The Long Hot Summer

Shed London Plane Bark

Dear Readers, as I was walking home from East Finchley Station earlier this week, I was hit on the head by a chunk of bark from a London Plane tree. No damage was done, but it did get me thinking. As you might know, London has been in the grip of a heat wave for the past six weeks – there was one brief thunderstorm while I was in Austria, but apart from that everything is bone dry. What, I wondered, was the effect of these hot, dry conditions on the plants and animals in East Finchley? And so, smothered in Factor 50 and clutching my camera, I headed out to find out.

Superficially, the plane trees on the High Road are looking splendid as always.

And it’s at this point that I wish I paid more attention when conditions were normal, for what I’m going to write on this page is much more anecdotal than scientific. The plane trees do seem to have shed a lot of bark, but is this usual for the summer, or is it a sign of stress? And if it’s stress, is it simply lack of water, or has the hot weather increased the amount of air pollution – bark shedding is the way that the plane tree gets rid of noxious substances.

I take a little trip through Cherry Tree Wood to see what’s going on there. Last time I was here, the Cow Parsley was in full flower. Not any more.

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) seedhead

The fallen stems criss-cross the understorey in the wood. Soon they’ll be providing hibernating places for solitary bees, and fertilising the forest floor.

And blackberries are ripe before the end of July. This autumn fruit has taken advantage of the warm weather to get a move on and ripen. I ate a few handfuls, even though they were surprisingly tart. That’ll teach me to be greedy.

Blackberries, already ripe

The ground is baked hard, making it difficult for any creatures that eat worms. No wonder the mealworms that I put out in the garden are so popular.

Many of the young ash trees are losing their leaves already – once trees are established, their roots can tap into very deep water, but saplings rely more on surface water. All the more reason to water any young street trees on your street, folks! I am off out to water the Amelanchior canadensis that was planted a year or so ago as soon as I’ve finished writing this piece.

Ash grove

An established oak tree has more access to water. It has survived worse than this drought.

The cleavers has turned into corn-coloured lace.

Cleavers (Gallium aparine)

I pop along to the bird-cherry trees to see how the ermine moth caterpillars are doing. They’ve pupated, and are all cuddled up together in their little white cocoons. I couldn’t see any holes indicating that they’ve emerged yet, so I put the cocoons back where I found them.

Bird cherry ermine moth cocoons

The trees are showing their stress in other ways too, besides wilting and shedding bark: many leaves are under insect attack, a sure sign that their defences are not as strong as usual.

In good news, however, I have never seen as many butterflies and moths as this year. My garden has featured about 12 species so far, and the buddleia outside is being regularly visited by bees and butterflies. It is very important to water these plants even if you don’t water others – if the plant doesn’t have enough water, the nectar will dry up. As bees and butterflies get both food and water from nectar, it’s vital that they have access to it.

There have been a number of pieces in the press about feeding bees and butterflies with sugar water – in fact there was a fake David Attenborough page on Facebook recommending a strange device made out of bottle tops. My general advice is: don’t. It’s great to provide plain water for insects, preferably in a shallow tray filled with pebbles so they don’t drown themselves. Nectar is a very complex substance, but many insects will collect sugar water in preference because we make it easy for them to harvest, with a detrimental effect on the larvae back in their nests.

The only exception is if you find a ‘grounded’ bee – sometimes they run out of energy because they can’t find enough ‘fuel’ in the form of nectar. Early in the season you will sometimes see freshly emerged queen bees on the pavement, unable to fly, and in this case you could offer her some sugar water on a spoon to give them a quick boost. At this time of year, if you want to help a grounded bee, I would place her on a nectar-rich flower such as a buddleia, and she will revive if lack of food is her problem.

And finally, back to my garden, where the pond has never been so low. You can see about eight inches of the pond liner. Normally the frogs have left by now, but this year they’re sitting tight. My pond is basically frog soup.

And finally, an update on the parents. Dad was admitted back into hospital on Saturday, but came out again on Monday. He was returned to the house in a private ambulance, and was well chuffed.

‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Frequent Flyer’ he said.

Whatever else is happening, Dad hasn’t lost his sense of humour.

 

 

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “The Long Hot Summer

  1. Andrea Stephenson

    I do worry about the effect of the heatwave on the wildlife. We had rain yesterday and the pigeons were clustered around the puddles drinking and I find myself wondering how difficult it is for all of the creatures to find water at the moment. My dog loves to eat cleavers so he isn’t happy that they’ve all shrivelled now!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      And now it’s rained, and the earth feels as if it’s taking a deep, grateful breath. And the frogs have taken the opportunity to leave the pond, as if they were just waiting for a spot of dampness too….

      Reply
  2. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    These early blackberries are disappointing, I agree, but I must pick some soon as I’ve got bags of windfalls and must face a big cook-up. Have made two lidos in old bin-lids for birds and insects and AT LAST there’s some rain.

    Reply
  3. tonytomeo

    Bark must be shed as the trunks and limbs grow and expand. However, it does not always fall while the trunks and limbs are most actively expanding. They probably did most of their growth earlier in the season. It takes a while for the bark to dislodge. Aridity tends to accelerate the process, which is probably why you notice more bark falling after arid or warm weather. (Warmth tends to accelerate dehydration as well as aridity.)

    Reply
  4. Bug Woman Post author

    Hi Tony, they’re hybrids between Platanus occidentalis and Platanus orientalis and the Victorians loved them so much that over 60% of London street trees are now ‘London’ planes…previously the lime was the tree of choice because it was cheap and relatively fast growing, but the honeydew from the aphids made it unpopular.

    Reply
  5. Juliet Burke

    Where I live the summer is exactly the oposit this year – extremely rainy which led to floodings. I hope that more and more people will pay attention to those changes and do something.

    Reply

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