Category Archives: London Invertebrates

The Empress

Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator)

Dear Readers, sometimes I get mildly irritated with my pond. It’s true that, because I replaced my lawn,  I don’t have to do any mowing. However, I do have to spend time cutting back the reeds and pulling endless leaves and debris out of the water especially at this time of year when a whole whitebeam’s worth seemed to descend in twenty minutes. But then, something happens that reminds me what it’s there for. It might be a whole bunch of singing frogs in the spring time. It might be a wagtail popping down for a drink. Or, as on Sunday, it might be an emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) looking for somewhere to lay her eggs. I know that she is female not only by her behaviour, but by her colour – female emperors are green and brown, males are electric blue.

What an extraordinary animal she is, as long as my finger and with wings like smoked glass. Her lower left wing has a triangular section missing, possibly following a close encounter with a bird, or even an amorous male. Her eyes cover most of her head like a bifurcated helmet, and each eye has 30,000 individual lenses. They can see all the colours that we can see, plus ultraviolet and polarised light from the surface of water. She is, I know, a ferocious hunter, catching her prey on the wing by outmanoeuvering it. I once watched an emperor dragonfly hawking for speckled wood butterflies in Coldfall Wood, and wondered at his speed and the way that he popped up from underneath the butterfly, snatching it in his jaws and bearing it away with sublime efficiency.

Dragonflies seem to have a streak of curiosity, and to be keen to investigate unknown phenomena. I met a male emperor dragonfly in a Scottish woodland once, and he hovered a few feet from my face at head height. As I turned, he turned with me. I had the most curious sense of being weighed up: friend, foe, or just unimportant feature of the landscape? After a few moments he rattled away like a toy plane, leaving me covered in goosebumps and full of wonder.

But I was worried about this female. She was frantic in her search for somewhere to deposit her eggs, probing the ground with her lime green and chocolate striped abdomen. Most of the time, she seemed to be keen to lay between the wooden slats on the boardwalk beside the pond. This felt like a most unsatisfactory site to me, but how to convince her to lay them somewhere else? She seemed very single-minded.

I went to the kitchen and got a medium sized glass mixing bowl, and a side plate. For all her keen eyesight she was not the least bothered when I covered her up, and only slightly perturbed when I slid the plate under her, gently, to avoid damaging that sensitive abdomen. When she realised she was trapped she tried to fly up, her wings rattling alarmingly against the glass. I carried her a few steps and she turned to face me under the dome. I held the bowl out over the water and lifted it a few inches. She darted out straight at me, and paused a hands-width from my nose. Then she landed on my skirt, explored it as an egg-laying substrate, abandoned it and flew out over the pond, only to return to the boardwalk again. Emperors (or should  it be empresses) usually lay their eggs on pond weed, so I think the moss was confusing her, though I have plenty of pond weed left.

If any of her eggs do survive, the nymphs will become the terror of the pond, laying in wait to grasp creatures up to the size of small tadpoles in their forearms. The jaws of the creature in ‘Alien’ were modelled on the complex extending jaws of the dragonfly. These are creatures that are predatory in every part of their lives and they exude the confidence of an animal that is rarely preyed upon, at least in this country. A dragonfly  sat happily sunning himself on my bare arm for ten minutes one sunny day a few years ago, enabling me to look at his curious little face to my heart’s content.

Flight has evolved separately at least three times in the insects, and dragonflies were among the first to develop the skill (possibly only preceded by the weak flight of mayflies). Some of the ancestral dragonflies had wingspans of 30 inches. The wings are powered directly by the muscles – in the photo above you can see the bulges where the wings are attached to the body, and the depth of the thorax indicates how large these muscles are. The dragonfly needs to warm these muscles up before it can fly, which explains why you will often see dragonflies perched in south-facing bushes early in the morning. Once ready for action the dragonfly can fly at approximately 30 miles per hour, and has been estimated to accelerate at 4 g in normal flight, and up to 9 g when pursuing prey. Bear in mind that the Space Shuttle only reaches 3 g during launch and re-entry. These animals can also fly in six different directions (including backwards) and have four flight modes for different situations, from static hovering to pursuit of prey. They are, in short, the masters and mistresses of insect flight.

So often, I wish that I could talk to animals. I would have loved to persuade this beauty that she was wasting her precious eggs, but nothing I could do would dissuade her, and so eventually it started to rain, and I left her to it. And also, do I really know better? It’s a kind of hubris to think that I really understand what’s good for this creature and her offspring. I am reminded that interfering has unexpected consequences, and that often it’s better to leave off our meddling, however well intended. So, I shall have to wait and see if any dragonfly larvae turn up next year. In the meantime, travel well, empress. I am delighted to have met you.

