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 the 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…

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.

 

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.