The vaccine bug

Mosquito

The mosquitoes of Peckham are feeling really miffed. At the start of the year, much fuss was made of the new Covid-19 vaccines and a call was made for helpers in the vaccination rollout. The mosquitoes, still in larval form, got wind of this and started congregating in the ponds, pools, and puddles of Peckham. They were excited as by the time they emerged as adults they were eligible to volunteer. Basically, they had the right equipment – a long proboscis acting as the thinnest of syringes, together with a light touch, and the ability to bite you in unlikely places. And they didn’t need PPE or to sanitise their legs or wear masks; they even knew that a large proportion of them would die splattered against a bedroom wall. A real kamikaze attitude.

They applied and were instantly rejected. “Not enough experience”. Not enough experience? the mosquitoes whined in unison. After all, they were experts at spreading diseases – malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus, yellow fever, West Nile virus – why not just load up with the vaccine and inject people? Some even tried to volunteer for the vaccine trials, especially as a lot of their friends had already escaped the swamps and were being reared in sterile white laboratories. Admittedly they were being subjected to genetic modification for other uses, but hey-ho, it seemed a small sacrifice.

The mosquitoes felt it was time to rebrand themselves as the good guys – how marvellous it would feel to be held up as the heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic rather than one of the most hated insects on the planet. They talked about saving the NHS millions of pounds, calculating if they all pulled together they could jab a whole country in a week given the right muggy conditions. They even had perverse ideas about how to dupe the anti-vaxxers by convincing them the swollen itchy needle hole in their arm is ‘just a mosquito bite’. Obviously, they would have to get around DDT and other nasty mosquito repellents, or flying too close to citronella candles; and those pesky nets are an obstacle. Nevertheless, they were experts at surreptitiously crawling up inside someone’s trousers or under a t-shirt, though they would have to quell their annoying whiny buzzing so as not to be squashed. But in their tiny minds, it could be done…

Stripes are in Vogue

As featured in the latest issue of BQ magazine

Its early October and the insects of Warwick Gardens are so excited – it’s time for the annual Autumn Fete. The grasshoppers are fat and fully grown and the mottled shield bugs are finally adults after several moults, whilst the Roesel’s bush-crickets, whose love songs kept up the spirits of Summer, can barely wheeze after weeks of wooing. The long grass is faded and falling over and the blackberries have been picked. Thankfully the green alkanet, a Trojan of the plant world, is still opening its blue flowers to everyone. It is time for one last party before the winter sets in. And as usual the Fete will be held at the most popular bar in the park – the Ivy Bush – currently in full flower and offering free nectar and pollen on tap.

This year there is a fashion show for the pollinators and the theme is stripes. There is a real buzz in the bush as the designers step up onto the stage.

Lesser hornet hoverfly – Volucella inanis

First up are Diptera & Gabbana presenting their new ‘Bella Volucella’ plus-sized range. The lesser hornet hoverfly showed off an elegant bodycon frock in light orange and black striped suede with a shiny black and chestnut patterned collar. Everyone loved their creation and applauded the designers for their inclusivity.

German wasp – Vespula germanica

Next up is Vivienne Waspwood waving a placard shouting ‘God Save the Pollinators’. Having spent years dressing the individualistic ichneumon wasps in her retro punk black leather-look catsuits she finally had a chance to bring in some colour and produce a uniform for the social wasps: black and daffodil yellow stripes with a few dots and a scanty black hairy ruff. Everyone cheered except for the tiny flies who flew away in fear of being eaten.

Ivy bee – Colletes hederae

Ivy Saint Laurent chose to dress the ivy bee. A sleek black and beige striped pencil skirt with a massive furry stole in rich caramel. The other insects oohed and aah’d at the sheer beauty of her, as they had only seen her a couple of times since she arrived from France a few years ago. The stylish design was one step up from the honey bee deemed rather dull at last years’ show.

Holly blue – Celastrina argiolus

Then Galliano rocked up with a butterfly. He hadn’t read the brief and presented a holly blue. Not a stripe in sight, but a thin white border around the lustrous blue ombre wings. To the audience this was a breath of fresh air – the stripes were getting confusing and all too similar.

Wasp spider – Argiope bruennichi

Meanwhile down amongst the grasses is the circus of wasp spiders who have been dressed by Gaultier, flamboyant in cream and lemon yellow stripes outlined in black. They have spent the night spinning their famously chaotic webs with its striking zig-zag pattern ready for the classic game of Catch The Grasshopper. As for the grasshoppers they are enjoying outwitting the spiders with spectacular leaps and bounds over the webs, though occasionally one mis-steps and gets quickly pounced on and wrapped up in silk.

It was a day to remember. And now to look forward to spring.