 

Coming Home

Dear Readers, once something that you’ve worked hard for (such as a 60th Wedding Anniversary Party) is over, it’s easy to feel a bit purposeless and downhearted. As I dragged myself through my daily routine this week, I found myself wondering  ‘what did I do with my life before I was organising flowers and negotiating about cakes?’ And more to the point, how do I reconnect with my life again? As usual, my answer is to step outside and see what’s going on in the garden. I feel as if I haven’t really ‘seen’ it for weeks. My first thought is ‘wow, what a lot of spiders’ webs there are’.

My second reaction is that the garden is a mess, even worse than it usually is at this time of year. The reeds in the pond are sagging, but are not yet far enough gone to be cut back. The jasmine definitely needs some work. Getting the whitebeam and the hawthorn trimmed last year was a great idea but, as the tree surgeon warned me, it just means that they grow back thicker. But then I stopped seeing what was wrong, and started to be drawn in.

I have a climbing hydrangea in the dark side-return of my house, and I have been amazed with how it can cling on to anything. One long stem has nearly reached next-door’s gutter, and I foresee much standing on stepladders to dissuade it. However, the way it produces roots from its stem fascinates me – it’s easy to forget that plants are mobile, because they move on such a slow timescale, but I’m sure that a timelapse of this plant would see it reaching out with its ‘fingers’, looking for a holdfast and growing towards the sun.

The aerial roots of Hydrangea petiolaris

The hydrangea was full of flowers this year, and even after they’ve died I love the way that they hold spiders’ webs and raindrops. Every so often the right plant ends up in the right place, and this is definitely one of them.

The dead flowers of the climbing hydrangea

Further along the fence, the bittersweet is full of berries,their colour changing from green to deepest scarlet. They look just like little tomatoes. I was going to root the plant out, until I saw how much the carder bumblebees loved the flowers.

Bittersweet berries

The wooden steps down to the pond are slippery and so it takes care to negotiate them, but slowing down is no bad thing – I hear the plops of the frogs leaping into the pond, and see their little heads popping back up amongst the water lily pads. This area got really overgrown with great willowherb this year, and I made the decision to grub it up and replace it with some meadowsweet and some smaller loosestrife. We’ll see how it goes. The pendulous sedge has gotten a bit out of hand as well, so I might try to trim it back – it provides great cover for the little frogs, but it’s such a thug. Still, I am delighted to have my first ever bulrushes. It’s the little things that keep me going, to be sure.

My very first bulrush!

Evidence of a rapid escape?

My Himalayan Honeysuckle is doing very well this year, too – it is covered in flowers, which will be useful for the bees on a warm autumn day. The Rozanne geraniums are still in full flower, in spite of their shady, inauspicious position. I really don’t mind plants self-seeding in the woody area, because it’s so difficult to find anything that’s happy there. And my Rosa rugosa has a single rosehip.

Himalayan honeysuckle

Hardy Rozanne geraniums

My lone rosehip

Last year’s marigolds have multiplied! I buy plants from Sarah Raven whenever I can afford it, and have been extremely happy with the quality.

Marigold

The end of the garden is in need of some strict discipline too, but not yet. I love the way that the vine has formed a red waterfall over the bamboo. I shall tackle it once the leaves have dropped off, because it’s so vigorous that it’s taken over one of our chairs.

My viney ‘waterfall’

This has been a great year for the crab apple too, and the self-seeded cherry laurel is being allowed to remain because the flowers are so popular with pollinators.

Crab apples

I have another hydrangea here too, and the long panicles are full of pollen in the late summer.

Hydrangea paniculata

And so, although I need to do some work in the garden, it’s still full of wonders. I top up the bird feeders and within seconds, the blue tits have arrived, along with a very fine coal tit.

Blue tit visiting the refilled suet feeder

The pace of life is speeding up in the garden, and in the street – when I came home the other day every television aerial had a group of wheezy starlings on it. Hard times could be ahead, depending on the severity of the winter, and all of nature knows it. And for me, just half an hour outside has put me back where I like to be – in touch with what’s going on in a world that’s so much bigger than just me.

Plus, now Mum and Dad fancy going on a cruise. I foresee my project manager hat being dusted off very soon!

