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!

The fly who looked like a dog

Is it a dog or a fly?

Is it a fly or is it a dog?

Once upon a time there was a fly called Conopid. Well, that was her family name. To most people she was a thick-headed fly. To her mates she was just plain Myopa as no one really knew if she was Myopa pellucida or Myopa tessellatipennis. Unfortunately, to determine her true identity she would have to be dissected and slid under a microscope and she didn’t want that. Myopa spent her days hanging around on flowers waiting for solitary bees to parasitize – she was rather proud that her abdomen, which acted like a can opener, could pry open the segments of a bee’s abdomen to insert her egg. She particularly liked Andrena bees and Warwick Gardens was full of them. But sometimes Myopa felt ‘overlooked’ as she realised her family weren’t that well studied. She knew she was rather aesthetically-challenged, which meant it was unlikely she was ever going to appear on the front cover of BBC Wildlife Magazine. At the very most she could hope to find herself being discussed in a specialist Conopid recording scheme. Most of all she was well aware that her lifestyle was rather repellent to bee lovers. But Myopa wanted to be noticed and she contemplated this as she took a rest on a sycamore leaf.

Then one day a photographer did notice her. Word on the ground was she was a very friendly photographer and not going to sweep you up in a net and pop you in a pot. Myopa had heard legendary tales about other insects who had been photographed and showcased on the world wide web. Some had even been published on blogs and in magazines! This was her chance for some fame. Myopa sat very still as the camera loomed in, determined not to fly off as the shutter came down again and again. She knew she was looking her best as she posed for her portrait.

And then it happened. Myopa was all over the internet, on Facebook and Twitter, and she was liked by lots of people. She was ‘awesome’ and ‘fabulous’ and ‘cute’. And she didn’t mind that she looked like a ‘Disney dog’ or ‘Fido’ or a ‘Cartoon dog’ because now she had a starring role in a blog and lots of people knew who she was. She had her 15 minutes of fame, and she had been talked about. Contented, Myopa flew off and lived happily ever after.

It’s nearly spring!

Early mining bee, Eupeodes luniger, hairy-footed flower bee

Mining bee Andrena bicolor, hoverfly Eupeodes luniger, hairy-footed flower bee

The sun has been shining for the past few days and the temperature is such that I have discarded my thick coat and roll neck jumpers and opted for long sleeved t-shirts and a leather jacket. That means one thing – spring is nearly here. I say ‘nearly’ as the flowers need to catch up and bloom as us insect photographers are getting impatient! There are murmurings on Flickr with the odd hoverfly and small tortoiseshell butterfly appearing, and postings of insects ‘from the archives’, which means we are all sitting here twiddling our thumbs and waiting to start pressing our camera shutters. It can be quite competitive in the entomology world – whose bees have appeared first and where in the country, “blimey your Eupeodes hoverflies are out early”, that twinge of jealousy when someone posts an insect you have never seen but always wanted to – but it is wonderful to see how the insect year unfolds online. In Warwick Gardens the hairy-footed flower bees are out, the hoverflies have started to appear and yesterday I spotted the first mining bee of the year. Yep spring is nearly here.

The Bug Quarter

Gentrification is taking over our city and nothing is stopping it. Soho as we know it is about to be turned into a shiny haven for shoppers with affordable homes for the rich, sweeping away its long cultural history as the bohemian side of town. London is being carved into ‘Quarters’ – such a poncey name for neighbourhoods. Mayfair has become The Luxury Quarter, The Shard – ‘Western Europe’s first vertical town’ – spearheads The London Bridge Quarter, Waterloo and Baker Street have their own Quarters, and Dalston is making a bid to become The Artist Quarter. At least their Quarters have a maze of roads contained within them. In Peckham we now have an Art Deco Quarter which is essentially a few buildings on the corner of Rye Lane and Blenheim Grove. Hardly a maze. So in the spirit of gentrification I have decided to divide Warwick Gardens into Quarters.

Warwick Gardens' Quarters

Warwick Gardens’ Quarters

The Bug Quarter
The home of the upwardly mobile, this is where a lot of bugs have decided this is the perfect place to raise a family. The canopies of hawthorn and silver birch trees provide an aerial playground for birch catkin bugs, parent bugs, hawthorn shield bugs, birch shield bugs, red-legged shield bugs, common green shield bugs, and the occasional mottled shield bug who has decided to up sticks and move out of the Football Quarter. Even the box bug, once historically rare and only found living at Box Hill but has recently begun an expansion through southern England, has moved in after finding a suitable home on the hawthorn.

