Dear Readers, as I sit here in my office, gazing sadly at the lovely sunny weather outside, I notice a flurry of movement on my aphid-ridden buddleia. A little family of sparrows are furiously pecking at the blackfly, before moving on. Five minutes later, there are a couple of goldfinches, including a young ‘un. Then, there’s a blue tit.
Blimey, who would have thought that all those bugs could be put to such good use? I am a bit concerned, though – caterpillars and spiders would surely be heartier fare, and I seem to remember reading that birds only turn to such tiny prey when there’s nothing else about. In fact the garden is well-stocked for just such an eventuality – the hawthorn tree has been well-frequented this spring, and there are suet pellets, thought again I note that this is normally food for hungry adults rather than new fledglings. All in all it’s been a very peculiar year, as we’re now edging into drought conditions, and no doubt soon it will be hosepipe bans as far as the eye can see.
Let me know if your plants have had any avian visitors, I have a suspicion that the birds are changing their behaviour in an attempt to keep up with all this climate change shenanigans.
Today’s revision was largely Homeostasis and the Structure of Proteins, but by this time next week it will all be over and done with for another year, hallelujah! I hope you have a lovely weekend, peeps. Think of me, hunched over a hot textbook (no, not that kind of hot textbook) as you sip your gin and tonics and relax with a good book. And many, many good wishes to anyone who has young people who are in the same situation, and to the young people themselves. At least my studying is purely for self satisfaction, rather than hoping to go to uni, or to work in a particular field, even though Professor Bugwoman does have a certain ring to it (and my brain is the size of an asteroid after all this force-feeding of information).
Dear Readers, I have always felt a bit ambivalent about cut flowers. There’s something a bit wasteful about them, and about the fact that they’ll soon be dead however careful I am. However, this week there was a special offer on British-grown flowers via Abel and Cole, and in the midst of my revision frenzy I couldn’t resist. They do say that there’s only so much willpower that you can call upon at any one time, and clearly all of mine is going on keeping me in my seat and forcing me through the endless things I seem to have to get into my brain. There’s no room for saying ‘no’ to antirrhinums and sweet william and cornflowers and night-scented stock, and my second-hand jug seemed to be just the thing to stick them in. See what you think.
I read a lot about growing ‘cutting gardens’ and am always very impressed, but as my garden is north-facing, it isn’t always full of blooms (though I have to say that the mock orange (Philadelphus) is doing really well this year). My sunny front garden feels a little too small to raid, especially as it seems that the bees need all that they can get at the moment. I know some people who grow flowers as well as food on their allotments, which seems like a splendid idea, but requires a bit too much time for me to look after at the moment.
The ‘British Grown’ bit was important for me – I do appreciate that flowers grown in places like Ethiopia contribute to the local economy, but I’m never sure how much the actual growers get (though if you know of any companies that seem ethical do let me know). And then there’s the air-freight bit, which freaks me out (I do work for a climate-change charity after all). But all these things are a balance, and in these difficult times I would never judge anyone for wanting to bring a bit of colour to their lives. In the summer, though, it’s well worth seeing what’s available from closer to home. I love my flowers, and this week they have certainly hit the spot.
What cheers you up when you’re up against it? In addition to flowers, I could mention chocolate, a new knitting project, a walk around the garden or a new episode of the Great British Sewing Bee (or my new secret vice, Glow-Up). As far as the TV shows go, I love watching people being creative, and I love how the UK programmes generally show people being collaborative and caring rather than in-your-face competitive. I find it comforting, and sometimes surprisingly moving, old softie that I am. There is something very inspiring about ‘ordinary’ people creating extraordinary things.
Anyhow, back to the stomata and the turgor pressure and the transpiration. Roll on next week….
Fox and Cubs in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, June 2021
Dear Readers, how on earth can it possibly be June already? And 1st June reminds me that it’s exactly one week until my first Open University exam. Aaaargh! So much to revise, so little time. Still, there’s lots to do and see this month, and I will soon be a free woman. Here’s what I had to say for myself when I wrote this post back in December.
Ah June. It’s hard to imagine the abundance of flowers and insects and birds from the viewpoint of a dull, rainy day in late December when there’s barely a blossom to be seen. But before we know it, June will be here. This is the highpoint of the year for many creatures – if birds have been successful in breeding, their youngsters will be leaving the nest. Our gardens should be abuzz with bees, and soon it will be the longest day, before the year tilts back to a time of rest. Let’s see what it may have in store for us.
