The Red Dress project was conceived by artist Kirstie MacLeod. Between 2009 and 2022, 84 panels of burgundy silk dupion travelled the world, being embroidered by 343 embroiderers from 46 countries. The idea was that this was a way for women around the world, especially the marginalised and those who live in poverty, to tell their stories through stitch and colour. All the commissioned artisans were paid for their work, and receive an ongoing proportion of the fees from the events where the dress is exhibited. In addition, some volunteers, such as students from the Royal School of Needlework, also added symbols that were important to them.
The range of artisans is astounding. From The Red Dress website:
“Embroiderers include female refugees from Palestine and Syria, women seeking asylum in the UK from Iraq, China, Nigeria and Namibia, victims of war in Kosovo, Rwanda, and DR Congo; impoverished women in South Africa, Mexico, and Egypt; individuals in Kenya, Japan, Turkey, Sweden, Peru, Czech Republic, Dubai, Afghanistan, Australia, Argentina, Switzerland, Canada, Tobago, Vietnam, Estonia, USA, Russia, Pakistan, Wales, Colombia and England, students from Montenegro, Brazil, Malta, Singapore, Eritrea, Norway, Poland, Finland, Ireland, Romania and Hong Kong as well as upmarket embroidery studios in India and Saudi Arabia.”
The final work is astounding. I could spend hours looking at it, and still not see everything.
The back of the Red Dress (Photo Two)
Some of the women chose to embroider the dress in styles that were distinctively representative of their region. Others told powerful personal stories. Some women were rebuilding their lives by learning embroidery skills so that they could earn a consistent income. The finished dress weighs 6.2 kgs, and is covered in literally millions of stitches. It feels like a remarkable coming together of different voices to create one beautiful object.
Detail of the Red Dress (Photo Three)
You can see a map of where the different artisans came from here, You can read the individual stories of the artisans here, but here is a brief selection.
Rabia Naza-Rhainie created two of the front panels of the dress, filling them with a geometric design, and with a Farsi inscription which reads ‘ “ I have hope… even when I’m alone and in darkness”
The panels embroidered by Rabia Naza-Rhainie (Photo Four)
The panel below was embroidered by 10 women from the Kisany Collective in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nicole Esselan, the founder of Kisany, writes this about the commission:
“This commission by a group of 10 Congelese women, shows the best of themselves, a joyful side, bright in colour which bring s a smile to my face! The words they chose to embroider have a strong meaning for them: solidarity, love, friendship, pride, trust, liberty, peace. This is what training and work has helped them to achieve and feel more empowered. Next door to Rwanda, Congo has been war-torn for the last 3 decades; there is not one day that doesn’t come with its toll. These women have been abandoned by the society because they had nothing to offer: they were widows, single mothers, abandoned wives, orphans. They told me one day that they had become invisible! None of their relatives were able to support them or even wishing to do so. From time to time, they would be invited to a family gathering and even though they were free seats, they could not sit!
In 2002, they started from scratch when they decided to embark on this new adventure; they had nothing to lose anyway! Today, most of them have managed to buy a plot of land, built a small house; they can all send their kids to school and look after them properly; they can play their role in their community.”
Embroidery by the Kisany Collective (Photo Five)
The panel below was embroidered by Feride and Fatime Hallili, two artisans from Sister Stitch, an organisation of women who had to flee for their lives from Kosovo during the armed conflict of 1998-99. Now returned to their home town of Podujevë, these women are seeking to remake their lives through their embroidery skills. Sister Stitch is supported by Manchester Aid to Kosovo (MaK) which does amazing work in the Balkans, working for recovery through education, justice, human rights, art, music, drama, sport and medical aid.
The panel shows birds that symbolise migration. All the women lost friends and loved ones during the war, but thankfully now most of them are feeling much more optimistic about their futures.
Embroidery by Feride and Fatime Hallili of Sister Stitch (Photo Six)
Detail from Sister Stitch embroidery (Photo Seven)
And finally, the panels below were made by two artisans from Chiapas in Mexico. They were suggested for the commission by Kitzen, a foundation that works with people in poverty to help them use their talents to support themselves. They embroidered the two triangular godays on either side of the central panel.
