Author Archives: Bug Woman

Towards the End

Dear Readers, you might remember that, during the past few years, I’ve been making regular visits to Somerset to visit my husband’s aunt H. I had a great fondness for the country lanes around her cottage (which could always be guaranteed to produce a Wednesday Weed) and for her garden, awash in spring with wild primroses, tiny cyclamen and bluebells. You can read about it here and here and here. But last year, aged 92, H had a fall, and decided that the time was right to decamp to a care home. A few weeks ago she had another fall, fracturing her pelvis. A liver scan has shown that she also has liver cancer.

We went to see H yesterday. Her care home is (rightly) locked down, but visitors are able to meet residents in a marquee outside for half an hour. When we saw H she looked a little pale and frail, but was mostly concerned with the fact that she hadn’t been able to have a hair cut. She was always a most pragmatic woman and she seems able to face what is to come with equanimity. She has a strong faith and her life has been one of service to her community, both facts that I think will help her through the difficult months to come.

For us mere mortals though, it’s very hard. Although H is far from being at death’s (immediate) door, the pandemic has made us all aware of how suddenly things can change. We talked about the clearing and selling of the house, and the possibility that someone might knock it down and build on the site. It makes me so sad to think of the garden gone and concreted over, the plants surviving only in my photographs. We talked about the people that H still wanted to contact, whether she has a do not resuscitate order, what her thoughts are about pain relief. What we can’t do is give H a hug, of course. But we said what needed to be said, and moved the practicalities on, and that at least is something, and more than some people have had the time to do during this awful time.

When we get back to Taunton station, I go for a little trot up the platform to look at the plants, as usual. The space between the rails can be a fascinating place, with a wide variety of microhabitats, but I think what I really wanted to do was to try to ground myself again. As regular readers will know, I have lost both my Mum and my Dad in the past eighteen months, and in fact my Dad’s ashes will finally be interred with Mums on Saturday. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Sometimes it feels as if death and loss is everywhere. But those ‘weeds’ are the best example of resilience that I can think of.

When I look along the rails of Platform 6, it’s easy to see how important light is: the variety and size of the weeds increases on what I’m sure would be a steady curve as we get towards the sunlight.

As we get to the edge of the light, there are a selection of plantains, sow thistles and dandelions.

In full sun there are even some rather stunted evening primroses, in full flower.

On the platform itself there is a mass of herb robert turning red, and some Canadian fleabane with its flowerheads just turning fluffy with seeds.

On the opposite platform, much used by express trains, practically nothing grows between the rails, but there is some fine Oxford ragwort growing in the middle.

I take such comfort from weeds. In a world where nothing is certain, they always seem to be there. They take advantage of wherever they happen to find themselves. They are the little-noticed backdrop to our lives, but they are worth noticing, because the yellow flowers of an evening primrose, the fluffy seeds of fleabane, the crimson foliage of herb robert are all minor miracles of the everyday. We are not separate from this world, however much we like to think we’re special: we are just little naked animals with huge egos and a mistaken belief that we can control what happens. There is something very humbling about remembering that weeds will defeat us over time in any battle. We might as well enjoy them.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Das_große_Rasenstück,_1503 (from the Albertina Museum in Vienna)


Jumping Jehosophat!

Photo One by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (

Flea Beetle (Altica sp) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, this week I have decided to have a little break from the quiz: it may be that once a week was too much for people to fit into their increasingly busy lives. Tell me if I’m wrong, though! I do hate to disappoint.

Instead, I wanted to tell you about an insect that I had never knowingly met in my entire life. As I arrived home from the Post Office (always something of a palaver) I noticed something running down my neck. I gingerly reached behind me and pick it off and there, just about the size of a lentil, was a very shiny black beetle.

I lifted my hand to get a better look, and the creature launched itself into the air, with the kind of distinct ‘ping’ that I associate with fleas. I was so surprised that, there and then, I googled flea and beetle, and here we are.

Now, you allotment holders have probably made the acquaintance of flea beetles in your battles to preserve your brassicas, because the RHS website describes how some species of flea beetle munch on everything from turnips to cauliflowers. These are largely members of the Phyllotreta or Psylliodes genuses (genii??). Have a look at the splendid back legs on the beetle below.

