Author Archives: Bug Woman

Autumn in the Garden

Dear Readers, I’ve got a break from work for a few weeks after today, so naturally I’m in my usual tearing haste to get all my paperwork done. Fortunately yesterday’s torrential rain has eased up a bit, so I had a quick walk around the garden to see what was going on, and it’s surprising what you can notice in ten minutes.

I’m very pleased with this sedum – the one in the top photo and this one are the same plant. The cerise flowers come first, and then turn to baby pink. It’s very popular with hoverflies, I’ve noticed.

This sedum is just going over, but it’s been a very structural plant. I did hear someone say that to propagate sedums all you have to do is break off a bit and plant it, but surely it can’t be that easy! Let me know, peeps.

This white sedum is just getting going. I love that they’ve conveniently staggered their flowering times, it’s always a bit duller in the garden once the autumn comes. The slugs and snails have clearly been having fun though.

Although the flowers are full and far between, there’s lots of excitement on the berry front. My whitebeam has decided to fruit this year, I don’t remember the berries ever staying on the tree long enough for me to see them!

Whitebeam berries

Then there’s the hawthorn..

And the bittersweet….

And the spindle….

And finally, the rowan…

 

It will be interesting to see who comes to visit to eat all this bounty, and which plants they prefer!

Wednesday Weed – White Bryony

White Bryony (Bryonia diocia)

Dear Readers, I am always so excited when I find a genuinely ‘new’ wild plant to report on, and so I was very pleased when my friend A asked what this was when she spotted it on her walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. This is White Bryony, our only native member of the cucumber family, and apparently later on it will produce some shiny red berries. It is, however, highly poisonous, and can cause deaths in cattle if they munch on the roots – unfortunately the animals seem much attracted to the taste, and even after being poisoned by it they seem to retain a craving for the plant.

The bees seemed to love it, and I think the little white, green-veined flowers are very attractive. I am half tempted to bring some seeds back for the garden, but at the moment the whole place is looking so overgrown that I’m not quite sure where I’d pop it in.

According to The Wildlife Trust’s page on the plant, it used to be passed off as mandrake during the Middle Ages. Mandrake is native to the Mediterranean area, and was highly prized as a narcotic, painkiller and aphrodisiac. Mandrake has roots which are said to look like little people, and the plant was supposed to shriek if pulled out of the ground. Enterprising souls in England used to carve the roots of white bryony into similar shapes, and no doubt sold them for an eye-watering price. The RHS website mentions that the tuber of white bryony can grow to weigh several kilos, so I suspect that would be a lot of little people. Presumably the sellers moved on pretty quickly, however,  before the buyers realised how purgative a dose of white bryony can be (it was used medicinally as a laxative at one time, but I suspect the results were rather more explosive than desired). In France, the plant is known as ‘the Devil’s turnip’, which sounds about right.

In France the plant was used to stop or slow down milk production in humans, and Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) mentions that there were many cases of poisoning in weaning mothers as a result.

If applied to the skin as a poultice it can cause delightful reddening and blisters, which were previously thought to draw out poisons, though I suspect that instead such damage might have invited infection. Incidentally, the old word for a poultice was a cataplasm, so I shall be trying to introduce this into a sentence in the next few days at work, just for the hell of it. My reputation for eccentricity must be bolstered occasionally after all.

Photo One by D arckangel, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A mandrake root (Photo One)

Photo Two by H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A relatively modest white bryony root (Photo Two)

Incidentally, the ‘white bryony’ found in the USA, where it is widely naturalised, is a different species. Bryonia alba has black berries, not red ones like ‘our’ plant, and has proved to be a most pernicious weed where introduced.

Photo Three by By Aung - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4459404

Bryonia alba (also known as white bryony but not found in the UK) (Photo Three)

There is a raft of very satisfying folklore around white bryony. Its roots were crushed and put into mouse and rat holes as a way to deter vermin.

The Plant Folklore site reports that:

In 1908 a man employed to dig a neglected garden near Stratford upon Avon, cut through a large bryony root with his spade.  He called the root ‘mandrake’ and stopped work at once, saying it ‘was awful bad luck’.  Before the week was out he fell and broke his neck’.

