Category Archives: London Invertebrates

Deep in Their Roots All Flowers Keep the Light (Theodore Roethke)

Spring in the County Roads

Dear Readers, I was at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on Wednesday, watching a production of Twelfth Night. My first inkling that something was wrong was when I switched on my phone during the interval. As soon as the screen burst into life, I was inundated with messages from my husband and friends.

‘Are you all right?’

Of course, what could possibly go wrong at Twelfth Night (apart from some rather weak comedy of course)?

But soon it became clear that a terrorist attack had taken place on Westminster Bridge and at Westminster itself. People were dead. Someone was in the Thames. Parliament was in lock down.

When I left the theatre, Waterloo Bridge was a chain of red double-decker buses, bumper to bumper, and a crocodile of commuters trudged past, trying to find an alternative way home. Overhead, the helicopters droned like heavy bees.

It all felt all too familiar. I had been visiting the Tower of London with my sister-in-law and her eight-year old daughter when the tube bombings of 7th July 2005 happened. The whole transport network, tubes and buses, was closed down, and the working population of London  took to the streets to walk home, blinking like moles above ground. I remember the wail of sirens as ambulances screeched past, the women walking in their stockinged feet, high-heels in hand.

And years earlier, picking my way through barricades in the City of London after the IRA bombs, the crunch of broken glass underfoot and the window blinds in the Nat West tower flapping like sails.

And later, leaving the station and feeling a juddering through my feet and up into my stomach that could only be an explosion, and hearing that a bomb had been set off at Canary Wharf, five miles away as the raven flies.

And when it feels as if the ground has moved, there is nothing for it but to slow down, to breathe, to return to the familiar. And so today, the day after the Westminster attacks, I walk around my local streets to see what can be seen. I need to move at the pace of a small child, and allow myself to be intrigued.

What, for example, is eating my nettles and green alkanet? It seems too early for a caterpillar but there he is, not sure whether to curl up or not.  I am glad that I showed mercy to the nettles, and will leave them now for this creature to feed on.

I turn left, and notice the violets scattered amongst the broken Victorian paths and popping up at the bottom of walls. I love their strange, five-petalled faces, the purple stripes against the lilac throat, like landing lights for bees. Where have the violets come from? I cannot remember seeing them last year, but today they are everywhere. There is one particularly big patch a few houses up, and I wonder if this is the motherlode, and all the others are downwind, the seed scattered and taking root.

I turn into Bedford Road. There is a particularly fine double-fronted house with two massive trees outside, and the steep, tiered garden is full of woodplants: green hellebore and lungwort, and a bush covered in yellow flowers that look like the blooms of miniature daffodils.

Across the way is some green alkanet coming into bloom. For the first time, I notice that the early flowers are purple or even pink, turning blue as they age, just as the flowers of lungwort do, and I am reminded that green alkanet and lungwort are closely related. In fact, there will be many things on this walk that remind me of the borage family, and what a boon it is.

I’m feeling steadier already.

Some asplenium ferns are growing from a wall further up the road, and I am reminded of the ones that I saw in Somerset, and had never seen in London before. Another thing about walking slowly is that it enables me to make connections, in time and place. For a second I can see a tiny part of the complex web that holds all of us together, for, deny it or not, we are all much more closely related than we think.

The Camellias are in full bloom, and how glorious they look! But the rain will mar their perfection, and never was a flower more easily ripped from its stem. They are a brief glory, but a glory nonetheless.

One house has an enormous plaster pineapple as a gate post. I have always loved it, while having no idea at all what it means. It looks a little big for this particular house, and I would love to know if it was originally on the gatepost of some local mansion. But for now, I just admire it and move on.

The white comfrey outside my friend A’s house is doing very nicely – the flowers are such a brilliant white that I have to turn down the exposure on my camera to get any kind of photo. That whiteness only lasts for a brief time, though, before it’s stained with brown.

The waxy blossoms of the magnolia are just about to erupt and one house has a magenta magnolia with buds that look like elegant hands.

Some twittering on Durham Road makes me look up, and there are a pair of blue tits working their way along a gutter, along with a goldfinch. I suspect that little insects sometimes turn up here, maybe trapped with the dead leaves. At this time of year the tits are so busy. One has taken to pecking at the blossoms on my skimmia, though whether for nectar or invertebrates I have no idea.

The lesser celandine is popping up everywhere.

Outside the church on Durham Road there is a big patch of creeping comfrey. A few years ago this was almost completely eradicated, but here it is again. The blooms start off with a red throat, which goes blue as the flower matures, and they are a magnet for hairy-footed bees and bee flies and bumblebees, even on a cold, breezy day like today.