Photo Two byBy Udo Schmidt - Flickr: Psylliodes chrysocephalus (Linné, 1758) converted to .jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Cabbage stem flea beetle (Psylliodes chrysocephaus ) Photo Two

And here is a lesser striped flea beetle (Phyllotreta undulata).

Photo Three byAfroBrazilian / CC BY-SA (

Striped flea beetle (Phyllotreta undulata) (Photo Three)

But how good are they at jumping? My new favourite beetle book, ‘Beetles’ by Richard Jones in the New Naturalist series, has this to say about flea beetles and their jumping prowess:

‘...a flea beetle achieves a take-off velocity of 2 m/s (10 kilometres per hour), accelerating at more than 270g, and can easily jump 100 times its own body length (Brackenbury and Wang 1995).

I looked to see if there were any videos of the little darlings performing their acrobatics, but sadly all there are are various films to ways to exterminate them. According to Jones, the beetle’s jumping ability used to be a way of controlling them:

A traditional method of controlling Phyllotreta nemorum flea beetles on turnips, cabbages and kale was to push a light wheeled framework of heavily tarred boards along the edge of the crop; the startled beetles jump and are caught on the sticky tarred surfaces (Anon 1895)‘.

But all is not lost, because Jones is sure that the beetles don’t just randomly ping into the air, but may have a targeted landing spot – as we saw a couple of weeks ago, beetles are among the many insects that have hidden wings and can fly.

Photo Four bygailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (

Turnip flea beetle (Phyllotreta nemorum)  hard at work (Photo Four)

Some flea beetles can be very pretty, too. Have a look at the Willow flea beetle (Crepidodera aurata) with its golden carapace.

Photo Five By TristramBrelstaff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Willow flea beetle (Crepididera aurata) (Photo Five)

And not all flea beetles are pests – the beetle below feeds on mallows and is Nationally Scarce. How smart it is, with its orange head and teal-green wingcases!

Photo Six by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster / CC BY-SA (

Podagrica fuscicornis (Photo Six)

These days, many gardeners look for kinder methods to deter flea beetles. One is to grow radishes as a kind of ‘bait’ for the insects, because larval flea beetles don’t feed on roots, and so they will be unharmed. Companion planting of mint, thyme and catnip is supposed to disguise the smell of the brassicas (though with catnip you might not have any cabbages left anyway once the local cats have had a good role). Tachinid fly larvae also eat the beetles, and the adults are useful pollinators. In other words, put that tar-covered board down, people! There are better ways of resisting the excesses of these extraordinary invertebrates.

And finally, here’s a thing. On the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, there is a species of cabbage which only grows on this tiny scrap of land. The Lundy cabbage (Coincya wrightii) is not a particularly attractive plant (it looks rather like oil-seed rape) and, fortunately for it, it is not particularly toothsome – it has been said to taste of ‘triple-distilled essence of brussels sprout’ and we can all imagine what I think about that.

Photo Seven By Rodw - Own work, Public Domain,

Lundy Cabbage (Coincya wrightii) growing in captivity in Bristol Zoo (Photo Seven)

Now, living on the Lundy cabbage are several insects that are completely dependent on the plant and who live nowhere else. And one of them is the Lundy Flea Beetle (Psylliodes luridipennis), a tiny metallic beetle that has been isolated from all those other West Country flea beetles for long enough to become its own separate species.

Photo Eight by Roger Key from

Lundy flea beetle (Psylliodes luridipennis) (Photo Eight)

I love the way that island plants and animals often go their own way and, over time, become separate species, but there is a high level of risk involved: if the Lundy Cabbage becomes extinct, so will the Lundy flea beetle (and several other insect species as well). The whole island is managed by the National Trust and the Landmark Trust, and they are well aware of the risks of alien species such as rhododendron, which at one point threatened to overwhelm the whole island (as it does). Fortunately, there has been much uprooting, and some burning, and it looks as if the Lundy Cabbage and its dependents are safe for the time being. It all goes to show how tightly linked natural communities are, and how removing one pillar, even in the form of a particularly noisome cabbage, can bring the whole lot tumbling down.