However, in other circumstances it was considered to bring good fortune:

old Fen men digging up roots, selecting those most human in shape washing them carefully and putting in their marks – few of the older generation could read or write.  On their visits to the local inn the men took their roots to join others arranged on the taproom mantleshelf ready to be judged in a competition for which entrant paid a small fee.  On Saturday night the landlord’s wife would be called in to judge the exhibits, a prize being awarded to the root which most resembled the female figure  …  After the prize had been awarded the winning roots stayed on the shelf until it was ousted by a finer specimen.  Even then it was not discarded, for if it was suspended by the string from the rafters of a sow’s stye it was reckoned that more piglets would be produced.  When the root was dry and shrivelled it was placed among the savings kept in an old stocking hidden under the mattress as a guarantee that the hoard would increase’.

Plus, this most acrid and poisonous of roots was considered to be a good tonic for horses, in spite of its deleterious effect on cattle, though in most cases only a pinch of the dried root was used.

Incidentally, the word ‘bryony’ means ‘to sprout, to grow abundantly’.

And now a poem (or two, actually). I can find no poems about the plant, but I have found a new poet – Bryony Littlefair. She is a poet, community centre worker and workshop facilitator living in London, and her pamphlet Giraffe won the Myslexia Pamphlet Prize in 2017. I liked both of these poems. See what you think. The first one, ‘Sunday Mornings’, seems to me to be about learning to be on your own, and to be your own person, separate from your parents, but still a little unformed.

Sunday mornings – Bryony Littlefair

The truth is I’m not sure what I did
those mornings they’d leave, my mother
always in a floral capped-sleeve shirt.
I wish I could say I graffitied the newsagent,
or met with a nicotine-fingered boyfriend,
or learned Bertrand Russell by heart. I didn’t
do any of those things, nor the homework
I’d invented to excuse my godlessness.
Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose
and endangered, like an undone shoelace
or an open rucksack.  I’d pace from room
to room, hands tucked up my sleeves.
I’d play snatches on the piano, or make
elaborate little snacks – crackers piled
with quartered grapes and shavings of cheese.
I was like a blunt knife, failing to cut
and apportion the hours.  I’d spin
on the office chair, or curl up on patches
of carpet, pretending to be dead.
I might have put on a CD, shaken
my hips to Run DMC, a jerky
figure of eight.  I might have filmed myself dancing.
I’d be choosing another colour for my nails
when the key would turn in the lock:
my parents, whole and returned,
having sung their hallelujahs
and walked back through the cool light rain

And here is ‘Giraffe’. There are lines in this that remind me so strongly of starting to feel better after being ill, either physically or mentally, or both. I love the line about bare feet on a slightly damp wooden floor. Plus giraffes are my totem animals, so how could I resist?

Giraffe by Bryony Littlefair

When you feel better from this — and you will — it will be quiet and unremarkable, like walking into the next room. It might sting a little, like warmth leaking into cold-numbed hands. When you feel better, it will be the slow clearing of static from the radio. It will be a film set when the director yells cut! When you feel better, you will take: a plastic spoon for your coffee foam, free chocolates from the gleaming oak reception desk, the bus on sunny days, your own sweet time. When you feel better, it will be like walking barefoot on cool, smooth planks of wood, still damp from last night’s rain. It will be the holy silence when the tap stops dripping. The moment a map finally starts to make sense. When you feel better, you will still suffer, but your sadness will be graspable, roadworthy, have handlebars. When you feel better, you will not always be happy, but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.

Photo Credits

Photo One by D arckangel, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Aung – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4459404

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Spiders

Noble False Widow Spider (Steatoda nobilis)

Dear Readers, spider season is in full swing, and as I’ve noted previously, old-fashioned sash windows are a perfect habitat for spiders, particularly these Noble False Widows. On my spider group they’ve decided to drop the ‘false widow’ bit because people can be so freaked out – they’ve all heard of the black widow spider, which is quite a dangerous critter, though it doesn’t live in the UK. Judging by the abdomen I think this one might be a female and pregnant to boot, which will be exciting as this species can have up to 200 young. Females can live for up to five years, males rather less as they sometimes become a female’s post-coital dinner.