Dad giving his 60th Wedding Anniversary speech, while Mum offers encouragement….

A Tale of Three Spiders

Dear Readers, many of you have been following the story of my Mum and Dad’s 60th Anniversary Party last Thursday. It went very well, and for some photos and a few more details, have a look at my second post today called ‘The Party’. On the other hand, if you come here for the wildlife, read on……

False Widow Spider (Steadota sp.)

Dear Readers, I know that autumn has arrived when I can’t get to the shed without walking through a web, and when the children returning from school always stop to point at the many, many spiders who are making their homes in the lavender in my front garden. However, it is surprising to see how many different habitats these creatures can make use of, and how thoroughly at home they can make themselves with the slightest of encouragement.

Apologies in advance to any arachnophobic readers. You might want to move on at this point. No spiders next week, I promise.

if you want to create a wildlife reserve actually inside your house, I can recommend nothing more than a disinclination to dust and some old-fashioned sash windows. For, at the back of my house, guarding the kitchen and gobbling up all manner of small insects is a rather splendid False Widow Spider. I have no idea of the species, because this can only be determined by killing the spider and dissecting her genitalia, and I have no intention of doing any such thing. Instead, I am watching the spider (who I have named Beverley on the basis that this can be a male or female name, and his/her sex is yet another thing that I don’t know) as s/he goes about the business of repairing her web.

For most of the day, s/he keeps a low profile in the little hole that used to house a window lock.

Yoo hoo Beverley!

But sometimes she ventures out to see what’s going on. Her web reminds me rather of Stratford Bus Station (or maybe that’s just me).

Photo One (Stratford Bus Station) - Whohe! at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Stratford Bus Station

False Widows have been the subject of many overwrought headlines in the more distasteful parts of the British press, and I dread to think how many perfectly innocent spiders have been squished to ‘save our children’ from being bitten. Just persuade little Johnnie not to stick his finger into the spider’s house and all shall be well. Even the mention of ‘Widow’ can be enough to put some people into a flap, in spite of  the word ‘False’ at the start. But it’s probably just as well not to get me started, or we shall be here all day.

Apparently a female False Widow can live for up to five years, and as I’ve had a spider living here for a while, I’m guessing that she may turn into a long-term companion.

Anyhow, as far as I’m concerned s/he is not just a spider, but is guarding the back entrance of the house from from evildoers like a trusty bullmastiff. As her web is stronger, pound for pound, than steel, I feel that this is only a slight overstatement.

But who is guarding the front of the house? Meet Frances/Francis.

Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus)

Fran has made a web the size of the entire windowpane, and seems to be growing bigger every day. I often wonder why there are no spiders about, and then suddenly hundreds of them, but it seems that it’s largely because, by the end of August, they’ve grown big enough for us to start paying attention.

I love the crucifix of white dots on the abdomen of these spiders, not to mention their little stripey legs. They seem, like caterpillars, to be creatures of childhood. My mother was terrified of spiders, but always managed to hide it from me, which meant that I found them delightful rather than horrifying. I always loved Charlotte, the canny spider of Charlotte’s Web, and would spend hours watching the spiders carefully spinning their webs.

Spiders seem to me to be something that we all have in common, for every nation that I know has some kind of spider that spins an orb web and has a whole mass of folklore about the creature, from the Ancient Egyptian goddess Neith (thought to be the precursor to the Babylonian Ishtar and the Greek Arachne) to Anansi in Western Africa, and the Lakota Iktomi. Spiders feature in Australian Aboriginal art, in the ancient mythology of Japan, and in both the Islamic and Judaic oral traditions. Who could not look at a spider and not marvel at her skill and her patience?

Francis/es and her/his reflection

But out in the shed, it’s a whole other story. The place is full of cobwebs, and the corpses of unfortunate flying insects who met their end amongst the bird food and the power tools. And, somewhat surprisingly, these spiders are the most ferocious of all, not to humans but to other spiders.

Cellar Spider (Pholcus phalangoides)

This creature is also known as the Daddy Long-Legs Spider, but that way madness lies. For me, a Daddy Long-Legs is a cranefly. In North America, a Daddy Long-Legs is what I call a harvestman. So I’m going to stick with calling these creatures Pholcus. They look like some kind of lunar landing module, or possibly a virus. You can tell you’ve found a Pholcus if you disturb it and it vibrates up and down  like some kind of very, very angry small dog.

