Author Archives: Bug Woman

Aaargh!

Darling Readers, I am mightily up against it today because I have my final Open University assignment for this year due in on Monday, and what with having two weeks in Canada/jetlag/ work yadda yadda I am a bit behind. Which is a shame because my subject is the appearance of green algal balls on the beaches of Sydney, Australia, and if I had more time I would rabbit on about all the interesting things that I’ve discovered (though I should probably wait till the deadline for the paper is over because, plagiarism etc etc).

Image from https://juliacooke.net/2015/09/23/solving-the-mystery-of-the-algal-balls-at-dee-why/

Anyhow, fortunately I had time this morning for a sanity-saving walk in St.Pancras and Islington Cemetery. I shall write a bit more about this tomorrow (and at some point soon will also get into the swing of quizzes again), but for now, here are a few of my favourite photographs. Enjoy! I might have known that as soon as I had to get stuck into something indoors we’d have a heat wave, but there we go. 

Primroses and Red Kites and Babies!

Candelabra primula (Primula bulleyana)

Dear Readers, as you might imagine I have been pretty swamped with work since getting back from Canada, but it was such a beautiful day today that I actually managed to pop out to see what was happening in the garden. First up, I noticed that some of the candelabra primulas that we planted last year have actually survived, and are coming into flower – these are orange and yellow, but we have some purple ones for later in the year. The patch at the top end of the pond is often a bit bleak at this time of year, before everything else gets going, so it was lovely to see them. We have put in supports for the hemp agrimony this year, so hopefully they won’t be overwhelmed before they’ve finished for the year.And then, I was having a cup of tea when I thought I heard the sound of baby birds. The blue tits have been all over the hawthorn this year gathering caterpillars, and then one of them shot past me and headed for the nest box that we put up on the balustrade of our loft.

And here’s a shot of his or her tail disappearing into the nest. I am so excited! We will keep the curtains on the room drawn so that we don’t disturb them. I feel like a proud surrogate parent.

I am hoping that at some point the climbing hydrangea will reach the balustrade, it would provide some extra cover and hiding places. I reckon about another two years at the rate it’s growing. Believe it or not, we cut it back level with the ground floor window (above the green door) in January 2020.

And then, finally, after looking for them for the past year, I saw a red kite in the sky over East Finchley.

At one time, these birds were so valued as scavengers that to kill one was a capital crime. But over time, with habitat destruction, cleaner streets, less carrion about and the rise of egg-collecting as a hobby, the bird became extremely rare, retreating from its range across the whole of the UK to a few sites in Wales, where it was never able to raise enough chicks to expand.

By the 1930s there were only 30 birds in the whole of the UK, all derived from one female bird. It was decided to bring in birds from Sweden and Germany to improve genetic diversity, and the birds were released in various sites around the UK. This was so successful that there are now an estimated 10,000 birds, and their range is increasing every year. They are the most elegant of birds, with their forked tails and narrow wings, and it was a real joy to see one so close to home. The main risks now to the birds are poisoning from rodenticides used to kill rats (this also kills many other birds of prey and mammals, including domestic dogs and cats). They also have a habit of colliding with power cables. Still, this is a real success story, and we could all do with one of them!

The Prehistoric Sea Swans of Japan

A

Artist’s impression of the prehistoric sea swan (Artist’s reconstruction from the Gunma Museum of Natural History)

Dear Readers, scientists in Japan have been learning about the lives of two ancient, flightless ancestors of our present-day swans. The first, Annakacygna yoshiiensis, was discovered in 1995, was about the size of the Trumpeter swans of North America (these are the largest existing swans in the world). The second, Annakacygna hajimei,  is smaller, the size of a black swan, and was discovered in 2000.

I know we only had the photo below a few weeks ago, but it’s one of my favourites.

Trumpeter at Wye Marsh in Ontario, March 2019

What is unusual about both these swans is not only that they were flightless, but that their forewings are very short. The scientists involved in the project think that they may have used their wings to cradle their cygnets – modern-day mute swans can be seen carrying their young on their backs in a similar way, and the structure of the wings of the prehistoric species would have made this even easier. Couple this with a mobile tail, and you have a perfect little ‘box’ in which to hold your youngsters in choppy seas.