Photo Credits

Photo One by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (

Photo Two By Udo Schmidt – Flickr: Psylliodes chrysocephalus (Linné, 1758) converted to .jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Three byAfroBrazilian / CC BY-SA (

Photo Four by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (

Photo Five By TristramBrelstaff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster / CC BY-SA (

Photo Seven By Rodw – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo Eight by Roger Key from

Sunday Quiz – Beasts of the Field – The Answers!

Photo One from

Riggit Galloways (Photo One)

Dear Readers, congratulations this week to Sylvie Higgins, who not only got all the countries right but the breeds as well, so that’s an impressive 30 out of 31 (it was a Shetland Sheepdog not a collie which might explain why your rabbit wasn’t quite as big as the one in the picture :-)). FEARN got 29 out of 31 which is also mightily impressive, so it was a very close run thing, and many congratulations to both of you. I am having a break from the quiz tomorrow because I sense that people are getting busier, but they will be back shortly for sure!

Photo 1 from

1) e) Hungary – Mangalitza pig

Photo 2 by Nilfanion / CC BY-SA (

2) m) Scotland – Highland Cow

Photo 3 by By Amada44 - Own work, Public Domain,

3) h) South Africa – Afrikaner cow

Photo 4 from Dux / CC BY-SA (

4) j) Ireland – Irish Wolfhound

Photo 5 by By José Reynaldo da Fonseca - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

5) l) India – Brahman bull

Photo 6 from Effervescing Elephant / CC BY-SA (

6) k) Turkey – Turkish Van Cat

Photo 7 by HeatherLion / CC BY-SA (

7) g) USA – Rhode Island Red cockerel

Photo 8 by Stamatisclan / CC BY-SA (

8) n) Belgium – Belgian Giant Rabbit with Shetland Sheepdog

Photo 9 by akial / CC BY-SA (

9) c) France – Charolais bull

Photo Ten by Andreas Tille / CC BY-SA (

10) b) Iceland – Icelandic Horse

Photo 11 by Ulruppelt / CC BY-SA (

11) d) Turkmenistan – Akhal Teke stallion

Photo 12 by fugzu / CC BY (

12) i) Democratic Republic of Congo – Basenji

Photo 13 by By Volatilde - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

13) o) Russia – Russian Blue

Photo 14 by By Zingpix - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

14) a) Australia – Australian Cattle Dog

Photo 15 by By User Carl-Johan Aberger on sv.wikipedia - Carl-Johan Aberger, Public Domain,

15) f) Norway – Norwegian Forest Cat

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo 1 from

Photo 2 by Nilfanion / CC BY-SA (

Photo 3 by By Amada44 – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo 4 from Dux / CC BY-SA (

Photo 5 by By José Reynaldo da Fonseca – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Photo 6 from Effervescing Elephant / CC BY-SA (

Photo 7 by HeatherLion / CC BY-SA (

Photo 8 by Stamatisclan / CC BY-SA (

Photo 9 by akial / CC BY-SA (

Photo Ten by Andreas Tille / CC BY-SA (

Photo 11 by Ulruppelt / CC BY-SA (

Photo 12 by fugzu / CC BY (

Photo 13 by By Volatilde – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo 14 by By Zingpix – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Photo 15 by By User Carl-Johan Aberger on sv.wikipedia – Carl-Johan Aberger, Public Domain,


Friday Book – Another Personal Interlude

Photo One from

Watership Down by Richard Adams with illustrations by Aldo Galli (Photo One)

Dear Readers, I only have one and a half books to go to finish the Wainwright shortlist (though note that Dara McAnulty’s ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist‘ has already won). However, I have got a bit bogged down in ‘The Frayed Atlantic Edge’ by David Gange – not that it’s not good, but it is long, and rather dense. i will review it soon, I promise, as there’s much there to enjoy. However, in the meantime let me share with you another old favourite.

if Black Beauty was the first book to make me cry, Watership Down is the first book that I can remember staying up all night to read. I’d promised Mum that I’d snuggle down and go to sleep but at 3 in the morning there I was, agog to see if General Woundwort would survive an attack by a dog. ‘Just one more chapter!’ I would think to myself, as the sky lightened and I realised that the whole night had gone in the company of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the black-headed gull Kehaar.

