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Falling Down (Again)

Holy moly Readers, no sooner had I ventured out for a much-needed haircut this afternoon when I found myself turning an ankle on the (admittedly very uneven) pavements outside my house. It was my right ankle (again) which I scrunched very thoroughly a few months ago, after I stood up from the sofa and keeled over because my leg had gone dead. What is going on here?

a) There is definitely too much time spent sitting hunched over a text book. Why o why do I never learn that I need to actually stand up and move about on a regular basis?

b) I need to redouble my pilates effort and get those ankles strengthened, though I suspect I’m hypermobile and so my joints are always going to be a bit of a problem. Still, nothing wrong with building up the muscles around them.

c) The menopause – apparently women have far more falls once they’re post menopausal. Whether it’s due to the change in hormones or a general tendency to become more sedentary later in life is unclear (though I do know many, many women who are way past the menopause who seem to be able to stay upright, so it’s clearly not destiny)

d) I was having some problems with numb feet, but this seems to have resolved itself over the past few months – I did lots and lots of walking in Canada and somehow it seems to have sorted itself out. There’s a hint there about what I should be doing to help myself, I think. I am still waiting for an appointment with podiatry on the NHS, but we all know that they’re struggling at the moment.

e) I hadn’t thought about it, but I should definitely get my eyes tested (though in truth I very rarely look where I’m going as, like Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans’s Fotherington Thomas, in the Molesworth books, I am often distracted.

f) And before anyone says it, I should probably get a thorough health check, though I have had a lot of hospital visits for other ‘stuff’ just lately. My persistent cough back in November sent me off down the 2-week referral cancer track – my tests for that came back clear, but I had a CT scan that spotted other interesting things, most of which have been found to be nothing. I am, however, waiting for an echocardiogram. I really miss Mum – she had every medical procedure and test that you can imagine, so she would have been a great font of support and advice. She once said that ‘getting old was not for the faint of heart’ and she wasn’t wrong.

Anyhow, I hope you’ll forgive me for wittering on. I find these falls both alarming and irritating, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can actually do something about them. Until then, back to the photosynthesis revision – I think I’m at the stage when every fact that goes into my brain displaces another one, but there we go.

In The Garden

Climbing hydrangea

Dear Readers, I am so delighted with the climbing hydrangea this year – it is absolutely smothered in flowers. A few years ago, some ashy mining bees discovered it, and spent every day gathering the pollen, but I haven’t seen them for a while. Still, by the end of this week my exams will be over (as my long-suffering regular readers know) and I’ll be able to pay a bit more attention to who is visiting it. In the meantime, I am just enjoying it.

The sparrows have now discovered my buddleia, with its banquet of blackfly, and are becoming regular visitors. They cheer me up as I raise my head from my Mann-Whitney U test ( a statistical test of difference where you don’t know if the data is normally distributed just in case you, like me, had never heard of it).

And in a corner of the back garden the mock orange is in full flower and the smell is amazing. The bumblebees enjoy it too, but they still seem few and far between. We’re due some warm weather for the next few weeks, so let’s see if things improve.

And, with apologies to anyone who thinks that these are weeds, here are some teasels. I don’t know why I love them so much – they are prickly and definitely a bit on the thuggish side. But the bees will love the flowers, and the finches will (hopefully) like the seeds, and in the meantime they look like enthusiastic little green people, dancing around with their arms raised and their hair on end.

I make no apology for including my favourite meme of all time. I can’t look at a teasel without being reminded of it. Enjoy!

What Makes Some Plants Carnivorous?

Triphophyllum pelatatum, an African liana that’s a part-time carnivore (Photo by Denis Barthel assumed (based on copyright claims).

Dear Readers, I am taking my nose out of my books for five minutes to talk about this very remarkable plant. I’ve long had a fascination with carnivorous plants (not entirely fuelled by Audrey the man-eating plant in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’) and in particular with those who seem to be on the edge of making the transition between purely photosynthetic and insect-eating. Recently, I read a study that suggested that teasel plants grew better when there were insects trapped in the little ‘baskets’ made by the juncture where their leaves meet the stems, and the scientific theory for a long time has been that when plants grow in nutrient-poor habitats, such as bogs they may turn to eating invertebrates to get what they need. 