I always look at the little microhabitats at the bottom of trees. The chickweed is in full bloom already, with its flowers like little stars. The blossom from the early-flowering cherry trees blows along the pavement.

There is one magnificent twisted cherry tree on Leicester Road, that looks as if it could have come from a Japanese vase. It arches over the garage and out over the road as if in a complex yoga pose. I nearly get run down taking a picture from the middle of the road. Such are the dangers of trying to be intrepid in East Finchley.

There is a particularly fine forsythia bush, too.

I am rather taken by the early flowers of yellow corydalis, when they are cream-coloured with a kiss of pale green. Later, they turn sunshine yellow, which is not quite so elegant.

And for the first time I notice the tiny flowers of a laurel, erupting from bunched fists into four tiny chocolate petals.

I turn for home, and can’t resist a final photo of the moss on a nearby wall, the capsules reminding me of the head and neck of a swan, a world in miniature.

And my final, final picture, of rosemary in flower, each bloom a little homunculus, orchid-like in their beauty.

When Death’s trumpet blares from every headline, I need to remember that this is only part of the story. We get so caught up in our own stories, our tragedies and our triumphs,  that we forget that there are different stories to be told.  Other living things are getting on with their lives, preparing for the next cycle of seeds and eggs and frantic gaping mouths, just as they always have. There is such tenderness in the soft shoot of a violet, and yet it has pushed through concrete to get to the light. Life is ferocious and it will not be denied, and I do believe that our urge towards the light is much stronger than our need for the darkness, however much it might sometimes seem otherwise. In the words of Theodore Roethke, that great, vulnerable, brave poet:

‘Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.’

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Bugwoman on Location – At Crossbones Graveyard

On a Thursday lunchtime, the streets around London Bridge station are mobbed with folk heading for Borough market to pick up their artisan coffee and hog-roast sandwiches, but just a few hundred yards further on is the garden of the Crossbones graveyard, a place of pilgrimage for many and a space for quiet contemplation amidst the traffic, human and vehicular.

It is  said that the site was originally a medieval burial ground for the sex-workers, or ‘Winchester Geese’ who worked in the area, and who were required to be buried in unhallowed ground. I went to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in the 1990’s which showed a variety of skeletons, and told what could be learned from their condition. One of the bodies, exhumed from Crossbones,  was of a woman estimated to be 16-19 years old, only 4 foot 7 inches tall, and with well-advanced syphilitic lesions of the skull. I remember being haunted by the delicacy of her bones as she lay exposed in a glass case. I have always been simultaneously fascinated by what these remains can tell us, and appalled at what feels to me like desecration. I imagine that the young woman now lays in a vault in the Museum of London – the circular building in the middle of the roundabout there is an ossuary, full of historical bones.

The site was subsequently used as a pauper’s graveyard. Over 15,000 people too poor to afford burial were buried here, many of them children under a year old. The graveyard itself fell into disuse after 1853, at which point it was said to be absolutely full of remains, with one body thrown on top of another.When the site was used for the Jubilee line extension in the 1990’s, 142 bodies were disinterred, among them the young woman mentioned above.  The ribbons attached to the memorial gates of the site record the parish records for some of the people buried at the site.

‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2,1725’

‘Margaret Keen, Fishmonger Alley, 22’

‘Mary Ann Jupp, Silver Street, Age 4 months’

People also attach remembrances of those who have died more recently, so that the gates are covered with tokens of those who are no longer on this earth.

Inside the garden there is a quiet space, where the rattle of trains en route to London Bridge is interspersed by the flapping of a wood pigeon’s wings and the song of a blackbird.

The entrance to the garden is via an elegant ‘goose’s wing’ shelter. There is a feeling of hopefulness and renewal, as the plants break into flower and the bees go about their work once again.

A queen wasp resting in the euphorbia

The willow tree was positively abuzz with honeybees collecting pollen to feed the larvae back in the nest. I love the little orange ‘baskets’ on their legs. It just goes to show that even in such an urban spot, insects will be attracted if we grow the right plants.

There were some other excellent pollinator plants in the garden as well.The early spring bees were all over the periwinkle, but were a bit too fast for me to get a photograph.

Vinca major (Periwinkle)

The brunnera was doing a great job of attracting pollinators as well – this is a great woodland plant, and mine is just popping up again in my garden (though it’s well behind this one).

Brunnera macrophylla

The green men statues are honoured at a ceremony in the autumn giving thanks for nature’s generosity.