For all their sinister appearance, these spiders are totally harmless to humans. However, they seem to be adept at catching and eating other spiders, even those that are much larger than they are. My friends on the Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe Facebook group report that Pholcus reduce the biodiversity in their houses by killing and eating all the other spiders. Furthermore, they breed rapidly when happy, and can soon outnumber all the other species. Some members of the group devote themselves to catching every Pholcus they can find and putting it out into their sheds. I feel that I have fallen amongst friends. I thought I was the only person who would put off getting the window cleaner in until the winter because of the spiders, but it appears that there are numerous other folk who are just as eccentric as I am. Which is something of a relief.

So, there we have it. I’m sure this is only a tiny fraction of the spider species in and around my house – I haven’t seen an actual house spider this year, for example, and I’m sure that there are lots of others hiding in the undergrowth and lurking under stones. Personally, I find them fascinating, and I’m only sorry that the jumping spider who sometimes creeps across my front door like a Special Forces agent on surveillance didn’t  put in an appearance. And soon, all these eight-legged wonders will disappear as autumn edges into winter, and all the adult spiders either die (many providing a meal for their offspring), or go into a state of torpor to wait out the cold. They represent a brief explosion of life, the last bloom before the stillness falls.

The Creature That Started It All…..

Knotgrass (Acronicta rumicis)

Dear Readers, I have always loved caterpillars. When I was a youngster, living in a tiny house in Stratford, the garden was full of the woolly bear larvae of tiger moths and yellow and black-striped cinnabar moth caterpillars. Once, I even found a spitting puss moth caterpillar. But they seem rarer these days, or maybe I just don’t pay as much attention as I used to. Anyway, this wonderful chap had been found in my friend A’s garden, and she had brought ‘him’ round for me to try to identify.

As it turns out, this is the caterpillar of the Knotgrass moth, a member of the Noctuid family of small, greyish-brown moths that make up 70% of all my finds if I put out a moth trap. The caterpillars are spectacular creatures, usually hairy, often brightly coloured. It seems almost a shame from a human point of view that they end up being so inconspicuous, but of course this works well for the moth. The hairs on the caterpillars are an irritant for predators (and also sensitive humans) but the moth has no defence except camouflage.

Photo One (Knotgrass moth) - CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=387198

Knotgrass moth

Caterpillars are curious creatures. The name literally means ‘hairy cat’ (from the Old French caterpelose’) although not all caterpillars are hairy. As any one who has ever looked after a caterpillar will tell you, they live to eat, and are perfectly adapted for the job. They have three pairs of ‘thoracic legs’ at the front, which they use for grasping the leaves that they eat: these are the ‘true legs’.Then there are a further five pairs of sucker-like legs, called prolegs,  for hanging on to things – if you hold a caterpillar you will notice how hard they are to remove from your skin.

Although the head looks as if it has two enormous eyes, these are actually what’s known as the head capsule. The true eyes are tiny spots underneath. A caterpillar also has two tiny antennae underneath the eyes, and two very fine jaws for munching.

Photo Two (Caterpillar head) - http://www.monarchwatch.org/grafx/biol/cathead.gif

Caterpillars need to breathe, but they have no lungs – spiracles, tiny openings along the side of the animal, enable oxygen to reach the tissues of the animal directly, without the need for a complicated blood system. Caterpillars have no veins or arteries, but their organs, such as they are, are bathed in green ‘blood’ called hemolymph – the fluid itself is clear, but may be pigmented green by the caterpillar’s food.

You can see the spiracles of ‘our’ caterpillar in the photo below: the spiracles are the tiny white spots. Behind each one are a series of branching tunnels called tracheoles, which deliver the oxygen into the hemolymph and hence to the rest of the body, including the 4000 muscles (compared to a human’s 629) and the digestive organs.

This simple body system means that there are first aid measures that work well on insects in general, and caterpillars in particular. If a caterpillar tumbles into a water butt, for example, rolling it in kitchen paper to pull the water out of the spiracles can often effect a near miraculous recovery. Similarly, if a caterpillar is slightly punctured due to some unfortunate accident, a tiny piece of sticking plaster may preserve it until its next change of skin.When I was a child I planned to write a book called ‘The Caterpillar Hospital’, but feared that it might not have many takers. Instead, at age 8, I wrote a masterpiece called ‘Riding and Stable Management’ even though I’d never actually touched a horse, let alone ridden them. I followed this up with the magisterial ‘Snakes of the World’, although I had never seen a snake. It’s nice, these days, to be writing about plants and animals that I actually have some acquaintance with.

