Dear Readers, what a strange thing it is, after 9 months of slog and a couple of weeks of intense revision, to find that the exams are all over. Whatever did I do before every minute of the day was spent looking at mitochondria or genetics or natural selection in fiddler crabs? I am suffering from post-exam ennui, but I don’t expect it to last for long.
My second exam feels as if it went well, and I managed to upload it without incident this time, which is a big relief. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the courses this year, from putting out my dough balls for the magpies (who are now paying me back by nesting in the whitebeam and being mega-noisy at first light) to measuring the number of hairy-footed flower bees on my flowering currant. I have been astonished by the amazing complexity of cells, with a highlight being motor proteins that move things about in the cell. If you haven’t looked at it already, have a look at the animation of what they do in my post here.
So, with my level 2 biology courses done I am halfway through the degree. In the autumn I will be moving on to another environmental science module (I’m hoping to do half biology, half environmental science). You can read all about it here, if you are interested. I’m certainly very excited about it, though I’ll be glad of a rest over the summer – we’re planning to get back to Obergurgl in Austria, where we haven’t been since 2019. I wonder how much it will have changed? I’ll keep you posted.
Dear Readers, I was woken up at 5 a.m. by the magpie this morning, goodness only knows what s/he was on about but as I had an exam today I could have done without it for sure. Still, the exam went pretty well I think, even though at the end I managed to upload a blank version of my answers and had a very anxious hour while the OU sorted it out (Gawd bless them). Don’t ask me what I did, but at least I found it immediately – it’s so easy to assume that there’s only one version of something, when in fact there are several laying about waiting to trip you up.
And then I wandered out into the garden to admire my climbing hydrangea, and look! There’s an ashy mining bee. I was only wondering where they’d gone yesterday, and now at least one of them is back. I wrote about them back in 2018, and there are some rather better photos of them here. How this little bee cheered me up! it reminds me of why I want to study science in the first place.
There are some rather pollen-covered bumblebees around as well, and lots of honeybees.
And then in the front garden, trying to pretend that she wasn’t conspicuous on the purple toadflax, was this crab spider. I think that the abdomen looks rather like a very small leather armchair. See what you think.
I wrote about these spiders recently too, so here I’ll just note that apparently they are most unsuccessful hunters (with a hit rate of only 3.5%), but that posing on a flower that is completely the wrong colour doesn’t actually worsen the situation. Last time I spotted a bright yellow crab spider, but this is the other common colour morph, so now I have a full set. It’s the little things that make me feel grounded and happy every time.
Dear Readers, I took ten minutes from my revision today to pop outside. Can you see what I saw? You need to peer behind the leaves right in the middle of the photo…
How about now?
And yes, the blue tits have fledged – they are hopping about all over the garden. What innocent, vulnerable little balls of fluff they are! Their parents are pretty much losing their minds, but so far they seem to be ok. The same can’t be said for the magpies – there was a right old kerfuffle the other afternoon, and this morning there were tiny black and white feathers behind the hedge. I suspect that one of the near-fledglings fell out, and that a cat made short work of the poor little thing. Still, I suppose the blue tits will be pleased, and the parent magpies are still up by the nest so I imagine someone is still alive.
There we go! Travel well, little one. May all your parents’ hard work come to fruition in the form of at least a few adult blue tits, to grace the garden next year.
You might remember my review of one of his previous books, Crow Country. And on my bedside table is his latest work, called ‘One Midsummer’s Day – Swifts and the Story of Life on Earth‘. I am really looking forward to getting stuck in, and will also probably be looking at Patrick Barkham’s new book, about the life of Roger Deakin – his most famous book was probably ‘Waterlog’ (he is credited with jump-starting the current wild swimming craze here in the UK) but I also loved his other books. So many books! So little time! And of course everything looks most desirable against a background of today’s revision, which included the many different types of photosynthesis and a quick look at water potential. Only one day to go!
And here is a piece that Cocker mentions, by John Clare. Clare was so clearly a man after my own heart. I have been known to greet an unexpected insect with much pleasure too, though I’m not sure I’d go as far as to share my sugar with them. I have cheerfully shared beer with wasps when I’ve eaten outside, though, putting it in a little dish just for them and lo and behold, they left everybody else to get on with their food in peace.
