Brinsect

It is the middle of August and ever since the vote to leave the park there has been a quietness… not much is happening and many residents have decided to go some place else where they feel welcome. The social wasps are out and about, attracted by the ripening fruit in the orchard. But there is a wariness in the air as an article has to be invoked and everyone is waiting to see what happens next. Queen Vespula Vulgaris has started her nest in a loft in Lyndhurst Grove and already built up an impressive entourage of loyal workers. She is an incidental queen, put into power because her predecessor chose to fly off when the going got tough, having made a pigs ear out of the silly referendum. This new queen enjoys making life uncomfortable for insects: cracking down on the rights of free buzzing, a stiff policy on non-native species allowed in the park, and stinging anyone who isn’t a well-paid pollinator. She is snappily dressed, all yellow and black stripes, with a formidable weapon in her tail which she has already admitted she will use if threatened. She rules over a nest of conservative identikit workers who tend to her every need, except one who is a bit wayward, rather rude and untidy with no sense of tact who has insulted many insects in the park. For some bizarre reason he has been given the job of representing the nest.

Vespula vulgaris and Vespula germanica

Vespula vulgaris and Vespula germanica

On the other side of the park are the industrious German wasps. Though not big on presentation their nests are impressively constructed by a studious workforce, having honed their skills in engineering which are the envy of the hymenoptera world. Queen Vespula Germanica rules her realm in a somewhat christian and democratic way, often dealing with skirmishes that break out between neighbouring nests in her role as a de facto leader of a union which has grown so large no one quite knows who’s in charge. Identified by a 3-dot Merkel-Raute stamped on their faces, the workers are not best pleased with their queen and her ratings have plummeted. She will soon be up for election.

In the near future our queens will have to meet to discuss the Vulgar wasps leaving the park. The German wasps are understandably buzzed off as their dream of the union is beginning to fall apart. They will have to negotiate who has the rights to harvest the juice from the plums and pears, with access to the common orchard being the biggest concern, and who will have buzzing rights over annoying the humans at their picnics. There are worries about the open border policy, fearing swarms of hornets, forceably smoked out of Dulwich Park by the council a couple of years ago, could be given free access to Warwick Gardens. If it doesn’t go well the Vulgar wasps may be cast out, left with making a go of it alone with only the blackberries to trade with. What a mess.

Buggered off

Its the middle of July and Warwick Gardens is looking a bit worse for wear, reflecting the vibe of the country after voting to leave the EU. The foxes have flattened the foliage; the bindweed, with their delicate white trumpet flowers a foil for the hidden intentions of domination, has spread insidiously over the nettles and brambles suppressing any hope of freedom of growth; and the daisies are looking a bit weary with having to regrow after being constantly mowed down. The yarrow, hoping to host their annual festival of pollen and nectar, have popped up in an empty venue.

Red capsid bug

Red capsid bug creeping around

Last year this place was buzzing. It was noisy and full of life – a showcase of the sheer diversity of invertebrates in the park. But it seems that this year is one festival too many; the insects are preferring a more boutique ‘meadow-style’ festival offering a mélange of flowers and a more discerning flavour of nectar, sown especially to add colour and variety to bland parks. Everything is really quiet. The Roesel’s bush-crickets, normally hired to chirrup up business, chose to leave the park believing it was overrun with migrant species, a cynical lie perpetrated by unscrupulous anti-orthopterists; and the remaining grasshoppers have gone on strike, aghast that the crickets were lied to. The flies, patriotic and always up for a fight, are flitting around making nuisance for the non-natives. A few red capsid bugs are creeping around, anxious not to be mistaken for a Pokémon Go character, but all the while wishing that they could be found and appreciated as a real living thing. Even the mirid bugs got bored waiting for the party to start and just buggered off. And the weather hasn’t helped. A dull wet spring and cool temperatures have exacerbated and confused many residents about when and where to start a family. Its like nobody cares, exhausted at the changes around them.

The mottled shield bugs have had their lilac habitat ripped away by someone ‘wanting a better view of the park’, and having arrived in Peckham only a few years ago feel rather rejected. The hawthorn shield bugs, with their brightly coloured coats of majesty, have had their ancestral home savaged by cuts, the lower branches lopped off to make it cheaper to maintain. And the parent bugs and birch catkin bugs got ousted from their favourite independent tree in the multi-species part of the park, chopped down by someone ‘wanting more light in their garden’. They had to relocate to the big corporate birch trees on the other side of the park. Unfortunately it seems they didn’t ‘fit in’ as they have disappeared, leaving the planthoppers with no one to play with. Or, as this is the main constituency of the rather moderate birch shield bug, maybe the birch catkin bugs, with their left-wing ideals about ‘rights to live on the same tree – we share the same host plant’, were viewed as a threat to the stability of the community, fuelled by pedantic catkin politics, forcing a campaign to stop them taking over.