I can’t help feeling that there’s something rather poised and balletic about this spider, with the tips of her legs resting gently on her silken web, waiting for the vibrations that will tell her that dinner has arrived. She only makes an appearance as the sun goes down, and emerges tentatively – me stomping across the room and shoving a camera in her face was about as welcome as any paparazzo. But then she gradually emerged again. The patience of wild animals never ceases to move me – she will wait for days for a fly or (with any luck) a clothes moth, and gets all the fluid that she needs from her prey. I find myself watching her, and hoping that she will get lucky, while simultaneously wishing that her dinner will manage to avoid her fangs.

Outside a garden cross spider (Araneus diadematus) has made a web in the front window. It’s not often that I get this good a view of a spider’s underside.

One thing that really strikes me are the different-coloured bands on the spider’s legs (called annulations) – if you’d asked me I’d have said that they were black and white striped, but actually there are bands of grey and tan and russet too. This one is a female too – she doesn’t have the pedipalps, the little boxing-glove mouthparts that males have. On either side of the central brown stripe, just before the black area with the two white spots, there are two kidney-bean shaped areas. These are the book lungs, so-called because they are filled with thin sheets like the pages of a book – they are used to extract oxygen from the air so that the spider can breathe.

If you look very carefully, you can see, at the top of the photo, a little cloud of silk that has emerged from the spider’s spinnerets. She has spent all night making her web, but it seems to be pretty much unbesmirched by any insect prey. Overnight she will probably eat all the silk and then make a new, fresh web.

Although we associate these lovely orb webs with spiders, there are actually only four families of British spiders who make them, with all the rest having a wide range of hunting tactics, from hanging around in flowers to patrolling long grass or hanging around in sheds. Spiders really are the most fascinating of invertebrates, and I’m always very glad to give them house room. I guess I’ll have to have my windows cleaned at some point, but not just yet.

 

A September Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Canna lily

Dear Readers, the gardeners of St Pancras and Islington Cemetery seem to have gone developed a passion for canna lilies this year, and very splendid they look too. They must have at least six varieties, in various shades of scarlet, peach, yellow and coral. Some have splendid stripy leaves as well.

It’s true that these plants aren’t great for pollinators, but they are bright and cheerful, And what do you think caused this very particular leaf damage?

Well, apparently it’s just a snail or slug, who made a deep hole in the leaf while it was still rolled up – when the leaf unfurls, it looks as if something has attacked it with a hole punch.

In other news, I was very taken by the multiple stems of this yew tree. I can just imagine what it will look like if it lives to be a thousand, like this one.

And then, who is this lurking in the wood?

A very handsome cat, that’s who. I imagine he lives in the flats that abut the cemetery.

The ivy is just coming into flower, so I had a look for ivy bees, but none so far.

Honeybee on ivy

My friend A had tipped me off about a potential new Wednesday Weed so I went to investigate, and sure enough there’s some very impressive white bryony (Bryonia diocia), a member of the cucumber family and again, very popular with the bees.

There were no foxes on the field this time, but I do love the way that the late-summer sun sometimes just touches a seedhead and illuminates it.

The Japanese Knotweed is in full flower. Someone asked me last week why there are only female flowers in the UK – in fact, nearly every Japanese knotweed plant outside Japan is a clone of the original mother plant. Japanese knotweed was a popular Victorian garden plant, and you can kind of see why when it’s in flower – it’s very architectural and requires very little upkeep. Presumably only female plants were imported, but in the US they are ‘lucky’ enough to have male and female plants. The males have brighter flowers and larger leaves, so I think it might just be luck that we didn’t get both sexes in the UK.

Female Japanese knotweed in full flower in the cemetery

Leaves and flowers of male Japanese Knotweed (from https://nyfablog.org/2013/09/09/japanese-knotweed-male-and-female-plants/)

And I do wish that people wouldn’t use balloons to decorate the graves or to celebrate parties. These two balloons are stuck in a tree where they’re a real hazard to birds.

So, after two weeks away it was great to be back in the cemetery. Autumn is coming on apace, and it’s my favourite time of year. But I couldn’t leave this post without sharing my most recent book purchase with you. I suspect that it might inspire some more adventures.

 

 

Sunday Quiz – Aliens!

