During the 2018 summer holiday me and my family went to Southern France, in the neighborhood of Fréjus (Côte d’Azur). During our stay there we’ve visited numerous beautiful places but, with insects in mind, three locations stood out:
1. Campsite La Pierre Verte in Fréjus
2. Valensole Lavender fields (Provence)
3. natural reserve Plaine des Maures (Var)
This holiday there were a lot of different kinds of butterflies, dragonflies and wasps. What was remarkable was the lack of (big) beetles. There were not many beetles in general except for two kinds of Blister beetles, more on those later. Normally its my experience when abroad in the south that insect encounters include numerous individuals from this family, including some sightings of the bigger representatives in the group. This year the largest beetle encountered was the Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata). I did find a dead specimen of the Great capricorn beetle (Cerambyx cerdo) but that was it. A bit disappointing, but fortunately there were enough other kinds of spectacular observations which turned this into a very nice insect trip.
De Camping (Fréjus)
The spacious setup of the (family!) campsite harbored a lot of nature with a surprising amount of variety in flora and fauna. In front of our cabin were some Summer lilac bushes that attracted Old World swallowtail (Papilio machaon), European peacock (Aglais io) and Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata). At sunset appeared the Hummingbird hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).
These bushes were inhabited by some medium sized bush crickets with very long antennae that were attracted at night by the light inside the cabin. A soft tsjirp betrayed their presence on the ceiling.
There was also another extrordinary character roaming inside the bush that I hadn’t seen before: Dictyophara europaea. A small insect that can jump very far. Its design is remarkable, where its wings form a mask and cape. Very special. With the naked eye these features are difficult to discern as its appraximately 9 mm in size.
The cabin was located near an artificial lagoon with palmtrees of which one was in bloom when we arrived. Its clusters of flowers attracted a lot of insects among which two spectacular species: the Carpenter bee (Xylocopa), the largest bee of Europe, and the Mammoth wasp (Scolia flavifrons). That last one I didn’t know yet and turned out to be the largest European wasps, a monster of about 6cm. Unfortunately it took me some time to arrange a photo opportunity and about that time the flowers weren’t as fresh anymore and the wasps didn’t return. During the trip I’ve seen them flying around on a number of occasions but never at ease.
Its smaller brother (or sister) Scolia hirta was there as well and at least I managed to catch that one on photo.
But all things considered it’s quit remarkable to have Europe’s largest wasp and bee sitting in one tree.
I managed to collect two dead specimen of the Carpenter bee from beneath the palm tree, one of which had been used by children as a flag on their sandcastle….
A bit further from the cabin was a barren plane, that was scourged daily by the sun. Here Velvet ants of different species and in varying sizes, from smaller than 5 mm up to ±1cm, roamed the ground. Velvet ants are not ants but wasps and extraordinarily the females are wingless. The name velvet ant is very appropriate as these creatures look very fluffy, although better no touching as apparently those females can sting viciously.
The critters are very difficult to photograph as they are very active and walk around very quickly without pausing. I’ve spend a couple of hours crawling on one hand, camera in the other, following a larger individual with only one so-so photo as result.
Low near the plain surface fluttered a number of Common blues (Polyommatus icarus) of which I caught one female laying eggs and managed to photograph the egg as well. Each time a single egg was attached to a leaf of a small Lotus plant with only a few other leafs….
Between the high and low area was a central bush with numerous (bush)crickets but in the end I didn’t explore it.
Along one of the major roads through the campsite lived a large colony of Copper demoiselle (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis).
These damselflies gathered in the morning in the bushes on the red sloping rocky landscape next to the road, warming up in the morning sun. Most of them were females, approximately 30 individuals. However the road lay higher and below was the stream where more of them lived. The large amount of females was partly artificial as the males seemed to leave sooner. When I came there the following day on an earlier hour there were more males present, in an estimated ratio of 1: 5.
The females came in two color variants: with a green or a yellow-ish thorax. What I like about this species is the pitch black face and eyes, which gives it a sinister grin. The male is very darkly colored, almost black with a pinkish shine. Beautiful.
Following the stream downwards, it made a turn where a large number of White featherlegs (Platycnemis latipes) roamed.
And a male Migrant spreadwing (Lestes barbarus).
Within the water I spotted a tortoise foraging beneath some reeds… a wilde one?! Unfortunately it is a bad photo as I strartled it and it dove under as a result. But still an very nice find.
A little further down the campsite fence was broken and one could leave the site. Behind it lay a wilde meadow that was flanked by the stream on one side and a red rocky sloping landscape on the other. The red slopes had a bit of a Wild West feeling to it due to numerous cacti growing there. The meadow was inhabited by masses of grasshoppers and bush crickets in all shapes and sizes.
Within the meadow the butterflies Grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae) and Clouded yellow (Colias crocea) were present in larger numbers. That latter one tested my patience because they didn’t rest long and every time I’d made my way to one them sitting on a flow it would take off again.