Insects on the telly

It was a Wednesday evening in June and the insects of Warwick Gardens were all a-fluster. It was the day they were going to be on BBC Springwatch. They were huddled around a window on a house on Lyndhurst Grove peering through the glass at the television.

And then it started. They watched in anticipation as they were taken on a whirlwind tour of Norfolk, northern Scotland and Northern Ireland. They ooo’d and aaah’d at the glorious habitats in these far flung locations and realised they’d never even seen the sea before. They laughed at the shelducks waddling out of a tree, booed at the hatching of grey wagtails, and the caterpillars celebrated the decline of the blue tits! They learnt about tracking pine martins (which they thought looked like the local foxes) and marvelled at otters. And they were staggered by the sheer amount of sea birds on cliffs and gaped in awe at the guillemots that looked like badly drawn penguins.

And then they were on. Iolo Williams introduced Penny Metal and the insects chirped in delight as they saw their friends on national television. They cheered when they saw the scarce fungus weevil, who they thought had left the park years ago, emerging from lockdown. They saw their park from above, shot via a drone, and those who couldn’t fly finally saw where they actually lived – the dragonflies were surprised that anything man-made could fly that high.

As usual the common green shield bugs were having sex, and the more modest gorse shield bugs covered their faces in embarrassment at the behaviour of the local chavs. Local superstar Myopa, already a Twitter celebrity who had previously appeared in a blog, in a book and in Time Out magazine, also made an appearance and now has primetime television to add to her CV.

And then the film finished and the insects were so excited to see Michaela Strachan holding the book they all starred in and she loved it! As she flipped through the pages they all saw themselves, and they couldn’t believe someone so well known liked them and was telling other people to look at them too. And they did! Ever since, they have been peered at and prodded and photographed by every passerby who has been looking in the bushes at Warwick Gardens.

To watch the episode: BBC Springwatch

To fly or not to fly

Greenbottle – Lucilia caesar

The flies of Warwick Gardens are really perplexed by the latest government rules for flying. On the one hand their need to fly relates to work (pollinating and cleaning) but it seems they can’t fly off to meet friends in another part of the park. There is a red, amber and green traffic light system in place which offers a confusing list of where you are allowed to fly or not to fly.

It means the greenbottles in Poo Corner need to sanitise their feet of dog shit and get tested before they can go to the Log Quarter, but they also need to take a test to fly a few metres to the Railway Quarter despite the fact that part of the park is also full of dog shit. Even if they wanted to fly to the Log Quarter they will have to self-isolate on a leaf for 10 days, by which time their life-span will probably be over. The Football Quarter is an amber destination where you can only go ‘for some pressing family or urgent business reason’ but you will need to take two tests and quarantine, and most flies can’t be bothered as they know they will be eaten if they sit around in the same place for too long.

Marmalade hoverfly – Episyrphus balteatus

The hoverflies can fly to Greendale, which is on the green list, but not Peckham Rye Park (red list). They can’t visit red-listed Burgess Park, but Hyde Park, a destination completely out of reach to the average Peckham fly, is on the green list. And a trip to Goose Green (green list) is hardly worth it as there are no flowers there. They are rightfully anxious as the economy depends on them for pollination, and having been furloughed all last year are in danger of dying out.

Common orange legionnaire – Beris vallata

Meanwhile the soldier flies are being mobilised to survey the swathes of flies returning from amber parks, with the Home Secretary threatening ‘a knock on the door to check they’re all obeying the rules. But it might take a while as the soldier flies have yet to emerge, once again showing how incompetent this Government really is.

End of season

Male and female hairy-footed flower bees – Anthophora plumipes

Its late February and the hairy-footed flower bees have defied the Government and broken all the lockdown rules by emerging from their nests. The boys fly out first, all fluffy and bright ginger with hairy-legs, and an exuberance that says ‘Hello! Look at me’. They are a delight to behold and a true sign Spring has arrived. The flowers have yet to unzip themselves, and the bees whizz through them, darting around our parks and gardens getting a feel for their territory. They are inquisitive, getting to know the neighbours and generally being seen.

A couple of weeks later the girls fly out, looking fashionably dressed in black tunics and the bright orange trousers she uses to collect pollen. By now the comfrey flowers are open for business and she tentatively sups on the nectar with her long tongue. She has a long list of things to do: find a place to nest, go shopping for pollen, start a family, pollinate some flowers and generally do things the boys are incapable of.

Mating is her first challenge and there is no shortage of suitors sniffing her out and harassing her while she goes about her daily life. She has to bat them away, out-fly them and fight them off before conceding to the strongest boy, making her the perfect calendar girl for the #BeeToo movement.

