Author Archives: Bug Woman

Amazing Ivy Bees!

Dear Readers, I know I promised that I wouldn’t mention ivy bees again, but last week I was contacted by reader Phillip Buckley. Here’s what he said:

“We’ve had hundreds, nay, thousands of these bees in our front lawn for 4 or 5 years around this time of year, and I now know what they are thanks to your post.  I always thought it odd that I never saw one on any of the many nearby flowers (and thought they were being pretty rubbish ‘bees’ as a result) but never thought to look at the ivy encrusted old stone wall at the front of our road.  Right now, there are so many cruising all over our lawn at a height of just one or two inches that it is frankly scary to walk through them and even more impossible to mow the lawn!  I read that the males don’t or can’t sting but the females will if annoyed – my wife isn’t prepared to test that theory and has had them climb up inside her trouser legs so now always tucks her trouser bottoms into her socks when gardening.  In previous years they’ve mainly built their nests in the vertical cut edge of the lawn but this year they’re also all over the surface of the lawn as witnessed by the hundreds of piles of sifted soil.  They also spend a lot of their time exhibiting the frenzied mating behaviour you describe.  This all lasts for a few short weeks and then, suddenly, they’re gone for another year.  I have a few photographs although it’s difficult to capture the shear density of them and can’t put them up on this reply panel anyhow.  We won’t be removing the ivy anytime soon as we think it’s all that’s holding our stone wall together so I guess we’ll be sharing our space for a few more years yet!?”

Well, clearly I had to investigate further, and Phillip kindly sent me some photos. He and his wife are obviously great friends to nature, because what they have going on in their garden is a scene of bee-abundance that is vanishingly rare these days.

Below you can see a fine bank of ivy that no doubt the bees will use for nectar and pollen.

These are the nests at the edge of the lawn…

Here is the lawn itself….

And here are some male bees forming a mating ball in their excitement…

Ivy bees going about their business…..

And most wonderful of all, here’s a short film that gives you some idea of their abundance.

Honestly, who needs to go to the Serengeti when there are wildlife spectacles like this? As Phillip says, in a few weeks it will all be over for another year, and trousers can be untucked and lawn-mowers taken out of the shed. If only we could all be so understanding of the needs of the creatures that we share our space with, the world would be a much nicer place.

Coal Drops Yard – An Update

The roof at Coal Drops Yard, designed by Thomas Heatherwick

Dear Readers, you might remember that I’ve been keeping an eye on the Piet Oudolf-inspired planting around Coal Drops Yard at Kings Cross, to see how it’s maturing and whether it has as much pollinator-attractiveness as it promised. Well, clearly there are no longer any gaps: have a look at this positive bank of Rudbeckia, which was attracting many hoverflies (none of which I managed to photograph, but they were there! I promise).What strikes me most, though, are the textures: this style of prairie-planting features many grasses and seedheads, and I think it works very well in this urban context. And if anyone can identify any of these plants, I would be most appreciative!

What struck me most, though was the sun shining low through these grasses. They really are stunning.

I only wish that when I planted things in the garden I was so conscious of how they would look at different times of the year. Or is this a happy accident? The sun was also lighting up these deep magenta asters, which were attracting a few of the last queen bumblebees before they settle down for the winter.

But what struck me  most was not the planting here, but a much more modest planting just around the corner, close to the Waitrose supermarket and the Ruby Violet ice cream shop (highly recommended). There was a little family of young sparrows in the hedge – sparrows always love a hedge, for shelter and  food and everything else that they need, and these birds were taking full advantage. It was lovely to hear them chirruping away, especially as they are now so much rarer in London than they used to be.

And a few metres away there was some lovely soft soil, just perfect for a dust bath.

Meanwhile, a robin sang from a low branch and occasionally cocked its head to listen to another robin before responding.

With a little thought, it’s very possible to create habitats and niches for all kinds of wildlife in the city, and they aren’t always where you might think. More power to the designers here for making space for the birds and the bees.

You can read more about Coal Drops Yard below, and see how the wildlife changes through the year.

First visit in February 2020

Revisit in October 2020

Revisit in July 2021

London Wildlife Trust Reserves – Camley Natural Park, Kings Cross

Dear Readers, you might remember that one of my many ambitions when I retired was to visit all the London Wildlife Trust nature reserves, so I thought I’d start with an easy win. Camley Natural Park is a few tube stops down the line from East Finchley, and is one of the most urban of the reserve sites, with the Eurostar and LNER trains whistling past in one direction, the canal running alongside and the shops of Coal Drops Yard and Granary Square just minutes away.

