Wednesday 12 November 2014

Red Autumn

I must confess, there are certain things I miss about England. Overpopulated drip-mat it maybe but if you can find a sunny, rain free day and get away far from the madding crowd there is nothing like a woodland walk in the autumn with the rich smell of humus, shades of red and golden brown all around and a little country pub with a blazing log fire waiting hospitably for you at the end.

Rock Samphire, Crithmum maritimum
Here in South East Crete we are not exactly overburdened with deciduous woodland but we are not devoid of autumn colours in November so today I thought we’d take a gentle stroll around the locality and look for some seasonal splashes of red. Here on the beach for example we have the delightful Rock Samphire starting to cast off its  golden green and don its mulberry red cloak. Leaves, as you know, contain the green pigment, chlorophyll, which converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into glucose to feed the plant. When they shut down for the winter the chlorophyll becomes redundant and is reabsorbed leaving traces of glucose which turn red and various waste products which are brown.

European Robin, Erithacus rubecula
We’ll make our way back into the hinterland and see if there’s anyone feeding at the puddles. Oh look, a European Robin. I see these occasionally between October and February and they are very shy compared to their British counterparts where they have a more sympathetic relationship with humans. Incidentally, the relationship between Robins and Christmas cards in Britain stems from the mid nineteenth century when postmen were known as Robins because of their bright red livery. Although it was the human robin who delivered the cards it was aesthetically more pleasing to depict the avian robin with a seasonal token in its beak. 

Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta
Here’s another visitor that is more prevalent in the cooler months (although I have seen one in the heat of August); the Red Admiral butterfly, the scientific name of which is Vanessa atalanta. Another common butterfly at this time of year is the Painted lady, Cynthia cardui so if you’re a Vanessa or a Cynthia you are butterflies. Although girls names taken from the natural world generally stem from flowers – Rose, Hyacinth, Daisy for example there are a few taken from the insect world. Melissa is the Greek for Honey Bee and Deborah is the Arabic. Iris, you have the best of both worlds being both a flower and the Mediterranean Mantis, Iris oratoria and Lucilla, you had a lucky escape. Those carrion loving flies the Greenbottles are Lucilia which is a bit close for comfort.

Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum (Helix aspersa)
Now, I can’t be the only one in the world who thinks that snails are pretty although I suspect that I am in the minority. Much maligned by gardeners and overlooked by most people just look at those gorgeous reds and browns in this common garden snail. Not only are they beautiful to look at their mating behavior is fascinating to watch too. Each snail is both male and female, hermaphrodite in technical terms (after Hermaphroditos, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite in Greek mythology. Hermaphroditos was a beautiful, manly youth  who became decidedly less so after an unfortunate meeting with the water nymph Salmacis). When they’re in the mood for love the snails snuggle up alongside and fire little love darts into each other. This passes the male sperm to the female eggs and both snails slip gently away, happy and pregnant.

Assassin Bug, Zelus renardii 
And finally…something a little bit special. Come back to the house and let me introduce you to a little red and green bug that turned up in my bedroom the other night.  This is the Leafhopper Assassin Bug Zelus renardii which may be familiar to American readers but unknown to Europeans. This bug is native to the New World and was only discovered in Europe in 2011 after an extensive sampling effort in Attica, Greece[1]. To have one turn up in the bedroom of an amateur naturalist like myself has a certain air of irony about it. I have, of course reported it to the relevant professionals. So, on that note I will wish you happy hunting until next week – who knows what exciting discoveries you may make?

With special thanks this week to Arto Muinonen in Finland who helped me with the identification of Zelus renardii.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


  1. Hi Steve, fab as ever. Especially as I'm now enjoying a UK autumn that's a bit soggy. Now, if I were in Crete I think I'd find the Richtis Gorge near Exo Mouliana, irresistible as I'm sure the platanos trees will be looking very autumnal. X

  2. The Richtis Gorge is a new one on me Yvonne (I had to look it up). Looks like a nice day trip, you'll have to take me down there when you get back :)

  3. Hi Steve,

    I'd just like to inform you that your photo of Zelus renardii has been mentiond/cited in my paper "Ein aktueller Nachweis von Zelus renardii (Kolenati, 1856) auf Kreta/Griechenland (Hemiptera: Heteroptera: Reduviidae: Harpactorinae)" which is available online:

    Best wishes,


  4. Thank you Torsten. I have downloaded the paper and will translate it later.

  5. You are very welcome Steve!


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