Zenaida Aguilar is one of the most experienced embroiderers in the project, and, after surviving an abusive marriage which left her with nothing, has rebuilt her life using her extraordinary skills. She created the panel below, which shows the flora and fauna of the area, and is made entirely of a stitch called a French knot.
Zenaida Aguilar with her panel (Photo Eight)
The second artist was nineteen year-old Hilaria Lopez Patishtan, who has been embroidering since she was seven years old. She chose to make her panel in the distinctive style of her local town, San Juan Chamula – it features geometric patterns in pink, yellow and green.
Hilaria Lopez Patishtan with her panel (Photo Nine)
Close-ups of the two panels are below.
Zenaida’s panel (Photo Ten)
Hilaria’s Panel (Photo Eleven)
If you’re in London, do drop into the Fashion and Textile Museum to see the exhibition and to learn more about the Red Dress. There is also a wealth of additional information about the dress, and the remarkable people who made it, at the Red Dress Embroidery website here.
Dear Readers, when I saw this insect flying around the buddleia in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, I took one glance and cheerfully told my friend that we were looking at a hornet. Well, clearly I was having one of those days because when a second insect joined the first one, I started looking around a little anxiously in case we were standing close to a hornet nest (though these are actually remarkably serene animals, much less likely to sting you than your average wasp). And then, light dawned. This is, of course, a hornet mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria), about which I have written many times before.
How can I tell? So many, many ways, readers, all of them forgotten in the excitement of the moment. Firstly, flies only have two wings, hornets (and all wasps, bees and flying ants) have four. Secondly, look at those big compound eyes! Bees and wasps have much smaller eyes which are often almond-shaped. The antennae are different too, and the wings are carried differently. The hoverfly is a pretty good mimic, and I’m sure a hungry bird would give it a pass, but as a budding entomologist I should have been a little more circumspect.
European hornet (Vespa crabro) (Photo One)
Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)
The story of the hoverfly is a fascinating one. It was first spotted on the South Coast of the UK in the 1930s, having previously been only found on mainland Europe. However, from the 1940s to 1970s it set up home in the London area, where it attracted a lot of attention – this is the UK’s largest hoverfly, and it’s a bit hard to miss (though not to mistake for a totally unrelated insect, as we’ve seen). Since 1995, the hoverfly has expanded its range north and west as the climate warms and it makes itself at home.
Incidentally, telling the sex of a hoverfly isn’t easy in all species, but it is in this one: if the eyes meet at the top of the head, the insect is a male. If they’re separated by a yellow band, as in this insect, it’s a female. To reproduce, she will walk cheerfully into a wasp or hornet nest and deposit her eggs – it maybe that her stripes help to fool the residents, or maybe they simply aren’t bothered as the larvae, when they hatch, perform a useful service – they live on the debris at the bottom of the nest, and may even eat the larvae of other insect pests that live there. When the nest starts to break down in the autumn the larvae leave the nest and pupate, normally in the tree cavity where the nest was positioned.
Hornet mimic hoverflies are migratory, with the population of locally-born flies being reinforced by insects from mainland Europe every year, and some flies making the return journey in the autumn. Insects often look so frail, and yet they are capable of extraordinary journeys. Furthermore, after bees hoverflies are our most important pollinators – although they don’t collect pollen deliberately, as they don’t rear their young, pollen grains nonetheless attach themselves to the fine hairs that cover their bodies, and are hence transferred from one flower to another. And honestly, what a magnificent looking insect this is! I have a great fondness for ‘real’ hornets, but this creature also has a place in my heart.
Dear Readers, I was taking a walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with my friend A on Monday when we spotted this juvenile green woodpecker, sitting very happily on top of a gravestone. What handsome birds they are, although this one doesn’t have the red cap of an adult. You can clearly see the stiff tail feathers that help the bird to stay upright when working their way up a tree trunk, although the favoured food of green woodpeckers is ants, lots of them.