Then she has to find a hole to build her nest, preferably in a housing complex of soft mortar near other flower bees which makes it very noisy. She will live in her own flat, crafting cells to fill with pollen where she will lay her eggs. It’s hard work!

Mourning bee – Melecta albifrons

And that’s not the only moan. The mourning bees have taken over her nest, redecorating the cell walls and chucking out anything bought from John Lewis. They have replaced the flower bee eggs with their own, commandeered the pollen larder and are now buzzing loudly about squatters’ rights for cleptoparasites.

By mid-May the boys are looking old and faded, a trip to the nectar pub is about all they can muster. The girls are still out collecting pollen and weeks of hard work have left their wings in tatters. She has nearly finished her jobs. And they have been meeting the new late-Spring bees who have just emerged all looking dapper and pimped-up ready for World Bee Day. And it is with a sense of pathos that the flower bees won’t be looking at their best as they come to the end of their season just before the world spends a day celebrating them.

Colony collapse

 

Harry and Meghan

Harry the honeybee and Meghan the leaf-cutter bee

Oh dear, trouble is brewing in the Royal Hive.

It had all started so well. Harry the honeybee drone was born in the hive, living a life of luxury being fed larval jelly by the worker bees, his accident of birth requiring him to do nothing except produce an heir to the Queen, then die. Living in an echo chamber of etiquette was restrictive, spent obeying the hierarchy, with an occasional glimpse of the outside world whenever the hive was wrenched open and the honey collected. Admittedly he did spend some time defending the hive, but the lack of a sting meant his role was reduced to buzzing loudly from behind the frontline. Harry was lonely, feeling he could have a more fulfilling role in the outside world.

Then one day he met Meghan, a beautiful leaf-cutter bee. She led a life of independence, having carved out a career as an actress in a television series. She captivated Harry with stories of being able to buzz when she liked, of choosing to live in any hole she wanted, and of making her own honey. Meghan was strong and she had a global vision – the empowerment of solitary bees.

It was love at first sight and the insects in the park were excited that Harry had finally found happiness. They had memories of his mother being cast out from the hive, hounded by paparazzi flies and then swatted to death. But it hasn’t been easy for Harry and Meghan – they are constantly peered at and surveyed, photographed for reference and their movements tracked on national biodiversity recording websites. And it was hard for a solitary bee to adjust to living in a hive.

So they have decided to step back from senior hive duties and fly out on their own, issuing a self-indulgent statement on Insectgram and disappointing the Queen bee. They want to be financially independent of the honey-making machine, build a nest on the other side of the world, make sponsorship deals for their own brand of Royal Jelly and live a celebeety lifestyle as ‘influencers’.

A lot of the insects aren’t happy. The bees’ privilege of being voted the most important beings on earth has irked many who go about their vital work unrecognised. They are angry the Queen was disrespected, demanding the couple is stripped of their common names, and calling for a refund for the luxury boutique bee hotel the insects paid for so the pair could have some privacy. The more conservative-minded insects are calling it a constitutional crisis and are worried that the colony will collapse if they left. Whereas the republican insects, always moaning about much honey the Royal Hive makes, along with reports of the thousands of bees working for minimum wage, are rubbing their legs together at the thought of more pollen for the masses.

There are more important things to worry about…

Electing the next leader

Beetles candidates 2

Candidates for the leadership

Well that was that. Squashed at the General Election. For the fourth time. The beetles, blinded by their dogmatic approach to intellectual thought and idealism, are wondering why they lost. Could it be that Jeremy, a weevil with a lot of baggage having spent his life voting against the allotment, was utterly useless and had no idea about leadership? Or maybe the strategy was all wrong – the beetles, in their enthusiasm of offering everyone everything for free, were incoherent and had total disregard for the scepticism amongst the other insects who felt their policies were just not credible. And instead of taking responsibility for losing the election they are blaming the wasps’ propaganda machine and ridiculing the bugs and bees for having the audacity to vote for someone else. Admittedly the wasps out-buzzed everyone, being an insect that nests together rather than a bunch of disparate beetles. The weevils had a real chance and blew it, dashing the hopes of half the allotment and consigning it to a dystopian future. So some soul searching and that old trope lessons have to be learned is being rolled out. Yet again.

Now they are scurrying around looking for a new leader. Do they elect another weevil in the image of Jeremy, or a different species? There are plenty of them willing to throw their antennae into the ring. Some suggest the legally competent black-spotted longhorn beetle. He certainly has gravitas but is hinting at a slight move to the centre ground. Others want a ladybird, preferably with a northern reach. Could a media-savvy flower beetle have a chance? Potentially yes, as it is popular with the bees, flies and butterflies sharing the same habitat and these are the voters the beetles need. And many want a dung beetle who has spent a lifetime shovelling shit and has actual experience of what it is like to be working class.