Photo One by rufre@lenz-nenning.at) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4077472

Mute swan with wings in ‘piggyback’ position (Photo One)

The swans also had much heavier bones and broader bodies than extant swans – they didn’t fly, so weight wasn’t an issue, while stability in the water probably was.

Skeleton of flightless swan. Note the strange wings! (Photo from Gunma Museum of Natural History)

And finally, these swans were not the delicate grazing birds that modern swans were – they have much heavier beaks which the scientist in charge of the project, Dr Hiroshige Matsouka, compares to that of the shoveler duck. These swans would have fed on sea-going plankton rather than nibbling at grasses, and all in all were very robust birds.

Prehistoric swan at the top, whooper swan at the bottom (Photo from Gunma Museum of Natural History)

These swans must have been amazing birds, perfectly adapted to their marine lifestyle. They date back to the Miocene, 11 million years ago. Who knows what caused their eventual demise? Being flightless is often a liability when things change though – it only takes a new predator, or a problem with the food supply, to cause fatal problems. What a shame that we can’t see giant, flightless swans cradling their cygnets and dabbling for plankton in our current oceans.

There are full articles in New Scientist and in The New York Times. 

Photo Credits

Photo One by rufre@lenz-nenning.at – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4077472

‘Trees’ by Peter A. Thomas

Dear Readers, I need to tell you a quick story about this book,’Trees’ by Peter A. Thomas, which arrived while I was in Canada. The courier left it behind the wheelie bins (which is where he usually leaves them), but it wasn’t there when we returned. However, it was eventually found, still in its cardboard wrapping, in the side return to the house – a fox had clearly found it, dragged it under the whole in the back gate, and had been munching on it before deciding that it wasn’t edible. If my husband hadn’t been watering the garden (and since then we’ve had rain every day but that’s another story) I would never have found it. Fortunately the book itself was intact, and just as well, because it’s an absolute delight, and a fine addition to the teetering pile on my bedside story. I haven’t read enough to actually review it yet, but I thought that I would just share one piece of information that I’ve gleaned by opening it randomly.

There has long been a mystery about the relationship between bumblebees and lime trees. The lime trees provide abundant nectar for a very long period, and so they are beloved by pollinators of all kinds. I well remember sitting under a lime tree when I went to visit my parents in Dorchester, and almost being lulled to sleep by the sweet, heavy perfume. However, towards the end of the season great heaps of dead bumblebees have been found under the lime trees, particularly Silver Lime (Tilia tomentosa) and Caucasian Lime (Tilia x euchlora).

Photo One by By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2788202

Silver Lime (Tilia tomentosa) (Photo One)

At first, it was thought that the nectar might be somehow poisoning the bees. Then, it was thought that the nectar might contain mannose, a sugar which is largely indigestible by bees. But then, it was noticed that the dead bees contained very few honeybees, and this was a clue. Honeybees will visit a plant or not depending on its nectar abundance, whereas bumblebees seem to return again and again to a site that once had nectar. So, as the year wore on and there was less nectar (especially in a dry year), the honeybees looked elsewhere, but the bumblebees seemed to be addicted to their lime tree, even when it didn’t provide them with enough food. Furthermore, the nectar of lime trees contains caffeine – could this have helped the bumblebees to become dependent? I know I ‘need’ my morning coffee, so perhaps it has a similar effect on our small furry flying relatives. At any rate, the mystery is not yet solved, but the hypothesis is that the bumblebees are not in any way poisoned, but simply starve to death. Fascinating stuff (to me at least), and I look forward to finding out what other things this book has to teach me, so that I can share them with you all.

Photo Two byIvar Leidus (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Bumblebee on Lime Flower

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2788202

Photo Two byIvar Leidus (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Bog Bean

Bog Bean (Menyanthes trifoliata)

Dear Readers, I thought that the Bog Bean that I mentioned yesterday deserved a few moments of attention. This is a native plant, though not a bean (the leaves apparently look a bit like those of the broad bean), and the genus name comes from the Greek for ‘disclosing flower’ as the flowers open sequentially along the stem. I love the pink buds, and the ‘hairy’ flowers are apparently unique, though I imagine that this must surely have something to do with whatever creature originally pollinated them. Fossil seeds of bog bean have been found in the Carpathian Mountains, and they date back to the middle Miocene (about 16 million years ago), so this is a plant that co-existed with giant sloths, three-toed horses and ‘bone-crushing dogs’. The plant is related to the water lily, though not closely – it’s the only plant in its genus.