The ‘pool’ at the base of teasel leaves

Now, surprisingly enough the soils in rainforests are often thin and poor (one reason why many tropical trees have such wide-spreading roots), and so there are a number of carnivorous plants there too, such as pitcher plants. But how about this liana, Triphyophyllum peltatum? What is interesting is that it puts out sticky leaves which entrap small insects, in the same way that the much smaller sundew does (to which it is distantly related). However, this plant only produces them in certain circumstances, with some plants happily getting on without them. Scientist Traud Winklemann of the Leipniz University, Hannover,  managed the difficult task of propagating the plant, and set out to see what it needed, and in which situations the carnivorous leaves appeared.

Bets were largely on nitrogen deficiency, as this is something that is a limiting factor in many environments. However, it turned out that what made the plant change its behaviour was a lack of phosphorous in the soil. Winklemann hypothesises that this is because phosphorous is one of the elements that is most depleted following the equatorial monsoon rains in September in West Africa, where the plant grows. Furthermore, as it grows on hillsides, the nutrients are regularly washed down the hill, away from the area where the plant lives. You can see how being able to access an alternative source of nutrients would be useful, although this would require the plant to use considerable resources in order to generate the ‘glue’. You can read the whole article here.

The ‘trap’ leaves of Triphophyllum peltatum – Photo by Traud Winklemann

I am always amazed at the adaptability of plants, and the many ways that they are able to use what’s available in their environment in order to survive. The fact that this plant is able to change its behaviour according to whether there’s enough phosphorous around or not is very impressive, and I anticipate a whole slew of future research on how exactly the plant manages it, and how it ‘decides’ that it’s time to produce a ‘trap’ leaf instead of a normal leaf or a leaf that enables it to climb through the undergrowth (this species also produces a leaf with hooks so that it can grapple its way up towards the sunlight). It often seems in science that every question that you answer opens the door for another dozen questions, but what fun to be continually learning!

I’ve revised growth hormones and cell membranes today, and my brain is so stuffed that I feel like those little guys from Mars Attacks!, a very strange film by Tim Burton. By the time that my first exam arrives I will be more than ready to let fly with some of those facts. Four more days to go!


A Buddleia Bonus

Goldfinch on the buddleia

Dear Readers, as I sit here in my office, gazing sadly at the lovely sunny weather outside, I notice a flurry of movement on my aphid-ridden buddleia. A little family of sparrows are furiously pecking at the blackfly, before moving on. Five minutes later, there are a couple of goldfinches, including a young ‘un. Then, there’s a blue tit.

Blimey, who would have thought that all those bugs could be put to such good use? I am a bit concerned, though – caterpillars and spiders would surely be heartier fare, and I seem to remember reading that birds only turn to such tiny prey when there’s nothing else about. In fact the garden is well-stocked for just such an eventuality – the hawthorn tree has been well-frequented this spring, and there are suet pellets, thought again I note that this is normally food for hungry adults rather than new fledglings. All in all it’s been a very peculiar year, as we’re now edging into drought conditions, and no doubt soon it will be hosepipe bans as far as the eye can see.

Let me know if your plants have had any avian visitors, I have a suspicion that the birds are changing their behaviour in an attempt to keep up with all this climate change shenanigans.

Today’s revision was largely Homeostasis and the Structure of Proteins, but by this time next week it will all be over and done with for another year, hallelujah! I hope you have a lovely weekend, peeps. Think of me, hunched over a hot textbook (no, not that kind of hot textbook) as you sip your gin and tonics and relax with a good book. And many, many good wishes to anyone who has young people who are in the same situation, and to the young people themselves. At least my studying is purely for self satisfaction, rather than hoping to go to uni, or to work in a particular field, even though Professor Bugwoman does have a certain ring to it (and my brain is the size of an asteroid after all this force-feeding of information).


Cut Flowers – Yes or No?

Dear Readers, I have always felt a bit ambivalent about cut flowers. There’s something a bit wasteful about them, and about the fact that they’ll soon be dead however careful I am. However, this week there was a special offer on British-grown flowers via Abel and Cole, and in the midst of my revision frenzy I couldn’t resist. They do say that there’s only so much willpower that you can call upon at any one time, and clearly all of mine is going on keeping me in my seat and forcing me through the endless things I seem to have to get into my brain. There’s no room for saying ‘no’ to antirrhinums and sweet william and cornflowers and night-scented stock, and my second-hand jug seemed to be just the thing to stick them in. See what you think.