The boards at the end of the site shows a map of the area in medieval times, and two poems taken from the ‘Southwark Mysteries’, a contemporary Mystery play written by local author John Constable, and performed by 50 professional actors and a cast drawn from the local community, at the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral in 2000, and again in 2010. The plays, with their ribaldry and boisterous nature, attracted a great deal of controversy, as you can read here. However, the overall message of the production was that no one is beyond redemption, and I’d have thought that this was something that was intrinsic to Christian belief. In 2007, before the garden was officially ‘a garden’, one of the on-site security guards, Andy Hulme, began to construct ‘the invisible garden’ behind the gates and shrine which were at that time the main focus of the site. One of his works was the Pyramid, into which seeds have been scattered over the years. One side of the pyramid is covered in oyster shells from Borough Market – oysters were once the food of poor people, washed down with gin or stout. Many of the people buried in the graveyard would have eaten them.

The pyramid built by the Invisible Gardener

The most moving part of the garden though, for me, was the shrine behind the gates. A statue of the Virgin Mary tenderly cradles a goose, surrounded by flowers and tokens, and by broken chains. For many people, the statue also represents the Goddess, and it is typical of the inclusivity of Crossbones that, if you look, you will find symbols of many faiths. The principle here is divine love, whatever form it comes in.

The garden is currently leased from Transport For London (who recognise its role as public space) and is managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust and the Friends of Crossbones, who provide volunteers to open the garden between 12 and 2 pm on weekdays, and for a longer period at weekends. The garden is free to enter, but do sign the visitors book on your way out – when the usage of a space is recorded, it’s much easier to protect it from the ‘powers that be’. There have been many times in its history when Crossbones has been under threat.

Crossbones role as a memorial garden for the outcast dead is what makes it unique.  We are all just one mental illness, one financial catastrophe, one crushing bereavement, one addiction away from becoming outcasts ourselves. And in a city where everything moves too fast, and follows the money too enthusiastically, it is easy for people to be left behind. Only by including everyone can a city or a community thrive, and Crossbones is a powerful symbol of those who were not, and are not, included. Ceremonies of remembrance are held on the 23rd of each month at 7 p.m., not just for those buried in the garden but for all our outcast, dead and alive.

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Bugwoman’s Third Annual Report

IMG_5397Dear Readers, what a year it’s been! It started in February 2016 with a rather disappointing revisit to the Abraham Cruzvillegas installation at Tate Modern, which contained soil from different sites in London, and was supposed to provide an idea of the diverse flora from the capital. Sadly, it was rather underlit, and none of the raised beds were labelled, so it was impossible to know where each sample of soil had come from. Plus it finished in February, just before everything started to come into flower! A most frustrating exercise which could have been both artistically and scientifically interesting. Harrumph!  It did provide an excuse for a bracing walk along the Thames, however.

IMG_5528March was all about frogs and this poor little fox, half eaten up with mange. It was the start of my daily walk to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I dropped medicated food to try and clear up the fox’s skin problem. As a result I met a group of people dedicated to looking after the cat population in the cemetery, and the other animals too, especially my friend B. To my surprise, the homeopathic medication sent from the National Fox Welfare Society worked, and I gained many glimpses of the foxy population.

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

The first frogs of the year

The first frog of the year

Fox at sunset

Fox at sunset

By April there was some improvement in the original fox, and she had a mate. Plus, from looking at her underside, it seemed that she had cubs, though I didn’t see them while they were very small.

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)


The dog fox waiting for his dinner

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

Yet another fox

Yet another fox

On the Wednesday Weed front, I found some honesty

IMG_5987and some fritillaries.

IMG_6003May brought comfrey and lady’s smock, and a few more foxes


Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)


The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox – the vixen definitely looks as if she’s feeding cubs

And by June, I think this is the first sight of a cub. Plus, we had fledgling long-tailed tits, and a rather surprising creature spotted while on the New River Walk in Islington

IMG_7158IMG_6662 IMG_6639IMG_6793In July, I was off to Austria for our annual two weeks in the Alps. Where it snowed.

IMG_7258Though not all the time, fortunately….

IMG_7221August saw my first visit to Woodberry Wetlands and a trip back to my roots in the East End, to see what had happened to Stratford since the Olympic Games. I was impressed with the wildlife that I saw in both places.  And the fox cubs were out and about in the cemetery.

Woodberry Wetlands

Woodberry Wetlands


Heron and Mute Swan at Woodberry Wetlands

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Another young fox

Another young fox in the cemetery

September saw my first ever pied flycatcher, during a visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset.

img_8010I had never seen so many rose hips as there were in the cemetery, either.

img_7989And the horse chestnuts reminded me of my Auntie Mary. How often the fruits of the season jog my memory, putting me in mind of people and places long gone.

img_7954And the foxes were still about, of course.