As we watched, we noticed that the woodpecker and their parent seemed to be being followed by several nosy magpies. The adult woodpecker flew down and started hammering relentlessly into an area of raised, dry ground next to one of the graves, which probably held an ants’ nest. After a few minutes the magpie seemed to approach aggressively and the woodpecker flew off, leaving the magpie to appear to hoover up whatever the woodpecker had unearthed.
I am not in the least surprised that the magpie was intelligent enough to benefit from another bird’s hard work – the crow family has a history of this, with ravens in the Northern Woods of Scandinavia leading wolves and bears to carcasses that they can’t open up themselves. This was the first time I’d seen magpies and woodpeckers interacting though, so do let me know if you’ve ever seen anything similar. I suspect that the web of life is far more intricate and nuanced than we can ever imagine.
Now, how about that headline? For years I have been promulgating the long-held belief that the reason that woodpeckers don’t give themselves concussion with all that hammering is because they have shock absorbers in their heads. Much like the little unicorn horn on the back of Dürer’s rhinoceros (which doesn’t exist, but was replicated by everyone who ever painted or drew a rhino for years afterwards) we have all been blithely repeating the woodpecker story.
The Rhinoceros by Albrecht Durer (Public Domain)
It is true that woodpeckers have spongy bone between their beaks and their brains, but instead of absorbing the shock from the blows, scientist Sam van Wassenburgh at the University of Antwerp has found that that the spongy bone is only there to reduce weight, essential for a flying animal. Videos of three species of woodpecker hammering on wood showed that the spongy bone didn’t have any effect on cushioning the blows – slowing down the video showed that the birds’ heads and eyes stopped moving at the same time as their beaks did. Van Wassenburgh concluded that the bird’s brains are so small and light, and so cushioned by the naturally-occurring fluid in their skulls, that they would have to hammer twice as fast, or hit surfaces four times as hard, in order to suffer concussion.
And so, another idea bites the dust, but this is what science is all about – a scientific theory is the best model that we currently have for why something happens, until someone does the research and it’s replaced by a theory that fits what happens better. I love that we are always learning, and always moving the consensus on. I think two years of studying science has made me more eager to look for evidence, and to not take things at face value, especially in a time of so much deliberate misinformation. We live in exciting times, but we have to be careful about where we get our information from.
You can read the whole woodpecker article, and watch the woodpeckers getting stuck in with their hammering, here.
Dear Readers, it’s the short gooseberry season again, and yesterday I got carried away and purchased not only some ordinary green ones, but some of these rather fine red ones too. Personally I like the way that their lip-puckering sourness can be tempered with sugar and cream, and find it a perfect foil to something fatty like mackerel. However, like liver, rhubarb and brussel sprouts it’s one of those foods that definitely splits the crowd.
Gooseberries are a member of the currant family, and have been in the UK since at least the 13th century, though they weren’t recorded in the wild until 1763. Their Latin name, Ribes uva-crispa, literally means ‘curved grape’, and they are very grape-like, apart from those prickly hairs. The name ‘goose berry’ is harder to fathom, though having seen geese munching on blackberries at Walthamstow Wetlands last week it wouldn’t surprise me if waterfowl sometimes found them a tasty snack. Some people believe that the ‘goose’ is a corruption of the word ‘groseille’ from the French word for currant, but the Oxford English Dictionary is firmly on the side of a goose being a goose. In some parts of the UK they’re known as ‘goosegogs’.
Now, how about the folkloric story that babies are found under a gooseberry bush? Charming as this is (and much easier than going through all that labour business as any mother will tell you), in the 19th century ‘gooseberry bush’ was apparently slang for pubic hair – I suspect that the hairiness of the berries probably contributed to the phrase.
I have looked in vain for the origin of the phrase ‘playing gooseberry’ (i.e accompanying a courting couple in the role of chaperone or general spoilsport). It’s first recorded in 1837, and the explanation given then is that the third party would have been ‘innocently’ involved in some other occupation (such as picking gooseberries) whilst the couple talked, while all the time taking note of everything that was said. Another interpretation is that the third party deliberately took themselves off so that the couple could be together. In all of this, the role of the poor gooseberry plant is rather obscure, but such is language – for some reason, phrases stick and their original meaning is lost in the fog. Suffice to say that when I was growing up, being a ‘gooseberry’ was considered to be being an unwanted hanger-on. Do let me know if you have or had an alternative meaning for the phrase! It all makes my head spin a little.
