Category Archives: London Invertebrates

Bugwoman on Location – A Common Ground at Tate Britain

Dear Readers, the Tate has ‘form’ when it comes to installations that combine gardening with art. Who can forget the raised beds of ‘Empty Lot’ at Tate Modern, a most frustrating exhibit which missed a number of opportunities to illuminate the varied habitats around London. So, I was hopeful but not overly optimistic when I went to visit ‘A Common Ground’ on Monday. This is what the gallery says about it:

It seems like a lovely idea, but I too have ‘form’ when it comes to community gardens. I was treasurer at Culpeper Community Garden in Islington for several years, and I know that the idea of a pop-up community garden is almost an oxymoron – these places take years of slow growth to build up both the garden itself and the community that supports it. People need to get to know one another, and the plants need tender loving care to establish themselves.

And so it proved. Most of the beds housed plants that were not in the best of health. The poor old sweet peas had withered away to nothing. The large white butterfly caterpillars were having a delightful time and had eaten nearly all the cabbage seedlings to a stump.

Large White (Pieris brassiceae) caterpillars

Some plants were doing well, especially the ones in the greenhouse, where a lone shy young man was potting up some seedlings.

There were various forms of squash bursting forth, a homage to an installation called ‘The Squash’ by Anthea Turner, which takes place in the gallery itself. Someone wearing a squash on their head poses among the artworks, as we all gawp and take photos. What a job.  I cannot imagine how hot the performer has been during the last few weeks.

Hokkaido squash

‘The Squash’ by Anthea Hamilton

The raised beds themselves have a certain geometric elegance, but I can’t help thinking that runner beans would have been nice. Like so many edible plants they are elegant in their own right. As it is, the sweet peas are just not cutting it, though some broad beans are giving it their best shot.

Some plants are doing very well: there are some splendid hollyhocks and sunflowers.

There are a couple of beds which combine pollinator-friendly herbs and vegetables with plants such as verbena for the bees, and these are doing pretty well.

There are even fountains that are triggered by the human voice. I  wondered how these worked, but I think the idea is that you sit down for a chat and then  the fountain gurgles into life. My friend S and I were eventually loud enough to get one to work, and very exciting it was too.

But sadly there was no one for us to have a chat to. The young lad in the greenhouse didn’t want to talk, and that’s fine – not everyone who comes to a garden comes to socialise, and any community garden should allow for both the quiet and the extrovert. But there was nobody else. I suspect that it’s very different on Saturday when there are events (last week’s demonstration of Caribbean vegan cooking sounds particularly intriguing), but all in all I think the problem is intrinsic to the very nature of the project. Gardens take time and investment, and many gardeners wouldn’t want to spend time on something that will disappear at the end of October. This is a bit sad, as I’m sure this could be a very productive garden even in this period of time if it was looked after.

Also, community gardens are usually full of volunteers who live within walking distance, school children, pensioners, folk who have time to spare for whatever reason. The garden here could be the same, but I have a suspicion that by the time people get to know about the garden, it will be time for it to close.

I would have been fascinated to know a bit more about the kinds of fruit and vegetables that are being grown too: for example, there was a label for Yacon, a kind of tuberous South American daisy, but it was impossible to tell which plant it referred to, which was frustrating.

The questions that ‘A Common Ground’ ask are well worth considering. How does a garden bring people together? What can we learn from one another by growing and eating plants, side by side? What happens in those social interactions where people are working on a  common task? Unfortunately, my visit today makes me think that local people are not really engaged with this project, for all the reasons of time and location that I’ve mentioned previously. It frustrates me to see happy caterpillars munching on lovingly planted cabbages, and sweetpeas turned to brown paper for want of watering. My dad, who had an alllotment for most of his life, would have been horrified.

I shall pop back for a second look later in the year, just to see if things have gelled into something more coherent. But for today, this was a pleasant and interesting walk, nothing more.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Verbena Bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Dear Readers, what a strange plant this is, with its stiff stems and heads of tiny purple-pink flowers! I until a few years ago it was a relative rarity in London gardens, and I can see why – the flowerheads are small for the size of the plant, which can grow up to six feet tall. But then the other day I saw some planted with grasses and Japanese anemones, and I finally appreciated its delicate beauty. Plus, it is a great late summer plant for butterflies, and as so many people are trying to do their bit for wildlife these days it has grown in popularity. Finally, it is drought-tolerant, and we all need a bit of that in London, what with it being nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Verbena bonariensis in Muswell HIll, with grasses….