House or Window Flies John Clare 1793 – 1864
These little window dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always entertaining to me; after dancing in the window all day from sunrise to sunset they would sip of the tea, drink of the beer, and eat of the sugar, and be welcome all summer long. They look like things of mind or fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits. In many clean cottages and genteel houses, they are allowed every liberty to creep, fly, or do as they like; and seldom or ever do wrong. In fact they are the small or dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves.
And my ankle is much better, thank you for all the good wishes – the packet of frozen peas clearly did the job.
Holy moly Readers, no sooner had I ventured out for a much-needed haircut this afternoon when I found myself turning an ankle on the (admittedly very uneven) pavements outside my house. It was my right ankle (again) which I scrunched very thoroughly a few months ago, after I stood up from the sofa and keeled over because my leg had gone dead. What is going on here?
a) There is definitely too much time spent sitting hunched over a text book. Why o why do I never learn that I need to actually stand up and move about on a regular basis?
b) I need to redouble my pilates effort and get those ankles strengthened, though I suspect I’m hypermobile and so my joints are always going to be a bit of a problem. Still, nothing wrong with building up the muscles around them.
c) The menopause – apparently women have far more falls once they’re post menopausal. Whether it’s due to the change in hormones or a general tendency to become more sedentary later in life is unclear (though I do know many, many women who are way past the menopause who seem to be able to stay upright, so it’s clearly not destiny)
d) I was having some problems with numb feet, but this seems to have resolved itself over the past few months – I did lots and lots of walking in Canada and somehow it seems to have sorted itself out. There’s a hint there about what I should be doing to help myself, I think. I am still waiting for an appointment with podiatry on the NHS, but we all know that they’re struggling at the moment.
e) I hadn’t thought about it, but I should definitely get my eyes tested (though in truth I very rarely look where I’m going as, like Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans’s Fotherington Thomas, in the Molesworth books, I am often distracted.
f) And before anyone says it, I should probably get a thorough health check, though I have had a lot of hospital visits for other ‘stuff’ just lately. My persistent cough back in November sent me off down the 2-week referral cancer track – my tests for that came back clear, but I had a CT scan that spotted other interesting things, most of which have been found to be nothing. I am, however, waiting for an echocardiogram. I really miss Mum – she had every medical procedure and test that you can imagine, so she would have been a great font of support and advice. She once said that ‘getting old was not for the faint of heart’ and she wasn’t wrong.
Anyhow, I hope you’ll forgive me for wittering on. I find these falls both alarming and irritating, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can actually do something about them. Until then, back to the photosynthesis revision – I think I’m at the stage when every fact that goes into my brain displaces another one, but there we go.
Dear Readers, I am so delighted with the climbing hydrangea this year – it is absolutely smothered in flowers. A few years ago, some ashy mining bees discovered it, and spent every day gathering the pollen, but I haven’t seen them for a while. Still, by the end of this week my exams will be over (as my long-suffering regular readers know) and I’ll be able to pay a bit more attention to who is visiting it. In the meantime, I am just enjoying it.
The sparrows have now discovered my buddleia, with its banquet of blackfly, and are becoming regular visitors. They cheer me up as I raise my head from my Mann-Whitney U test ( a statistical test of difference where you don’t know if the data is normally distributed just in case you, like me, had never heard of it).
And in a corner of the back garden the mock orange is in full flower and the smell is amazing. The bumblebees enjoy it too, but they still seem few and far between. We’re due some warm weather for the next few weeks, so let’s see if things improve.
And, with apologies to anyone who thinks that these are weeds, here are some teasels. I don’t know why I love them so much – they are prickly and definitely a bit on the thuggish side. But the bees will love the flowers, and the finches will (hopefully) like the seeds, and in the meantime they look like enthusiastic little green people, dancing around with their arms raised and their hair on end.
I make no apology for including my favourite meme of all time. I can’t look at a teasel without being reminded of it. Enjoy!
