Monthly Archives: May 2014

What’s That Bumblebee?

White-Tailed Bumblebee

White-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) on thistle Cirsium atropurpureum

Of all the plants in my garden, the bumblebees love the thistles the best. Even on a wet or overcast day, there is a constant stream of stripey insects burying themselves in the blossoms in a kind of ecstasy. Sometimes, they seem to faint into the flowers, resting for up to half an hour before rousing themselves and moving on. On other occasions, there will be a good-natured tussle over possession of a flower, as in the little film below, where we see a White-tailed bumblebee and a Tree bumblebee feeding together with only a modicum of pushing and shoving, and an Early bumblebee flying in part of the way through.

All bumblebees are ‘tundra-adapted’ – they evolved from insects that lived in the short summers and cold conditions around the Arctic Circle. This means that they can move around in lower temperatures than many insects, and also accounts for their endearing furriness.  Bumblebees are sturdy enough to be able to fly when it’s wet, as I noticed last week while I was standing at my kitchen door, watching the bees come and go in spite of the rain. In fact, the big danger to bumblebees is overheating, not being chilled.

This year, so far I have noticed three main species. The bumblebee below is an Early bumblebee. This creature is very distinctive, with its yellow bands and orangey-red tail.

Here you can clearly see the yellow bands and ginger tail of the Early Bumblebee (Bombus praetorum)

Here you can clearly see the yellow bands and ginger tail of the Early Bumblebee (Bombus praetorum)

Early bumblebee - note the ginger tail

Early bumblebee – note the ginger tail

This bee will only be on the wing for another month or so – after that, the nest will break up and the new queens will hibernate until next spring.

If you see an Early bumblebee with a yellow face, you are looking at a male bee. Because male bees are generally thrown out of the nest once they hatch, you will sometimes see them sleeping on a flower like a pixie. One summer night I saw half a dozen male bees, each wrapped around a lavender flower as if it were a teddy bear.

The next commonest bumblebee in the garden at the moment is the Tree Bumblebee. This is an intriguing animal – it was discovered in the New Forest in 2001, the first time the insect had been recorded in the UK, having previously been found only in mainland Europe. Now, it has been found as far north as Hull, most likely because of the change in the climate. It is unmistakable, in its livery of ginger, black and white. It is rumoured to be more aggressive than other bumblebees, but I think this is slander – the only evidence of bad-temper I have ever observed is a gently raised middle leg, which is the bumblebee equivalent of a Yellow Card.

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)

Tree bumblebee enjoying the Mock Orange

Tree bumblebee enjoying the Mock Orange

The last species that I’ve noticed is the White-Tailed Bumblebee.

White-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum)

White-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum)

This bee fascinates me because sometimes it cheats. I was sitting in the garden earlier this week (huddled in a raincoat because of the drizzle) when  I noticed a White-tailed Bumblebee gnawing a hole into one of my Hawkshead fuchsia flowers, right up where the blossom joins the stem. She then proceeded to lap up the nectar. Chances are that her tongue was not long enough to get to the food the normal way, so she broke in instead. Furthermore, she kept flying away and then returning to the injury that she had made in the flower. Of course, I don’t begrude her her illicit meal – the lives of bumblebees are so short, and so busy, that I admire her inventiveness.

Although there has been a lot in the press recently about the demise of the honeybee, our native pollinators, such as bumblebees, are also in decline. Although there are many reasons for the decline, I try to help by making sure that there are always plants which are attractive to insects in the garden. There are many schemes to help people select bee-friendly plants when they go to the garden centre, but there is in fact an even simpler way than perusing the labels – just stand and watch and listen. Some plants will be covered in bees, others will be completely ignored. I always let the bees tell me what they’d like me to buy. I guess that’s why I’ve ended up with so many thistles.