Common green shield bug nymph

Common green shield bug nymph – the only shield bug in the park

At least the green shield bugs, the hard-working bugs of the park with no obvious affiliation to any plant, are holding on. Those green shield bugs who everyone knows so well that they are prefixed with ‘common’ and generally taken for granted by the conservationists. The bugs who spend their days dutifully sap-supping, impervious to the strange weather we are having, almost neglected until someone prods them too far and they revert to their chav name of ‘stink’bug’. How long before they realise they are the only prey for the bigger enemy – the solitary wasps with a taste for shield bug nymphs on the hunt to stock their nests with the fattest, juiciest specimens to feed their offspring.

 

 

A proper geezer

The distiguished stag beetle

The distinguished stag beetle

If ever there was a character that represents old Peckham it has to be the stag beetle. A proper south London geezer, dressed up to the nines in a sharp, shiny suit tinged with purple, brandishing a fine set of red antlers held aloft with pride and demanding respect as Britain’s largest beetle. With an ancestry going back to when the Great North Wood covered the area, he favours the old haunts in Peckham – those dusty, rotting log piles hidden at the end of gardens owned by people who have lived here for years and understand how the neighbourhood works. The trend for tidy gardens with paving, minimal planting and a complete lack of soul which are currently monopolising our streets are utterly useless to him. The stag beetle needs the perfect nursery – piles of old logs where their grubs can chew rotten wood to their hearts content and grow fat without being disturbed for the next few years until they are ready to morph into adults.

Like any dandy the stag beetle is almost hopelessly unfit to do anything other than hang around looking cool. Cumbersome in flight they look faintly ridiculous flying around, antlers waving, on a warm spring dusky evening, trying their absolute best to find a lady to flirt with. On a night out with the boys they can get into fights where a test of strength with their antlers will win the day. Unfortunately all that bravado can’t stave off fatal attacks by wide-boy corvids, hipster cats or under the feet of humans who have no respect for anything other than themselves.

A waiting game

Missing tree

The gap where the silver birch tree stood

Walking through Warwick Gardens the other week I noticed something amiss. It took a while to realise that the silver birch tree which trailed its beautiful leafy branches over the fence in the Football Quarter had been chopped down. In its place was a view of the house which had previously had been obscured. My heart sank as this was the tree where I first discovered Orientus ishidae, the leafhopper which caused so much excitement in the bug world and subsequently put Warwick Gardens on the entomological map. But why? After talking with the homeowner whose garden the tree was in, she explained that she “wanted more light in my garden”. She asked if it was a problem as she had spoken to the council who had given her permission to cut it down. Well what could I say? Its not my tree, or even my park, and the tree was growing in her garden… BUT it was the possible host plant for a rare insect, as well as a family home to birch catkin bugs, birch shield bugs, mottled shield bugs, parent bugs and southern oak bush-crickets. It’s a real habitat loss and I am deeply saddened, but it is also a lesson about education. After our conversation the homeowner said that if she had known about the insects living there she would have just pruned the tree.

Orientus ishidae nymphs on ivy

Orientus ishidae nymphs on ivy – time will tell if they will be back this year

Orientus ishidae has been spreading through the UK and its host plant has yet to be established. In Cambridge one was found on wisteria, in hopping distance of echinops, honeysuckle, cotoneaster, lavender. I have been finding our nymphs living on the ivy which grows adjacent to birch tree, and every year I see them expanding – last year we had a record 10 nymphs. Now I will have to wait until August before I know whether they are breeding on the ivy or just hopping over from the birch tree to bask in the sun. If it is the latter I fear the loss of a very beautiful insect in our park. Only time will tell.

The We’evils of Peckham’s Gentrification

This article first appeared in the Space #147 issue of Litro magazine.