Dear Readers, I am taking my nose out of my books for five minutes to talk about this very remarkable plant. I’ve long had a fascination with carnivorous plants (not entirely fuelled by Audrey the man-eating plant in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’) and in particular with those who seem to be on the edge of making the transition between purely photosynthetic and insect-eating. Recently, I read a study that suggested that teasel plants grew better when there were insects trapped in the little ‘baskets’ made by the juncture where their leaves meet the stems, and the scientific theory for a long time has been that when plants grow in nutrient-poor habitats, such as bogs they may turn to eating invertebrates to get what they need.
The ‘pool’ at the base of teasel leaves
Now, surprisingly enough the soils in rainforests are often thin and poor (one reason why many tropical trees have such wide-spreading roots), and so there are a number of carnivorous plants there too, such as pitcher plants. But how about this liana, Triphyophyllum peltatum? What is interesting is that it puts out sticky leaves which entrap small insects, in the same way that the much smaller sundew does (to which it is distantly related). However, this plant only produces them in certain circumstances, with some plants happily getting on without them. Scientist Traud Winklemann of the Leipniz University, Hannover, managed the difficult task of propagating the plant, and set out to see what it needed, and in which situations the carnivorous leaves appeared.
Bets were largely on nitrogen deficiency, as this is something that is a limiting factor in many environments. However, it turned out that what made the plant change its behaviour was a lack of phosphorous in the soil. Winklemann hypothesises that this is because phosphorous is one of the elements that is most depleted following the equatorial monsoon rains in September in West Africa, where the plant grows. Furthermore, as it grows on hillsides, the nutrients are regularly washed down the hill, away from the area where the plant lives. You can see how being able to access an alternative source of nutrients would be useful, although this would require the plant to use considerable resources in order to generate the ‘glue’. You can read the whole article here.
The ‘trap’ leaves of Triphophyllum peltatum – Photo by Traud Winklemann
I am always amazed at the adaptability of plants, and the many ways that they are able to use what’s available in their environment in order to survive. The fact that this plant is able to change its behaviour according to whether there’s enough phosphorous around or not is very impressive, and I anticipate a whole slew of future research on how exactly the plant manages it, and how it ‘decides’ that it’s time to produce a ‘trap’ leaf instead of a normal leaf or a leaf that enables it to climb through the undergrowth (this species also produces a leaf with hooks so that it can grapple its way up towards the sunlight). It often seems in science that every question that you answer opens the door for another dozen questions, but what fun to be continually learning!
I’ve revised growth hormones and cell membranes today, and my brain is so stuffed that I feel like those little guys from Mars Attacks!, a very strange film by Tim Burton. By the time that my first exam arrives I will be more than ready to let fly with some of those facts. Four more days to go!
Dear Readers, as I sit here in my office, gazing sadly at the lovely sunny weather outside, I notice a flurry of movement on my aphid-ridden buddleia. A little family of sparrows are furiously pecking at the blackfly, before moving on. Five minutes later, there are a couple of goldfinches, including a young ‘un. Then, there’s a blue tit.
Blimey, who would have thought that all those bugs could be put to such good use? I am a bit concerned, though – caterpillars and spiders would surely be heartier fare, and I seem to remember reading that birds only turn to such tiny prey when there’s nothing else about. In fact the garden is well-stocked for just such an eventuality – the hawthorn tree has been well-frequented this spring, and there are suet pellets, thought again I note that this is normally food for hungry adults rather than new fledglings. All in all it’s been a very peculiar year, as we’re now edging into drought conditions, and no doubt soon it will be hosepipe bans as far as the eye can see.
Let me know if your plants have had any avian visitors, I have a suspicion that the birds are changing their behaviour in an attempt to keep up with all this climate change shenanigans.
Today’s revision was largely Homeostasis and the Structure of Proteins, but by this time next week it will all be over and done with for another year, hallelujah! I hope you have a lovely weekend, peeps. Think of me, hunched over a hot textbook (no, not that kind of hot textbook) as you sip your gin and tonics and relax with a good book. And many, many good wishes to anyone who has young people who are in the same situation, and to the young people themselves. At least my studying is purely for self satisfaction, rather than hoping to go to uni, or to work in a particular field, even though Professor Bugwoman does have a certain ring to it (and my brain is the size of an asteroid after all this force-feeding of information).