The name ‘Verbena’ means ‘sacred bough’, but this refers to Verbena officinalis or Vervaine, a plant used for medicine and for sacred ritual from the Druids onwards and introduced to the UK in the Stone Age. You can see the family resemblance in the photo below, especially the stiff stems.

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at https://www.flickr.com/photos/74738817@N07/28519290812

Vervaine (Verbena officinalis) (Photo One)

‘Bonariensis’ means ‘from Buenos Aires’, indicating that the plant originated in South America. It has naturalised in the warmer parts of North America and is considered a noxious weed in some states.

In the US, the plant is known as ‘purpletop’ or ‘South American vervaine’. It seems strange to me that the plant doesn’t yet have a common name in the UK, considering how popular it’s become. In their book on Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael J. Crawley call it ‘Argentine Vervaine’, so maybe this will catch on. However, a new variety of the plant, which is smaller with larger flowers, is known as ‘Lollipop Verbena’ so maybe this is the name that will stick.

Photo Two from https://www.crocus.co.uk/plants/_/verbena-bonariensis-lollipop-pbr/classid.2000017445/

Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ (Photo Two)

In ‘Alien Plants’, Verbena bonariensis is described as being one of the UK’s fastest spreading non-native plants. It certainly loves to self-seed and, as it gives height to plantings in supermarket car parks and municipal beds it’s easy to see where the spread is coming from. Plus you can grow it from seed, which saves lots of money, no small thing if you’re a cash-strapped council. I foresee fields of ‘purpletop’ in our future.

Medicinal uses for the plant seem to be few and far between, at least in Europe. One site describes it as useful for love potions. Another mentions how their dog seems to love eating it. Humans, however, do not appear to eat the plant in any form that I can find. I suspect that it might be useful as a dried flower, and Alys Fowler describes the blackened seed heads as ‘most arresting’. But if you have a patch of the garden in full sun, you might want to grow the plant just to see which insects turn up.

Photo  Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

With honey bee (Photo Three)

With Skipper butterfly (Public Domain)

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davehamster/3896579963

With red admiral butterfly (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photofarmer/272560745

With monarch butterflies in North America (Photo Five)

I always have a bit of a problem with what to plant for once my buddleia and lavender have finished, and I am thinking of getting a raised bed for my south-facing front garden, to replace the selection of pots that I currently have – even with daily watering the plants have suffered this year, and I think they might stand a better chance in deeper soil. I suspect that some Verbena bonariensis will definitely feature after the display of insects above, especially if I can grow it from seed. It’s good to have a gardening project to consider when I have so much else going on. It’s difficult to dwell on dark thoughts when leafing through a seed catalogue.

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Photo Six)

And so to a poem, and what a sock in the eye this one is, especially as we all pant in the grip of a heatwave that is longer than any I can remember.

‘Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry‘……

Anthropocene Pastoral by Catherine Pierce

In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.

Early spring everywhere, the trees furred

pink and white, lawns the sharp green

that meant new. The sky so blue it looked

manufactured. Robins. We’d heard

the cherry blossoms wouldn’t blossom

this year, but what was one epic blooming

when even the desert was an explosion

of verbena? When bobcats slinked through

primroses. When coyotes slept deep in orange

poppies. One New Year’s Day we woke

to daffodils, wisteria, onion grass wafting

through the open windows. Near the end,

we were eyeletted. We were cottoned.

We were sundressed and barefoot. At least

it’s starting gentle, we said. An absurd comfort,

we knew, a placebo. But we were built like that.

Built to say at least. Built to reach for the heat

of skin on skin even when we were already hot,

built to love the purpling desert in the twilight,

built to marvel over the pink bursting dogwoods,

to hold tight to every pleasure even as we

rocked together toward the graying, even as

we held each other, warmth to warmth,

and said sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry while petals

sifted softly to the ground all around us.