The view from the bridge over the canal next to Camley Natural Park

Still, once you’re past the café and into the reserve itself, peace reigns. There’s an area of marshy land and a pond that feeds directly from the canal, and dragonflies and other water insects flit past.

There’s lots of hemp agrimony but looking at it, I’m aware that the plant in my garden is a cultivar, rather than the wild plant – the seed heads here are much fluffier. Autumn really is a time for texture, and from the spikiness of the teasels to the softness of this plant everything begs to be touched.

And how about this Old Man’s Beard/Traveller’s Joy next to the bridge into the reserve? Our only native clematis, this plant produces what my mum would have called ‘hair do’s’.

The reserve is usually pretty quiet during the week, and I’m always impressed by the sheer variety of people who visit – an elderly man was reading his paper and sipping a cup of coffee by the main pond, toddlers rampage along the paths, friends wander and chat, and yet there’s something about the place that inspires calm as soon as you step through the gate.

I’ve seen  heron here before, but today there were some coots at one end of the pond, and some moorhens at the other. The coots were feasting on the water plants beneath the duckweed (I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one fighting a losing battle with the stuff), and the moorhens had two well-grown chicks. They kept them  close to them, though, and I wondered if the coots were sometimes as aggressive to other species as they are to one another.

One coot was standing on what was probably once a nest site. I love coots’ feet! The extra surface area means that they can shovel their way through the water at some speed, as anyone has ever watched the shenanigans during the breeding season will have noticed.

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra).

Coot munching on water weed.


The moorhens (Gallinupa chloropus)  are much smaller, daintier birds. This family had two chicks, one of which was developing the red beak which is one way to distinguish between the two species, though the coot’s white ‘crash helmet’ is probably the most diagnostic feature.

And then it’s off along the path again.

At this time of year, the only birds that really sing are the robins and the wrens, but what the reserve lacks in variety it makes up for in quantity – there was a robin singing about every ten metres, and when they weren’t singing they were ‘chinking’ at one another. Such territorial little birds!

Here’s an example of a robin singing, by David Darrell-Lambert and taken from Xeno-Canto (David has led dawn chorus walks in Coldfall Wood in the past)

And here’s an example of that ‘chinking’ call, this time by a Swedish robin and recorded by Lars Edenius

It was good to see lots of wood piles too, which are great for fungi and for all manner of invertebrates and small mammals.

And finally, it was good to see some cyclamen in flower: it’s easy to forget that, although these plants are not strictly native, the autumn-flowering species (Cyclamen hederifolium) has been in the UK since 1596, and has been seen in the wild since 1597. It can be surprisingly popular with bees looking for a little late summer nectar and pollen, and I love how delicate the flowers are.

So, if you’re stuck in Kings Cross and are desperate for a little taste of nature, I can very much recommend Camley Natural Park, for its peace and for its variety of plants and animals. And the coffee at the café isn’t too shoddy either.

More on Conkers and Horse Chestnuts

Dear Readers, the brown and distorted leaves of the horse chestnuts on Hampstead Heath tell their own story of how things have changed during my lifetime, and particularly during the last twenty years. If you had a look at the short film in the blog that I did a few days ago, you’ll have seen that loveliest of things, a horse chestnut in full leaf. These days, we’re lucky if they get past flowering before the leaf miners and the various fungi that attack the tree have turned those big palmate leaves into a patchwork of brown and yellow, before they shrivel and fall.

Horse chestnut leaves, July 2022

It’s said that these various ‘pests’ won’t kill the trees, but I do wonder if the leaf damage over successive years weakens them. After all, most of them are relatively recent. The leaf miner, a tiny moth whose caterpillars actually live between the layers of the leaf, was only sighted for the first time in 2002. Since then it has been working its way steadily across the country, until most of our horse chestnuts are a tatty mess long before they should be losing their leaves. The trees are also producing fewer and smaller conkers, which is a shame for any remaining children who like to play with them. However, there is evidence that blue tits are starting to get the hang of feeding on the larvae, and it’s hoped that parasitic wasps might recognise this handy food source, as they often do. Let’s hope it’s soon.