A Martian in Woking (Photo by Colin Smith ) This is a metal sculpture, based on H G Well’s book ‘The War of the Worlds’

Dear Readers, you might read a lot in the UK papers about ‘invasive aliens’, but would you recognise one if you tripped over it? Below are photos of some of the animals that the UK government is getting most worked up about. Most of the larger animals have been deliberately introduced into ponds or gardens or private wildlife collections, but have found the UK very much to their liking. The invertebrates are a bit more audacious, and have turned up without any invitation at all! Climate change is making our environmental conditions more conducive to many creatures, so who knows what will turn up next?

Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Friday please (17th September), and the answers will be posted on Saturday 18th. I will hide your answers as soon as I see them, but write them down first before you open the comments if you’re easily influenced (like me).

Onwards!

Photo One by Bouke ten Cate, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Two by Ryzhkov Sergey, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Three by Lilly M, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Four by Prue Simmons, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Five by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Six by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=788401

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Photo Seven by By Rhondle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16504721

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Photo Eight by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Nine by Dieter Florian (To contact the author, ask the uploader or take a look at tauchshop-florian.de.), CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Ten by Liquid Art, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Eleven by David Perez, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Twelve by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Thirteen by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Fourteen by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Photo Fifteen by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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Friday Quiz – Random UK Wildlife Facts! – The Answers

Title photo by Michael R Perry

Dear Readers, we had a tie for first place this week, with Fran and Bobby Freelove and Anne both getting 13 out of 15. I’m giving both you a half mark for saying 3 British mammals hibernate – if you include bats, though, you get up to  20 species. I’m also giving a half mark for King James’s birds – I was after peregrine falcon, but hawk is definitely in the right ball park. Thank you for playing, and let’s see what i can come up with tomorrow….

  1. What do we call a baby alpaca? A cria
  2. What is the most dangerous animal in England, in terms of deaths? The cow
  3. What is Britain’s fastest land mammal? The brown hare
  4. Which four groups of animals technically belong to the Queen? Swans, whales, porpoises/ dolphins and sturgeons
  5. What is a group of pheasants called? A covey, bouquet, nide , nye or head of pheasants
  6. Owls are zygodactyl. What does that mean? They have two toes pointing forwards and two toes pointing backwards.
  7. The puffin’s scientific name is Puffinus puffinus. True or false? False! Puffinus puffinus is the Manx shearwater. ‘Our’ puffin’s scientific name is Fratercula arcticus. ‘Puffin’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘the fat tasty nestling of a shearwater’. 
  8. How many species of UK mammal hibernate (closest answer gets a bonus point!) Hedgehogs, dormice and all of the bat species, so 20 species in total. 
  9. Fieldfares and redwings migrate to the UK every year, but where from? Scandinavia
  10. Which UK thrush is named after its favourite food? The Mistle Thrush (named for its fondness for mistletoe)
  11. James II paid over a thousand pounds for a pair of which birds? Peregrine falcons, for hunting.
  12. Which species of bird, first seen in the UK in 1956, is now the 7th most commonly seen species? The Collared Dove
  13. What is Britain’s commonest bird of prey? The buzzard
  14. Which is the only UK snake that lays eggs? The grass snake – smooth snakes and adders give birth to live young. 
  15. The UK has only three native lizard species. Can you name them? Common and sand lizards and the slow worm. 

 

A Ninja Turtle?

A Wandering Turtle (Photo Credit Tristan Green/Ham and High)

Dear Readers, those of you of a certain age will remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze. The crime-fighting reptiles first appeared in a comic book in 1984, but have been resurrected occasionally ever since. The knock-on effect on real turtles, however, was not so benign – lots of people bought tiny terrapins as pets, only to discover that they grew to the size of a dinner plate, were extremely smelly if not cleaned out every day, and could be grumpy to boot. Many a terrapin disappeared into the local pond, where it set about eating frogs, toads, newts and even ducklings. I saw a very fine speciman sitting on a rock in the New River (Islington) a couple of years ago, so they can clearly also survive the winter.

The little chap in the picture below,  though, was found wandering around the field at Martin’s school in East Finchley.

(Photo Credit Tristan Green/Ham and High)

Very sensibly, the terrapin was put into the school’s pond (though I’m not sure what the rest of the pond population thought about it). Then, the turtle went walkabout again and gatecrashed a PE lesson. I wonder how much of a homing instinct these creatures have? S/he was clearly trying to get somewhere.