What sets Watership Down apart from its many imitators is, for me, the complete realisation of a world, with its own mythology, culture and ways of seeing. It has been seen as everything from a riff on the Odyssey to a tale about the founding of Israel. Latterly it was criticised for concentrating so much on the male rabbits. It is certainly a work of its time, and yet for me once you’re down amongst the bunnies, everything else seems irrelevant. Will they survive? Will things work out?

I also think that few other books capture the helplessness of animals at the mercy of changes that they cannot understand, such as the destruction of a warren or their being ‘harvested’ for meat and fur. One of the saddest things about humanity seems to be the way that we betray the trust and good faith of other sentient creatures.

It’s clear that Watership Down was something of a one off. The book was rejected by seven publishers before being picked up by a one-man publisher, Rex Collings, who wrote to a friend

I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?

But it was an immediate success: Newsweek noted that

Adams … has bravely and successfully resurrected the big picaresque adventure story, with moments of such tension that the helplessly involved reader finds himself checking whether things are going to work out all right on the next page before daring to finish the preceding one.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only child pretending to be asleep and then reading the book under the covers. I probably wasn’t the only person who winced at the animated film, either: I see to my chagrin that the film came out in 1978 when I was (ahem) 18 years old, but I still found the violence a bit much. Still, I am the child who cried in Pinocchio when the whale got hurt, and don’t talk to me about Bambi as I am still traumatised. i can take death and misery in a book (just) but don’t show it to me.

Movie poster for Watership Down

Incidentally, the theme song for the film, ‘Bright Eyes‘, was sung by no less a star than Art Garfunkel, although Richard Adams hated it and it’s a bit too candy-coated for me too. Have a listen though, just in case.

Perhaps the most moving part of the book is the end, where the Black Rabbit comes to take Hazel to that great warren in the sky. I re-read it for this piece, and I still love it. Who knew that a book could recognise the heroism in a bunch of rabbits, and reduce a sixty year-old woman to a blubbering wreck? Well, that’s the power of a good story. If you’ve never come across Watership Down and fancy a few hours in another world, I can heartily recommend it.

Photo One from

All Grown Up

Dear Readers, the starlings are back in some numbers after a brief interlude for moulting in August. Most of them have their fine adult feathers everywhere but on their heads. They are independent now, and seem to be trying out the haws and the rowan berries to see what’s edible.

Maybe it’s something about this year, but I feel very tenderly inclined to the creatures in the garden this year. I confess to a lump in my throat as I see these youngsters considering what to eat, or surveying the sky in case of danger. Since Mum and Dad have died I have been horribly aware of our fragility and the ephemeral nature of our life on this earth. The Norse tale about life being like a bird flying out of the darkness and through a long-house, where everyone is feasting and shouting, and then flying out of the window and into darkness again has never seemed more apt.But what an extraordinarily beautiful year it has been. Spring seemed so exuberant, so full of promise. The summer was languid and sun-kissed, and the autumn seems likely to end in a crescendo of bright berries and autumn leaves. Did I just never notice it before?

I hear a strange clicking sound from the white-beam and see a squirrel coming down from one of the two dreys built in the treetop. This is quite a well-grown youngster now, and it has learned the trick of getting the sunflower seeds from the feeder.


And how had I never noticed that the tail of a grey squirrel looks like a monochrome image of a candle flame?

And then I hear a starling practicing his song, with all the usual whistling and tsscking that I associate with adult birds. I hope you can hear it over the background noise.

And so, I have come to trust that the garden will always provide something sustaining, something to make me feel less bruised and vulnerable. Whenever I sit there alone and don’t distract myself with my phone or a newspaper, whenever I just allow myself to become still and my senses to tune in to what’s going on, something will appear. Something that was there all the time, but I was just too busy to notice. And therein lies a lesson, I think.

Wednesday Weed – Vervain

Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

Dear Readers, what a small and overlooked plant this is! I was delighted to find it during my visit to Walthamstow Wetlands during my expedition last week, because as we all know new ‘weeds’ become increasingly difficult to find as autumn sets in.