Things to Do
A lovely thing to do if you’re in London is to visit some of the ‘Open Gardens’ – these are normally private gardens that are open to the public on the weekend of 10th-11th June 2023. They include the garden at British Medical Association, which concentrates on different medicinal plants, and the Jamyang Buddhist Centre garden, which includes a café (always a splendid thing). There’s everything here from allotments to formal gardens and you can find a list of the gardens that are currently expected to be open here. Tickets (which give entrance to all the gardens) here.
It looks as if the Tower of London is opening its moat as it did last year for Superbloom, but this year the entry is part of the general ticket to the Tower of London, which will make it a bit more expensive I fear. If anyone has already been, give me a shout!
On June 13th, the London Natural History Society is organising a ‘Pot Luck in the East End’ botany walk from 18.30 to 21.30. John Swindells is leading the walk, and he really knows his stuff! The East End has some extraordinary and unusual ‘weeds’ due to its diverse history, and you never know what you’re going to find. Details here. I am also delighted that there’s a similar walk looking at ‘weeds’ in ‘The Wild West End’ on Sunday June 11th, which I expect will be equally eye-opening. In fact, you are pretty much spoiled for choice as far as LNHS walks and activities in June go, so here’s a link to the complete calendar.
I mentioned this exhibition at The British Library last month, but it looks so good that I’m including it again here. I hope to make an expedition once the exams are over.
This looks like a very interesting online talk about the history of the Great North Wood (which is confusingly in South London). Free to attend, and the quality of the talks is always excellent.
For any dinosaur fans out there, this exhibition on the Titanosaur at the Natural History Museum looks ace.
Plants for Pollinators
It really does feel as if we’re spoilt for choice in June. The RHS’s featured plant is Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina), largely because wool carder bees use the hairs on the leaves to make their nests. Male wool carder bees will patrol the plants, head-butting much bigger bees out of the way but welcoming any females. I think I will definitely grow a clump of the stuff this year.
Lambs-ears (Stachy byzantina)
Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) on lavender
The RHS also suggest Alliums (in full sun – I have some in my front-garden pots, let’s see how they get on), foxgloves, thyme (and indeed marjoram and oregano), cardoons (so glorious if you have room!) and good old-fashioned brambles.
In my garden, May is actually the peak month for fledglings, but June is also pretty crazy. In the past I’ve spotted young wrens, blue tits, collared doves, woodpigeons and house sparrows during June, and their parents are wearing themselves ragged. By the end of June, though, a lot of youngsters are fending for themselves and are even being booted out of their parents’ territories. You might notice a gradual tailing off of birdsong in the garden, but so much depends on the weather, and as we know, this is extremely unpredictable these days. Let’s hope that the caterpillars, the nestlings and the weather all contribute to a successful month.
Young blue tit in the garden
All those vulnerable young creatures mean that you may well spot more birds of prey, including buzzards riding the early summer thermals, kestrels and sparrowhawks. Jays and magpies will be showing rather too much interest in any naive youngsters too. And great spotted woodpeckers are notorious robbers of nest boxes, hammering in through the side and pulling out the chicks. Nature can be hard to watch sometimes.
Buzzard over St Pancras and Islington Cemetery
Plants in Flower
Lots! You might notice that hogweed is starting to take over from cow parsley in the woods and lanes, and lots of meadow flowers, such as meadow vetchling and meadow cranesbill are in flower now. Plus keep your eyes open for fox and cubs (first photo) – it is stunning, and one of my favourite wild plants.
In the garden the high spots are roses of all kinds, lavender, many of the hardy geraniums, borage, lilies and fuchsia. It really is a lovely month, before everything starts to look a bit tired. My most successful plant of recent years was my angelica, aka the triffid. If I don’t see any seedlings I might plant another one to flower in 2024.
My dear departed angelica.
Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For
Tadpoles may be developing legs, and some intrepid individuals may even be leaving the pond.
Have a look at any hogweed that you pass – this plant is a magnet for all kinds of beetles, including the thick-legged flower beetle, which looks like it’s been doing rather too many squats, and various kinds of long-horned beetle, plus a whole panoply of hoverflies. June is insect heaven!
Thick-legged flower beetle
Long-horned beetle to the left, thick-legged flower beetle to the right….
Young foxes are still being fed close to their den, and the adults will be looking exhausted. The days are long, the nights are short, and so foxes have to take more chances. There’s more opportunity to see them during daylight than at most times of year, especially if you’re up very early in the morning. My local greengrocer said that he would watch the vixens patrolling the streets at 4 a.m. when the food waste recycling caddies had been put out. He said they’d become very adept at opening the caddies to get at the food.