 

Wednesday Weed – Gallant-Soldier

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Gallant-Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora)

Gallant-Soldier (Galinsoga parviflora)

I am rather excited about this little plant. I discovered it drooping rather sadly from the bottom of a wall in North London, and was intrigued when I discovered that it had the enigmatic name of ‘Gallant Soldier’. It’s nothing much to look at – a small, greenish daisy with five petals and a rather straggly, dangly habit – but it is a world traveller, an escape artist, a component of a South American stew and a potential drug for high-blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Not bad for such an inconspicuous ‘weed’.

Gallant-Soldier was originally taken to Europe from the Andean regions of Peru, by a Spanish botanist called Mariano Martinez Galinsoga, hence the plant’s Latin name, and its eventual English corruption to ‘Gallant Soldier’. Richard Mabey thinks that ‘Gallant Soldier’ may be an example of typical London sarcasm – there is nothing martial or upstanding about this diffident little plant. On the other hand, as we shall see, it has ‘marched’ unobtrusively across most of the planet, setting up home everywhere from the USA to Africa.

The plant lived inoffensively enough in the Madrid Botanical Gardens for many years, and a speciman was then taken to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 1796.

Gallant-Soldier is another of those adaptable mountain plants that we’ve noticed before in the Wednesday Weed, and, sure enough, by 1863 it had broken out of captivity, and had naturalised on the pavements and wasteland of an area from Richmond to East Sheen. Gradually it advanced, until it is now found across London, and in other spots in the south of the country.

In Colombia, the plant is called Guascas, and is used in a rather delicious stew called Ajiaco Bogotano. This features chicken and no fewer than three types of potatoes. As a lover and connoisseur of potatoes myself (like most Cockneys) this sounds delicious, especially as there are small yellow potatoes, floury white potatoes and a few blue potatoes thrown in for colour. As a vegetarian, though, I would probably skip the chicken. Then, a few handfuls of Gallant-Soldier are thrown on top to give what is described as ‘a unique flavour’. Colombian ex-patriots can buy Guascas dried, but this is said to be a poor substitute for the delicious fresh herb. I find it so interesting how, again and again, a plant can be a ‘weed’ in one country, and an invaluable resource in another. As we have become more detached from the plants around us, we have become less curious about what properties they may have, and even what they may taste like.

Ajiaco, thanks to Morten Johs for the photo https://www.flickr.com/photos/mortenjohs/2503485720

Ajiaco, thanks to Morten Johs for the photo https://www.flickr.com/photos/mortenjohs/2503485720

On the other hand, the plant is said to be poisonous to goats.

The plant has since spread to Africa and to North America. In Tanzania, Malawi and other areas it is planted amongst the crops to act as an alternative host for pests and viruses. However, it maintains its meek and humble reputation here too: in Malawi, its name is ‘Mwamuna aligone’, which means ‘my husband is sleeping’ (Richard Mabey, Plants Britannica).

In 2007, a study at the University of Kwa-Zulu in Durban, South Africa, investigated a number of plants for their properties as ACE inhibitors – plants that reduce hypertension. Gallant-Soldier was found to help improve blood flow, and to also be helpful in cases of hyperglycaemia, along with other common herbs such as Wild Garlic and Fat Hen. Herbalists have always known that there are a whole range of useful plants growing around us, but we have forgotten so much of the lore of our grandparents. Sometimes, it seems as if science is ‘discovering’ things that have been known by observant ‘ordinary’ people for centuries.

The little flowers of Gallant-Soldier

The little flowers of Gallant-Soldier

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sparks Fly…

Bugwoman is scuttling off to the West Country this weekend so this post is a day early.

Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

Is it just me, or does this year seem to be powering past? No sooner have the flowers turned brown on the mountain ash than I notice the first red sparks flying above the pond. Large Red Damselflies are the first to breed, and on Sunday there were eight of them jousting above the water, their wings describing infinity signs in the warm air. I put down my tea and sat on the steps to watch. Things that seem simple are often complicated when I pay attention.
In the water, two damselflies were linked together. Once mating has taken place, the male grasps the female behind the head with the claspers at the end of his abdomen. He accompanies her everywhere, to prevent any other males from getting in on the act. This means that he sticks up from her thorax like a periscope. The female was bent almost double, her long abdomen probing below the leaves for the perfect spot to deposit each egg individually. She seemed intent on her task, focussed. There is a lot at stake – each damselfly nymph will take two whole years to grow to adulthood, and will face many dangers on the way. Making sure that the egg is placed so that it can at least avoid being eaten by water boatmen or pond skaters is the first challenge.

Large Red Damselflies Mating

Large Red Damselflies Mating

Around the pond, on the reeds and the Pendulous Sedge, other males were perched. Close up, I could see that they have red eyes, and their wings are folded alongside their body rather than at right angles like dragonflies. Every so often there was a great flurry of activity, with wings clashing and glinting in the sunlight. When a female appears, all the males try to grab her, but it seemed to me that any damselfly entering or leaving the fray was fair game, with some being released almost instantly. Whether females have a way of indicating that they’ve already been mated, I have no idea.

These damselflies have garnet-red eyes

These damselflies have garnet-red eyes

I looked again at my mating pair. They were still together. A breeze moved the leaf that the female was trying to use to provide cover for her egg, and she used her abdomen to draw it back again. There was a precision about the process, a kind of perfectionism. This was the damselfly’s only chance to get it right, and she seemed determined not to waste it.
After about half an hour, the female flew up to one of the reeds, with the male still attached. He stuck up from the leaf like a nail that needs to be knocked in. Then, he bent his body forwards onto the leaf, and gently released the female. The two of them rested for a few minutes, giving me a chance to see the difference between the sexes – a slightly plumper abdomen of the female is the main indicator. And then, the male flew up to join another mating foray, and I lost sight of him amidst all the bumping and diving.

The male damselfly preparing for another foray

The male damselfly preparing for another foray

Damselflies look so delicate, and yet they turned up at the pond within months of it being created. I know of no other large water bodies within half a mile of here, yet somehow they found my little watering hole. To anyone who is thinking about creating a pond, I would say, don’t hesitate – there is nothing in my garden that has attracted a greater variety of wildlife. I gave up my lawn to put in the pond, and have never regretted it.

Wednesday Weed – Smooth Sow-thistle

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Smooth Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

Smooth Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

Dear Reader, so far in this series we have looked at plants which are elegant (the Pendulous Sedge) or delicately pretty (Herb Robert and Herb Bennet). Today, however, we are looking at a real bruiser of a plant, the Smooth Sow-thistle. It can be distinguished from its close relative, the Rough or Prickly Sow-thistle, by its less spikey leaves, and because the way that the leaves join the stem is slightly different (for an excellent illustration of this, look here.)

The appearance of Smooth Sow-thistle is not helped by the way that no sooner has it forced its way through the concrete than it seems to be immediately set upon by all manner of other organisms. Its lower leaves are often furry with mildew, and, if you look closely, you will see that burrowing insects have taken a fancy to it too – there are  pathways where a miniscule grub has munched a path within the leaf itself.

Here you can see how something has been making a pathway inside the leaf...

Here you can see how something has been making a pathway inside the leaf…

There is one species of leaf-mining fly, called Liriomyza sonchi, that is so fond of Sow Thistles that there was some thought of using them as a biological control for the plant in Canada. This is the likely culprit for the white squiggles in the leaf photo above. Tiny grubs, small enough to fit between the layers of the leaf, have chomped tunnels and hallways until they have more or less hollowed it out. Then, they exit the leaf, pupate and hatch into a new fly, to start the cycle all over again.