With its delicate turrets of five-petalled white flowers, the species name ‘officinalis’ tells us that this is a medicinal plant, also known as ‘holy herb’ or ‘simplers joy’. It was believed to have been used to staunch Jesus’s wounds, hence another name ‘herb of the cross’, and because of these associations it was also believed to be useful in the casting out of demons. It has also been used by artists and writers to enhance their creativity and to relieve ‘blocks’. Medically it has been used for  throat swellings and gum inflammation, stomach problems, headache and lung problems. It was known to the ancient Egyptians as the Tears of Isis, and Pliny the Elder considered it a powerful herb, used to purify temples. It was also felt to be helpful during negotiations, and in Greek and Roman times was often brought along for diplomatic purposes.

Well, that’s quite a lot of weight for such a delicate plant to bear. In many cultures, the local name for vervain includes the word ‘iron’ though I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly why. There is one suggestion that it was used in the iron smelting process, but this seems a bit unlikely to me. Pliny says that the ‘magicians’ who work with the plant insist that it should be surrounded by a circle of iron. Ironically (see what I did there?) some studies have suggested that it actually inhibits the absorption of iron in humans. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, mentions that gun-flints were sometimes boiled with rue and vervain to make them more effective, so there is yet another explanation here.

Mabey also mentions that on the Isle of Man the plant is so important that it is called The Herb, as if there were no others. Getting hold of some vervain was quite a procedure:

‘It has medical uses, but mere possession of it conferred all manner of protection. A person going on a journey would carry a piece and many a Manxman would have a piece permanently sewn into his clothing. I have seen a number of plants growing in gardens, but so far I have not been successful in obtaining a plant for myself. The procedure for getting a piece is rather complicated. It cannot be asked for directly. Broad hints will be dropped and perhaps the possessor will take the hint and a plant will discreetly changed hands, usually wrapped in paper. No word should be exchanged. It must always change hands from man to woman or vice-versa. it can be stolen, but I have not stooped to that yet’. (Colin Jerry, Peel, Isle of Man)

For many years, wearing vervain in a bag around the neck was thought to be a protection for travellers and children, but these days its folkloric aspects seem to be largely forgotten: in Vickery’s Folk Flora, the author mentions that there is not a single reference to it on the Plantlore website, which collects such accounts in the UK. However, it was an ingredient in the ‘flying ointment’ used by witches (along with monkshood and deadly nightshade), and it was said that a tiny piece of the leaf placed into a cut on the hand would enable the opening of all locks. Plus, a piece of vervain included in a love potion would encourage someone to laugh, which is most certainly a good thing.

Photo One by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (

Vervain (Photo One)

Vervain probably came to the UK during the Neolithic period, brought for protection and for medicinal purposes. It likes chalk cliffs, south-facing slopes and disturbed grassland, and in the UK is very much a plant of the south. Most members of the Verbena family come from the Americas or from Asia, and Verbena boniarensis, the Argentine vervain, is one of the more popular butterfly plants these days. However, our more modest vervain is also a popular bee plant, all the more so since ‘grandiflora’ varieties have been grown that beef up the flowering while retaining the appeal to pollinators. Let me know if you’ve grown it, I’d be fascinated.

Photo Two from

Verbena officinalis var grandiflora (Photo Two)

As my thoughts generally turn to thoughts of food, I was checking to see if you could turn vervain into a curry or salad or, better still, a cake, but all I can find are references to tea. Certainly in France I’ve had a vervain infusion, but I’m not sure if it’s this plant. That’s the trouble with common names, they can lead to all sorts of confusion. I suspect that vervain is sometimes what we call lemon verbena. The flowers are allegedly edible, so you could always pop some into a salad if the urge came upon you.

But wait! Here is a peach and vervain tart, which I’m 100% certain actually contains lemon verbena and supports my thought about the French use of the word ‘vervaine’. It’s too pretty to leave out, even if it is completely the wrong plant.

Photo Three from

Peach and vervain tart (Photo Three)

And now, a poem. I am sure that the verbena in this work, translated from the French, is not ‘our’ flower, but I think the verses tell a sort of truth, and the image of the broken vase is an example of what can be done by focussing closely on just one thing. I hope you enjoy it. If you want to hear it being read with a lovely French accent, you can find it here.