Dear Readers, I have always felt a bit ambivalent about cut flowers. There’s something a bit wasteful about them, and about the fact that they’ll soon be dead however careful I am. However, this week there was a special offer on British-grown flowers via Abel and Cole, and in the midst of my revision frenzy I couldn’t resist. They do say that there’s only so much willpower that you can call upon at any one time, and clearly all of mine is going on keeping me in my seat and forcing me through the endless things I seem to have to get into my brain. There’s no room for saying ‘no’ to antirrhinums and sweet william and cornflowers and night-scented stock, and my second-hand jug seemed to be just the thing to stick them in. See what you think.
I read a lot about growing ‘cutting gardens’ and am always very impressed, but as my garden is north-facing, it isn’t always full of blooms (though I have to say that the mock orange (Philadelphus) is doing really well this year). My sunny front garden feels a little too small to raid, especially as it seems that the bees need all that they can get at the moment. I know some people who grow flowers as well as food on their allotments, which seems like a splendid idea, but requires a bit too much time for me to look after at the moment.
The ‘British Grown’ bit was important for me – I do appreciate that flowers grown in places like Ethiopia contribute to the local economy, but I’m never sure how much the actual growers get (though if you know of any companies that seem ethical do let me know). And then there’s the air-freight bit, which freaks me out (I do work for a climate-change charity after all). But all these things are a balance, and in these difficult times I would never judge anyone for wanting to bring a bit of colour to their lives. In the summer, though, it’s well worth seeing what’s available from closer to home. I love my flowers, and this week they have certainly hit the spot.
What cheers you up when you’re up against it? In addition to flowers, I could mention chocolate, a new knitting project, a walk around the garden or a new episode of the Great British Sewing Bee (or my new secret vice, Glow-Up). As far as the TV shows go, I love watching people being creative, and I love how the UK programmes generally show people being collaborative and caring rather than in-your-face competitive. I find it comforting, and sometimes surprisingly moving, old softie that I am. There is something very inspiring about ‘ordinary’ people creating extraordinary things.
Anyhow, back to the stomata and the turgor pressure and the transpiration. Roll on next week….
Fox and Cubs in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, June 2021
Dear Readers, how on earth can it possibly be June already? And 1st June reminds me that it’s exactly one week until my first Open University exam. Aaaargh! So much to revise, so little time. Still, there’s lots to do and see this month, and I will soon be a free woman. Here’s what I had to say for myself when I wrote this post back in December.
Ah June. It’s hard to imagine the abundance of flowers and insects and birds from the viewpoint of a dull, rainy day in late December when there’s barely a blossom to be seen. But before we know it, June will be here. This is the highpoint of the year for many creatures – if birds have been successful in breeding, their youngsters will be leaving the nest. Our gardens should be abuzz with bees, and soon it will be the longest day, before the year tilts back to a time of rest. Let’s see what it may have in store for us.
Things to Do
A lovely thing to do if you’re in London is to visit some of the ‘Open Gardens’ – these are normally private gardens that are open to the public on the weekend of 10th-11th June 2023. They include the garden at British Medical Association, which concentrates on different medicinal plants, and the Jamyang Buddhist Centre garden, which includes a café (always a splendid thing). There’s everything here from allotments to formal gardens and you can find a list of the gardens that are currently expected to be open here. Tickets (which give entrance to all the gardens) here.
It looks as if the Tower of London is opening its moat as it did last year for Superbloom, but this year the entry is part of the general ticket to the Tower of London, which will make it a bit more expensive I fear. If anyone has already been, give me a shout!
On June 13th, the London Natural History Society is organising a ‘Pot Luck in the East End’ botany walk from 18.30 to 21.30. John Swindells is leading the walk, and he really knows his stuff! The East End has some extraordinary and unusual ‘weeds’ due to its diverse history, and you never know what you’re going to find. Details here. I am also delighted that there’s a similar walk looking at ‘weeds’ in ‘The Wild West End’ on Sunday June 11th, which I expect will be equally eye-opening. In fact, you are pretty much spoiled for choice as far as LNHS walks and activities in June go, so here’s a link to the complete calendar.