In ‘Nature’s Calendar’, Rowan Jaines tells the story of how the horse chestnut first arrived in the UK. It’s been here long enough for many people to think that it’s a native, and to be honest I thought it was another one of the things that the Romans had done for us, but no. The first record of the Horse Chestnut in Europe is from 1576, when the tree was planted in the gardens of the imperial palace in Vienna. It was so impressive that it spread across the gardens of the continent, with two trees arriving in France in 1615. One of the trees lived in the grounds of the Hotel Soubise in Paris until its death in 1840, while a second lasted until 1767 in the Jardin des Plantes. Louis XIV loved the tree so much that he ordered avenues of the trees to be planted at Versailles, assuring that the tree would be fashionable, and would spread across the estates and gardens of the rich throughout the eighteenth century.

However, its place of origin was something of a mystery. The first trees planted came from Turkey, and horse chestnuts were thought to be of Asian origin right up until the nineteenth century, when it was found that their home range was actually in the Balkans, in the mountains of Bulgaria, Albania and Greece.

Horse chestnut bud

However, what’s very interesting to me is how the tree got the name ‘horse chestnut’. I always wondered if it was something to do with the shape of the bud, which could possibly look like a horse’s hoof (if you squint). However, it appears that the conkers were ground up and used as medicine for coughs and chest complaints in horses as far back as the sixteenth century. In fact, chemical compounds in conkers have been found to control inflammation and swelling and reduce the accumulation of the fluid that causes the horses to cough, so there is scientific evidence for centuries-old practices. I always find it heartening when the skills of generations stand up to twenty-first century scrutiny, as many often do. Let’s celebrate the horse chestnut, that most impressive of trees, and let’s hope that nature soon finds a way to balance the effect of its parasites.

Horse chestnut flowers


Nature’s Calendar – Cacophonies of Conkers (23-27 September)


Dear Readers, I will have more to say about horse chestnuts in general, and conkers in particular, later this week. But today, in memory of my Auntie Mary, I wanted to share this piece from 2016. See what you think. 

As I walked through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery earlier this week, I came across the shed leaves of a horse chestnut tree, and a windfall of conkers. Some were new and mahogany-coated. Others had been crushed by cars, revealing their white, mealy interior. Some were still partly wrapped in their spiky green coats, and looked like half-open eyes. And as I photographed them, I suddenly remembered Auntie Mary.

Auntie Mary wasn’t a ‘real’ auntie at all: she was my maternal grandmother’s sister, whatever title that bestows. And yet we knew her better than we knew some of our official aunties. I can easily bring to mind her toothless grin, her thin dark hair held back by a hairgrip, her National Health glasses, the way she shambled around, shoulders hunched.

It was said that when she was a child, a boy had picked Mary up and swung her around while she screamed with delight, until suddenly his grip slipped and everything fell silent. Mary struck her head on the kerb, and was never the same again. These days, we would say that she had Learning Disabilities. When she was growing up, it was whispered that she was Simple.

img_7961And simple she was, in many ways. Mary never learned to count or to read or write. Her chief role was as wheelchair-pusher for my great-grandmother, who was crippled with polio. And yet, it would be a mistake to say that Mary didn’t understand what was going on.  When she was sent out to the corner shop to buy cigarettes, she remembered exactly what coins she had handed over, and what she got back. There was many an occasion when Mary was cheated, and my nan marched her back to the shop to say exactly what had happened. Faced with such evidence, most shopkeepers confessed to a mistake and returned the money. It was a trick that they didn’t try twice.

Mary was a generous soul with the little that she had. She loved the tiny chocolate-covered toffees that you could buy at the newsagents. Unfortunately, so did our mongrel dog, Sally. Sally would sit beside Mary and gaze up at her. Mary would resist for a few minutes, but then relent.

‘Alright!’ she would say, ‘But just one’.

And she would take out the paper bag that she had folded and folded until it was tight shut, and unfold it, and take out a single toffee the size of a bean, and give it to Sally, who would chomp it down in a tenth of a second. Mary would screw up the bag again and put it back in her pocket, but the dog was unrelenting. Mary would heave a huge sigh and take out the bag again.

‘This is the Last One’ she would say. But it never was.

Mum maintains that the dog had more of the sweets than Mary ever did.

img_7958Mary lived with Great Gran and Nan and Mum for years, but there came a point where it was all too much. Nan couldn’t look after a huge woman in a wheelchair and her own disabled sister any more. Great Gran went into one home, and Mary into another.