“Le Vase Brisé (The Broken Vase)”
by Sully Prudhomme

Read by Jean-Luc Garneau

The vase where this verbena’s dying
Was cracked by a lady’s fan’s soft blow.
It must have been the merest grazing:
We heard no sound. The fissure grew.

The little wound spread while we slept,
Pried deep in the crystal, bit by bit.
A long, slow marching line, it crept
From spreading base to curving lip.

The water oozed out drop by drop,
Bled from the line we’d not seen etched.
The flowers drained out all their sap.
The vase is broken: do not touch.

The quick, sleek hand of one we love
Can tap us with a fan’s soft blow,
And we will break, as surely riven
As that cracked vase. And no one knows.

The world sees just the hard, curved surface
Of a vase a lady’s fan once grazed,
That slowly drips and bleeds with sadness.
Do not touch the broken vase.


Le vase où meurt cette verveine
D’un coup d’éventail fut fêlé;
Le coup dut l’effleurer à peine,
Aucun bruit ne l’a révélé.

Mais la légère meurtrissure,
Mordant le cristal chaque jour,
D’une marche invisible et sûre
En a fait lentement le tour.

Son eau fraîche a fui goutte à goutte,
Le suc des fleurs s’est épuisé;
Personne encore ne s’en doute,
N’y touchez pas, il est brisé.

Souvent aussi la main qu’on aime
Effleurant le coeur, le meurtrit;
Puis le coeur se fend de lui-même,
La fleur de son amour périt;

Toujours intact aux yeux du monde,
Il sent croître et pleurer tout bas
Sa blessure fine et profonde:
Il est brisé, n’y touchez pas.

Photo Four byCC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four

Photo Credits

Photo One by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (

Photo Two from

Photo Three from

Photo Four byCC BY-SA 3.0,

New ‘Bugs’ on the Block

Photo One by NobbiP / CC BY-SA (

Male Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, in my lifetime there have been some remarkable changes in our wildlife. Mostly it’s bad news, with species declining and disappearing, but this year, as people have spent more time at home and in nature, there have been reports of many insects which seem to be be  increasing. Some of them, such as oak processionary moths and harlequin ladybirds can cause problems for our native wildlife, but many just seem to fit in and go about their business as if they’ve always been here.

The hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) is a cracking insect, which has a 40mm wingspan and is a pretty accurate hornet mimic. There had been only two reported sightings by 1940 but since then it has become much more common, and with climate change warming things up it has been advancing north in the UK. It is migratory, arriving here from the Mediterranean in August and is usually gone by October. I saw one in the garden a few days ago, and very spectacular it was too, all clad in gold and copper. The males have a much narrower gap between the eyes than the females do.

The larvae of the hornet hoverfly live in the nests of hornets and wasps, where they act as cleaners and are tolerated by their hosts.

Photo Two by Siga / CC BY-SA (

Female hornet hoverfly (Photo Two)

And how about this beauty, which was popping up on my Facebook Insect ID pages about twice a day through the earlier part of the summer?

Photo Three by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (

Jersey Tiger Moth (Photo Three)

We aren’t sure whether this very attractive day-flying moth is just a resident, or if its numbers are swollen by immigrants from mainland Europe (or even the Channel Islands, as you might expect from the name). It is listed as Nationally Scarce but if this year was anything to go by it is definitely increasing. Having seen just one, in Mum and Dad’s garden in Dorset, until this year, I then saw several every day for about a month. I was very excited as one of the foodplants is hemp agrimony, of which I have an abundance. However, I am still not seeing any caterpillars or leaf damage, so maybe my moths are just visiting. Definitely one to keep an eye open for, though: although it’s largely confined to the southern parts of England at the moment I suspect that it too will gradually make its way north as things warm up.

Jersey tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

And who could forget the ivy bees (Colletes hederae)? If you have any ivy in flower near you, it’s worth having a look for these little guys, who could easily be mistaken at first glance for honeybees except that they are much stripier and gather the pollen onto their hairy legs rather than into a proper ‘basket’. They are solitary bees, although they may make their nest tunnels in the same area, forming a conglomeration of thousands of individuals. The ivy bees are among the last of the bees to appear, and very fine they are too. They were first recorded in the UK in 2001 and have made themselves very at home by taking advantage of a niche that our native bees seem to have missed.