The name ‘Sow Thistle’ is said to come from the way that female pigs would seek it out after giving birth. The plant’s milky sap was seen by herbalists as an indication that it would help nursing mothers, both human and animal, to increase the amount of milk that they produced. It has an alternative name of ‘Hare’s Thistle’, and it is said that there is no plant that rabbits and hares would rather eat. The lovely website A Modern Herbal   describes how ‘ ‘when fainting with the heat she (the hare) recruits her strength with this herb: or if a hare eat of this herb in the summer when he is mad, he shall become whole.’

Although Smooth Sow-Thistle looks like the quintessential garden weed, it has a long and illustrious history as a food plant. Pliny writes that, before he tackled the Minotaur, Theseus was feasted ‘upon a dish of sow-thistles’. In her book ‘Wild Flowers’, Sarah Raven describes how Rose Gray of the River Cafe would harvest the leaves of the closely related Prickly Sow-thistle for salad in March and April. It seems that it’s not just the leaf-miner who has a taste for juicy young leaves!

The Smooth Sow-thistle is one of those plants that is everywhere, but which is generally unregarded and unloved. It sits up against a wall, munched-upon and covered in fungus, and yet it is described as being useful for all kinds of inflammation, rashes, sores and ulcers (as a poultice) and as a cure for diarrhoea (when taken as an infusion, but note that it acts as a purgative).  What I am discovering is that, even here in London, I am surrounded by plants which have had a long relationship with us, and are now sadly neglected, or regarded as a nuisance. With every new plant I identify, I am finding a new sense of connection, of being (dare I say it) rooted in the place where I now live.

A Smooth Sow-thistle under attack

A Smooth Sow-thistle under attack

I’d also like to let you know about this wonderful website that was recommended to me last week. For anyone interested in Britain’s  flora, this is an invaluable resource…

Seasonal Wildflowers

 

The Brief Visitor

Swifts gathering - thanks to Meteor2017 for this photo

Swifts gathering – thanks to Meteor2017 for this photo

I saw the first one last Sunday, silhouetted against a storm-cloud. It looked austere, purposeful, as it scythed through the air in a long arc. Then, another bird appeared and the two of them flew through impossible turns and twists, shrieking all the way. There seemed to be such a heady joy in it, a complete physical mastery that animals have naturally, and that we so rarely attain.

Swifts are the last of their family to arrive from the south, and the first to leave. By the end of July, they will be gone, unlike the laggard swallows and martins who will be around for weeks. When I lived in Chadwell Heath, out in the distant reaches of Greater London, they nested under the eaves of the 1930’s houses, returning to the same place every year. When it was humid, they would roll through the garden just a metre or so above the lawn, a rumble-tumble gang of squealing hooligans scooping up the mosquitoes that were rising from the ground.

A swift feeding, by Johan Stenlund

A swift feeding, by Johan Stenlund

On cooler days I would lie on my back and watch them as they swirled and circled hundreds of metres above my head. Once I studied them for so long that the whole world became inverted, as if I was looking into the sea and gazing on tiny fish rather than looking up. The effect was so disorientating that I had to hang on to the grass for fear of falling into the sky.

A distant swift, photographed by Bas Kers

A distant swift, photographed by Bas Kers

Although the swifts were masterful, they had reckoned without my fat, fluffy cat. Bonnie looked as if butter wouldn’t melt, but one day I came into the kitchen without my glasses on, to see something wholly unexpected in her food dish. I squinted, crouched down. There was a live swift, panting.

What to do? I picked it up. Close up a swift is a scimitar of charcoal-brown feathers, a gaping mouth, bottomless black eyes. I turned it over, to see that it has almost no legs, just little feet for hanging on to the nest that they build from mud. No bird spends more of its time in the air than the swift – only the albatross, with its months of oceanic exploration, comes close. Swifts mate on the wing, and even sleep in the air like so many bobbing boats.

Swift Perched

I wondered if I could launch the swift again. I took it outside. It was a bright day, and I could hear the other swifts screaming. Would this bird hear them, try to join them? Did I have the guts to just throw it into the air, knowing that if it didn’t fly it would crash to the ground, maybe injure itself even more?