There was also a colony of Spotted fritillary (Melitaea didyma), who, although brightly colored orange, became almost invisible the moment they landed. With their wings closed they expose a white surface with stripes representing grass stems and their camouflage is complete.The details on this butterfly, like the blue eyes and the bright orange antennae knobs, make it an exquisite species in my eyes.
On and around the rocky slopes lived a large number of Small coppers (Lycaena phlaeas) and some Common blues. Small coppers are a personal favorite, so it was marvelous to see so many individuals.
Between the slopes and the meadow was a transition zone with less dense and lower grasses and flowers which was the home of Small heath (Coenonympha pamphilus) and Pearly heath (Coenonympha arcania).
A fox got startled by me and disappeared deeper into the landscape. The cacti housed small colonies of nice Tentweb spiders.
This area housed a low thistle plant with green flowers that was very popular with different insect families, among which were the afore mentioned Small copper, Small heath but also nice Thread waisted wasps (Sphecidae), a beautiful Grape wood borer beetle (Chlorophorus varius) and the earlier mentioned Scolia hirta.
Also I encounter one individual of Mallow skipper (Carcharodus alceae) on Common mallow.
Near the exit/entrance a rock was laying on the ground underneath which the European paper wasp had made a nest. The wasp is delicately signatured.
Praying manti are my favorite insects, but so far I had seen only two in Europe. So encountering this one was a pleasant surprise (as it would turn out this was actually the second praying mantis encountered this trip, more on that later).
In the lower region of the campsite stood a large playground. It as well as its instruments were bordered with wooden beams. Within these beams lived multiple colonies of Carpenter ant (Camponotus vagus). I think the Dutch common name “Zwarte reuzenmier”, ie. Black giant ant, suits better in this species as that exactly what it is!
Of course this being Southern France and all, there were many cicadae everywhere. All individuals I’ve seen where Cicada orni. The trees and bushes contained their empty shells from which they came after burrowing out the ground.
Valensole is one of thé spots for visiting the Lavender fields in Southern France. The fields attract incredible amounts of insects, so many that there is a constant hum of hundreds of thousands of bees visiting the flowers. Really impressive! The most beautiful field we found by chance on our way back (and there was almost nobody?!), so unfortunately there was not enough time to try to capture all the nice things flying around there, aaaargh!!
Above the field fluttered all kinds of butterfly like Scarce swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius), Old World swallowtail (Papilio machaon), Clearwing moths (Sesiidae), Woodland grayling (Hipparchia fagi), and Gossamer-winged butterflies (Lycaenidae). There were also large Robber flies (Asilidae) of a few centimeters in size hunting honey bees.
Plaine des maureS
The natural reserve Plaine des Maures impressed me the most. A marvelous location. This unique natural reserve is the only one in it’s kind in France, and is also referred to as the savannah of France. Which gives exactly the right image in ones mind: bone-dry en ‘quiet’… albeit for the buzzing orchestra of an incredible amount of Cicada orni.
These cicadae were massed on the trees, big and small, high up but even very low near the ground in plain sight, with numbers of five or more, up to over 25!
We had found a pretty picknick spot between the trees where a large number of Tree graylings (Hipparchia statilinus) fluttered around. These butterflies display particular behavior; when they are at rest on the tree trunks their faces pointed sky-wards Always.
While we were enjoying our picknick we heard something fall on the rug, which turned out to be a dead Tree grayling?!
Wandering through the barren landscape with low bushes I encountered very nice grasshoppers. In one species I found a copulating pair, of which the brown male was significantly smaller than the greenish female.
Within the natural reserver lies an artificial lake, and on its shores patrolled a number of dragonflies species of among others the Violet dropwing (Trithemis annulata) and Scarlet darter (Crocothemis erythraea). These dragonflies have staggering colors. The Scaret darter has an incredibly deep and bright red color where the Violet dropwing is deeply wine-red colored with a magenta blush. The latter’s wing ribs are red colored as well to make the design complete. Briljant!
And while I’m photographing it, I see a butterfly fluttering between the bush in the corner of my eye. But after offering more than a glance it turned out that the Cleopatra butterfly (Gonepteryx cleopatra) was not fluttering, but frantically flapping its wings because it had been caught by an enormous praying mantis, a female Empusa pennata. I estimate her size on at least ±8 cm. What an impressive monster. the strange pinkish color combined with greyish-brown gave me the impression of rotten meat. This was the most amazing find of the entire trip for me and is my personal top 3. Wow!!
Apart from insect the reserve is known for its tortoises, but unfortunately we did not see them because we were there during the day and these creatures only emerge in the morning and at dusk.
Concluding this was an amazing location to which I will certainly return.
Photogallery Plaine des maures
Grasshopper ♂︎ (Acrididaea spec.), Plaine des Maures (F)