Scarce fungus weevil Platyrhinus resinosus, with mite infestation

My name is Platyrhinus resinosus and I live in Peckham

My name is Platyrhinus resinosus. I am a weevil and I live in a log in a small park in Peckham. I moved into a council log when a grant was given to spruce up Warwick Gardens a few years ago. It suits me well as I have my own cramp-ball fungus to feed on, though I do have to contend with upstart spiders who weave their webs over my patch with absolutely no regard for my personal space. My home is in the Log Quarter of Warwick Gardens, an area of high-density log housing, populated by beetle larvae, woodlice, earwigs, spiders, solitary bees and wasps. We have a buzzing little community here. Yes, we have our problems – the mining bees have a hard time in the summer when they have to fend off parasitic wasps wanting to inject eggs into their nests; the beetle larvae cause havoc to the log interiors, and the woodlice make quite a noise at night with all their chewing. And spiders can be a nuisance, especially for the flies. All in all we try to get on with each other. But things are changing.

New species have moved into the area, with fancy names like ‘mottled shield bug’, ‘mosaic leafhopper’ and ‘southern oak bush-cricket’. They have taken over the lilac bushes, conveniently positioned to look down on the more common species in the park. This area, next to the football pitch, is the main food boulevard with its ivy bars, thick long grass, lush blackberry bushes and the big-leafed showy lilac bushes. It’s the trendiest place to be and full of pop-up food stalls offering a range of artisanal kebabs of plump aphids and shield bug nymphs, alongside cocktails of dandelion nectar, ragwort pollen and craft yarrow stem juice.

It used to be relatively quiet here, but since the council stopped mowing a patch of grass and let it run wild with flowers it’s become really noisy with visitors swarming in from the surrounding areas to party. The hoverflies tell me stories of ladybirds running amok, bees drunk on pollen and crickets chirruping loudly all day long in a desperate attempt to find someone to mate with. This is the place to see all the well-heeled fashionable insects: the brightly coloured butterflies, sleek whizzy dragonflies, jewel wasps in their fancy metallic clothes, and the hipster ladybird flies with their beards and orange polka-dot shirts. Habitat is at a premium and I did hear that the parent bugs and their families had been pushed out due to the high rent of catkins and forced to move to the silver birch tree next to the railway line.

Solitary wasp with shield bug nymph

Solitary wasp with an artisanal shield bug nymph kebab

In my log a plethora of new kitchens have popped up. In the days before gentrification we called them ‘caffs’. The solitary wasps have repurposed, upcycled and retrofitted old beetle holes in readiness of opening their own seasonal pop-up kitchens. Their menus promote ‘locally-sourced produce’. Juicy organic aphids farmed by ants and plucked from the stem of an award-winning rose bush, or fed exclusively on the sap of a mature sycamore tree; spiders that have been fattened up on free-range hoverflies who have been allowed to roam free amongst the flowers and whose blood has a piquant of ragwort about it; and plump bluebottle flies with their robust meaty flavours of dog poo. Preparation is simple. Aphids and flies will be ‘lightly paralysed’ so as not to destroy the delicate juices and to ensure they keep their freshness. Spiders will have their legs skilfully sliced off with sharpened jaws and the precision of a master butcher, their bodies stacked high in larders like slowly drying hams. In a true ‘once-in-a-lifetime dining experience’ each diner will have its own room in which to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet. And these diners are special – they are the young wasp larvae.

One of the logs on our manor is up for renewal. It finally succumbed to being rendered useless partly due to decomposition. This log has been home to bees, wasps and beetles for the past few years and they are now being forcibly evicted by either the council foxes or human vandals with nothing better to do. Admittedly it has seen better days – a rather shabby exterior full of holes, cracked bark, and fungus graffiti’d along the damp ground-floor walls. The interior is a brittle honeycomb of lignin, filled with sawdust echoing their use as bee and wasp nurseries and still ringing with the distant sounds of buzzing gone by.

The Log Quarter in Warwick Gardens

The Log Quarter in Warwick Gardens

Unfortunately some of the residents didn’t receive their eviction notices in time and their homes have been brutally ripped away and strewn across the park, the contents spilling out onto the grass exposing still-ripening larvae cocooned in silk. Tiny beetle larvae caught up in the carnage struggle with being exposed to the outside world and succumb to being carried off by ants, whilst the centipedes emerge from hiding to see what all the fuss is about. The woodlice, who occupied the lower floors and have always had their antennae to the ground, have already moved their families to another log after realising the beetle larvae neighbours had been eating away at the upper floors and were in danger of being crushed. And the common wasps have moved in, like bailiffs, to pick over the remains and take all the free sawdust to build their nests.

Soon the developers will move in with “a vision of the log as a horizontal city for thousands of insects to live in and enjoy”. Knowing developers they will probably replace it with a shiny new MDF log, complete with layers of impenetrable varnish rendering it totally useless to us beetles. Holes drilled in neat and tidy rows, inspired by some of those fancy bee hotels, will be sold off as ready-made bijou homes for the wealthier bees and wasps, with a noticeable lack of affordable lignin making it impossible for the hard-working mulch-munching insects to set up home. And they will make it multi-functional to include habitats for humans complete with a rooftop picnic area, parking for pushchairs and nice tidy planting.