I didn’t have the courage. To this day, I don’t know if that would have been the right thing to do. I put the bird in a box, looked in the phone box, eventually found a bird sanctuary run by a woman in Walthamstow, of all places. Her tone on the phone didn’t give me comfort or hope. She briskly informed that these birds need to eat insects more or less continually, and that they do notoriously badly in captivity. Nonetheless, she was willing to try. For reasons that I can’t now remember, I couldn’t take the bird to her, so I called a taxi, explained my mission, paid him, put an envelope with some money for the sanctuary in with the bird.

The cat rubbed herself around my legs, miaowed.

‘Bugger off’, I said, even as I spooned food into the bowl that had held the swift an hour previously. I understand about the hunting instincts of cats, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. How we reconcile ourselves to the fact that our beloved cats kill birds and mammals and frogs by the hundreds every year is an individual matter, but I am glad that my current rescue cat shows no inclination to go outside.

I never knew what happened to the swift, beyond the fact of its arriving safely at the sanctuary. Part of me didn’t want to know. If I didn’t know for sure, I could look up at the swifts cutting through the air with fierce wings, and imagine that my swift was one of them, barrel-rolling through an airy sea of pollen grains and parachuting spiders, uttering its battle-cry with berserker delight.

Swift in Flight By Billy Lindblom (Flickr: Swift (Apus apus)) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Swift in Flight By Billy Lindblom (Flickr: Swift (Apus apus)) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A few years later, I met my husband-to-be, and I sold the house. We were packed up ready to move and all the documents had been signed,  but the company who were supposed to be helping us to move let us down. We were marooned, in a house that was no longer ours, but with no way to move on. The new owners were in the garden, hacking down the shrubs that I’d grown for the birds and the bees to make the space more ‘child-friendly’. I wanted to go, but when we finally found removal men who would come and rescue us, it was 5 p.m. and the move would have to wait till the next day.  The new owners were kind enough to let us stay over for one last night. We sat on their bench, in what was now their garden, amidst the debris of the pyracantha and the buddleia and the cotoneaster, and as evening fell the swifts rolled in, dozens of them, rolling and squealing, so fast and frenzied that they seemed like one continuous stream of swifthood. And so I said goodbye to my house in the company of these sky-cutters, and their bravado lifted my heart until I was ready for my new adventure, too.

Common Swifts by Bruno Liljefors

Common Swifts by Bruno Liljefors

Wednesday Weed – Herb Bennet

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum)

Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum)

As I may have mentioned before, I’m not a botanist. In order to identify a plant that has appeared in the garden, I usually have to allow it to bloom before I can even start to put a name to it. And so it was with this delicate, straggly yellow flower, which turned up for the first time this year. At first, I wondered if it was some kind of buttercup, or even a renegade yellow strawberry. But eventually I worked out that it is a Herb Bennet, or Wood Avens, a member of the rose family and closely related to the cinquefoils and, yes, the strawberries.

The name ‘Herb Bennet’ comes from the word Benedictus, so the whole plant is seen as a blessing. Hanging the plant up above your door was said to protect against evil spirits, and also against venomous snakes and rabid dogs. These virtues were absorbed into the early Christian tradition: the plant has three leaves, said to reflect the Holy Trinity, and, usually, five petals, reminiscent of the Five Wounds of Christ. I say usually because my plant appears to have six petals.

A six-petalled Herb Bennet?

A six-petalled Herb Bennet?

The roots of the plant apparently have a clove-like smell, which has been used to flavour ale, and to deter clothes moths. The root, which had to be picked by 25th March in order to retain its vital qualities,  has been used to treat everything from diarrhoea to fever to headache. The lovely foraging site Celtnet suggests using it as a pot herb, or as a clove substitute in apple pie.