Photo Seven by By frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven

Photo Credits

Photo One by Andreas Rockstein at https://www.flickr.com/photos/74738817@N07/28519290812

Photo Two from https://www.crocus.co.uk/plants/_/verbena-bonariensis-lollipop-pbr/classid.2000017445/

Photo Three by By Dinkum [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verbena_bonariensis_with_a_bee.JPG

Photo Flour by Dave Merrett at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davehamster/3896579963

Photo Five by Dwight Sipler at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photofarmer/272560745

Photo Six by By RedR [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by  frank wouters (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Lavender

Honeybee on lavender (Lavandula augustifolia)

Dear Readers, when we were trying to buy a house in East Finchley almost a decade ago, I sat on the wall outside the house that is now ours. Were we far enough from the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner not to be affected by the rowdiness that sometimes accompanies such establishments? How bad was the noise from the main road? As I sat there, I breathed in the scent from the lavender that had been planted by the current owners, and watched the bees hopping from flower to flower. I realised how lucky I was to be even considering living here, and also that the house was meant to be ours. I am sure that the smell of lavender will always mean this house to me, and will be tied up with the memories of my time here.

Today, those lavender plants have become a veritable field. In truth they’ve become a bit woody and overgrown, but for a few weeks every year they attract every pollinator for miles around. I sat on my wall with the camera this afternoon, and listened to the drowsy hum of the honeybees going about their business, just as I did a decade ago, and it still soothes me. I think of them taking the lavender-scented nectar back to the hives on the allotment a few blocks away, and it makes me smile to think of how delicious it will be.

Every year we take the shears to the lavender once it’s finished flowering, and the next year it comes back with more flowers than ever. I know there are lots of other varieties, but this seems to be the one that is the most robust in the sun-baked Mediterranean climate of my south-facing front yard. Every time I brush past the flowers they release that heady, resinous scent.

Most of the bees that come to visit are busy honeybees or bumblebees, but every so often we get a butterfly. Normally these are large or small cabbage whites, but today I spotted my first small tortoiseshell. These butterflies had a bad year last year – I don’t think I saw a single specimen, so it was great to see this one. They look so unobtrusive with their wings closed, but then they open them, and you get a brief glimpse of tangerine and sky blue.

Wait for it…..

There we go! Small tortoiseshell ( Aglais urticae)

Lavender is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, and can be found right across Europe, south west Asia and northern and eastern Africa. It has been taken to many other countries as a culinary herb, and as a source of essential oils. It has been found ‘in the wild’ in the UK since at least 1440 – it was mentioned in a manuscript poem by a horticulturalist called Jon Gardener ( which may have been a pseudonym, a case of someone being named after their occupation, or a fine case of nominative determinism). The plant now finds itself in the top thirty list of alien plants found in London and Berkshire, but not in Sutherland, where presumably it is too cold and wet. I suspect that its range will increase northwards as climate change warms up the country.

There is some discussion about how lavender got its name. Some believe that it came from the Latin word lavare, to wash, perhaps referring to the use of the essential oil in soap and for scenting both people and clothing. Others think that it comes from the Latin word livere, meaning ‘blue-ish’. Both seem feasible to me, and the derivation could well be a combination of the two, equally applicable, words.In Hebrew, the plant is called nard, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon. In Roman times, lavender was sold for 100 denarii a pound, about the same as a month’s wages for a farm labourer.

Today, lavender the plant has given its name to lavender the colour, one of my favourites.

Something that divides people is the use of lavender as a flavouring. I am very fond of floral overtones in food, and a lemon and lavender cake is my idea of heaven. However, it’s easy to be heavy-handed and to end up with a dessert that tastes like soap, just as the over-use of rosewater can result in something that reminds me of a lady’s boudoir. Should you wish to have a bash, however, here is a recipe for lavender and lemon loaf cake.

Lemon and Lavender Loaf Cake (see recipe at link above)

Interestingly, although popular culture has it that the people of Provence have been showering every dish with lavender since time immemorial, the ingredient was not included in books about Provencal cookery at the turn of the 20th century. Lambs were  allowed to graze on lavender to flavour and tenderise their meat, but the inclusion of lavender in ‘Herbes de Provence’ was created in 1970 for the North American market. Thus are legends born.

The production of lavender oil for other purposes is big business: it’s used in everything from soap and shower-gel to fabric conditioner and cleaning products. There are two types of oil, one derived exclusively from the flowers and used in perfumery and aromatherapy, and lavender spike oil, derived from a different species of lavender, Lavandula latifolia, and used as a replacement for turpentine. The world’s biggest producer of lavender is not as you might expect Provence in France, but Bulgaria. There are also some lavender farms in southern England, including Mayfield Lavender in Surrey, a site that I stumbled upon during a walk a few years ago. What a feast for the senses it was!