As was Mary’s way, she just got on with it. The home was in a mansion in Chigwell with rolling lawns and huge horse chestnut trees. We would go to visit, and play Banker with Mary. This easiest of card games involves breaking the pack into piles and betting on which pile will have the highest card. It’s pure luck, and Mary loved it, as did my brother and I – I was eight, and my brother was six, and so we were all pretty much at the same level. Mary’s glee when she won was infectious, and somehow she always won, probably because she wouldn’t let us stop until she had.

img_7964Mary was never loud or badly behaved, but the same could not be said of the other inhabitants, who were sometimes in the last stages of dementia. The screaming and the erratic behaviour of some of the ladies frightened my brother and I, and when it all got too much Dad would take us outside. In my memory it was always a damp autumn afternoon, and we would rustle about under the horse chestnut looking for conkers. The glint of the polished nuts shining amongst the fallen leaves, the faint smell of bonfires, our shrieks of excitement as we found yet another conker – these are the things that I associate with those last days, with the white mansion behind us and the lawn falling away. We would collect a whole shopping  bag full of conkers and bear them away. Strangely, I can’t recall playing conkers more than once or twice – it always seemed like a violent and dangerous game, in spite of Dad’s enthusiasm. I do remember sticking pins into the chestnuts and turning them into little temporary animals, before they were all tidied away in time for Christmas.

img_7967Mary went into hospital for a cataract operation one day. Something went wrong, and she died, never coming round from the anaesthetic. Apparently there was something wrong with Mary’s heart that had never been diagnosed. The staff at the hospital, and at the care home, were griefstricken.

What is a life worth, I wonder? It seems to me that the hole that is left in the web when someone dies is a bigger indicator of someone’s value than any money accrued or status acquired. Mary’s simple soul had drawn people and animals towards her like a magnet. She never created a great work of art or became a person of power and prestige, but she lived her life with joy, and never knowingly did harm to a living soul. The world would be a better place if we all lived so gently.


Frog News from New Scientist

Frogs in the pond in 2022

Dear Readers, this has to be my favourite New Scientist headline so far this year. See what you think:

Frogs have attempted sex with other species for millions of years.

Well, I don’t know about you but this seems like a pretty rubbish life strategy, though my observation of the frogs in my garden strongly suggests that this could be true. At the height of the breeding season, the frogs attempt to mate with other male frogs, they mob the females and if there were toads or goldfish in the pond I’m pretty sure that they’d try to mate with them as well. Frogs have been observed engaged in sexual congress with boots, turtles, dead frogs and frogs of a completely different species. 

One theory is that in situations of explosive breeding, where lots of males emerge from hibernation at once and there are relatively few females, grabbing whatever you can find and hanging on like billy-o would usually pay off. Frog mating involves amplexus, in which a male grabs a female and hangs on with a specially adapted ‘thumb’. He then waits until the female lays her eggs and fertilises them as they emerge, but a female might take hours, or even days, to be happy enough to lay, so he has to be capable of staying with her, and fending off other males, for that whole period. Possibly the occasional male grappling a stick or a goldfish is a small price to pay for the chance of successful reproduction.

What is interesting, though, is that even frogs that have different mating strategies from the ones in my pond also display what scientists call ‘misdirected amplexus’. Tree frogs, for example, sit around and call to attract a female, who comes to them, and who gives the male a little pat on the shoulder to indicate that she’s happy to mate, and yet even these species occasionally mate with the wrong species. What’s going on? Evolutionary biologists have studied the behaviour across 159 frog species, and have concluded that even the earliest frog species, dating back to some 220 million years ago, also made these kind of mistakes. It could even go back further, to the ancestors of frogs, salamanders and a type of amphibian called a caecilian.

Presumably if this behaviour was catastrophic, frogs wouldn’t have become the extremely successful and widespread species that they are today, but there is bad news. The incidence of frogs getting it wrong seems to be more widely reported in the 21st Century than previously, and scientists are concerned that habitat destruction, drought and noise might all be contributing to frogs not meeting enough females, and becoming more generally confused. Add this to the chytrid fungal disease which is causing the decline and even extinction of many frog species, and what can seem like a harmless quirk of behaviour could have serious implications for these fascinating animals.