Photo Four by Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA (

Ivy bee (male) Photo Four

And finally, the southern small white butterfly (Pieris mannii) might not even be here yet, but it is knocking on the door. Originally from south-eastern Europe, it has been advancing north-west at a rate of over 100km a year, and in 2019 it was recorded in Calais, so the race is on to identify the first one to land in the UK.

The trouble is, how on earth do you tell that you’re looking at a southern small white and not a large white, a small white or a green-veined white? It’s largely to do with the black ‘spot’ on the upper wing, which in the southern small white is more of a concave square. Here is a very handy identification chart designed by Chris van Swaay of the Dutch charity De Flinderstichting. 

Photo Five by Chris Van Swaay from via Butterfly Conservation

Southern small white compared to other white butterflies (Photo Five)

It’s pretty clear that the butterfly will turn up on the south coast first but of course it could have been here for ages, fluttering about incognito with all those other white-winged insects. Keep your eyes peeled, bugpeople! The caterpillars feed only on candy tuft (Iberis sempervirens) and Greek bladderpod (Allyssoides utriculatum) so I suspect that they won’t be breeding here very much until they widen their tastes, but the first step is usually to arrive as a summer visitor. It will be very interesting to see what happens next. What’s clear is that the whole of nature is in flux, and while there will be many losers some creatures and plants will thrive in this strange new world.

Photo Six by Guy Padfield at

Southern small white butterfly (Photo Six)

Photo Credits

Photo One by NobbiP / CC BY-SA (

Photo Two by Siga / CC BY-SA (

Photo Three by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (

Photo Four by Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA (

Photo Five by Chris Van Swaay from via Butterfly Conservation

Photo Six by Guy Padfield at

Tidying Up the Garden

Dear Readers, it’s the time of year when, pandemic or no pandemic, we have to tidy up the pond. The hornwort has done so well that we pull kilos of the stuff out of the water and pile it on the bank so that any invertebrates can wriggle back to safety. The frogs are always less than impressed, and stick their heads up to see what fresh hell is being enacted. Fortunately there is still lots of cover and so they soon relax.

The weather has gone from cold enough for me to take a hot water bottle to bed to an estimated 84 degrees tomorrow, which is most unseasonal. And as if to point out that summer isn’t quite over yet, a trio of common darter dragonflies were soon zipping above the pond, with one of them repeatedly bobbing down to the water as if laying eggs.

Common darter (Sympetrum striolatum)

These are very confiding dragonflies and are difficult to spook – a few years ago I was sitting beside a pond when a common darter actually landed on my arm, giving me a chance to have a good close look at those amazing dark red and green eyes. I felt very privileged to be used as a perch by such a splendid creature.

I spent a bit of time cutting back some of the hemp agrimony (though I will leave some for the birds and for hibernating insects). A hummingbird hawk moth popped in for about five seconds to feed on the remaining flowers, so I will leave the rest for a few weeks. At some point I’ll have to take out the waterlily leaves as well, but they can wait for a while. My next priority will be to get my bulbs planted – as usual I have bought way too many, but I never could resist a special offer. I am going to give honey garlic a go this year (on the recommendation of my Gardening For Wildlife book), plus some more fritillaries and a raft  of grape hyacinths who don’t seem to mind the shade at the back of the garden. Plus I have bought some more cyclamen coum and hederifolium for my woodland border, which currently looks as if a bomb has hit it. Who else is planting bulbs? Any recommendations for spring bulbs for shade? Bluebells would be an obvious choice, but after trying numerous times with English bluebell bulbs I am going to try to plant them in the green in spring.