Photo One by peupleloup, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A Bog Bean in Quebec (Photo One)

Bog bean is also known as ‘bog hop’ in Northern England and some parts of Europe, and has been used to flavour beer and schnapps.  It is the County Flower of Renfrewshire. Apparently there are chemicals in the leaves which can attract cats in the same way that catnip does, though as this is a plant of ponds and other wet places that seems somewhat ironic.

The plant has been used extensively for medicinal purposes, especially in Ireland and parts of Scotland. The leaves are boiled to make a medicine for arthritis and rheumatism, congestion, indigestion, constipation, blackheads and boils. There’s a pool in Bute, Scotland, known as The Pool of Healing because the bog bean grows there. In Chinese medicine the plant is used as a cure for insomnia.

In Devon, children were said to say this rhyme if they had to pass through a dark passage or dangerous place. ‘Biddy Bene’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘biddan‘, meaning to entreat or pray. I rather like the notion that the goose and the fox were the things that children were afraid of.

Buckee, Buckee, biddy Bene,
Is the way now fair and clean?
Is the goose ygone to nest,
And the fox ygone to rest?
Shall I come away?’

Photo Two by Sally from https://www.geograph.org.uk/more.php?id=4042853

Bog Beans from a remote Scottish lochan (Photo Two)

And of course, this is a plant of the bog lands, the most underrated and undervalued of habitats in spite of their role in capturing carbon and preserving all manner of delicate plants and rare insects. There is nothing as evocative, or as tricksy, as a bog, as anyone who has ever tried to cross one will know. Only those who really know the lie of the land can navigate a bog without wet socks, or worse. And so, I was delighted to find this poem by Irish poet Eileen Casey. If you would like to hear more of her work, there’s a short film here, which I highly recommend.

Treasure by Eileen Casey

Dappled light pleats lilac shadings.

Blue meshes with pink; bog weathered

morning enters its stride. Colour

sharpens as light deepens. Spider webs

drape lacy antimacassars across purple

heathers, yellow flowered asphodel.

Early frost begins to thaw, burgeons

sphagnum’s already swollen hoard.

Dew glistens pearly frogspawn,

dragonflies hover close-by. Skylarks

rise with meadow pipits and willow

warblers or stall over a bog-bean pool.

 

Man and beast leave traces in their wake.

A thumbprint traced in buried bog butter.

A psalter creased by righteous devotion.

Elk bone fragments. Bodies. Stabs of bog

shadow struggle with bog memory;

sacrificial wounds. We glimpse survival

in russet-edged leaves, mauve bruises

ruffled onto moss.

 

Bog is like a treasure filled galleon,

centuries deep. Imperial measure in peat.

We lose sight how, even inconsequential

elements become more than their sum of parts.

Faithful to its seasons, bog keeps track.

Photo Credits

Photo One by peupleloup, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Sally from https://www.geograph.org.uk/more.php?id=4042853

 

 

The Battle Against the Duckweed

Dear Readers, this is a shot of the pond after we spent an hour yesterday getting rid of at least some of the duckweed – you couldn’t see any open water when we got home, so this is a bit of an improvement (believe it or not). We didn’t want to remove all of it (as if that’s even possible) because it provides a bit of cover for the tadpoles, and also, as it turns out, for the adult frogs, like this one sheltering under the marsh marigold.

I was also pleased to see that the bog bean is in flower, though as it’s said to be a bit of a thug I might not be happy for long. Let’s see. I rather like those extraordinary furry flowers.

This rather fine hoverfly put in an appearance too. I think it’s an Eristalis species, which breed in ponds and bogs appropriately enough.

And finally, this Herb Robert has made itself at home outside the kitchen door. I should probably pull it up, but I haven’t got the heart. I think it looks rather fine against the arsenic-green paintwork.

 

In other news the cat, who caterwauled about two dozen times all through the night that we arrived home has now reduced her complaints to two, although as one was at 3 a.m. it’s still not optimal. Let’s hope lots of strokes, titbits and brushing (her favourite things) restore us to favour. And let’s be very glad that, unlike one foster cat we had, her irritation doesn’t drive her to crapping right in the middle of the bed when we go away. That really wasn’t fun to come home to.