I read a lot about growing ‘cutting gardens’ and am always very impressed, but as my garden is north-facing, it isn’t always full of blooms (though I have to say that the mock orange (Philadelphus) is doing really well this year). My sunny front garden feels a little too small to raid, especially as it seems that the bees need all that they can get at the moment. I know some people who grow flowers as well as food on their allotments, which seems like a splendid idea, but requires a bit too much time for me to look after at the moment.

The ‘British Grown’ bit was important for me – I do appreciate that flowers grown in places like Ethiopia contribute to the local economy, but I’m never sure how much the actual growers get (though if you know of any companies that seem ethical do let me know). And then there’s the air-freight bit, which freaks me out (I do work for a climate-change charity after all). But all these things are a balance, and in these difficult times I would never judge anyone for wanting to bring a bit of colour to their lives. In the summer, though, it’s well worth seeing what’s available from closer to home. I love my flowers, and this week they have certainly hit the spot.

What cheers you up when you’re up against it?  In addition to flowers, I could mention chocolate, a new knitting project, a walk around the garden or a new episode of the Great British Sewing Bee (or my new secret vice, Glow-Up). As far as the TV shows go, I love watching people being creative, and I love how the UK programmes generally show people being collaborative and caring rather than in-your-face competitive. I find it comforting, and sometimes surprisingly moving, old softie that I am. There is something very inspiring about ‘ordinary’ people creating extraordinary things.

Anyhow, back to the stomata and the turgor pressure and the transpiration. Roll on next week….

At Last!

Dear Readers, I don’t know about you but it’s been a bit of a silent spring in these parts – after the arrival of the hairy-footed flower bees in April and May, I have mostly been seeing honeybees and nothing else. Where are my favourites (yes, I know you aren’t supposed to have favourites), the bumblebees? So today I was delighted to see this furry blob – I got a better look at it than any of my photos show, and I’m fairly sure it was an Early Bumblebee (Bombus praetorum) (yellow stripe, black stripe, yellow stripe, orange-y bum). Apparently they can be on the wing from February, but not this year I suspect, with our long, cold spring. They are important pollinators of soft-fruits, but this one rather liked the green alkanet and the cat mint (which, typically, a cat has sat upon, squashing half of it flat).

There is a Facebook page called ‘Crap Bird Photography’ which gives me endless amusement (and indeed I have submitted some of my masterpieces and have gotten the requisite number of laugh-y emoticons). If only there was a ‘Crap Insect Photography’ page! I have so many that I could start one all on my own.

Looking at the bee below I think there must have been two bumblebees, this one is quite clearly a common carder (Bombus pascuorum), a little ginger bee with a long flight season – they are often the last bumbles on the wing in late autumn.

And there is another tiny bee with a white face that I’m eager to get a photograph of, but I shall wait until I’m sure of the id before I post.

In the meantime, my twenty minutes in the front garden has lifted my spirits and got the crick out of my back. Now, back to my different modes of photosynthesis revision. Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, anybody?


In The Pond

Dear Readers, my lovely husband has had another bash at reducing the duckweed in the pond, and I think it’s now down to abou 50% cover so I can actually see what’s happening with the tadpoles. What a lot there are this year! It’s difficult to get a proper portrait of the little wigglers, but here are a couple of attempts.

The one on the right looks to me as if his or her back legs are on the verge of busting out. How strange it must be to be a tadpole and to completely change from a legless aquatic vegetarian to a four-legged carnivore in the space of just a few months. Goodness knows it’s hard enough with the stages of life that us humans go through, and we don’t (completely) change our body shape, although we do seem to acquire extra dimensions in some places. At least we don’t suddenly find ourselves wide-mouthed and grinning on a lilypad, and the diet of flies and slugs would be a bit wearisome.

I was also struck by the difference in size between the different tadpoles – sometimes, some tadpoles will overwinter in the pond and turn into frogs in the spring, while others will go hell for leather and become frogs before the autumn. I guess that the variation means that at least some will survive, whatever the weather conditions, but the smaller ones will be at risk of being cannibalised by their larger brothers and sisters.

And after all, this feels like such an annual miracle. I have no idea where the frogs lived before the pond arrived, or where they go to when they leave the pond (some do stay to hibernate on the bottom, but goodness knows where the rest go. It’s been lovely to take a break between my DNA transcription and my protein translation, but now it’s back to work for another hour. Progress is being made but however well you plan, it never seems enough, at least for a perfectionist like me, who doesn’t know when to stop. Onwards!

