An Insect-Filled Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it was the most beautiful spring today, and while the cherry plums in the cemetery have mostly lost their blossom, the heavy candy-floss pink flowers of the cherry trees are just starting to emerge. It’s a shame that many of the prettiest are behind fencing at the moment, while the cemetery tries to turn yet another area of rough scrub into a site for graves, but nonetheless the tree is still exuberant. The blossom on these trees can sometimes seem almost too much: I suspect that these trees are of the Kanzan variety, with each blossom having up to 28 petals. There is a road close to where I used to live in Islington which was lined with these trees on each side: when the blossom started to fall, it could be like scuffling through a thin layer of pink snow.

The cherry plums have lost every last flower now, and are instead glorying in their copper foliage.

The cow parsley is just starting to flower in the woodland grave area, and is already attracting pollinators, like this little hoverfly. The photo is not good enough to identify the species, but it does give an indication of how varied this group of insects can be – at first glance you’d think this was a flying ant.

I had to pause for a quick look at the swamp cypress, which appears to have been in suspended animation for weeks. Not for much longer, though! I can’t wait until it’s decked out in fluorescent green.

I had to pause for a quick look at the cherry laurel by the main path – it is covered in strange, spidery flowers, and has a most nose-tingling smell, somehow dusty and honey-ish at the same time.

Another hoverfly was sunning itself on the leaves. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that this is probably a female Eristalsis pertinax. The males of this fly defend territories around flowering plants, and I imagine that the cherry laurel must be a very appealing site. The young go by the appealing name of ‘rat-tailed maggots’, and live in drainage ditches and other stagnant water: the ‘tail’ is actually a breathing tube.

And here’s an insect that I haven’t come across before. Superficially it looks rather like a shield bug, but it is narrower in the body and has much thicker, more pronounced antennae. This is a box bug (Gonocerus acuteangulatus) and it isn’t named after the plant directly but after Box Hill in Surrey (which was, admittedly, named after the box hedges that grew there).  The bug was considered endangered, and in 1990 it was known only in the area around the eponymous Box Hill, but since then it has expanded its range to most of south-east England. It seems to have expanded the variety of foodplants that it eats to include hawthorn, bramble and rose, and I predict a sunny future for it as it munches its way northwards.

The dandelions are still out in force.

The leaves on the horse chestnut are getting bigger every week.

And the first flowers are opening on the hawthorn.

But what I’ve really noticed this week are the bluebells. The vast majority of the ones in the cemetery are hybrids, and they come in the most astonishing array of colours. I doubt that the cemetery was ever a pristine environment for bluebells, and in fact I suspect that if there weren’t hybrids here, there wouldn’t be any bluebells at all.

  The primroses are doing their hybridizing thang as well. In the beds at the entrance to the cemetery there is the most extraordinary range of primulas and polyanthus, and I suspect that they are all cross-breeding and coming up with multiple varieties across the rest of the area. Genetic exuberance is certainly in evidence here.

In one of the sunnier parts of the cemetery I saw, in quick succession, a brimstone butterfly, a peacock butterfly, and a male orange-tip. I managed to get photos of two out of the three, which wasn’t bad considering how quickly the brimstone was flying. They apparently emerge from hibernation from March onwards, and will only be on the wing till May, so I cherished this glimpse of a butterfly in a tearing hurry!

Brimstone butterfly(Gonepteryx rhamni)

And then we almost trod on two peacock butterflies in quick succession, both of them sunning themselves on the path. These adults will have been hibernating over winter, and are now looking for someone to mate with, and somewhere to lay their eggs. They looked very ragged and tired, poor things.

The orange-tip will have been very happy to see the abundance of garlic-mustard which has popped up everywhere, and is now coming into flower. It’s good that there is so much of the stuff, as the caterpillars are cannibalistic and so the female normally lays each egg on a different plant – when an egg is laid, the female also deposits a pheromone which will prevent other females from laying there. Furthermore, the females will only lay their eggs on plants which are already in flower, but will also refuse to lay if the flower is starting to age. This is an insect which wants to give their young the very best start in life, for sure.

Photo One by By Charles J. Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Male orange-tip (Anthrocharis cardamines) (Photo One)

Garlic mustard and lesser celandine

I couldn’t resist getting a photo of this watchful crow, and I rather liked the backlit dandelions too.

And for my final butterfly of the day, here’s a newly-minted speckled wood (Parage aegeria). These are woodland butterflies, flitting through the dappled shade. The males are fiercely territorial, and spend a lot of time flying into the air to investigate every insect that goes past. If it’s another male, an aerial battle will take place that could last up to 90 minutes. The battles are fiercest if the incumbent male has already been visited by a female – presumably this proves that his territory is a good spot. What a lot of hard work this reproduction business is.

Speckled wood (Parage aegeria)

And so, it seems that, with the arrival of flies and bugs and butterflies, and with bluebells and garlic mustard springing up all over the cemetery, we are now into what I think of as ‘mid-spring’, the period when the battle to mate and rear young and get pollinated is at its height. All I need now is the arrival of the house martins to know that spring is fading, and summer is beginning.


6 thoughts on “An Insect-Filled Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

  1. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I can see I’ll have to ‘up my game’, as they say, on the butterfly front… 😉 My/our attentions are now being turned to a nest above our chalet door. I’ve still to work out whether it’s a Black Redstart or a Common Redstart. I’ve set up the trailcam and hope to get a video and/or some photos of the parent(s) at least for now. It’s our only practical way in or out of the building so I’m hoping they are not disturbed.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      When I was in Austria there was a black redstart that used to nest under the entrance to the hotel, and it was completely unperturbed by the visitors, so hopefully your bird will be equally pragmatic. Photos please 🙂 ?

      1. Alittlebitoutoffocus

        I’ve taken a couple of photos with Jude’s camera (as it’s easier to ‘see’ through the eyepiece), but I’ve had a few false starts with the trailcam – by pointing it too low (twice) and I think the birds are too quick for the video to even trigger to catch them. So I’m now hoping it’s set correctly and on photo only. 🤞🤞

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Those small white butterflies are apparently among the first to take wing, and always feel like the beginning of the summer to me!


Leave a Reply