The locomotion of caterpillars is, for me, part of their enduring charm. I love the way that they wave the front half of their bodies in larger and larger circles, reaching out with their little ‘arms’ in the hope of grasping something tasty. They have very poor sight (as we’ve seen, those ‘big eyes’ are fake) so they do everything by scent (using those tiny tiny antennae) and taste. They also have a good sense of touch, which is amplified by all those hairs (technically ‘setae’). When touched, many caterpillars will hunch up to make themselves appear bigger (like this one does) or roll up like a  Cumberland sausage and crash to the floor. After all, nearly every other creature, from the energetic blue tit to the near-invisible parasitic wasp, likes a tasty caterpillar.

Caterpillars don’t have a brain, as such – they have a line of nerves that resembles a vestigial spinal cord, but along their ventral surface. It’s safe to say that caterpillars need to be reactive when danger threatens, but they don’t need to mate, or indulge in social relationships, or bring up babies. They simply need to eat the right things, and as much of them as possible.

A butterfly, however, has a rudimentary brain, known as a cerebral ganglion, probably because its life has now gotten a lot more complicated – it needs to find a mate, maybe defend a territory, or even migrate for thousands of miles. However, recent research has shown that butterflies and moths remember what they learn as caterpillars. In the experiment, caterpillars were given a shock at the same time as being exposed to the smell of acetate, and as butterflies they would (very sensibly) avoid the smell.  I do wonder why, instead of being scared out of their wits, the caterpillars couldn’t be given something overwhelmingly tasty, so that at least they had a pleasant memory rather than one based on fear and pain. The poor things probably need therapy to get over the trauma. It does show, though that there is much more to caterpillars than we understand.

For many children caterpillars are their first introductions to the strange and wonderful natural world outside their back door. They are ideal in many ways – small, harmless (unless you pick a dermatitis-inducing one) and they are easy to rear. They are not so easy, however, to take right through to the butterfly stage. Plus, I remember being filled with horror when a caterpillar that I was looking after literally exploded into a mass of parasitic wasp larvae. What lessons they can teach us about the short, brutal lives of many creatures, and the moments of soaring beauty that pepper existence.

Alice talking to the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, illustration by Arthur Rackham (Public Domain)

Photo Credits

Photo One (Knotgrass moth) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=387198

Photo Two (Caterpillar head) – http://www.monarchwatch.org/grafx/biol/cathead.gif

Bugwoman on Location – King’s Cross

St Pancras Station seen from Pancras Square, outside King’s Cross

Dear Readers, for as long as I’ve lived in London, King’s Cross has had a dire reputation. When I was working just off Gray’s Inn Road, groups of cadaverous teenage girls used to gather outside the post office, drinking cans of Special Brew and shivering while they waited for their next client, or their next fix. When I caught an early train to Luton airport one morning, the women on the opposite platform were chased by a junkie wielding a needle and threatening them with AIDS. And my husband was once asked if he was interested in ‘business’ by a young woman while he was taking photographs of the gas holders at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. But gradually the area has been ‘cleaned up’ (which means that people have been moved on, to Euston and to Camden), and now it’s much more of a destination. Whole areas have been demolished, shiny new office buildings and restaurants have opened, and I heard from a friend that some areas have been made much more wildlife friendly. So, I took myself and my camera off to explore.

The station itself is an extraordinary melange of Victorian ironwork and twenty-first century post-modernism.

The Victorian station

The New Concourse

There is no doubt that this is an improvement over the old station building, which was always overcrowded and had a pervasive smell of pee. But I was more interested in what was going on outside.

There are some fine big pots with bee-friendly plants, such as catnip and salvia. I am intrigued by the way that many of the flowers on the Hotlips salvia below have lost their red ‘lips’. The bees don’t seem to care, however.

‘Hotlips’ salvia with bee

There is a series of fountains, and indeed water is a prevailing theme of the area.

And of course there’s a helicopter overhead. On my trip down on the bus, I passed a group of twenty policeman standing around a poor motorcyclist who was holding an icepack to his bloody nose. I suspect he was a victim of yet another attempted moped theft, there’s been a plague of them just lately, and some of them have involved acid.

In the very top pond, there was a cream-coloured waterlily, caught in a sunbeam.

And then I crossed the road into Granary Square, passing a fine flotilla of swans en route.