 

In Praise of Green Alkanet

Dear Readers, I know that many of you will be horrified by this post. After all, Green Alkanet is not native and a bit of a thug, with a tap root that  probably goes down to the centre of the earth. And when I got back from Canada on Saturday, I was horrified myself to see that what I thought was one or two plants has flowered forth into a positive thicket.

But then I stopped to listen. The plants were abuzz with bees. Mainly honeybees (probably from the local allotment), but also with bumblebees, hoverflies…

Hoverfly, probably Myathropa florea

This greenbottle is more often seen on carrion or dung, but also plays a role as a pollinator. 

 

There’s already cuckoospit on one of the stems, which will soon turn into a froghopper.

And did I mention the bees?

It’s no wonder that this plant is so popular – it’s a member of the Borage family, which contains some of the most nectar-rich of all plants. Plus it flowers prolifically over a long period. In the front garden, it’s currently filling the gap before the lavender flowers, followed by the buddleia. It’s clearly thriving. And so, while I have tried to grow other things here, it’s a tough spot – dry, exposed and stony. So for this year at least, I think the green alkanet will have its day.

Well, That’ll Teach Me….

Holy Moly readers, I should remember that when I go away in spring I come back to a garden that needs a machete to hack my way to the shed, but as it’s been three years since I’ve been anywhere I hope I can be forgiven. The whitebeam has sprung into leaf, the hawthorn is laden down with flowers…

The Geranium phaeum (or Dusky Cranesbill) is in full flower…

The Geranium macrorhizum has been flowering for weeks and is now in its full glory…

The Geranium nodosum (are you sensing a theme here?) is so delicate that I currently have it in a pot, but it too is flowering (along with the white Herb Robert that has seeded itself)

And finally, I planted an ornamental dead nettle, Lamium orvala (otherwise known as balm-leaved red dead-nettle) and it promptly looked very unhappy before it disappeared. This year, it’s about eighteen inches tall, covered in flowers and abuzz with bees. Very satisfying.

And here is a new visitor to the garden – I believe that she’s from the next road to us and that her name is Sadie. She was a tiny bit too interested in the frogs, but as the whole pond is currently covered in duckweed (at least until we start removing it tomorrow) they at least have plenty of cover.

Final Thoughts on Toronto

Photo by John Bolitho

Dear Readers, by the time you read this we should be home in London, after 15 days spent in Collingwood, Montreal and Toronto. When we arrived in Toronto, I spoke about it feeling ‘hollowed out’ after the pandemic, and there are definitely downtown spaces that are much quieter than they used to be. To my untutored eye it also feels as if there are many more homeless people sleeping on grates, and many more folk with mental health problems, but I suspect that this is not unique to Toronto – the pandemic has been terrible for many people, and for anyone who was already feeling mentally shaky, the past two years can only have made things worse.

We were on the subway yesterday sitting next to a woman who was double-masked (masking is still mandatory on transport in Ontario unless you are exempt). A young woman got on who wasn’t wearing a mask. The masked woman asked/told her to put a mask on. She refused, and went back to her phone. The masked woman took a photo of her. At this point I was fully expecting things to escalate – in London there may well have been fisticuffs at this point, but fortunately Canadians are generally more laid back. Then three more people got on who weren’t wearing masks. The masked woman pointed out that they should be wearing masks as she got off, but she was clearly fighting a losing battle. I would say that probably 90% of the people that  I see on public transit are wearing masks, and I suspect that in London someone would have moved if they’d felt vulnerable rather than taking on the world. I could understand the masked woman’s fury, but it also seemed to me to be an indication of how divisive the whole masking thing has become, and how polarising. It felt as if this poor woman was trying to hold back the tide, like King Canute, rather than looking after herself.

I saw a friend who said that, basically, everyone in Toronto is stressed. You can sense it in the air. We have all lost a layer of mental security, even though it was only an illusion in the first place. I don’t know if it’s more acute here than in other places, but you can even see it in the restaurant menus. People are looking for comfort food – chicken pot pie and mashed potato, bread and butter pudding, stews and pasta and that Montreal favourite poutine (basically chips, cheese and gravy). Retro food is cropping up – I saw Irish Coffee on several menus, something that I haven’t seen for years. People want their safety back, something familiar and homely, and who can blame them? I jumped at the chance for some custard earlier this week. It felt like an old friend.