I also like the story from the Plant Lore website of a Dorset grandmother who used the phrase ‘may the skin of a gooseberry cover all of your enemies’. Indeed, and what a picture that conjures up! The same page describes how a cure for a stye (boil) on the eyelid was to prick it every day with the prickle from a gooseberry. Apparently an alternative cure was to have a widow touch the stye with her gold wedding ring, which must have taken a bit of persuading.
The flowers of the gooseberry are rather unusual, purplish-brown in colour and, to my eye at least, rather alien-looking.
Originally, gooseberries come from the area to the east of France right the way through to the Himalayas and India. It’s unclear whether the Romans ever ate them, but they do seem to have had a reputation for medicinal value, with the juice being used to treat fever – one alternative English name is ‘Fea-berry’. In the wonderful ‘Modern Herbal’ by Mrs Grieves, she describes gooseberry juice as
‘sub-acid and is corrective of putrescent foods, such as mackerel or goose‘.
The leaves were thought to be a treatment for ‘gravel’ (presumably gallstones), and an infusion was thought to be useful to alleviate period pain.
The gooseberries found wild in the UK are probably the descendants of those grown for food or medicine, and are largely bird-sown, with thrushes not seeming to mind the sourness of the fruit. I wonder if birds, like cats, have no way of detecting sweetness? I shall have to investigate. Clearly they can distinguish colour, as they normally prefer ripe fruit, but I wonder if that’s because of its nutritional value rather than its taste?
Anyhow, birds are not the only creatures who like gooseberries: in North America, bears eat the berries (clearly they have a sweet tooth), and foxes, raccoons and coyotes browse the foliage. Amongst the smaller animals, in the UK the caterpillars of the magpie moth, comma butterfly and v-moth feed on the foliage.
Magpie moth (Abraxas grossuliata) (Photo Two)
The V-Moth (Macaria wauaria (Photo Three)
Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) showing the ‘comma’ on its underwing (Photo Four)
Gooseberries are also greatly loved by the larvae of the gooseberry sawfly (Nematus ribesii), who are voracious little devils, and who are reputed to be able to strip a gooseberry bush of its foliage in a matter of days. Sawflies are not actually flies, but a member of the wasp, ant and bee family (Hymenoptera), and many adult sawflies are useful either as pollinators or as predators on other caterpillars in the garden. Sadly, this might be small comfort to someone whose gooseberry bush (not a euphemism) has been stripped by eager little sawfly larvae.
Now, if your gooseberries have survived, what do you do with them? The traditional uses are of course crumbles, jam, or a chutney-ish preserve to eat with cheese or the aforementioned mackerel (in French, gooseberries are groseille à maquereau or mackerel berries). I am spoilt for choice on recipes, but here is one for gooseberry, turmeric and frangipane tart that uses fresh turmeric (should you stumble across some), and here is a rather more accessible recipe for gooseberry crumble cake. And how about gooseberry and elderflower trifle? Very tasty.
And whoa, how about this for a poem! Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate of the UK, tells quite the story here. How many strange directions this takes! The commentary for the poet mentions that he is widely seen as the inheritor of Philip Larkin’s ‘Dark Wit’ . See what you think.
Which reminds me. He appeared at noon, asking for water. He’d walked from town after losing his job, leaving me a note for his wife and his brother and locking his dog in the coal bunker. We made him a bed
and he slept till Monday. A week went by and he hung up his coat. Then a month, and not a stroke of work, a word of thanks, a farthing of rent or a sign of him leaving. One evening he mentioned a recipe
for smooth, seedless gooseberry sorbet but by then I was tired of him: taking pocket money from my boy at cards, sucking up to my wife and on his last night sizing up my daughter. He was smoking my pipe as we stirred his supper.
Where does the hand become the wrist? Where does the neck become the shoulder? The watershed and then the weight, whatever turns up and tips us over that razor’s edge between something and nothing, between one and the other.
