Model insects

Its midwinter and not the best time to be out looking for insects as they are hiding away sheltered from the cold. There are a few buff-tailed bumblebees buzzing around, along with some bluebottle flies and the occasional shield bug. So I have decided to look closer to home for inspiration and photograph some of my insect ornaments.

Last year my DJ commitments took me to Venice to play at a Masked Ball – a rather fabulous experience. But it was late February and the chance of finding any insects was a bit slim, especially as the weather was rather wet. Far better to take a boat to Murano and look for glass insects instead. There was quite a selection of large realistic looking spiders with long spindly legs, comical ladybirds and caterpillars, beetles and scorpions and some rather bad renditions of bees. I really wanted a spider but transporting such a delicate object home in a suitcase full of tunes and false eyelashes was unfeasible. So I opted for a tiny glass ant.

Murano glass ant

Murano glass ant

Over the years I have amassed a collection of model insects – quite a menagerie. Some are realistic, freaking out visitors to my flat; others are much more decorative; and some are just ridiculous. Though whoever decided to make a chafer money box has to be a genius!

Chafer money box

Chafer money box

I pick up the occasional spider when I see one that takes my fancy. Usually spiders are fashioned out of rubber, plastic or fur fabric and sold to scare us at Halloween. I found this beautiful iron spider in a market in Vienna, next to the stall where I was buying some lederhosen. And a guy in Berlin had a whole family of computer chip spiders for sale.

Viennese iron spider, computer chip spider

Viennese iron spider, computer chip spider

Paris proved to be the place to find realistic-looking model insects complete with a magnet to attach to fridges and the like. The spider in this collection is particularly realistic and even startles me when I catch sight of it in the kitchen.

I even found a lighter disguised as a fly, and a wind-up ladybird.

flyladybird

My godson Ellis has made me 3 insects over the years. His first attempt at the age of five was a pipe cleaner and egg box spider with pompom eyes which sits on a bamboo web and hangs proudly in my bedroom, camouflaged against the silver birch wallpaper. This was followed by a stag beetle modelled out of clay with matchstick legs and covered in glitter which lives in a box with a few dead beetles and some foliage. But my favourite is the large ant that he made out of wire, a school art project, which he gave to me for my 50th birthday.

Made by Ellis

Made by Ellis

I have never been able to find a really decent model of a bumblebee. Such popular insects are usually portrayed as a yellow blob with a couple of black stripes and a smile. I am rather fussy and prefer renditions of a more realistic nature! Though I do have a couple made out of beads I am fond of. The one on a stick was a present and the other was made by a little boy in Ukraine as part of the Future Youth Project. The rather wonderful honey bee was a purchase from Cuba.

Bumblebeeds and a Cuban honey bee

Bumblebeads and a Cuban honey bee

Another bee I really like was found at an art gallery in London. Laser cut out of aluminium this bee was part of a huge ‘garden’ of colourful aluminium flowers. Unfortunately I cannot remember the name of the artist who made them, so if anyone recognises it please get in touch and I will add a credit!

Metal bumblebee

Metal bumblebee

Orthoptera is represented with a superb large realistic-looking silver Roesel’s bush-cricket. And the green solar-powered crickets are fun – especially on a sunny day when they start chirruping unexpectedly. Mine sits on the window ledge behind my desk, though I had to replace it after Sputnik pounced on it and chewed it up.

Solar-powered cricket, Roesel's bush-cricket

Solar-powered cricket, Roesel’s bush-cricket

This beautiful glass dragonfly came from Poland. I found it in a fusty shop selling taxidermy in Krakow, hidden amongst books and boar heads. It cleaned up well with little damage to it. Though the real challenge was to get it back to London unscathed along with the 13 bottles of Polish vodka I had also bought… well it was in the days before shoe-bombers and massive restrictions on hand luggage!

Glass dragonfly

Glass dragonfly

And finally there are those bugs which are not so easy to identify. A computer beetle brooch made out of keyboard pieces I bought from a guy in Romania who had a whole nest of weird and wonderful ‘alien insects’, a scorpion made from a fork which came to me via a friend, and the fly which was sold to me as a mosquito in India.

Computer beetle, fork scorpion and fly

Computer beetle, fork scorpion and fly

So if ever you wanted to buy me a present… 🙂

Beetle of the week: Cardinal beetle

Warwick Gardens is looking rather green and blue at the moment. The green alkanet has taken over the whole of the garden side of the park and is ablaze with blue flowers, though if you look closely you will see they are bejewelled with colourful ladybirds. But up by the log circle you can see flashes of bright red – the cardinal beetles have arrived.