Photo One by © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Mayfield Lavender Farm (Photo One)

As a medicinal ingredient, lavender is often used to enable sleep and to soothe anxiety (hence the use of lavender oil sachets and pillows filled with the flowers for those with insomnia). It was used in the First World War as an antiseptic for wounds and burns, and has long been used for tension headaches, and as a treatment for parasites. However, the oil is also an endocrine disrupter, and has been linked to breast development in young boys (prepubertal gynecomastia). It is also a strong ingredient which can irritate the skin if used at the wrong concentration. While I like the smell of the flowers, and the taste of the ingredient in food, I much prefer rose as a scent in my soap and lotions. I find lavender a little bit overwhelming.

On the other hand, Cleopatra was said to have seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony by wearing a perfume containing lavender, so if you are in the mood to subdue a dictator this might be just the plant. On St Luke’s Day (18th October), maidens would sip lavender tea and recite this poem:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me,
In my dreams, let me my true love see.”

Furthermore, lavender was one of the ingredients of Four Thieves Vinegar, a concoction which was said to protect those who used it against the plague. The ‘Four Thieves’ bit comes after some burglars who were preying on the houses of those who had died of the disease were captured: they gave the recipe in exchange for clemency, saying that it had enabled them to go about their nefarious crimes without catching the plague themselves. There are many different recipes, but all include vinegar mixed with various herbs, such as sage, rosemary and lavender. As these plants have all been used to deter insect infestations, I wonder if bathing in the vinegar deterred the fleas that carried the plague? Often these stories have a tiny kernel of truth.

And here, for our poem of the week, is one by Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who has won both the T.S Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This is the title poem from his 1987 collection ‘Meeting the British’.

Meeting the British

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender

and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,

the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)

and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French

across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst

nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.

As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-

kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.

They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – At Long Lane Pasture

Dear Readers, on the hottest day of the year so far, my friend A and I ventured forth for a walk around Long Lane Pasture. This nature reserve is just half a mile from my house in East Finchley, but it’s easy to miss, being tucked in beside the North Circular Road and the tube line. Once I was through the unprepossessing gate it was as if I was in some mythical summer from my childhood – although the rumble of the traffic is ever present this is the only reminder that you are in the London Borough of Barnet, not in some meadow in the shires.

Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum) beside the main path

There are meadow brown and ringlet butterflies, cabbage whites and the occasional cinnabar moth flitting around the long grass. The flower heads of a yellow buddleia hang opposite the berries of a guelder rose. Wild and garden perennials mix cheerfully together. All that is missing is the chirrup of grasshoppers, which puzzles me – with all this long grass I would expect the place to be deafening. I wonder why there aren’t any?

Seedheads of yellow buddleia (Buddleia x weyeriana)

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

There are some seats under a covered area next to the largest pond, and we sit and enjoy the shade and a drink of water. A moorhen and her chick head for cover, but the dragonflies are relentless. One male emperor dragonfly seems to want to own the entire pond, swooping down to see off all rivals, his wings gleaming in the sun. He always returns to the same reed to survey his kingdom. Occasionally he stoops at a butterfly but in a half-hearted way. This time of year is about breeding.

It is chastening to think ow easily this pasture could have been lost to development. In 1912 it was given to the public as a reserve, but half of it was lost in 1920 when the North Circular Road was built. For years the land was grazed by horses, but in 1999 Barnet wanted to build houses on the site, one of the last scraps of unspoilt green left in the Borough. After a public campaign it was designated as open space, and 2009 the Long Lane Pasture Trust was granted a 25 year lease. I suppose this means that we’ll have to gird our loins for another fight in 2034. I shall be marking it in my diary.

Alder bark ( I think! Feel free to correct me….)

We follow the paths, taking the opportunity to sit on the benches placed in the shade of the trees. In one area, an elm has been planted. A sign tells us that this is a Princeton elm, a hybrid developed in the US to resist Dutch Elm disease, which still kills off any elm saplings ambitious enough to grow taller than about six feet. The sign tells me that a white-letter hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) was spotted in the pasture in 2009: this is vanishingly rare in the UK, as the eggs are laid on the twigs of elm trees, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. When the elms died in the UK, it was pretty much the end for the butterfly as well, so closely was it associated with the tree. The Princeton elm has been planted in the hope that ‘the white-letter hairstreak will make a home here’. I hope so too.