Dog Fox

Dog Fox

October brought a trip to Venice with an 89 year-old friend of mine, and a particularly wonderful encounter with a young vixen in the cemetery.

img_8087img_8066img_8314img_8247In November, I discovered the joys of a slow shutter-speed on my camera, and had an encounter with a grey wagtail at the Barbican Centre.

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Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

December brought a return to Milborne St Andrew, some very fine Islington cats, and a supermoon. It also introduced me to the hidden meaning of having pampas grass in your front garden.

Ice on a Dorset stream

Ice on a Dorset stream

A very fine Islington cat

A very fine Islington cat



Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Pampas grass

Pampas grass

And finally, January has brought a stroll along the Mutton Brook in East Finchley, stinging nettles and a Very Fine Cat Indeed.

The Mutton Brook

The Mutton Brook

Stinging nettles with small 'friend'

Stinging nettles with small ‘friend’

Bailey, the world's most magnificent cat.

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat.

So, dear Readers, what an exciting year it’s been! If there are things that you’ve liked particularly, do let me know (and yes I will be spending more time in the cemetery on fox watch in the months to come). I am also open to suggestions if I have missed your favourite ‘weed’, or if there is somewhere in London that you’d like me to take an excursion to.  In the meantime, thank you so much for your support, and I look forward to your company in 2017. The world is an uncomfortable place for many people at the moment (including me) and there is much solace to be gained in the plants and animals that surround us.

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.







Bugwoman on Location: Woodberry Wetlands


Last weekend, we went for a trip to a brand new nature reserve called Woodberry Wetlands. It’s close to Stoke Newington and to Manor House tube station, and is based around two reservoirs. The West Reservoir is used for sailing and kayaking, but the East Reservoir is now a haven for birds and insects. Overlooking it all is an enormous Berkeley Homes housing development. There is a tower (flats starting at £960k) and they are currently working on ‘The Nature Collection’, which should be finished in 2018, and where a 2 bedroomed flat starts at 670k. So much for ‘affordable housing’.


As is our wont, we go first of all to the café. It’s a bit noisy and haphazard, but then it hasn’t been open long. There are only two toilets, which I suspect will be a problem on a busy sunny Sunday, especially as everyone seems to come with babies and toddlers attached. It’s all concrete floors and metal chairs, and so the noise level is extraordinary.

But then we go outside, and all is miraculously calm.

IMG_7598There is a path around half of the reservoir, bordered on one side by woodland, and on the other side by a thicket of reeds which susurrate gently in the breeze. A pair of mute swans have pulled out on to an island in the middle, and there is the sound of baby coots wheezing away to their parents. A heron is poised to strike, all focussed attention. A row of herring gulls stand on a ridge in the middle of the reservoir, one leg tucked under, their pale eyes glowering. A little flock of house martins fly twittering overhead, probably on their way south.

IMG_7601IMG_7594IMG_7613It interests me how few people are venturing out into the reserve itself. It’s a beautiful day, and the path would be easy for prams or wheelchairs. Maybe the café has become something of a community hub, as there doesn’t appear to be much else around here. Plus, the reserve is free to enter, so you could happily just use the café.

There are volunteers out here on the reservoir, cutting back the reeds where they are blocking the water inlets, sorting out some wooden chairs in the little educational unit at the top corner of the reserve. There are beehives, too, and I notice that they run a beekeeping course. There is much here to engage – bat walks, bird walks, foraging, woodland crafts. I’m not sure what woodland crafts are, but I suspect a bit of reed-weaving might be in order.

Fish in the New River

Fish in the New River

We can’t walk right around the reserve because the path is closed during nesting season (a great idea in my view) but we can walk along the New River Path, which takes us back to our starting point. The water is crystal-clear here, and I can see shoals of fish, some of them nearly a foot long. There are the usual coots and moorhens here, and a pair of swans, and dragonflies stitching patterns in the air. If we carried on along this path, we’d end up in Hertfordshire in one direction, and Islington in the other.

A fluffy baby coot

A fluffy baby coot


Common Darter Dragonfly


Coot and Cootlings 🙂

For the first part of the walk, we are parallel to the council estates that the new development is replacing. There is block after block of mid-rise red-brick apartments, and then one that looks as if it was designed in the thirties. When we get to the end of the walk, John talks to the people in the Marketing Suite (which is how we found out the prices), and discovers that this is the biggest housing development in Europe, and that all the council housing will be replaced by 2035. Of course, that means that the people currently living here will spend the next twenty years living next to a building site. I am also curious to know what kind of housing these people will be offered, and hope that some kind of ‘like for like’ deal has been negotiated. The least we should be doing for folk is giving them something as good as they currently have, but I imagine there will be all kinds of shenanigans before these people are finally rehoused. The sound of pile drivers and the clouds of dust must already be making living here difficult.