There is even a new edible hedge stretching all the way along the side of the railway line. This regenerated area is a sprawling estate of shiny new shrubs and fruit trees, replacing the perfectly established clusters of black horehound, thistles and nettles deemed rather unattractive and scythed into oblivion. Stylish architectural sculptures of dead wood dot the area, no doubt hoping to attract the rather distinguished stag beetle to make a home here. At the moment the local insects are not keen on the hedge as it contains plants they have never seen before, and as they were never consulted on what plants they would like, are rather pissed off. Instead they have been converging on a tiny patch of tatty thistles, purposely left off the weeding roster and preserved as a nod to the ‘heritage’ of the area, in an act of defiance. My cousins the vine weevils have had to find somewhere else to live as their habitat has gone, and we really don’t know what will happen to the tiny spear-thistle lacebugs who have lived in the park for generations.

It will be interesting to see who moves in or whether it will end up half-used and entomologically unloved, a moral of regeneration gone wrong. And now there is talk of creating a meadow full of all the big flashy commercial wildflowers such as ox-eye daisy, poppy and knapweed ‘to bring more pollinators into the area’ – a sort of Westfield of the wildflower world. Yet another expensive homogeneous development devoid of individualist character promoted by over zealous but under-appreciative landscapers, upsetting the local demographics and taking all the credit away from the lowly daisies and dandelions who have spent years effectively doing the same job.

So I sit here, on my log, watching the changes with a sinking heart. The park has become unrecognisable to when I moved in. I see fewer of the insects I grew up with, having had to move to ever decreasing pockets of habitat just to survive. Gone are the days when we would stop and have a friendly chirp over a blade of grass, the new neighbours deigning to give me only a cursory glance as they scuttle by with an air of snobbish arrogance. And soon even I will be gone, a remnant of old Peckham, remembered only in the pages of an insect identification book.

No more honey bees, please

The recent chatter to encourage more bee hives in our cities is somewhat alarming to me. I wouldn’t want to be a honey bee – spawned from a hybrid queen sent in the post, brought up to live a life of domesticated soviet-style drudgery, drugged up to the wing tips on pesticides, plagued by viruses and under attack from mites and fungus, worked too hard, often on a monoculture diet, continuously smoked out of their homes to have the fruits of their labour wrenched out beneath them, then left in the winter with barely enough food to eat. All in the name of having something sweet to spread on our morning toast. No wonder they are such moody insects and no wonder their colonies are collapsing.

A honey bee having a rest from the drudgery of pollen collecting

A honey bee having a rest from the drudgery of hive life

I am being cynical. Of course honey bees are important. ‘The economic value of honey bees, and bumblebees, [note the add on and why not just ‘bees’] as pollinators of commercially grown insect pollinated crops in the UK has been estimated at over £200 million per year’. (The British Bee Keepers Association). All well and good but I see there is no mention of the other economy – the sale of honey – which I see as a bigger problem and rarely seems to be included in statistics. And we are being misled – honey bees only pollinate 30% of our crops. Which leaves me to wonder why we need them in our cities? The only ‘crops’ we have in cities are allotments and orchards and pollination of these is easily done by our other pollinators – solitary bees, wasps, flies, hoverflies, beetles, bugs, butterflies and moths. And its these we need to be focussing our energy on.