Photo One by David J. Stang - source: David Stang. First published at, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Honey garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum) (Photo One)

So, the year has turned, regardless of our little human concerns. I rather like September – it has always felt more like a beginning than January to me. I got married in September, we moved to this house in September (ten years ago now), and of course the school year starts in September. Although nature is getting ready, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, to tuck itself in for the winter, I always feel more energised and up for a challenge as the nights draw in. It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

Photo Credits

Photo One by David J. Stang – source: David Stang. First published at, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Sunday Quiz – Beasts of the Field

Photo One from

Riggit Galloways (Photo One)

Dear Readers, my post on Native by Patrick Laurie had me thinking about native breeds of domestic animal, and how varied and beautiful they are. And so, this week, our mission is simple – can we match the animal to the country that it comes from? And, to make life a little easier, this week I am going to experiment with giving you a whole week to submit your answers, so they will be published next Saturday, and to be ‘marked’ you need to get your answers into the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Friday.

So, you will get one mark for the correct country, and a second mark if you can actually name the breed. As normal, if you don’t want to be influenced by those who have gone before, write your answers down on a piece of paper before you pop the answers into the comments.

So, if you think that the piggy in photo 1 is from Australia, your answer is 1) a)

And before you ask, the Riggit Galloways in Photo One are from Scotland.


a) Australia

b) Iceland

c) France

d) Turkmenistan

e) Hungary

f) Norway

g) USA

h) South Africa

i) Democratic Republic of Congo

j) Ireland

k) Turkey

l) India

m) Scotland

n) Belgium

o) Russia

Photo 1 from


Photo 2 by Nilfanion / CC BY-SA (


Photo 3 by By Amada44 - Own work, Public Domain,


Photo 4 from Dux / CC BY-SA (


Photo 5 by By José Reynaldo da Fonseca - Own work, CC BY 2.5,


Photo 6 from Effervescing Elephant / CC BY-SA (


Photo 7 by HeatherLion / CC BY-SA (


Photo 8 by Stamatisclan / CC BY-SA (

8) The rabbit please (though one extra mark for the breed of dog…)

Photo 9 by akial / CC BY-SA (


Photo Ten by Andreas Tille / CC BY-SA (


Photo 11 by Ulruppelt / CC BY-SA (


Photo 12 by fugzu / CC BY (


Photo 13 by By Volatilde - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo 14 by By Zingpix - Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Photo 15 by By User Carl-Johan Aberger on sv.wikipedia - Carl-Johan Aberger, Public Domain,



Return to the Garden Centre


Dear Readers, can it really be nearly eight months since my last visit to the garden centre? This year has seemed interminable and yet simultaneously the days have sped past. Today, I went to the Sunshine Garden Centre in Bounds Green with my friend J, and it lived up to its name. I have never met such friendly staff as the people at this place, and it really lifted my spirits to see all the plants. The restaurant was also open with a little bit of outdoor seating and vegan chocolate truffle cake. It was so satisfying to do something that felt the tiniest bit normal, even though with Covid rates doubling every eight days in the UK at present we could all be back in lockdown soon I suspect.

Pink Salvia

The mood of the autumn seems to be ‘shades of pink’. I’d never seen a pink salvia before, but here we are. My garden is a bit too shady for salvias to be really happy, but they are splendid bee plants, and a few queen bumblebees were buzzing about here. As regular readers will know, I like to let the bees choose what I buy, but I have to be sensible too about what will actually survive in the garden.

Lovely heathers, but they don’t like my garden either, even the ones that don’t need ericaceous soil.

And as foxgloves are biennial, these will die after they’ve flowered. Maybe I’d get some self-seeded ones, but I suspect not.

I have always been fond of the ornamental cabbages, but again I have to resist. There is no room in my garden for anything that can’t punch its weight for at least two seasons.

But sometimes I have my preconceptions tested, and today was just such a day. My friend is very fond of cyclamen, and was buying some for her pots.

‘Gosh’, I said, ‘There’s a honeybee on that cyclamen’.

I have always written cyclamen off as far as pollinators go, but it seems I was wrong. Common carder bees were going mad collecting the pollen, and there were queen bumblebees too. I am sure that I have never seen this before. Is it just this particular variety, I wonder, or have I just never noticed?

My Gardening for Wildlife book doesn’t give cyclamen a single mention. Gardeners, what do you think? Is it just that the bees of North London have learned a new skill, or has something else changed? Whatever the reason, I shall consider giving cyclamen some more room in my garden going forward.