They certainly don’t want the stag beetle who won 3 elections, took the allotment into an illegal war, and is now an endangered species.

In the meantime the allotment will be dug up, sold off and paved over with expensive housing for humans.

For the many…

Figwort weevil_9917

Figwort weevil (Cionus scrophulariae)

This is Jeremy. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders, on a leaf-edge at the possibility of winning a General Election. He’s a small beetle up against the Tory wasps who feel they have a God-given right to rule the allotment. He was unexpectedly voted in as leader by a committee of momentum beetles who realised this maverick backbench weevil might actually be their ticket to power.

His plans for the allotment are simple: organic planting for the many insects who have suffered for years from the effects of insecticide, public owned plots and free compost for all. He wants state ownership of the old logs and leaves left lying around to rot for the essential mulch munching woodlouse workers, the nationalisation of pollen and a ban on the building of privately-owned insect hotels for the privileged few.

Every insect will be considered in his manifesto. Sustainable aphid farms for ants, higher taxes for corporate honeybee hives, the scrapping of homogeneous flower banks and adequate welfare for winter hibernation. There will be protection of sap-sucking rights for bugs, squatter rights for nomad bees, and the right to self-identify as both a caterpillar and a butterfly.

Campaigning hasn’t been easy. The wasps, led by a rather toxic individual, have been very noisy, swarming around the allotment buzzing ‘Get Wexit Done’ and lying about absolutely everything. Their manifesto is based on stinging all the insects and privatising the fruit and vegetable crops so only they can reap the rewards and screw everyone else.

Yet the vote is split amongst the other insects – some view Jeremy as a natural campaigner for those at the bottom of the food chain, others see him as a pest for munching through all the vegetables and upsetting the status quo. The flies quite like the idea of having a share of the fruit with the wasps. The solitary bees, set to benefit from the new proposals, are conflicted as they can get rich on all the pollen in the allotment and are considering setting up a more liberal party and going into coalition with the other key pollinators the hoverflies. Even the beetles, historically loyal to their own kind, are rebelling against a socialist weevil takeover.

But it is winter and most insects are hibernating. It might only be the flies and woodlice at the ballot box. Whatever happens it will be interesting.

 

Boris the brown-tail moth

Brown-tail moth

Brown-tail moth (Euproctis chrysorrhoea)

This is Boris the brown-tail moth. Don’t be fooled by his buffoonish appearance – his children by many mothers cause havoc by decimating our hedgerows and trees, destroying our public services and dismantling the social fabric of our country.  Found mainly in the conservative southern England constituencies, the oven-ready eggs, laid in batches, hatch into hairy caterpillars who weave webs of lies and deceit, their hairs causing intense irritation and rashes for anyone who comes into contact with them. In urban slang ‘brown tail’ means to have a shit. I fear Boris will brown tail all over us if he gets elected.

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Brown-tail moth caterpillars

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Leafing the nest

In my porch, a leafcutter bee has decided to build her nest in a damp-proofing hole in the wall. First, she had to excavate the mess left by a previous tenant – a spider – by pulling out all the debris.

Leafcutter bee excavating and old spider nest

It’s early morning, and our bee has resumed her chamber-making duties. Her distant cousins, the ants, are running around eager to help. They are hoping for some pollen scraps. But it seems a password is needed to enter the nest – if you’re not on the list you’re not coming in. Luckily, our bee knows the secret code.

The ants have joined in

She starts to line the cavity with leaves, cut to size and usually harvested from a rose bush, carrying the leaf plugs to the nest between her mandibles. These are plastered to the walls with saliva, creating a cosy chamber. During the day she collects pollen, stored on the hairs of her underbelly. She likes ‘flat’ flowers like daisies, so she can wiggle her abdomen over the stamens to collect the dust. The pollen is stored in the chamber for the bee larvae to feed on once hatched. Then she will lay an egg and seal up the chamber, creating a bijou home for one of her young.

The first leaves are brought in

Once the first cell has been sealed up, she starts the whole process again. Depending on how long the cavity is, leafcutter bees will make enough chambers to fit. She could probably fit four chambers in a damp-proofing hole. Female eggs will be laid first, the male eggs last.

The nest building has begun

Closing the nest up can be a tough job. It gets harder to fly in with a leaf, and the pesky ants are still in the way. Discarded leaves litter the ground below, unsuccessful attempts at negotiating a way to shove a leaf into a nearly full hole. Sealing the nest takes time and a lot of leaves and saliva to make it watertight and safe from predators. The young bees will emerge in spring, the males flying out first followed by the females.

The nest is finished