The big draw of Granary Square is the collection of dancing fountains. Parents were gathered on the benches, ready with big bath towels,  while small children (and the occasional adult) ran through the water, squealing and dripping. There was also a very over-excited pug, who must have run about three miles while I was watching. It’s one of the few free things here that could be used by local people – the coffee bars and restaurants are expensive, but there’s room here for a picnic (on the steps down to the canal, or on one of the green spaces). Islington has less green space than any other London borough except for the City itself, so this is sorely needed.

But I wanted to see what else was going on. There’s a new square being built in one of the old warehouses, and in the photo below you can also see the top of a gas holder that’s being converted into flats.

There are more fountains here, though they are less ambitious than the ones in Granary Square.

Waitrose has taken over another old loading bay and warehouse.

But outside there is a fine lawn, edged with lavender and Mexican fleabane, and thronged with bees and the occasional butterfly.

However, it’s just around the corner from here that a real effort has been made with the wildlife planting. Each plant seems to have been chosen for its pollinator benefit, or to attract birds, and it seems to be working.

Lots of lovely nepeta

Mexican fleabane

A flock of sparrows are feeding on the seeds. I always love it when birds do what they would do in the wild and find natural food.

There is a shallow river running right the way through the garden, ideal for birds to drink from and bathe in, and probably suitable for insects in the places where it runs most slowly.

The selection of plants is inspired. Below there are Michaelmas daisies, ideal for hoverflies and honeybees.

The hemp agrimony variant below is also a great late-summer plant for all manner of pollinators

I love this bed with another variant of Michaelmas daisy, plus some kind of Cow Parsley. Great for hoverflies, those underappreciated insects.

And there were even some wild strawberries for the humans (and the thrushes)

And here’s another view of the Gas Holder flats, and some pleached lime, which makes great cover for the sparrows.

However, in case the sparrows or other birds want a different home, here’s an interesting use of old CCTV camera boxes, which have been converted into nest boxes or places to roost.

So, I was very impressed. My one worry, from the pollinator point of view, would have been how much sunshine this spot receives, what with all the buildings towering around it, but it appears that some wasps weren’t bothered, because they’d made an underground nest right against the edge of one of the beds. For people who think that wasps are aggressive, please note that I took this short film from about three feet away, and they were much too busy to bother with a mere silly human.

I have been meaning to do a separate post on some of the other London wildlife hotspots around King’s Cross – the Camley Street Natural Park is a definite must-see, and so is the canal. But I didn’t really have time to do them both justice today, so they will have to wait for a future visit. However, I did take a short stroll along the canal to get another look at the blooming gas holders, with which I am obsessed. After negotiating a very bouncy temporary wooden walkway, and just about avoiding being mown down by runners and folks on Brompton foldaway bikes, I came to the old lock.

And here are the gasholders. Two of them have been converted into flats, and one of them is just a skeleton covering a park, which hunkers down in the shade of the buildings all around it.

Gas holder as flats

Gas holder as park

For anyone who is intrigued as to how a big round area can be converted into luxury flats, here is a link to the developer’s website. I imagine the prices will be way above the reach of the folk who used to live in the little houses and council estates around here.

On the way back, I passed the swans again, and they were in a very irritable mood. The adults hissed as I passed, and I thought they were complaining about the fact that I hadn’t brought them an offering, but actually they seemed to be fed up with their offspring, chasing them off when they got too close. I suspect that many human parents will be feeling the same way after six weeks of constant contact with the younger members of the family. I wonder if the swans are trying to tell their cygnets that it’s time for them to move out and find a pad of their own?

And then it was back to King’s Cross, which has one of the nicest, most space-age entrances to an underground station that I know.

And incidentally, the two people making their way down the corridor are two of my lovely neighbours H and L, which just goes to show that London is a much smaller place than everyone imagines.

In his book ‘London: A Biography’, Peter Ackroyd speculates about whether King’s Cross, a shabby and dangerous area for its entire history, will ever be able to cast off the stain of its past. It certainly looks shiny and happy at the moment, though the canal was always a dangerous vein through its heart, a place of dark acts even to this day. King’s Cross was previously an area favoured by creative people, because housing was cheap, and there was a great tolerance for the ‘eccentric’. The fact that St Martin’s School of Art is here, in Granary Square, gives me hope that this tradition will survive, at least. But will the tattered soul of King’s Cross survive the arrival of Google and the £3 artisan coffee? That remains to be seen.