Existing council housing. The folk here might have a long wait for their new flats...

Existing council housing. The folk here might have a long wait for their new flats…

As we turn the corner, we enter the area next to the flats that have already been built. They do look neat and clean, with landscaped areas and seats and flat pavements.

New Flats

New Flats

In the childrens’ play area there are carved figures from Wind in the Willows – a Mr Toad and a Mole. But there is something a bit woebegone about the development, as if it doesn’t yet have a heart. The best new developments that I’ve seen have shops and cafes right in the heart of the residential area, so that people can meet one another and socialise. There doesn’t appear to be anything like that here. No wonder the café is so crammed all the time. I imagine that living here would be lonely.

IMG_7647 IMG_7646

And so, we come back to the entrance, a copper building that covers the bridge into the reserve with the words ‘Woodberry Wetlands’ cut out. We live in a time when a number of new wetland nature reserves are being created: one on Walthamstow marshes promises to be the largest wetland site in the country. It interests me how much is being done in cities to protect wildlife, even as vast swathes of the countryside become agricultural monocultures or fenced estates where hen harriers and owls are killed to protect grouse or pheasant. There’s evidence that there is now more biodiversity in urban and suburban settings than in many of our supposedly ‘wild’ places, and this is a trend that’s set to continue, I suspect. For today, I am just grateful that there’s another place for birds to nest and rest undisturbed, and for dragonflies to crackle through the sky.

IMG_7639 (2)

All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially but please attribute, and link back to the blog, thank you!





Bugwoman on Location: Kew Part Two – What’s Good for the Bees


Honeybee on Globe Artichoke flower

Dear Readers, last week  I wrote about how my friend J and I visited the water lilies and lotuses at Kew Gardens, and all the interesting things that we found out about them. But the other big theme of the visit was pollinators, and bees in particular. August can be a tricky month in the garden – all the spring flowers are long gone, and everything can be looking a bit tired. What plants are the bees and hoverflies and butterflies using now?

At Kew there is one magnificent border called the Great Broad Walk Border, which at 320 metres is the longest double herbaceous border in the world. Great drifts and swathes of flowers stretch on both sides of the path, in shades of yellow and orange, pink and purple, blue and white. Who could resist a slow meander along this magical road? Certainly not Jo and I, and as a result I ended up with mild sunburn, but it was a small price to pay.


Hoverfly on Achillea

What impressed me most about this array of plants was that every single one had some wildlife value. There was bright yellow Achillea, a close relative of the humble yarrow, which was swarming with hoverflies – the flat ‘platforms’ of the flowerheads, which contain hundreds of individual flowers, are attractive to flies and beetles who do not have the specialised knowledge and mouthparts to deal with the bells and cups and tubes of other plants. Bronze fennel was another favourite with these humble pollinators, again because its nectar and pollen are easily accessed. There seems to be a trade-off between ease of access and quality and quantity of food, however: the more difficult a plant is to pollinate, the better the reward for the pollinator has to be.


Bumblebee on Globe Artichoke (with honeybee just coming into land)

The huge purple flowers of globe artichokes were also favourites, particularly with bumblebees, who can force their way between the tightly-bunched petals to get to the nectar. I always forget that these vegetables are members of the thistle family, at least until I look at them close up and realise that the part that we eat is the seedhead of the plant. I am trying to grow a globe artichoke in my garden, but I fear that the spot is not sunny enough – thistles of all kinds do like a blast of sunshine.

Bees on Cirsium atropurpureum

Bees on Cirsium atropurpureum

There were also some of my favourite thistles, a variety called Cirsium atropurpureum, which I used to have in the garden but has now faded away. The bees used to be found in the middle of the flowers in a kind of nectar swoon, and they were doing the same here. I wonder if there is some benefit to the plant in having the bumblebees stay for an extended period? On balance, I suspect that they would rather that the bees did their stuff and moved on, but who knows.


Bumblebee on Coneflower

Bees on Rudbeckia

Bees on Rudbeckia

Bumblebee on aster

Bumblebee on aster

Prairie plants of all kinds have become very popular over the past few years, and with good reason. The huge cushions of pollen in Echinacea and Rudbeckia attract honey and bumblebees, and there are some lovely single chrysanthemums and asters. I am particularly fond of asters – they can provide food for bees right into the autumn, when everything else has had enough, and their delicate star-like flowers are striking counterpoints to the changing foliage around them.