Mason bee Heriades truncorum collecting pollen

Mason bee Heriades truncorum collecting pollen

Research has shown honey bees maybe infecting bumblebees with diseases, but we don’t yet know what the effect of honey bees have on our other solitary bees. Viruses and mites brought in by honey bees, often imported, surely must have an impact, as well as the pesticides to control these. Much is made of colony collapse but how long before we see a collapse of all our insect societies due to measures taken to preserve the lives of honey bees. Less hives, especially in cities where habitat is at a premium, would allow our native bees to flourish and restore their populations which are on the decline. But we need varied and healthy habitats to ensure the survival of all our insects, not just bees. To consider preserving and encouraging the plants that naturally occur in an area – local planting feeds the local insects. Even the current trend for wildflower meadows in parks to ‘attract pollinators’, though commendable, is rather worthless if stuck in the middle of a large swathe of lawn with no shade or allowance for nesting habitats. They are also costly and time-consuming to manage. Far better to distribute those wildflowers amongst other planting, or scatter a few seeds next to a wall. Or even just ‘let it go wild’! The area left unmown in Warwick Gardens is a good example of allowing the natural growth of local plants – after 3 years we are seeing crops of clover and mallow flourish, creating a carpet perfect for grasshoppers to hide in and flowers for hoverflies and butterflies to feed on. The yarrow, loved by beetles, has also expanded its range. Yes sometimes we do need to manage it but at a much lower level – pulling up the odd fat-hen plant that has run riot is maybe not a bad thing! We often forget we have to allow for some of our pollinators that feed on other insects and this is rarely mentioned in plans when considering planting. Some solitary wasps stock up on sap-sucking shield bugs and aphids to feed their young, and the inclusion of plants and grasses to accommodate these is vital. Meanwhile, all these insects will be pollinating the beans and peas you are growing on your allotment.

Thick-legged beetle Oedemera nobilis covered in pollen

Thick-legged beetle Oedemera nobilis covered in yarrow pollen

So why do we need hives in our cities? Education? Studies of beekeeping for ‘unruly’ kids has benefits, especially around respect and responsibility. I can’t argue with that but a big part of me would prefer to promote the life of our solitary bees. Watching mason bees and leafcutter bees building their nests in a bee hotel is not only fun, it also teaches us important lessons about the fragility of life. Solitary bees have to defend themselves against cuckoo bees and parasitic wasps without the back-up of an all-stinging all-waggle dancing army. Their life is harder and more hit and miss. All the more reason to treasure them.

And the other reason for hives? Honey. Honey should be a speciality food, like truffles, expensive and hard to come by. I worry that the current trend for all things ‘olde and crafty’ will see a rise of pop-up hives, hipster honey and mead. The air in our city is pretty grim so I can almost see a diesel flavoured honey appearing on the shelves, along side a bottle of mead with a ‘hint of carbon monoxide’. And all the while the poor little honey bee is working itself to death to put that sugar hit on your toast. Harsh, I know. But ideally I would put a ban on hives altogether until the honey bee has had a chance to recover, and allow our other pollinators to take the credit for all the hard work they do.

 

House clearance

Rotten Lodge

Rotten Lodge

There has been some major demolition happening in Warwick Gardens. One of the logs mentioned in The Bug Quarter has finally succumbed to being rendered useless partly due to decomposition. This housing block in the Log Quarter has been home to solitary bees and wasps for the past few years and they are now being forcibly evicted by either the council foxes or youths with nothing better to do. Admittedly the log has seen better days – a rather shabby exterior full of holes, cracked bark, and fungus graffitied along the damp ground-floor walls. The interior is a brittle honeycomb of tunnels between the lignin, and filled with sawdust echoing their use as nurseries and still ringing with the distant sounds of buzzing gone by. The structure is just not safe. And no, an estate agent certainly wouldn’t recommend buying this log, not even as a fixer-upper.

Solitary bee, wasp, and wasp larva in cocoon

Solitary bee, wasp, and larva in cocoon

Some of the resident bees and wasps have already excavated their nests, stocked their larders and laid their eggs. Unfortunately they didn’t receive their eviction notices in time and their homes have been brutally ripped away and strewn across the park, the contents spilling out onto the grass exposing still-ripening larvae cocooned in silk. Tiny beetle larvae caught up in the carnage struggle with being exposed to the outside world and succumb to being carried off by ants, whilst the rove beetles emerge from hiding to see what all the fuss is about. The woodlice, who occupied the lower floors and have always had their antennae to the ground, had already moved their families to another log after realising the beetle larvae neighbours had been eating away at the upper floors and were in danger of being crushed. And the common wasps have moved in, like bailiffs, to pick over the remains and take all the free sawdust to build their nests.

Rove beetle

Rove beetle

Soon the developers will move in with “a vision of the log as a horizontal city for thousands of insects to live in and enjoy”. Their ideal would be to replace Rotten Lodge with a shiny new log, the longest in Europe, complete with layers of varnish for an impenetrable surface to keep out the riffraff – “we certainly wouldn’t want woodlice and weevils littering the neighbourhood”. It would be designed with style in mind. Holes drilled in neat and tidy rows, inspired by some of those fancy bee hotels but much more minimalist, would be sold off as ready-made bijou homes for the wealthier bees and wasps. It would be multi-functional to include habitats for humans complete with a rooftop picnic area, parking for pushchairs and nice tidy planting. And they would call it The Seat, befitting their ideal vision of a new Peckham!