Inside King’s Cross station

Bittersweet and the Bee

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) with Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Dear Readers, there is a special pleasure when you witness something in your garden that you have previously only read about in books, or seen on TV. So it was with me last week. I’ve been away a lot during the past few months, and had only just noticed that, among my clematis and honeysuckle, a vigorous bittersweet plant had grown up. I’ve written about this member of the tomato family before, but hadn’t had the pleasure of spending any time with  it at home. I think it’s rather attractive, and its berries are splendid. I rarely have small visitors who might be tempted to eat them, and so I’ve decided to leave them and see what the birds make of them.

Bittersweet berries

On a warm afternoon last week, I noticed a high-pitched buzzing sound coming from the bittersweet. Half a dozen common carder bees were feeding from the purple and yellow flowers. These are among our most widespread and common bumblebees, little ginger insects that lack the handsome warning stripes of other members of their family. They always strike me as particularly single-minded creatures, unlikely to be deterred by middle-aged ladies with cameras sneaking up on them.

My question was, why are they all over the bittersweet? There were much more splendid nectar sources about, and common carders are ‘long-tongued’ bumblebees, which means that they can extract nourishment from many kinds of flowers.

Nonetheless, they ignored the honeysuckle.

They ignored the dwarf buddleia (though the honeybees were enjoying it).

No, all they wanted was the bittersweet, and it seemed that what they wanted was the pollen. Bees collect nectar for energy, but pollen has the protein that enables young bees to build strong muscles and wings.

The trouble is, the pollen in all members of the Solanaceae (as I mentioned in my post on tomatoes earlier in the week) is hidden inside the anther, the long yellow cone in the centre of the flower. In his book ‘A Sting in the Tale’, Dave Goulson describes this structure as ‘an inverted pepper pot’ that needs to be shaken to release the pollen.

And this is what the bees were doing. They grasped the yellow cone with their jaws, and madly vibrated their wings, collecting the pollen as it dropped out. This is known as ‘buzz-pollination’ or ‘sonicating’ and only some bee species have learned how to do it. Bumblebees are often thought of as the Einsteins of the bee world, and so it’s no surprise to me that they should have picked up this skill.

Here is a common carder bee in action. Sadly, I don’t think my camera microphone is sensitive enough to have picked up the buzzing, but do go and observe any tomato plants or other solanums that you have. You can see how the special hairs on the bee’s legs are packed with food – this species mixes the pollen with nectar to make a slightly wetter substance that is easier to transport.

Of course, as the bee moves from flower to flower, she cross-pollinates the plant.

There were so many common carders that I wondered if they had a nest nearby, maybe even in the garden. It’s known that the species will fly up to 450 metres from its nest site, which is a lot bigger than my plot, but still implies that the nest is somewhere in the County Roads here in East Finchley. All bees have to balance the energy required to find food (flying is an exhausting business) with the quality and amount of food found, and so a small bee like a carder is likely to have a smaller range. It just points up the importance of having nectar and pollen-rich flowers in the garden – you never know when a bee who is running out of fuel will be rescued by your plants.

What would a common carder nest look like? ‘Carder’ bumblebees are so-called because they comb (‘card’) together moss and grass to form a covering for the nest, which is usually hidden under a hedge, in long grass or just below the soil surface. In this, they differ from other, larger bees who use the vacated homes of small rodents – a study showed that if you sprayed some tunnels in the earth with ‘essence of mouse’ the bumblebees were much more likely to set up their nest.

In the photo below, the moss has been gently pushed to one side to reveal the goings on below. All bumblebee nests look much more haphazard than the perfect hexagonal cells of honeybees, but they are also much smaller – a common carder nest will have up to 200 individuals, as opposed to the thousands in a honeybee nest.

Incidentally, bumblebees do also make honey, which is kept as a short-term food store in case of bad weather. There is no need to make the quantity that honeybees do, as the nest does not survive from one year to the next.

Photo One (common carder nest)By Panoramedia (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Common Carder nest (Photo One – credit below)

In a complete digression, I discovered that one tiny UK bee, Osmia bicolour, makes her nest in an empty snail shell. I can’t find a photo of the British species doing this, but here is a close relative, Osmia ihotellerei, sorting out her new house.

Photo Two (bee nesting in snail shell) By Gideon Pisanty (Gidip) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Osmia hotellerei making her nest in a snail shell (Photo Two – credit below)

I should enjoy the visits of the common carders while I can, however. The worker bees and drones and the original queen will be dying, the nest falling into disrepair, as winter approaches – ,most nests are finished by September. Many of the bees visiting my bittersweet will be young queens, feeding up before they go into hibernation. You might see them patrolling areas of rough ground, looking for a good site to crawl into until spring, when the whole cycle begins again. Until then, I shall be watching my bittersweet with interest, and thanking it for enabling me to see this fascinating behaviour in my own back garden.