Bumblebee on Salvia

Bumblebee on Salvia

And finally, let’s not forget the benefits of Salvia of all kinds. Bees just seem to love it.

The Hive installation

The Hive installation

So, it seems as if Kew is taking bees seriously, and nowhere more so than in an installation that combines art and science, called ‘Hive’. From a distance, Hive looks like a mesh of silver metal, floating like a cloud or swarm above a small hill. Close up, it becomes apparent that it’s a lattice of aluminium tubes, and as you walk into it you can hear the whole thing vibrating with a low hum. Lights inside the structure glow and subside, seemingly at random. But actually, the whole installation is wired up to a real bee hive behind the scenes, and the sound and lights are reacting to the levels of activity in the hive. On a hot day, the metal thrums busily as bees come and go, waggle-dance and feed their young. On a cold, wet day, I imagine that it is much more subdued.

IMG_7547 IMG_7552

At the bottom of the installation there are listening posts. You are instructed to take a wooden stick from the top of the post, put one end of the stick between your teeth and the other into a slot on the post, cover your ears, and listen. You can hear a commentary explaining what the sounds that you hear are: in one, it’s two queen bees threatening one another, a kind of low vibration mixed with clicks and quacks. It is well worth doing this, and then standing back and watching full-grown men and women with sticks between their teeth listening to something inaudible to everyone else. It feels a little like Candid Camera (for those of you old enough to remember it).

IMG_7589And of course, we wanted to go in search of real bee hives. The one that is linked to the installation is hidden away behind the scenes, but in the student garden, which is tucked away in a corner, there is a working hive. This is safely fenced off to prevent any unwanted human/bee interactions, but it’s close enough to see the bees waiting on the launch pad, perhaps to determine from the other bees where the best nectar is. It’s known that many bees will be ‘loyal’ to a particular patch of plants until they are all finished: after all, it makes much more sense for bees to continue to visit a known site with plenty of food than to be forever looking for new ‘spoils’. Bumblebees in particular are extremely efficient at working out the best combination of route, distance and nectar availability to maximise the amount of food that they bring back.

So, it seems that Kew is certainly doing its best for pollinators of all kinds, and I for one am delighted. Astute choice of plants can make all the difference between a garden that is lifeless, and one that is full of bees and butterflies. It’s great to see a world-renowned garden such as Kew taking this on board in such a whole-hearted way. I salute them.


All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Flâneuse-ing on the County Roads

IMG_7356Dear Readers, for many years I have been intrigued by the idea of the Flâneur. This was a 19th century French character, invariably male, who would wander around a city wearing a top-hat and carrying a cane, and was described as a ‘connoisseur of the street’. He would get into all kinds of adventures and encounters, and would have a thoroughly interesting time. However for women, it was somewhat different.  In her new book ‘Flâneuse – the (Feminine) Art of Walking in Cities’, Lauren Elkin records how women doing exactly the same thing as the Flâneur could be subject to harassment and suspicion, and were sometimes accosted or even arrested. Nonetheless, I strolled forth intrepidly (though without top-hat and cane) to explore the County Roads here in East Finchley.

The County Roads are a set of six roads, built at the turn of the twentieth century, and they are all named after old English counties: Lincoln, Leicester, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford and Durham. They are a jumble of different Victorian/Edwardian styles, and vary from the ornate to the simple, from the grand to the (relatively) humble. What they all have, however, are front gardens, and for a naturalist like myself, that’s good enough. Who knows what I might see? I was especially intrigued to see how the pollinators were getting on, and what was attracting their interest.

My first step was right outside my front door, to admire my giant buddleia. It is true that it needs yet another prune, but I’m reluctant to get rid of those enormous racemes of flowers just yet. Plus, the more I hack at it, the larger it grows. Yesterday afternoon, it largely attracted honeybees.

IMG_7353Onwards! I head down to the High Road and, as if for the first time, notice what a strange shape the London Plane trees are after their pollarding. Each one appears to be trying to accommodate the buildings around it. Apart from the peculiar topiary effect, however, they are looking very healthy at the moment, though we could do with some rain – my water butt has run dry for the first time since we installed it five years ago. Every night the clouds gather and then dissipate away over Muswell Hill. Who knows what we have done to anger the gods.IMG_7362IMG_7385If bumblebees could vote with their many little hooked feet, I’m sure they would put their crosses down for lavender. The County Roads are very obliging in this respect, and there is a fine patch at All Saint’s Church on Durham Road, while many individual houses have handsome stands of the plant.

IMG_7373IMG_7374Although modern roses are not a favourite, the ones that are closer to the wild type attact some attention.