Black-headed cardinal beetle

Black-headed cardinal beetle Pyrochora coccinea

There are three species of cardinal beetle in the UK – the red-headed, black-headed and scarce cardinal. The most common is the red-headed cardinal beetle. We are lucky to have the rarer black-headed variety in Peckham! They are striking looking beetles about 20mm in length, with bright red wing casings, shiny black head and long, black, toothed antennae. They are usually found on flowers at the edges of woodlands and parks, and the black-headed cardinal is an indicator species for ancient woodland. Maybe their reason for settling in Warwick Gardens is a throwback to when the Great North Wood stretched to Camberwell. As predators they feed on other insects flying around the flowers on which they are perched. At the moment our beetles are scuttling up and over the logs looking for somewhere to lay their eggs. The larvae will live under loose bark or within rotting wood where they feast on the larvae of other insects.

Cardinal beetles are often mistaken for red lily beetles – the gardeners’ nemesis. These beetles are much smaller, with red dimpled wing casings, and have been seen in Warwick Gardens. Please familiarise yourself with these as I don’t want our cardinal beetles squashed!

Update 6th May

Oops! That last sentence just rang true! The problem comes when your preferred habitat happens to be a children’s adventure playground. I am taking a magnanimous view of this squashed cardinal beetle I found on the logs as I think it lost its life under a foot as children do like to run over the logs. I hope the beetle managed to mate and lay eggs before the demise… at least there are another three beetles running around.

Squashed cardinal beetle

Squashed cardinal beetle

Fly of the day: Bee-fly

Large bee-fly Bombylius major

Dark-edged bee-fly Bombylius major

Spring is finally here. Flowers are blooming and the recent warm weather has brought out the hairy-footed flower bees, the queen bumblebees, an assortment of solitary bees and the bee-fly. The bee-fly Bombylius major is a comical looking insect – a fluffy body, long proboscis and long spindly legs – and can be seen daintily hovering around Warwick Gardens. A bumblebee mimic, they are the one insect that is most enquired about on the East Dulwich Forum… ‘What is it… is it a bee?’ What is that weird looking insect?’. Its a bee-fly.

They have a preference for low growing flowers. In Warwick Gardens they feed on green alkanet, whereas in Peckham Rye Park you will find them enjoying the grape hyacinth in the ornamental garden. Although they are cute-looking their larvae tell another story. They parasitise larvae of solitary wasps and bees. Female bee-flies predate mining bees by dropping their eggs from the air in Dambuster style, or by flicking their eggs into the tunnels of bee nests. Once in the tunnel, the egg hatches and the larvae find their way into the nests to feed on the grubs. Bee-flies are out and about until June, unless they come to an unfortunate end at the jaws of a crab spider!

Death by crab spider

Death by crab spider

 

 

Busy bees

Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes

Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes

Nothing heralds the coming of spring more than the arrival of the hairy-footed flower bees in Warwick Gardens. They are my favourite solitary bee and I am sure the tag ‘busy bee’ was coined to describe these delightful insects. Whilst the queen bumblebees are lumbering around, and the honey bees are slowly waking up in their hives, Anthophora plumipes are out and about grasping life in their own inimitable way. Often confused with the Common carder bee Bombus pascuorum, they are distinguishable by their hairy legs, cream face and distinctive hovering movement when approaching flowers, often with their long tongue outstretched. The boys fly out first, all gingery-brown and new, full of verve and big personality. They are very inquisitive – checking every flower with a joyful confidence, stopping to hover and have a look at other insects, even having a nosy at the photographer sitting in the bushes! They are zippy bees, darting from flower to flower and chasing after each other along the borders of the park. The females appear a couple of weeks later and are all black except for bright orange hind legs. Easily mistaken for the female Red-tailed bumblebee Bombus lapidarius, they are usually seen gathering pollen at a more leisurely pace and being pursued by male bees. They nest in the ground or the soft mortar of walls and every year I look for a nest to no avail! Although their favourite flower is lungwort ours have a preference for the comfrey patch in the park. The hairy-footed flower bee could well be one of our main urban spring bees as they are frequently found in gardens, parks and allotments.

Melecta albifrons

Melecta albifrons

Melecta albifrons

Every bee has a cuckoo who goes into the hosts’ nest and lays it eggs. The hairy-footed flower bee is no exception – it has the cuckoo bee Melecta albifrons invading its nest. This is a rather awkward-looking bee with a stumpy face and a pointed abdomen and a flying pattern which is fast and almost zigzag. They are mainly brown and black but black forms are also found, probably mimicking the female Anthophora plumipes. They appear slightly later in the spring once the hairy-footed flower bees have laid their eggs.

Hedge funds and losses

I have always thought that funds should be made available for creating more hedges. In Britain we have lost many of our native hedgerows – mainly due to modern methods of monoculture farming and under-management – contributing to sharp declines in bird and mammal populations. Native hedgerows are important habitats supporting lots of wildlife, and act as barriers against soil erosion and flooding. In our parks planting tends to be prettified with non-native species, and our gardens are partitioned to the inch with wooden fences, chicken wire or brick walls. True, you can recreate a hedge by trailing plants up these vertical man-made dividers but they are poor substitutes for the real thing – living, breathing, chunky, organic hedgerows complete with tangles, twigs and hidey-holes for nesting birds and mammals to take shelter in.