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

A white-letter hairstreak (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

White-letter hairstreak caterpillar (Photo Two)

There are many small ponds on the pasture, many dotted with purple loosestrife and bulrushes. My friend A rescues a cinnabar moth caterpillar from one of them. The irises have just gone over, and there are some strange plants in another of the damper patches. I’m hoping that they aren’t skunk cabbage, an invasive species from North America that can out compete practically anything, but my latest advice is that it’s probably elecampane, a yellow member of the daisy family. I saw some in flower earlier, so this makes sense.

But the best is yet to come. My friend A points out some little webs in the long grass. I take a few photos, and once home I talk to some of my friends on the invertebrate identification groups that I belong to. It appears that the webs belong to nursery web spiders! I am cockahoop. These spiders are free-range hunters, tracking flies and other small insects  through the long grass and pouncing on them like cheetahs. The female carries her egg-sac around with her in her jaws and then, when they are ready to hatch, she weaves the webs that I saw so that her spiderlings are protected while they grow.

Nursery webs….

Apparently, when the male wants to mate with the female (who, as is the way with spiders, is much, much bigger than he is) he presents her with a gift of food while simultaneously pretending to be dead. When she comes over to investigate he apparently springs to his feet, mates with her (presumably while she is absorbed in her dinner) and then runs away as fast as his eight tiny legs will carry him. The ways of insects are strange, but I have known humans who would pursue the same tactics if only they were speedy enough.

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider - Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) carrying her egg sac (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult female nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) (Photo Four)

And so we come full circle to the entrance again, having only just skimmed the surface of the wonders that Long Lane Pasture has to offer. I haven’t mentioned the fluty notes of the song thrush, nor the pretty yellow flowers of the meadow vetchling, and I could probably go on all day about the moth population of the grassland. But that will have to wait, because once it gets above 80 degrees in London it’s time for even the mad dogs and English women to get out of the mid-afternoon sun, and into somewhere a little more shady. I shall certainly be back.

Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider – Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

A Bit of a Panic

Dear Readers, when I was wandering through Cherry Tree Wood here in East Finchley a few weeks ago, I was fascinated to see that some of the trees had these ghostly nets in them. The silk is similar to that of spiders, but because it is protective rather than used to catch insects, it’s opaque and surprisingly strong. In the midst of the tent above I could see frass, the black droppings of caterpillars. Some little critters had obviously been having a lovely time eating the new leaves. It didn’t take me long to find the culprits – the caterpillars of the bird-cherry ermine moth (Yponomeuta yvonemella).

Bird cherry with webs of the Bird Cherry Ermine moth (Yponomeuta yvonemella)

These caterpillars will be gone by the end of June, giving the tree plenty of time to recover. After all, compared with some webs,  this was a mild one.

Photo One from http://www.growsonyou.com/photo/slideshow/157704-bird-cherry-tree-ermine-moths-larvae/all

A dramatic bird cherry ermine moth web in Essex (Photo One)

There is definitely safety in numbers – when the caterpillars all emerge at the same time it makes it less likely that an individual larva will be eaten. Furthermore, even the most diligent blue tit won’t want to foul her feathers with too much of that sticky stuff.

The caterpillars will pupate briefly, and then this rather elegant moth emerges. You can see how its resemblance to a winter-coated stoat gave it its name – just think of the white, black-spotted fur that lines the ceremonial robes of mayors and royalty. I always think that every black spot was once the tip of the tail of a small predator, and count how many died to make each outfit, but maybe that’s just me.

Photo Two by By David Short from Windsor, UK - Bird cherry ermine (rp), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63856375

Bird cherry ermine moth (Photo Two)

There are several other species of ermine moth in the UK, the commonest being the orchard ermine (which feeds mainly on hawthorn and blackthorn) and the spindle ermine that munches through (predictably) spindle. None of them are any threat to the plant, and their populations will naturally fluctuate according to the weather and to the availability of food and the number of predators.

As I was perusing the ermines and getting a few photographs, I was accosted by some young women who were anxious for their children.

‘Are these those dangerous caterpillars that I heard about on the news?’ they asked.

I was able to reassure them. The ‘dangerous caterpillars’ are the young of the oak processionary moth, a European mainland native that has been imported (just like ash dieback) on young trees for landscaping. These insects have been spotted in several places in West London, and they are considered a problem because they are ‘urticareous’ – that is, their hairs are likely to cause dermatitis and even asthma if inhaled. The clue to their behaviour is in the name: the processionary moth caterpillars follow one another around en masse. Their nests tend to be on the branches and trunks of oak trees, never among the leaves as with the ermine moths. You need to be in close contact with the caterpillars for them to cause any harm. The Forestry Commission are treating the outbreaks that they know about (probably with huge doses of biocides) and if you spot any actual Oak Processionary Moth caterpillars you can report it here.