I could have told him this but didn’t bother. We ran him a bath and held him under, dried him off and dressed him and loaded him into the back of the pick-up. Then we drove without headlights
to the county boundary, dropped the tailgate, and after my boy had been through his pockets we dragged him like a mattress across the meadow and on the count of four threw him over the border.
This is not general knowledge, except in gooseberry season, which reminds me, and at the table I have been known to raise an eyebrow, or scoop the sorbet into five equal portions, for the hell of it. I mention this for a good reason.
Dear Readers, on Saturday we took the 102 bus to Temple Fortune, to go for a walk around the grounds of Golders Green Crematorium. I first discovered this place last year, and it struck me then as a peaceful haven. Today, we saw just one other person. Because the grounds have no vehicular access it really does make for a serene and tranquil site.
Because this is a crematorium and not a graveyard, most people are commemorated with small plaques, and with shrubs, trees or flowers. There is a pond and stream, and we sat watching the dragonflies and listening to the sound of the water gurgling through the purple loosestrife.
I know that many people find cemeteries and crematoria unsettling, but for me there is something about sitting surrounded by nature and by memorials to the beloved dead that is strangely comforting. Death is, after all, inevitable, and while there is sorrow here, there is also so much love. The tenderness of some of the inscriptions, the care with which the plant that memorialises the loved one has been chosen, the desire to remember the person, all seem to represent the best of us, at a time when all the news tells us is the worst.
While we were walking around, my husband asked me what my favourite tree was, and after some consideration I announced that it was the swamp cypress. I should really be choosing a native tree, I know, but this is a species that I associate so strongly with my mother – she used to take her lunch in the Cleary Gardens close to Mansion House station when she was working as a legal secretary, and when I visited them after she had died, I could always imagine her sitting in the shade of the swamp cypress, the first one that I’d ever seen. There is a magnificent specimen in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, and I soon spotted one in the crematorium gardens.
And then another one….
And another one…
The trees are clearly very popular here, and with good reason – the delicate green foliage actually turns rust red and falls in the autumn, making this tree a most unusual deciduous conifer. Also, although it does grow in swamps in its native Southern USA, it is actually very adaptable. Let’s hope so, what with the current temperatures and lack of rain.
Swamp Cypress foliage
And finally we have a little walk in the shade of what I think of as the cloisters.
I’m not quite sure why there was such a taste for Italianate crematoria at the turn of the last century – there is one in East Finchley Cemetery too, of a very similar design – but on a hot, sunny day you could easily be in Sienna or somewhere equally pleasant. And there was time for a final look at the memorial bench for Marc Bolan, the lead singer of T-Rex, who died back in 1977. The bench, with its elegant waterbird, recalls T-Rex’s song ‘Ride a White Swan’, and for anyone who wants a trip down memory lane you can watch and listen to it here.
Dear Readers, once upon a time we were so familiar with insects and other invertebrates that every region had their own name for the creatures that they saw right throughout the summer. So for this week’s quiz, let’s see if you can match the vernacular name to the animal! I have tried to pick names that are nice and descriptive. Some scientists are giving common (i.e non-scientific) names to insects such as hoverflies, in the hope that it will make the creatures themselves more acceptable. I suspect, though, that the names that stick will be the ones that are given to the animals by the people who see them most often, and know them best.
In the quiz below I have tried to choose vernacular names that will give you a clue as to the invertebrates that they represent. Let’s see how successful I’ve been! All the names come from ‘Bugs Britannia’ by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, a positive cornucopia of insect folklore. Fascinating stuff.
As usual, the quiz will be open until next Saturday (30th July) at 5 p.m. UK time, and the answers will be published on Sunday 31st July. And where did July go? Gosh. Put your answers in the comments if you want to be marked, and I will acknowledge them and disappear them as soon as I see them. If you have trouble commenting (and WordPress has been very flaky lately), you can also enter via my Bugwoman Facebook page if you pop your answers into a message.
So, for example, if you think the animal in Photo 1 is ‘God’s Little Pig’, your answer is 1) A.