Red-tipped clearwing, nettle and spear-thistle lacebug

Red-tipped clearwing, nettle bug and spear thistle lacebug

In Warwick Gardens funding is being spent on planting a native ‘edible’ hedgerow along the railway side of the park. This excites me as that area has always been a bit sparse when it comes to variable vegetation, and being north facing and surrounded by trees also rather dark, so this will introduce new species into the mix. The Conservation Volunteers have already prepared the ground and waiting to plant; plum and wild pear, hawthorn, wild rose, honeysuckle and gooseberry are among the proposed newbies arriving. But there are some losses: the huge bed of nettles supporting nettle bugs and spiders; a large buddleja bush which suffered poisoning when Railtrack poured chemicals on the Japanese knotweed, but had struggled on to live up to the heights of its common name the butterfly bush, has been clipped right back; an overgrown bramble, which had also been poisoned but fought back to yield very large blackberries, and was a perfect hiding place for sawflies. I will miss the patch of black horehound which has kept a family of wool-carder bees happy for the past couple of years, and dashed my hopes of finding Pied shield bugs. And I will miss the thistles. These kept me glued to the flowers in August when I could guarantee to see my favourite digger wasp Cerceris rybyensis feasting on nectar along with small blues, ruby-tailed wasps, Braconid wasps, bumble and honey bees, and tiny spear thistle lacebugs nestling amongst the spiky leaves. One year a red-tipped clearwing moth visited, causing commotion in the London moth world as they are seldom seen in urban areas. Thankfully the large hawthorn has been left untouched, with added bushes to follow, as last year I found box bugs – a first for Warwick Gardens – and I am hoping to see them again this year.

Even though we will have to wait a while before our hedgerow establishes itself I look forward to seeing what invertebrates decide to move in. Will I add to my species count? Warwick Gardens already has a remarkable reputation for attracting ‘interesting’ insects and I am sure we will be welcoming more. In the meantime I am going to try and relocate the thistles to the other side of the park.

Mosquitoes in Peckham

Its nearly Christmas and for those of you still desperate to find a present for that long-lost cousin who is threatening to turn up at your house on Wednesday morning you could do worse than purchasing a Mosquito t-shirt.

Mosquito and Lou's screen print

Mosquito and Lou’s screen print

These lovely t-shirts are hand screen-printed by Peckham-based designer Lou Smith at Captured on the Rye, from a photo taken at the Peckham Moth Night in Warwick Gardens in August. This is the perfect present for people who annoy you! And presents for the people you love? Check out his bumblebee, wasp, ant and crow designs… they are sublime.

A winning bee

My Buglife calendar arrived today. I was super keen to look at it as it contained all the winners of the Buglife Photography Competition. One of my bees was a winner – the photo I took of an Halictus sp bee sitting on a blade of grass in Warwick Gardens won a ‘Highly Commended’. It represents the month of May and shares the space with a lovely Wasp-spider taken by Elizabeth Kay.

The month of May

The month of May

The competition was held on Flickr and Buglife asked people to join their group and post their photos. This is amateur photographer territory – and to me the essence of passionate wildlife photography. What I liked about this competition was the free-for-all feel to it – and was open to everyone who had taken a picture of an insect in the UK. Invertebrates rarely win photo competitions – I think judges overlook the skill it takes to hone in on a tiny winged insect with compound eyes and take a photo before it flies off. Most wildlife photography awards nod to birds and mammals and the capture of the ‘perfect moment’ of a whale jumping out of the sea or a lion about to jump a gnu, and usually demand a payment to enter. Many of us don’t have the equipment to take such stunningly perfect photos or the time and money to visit the exotic locations to see the wildlife that usually win these competitions, let alone the entrance fee to enter. Some of us just have cheap cameras and limited habitats. Having had a look through the 1300 images that had been submitted I was stunned at the quality of photos. All the more reason to celebrate my win! As a graphic designer working in the world of urban conservation I spend a lot of time on Flickr looking for wildlife images to include in my designs, and I find some of the best photos are taken by people who don’t class themselves as ‘photographers’. They have a passion for their subject – be it badgers, birds or bumblebees. The Buglife calendar reflects this passion and has sawfly larvae, ant-lion, snails and slugs and cockchafers, and Chris Dresh’s stunning winning photo of a Raft-spider catching a Golden-ringed dragonfly. Marvellous. Congratulations to all the winners, and to Buglife for hosting a great competition.

The Buglife calendar is for sale from their website. A perfect christmas present. You can order one here: Buglife Calendar

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