Photo Three by By Kleuske - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19940595

Oak Processionary moth caterpillars having a trot around a tree trunk (Photo Three)

I do wonder, however, how many perfectly harmless caterpillars have been killed as a result of all the quasi-hysterical news reporting of the oak processionary moth. The story has all the ingredients for a media storm: invaders from overseas: a danger to children: an attack on that very bastion of Englishness, the oak tree. Many people have a fear of insects, and most of us have a fear of insects in very large numbers. I suspect that some people might have seen a caterpillar net in their garden and doused it with insecticide without stopping to identify it. Which would be a real shame, because some extremely rare species superficially resemble the oak processionary moth.

One of the most endangered is the Small Eggar (Eriogaster lanestris). This species lives in hawthorn, blackthorn and birch, and the caterpillars create a nest about the size of a small football. The larvae are attuned to one another and it’s believed that they communicate about where the best feeding opportunities are, before leaving to forage en masse. They have been under extreme pressure due to the loss of habitat in the countryside, and so are more likely to come into contact with humans. What a shame it would be to lose this creature because of mistaken identity.

Photo Four by By User:MarkusHagenlocher - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2151016

Small Eggar caterpillar (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By Hans Gasperl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Small Eggar silk tent (Photo Five)

Photo Six by [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult Small Eggar (Photo Six)

Another possible victim of over-enthusiastic caterpillar killing is the Nationally Scarce lackey moth (Malacosoma neustris), which has some of the most appealing larvae of all lepidoptera, at least to me – I spent a lot of time playing with these creatures as a child, and although they too could set off dermatitis in those who are susceptible, I never had any ill effects. These caterpillars also live in nets and their preferred foodplants include oak. cherry. plum, apple, willow and hornbeam. You can see how these chaps, spotted in an oak tree, could be doomed from the start, although their caterpillars look very different from those of the oak processionary moth, and their behaviour is quite different.

Photo Seven by By H. Krisp - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19806408

Lackey moth caterpillar (Photo Seven)

The eggs of the lackey moth look as if they’re made of ivory, and are always laid around a twig. I wonder if the mother gets dizzy laying them?

Photo Eight by By José Manuel Benito Álvarez [CC BY-SA 2.5 es (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lackey Moth eggs (Photo Eight)

In fact, to our human eyes, the adult moth is the least beautiful stage of the lackey moth’s life, although it is still a very handsome creature.

Photo Nine by By Ben Sale from UK ([1634] The Lackey (Malacosoma neustria)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lackey moth adult (Photo Nine)

So it seems to me that the ability to identify an oak tree, and to tell the difference between a lackey moth caterpillar with its cartoon-like blue face and the ultra-furry oak processionary moth caterpillar are what’s required to prevent the accidental extermination of rare moths who are already under extreme pressure. And also, it helps if, having learned these things, we communicate them to our children. No one wants their little ones to be bitten or stung or hurt in any way, but the best way of keeping them safe is to help them to understand what’s safe and what’s not. Children are naturally curious, and when they’re outdoors they will probably fall off of logs, get stung by wasps and come home covered in bruises and dirty. It’s hard, I know, but we cannot protect those that we love from things that hurt them and nor should we. How can we learn resilience without a little adversity? And besides, exploring the outside world and discovering things for ourselves is so much fun that it will bring us joy for a lifetime.

Photo Credits

Photo One from http://www.growsonyou.com/photo/slideshow/157704-bird-cherry-tree-ermine-moths-larvae/all

Photo Two by By David Short from Windsor, UK – Bird cherry ermine (rp), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63856375

Photo Three by By Kleuske – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19940595

Photo Four by By User:MarkusHagenlocher – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2151016

Photo Five by By Hans Gasperl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by By H. Krisp – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19806408

Photo Eight by By José Manuel Benito Álvarez [CC BY-SA 2.5 es (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by By Ben Sale from UK ([1634] The Lackey (Malacosoma neustria)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Pertaining to ashes

IMG_4612

Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria)

Dear Readers, when I first moved into my house in East Finchley in 2010, I was at a loss to know what to do with the darkest part of the side return, the gap between the kitchen and the house next door. I wondered if anything would ever be happy there. Fortunately, someone suggested hydrangea petiolaris, the climbing hydrangea, and after 8 years it has reached the roof. This year, it  was smothered in its strange, lace-cap flowers, and every time I stepped outside on my way to top up the bird feeders, it made me smile.