A) God’s Little Pig (Somerset)
B) Jock wi’ the monyfeet (Scots)
C) Vibrating Spider
D) Devil’s darning-needle
E) Bog mole
F) Summer snowflake
G) Bella Donna
I) Red-coat (Scotland)
J) Dumbledore (Cornwall)
Dear Readers, I hope you enjoy this summer soundtrack! I really enjoyed putting it together. As for the answers, both Jacqueline Jacques (welcome, Jacqueline!) and Fran and Bobby Freelove got something different for C) but I have listened to both songs and they seem to fit the bill to me, so I have given all parties 10 out of 10, well done! And I hope that everyone got through the high temperatures in the UK last week without spontaneously combusting 🙂
F) ‘Cruel Summer’ by Bananarama. Dear oh dear. This brings back some memories, chiefly of a very unfortunate poodle perm that I had. Worth watching for what is possibly the most peculiar video I’ve ever seen.
Dear Readers, there has been quite a lot of research on the subject of bumblebees and climate change. After all, one look at these large, ‘furry’ insects is enough for me to worry about them buzzing about wearing the equivalent of a mink coat. They are, in fact, adapted for tundra conditions – their large size relative to pollinators like honeybees means that they lose heat more slowly than smaller insects (remember that surface area to volume ratio thing that many of us learned in O-Level biology). The ‘fur’ (actually outgrowths of the abdomen and thorax called setae) helps to insulate the bee against cold temperatures, and the bees also have very large flight muscles, which they can warm up by vibrating them – bumblebees are often the only pollinators in flight on a cold morning, and queens can sometimes be seen foraging as early as January in the UK. They also, unusually for insects, can generate their own body heat – they use enzymes that can break down the sugars found in nectar to help them to warm up. The queen in the photo below was spotted on my birthday, 20th January, earlier this year.
Bumblebees generally have one generation per year. In the spring, a queen bumblebee comes out of hibernation, and sets off to find a spot for her nest – you will often see large bumblebees flying low over the grass as if looking for something. A mousehole, dense ivy or a gap under a shed are all desirable spots. Once in her nest, the queen lays her first few eggs, and feeds them all by herself until they hatch as workers and are able to forage themselves. Eventually, there are enough workers for the queen to concentrate on laying her eggs. The colony will comprise less than 1000 individuals, and towards the end of summer the queen will start to lay eggs that will develop into fertile queens, and males. These will leave the nest and mate. The queens, already pregnant, will find a space to hibernate, and the males, the original queen and the rest of the workers will die.
So, bumblebees are basically big and hairy in order to survive in cold climates. How, then, are they doing in the heat?
It’s true that there are bumblebees in tropical and sub-tropical habitats, but these are mostly found at high altitude, where it’s colder, and they tend to be smaller, meaning that they can lose heat more easily. However, the bumblebee species found in southern Europe and the southern USA are thought to be pretty much at the edge of their range, and are expected to disappear as the summers get hotter and drier, and the winters milder.
For bumblebees in the UK the effects of climate change will depend on the rapidity of change, and intensity of individual events. At over 37 degrees Centigrade, bumblebees forage much less effectively. Queens have something called heat stress proteins, which can protect them against extremes of temperature while they’re hibernating, but workers and males do not have these proteins, as far as we can tell. Bumblebees are also prone to water-stress (desiccation) – one thing that I did during the extreme heat of the past few days/weeks was put out a dish almost full of gravel, and then topped up with water so that insects could land safely and drink.
Bumblebees are tough, adaptable creatures ( I often think of them as the Einsteins of the insect world) and they have a number of behaviours that help during extreme weather conditions. Bumblebee nests are tiny compared to those of honeybees (under a thousand individuals as opposed to tens of thousands), but the workers will club together to vibrate their wings to try to keep the temperature between 28 and 32 degrees Centigrade. They will also change their foraging behaviour during hot spells, going out in the early morning and later in the day to avoid the heat of midday. Bumblebees also seem to be choosing more isolated, cooler spots in order to make their nests.
However, finding those cooler, more isolated spots is clearly becoming more problematic due to a combination of our habit of paving over our gardens, using fake grass ( a particular bugbear of mine), agricultural intensification, deforestation and urbanisation. Some bees are migrating to try to find better habitat, and others are seeking spots at higher altitudes, as are many other animals and plants that are adapted to colder conditions. One important question is ‘what happens when the temperature in mountainous habitats also rises?’
