Provence – Alpes – Côte d’Azur

Last update: 22 June 2019
PHOTO REPORT: Fréjus - Valensole - Plaine des Maures - 14 till 28 july 2018

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) 

Spotted fritillary
(Melitaea didyma)

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).

Old World swallowtail (Papilio machaon), Fréjus (F)
Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata), Fréjus (F)
Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata), Fréjus (F)

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. 

Bush cricket (Tettigonidae spec.)
Bush cricket ♀︎ (Tettigonidae spec.)
Dictyophara europaea

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.

Velvet ant (Physetopoda halensis)

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….

Common blue ♀︎, laying egg (Polyommatus icarus)
Common blue ♀︎, egg (Polyommatus icarus)
Above the plain roamed the Common darter (Sympetrum striolatum), a very nice species. A bit further laid a lower area near a small stream where Keeled skimmers (Orthetrum coerulescens) foraged. What stood out with this species was that they rested most often on the ground instead of on branches or other protruding objects. That behavior led to a lot of ugly photographs!
Common darterl ♂︎ (Sympetrum striolatum)
Keeled skimmer ♂︎ (Orthetrum coerulescens)

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).

Copper demoiselle ♀︎ (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis)
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. 

White featherleg ♀︎ (Platycnemis latipes)
White featherleg ♂︎ (Platycnemis latipes)

And a male Migrant spreadwing (Lestes barbarus).

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.

Tortoise, Fréjus (F)

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.

Grasshopper (Acrididaea spec.)






Bush cricket ♂︎
(Tettigonidae spec.)
Great green bush cricket (Tettigonia viridissima)
Bush cricket ♂︎
(Tettigonidae spec.)
Also two species of blister beetles, Mylabris quadripunctata en Mylabris variabilis, were present in large numbers. Actually everywhere we came these beetles were present. They were sitting mainly in flowers eating pollen, but in some they ate the petals (Cichorieae) too. Sometimes with more then one individual per flower.
Blister beetle (Mylabris variabilis), Valensole (F)
Blister beetle (Mylabris variabilis)
Blister beetle (Mylabris quadripunctata), Valensole (F)
Blister beetle (Mylabris quadripunctata)

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.  

Clouded yellow ♀︎
(Colias crocea), Fréjus (F)
Grizzled skipper
(Pyrgus malvae), Fréjus
 

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.

Spotted fritillary
(Melitaea didyma), Fréjus (F)
Spotted fritillary
(Melitaea didyma), Fréjus (F)

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.

Small copper
(Lycaena phlaeas)

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).

Pearly heath
(Coenonympha arcania)
Small heath
(Coenonympha pamphilus)
Following this transition zone  the meadow broadened with on one side the rocky slopes with many cacti.  Within it were huge bush crickets (> 10 cm) that I could not photograph as they noticed me first and fled into the bushes.

A fox got startled by me and disappeared deeper into the landscape. The cacti housed small colonies of nice Tentweb spiders.

Fox
Tentweb spider
(Cyrthophora spec.)
The spiders construct a large 3d spherical web within which hangs a reversed funnel with the spider in it. This species always had three object hanging in the web. At first I thought it were captured prey but looking at the picture I think they are constructed and something else.

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.

Scolia hirta
Grape wood borer
(Chlorophorus varius), Fréjus
Thread waisted wasp (Sphecidae spec.), Fréjus (F)
Thread waisted wasp
(Sphecidae spec.)

Also I encounter one individual of Mallow skipper (Carcharodus alceae) on Common mallow. 

Mallow skipper (Carcharodus alceae), Fréjus (F)
Mallow skipper
(Carcharodus alceae), Fréjus (F)

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.

European paper wasp, nest
(Polistes dominula), Fréjus (F)
European paper wasp, nest
(Polistes dominula)
The above pictures of the wasnest have been made on the last visit of the meadow, and on my way out to return to the cabin. While I was shooting the wasps I noticed a small stick shooting across the ground. It was a bonus materialized in the form of a praying mantis individual, Rivetina Baetica. Very lucky.
Praying mantis
(Rivetina baetica)

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!

Carpenter ant
(Camponotus vagus)

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.

Cicade molt
(Cicada orni)
Cicade (Cicada orni), Fréjus (F)

Photogallery Fréjus

 

Cicade molt (Cicada orni), Fréjus (F)

Image 1 of 35

 

Valensole

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!!

Lavenderfield, Valensole (F)

Lavenderfield Valensole
with lovely wife
(Home sapiens var. seres-batavica, ♀︎)

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. 

 

Robberfly (Asilidae spec.), Valensole (F)
Robber fly
(Asilidae spec.)
Old World swallowtail
(Iphiclides podalirius)
Woodland grayling (Hipparchia fagi), Valensole (F)
Woodland grayling
(Hipparchia fagi)
Koningspage (Iphiclides podalirius), Valensole (F)
Koningspage (Iphiclides podalirius)

Fotogallerij Valensole

Trichodes apiarius

Image 1 of 4

Blister beetle (Mylabris variabilis), Valensole (F)

 

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.

 

Cicada (Cicada orni), Plaine des Maures (F)
Cicada
(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?! 

Tree grayling (Hipparchia statilinus), Plaine des Maures (F)
Tree grayling
(Hipparchia statilinus)

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.

Grasshopper ♀︎ (Acrididaea spec.), Plaine des Maures (F)
Grasshopper ♀︎ (Acrididaea spec.), Plaine des Maures (F)
Grasshopper (Acrididaea spec.), Plaine des Maures (F)
Grasshopper
(Acrididaea spec.)
Grasshopper ♂︎ (Acrididaea spec.), Plaine des Maures (F)
Grasshopper &#x2642
(Acrididaea spec.)

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!

Scarlet darter (Crocothemis erythraea), Plaine des Maures (F)
Scarlet darter
(Crocothemis erythraea)
Violet dropwing (Trithemis annulata), Plaine des Maures (F)
Violet dropwing (Trithemis annulata)
At the edge of the barrage a very large Egyptian locust of ±8-10 cm in size sat hidden behind a bush of Purple loosestrife.
Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium), Plaine des Maures (F)
Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium)

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!!

Praying mantis ♀︎ (Empusa pennata), Plaine des Maures (F)
Praying mantis ♀︎
(Empusa pennata), Plaine des Maures (F)
Praying mantis ♀︎ (Empusa pennata), Plaine des Maures (F)
Praying mantis ♀
(Empusa pennata), Plaine des Maures (F)

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)

Image 1 of 8

Grasshopper ♂︎ (Acrididaea spec.), Plaine des Maures (F)

 


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