IMG_7371On another note, the bollard on the corner of Leicester Road is still not fixed (or maybe was fixed and got walloped again). Is there a gremlin here that attracts collisions?


Lesser-spotted bollard

Alongside some very splendid cultivated sweet peas, there are some stands of a wild cousin, Broad-leaved Everlasting Peas (Lathyrus latifolius), and very pretty it is too.


Broad-leaved everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius)

I stop to congratulate a man who is two-thirds of the way up a ladder, re-painting some of his plasterwork cornice. He nearly falls off with shock, but recovers himself to say how much he loves these old buildings and the little details that make them different from one another. I couldn’t agree more.

Someone is having much more luck with Nepeta (Cat Mint) than I did. I planted mine in a pot, and came downstairs to find that I had apparently grown a cat, though it just turned out to be some stoned feline who had crushed it in his frenzy, and who gazed at me with a demented expression.


Honeybee on catmint (Nepeta).

It's no good trying to look innocent.

Evil cat-mint destroyer in pot.

Evil cat-mint destroyer

It’s no good trying to look innocent, though you are a very fine cat indeed.

I stopped to view a particularly wildlife-friendly garden that met with full Bugwoman approval. It had verbena and nicotiana (for the moths), some sedum just ready to come into flower, an interesting yellow vetch and all manner of other delights. I stopped to photograph it when, dear reader, I was finally accosted, by a lovely lady with a bunch of lavender from her allotment in her hand. She asked me if I was Bugwoman, and so of course I could not demur. Then another lovely lady approached, and I was introduced to her too. My cover was blown! Maybe I should create a Bugwoman costume, perhaps with dangly antennae and wings, though it might be difficult to handle the camera with extra legs.


Sedum – a great plant for autumn pollinators


Verbena bonariensis and nicotiana, amongst other pollinator-friendly delights


Honeybee on Verbena boniarensis, a great bee and butterfly plant

Now, East Finchley readers, have you noticed our magnificent pigeons? We have our fair share of the normal blue-grey birds, and very fine they are too. But we have more than our share of birds which are partially white, and also ones that have a pinky-grey colouration, which is known as ‘red’ in the trade, I think. Huntingdon Road has its own resident pair of red birds, which I fear is due to the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner, and concomitant rubbish which is strewn at that end of the street (in spite of the litter bin). (Don’t get me started).


A red pigeon about to indulge in KFC chips


One of many pied pigeons in East Finchley

As I loop up towards the corner of Bedford and Durham Road, I stop to look at the fennel growing in one of the gardens. All of the umbellifers (plants with flat, multi-flowered blooms like Cow Parsley and Hog Weed) are pollinated by insects smaller than bumblebees: all kinds of flies, wasps, honeybees and beetles. It is thought that flies, in particular, are not so skilled at pollination, and don’t have the ability to cope with the complicated flowers that bumblebees do, so they tend to prefer single flowers, and lots of them.


Little and Large….


Ichneumon wasp on fennel

And some surprisingly complicated flowers can be ‘cracked’ by bumblebees, who really are the brains of the pollinator world. It’s been shown that, given sufficient incentive, they can tell the difference between human faces, so a passion flower is easy-peasy.


Bumblebee on passionflower

As I make my last turn around the County Roads, the sound of cawing alerts me to the fact that the crow family have reproduced successfully again. Earlier, one of the parent birds was trying to persuade a fledgling to come down and eat a suspiciously new-looking slice of bread that they had filched. By the time I returned, the adult was watching as the youngster pecked about in the gutter of a nearby house, looking for food.

Parent crow

Parent crow



Dear Readers, I had a very fine walk around the County Roads, and I wasn’t arrested once. Even in a built-up area there is lots to see and enjoy. I would like to leave you with a brief clip of the bees feeding on a particularly lovely patch of lavender, where the heat of the sun was bringing up the scent, and the lazy droning of the insects (only partially obliterated by a plane heading home to Heathrow) made me wish that I had brought a deckchair with me. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. There is so much more ‘nature’ in a city than people often think.


Ordinary Plants

IMG_7286Dear Readers, this week I made my first visit to the cemetery for three weeks, and started off with a look at the ‘Woodland/Meadow Burial Site’. It’s safe to say that this is not working out as planned. Instead of the biodiverse mixture of wildflowers that was no doubt expected, there is a mass of dock and thistle, bindweed and coarse grass. Of course, this is not bad news for everyone.