Cannabis is now legal in Canada as well, and one big change has been the sheer number of shops selling the stuff. In fact, there are so many that cannabis shops are now putting one another out of business, in much the same way that Starbucks did a decade ago. I am not sure that it’s good for productivity though – in a visit to a coffee shop recently all the baristas were clearly stoned, and kept messing up the orders, though the vibe was delightfully friendly and laid back. There was no uptightness there, and I do wonder if some people have turned to cannabis to help with their anxiety as opposed to that old favourite, alcohol.

But in general, Toronto is still here, and in the sunshine  of our last day here it looks modern, and vertical, and exciting. It is still a pleasure to visit, and to spend time with friends and family. It has the feeling of a second home, after all these years, and it will be good to be able to come more regularly now that things are easing – even though I know that Covid hasn’t finished with us yet, there is a tiny chip of hope in my heart. It’s certainly reignited my passion for travel, in spite of all the hassle of getting to and from my destination.

Photo by John Bolitho

The Beach in Toronto

Dear Readers, on our last full day in Toronto we took a walk along The Beach in Toronto. It’s actually the edge of Lake Ontario, so there isn’t any marine life, but on a gorgeous sunny day (only the second of our fifteen-day visit) you could easily be looking at the ocean. The Beach is actually four separate beaches, but as people have almost come to blows over whether this area is called ‘The Beaches’ or ‘The Beach’ I have opted for the current favoured name.

The sand for the beach actually comes from the erosion of the cliffs at Scarborough Bluffs to the east, but the current carries the sand away. Various rocky groynes have been established to try to keep the sand for longer, and I see that there are some attempts to encourage sand dunes as well. It will be interesting to see how successful they are.

Clearly the area is popular with wildlife. This fox looks like the one that we saw in Mount Pleasant Cemetery yesterday – are they svelter in Toronto than back in London, I wonder? I love that this one appears to be making off with a whole hot dog, although a London fox would also have snatched the bun I think.

This squirrel gave us a long hard stare, as if trying to work out whether it was worth his while to come down from the tree for a hand out. He decided we weren’t worth the bother.

It was lovely to see that swallows had arrived – they were gathering mud from nearby puddles, presumably to make their nests. This is a barn swallow, the same species that we have in the UK – apparently this is the most widespread species of swallow in the world.

Out on the water, there were two pairs of mute swans, separated by a healthy expanse of water. That didn’t stop one pair steaming at speed towards the other, however. How much space do they need, I wonder?

There were some fine Common Mergansers out on the lake as well – the females have attractive ginger crests, while the males are sleeker with green heads. These are saw-billed ducks who dive to catch small fish and invertebrates.

Female Common Merganser

 

There were some painted pebbles, which I’m beginning to think of as prime indicators of the pandemic.

I was very struck by the lifeboat station, which was built in 1920, at which point the beach was crowded with vendors, swimmers and all manner of goings on. A lifeguard would sit in the tower at the top, and shout if s/he saw anyone in trouble. The station started to fall into disrepair in the 1920’s, but was rescued by the local community. It’s estimated that over 6000 lives have been saved by people based at this station. There was no swimming and no lifeguards today, but no doubt there will be later in the season.

And then it was time to turn for home, past the very fine houses that line the streets and onto the main road, which has a surprisingly high proportion of independent shops. We stopped for coffee at the Remarkable Bean, which not only has very good coffee, but also highly-recommended cheese scones and rhubarb tarts. So good, in fact, that we’d eaten most of them before I thought to take a photo, but you get the idea.

And finally, here are two other residents. The cat rather reminds me of my old friend Bailey.

And how about this splendid dog (a Newfoundland I think), waiting patiently outside a coffee shop for his owner? Canada is not quite as dog-friendly as the UK has become in recent years, where dogs are allowed in a lot of cafes and restaurants, but maybe this chap would have taken up quite a lot of room anyway. He is a very fine dog, and took his unexpected stardom completely in his stride.