Eventually the terrapin’s owner appeared – they’d been on holiday and had known nothing about their pet’s escapade – apparently the animal has a perfectly nice pond at home, and that is presumably where s/he was headed.

The whole episode does make me think, though. Tortoises were a common and popular pet when I was a girl – my grandmother used to have a tortoise that would bang on the door with his shell when he wanted to come in from the garden, and would positively run across the floor at the sight of a strawberry. Children’s TV programmes such as Blue Peter featured a tortoise who would be ritually put to bed in a box filled with straw when it was time to hibernate. But such was the trade in the Mediterranean species who were the most commonly kept that the animals became endangered, and it’s now against the law to offer them for sale or trade them without a special permit. How often humans over-exploit the natural world and end up spoiling it!

Photo One by By Orchi - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1016717

A wild Hermann’s tortoise, one of the most commonly-kept European species prior to the trade ban (Photo One)

The other thing that always worried me about pets like tortoises and parrots is their extreme longevity. What happens to these much-loved creatures when their owners die, or can no longer look after them?  A puppy clearly isn’t only for Christmas, but a macaw or a tortoise can outlive a human easily. I know that people make provision in their wills, but I imagine that the transition, especially for a bird as intelligent as a parrot, must be extremely stressful and upsetting.

Still, at least the story of the East Finchley terrapin has a happy ending. I hope that s/he is soon back in the old, familiar pond, with a nice rock to sit on and lots of unsuspecting invertebrates to eat. And won’t they have some adventures to remember!

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Orchi – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1016717

The Much Maligned House Spider

Dear Readers, at this time of year many people become terrified of the spiders that suddenly seem to ‘appear’ in their gardens, sheds and, worst of all, their houses. I have every sympathy with arachnophobes, but I wanted to add in a few facts that might help those of us with a milder antipathy towards these fascinating animals to enjoy their autumns a bit more. These are fascinating animals with extraordinary life histories, and it’s possible to cohabit with them quite happily, as I know.

I recommend ‘Charlotte’s Web’ as a way of rehabilitating small children who are starting to develop a fear of spiders. It really works as a way of inspiring empathy and curiosity, surely great attributes for life.

Firstly, as far as the garden and shed goes, the spiders have been there all along, as spiderlings or eggs. We only start to notice them when they get big enough to see, and when they start flinging their webs at head-height across our paths. In the garden, the vast majority are Garden Cross Spiders (Araneus diadematus), easily identifiable by the ‘cross’ on their abdomen. Many of them are females, who will lay their eggs in the autumn and then die – they can grow up to 15mm long, but the pregnant ones will also look extremely fat.

Garden Cross Spider (Araneus diadematus) – probably a male

Garden cross spider – fat enough to be a pregnant female!

What seems to cause people the most trepidation, however, is the sudden sight of a house spider creeping along the skirting board. There are two species that you’re likely to see in the autumn: the large house spider (Tegenaria gigantea) and the common house spider (Tegenaria domestica). Both have very long legs, which is probably one reason why they give so many people the willies, but then the males in particular have to do a lot of running around, as we’ll see. The common house spider is similar to its ‘large’ relative, but is naturally a bit smaller, and according to my book ‘Britain’s Spiders – A Field Guide’, it tends to be paler, sometimes without those impressive tiger stripes on the abdomen. The common house spider is known as the barn funnel weaver in North America.

Giant House Spider (Tegenaria gigantea) by AJ Cann from https://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/giant-house-spider

The female is bigger than the male in both species. However, you are unlikely to see her (unless, like me, you tend to leave cobwebs in corners) – she makes a tube-like retreat which spreads out into a sheet, and there she waits for gentleman callers. In fact, if not wafted away with a feather duster, a web may be inhabited by several generations of house spiders, like an ancestral mansion out in the shires.

The males are looking specifically for a female who has not already been mated: they can tell if she’s receptive to their advances by pheromones that she secretes into her web. But life is extremely tough for a male house spider (you can tell that it’s a male by the ‘boxing gloves’ or pedipalps that are attached to their ‘jaws’, as in the photo above). They might get into fights with other males. They won’t eat, because they only have one thing on their minds. But they do get thirsty, and our homes are very dry environments – one reason why you often find the poor souls in the shower or bath tub.