IMG_7299 IMG_7288IMG_7287Few garden plants are the draw that these ‘weeds’ are, and the thistles seem to attract the greatest range of flying insects, from honeybees to bumblebees to hoverflies. They are everyone’s favourite pit stop. Of course, not everyone wants creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) in their garden, but the much better behaved Cirsium rivulare ‘atropurpureum’ is a great substitute, and I can vouch for its wildlife credentials. I have often seen bees who seem to be asleep in the flowers, and I suspect that they are just overcome with the nectar.

Jean Jones

Cirsium rivulare ‘atropurpureum’ (Photo One – Credit below)

Butterflies seem to be partial to some thistle  nectar, too.


Female Meadow Brown butterfly (Maniola jurtina) – the male has much less pronounced eyespots. The caterpillars have probably fed on the grasses around here.

Another much underrated source of nectar for bumblebees in particular is bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). Again, no one would want this in their garden, but look.


Common carder bumblebee exiting a bindweed flower.

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) heading skywards

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) heading skywards

And as I was trying to persuade the bees to stay still long enough for a photograph, I noticed someone else….

IMG_7319Flower crab spiders (Misumena vatia) are much commoner than you’d think, and the females (like the one in the photograph) can change colour over a period of days to match their surroundings – I remember reports of a butter-yellow spider sitting on a daffodil. This spider is too small to catch a bumblebee (and hid when one approached), but a hoverfly would be possible, I suspect.

IMG_7326Crab spiders, like jumping spiders, have excellent eyesight, and a lot of patience. When an unsuspecting fly of the right size happens past, the spider will grab it in its unholy embrace and inject it with her powerful venom. Her method of escape appears to be to bunch up her legs and ascend rapidly into the undergrowth on a zip wire of silk.

Ready for launch!

Ready for launch!

What a fruitful piece of land this is. I have no doubt that soon, as the many signs in the area promise, the whole lot will be razed, turned over and replanted, with an (un) healthy dose of weedkiller thrown in as well. I imagine that when people were promised a ‘woodland/meadow burial ground’ they did not expect six feet high docks and a preponderance of thistles.


Notice the spider-silk threaded between the thistles…

If the area does eventually ‘succeed’, hopefully it will be even better. A mixture of wildflowers, with different flowering times, will be as great a draw as these ‘weeds’, and may even attract a greater variety of pollinators. However, it’s always interesting to note that what might seem pretty to us is of no consequence whatsoever to bees and butterflies, who are simply interested in the quality and amount of the nectar and pollen on offer. I look forward to seeing what comes next, and hope that, next year, the flying insects of East Finchley will be even happier than they are today.


White-tailed bumblebee(Bombus lucorum)


Honeybee (Apis mellifera)


Male Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) – only the male has the yellow band on the thorax

Leaving the Woodland burial area, I passed a bed of cosmos, and this was an enormous hit with the bumblebees too. Most pollinators greatly prefer an area with only one flower type: there is some evidence that while bumblebees can learn the structure of up to three kinds of plants, that’s pretty much the limit of their memories. It’s much more efficient for them to have lots of one species of flower about, so that they don’t have to keep changing their behaviour. This cosmos bed really fits the bill.

IMG_7307IMG_7302Turning up into Upper Road, a heavily wooded area with lots of Victorian graves, I noticed how, in just a few weeks, the leaf miners had gone to work on the horse chestnut trees. I hope that the blue tits, who are already learning how to pick the caterpillars out of the leaves, will be the eventual beneficiaries of the increase in these ‘pests’, because although they don’t kill the trees directly, they must surely weaken them.

Horse chestnut leaves showing leaf miner damage

Horse chestnut leaves showing leaf miner damage

IMG_7309And then I was heard a very odd sound. It was a wheezing call, a little like a mewing, coming from high up in one of the trees. I followed it into a dark and shady spot, and stood there for half an hour trying to see who was being so noisy. I didn’t see the bird itself, but I did see an adult kestrel fly into the tree, and then out again. So, it seems that there are fledgling kestrels about, which is great news (though not for any mice). Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get a photo, and furthermore I had my foot bitten by a rather impressive insect of unknown species. Nobody can say that I don’t suffer for my ‘art’.

A great spot for listening to young kestrels. And getting bitten by insects.

A great spot for listening to young kestrels. And getting bitten by insects.

And for those of you who have been following the story of the foxes in the cemetery, they are about but are keeping rather a low profile at the moment – lots of young foxes are leaving their dens, and it’s all causing a bit of social mayhem. But for those of you who are feeling fox-deprived, here’s one of the youngsters, taken before I left for Austria. What a little beauty.


Photo Credits

Photo One: Jean Jones

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use for non-commercial purposes, but please attribute, and link back to the blog. Thank you!