So, how are the bees coping so far? One interesting adaptation seems to be that some buff-tailed bumblebee colonies are surviving through the winter in the UK – presumably people are planting enough winter-flowering honeysuckle and mahonia to enable the colony to survive on iron rations until the spring comes. This may be preferable in some circumstances to a situation where a hibernating queen keeps waking up during the winter and hence burns through the fat reserves that would normally be used to produce her first few eggs. However, a non-hibernating queen will also produce fewer workers, so it may be a trade-off against different conditions.
Climate change is also affecting the delicate balance between the different stages of the bumblebee life cycle and the emergence of the flowers that they rely on – it’s clear that plants are flowering earlier than they used to, which may favour colonies that keep going through the winter, and fortunately many species of bumblebee in the UK can feed on a variety of different kinds of plants, so they will not be as affected as some of the bee species which are more specific in their requirements.
The bottom line is that bumblebees probably can adapt to the higher temperatures of climate change, but only up to a point, and only if there is enough genetic diversity for those adaptive factors to be present in the community of bees. Like animals trapped on islands, bumblebees are increasingly isolated from one another, trapped in small areas of botanical plenty while surrounded by deserts of concrete and agricultural monoculture. The idea of ‘pollinator pathways’, whereby bees of all kinds can forage more widely and can meet and mate with bees that they wouldn’t otherwise meet, is an important one, and it depends on everything from the planting of bee-friendly street trees to putting a pot of lavender or rosemary on the balcony. Will it be enough? Only time will tell.
Common carder bumblebee on bittersweet
This piece is largely taken from ‘Bumblebee resilience to climate change, through plastic and adaptive responses’ by Maebe et al, published in June 2021. The abstract is available here though it looks as if you might need access to a university library (or $15) to read the whole thing. Shout if there’s anything that you want me to look at in more detail – this is a meaty piece of work, and I have tried to precis it.
I also found this article interesting, especially on the subject of bee body size and mountainous habitats.
Dear Readers, it’s easy to forget that Walthamstow Wetlands is still a working reservoir, providing drinking water to 3.5 million Londoners every day. I am always impressed by the way that the world of water provision and the world of nature sit together so comfortably here – people always seem to be accepting when paths are closed because heavy machinery is being moved around, or when you aren’t allowed to access an area because birds are nesting. On Reservoir One there were the usual greylag geese, tufted ducks, cormorants and great crested grebes, but also the common terns and at least six species of dragonflies hawking over the water. These last were too fast for me to photograph, but it was lovely to see them nonetheless.
Out on the paths, the Canada geese seemed a little bereft now that most of their goslings have left home, but I did see something I’d never seen before – the geese were munching on the blackberries, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying them. Has anyone else ever seen this? I think of Canada geese as being grazers first and foremost, but maybe they’re developing a sweet tooth(beak). We wandered along slowly behind this pair so as not to hassle them into flying on such a warm day. We must have looked quite a sight as we dawdled along behind them.
The gulls seem to have the right idea, relaxing on these bits of reservoir ephemera and surveying the scene to see if there was anything exciting going on. The answer was clearly ‘no’. I think that they’re lesser black-backed gulls, but gull id is tricky at the best of times so feel free to correct me.
Then something rather lovely happened. On my way out, I’d mentioned to my friend that birds would like to feed on the knapweed seedheads that were along the path. On the way back, a flock of goldfinches descended and started to feed, just as I’d hoped. It makes up for all those times when I’ve announced that an animal is likely to do a particular thing and then they do exactly the opposite. Yet another reason to fill my garden full of knapweed I think.
I was very pleased to see some hemp agrimony around the wetlands, and even happier to see this chap on the way out – a hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella zonaria. What a handsome insect this is, and one that has benefited from climate change – once only found on mainland Europe, now it can be found all over the south of England. It’s our largest hoverfly and although it looks quite imposing it is, of course, completely harmless. What a splendid way to end our leisurely walk!