When they find a female, they tug the web with their feet and fangs and  dance up and down, to make sure the female knows that they are male and the right species. If they mess this up, they could be dinner. If all goes well they will move in with the female for a while, and it’s not unusual to find a pair snuggled up together in the web. The male is waiting for the female’s final moult, when she will be ready to reproduce: those palps act like hypodermic syringes to inject her with sperm. Then the male may stay with her, guarding her against other males and mating with her frequently. Sometime in the winter, though, the male dies, leaving the female alone.

The female doesn’t lay her eggs until the following spring, and the young take 30-50 days to hatch. Right from the start they are formidable hunters, eating tiny fruit-flies to begin with but soon graduating to houseflies, bluebottles and house moths. Spiders don’t have to eat often, but they have a feast or famine approach, storing up the sad little corpses when there are lots of flying insects about so that they have enough for a rainy day. However, the availability of food when young does impact on the size of the adult spider, and being big both helps with the number of eggs that can be produced (in females) and in the ability to protect your mate from other males. This might be one reason why we sometimes see ‘monster’ spiders of a whacking 10 cms to 14 cms long, though I imagine my readers from other parts of the world are having a good old chuckle at this moment, especially anyone in South Africa or Australia, where the arachnids are decidedly more substantial.

So, the poor old house spider doesn’t have an easy life of it, and all it wants to do, as it scuttles out from behind the sofa, is to find a mate, reproduce and die. Incidentally, although escorting the spider outside is undoubtedly a better option than dropping a hot water bottle on the animal from a great height like my grandmother used to, it still isn’t very helpful for the spider. Male spiders only want to find a female of the same species, and these are usually living in your house or shed, so if he can find a way back in, I’m sure he will. Otherwise, if at night you hear the sound of a tiny guitar being plucked by one of 8 hairy legs as a lady spider is serenaded from outside your house, I hope you feel very, very guilty.

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Red Bartsia

Red Bartsia (Odontites vernus)

Dear Readers, this inoffensive little plant is my first ever member of the Orobanchaceae or Broomrape family, which includes a wide range of total and partial parasites. Bartsias are partial parasites – they can photosynthesise but they extract nutrients from the roots of other plants, grasses in the case of this species. Normally, these plants grow in nutrient-poor soil (hence the need to steal the resources they need from their hosts). These, however, were growing on a bridle path in Dorset, where you’d have thought that horse manure raining down would have provided everything that any plant could want (though judging by how overgrown the path was it would take a very intrepid rider to tiptoe through.

Red bartsia

Red bartsia is native to Europe and Asia, but has become a bit of a pest in North America. The Latin word ‘Odontites‘ means ‘tooth-related’, and the plant has been used medicinally for toothache since the time of Pliny the Elder. ‘Vernus‘ means ‘of the spring’, but this is something of a misnomer as the plant flowers in summer and autumn. ‘Bartsia’ comes from the botanist Johann Bartsch, who worked with Linnaeus and was sent to Surinam by his mentor when he was only 29. Sadly, Bartsch caught a tropical disease on arrival and promptly died, whereupon Linnaeus invented the word ‘Bartsia’ and set about attaching it to various plants. You might have thought that he’d pick something a bit more flamboyant to honour his student, but there you go.

In one of those interrelationships between plants and animals, red bartsia has its very own solitary bee species, the red bartsia bee (Melitta tricintca). Red bartsia often grows on chalky soils, and chalk grassland is becoming rarer in the UK, taking its associated species with it as it disappears. The bee only takes pollen from the red bartsia, though it might occasionally take nectar from other flowers. The males hang around the plant looking for visiting females.

Photo One by XJochemx.nl, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Red Bartsia Bee (Melitta tricincta) (Photo One)

This is also the main foodplant of the Barred Rivulet moth (Perizoma bifaciata). Have a look at the camouflage below. No wonder moths so often go unnoticed.

Photo Two by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Barred Rivulet (Perizoma bifaciata) (Photo Two)

And finally a poem, by Emily Dickinson no less. The poet wanders about the winter village, asking who lies in the various ‘beds’ – in other words, which flowers will appear in the spring. Nature is depicted as a mother, rocking the various cradles where the plants are sleeping. Leontodon is dandelion, Rhodora the rhododendron. And how I love the ‘chubby daffodil’! Epigea is the trailing arbutus, a common vine in the USA, where Dickinson lived.

