which are difficult to study and unravel.
The ichneumons are well adapted to live on the caterpillars of butterflies and moths and play an important role in controlling their numbers. Some species have been recorded as living on other insects including beetles, aphids and spiders.

Being hymenopterans ichneumons share many features with sawflies, bees, wasps and ants.
The ichneumon family is a species rich family with over 36,000 species. Just twenty nine species have been recorded in Malta although many more are bound to be discovered as few studies of this family have been carried out in the Maltese islands.

This is understandably a diverse group of insects. They vary in size from just three to one hundred and thirty millimetres long. Most are slender with the females having a long ovipositor which is used to drill into the host and to lay eggs inside its body.

While some ichneumons lay their eggs in a wide variety of host species others are very specific and target just one or two related species. Some of the latter species are used as biological control agents. These controlling agents are bred specifically to be released in areas where its host species has become a pest. Biological control systems replicate nature and for them to be successful pesticides should not be used as these could kill both the pest species as well as its controlling agent. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta  on 1 January 2015

The Devil's Coach Horse

The devil’s coach-horse is an unusual looking beetle as unlike most other beetles it’s wings do not completely cover its abdomen.

It is a relatively large beetle common throughout most of Europe, including Malta, but not often seen as it spends most of the day hidden under a stone or under vegetation and is active mostly during the night.

It is a predatory species hunting invertebrates such as worms and woodlice and carrion. It seizes its prey in its strong jaws and uses its front legs to cut off pieces of flesh which it masticates into a bolus before swallowing it. Having a devil’s coach-horse in your garden is good as like other predators it helps to keep pests under control.

I have not found any information about the biology of this species in the Maltese islands. In the rest of Europe in autumn it lays eggs in the soil which hatch about one month later. The young live mostly under the soil surface. Their feeding behaviour is similar to that of the adults.
In Irish mythology the name devil’s coach-horse ate sinners and could cast a curse by raising its abdomen.

In Maltese the devil’s coach-horse is known as Katarina-għolli-denbek (Catherine raise your tail). The name comes from this insect’s habit of raising its abdomen like a scorpion when it feels threatened. This habit has given rise to another English name, cock-tail while its association with corruption and the devil gave rise to other names such devil's footman, devil's coachman and devil's steed.

The devil’s coach-horse belongs to the rove beetle family, a large family represented in Malta by about one hundred and seventy species including one known in Maltese as kappillan.

The devil’s coach-horse does not sting but it has strong pincer-like jaws with which it can bite if handled from the wrong end. It also has a pair of glands on its abdomen which they emit a odorous liquid strong enough to warn potential predators to back off.  

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 18 December 2014.

The Orinetal Hornet

The oriental hornet is an indigenous wasp that can be found in southern Europe and North Africa, the Middle East and further east as far as India and Nepal. It has also been introduced in other countries such as Mexico, Madagascar and parts of ChinaIn central and northern Europe it is replaced by the common hornet.

Specimens can be anything between 25 and 35 mm long. Compared to other local wasps the oriental hornet is relatively large although it is dwarfed by tropical species such as the giant Asian hornet.
The large size of the hornet can be frightening. If they feel that their nest is threatened by an animal or person moving within two or three metres of their nest they will sting but otherwise they are safe and they have been called the gentle giants.

A single hornet can sting multiple times and although the sting may be painful, for those who are not allergic to bee and wasp venom, their sting is not more dangerous than that of the honey bee.

Up to fifty or sixty years ago hornets were relatively common in Malta and Gozo. It then started to decrease probably because of a number of factors foremost amongst which was human persecution. Country people used to destroy its nests whenever they met them.

A friend of mine who is in his seventies recalls helping his father to stuff the opening of a nest with paper and setting them on fire to destroy the colony. Such an attitude is not restricted solely to the Maltese islands. In parts of Europe the common hornet has decreased and in some areas it is endangered. Hornets are probably the only insects that have become endangered because of human persecution.

Luckily this species did not become extinct in the Maltese islands. A small number of colonies continued to exist in Gozo and one or two colonies survived in Malta. In the past few years the number of colonies in Malta started to increase with colonies established in new localities.

This summer some local media gave sensational coverage to the discovery of a colony in Malta which led to its destruction. It is a pity that such attitudes continue to exist in this day and age. In some parts of Europe including Germany hornets are legally protected and one may not destroy or damage a nest without permission from the competent authorities.  

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 11 December 2015.