The full moon is on 4th June, and is known as the Rose Moon or Dyad Moon
Holidays and Celebrations
1st June is the start of Pride month, and also the start of Gipsy, Roma and Traveller History Month
18th June is Father’s Day
21st June is Summer Solstice, which technically starts at 15.57. It’s the longest day of the year – in Northumberland, the sun rises at 4.30 a.m and doesn’t set until 9.30 pm. Further north, there’s barely any night at all.
24th June is Midsummer/the Feast of St John the Baptist. It’s traditionally the day for cutting and drying herbs such as rosemary and thyme, and for hanging them up to dry.
Dear Readers, how could I resist this splendid display of Dalmatian Bellflower, tumbling over an original Victorian tiled path? There are actually two types of Bellflower that have made themselves at home in North London and other parts: this one from the Dalmatian mountains of Croatia, and the one below, Serbian Bellflower, from the Dinaric Alps in Serbia. As you can see, both are Alpine plants, very at home in cracks and crevices, and every bit as pretty as anything you could buy in the garden centre. The Dalmatian species is less pointy, more deeply coloured and a bit more vigorous, while the Serbian plant is a delicate little star-shaped thing. I love them both, although they don’t seem to attract quite as many bees as you might expect (in spite of what I might have thought in my original piece). Still, they help to cover the most unlikely places with greenery, and that makes them welcome in my book.
Botanists know them as ‘port and posh’ after their Latin names, which is certainly less of a mouthful than their full species designation.
Here’s what I had to say in my original post, back when we were all young and enthusiastic back in 2014.
Trailing Bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana)
When I am exploring the half-mile around my house, I am regularly surprised by some new plant that I haven’t noticed before. This week, however, I found a whole new lane that I’d not stumbled across previously, leading from Baronsmere Road to Cherry Tree Wood.
The building development in East Finchley sometimes leaves interesting lanes and snickleways….
In this weedy little track, with garden sheds and walls on either side, I found this patch of Trailing Bellflower, with its lilac-blue flowers enhanced by perfect raindrops.
Trailing Bellflower comes from the Dinaric Alps – these are the parts of the Alps that were part of the former Yugoslavia, and you can sometimes see the plant referred to as Serbian Bellflower. As we’ve seen before, mountain plants, with their tolerance of poor, thin soil, often do very well in urban environments. This plant is a relatively recent introduction – it first came to the UK in 1931, and was first recorded in the wild in 1957.
Isn’t it funny how, once you’ve noticed something, you see it everywhere? On a trip to Tufnell Park, I found a patch of Trailing Bellflower peeping out from amongst the ivy.
The name ‘Bellflower’ doesn’t seem very appropriate for this plant – ‘Starflower’ seems more descriptive of those five-petalled blooms. However, in the photo below, you can see a stem with two flowers on it on the right hand side. Viewed from here, the flowers look like hats for fairies.
There seems to be some debate as to whether Trailing Bellflower is palatable or not. On the lovely website Plants for a Future the leaves are described as ‘a little tough’, but the flowers ‘have a pleasant sweet flavour and make a decorative addition to the salad bowl‘. They would certainly look very pretty nestled amongst some winter leaves. However, as this is a popular plant with pollinators, and as it flowers later than most, I would be inclined to leave most of the flowers where they belong.
As I left the lane, I spotted another patch of Trailing Bellflower, which had made itself at home amongst the stone stairs of an impressive entrance:
As I was standing there, an elderly gentleman paused to let me take my photograph.
“Are you interested in Victorian architecture?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “but today I’m more interested in the plants”. With a burst of enthusiasm, I explained that this was Trailing Bellflower, and told him probably more than he either wanted or needed to know about the habits, history and ecology of the plant.
He shook his head, a little sadly I thought.
“I see them,” he said, “but I don’t know any of the names”.
You don’t have to know the name of something to appreciate it – in fact, sometimes the urge to identify what a plant or animal is can get in the way of really looking at what you’re seeing. But being able to put a name to a Trailing Bellflower does add a depth, a way of seeing plants both individually and as part of an ecosystem. In fact, my walks to the greengrocer are often now something of a mantra.