I mentioned this exhibition at The British Library last month, but it looks so good that I’m including it again here. I hope to make an expedition once the exams are over.
This looks like a very interesting online talk about the history of the Great North Wood (which is confusingly in South London). Free to attend, and the quality of the talks is always excellent.
For any dinosaur fans out there, this exhibition on the Titanosaur at the Natural History Museum looks ace.
Plants for Pollinators
It really does feel as if we’re spoilt for choice in June. The RHS’s featured plant is Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina), largely because wool carder bees use the hairs on the leaves to make their nests. Male wool carder bees will patrol the plants, head-butting much bigger bees out of the way but welcoming any females. I think I will definitely grow a clump of the stuff this year.
Lambs-ears (Stachy byzantina)
Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) on lavender
The RHS also suggest Alliums (in full sun – I have some in my front-garden pots, let’s see how they get on), foxgloves, thyme (and indeed marjoram and oregano), cardoons (so glorious if you have room!) and good old-fashioned brambles.
In my garden, May is actually the peak month for fledglings, but June is also pretty crazy. In the past I’ve spotted young wrens, blue tits, collared doves, woodpigeons and house sparrows during June, and their parents are wearing themselves ragged. By the end of June, though, a lot of youngsters are fending for themselves and are even being booted out of their parents’ territories. You might notice a gradual tailing off of birdsong in the garden, but so much depends on the weather, and as we know, this is extremely unpredictable these days. Let’s hope that the caterpillars, the nestlings and the weather all contribute to a successful month.
Young blue tit in the garden
All those vulnerable young creatures mean that you may well spot more birds of prey, including buzzards riding the early summer thermals, kestrels and sparrowhawks. Jays and magpies will be showing rather too much interest in any naive youngsters too. And great spotted woodpeckers are notorious robbers of nest boxes, hammering in through the side and pulling out the chicks. Nature can be hard to watch sometimes.
Buzzard over St Pancras and Islington Cemetery
Plants in Flower
Lots! You might notice that hogweed is starting to take over from cow parsley in the woods and lanes, and lots of meadow flowers, such as meadow vetchling and meadow cranesbill are in flower now. Plus keep your eyes open for fox and cubs (first photo) – it is stunning, and one of my favourite wild plants.
In the garden the high spots are roses of all kinds, lavender, many of the hardy geraniums, borage, lilies and fuchsia. It really is a lovely month, before everything starts to look a bit tired. My most successful plant of recent years was my angelica, aka the triffid. If I don’t see any seedlings I might plant another one to flower in 2024.
My dear departed angelica.
Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For
Tadpoles may be developing legs, and some intrepid individuals may even be leaving the pond.
Have a look at any hogweed that you pass – this plant is a magnet for all kinds of beetles, including the thick-legged flower beetle, which looks like it’s been doing rather too many squats, and various kinds of long-horned beetle, plus a whole panoply of hoverflies. June is insect heaven!
Thick-legged flower beetle
Long-horned beetle to the left, thick-legged flower beetle to the right….
Young foxes are still being fed close to their den, and the adults will be looking exhausted. The days are long, the nights are short, and so foxes have to take more chances. There’s more opportunity to see them during daylight than at most times of year, especially if you’re up very early in the morning. My local greengrocer said that he would watch the vixens patrolling the streets at 4 a.m. when the food waste recycling caddies had been put out. He said they’d become very adept at opening the caddies to get at the food.
The full moon is on 4th June, and is known as the Rose Moon or Dyad Moon
Holidays and Celebrations
1st June is the start of Pride month, and also the start of Gipsy, Roma and Traveller History Month
18th June is Father’s Day
21st June is Summer Solstice, which technically starts at 15.57. It’s the longest day of the year – in Northumberland, the sun rises at 4.30 a.m and doesn’t set until 9.30 pm. Further north, there’s barely any night at all.
24th June is Midsummer/the Feast of St John the Baptist. It’s traditionally the day for cutting and drying herbs such as rosemary and thyme, and for hanging them up to dry.