Ten Minutes in the Garden

Large Red Damselfly in the garden

Dear Readers, it has been the most glorious weather for the past few days, and my heart is filled with sympathy for all the young people who are huddled over their text books and trying to revise. I know that we always have examinations just as the weather is at its most blissful, but it doesn’t get any easier as you get older, I can tell you. I remember doing my accountancy exams and throwing the books across the room on at least one occasion (tort law if my memory serves me). Still, I did at least manage a brief break in the sunshine, and it fills me with great joy that these insects are out and about, in spite of the duckweed in the pond and the very strange spring weather.

The males seem to emerge first and wait around in the undergrowth for some females to put in an appearance. They are so delicate, especially when they fly and the sun catches their wings, but they certainly put up a fight if they sense competition. There was a cloud of holly blue butterflies too, and one very determined-looking large white butterfly. As is usual when I’m meaning to be doing something else, I feel a great urge to tidy up the pots, or drag out some more duckweed, or even, as a dear friend of mine once did when trying to avoid some unwanted task, to clean the kettle flex.

Still, today I have not only revised the structure of the cell (bacterial, plant and animal), the theory of natural and sexual selection, mitosis and meiosis and a great raft of Mendelian genetics, but I have also reminded myself of the wonders of bird migration. If I had a bit more energy I would wax lyrical, but actually I think I’m going to pour myself a cold drink and go damselfly-spotting. Only twelve days to go, and I’ll be a free woman. Cheers!

Om Nom – A Very Nice Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant

Dear Readers, I sneaked out from my revision for lunch with my lovely friend J this lunchtime, and as I warned you things are going to be a bit random on Bugwoman for the next week or two, so I thought I’d share this lovely place with you. It’s not only a restaurant but a yoga centre, and it’s also a charity which provides one meal in the developing world for each meal eaten in the restaurant (Charity Commission link here) They are also dog-friendly, which my friend’s little dog was very happy about.

There’s a large glass atrium (which can be a bit warm if you’re a lady of a certain age as J and I both are) and also a cooler bit inside. But the key thing is the food, the vast majority of which is either vegan or can be made vegan, with a few vegetarian courses too, and lots of gluten-free options. Did I mention that South Indian cuisine is one of my favourites in the world? The masala dosa ( a spicy potato-filled crepe with coconut chutney and vegetable curry) is delicious, and my friend raved about her jackfruit biriyani. And, just in case you think that all sounds a bit frugal, the vegan chocolate cake and chocolate brownie with vegan ice-cream was exceptionally tasty. There was also a vegan mango lassi. There is so much choice and my vegan friend, who usually ends up eating a bad risotto or a plate of vegetables when she goes out was nearly overwhelmed. You can have a look at the menu here. Believe me, for Islington this is very good value, especially for the very swanky new Islington Square, which is where the old Post Office used to be.

Photo from

So, honestly, with vegan food as good as this, who needs meat (note that where it mentions chicken etc on the menu they’re using plant-based meat alternatives)? I will certainly be back. I’d like to put in a word for the mint and lime tea too, a combination that I’d not come across previously and will probably be trying to replicate at home. And finally, the staff are welcoming, efficient and helpful. This is a lovely place, a one-off and somewhere with a conscience. If you’re in London, it’s well worth a visit. 


Heads Up!

Dear Readers, two pieces of news today. First up, I was sitting in the garden yesterday when I heard a blue tit calling – there has been one yelling its head off for the past few weeks, but like an  eejit I never thought to look up at the bird box that we put up a couple of years ago. Holy moly, it looks as if someone is actually at home. I am very excited, but will also be keeping my hopes under control – up there the blue tits should be safe from all but the most intrepid cat (knowing the ones around here I wouldn’t be surprised to see one piloting a small hang glider), but the magpies have made their nest in the tree opposite and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they clocked this arrangement. Anyway, fingers crossed and I will keep you posted.

My second piece of news is that I have exams on the 8th and 9th of June, for my Cellular Biology and Biology of Survival courses, and so my posts may be shorter/more ‘science-y’ between now and then. I did my revision timetable yesterday (rather later than planned) and was somewhat surprised by the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ that there is still to do, so I expect to be a bit frazzled by the time June 10th comes round. Nonetheless I shall soldier on valiantly. I have really loved these two courses, though I will never do two simultaneously again – there’s much more work when it’s two individual subjects than when it’s one big course, even though it’s the same number of credits overall. Keep your fingers crossed, lovely readers! After this I am looking forward to getting out and about a bit and finding a few more things for you to read about, so stay tuned….