Dear Readers, I don’t know about you but it’s been a bit of a silent spring in these parts – after the arrival of the hairy-footed flower bees in April and May, I have mostly been seeing honeybees and nothing else. Where are my favourites (yes, I know you aren’t supposed to have favourites), the bumblebees? So today I was delighted to see this furry blob – I got a better look at it than any of my photos show, and I’m fairly sure it was an Early Bumblebee (Bombus praetorum) (yellow stripe, black stripe, yellow stripe, orange-y bum). Apparently they can be on the wing from February, but not this year I suspect, with our long, cold spring. They are important pollinators of soft-fruits, but this one rather liked the green alkanet and the cat mint (which, typically, a cat has sat upon, squashing half of it flat).
There is a Facebook page called ‘Crap Bird Photography’ which gives me endless amusement (and indeed I have submitted some of my masterpieces and have gotten the requisite number of laugh-y emoticons). If only there was a ‘Crap Insect Photography’ page! I have so many that I could start one all on my own.
Looking at the bee below I think there must have been two bumblebees, this one is quite clearly a common carder (Bombus pascuorum), a little ginger bee with a long flight season – they are often the last bumbles on the wing in late autumn.
And there is another tiny bee with a white face that I’m eager to get a photograph of, but I shall wait until I’m sure of the id before I post.
In the meantime, my twenty minutes in the front garden has lifted my spirits and got the crick out of my back. Now, back to my different modes of photosynthesis revision. Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, anybody?
Dear Readers, my lovely husband has had another bash at reducing the duckweed in the pond, and I think it’s now down to abou 50% cover so I can actually see what’s happening with the tadpoles. What a lot there are this year! It’s difficult to get a proper portrait of the little wigglers, but here are a couple of attempts.
The one on the right looks to me as if his or her back legs are on the verge of busting out. How strange it must be to be a tadpole and to completely change from a legless aquatic vegetarian to a four-legged carnivore in the space of just a few months. Goodness knows it’s hard enough with the stages of life that us humans go through, and we don’t (completely) change our body shape, although we do seem to acquire extra dimensions in some places. At least we don’t suddenly find ourselves wide-mouthed and grinning on a lilypad, and the diet of flies and slugs would be a bit wearisome.
I was also struck by the difference in size between the different tadpoles – sometimes, some tadpoles will overwinter in the pond and turn into frogs in the spring, while others will go hell for leather and become frogs before the autumn. I guess that the variation means that at least some will survive, whatever the weather conditions, but the smaller ones will be at risk of being cannibalised by their larger brothers and sisters.
And after all, this feels like such an annual miracle. I have no idea where the frogs lived before the pond arrived, or where they go to when they leave the pond (some do stay to hibernate on the bottom, but goodness knows where the rest go. It’s been lovely to take a break between my DNA transcription and my protein translation, but now it’s back to work for another hour. Progress is being made but however well you plan, it never seems enough, at least for a perfectionist like me, who doesn’t know when to stop. Onwards!
Dear Readers, it has been the most glorious weather for the past few days, and my heart is filled with sympathy for all the young people who are huddled over their text books and trying to revise. I know that we always have examinations just as the weather is at its most blissful, but it doesn’t get any easier as you get older, I can tell you. I remember doing my accountancy exams and throwing the books across the room on at least one occasion (tort law if my memory serves me). Still, I did at least manage a brief break in the sunshine, and it fills me with great joy that these insects are out and about, in spite of the duckweed in the pond and the very strange spring weather.
The males seem to emerge first and wait around in the undergrowth for some females to put in an appearance. They are so delicate, especially when they fly and the sun catches their wings, but they certainly put up a fight if they sense competition. There was a cloud of holly blue butterflies too, and one very determined-looking large white butterfly. As is usual when I’m meaning to be doing something else, I feel a great urge to tidy up the pots, or drag out some more duckweed, or even, as a dear friend of mine once did when trying to avoid some unwanted task, to clean the kettle flex.
Still, today I have not only revised the structure of the cell (bacterial, plant and animal), the theory of natural and sexual selection, mitosis and meiosis and a great raft of Mendelian genetics, but I have also reminded myself of the wonders of bird migration. If I had a bit more energy I would wax lyrical, but actually I think I’m going to pour myself a cold drink and go damselfly-spotting. Only twelve days to go, and I’ll be a free woman. Cheers!
Dear Readers, I sneaked out from my revision for lunch with my lovely friend J this lunchtime, and as I warned you things are going to be a bit random on Bugwoman for the next week or two, so I thought I’d share this lovely place with you. It’s not only a restaurant but a yoga centre, and it’s also a charity which provides one meal in the developing world for each meal eaten in the restaurant (Charity Commission link here) They are also dog-friendly, which my friend’s little dog was very happy about.
