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.
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.
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.
The cleavers has turned into corn-coloured lace.
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.
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.
‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Frequent Flyer’ he said.
Whatever else is happening, Dad hasn’t lost his sense of humour.