I didn’t, however, think that it was a very good plant for wildlife. My highest hopes were that it might provide a thick and leafy haven for birds’ nests at some point. But then, I noticed that, although there were only a tiny number of white flowers with petals on each flowerhead (known as a corymb), there were masses of tiny flowerets, which seemed to be composed entirely of stamen. I learned that the white flowers are sterile, but the unassuming smaller ‘blooms’ are not, and are in fact a rich source of pollen.

And so I started to notice that various pollinators were visiting the hydrangea. Bumblebees and honeybees collected the pollen, and small hoverflies seemed to be patrolling territories above the flowers. However, my happiest realisation was that I had a new visitor, or at least one who was new to me. The black and grey bee in the first photo is an ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria), and she is busily collecting pollen.

How do I know that this is a female? The shiny black abdomen and grey and black-striped thorax are very distinctive. The males are smaller, and have white tufts of hair sticking out of the side of their thoraxes, rather like muttonchop whiskers (though in the wrong place). These are small bees, about two-thirds of the size of a honeybee. Their Latin name ‘cineraria’ means ‘pertaining to ashes’, a reference to their colour – incidentally the plant cineraria was probably named because of its grey furry stems.

IMG_4609 (2)

Although ashy mining bees are solitary in the sense that they don’t form colonies like honeybees or bumblebees, they do like to nest together. They build long nesting tunnels, usually on sunny south-facing slopes, and sometimes a favoured site can be peppered with hundreds of individual nests, the bees coming and going with a frequency that  reminds me of Heathrow airport. The bees seem to prefer bare soil, but will sometimes nest in lawns, leaving little ‘volcanoes’ of soil. They block the tunnels when they’ve finished foraging, or if it looks like rain. If disturbed they will rush to blockade their nest entrances – these are not aggressive creatures, and I have never heard of anyone being stung by one.

As is often the way, I noticed the bees last weekend, and by mid-week the hydrangea had gone over, and the bees had disappeared. Much like the hairy-footed flower bees that are around on warm days in April, ashy mining bees have a short, single flight period, and will all be gone by the end of June. The females spend their time busily gathering nectar and pollen to feed the larvae who have hatched in the brood chambers at the end of those tunnels. Once they have fed enough, the larvae will pupate for the rest of the year, ready to emerge in spring – the males pop out before the females so that they’re ready for them when they come out (much as the male frogs emerge in my pond a few days before the females turn up). The male bees hover around the nest site in a behaviour known as ‘lekking’, a term that I associate more with black grouse than insects.

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Ashy mining bees are not at all particular about what plants they use for pollen, and are very important for the pollination of oil-seed rape in some areas of the country (an indication that honeybees are not the only important pollinators). They go about their work largely unnoticed, appearing for a few weeks every year and then disappearing. I shall certainly watch for them next year, and will keep my eyes open for whatever species comes next. There is a dance in the gentle succession of species that emerge, or bloom, or die-back every month, and getting to know these patterns has been one of the most wonderful things about writing this blog. It gives me a sense of belonging and groundedness that is most reassuring when so many other things are in flux.

In her wonderful book ‘The Enchanted Life’, Sharon Blackie refers to the importance of having a ‘Sit Spot’ – somewhere that you sit every day, whatever the weather, and just observe. I know that plonking down on my kitchen step and paying attention to the hydrangea and to the plants has given me a real sense of the turn of the seasons and of how plants and animals and humans interrelate. It has given me peace when serenity was in short supply. It reminds me that life goes on, literally right outside my back door. And it is cool, and green, in the way that a forest is cool and green. It has become a sanctuary, thanks to this plant that doesn’t mind the shade, and flowers with such generosity. It reminds me how lucky I am.

I recommend ‘The Enchanted Life’ for anyone who would like to foster a deeper connection with the area in which they live, and who yearns for a sense of belonging. You can find out more about it (and purchase it directly from the author) here

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Flowering Currant

Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

Dear Readers, when I was planting up my garden some eight years ago, I was wandering around the garden centre with my wonky trolley, trying to stop my phlox from capsizing, when I spotted a bush standing all alone in the corner. It seemed so lonely and unappreciated that I ground to a halt and wandered over for a closer look. The plant looked decidedly disheveled, but the leaves were just starting to emerge, and the buds were the most delicate pink-tinged things. I looked around. I looked back. I considered. And then,shoving a couple of ox-eye daisies to one side, I grabbed the plant.