There’s a large glass atrium (which can be a bit warm if you’re a lady of a certain age as J and I both are) and also a cooler bit inside. But the key thing is the food, the vast majority of which is either vegan or can be made vegan, with a few vegetarian courses too, and lots of gluten-free options. Did I mention that South Indian cuisine is one of my favourites in the world? The masala dosa ( a spicy potato-filled crepe with coconut chutney and vegetable curry) is delicious, and my friend raved about her jackfruit biriyani. And, just in case you think that all sounds a bit frugal, the vegan chocolate cake and chocolate brownie with vegan ice-cream was exceptionally tasty. There was also a vegan mango lassi. There is so much choice and my vegan friend, who usually ends up eating a bad risotto or a plate of vegetables when she goes out was nearly overwhelmed. You can have a look at the menu here. Believe me, for Islington this is very good value, especially for the very swanky new Islington Square, which is where the old Post Office used to be.
So, honestly, with vegan food as good as this, who needs meat (note that where it mentions chicken etc on the menu they’re using plant-based meat alternatives)? I will certainly be back. I’d like to put in a word for the mint and lime tea too, a combination that I’d not come across previously and will probably be trying to replicate at home. And finally, the staff are welcoming, efficient and helpful. This is a lovely place, a one-off and somewhere with a conscience. If you’re in London, it’s well worth a visit.
Dear Readers, two pieces of news today. First up, I was sitting in the garden yesterday when I heard a blue tit calling – there has been one yelling its head off for the past few weeks, but like an eejit I never thought to look up at the bird box that we put up a couple of years ago. Holy moly, it looks as if someone is actually at home. I am very excited, but will also be keeping my hopes under control – up there the blue tits should be safe from all but the most intrepid cat (knowing the ones around here I wouldn’t be surprised to see one piloting a small hang glider), but the magpies have made their nest in the tree opposite and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they clocked this arrangement. Anyway, fingers crossed and I will keep you posted.
My second piece of news is that I have exams on the 8th and 9th of June, for my Cellular Biology and Biology of Survival courses, and so my posts may be shorter/more ‘science-y’ between now and then. I did my revision timetable yesterday (rather later than planned) and was somewhat surprised by the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ that there is still to do, so I expect to be a bit frazzled by the time June 10th comes round. Nonetheless I shall soldier on valiantly. I have really loved these two courses, though I will never do two simultaneously again – there’s much more work when it’s two individual subjects than when it’s one big course, even though it’s the same number of credits overall. Keep your fingers crossed, lovely readers! After this I am looking forward to getting out and about a bit and finding a few more things for you to read about, so stay tuned….
The experiment was all about crisps. Feist and her colleagues presented crisps in either blue or green packets to groups of herring gulls, and then sat down about 5 metres away. The observer then either just sat and watched, or pulled a packet of crisps out of their bag and started to eat them.
When the experimenter was eating crisps, the gulls approached the packets 49 percent of the time, compared to 19% when the observer was just sitting around. But when the observer was eating crisps(and this is the clincher for me), the birds pecked the packet which was the same colour as the one that the observer was eating from 95 percent of the time.
So, this appears to indicate that a) the food choices of this group of herring gulls can be influenced by what humans are eating and b) that it isn’t in this case just about the type of food, but that they even take the colour of the packaging into account, to make sure that they are eating ‘our’ food. I find this astonishing, and you can read the whole article here.
This increasing attunement to the way humans behave is probably coupled with the way that herring gulls have changed their habits, from being largely coastal to coming inland and feeding from landfill sites. They nest on flat roofs everywhere, and are often seen to be a menace, in spite of the fact that they are declining and are on the IUCNs Red List of endangered birds in the UK. We are fast becoming their main source of food, so no wonder they are paying more attention to the finest nuances of our behaviour. The effect of all that junk food on the gulls themselves would be interesting to monitor.
Incidentally, a 2019 study showed that gulls are much less likely to steal your chips if they think you are watching them – only 26 percent of a sample of gulls touched the food if they were being stared at, and they took 20 percent longer to approach than if the experimenter was busy doing something else. So if you don’t want to be ambushed and chipless, it pays to be diligent, as it does in most situations. I wonder if the rise of the smartphone could be correlated with the increased success of herring gulls stealing food? Now that would be an interesting study.
And here is one of my favourite short films, of a herring gull ‘puddling’ for worms and then announcing their presence with a most gratifying ‘long call’. Just look at that intelligent expression! These are extraordinary birds, well worth our attention.