The Bus-Trimmed Plane Trees of East Finchley

Dear Readers, I was journeying home to East Finchley on the 263 bus today when I noticed how many of the London Plane trees that line the route had been in effect ‘pruned’ by the double-decker buses that pass under them. Nowhere is it clearer than with the trees in the photo above, where the ones to the left have all been ‘topiaried’ to the exact height of a London bus. However, while the smaller twigs and leaves are presumably safely removed by a bus roof, there must surely be a more managed programme of tree maintenance to make sure that passing omnibuses aren’t ‘scalped’ by the branches.

In the olden days (i.e 1943) there was a special open-topped tree-lopping bus. Have a look at this short film. What is a marvel is not only the low-tech tools used (I have most of them in my garden shed), but that the horse chestnut being pruned is in such excellent health. And I love the bit at the end where the ‘tree-loppers’ throw conkers to the waiting urchins.

Lopping Trees for London Buses (1943)

You may sometimes see signs on the trees lining the road, saying instructive things like ‘Tall Trees’. Some of the Plane trees that line North Hill in Highgate really are tall.

Travelling at speed on a bumpy road on the 263 bus.

However, signs are not always enough: in 2015 a double-decker managed to collide with a Plane tree on the Kingsway, close to Holborn, and the roof was neatly sliced off. Five people were injured, fortunately none of them seriously, though I imagine that they didn’t travel on the top deck for a while. Apparently there was a sign saying ‘Overhanging Trees’ on the tree in question, but clearly it wasn’t enough.

Photo by Stuart Coates (Twitter)

In 2012 there was a similar incident in Croydon, where again the roof was ripped off. I wonder if double-deckers are actually designed in this way? Presumably taking the roof off is better than it collapsing inwards on to the passengers. Any bus nerds out there who would care to enlighten me (and I use the word ‘nerd’ with the greatest of respect, being a bug nerd myself).

The 119 bus that was de-roofed in 2012 in Croydon (Photo from

There is a regular programme of pruning, pollarding etc for London’s street trees, with the condition of the trees assessed, and rotten branches and other dangerous protuberances removed where necessary. This does leave the question of how drivers manage to drive into trees, though I imagine that a branch at the height of the roof is not easily assessed from the point of view of the driver’s cab, especially as they have to do everything these days – on a one-person bus the driver is expected to take fares, sort out any passenger nonsense (of which there is plenty) and drive through the streets of London which often resemble nothing so much as one of those live action video games where people jump out into the road, throw their car doors open without looking, and occasionally stop dead in the middle of the road to check something on their mobile phones. Thinking about it, I’m amazed at how rarely buses collide with trees. It’s something of a miracle.

The avenues of London Plane trees and Limes are a cool and welcome sight as the 263 crests the hill at Highgate and heads towards East Finchley station, and long may they remain so, even if their lower branches have to be trimmed to a convenient height. What venerable trees some of these are!

Yet More Ivy Bees

Dear Readers, I was visiting a friend in Walthamstow today when I passed a wall covered in ivy flowers, and I thought I’d stop and have a quick look just in case there were any ivy bees. And indeed there were! The ivy was abuzz with honeybees, hoverflies, bumblebees, ‘ordinary’ flies and a few wasps (of which more later). But of course I was looking for these little stripy critters, and there they were. In comparison to honeybees they are slightly smaller, and somehow ‘zippier’ – they can also stand up for themselves very ably, and weren’t the slightest bit fazed by the presence of a queen bumblebee about four times their size.

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see a) that the stripes on the abdomen really are very distinct. But I think an interesting diagnostic feature might be those little hairy back legs. In social bees, you often see all the pollen bundled together in a structure called a corbicula (literally ‘little basket’), but solitary bees like Ivy Bees don’t have these, and so they have to collect the pollen on their tummies (as in leaf-cutter bees) or on their legs.

In the photo below, if you look at the top left you can just see the backside of a honeybee – note that the stripes on the abdomen are not as distinct as in the ivy bee at the bottom left. You can also see a bright orange ball of pollen attached to one of the honeybee’s legs.

Don’t ask me who the critter on the bottom right is. S/he rather photobombed the scene.



So as you can probably tell I am very excited about finding these attractive little bees again, and to see them foraging so urgently. They must be making their nest tunnels somewhere fairly close by, probably in a garden that doesn’t even know that they’re there. This is the joy of having the time to stop and observe the goings on in nature, even if it’s just for five minutes (and even if it involves blocking the pavement and attracting strange looks from passersby).