It just makes me curious about what other wonders are happening every day, unnoticed.

Photo Credits

Photo One (common carder nest) – By Panoramedia (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (bee nesting in snail shell) – By Gideon Pisanty (Gidip) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Twenty-Six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day

Dear Readers, I had great plans for the blog today, but the deluge started. As I sat in Costa Coffee and looked out at grey skies and slick pavements, I felt a bit down and hopeless. But then, I started to notice the effect that the rain had on everything, and so, with apologies to Wallace Stevens and his poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, I’ve found 26 ways of looking at a rainy day.

1.Grey skies and rain make all the colours look brighter. The reds of the buses and the yellow of the AA van are almost startling. The traffic cones that Affinity Water have put along our road (lead water pipes have been discovered, oh joy) positively pop with brightness.

2. Raindrops form a constantly changing geometric pattern of interlacing circles and bubbles and tiny explosions.

3. Rain really highlights the terrain, the slopes and ridges and the long down-hill towards the tube station

4. The rain also highlights the places where vehicles have parked on the pavement, breaking the paving stones and creating the ideal home for miniature ponds and lakes.

5.People walk faster, but give one another little smiles and eye-rolls. ‘British summer, eh’. You can never go wrong with the weather. A month and a bit ago, we were all moaning about the heat. Today, I have the heating on. In August.

6.You can hear the shape of things by listening to the rain. I remember a radio programme where a chap who was blind said that he loved the rain, because he could ‘see’ the shape of the bushes and trees in the garden. I shall have to try that out, but I love the sounds of tyres in the rain, and the rain on the roof and the windowlights. In Cherry Tree Wood, you could hear the raindrops hitting the leaves.

7.Rain brings up all the smells – there is a word, ‘petrichor’ for earth after rain.  And I wish I could share the smell of these roses with you.

8. The rain brings out all the colours of the bark on the plane trees on the High Road, and the ornamental trees on the County Roads.

9. The rain paints the trees and houses, making it clear exactly where it falls.

10. The rain emphasises out the muscularity of the trunks of the hornbeam trees.

11. I love that some people ignore the rain, and go running anyway. In fact, when I used to run I loved the wet days most of all, the splashing through puddles and the splat of my footsteps, and the fact that I got soaking wet but was going to have a shower anyway.

12. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro talks about the way that the rain ‘washes all the scum off the streets’. He was talking metaphorically, but it does clean our streets up for sure. Look at how clean and new the nettles look after their bath.

13. I love that you can sometimes get a perfect reflection in a raindrop.

14. Reflections on a wet pavement are a whole other area of interest. Each car has its own upside-down double attached to its wheels. The awning at Tony’s Continental (the best greengrocer on the High Street in my opinion) looks even more splendid when reflected on wet paving stones.

15. The reflection of traffic lights on a wet surface blurs them romantically.

17. Where do the insects hide during the rain? A big raindrop can knock a butterfly off course or disrupt the busyness of a bee. As the rain (briefly) eased, all kinds of insects reappeared.

17.The rain doesn’t put the birds off, that’s for sure – the starlings bathe, and the crows are still looking for chips in the gutter outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I should tell them that their dietary habits are cannibalistic, but I doubt that they’d listen.

18.Some people have wonderful rainwear, like the lady completely encased in a yellow poncho who just popped into Costa Coffee. Practical and bright.

19.You see more grown-ups in Wellington Boots, and that’s not a bad thing. It always makes me think of the seaside.

20.Generally, people drive more slowly and carefully, as if suddenly aware that they are piloting a ton of metal through a world filled with creatures made of flesh and bone.

21 .My water butts will be full, ready for this ‘drought’ that we’re supposed to be having.

22. Leaves are both waterproof, and designed for rain to run off and fall where it’s needed, the soil beneath the plant.

23. The rain brings out the snails. And I have a great fondness for snails, in spite of their bad behaviour.

24. Walking in the rain when you don’t have to feels a bit anarchistic, but (whisper it) it can be fun. Children know this, we seem to have forgotten it. Best save any puddle-jumping for a quiet spot, though. I get enough funny looks as it is.

25. People walk closer together, sharing umbrellas, holding one another’s arms. We could all do with walking a bit closer together.

26. Tomorrow is meant to be dry and sunny. Let’s make the most of the rain while it’s here.