‘You’re coming home with me!’ I told it. I still had no idea what it was but, just as when I was fostering cats and could sometimes see what a beautiful animal lay under the scratty fur and watery eyes, so this plant seemed to me to just be in need of some gentleness and consideration.

Eight years later it is the plant that delights both me and the hairy-footed flower bees most in the early days of April, as its cerise buds unfurl into a mass of flowers. You can’t beat a flowering currant for a spectacular show, and as this one is right next to the pond I get the double benefit of its reflection in the water.

Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

A hairy-footed flower bee (Anthora plumipes) feeding on spring snowflake (Photo One)

Flowering currant is actually a North American plant, growing on the west coast from California up to British Columbia. It was brought back to the UK by the Scottish explorer David Douglas in 1826, A friend remembers that the plant had a wonderful sweet scent, but mine has unperfumed flowers, and leaves that smell rather like the pee of a tom cat if crushed.

Flowering currant is a member of the Grossulariaceae family, along with the other currant species such as redcurrant, whitecurrant and blackcurrant, although the family is actually named for another member, the gooseberry. The berries of the flowering currant are not particularly juicy or flavoursome , but all the currants have a lot of gamma-linoleic acid in their roots, leaves and seeds which is proven to be efficacious for pre-menstrual syndrome. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest also ate the berry, in particular saving it for winter food – like all of the family, flowering currant is rich in vitamin C. One method for doing this was to turn the pulp of the berries into something called fruit leather, thus avoiding the numerous annoying seeds. If you want to see how this is done, have a look at the Wild Harvests website here.

The caterpillars of many moths and butterflies will feed on flowering currant, but the confusingly-named spinach moth only eats the leaves of members of this family.

Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=880141

The spinach moth(Eulithis mellinata) (Photo Two)

Plus many other moth caterpillars will also make an occasional meal of a currant, and I make no apology for this gratuitous picture of an ermine moth, one of my favourites.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293

Ermine Moth (Spilosoma lutea) (Photo Three )

It is said that birds will also eat the berries, although the ones in my garden are extremely picky and seem to prefer the (very expensive) suet pellets.In their native Pacific Northwest the flowers are a prime early nectar source for hummingbirds – the colour and shape of the flowers is a dead give away.

Photo Two by Andrew A Redding at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter/32933756594

Male Anna’s humminbird on flowering currant (Photo Four)

I had never made the link between the name ‘Ribena’ (the blackcurrant cordial) and the Ribes family, which proves that I am not always paying attention. Incidentally Suntory, the company that makes Ribena, has gotten itself into a whole heap of trouble after changing its formulation to try to avoid the UK sugar tax. The drink  now contains a heap of artificial sweeteners, which are also problematic as we know. There is a theory that, in addition to the various correlations between artificial sweeteners and diseases such as cancer, having too much of the stuff in your diet can screw up your glucose metabolism. So, maybe a reason to start making my own cordial  (though the only time that I have ever drunk Ribena was when I was six years old and ill in bed with a bilious attack).

Photo Two by By Patrice78500 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22431600

Flowering currant berries (Photo Five)

In spite of its prettiness, bringing a bough of this shrub into the house seems to be considered unlucky all over the UK. Maybe it’s the smell of cats’ pee that does it.

And bringing it all together, as always, is Seamus Heaney. In his collection ‘Field Work‘ he writes of many things, one of them being his love for his wife. Have a look at this, both the close observation of the plant, and the skin, and the last two lines which, like the last line of a haiku, seem to leave a kind of silence.

IV

Catspiss smell
the pink bloom open
I press a leaf
of the flowering currant
on the back of your hand
for the tight slow burn
of its sticky juice
to prime your skin
and your veins to be crossed
criss-cross with leaf-veins

I lick my thumb
and dip it in mould
I anoint the anointed
leaf-shape. Mould
bloom and pigments
the back of your hand
like a birthmark
my umber one
you are stained, stained to perfection.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Charlesjsharp [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=880141

Photo Three Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=861293

Photo Four by Andrew A Redding at https://www.flickr.com/photos/seaotter/32933756594

Photo Five by By Patrice78500 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22431600