Herb Bennet, like Pendulous Sedge last week, is a plant of ancient woodland. Again, I am intrigued by the way that it has turned up in the garden for the first time. The seeds of this plant are normally transported by animals:

Geum urbanum seedhead By Randy A. Nonenmacher (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Geum urbanum seedhead By Randy A. Nonenmacher (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As you can see, the seedheads are covered in tiny hooks, and these can be transported from place to place on clothing, or in the fur of dogs, cats and rabbits. So, did my plant arrive attached to a wandering cat who had previously been in Coldfall Wood, and set up home because the conditions were right? I fear I will never know, but again I wonder if the land beneath my feet remembers that less than a hundred and fifty years ago, it was a wood too. Whatever the reason, I am very happy to be hosting this little plant, with its long tradition of culinary and medicinal blessings.

 

 

 

 

 

Starling Spring

I woke up on Monday morning to a familar sound:

For me, this is an indication that spring has finally started for real. The starlings of East Finchley have fledged, and emerged from their nests in the hollow trees of Coldfall Wood, and under the eaves of the Victorian houses on the High Road. The babies are ‘parked’ in the trees while the adults find food for them. As they get a little older, they realise that there is something edible on the bird table, and so they join their parents so that they don’t have to wait.

Newly-fledged starlings being fed

Newly-fledged starlings being fed

Sometimes, the racket is unbelievable. I have counted fifty starlings in my hawthorn tree, and for a week or so it’s difficult to sleep in past first light. The babies treat the garden as a playground. Some decide to bathe in the pond:

Fledgling starlings bathing

Fledgling starlings bathing

Last year, a fledgling drowned in the pond, so I’ve added a branch to make sure that they can stay safe. But the young starlings are so naive.

Where has everybody gone?

Where has everybody gone?

An alarm call will sound, because a cat has sneaked in under the hedge, or a sparrowhawk has been spotted, but some of the babies will stay where they are, blinking and looking around without any indication of nervousness.

Last year, I was drinking some tea when I saw a scruffy jay fly past the kitchen window, holding what seemed to be an old book with its pages fallen open. Grabbing my binoculars, I saw that it had a young starling by the wingtip. The jay landed on the flat roof of the shed. The parent birds mobbed it, shrieking and flapping, but it was unfazed, ducking and peering around while the fledgling dangled, shrieking, from its beak. After a few minutes the jay dropped the struggling bird, held it down with a scaly foot, and stabbed it twice, three times with its bill. I winced. I knew that jays were opportunistic, intelligent birds, but I had never seen anything like this. As the jay started to pluck the youngster, the parents flew back to the bird table and collected more mealworms. They must have had another baby close by, maybe hidden in the bushes, and now all their efforts would be concentrated on those who are still alive. Nature is nothing if not pragmatic.

This year, I haven’t noticed any fatalities. I have seen the sparrowhawk twice, each time accompanied by a phalanx of adult starlings, shrieking at it open-billed. The sparrowhawk relies on surprise, so it is not dangerous once it has been spotted.

A hopeful youngster

A hopeful youngster

In a few weeks’ time, it will all be over for another year. The fledglings will be nearly grown, and able to feed for themselves. The noise, and mess will die down, and I will no longer need to top the birdtable up three times a day. But I will miss them. These gregarious, feisty, garrulous birds seem like quintessential Londoners to me.

I remember that, about twenty years ago, there was a massive starling  roost on the island in the middle of St James’s Park. I sat on a bench once with my mother, and we watched the birds flying in from all corners of London. They swirled and roiled in like smoke, the plumes joining together and splitting apart until they finally all settled down. This, along with the great roost in Leicester Square, disappeared years ago, after the spectacle was deemed not to be worth all the noise and mess. These days, I think you need to go to Brighton to watch anything similarly impressive, as the starlings roost under the West Pier. Our urge to tidy and to contain seems to me to make the world a smaller, less interesting place.

Starling Murmuration at Brighton Pier © Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Starling Murmuration at Brighton Pier © Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/