Finally, I mentioned wasps, and there are a few about this year. The nests are starting to break up, and the wasps are footloose and fancy free, which is why they’re turning up at picnic tables. But some nests must still be in operational order because some of the wasps were still hunting for protein (which they feed to their larvae) rather than just snacking on the sweet stuff. One wasp was cruising around when it spotted some unfortunate fly trussed up in a spider’s web that was strewn across the ivy. The wasp not only approached and tried to cut the fly out of the web but, when it was unsuccessful, it flew through the web, making quite a kerfuffle of buzzing in the process, and then tried to extract the fly from the opposite side. It was only the sudden appearance of the spider that deterred it and sent it on its way. You might remember that I spotted a wasp actually going into an ants’ nest to remove larvae a few years ago, but this was new behaviour for me. Have you spotted wasps doing anything surprising? I suspect these insects are much more adaptable and opportunistic than we give them credit for.

And I promise to move on from ivy bees tomorrow. If I can tear myself away.

Nature’s Calendar – Bees Cling to Ivy (18th – 22nd September)

Ivy Mining Bee (Colletes hederae)

I am following the 72 microseasons in Nature’s Calendar as inspiration for the next twelve months – let’s see what we can find!

Dear Readers, I spotted my first Ivy Mining Bee in 2019, on some mature ivy in the gardens of the National Archives in Kew. How exciting it was! These little bees first arrived in the UK in 2001 and have made themselves very much at home. Although they look rather like honeybees, ivy bees have a much clearer set of yellow and black stripes on the abdomen and ginger hairs on their thorax. I took the photo above with my phone (and this is an indication that you should always have your proper camera handy – you never know when something exciting is going to pop by)

Here is a much better photo. If you have ivy, and if it ever stops raining, have a look and see if you can spot some Ivy Mining Bees. They are currently only found in Southern England, but are travelling further north every year.

Male Ivy Mining Bee (the female is very similar) (Photo by By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

When you notice ivy bees, you can be sure that autumn  is underway: this species is the very last to emerge from the nest each year, and the adults will only live for about six weeks. As the name suggests, they feed almost exclusively on ivy flowers, and use the pollen to feed their larvae. Ivy Mining Bees are solitary, with each female bee making a tunnel in soft or sandy soil, and laying a single egg in each one, which will be provisioned with the pollen. Once complete, each tunnel is sealed and the female, her job done, will die. Although the bees are solitary (inasmuch as they don’t make a communal nest) there can be many individual tunnels at a suitable site.

In August, the larvae start to hatch as adult bees, with the males hatching first. The males hang around waiting for the females to emerge a few weeks later (they time their emergence for when the ivy is starting to flower). When the females appear they produce a pheromone so overwhelming that many lust-crazed males may pounce upon a female, forming a mating ball. This reminds me of the frogs in my pond, where again the males emerge (this time from hibernation) first, and hang around waiting for the females (who seem to hibernate elsewhere in the garden) to turn up. Again, a number of males may try to mate with a single female.

A mating cluster of Ivy Bees (Photo by By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

I’ve written before about how invaluable ivy is, in spite of its reputation as a destroyer of trees and buildings. There is a clump of it in a front garden just up the road from me, and I noted 6 species of insect feeding from it even on a blustery day like today. So I wanted to mention another insect that, if you’re lucky, you might see on ivy flowers: the golden hoverfly (Callicera spinolae).

Golden Hoverfly (Callicera spinolae) Photo By Barry Walter –, CC BY 4.0,

This is a very handsome fly, and sadly rare too, so you will  be lucky to see one – in the UK it’s mainly confined to East Anglia. The adults feed on ivy, as the name suggests, but the problem is that the larvae (like the larvae of so many hoverflies) need wet rot holes – areas of damaged and decaying wood that hold water. The larvae develop in these miniature pools, feeding on bacteria. This kind of habitat is found largely in ancient deciduous woodland, where fallen trees are allowed to remain, and where there isn’t an urge to cut things down and tidy things up. As we all know, these places are becoming rare in the UK. The Golden Hoverfly has only been seen in four locations in the past ten years, but it could be that it is under reported because it spends most of its time either in the canopy or trying to find places to lay eggs. Your best chance of seeing one is to keep an eye on those ivy flowers. Fingers crossed! And if you don’t see a Golden Hoverfly, there are a whole host of other pollinators (including Red Admiral and Holly Blue butterflies) that make good use of the late pollen and nectar that ivy provides. It’s always worth stopping at flowering ivy to have a look.