I think the whole poem begs to be illustrated and put in a book for children. It teeters on the edge of saccharine but, for me, it doesn’t actually fall in. See what you think.

Whose are the little beds, I asked by Emily Dickinson

Whose are the little beds, I asked
Which in the valleys lie?
Some shook their heads, and others smiled—
And no one made reply.

Perhaps they did not hear, I said,
I will inquire again—
Whose are the beds—the tiny beds
So thick upon the plain?

‘Tis Daisy, in the shortest—
A little further on—
Nearest the door—to wake the Ist—
Little Leontoden.

‘Tis Iris, Sir, and Aster—
Anemone, and Bell—
Bartsia, in the blanket red—
And chubby Daffodil.

Meanwhile, at many cradles
Her busy foot she plied—
Humming the quaintest lullaby
That ever rocked a child.

Hush! Epigea wakens!
The Crocus stirs her lids—
Rhodora’s cheek is crimson,
She’s dreaming of the woods!

Then turning from them reverent—
Their bedtime ’tis, she said—
The Bumble bees will wake them
When April woods are red.
– F85 (1859) 142

A Late Summer Walk at Walthamstow Wetlands

The Engine Room at Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, last time I was here with my friend S, the site was closed due to flooding, so it was a relief to actually be able to see the reservoirs and lakes this time. The whole place was full of dragonflies, not one of which sat still long enough for me to get a photo. Still, they are such a delight, zipping about like those toy planes powered by elastic bands that you used to get for about a shilling when I was a girl. 

They currently have a Moomin trail for the children. I was never a great fan of the little critters, but my lovely friend Susie, who died much too young, was an avid collector of all things Moomin, so I had to take a few photos for her.

On the ‘real’ wildlife trail, though, my Birdnet app proved its worth again. I heard some calls coming from what I thought were small birds in one of the goat willows. Well, I was half-right – they were small birds, but they were Little Grebes, or Dabchicks (Tachybaptus ruficollis). According to my Crossley Bird Guide, their ‘very well-known call is like whinny of tiny horse or slightly insane giggle’. I love this book!

The young birds can apparently retain the stripes on their head through their first winter, which I think is what is going on with this bird. It has a fluffy tail too, which leads Crossley to describe the bird as a ‘floating rabbit’. All in all it’s a slightly bedraggled-looking little bird, but it bobs under the water with all the efficiency of its larger relatives and then bounces back up like a cork. Dabchicks eat insects and larvae, so any baby dragonflies had better watch out.

On one of the other lakes, I spotted an adult bird, looking a bit more dapper. That splendid chestnut neck is diagnostic for the species, and I’d have though that the white mark below the bill was a good indicator too.

Adult Little Grebe

What’s going on with the water, though? Although in some places it looks like one of those Venetian marbled papers, it does look a little alarming. It’s not duckweed, and it doesn’t seem to be chemical pollution, so I’m assuming that it’s algae.

And how about this fabulous spider, who was floating in mid-air half way across the path and wasn’t best pleased when we accidentally undid all his/her hard work by walking right through the web…

There’s also some flowering Japanese knotweed (though as we know there are only female plants in the UK so it’s not the seeds that are the problem, but the roots) and! apparently some Giant Hogweed though I couldn’t see it. For those of you who don’t know, the sap of this plant can cause blisters, and it also makes the skin photosensitive so that it becomes red and sore on exposure to sunlight, sometimes for years afterwards.

There are lots of rosehips about too, including this sweetbriar( Rosa rubiginosa) – the hips have much longer sepals than on a dog rose.

A lot of the paths are out of action at the Wetlands at the moment – when ducks moult they lose all their flight feathers at once, and so are extremely vulnerable and need places to hide without disturbance. It’s always a great place to wander around, though, with lots to see if you’re patient. Today felt like summer’s last gasp, with temperatures in the high twenties, and so it was good to make the most of it. Plus, the cafe does the most delicious sandwiches and cakes, so it makes it easy to just ‘hang out’. What a great addition Walthamstow Wetlands is to the green spaces of London!