Country diary: tiny weevils home in on the dinky-flowered figworts

The broad rides are alive with the birdsong, buzzing bees and proliferous plant growth of spring. Deeper into the forest and the southern wood, ants become pervasive; their trails are busy with jittery traffic and easily followed back to their humped nests, surfaced with the dark bodies of the busy ants. Wood ants are rare animals in these parts, and this is one of the best places in the East Midlands to watch them.

Sprouting and spreading from the top of a hazel coppice stool is a large pale bracket fungi. It is particularly saddle-shaped, this one, a big clue to its identity: the dryad’s saddle, Cerioporus squamosus. Most bracket fungi are tough and perennial, but the dryad’s saddle, perhaps our biggest mushroom, is soft when it leaps up in spring and only achieves “leathery” while being consumed by fly larvae, and returning to the earth before the year is out.

Two very closely related plants are growing next to each other in the ride. The daintier common figwort, Scrophularia nodosa, has pointed leaves and is already in flower, while the water figwort, S auriculata, is bulkier and the flower buds are still tucked into the rising apex. These waist-high plants have dinky maroon flowers that are pollinated by wasps in return for sugar; they are also home to a suite of pretty little weevils. In this case two species are prevalent.

Clinging to the common figwort are sooty weevils with fawn epaulettes, while on the water figwort the beetles are similar but plainer and ashy. Both types have two black spots along the midline of their backs. Some books suggest that these spots assist with camouflage, resembling holes in seeds, but figwort seeds seem to lack black spots or holes. However, the cocoons that the weevil larvae will soon construct are excellent mimics of figwort seed pods.

The darker weevils are Cionus tuberculosis, while the ashy ones are Cionus hortulanus; they will both feed on either species of figwort but will also specialise locally, although in this case their usual preferences seem to have been reversed.

As I leave, a roe deer buck barks its alarm call – it is distinctively a bark, but plainer and coarser than a dog bark; he is answered by a distant buck in the depths of the wood.