Honeybee on ivy

Wasps on ivy

Wednesday Weed – Stargazer Lily


Dear Readers, there can be few flowers that are as spectacular as the Oriental  Lily, and I was gifted some last week when I retired from work. They are extraordinary blooms: some people think that they smell of plastic but these particular ones seem to have a deeply spicy scent, with more than a touch of cloves about them. Interestingly, when a lily that looked like the Stargazer but had no scent was developed, the breeder went out of business, so clearly those who like the scent are in the majority.

The pollen is poisonous to cats – if it gets onto the fur and the cat licks it off, it can cause kidney failure. Fortunately, my elderly cat can no longer be bothered to jump onto anything higher than the sofa, so I can enjoy my lilies without having to worry.

Willow the cat. 16 years old this year!

Stargazers are a specific form of the Oriental Lily – they appeared for the first time in 1974 by California breeder Leslie Woodriff. Woodriff wanted to create a flower that looked upwards, rather than drooping like so many lilies. The original Stargazer lily was mostly pink in colour, as in the photo below, but since then pure white and pink-tinged varieties have been bred. I rather like the delicacy of my pale pink flowers. Plus, do you think there’s the merest touch of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ about the one below? It looks very slightly hairy to me, which is a little off-putting.

Original ‘Stargazer’ lily (Photo By Jim Evans – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Although they look so delicate and exotic, Stargazer lilies are reputed to be relatively easy to grow. Easy, that is, until this little chap comes along.

Scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) Photo By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I think that these are very attractive-looking beetles in their livery of red and black, and note the little indentations in their wing cases (elytra), as if someone has picked them over with a tiny sharp stick. Alas, their larvae eat the leaves of all lily and fritillary species, and they can make short work of your prize specimens. In Europe, the beetle larvae are preyed upon by a variety of parasitic wasps, which helps to keep things in some kind of balance. In North America, however (where they were imported in garden soil) there are no predators at all, and so they are more of a nuisance if you like growing lilies.

Incidentally, a distressed lily beetle can let out a loud squeak if it feels threatened by rubbing its legs together, which may be enough to deter an eager bird (or even an eager gardener). It can also play dead (known as ‘thanatosis’), which is a popular tactic in the invertebrate world.

Back to our lilies.

One thing that lilies illustrate rather beautifully is the way that plants reproduce.

  1. Stigma – this is the tip of the female part of the plant. This is often sticky, and this is the spot where the flower will receive pollen, either from a passing bee or other pollinator, or blown in the wind. Note that it’s held high above the pollen-producing organs – this lessens the chance that the plant will be self-pollinated. Some stigma are also able to reject pollen which is too closely related, or which is from the same plant.
  2. Style – this is the tube down which the pollen will pass in order to connect with the ovule, which is deep in the heart of the plant. Once there, germination will occur and a seed will be created.
  3. Anthers – these are the parts of the plant that produce pollen and, together with the filaments (4) which support them form the stamen, usually considered to be the male part of the plant. Lilies produce a lot of pollen, as anyone who has tried to wash it out of a white teeshirt will concur.
  4. Filament (see above).
  5. Tepal – in many plants, you get petals and sepals – the sepals are the green protective parts that surround the petals when they are developing in the bud, and which are found at the base of the flower once it opens. Lilies, however, don’t have any differentiation between the petal and sepal, so their petals are called tepals. Simples! And if you think there’s a poem in all this, you’re probably right.

In the Victorian Language of Flowers, lilies were said to represent love and affection for your loved ones, so I am especially touched to have received a whole bunch of them from my workmates. They are also associated with funerals (which may be another reason why they’re sometimes disliked), but as they are meant to show that the soul of the deceased has been returned to a state of innocence I think they are wholly appropriate.

And finally, as usual, a poem. There’s something about this short poem by Ben Jonson that I’ve always liked – each line a new image, and the whole thing so sensual and full of life. He might have been a man of the 16th and 17th centuries (1573 – 1637) but he knew how to live, did our Ben.

Have You Seen
but a Bright Lily Grow”

Ben Jonson

Have you seen but a bright lily grow
Before rude hands have touched it?
Have you marked but the fall of snow
Before the soil hath smutched it?
Have you felt the wool of beaver,
Or swan’s down ever?
Or have smelt o’ the bud o’ the brier,
Or the nard in the fire?
Or have tasted the bag of the bee?
O so white, O so soft, O so sweet is she!