Hawthorn shield bug nymphs, box bug nymph, birch shield bug

Hawthorn shield bug nymphs, box bug nymph, birch shield bug

The Log Quarter
This is the largest housing estate in Warwick Gardens, offering a mixture of multiple-occupancy logs that house a wide variety of invertebrate families. The long term mulch-munching residents – woodlice, bark beetles, fungus beetles, beetle larvae – share the space with short-let summer homes for solitary bees and wasps who burrow into the wood to make their nests. A popular picnic spot for people who spend their lunchtimes eating sandwiches and playing with their iPads, and for children who enjoy jumping over the logs oblivious to the life beneath them, this is one area that will be earmarked for redevelopment in the future once all the residents have decomposed it.

Cis boleti, Saddle-backed bitana, blue mason bee

Cis boleti, Saddle-backed bitana, blue mason bee in her nest

The Football Quarter
The south side of the park, situated next to the football pitch, is the main food boulevard. The habitat here showcases some of the finest food available in the park from season to season. Green alkanet is on the menu throughout the year and ragwort and yarrow are specialities in summer. In the spring the comfrey plants open their flowers up to hairy-footed flower bees, their leaves providing posing platforms for bee-flies and spiders. On sunny days the lilac bushes, home to the notable ‘Peckham’ leafhopper Orientus ishidae, proffer their leaves for insects to take a rest and indulge in a spot of sunbathing. The tall grass fronds act as plush elevated restaurants for mirid and plant bugs, whilst the ground levels are stomping grounds for chanting crickets and grasshoppers on the look out for a mate. The ivy bars are in flower from September offering a constant drip of sweet nectar to wasps, hoverflies and red admiral butterflies. This is the place to ‘celebrity spot’ the flamboyant dragonflies, butterflies and jewel wasps who visit in the summer. Ladybirds and Corizus hyoscyami bugs add a splash of colour, and narcissus flies prance around in fur coats doing a remarkable impersonation of a bumblebee. And in the winter, once everything seems to have disappeared into hibernation, wolf and nursery web spiders use the space to lounge around in relative peace and quiet except for the occasional disturbance of a football crashing into them.

Common blue butterfly, Corizus hyoscyami, Narcissus fly

Common blue butterfly, Corizus hyoscyami, Narcissus fly

Poo Corner
This is the seedy side of Warwick Gardens frequented by lazy dog walkers. Overshadowed by trees nothing much grows here except for swathes of nettles and bramble. This is where you will find the yellow dung flies and greenbottles swarming around piles of dog shit, and is characterised in the warm summer months by the faint whiff of urine. Not the best place for a picnic. Attempts to gentrify it last year failed miserably as the hedge that was planted in an effort to make the area more upmarket got swamped by nettles. Local bad boys, the horse chestnut leaf-miner moth, have vandalised one of the conker trees leaving it with an eerily stunted growth. In August nettle bugs gather on the nettles in large numbers in an orgy of mating, unaware of the comb-footed spiders that lurk under the leaves waiting to capture their next meal. This is also one place to spot the bright red velvet spider mites on the look out for a dinner of tasty springtails that live amongst the fallen leaves in autumn.

Dung fly, greenbottle, horse chestnut leaf-miner

Dung fly, greenbottle, horse chestnut leaf-miner

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… 🙂

Flatmates

I share my home with Sputnik the cat and Stick Insect the stick insect. Sputnik arrived in a box from Liverpool nine years ago, a little meowing bundle of black and white fur. Stick Insect came via Streatham…

Posing on the metal flowers

Posing on the metal flowers

A friend phoned me up a couple of years ago asking if I could find a home for 10 stick insects as her daughter, who had nagged for months for some, lost interest in them. So she offered them to me. I only meant to keep them until I found another willing keeper, but that never happened so for the next 18 months I stocked up on privet, their food of choice, and religiously squashed the hundreds of eggs they laid which littered the bottom of their tank. Admittedly stick insects aren’t the most charismatic of pets, spending their days staying still looking like sticks. But being nocturnal, at night they get more active and fun can be had watching them. Last July they all started to die, one by one. Though sad I was rather relieved to reclaim my table in the kitchen – glass tanks do tend to take up a bit of space. But as I was emptying it into the bin I spotted the tiniest of stick insects clinging on to a leaf, the lone survivor of the egg genocide. Of course I couldn’t kill it so I put it in a jam jar with some obligatory privet. As it grew bigger the jar got bigger and one day I left the lid off by accident and it escaped. I found it walking across the kitchen ceiling. Not really liking keeping things in jars I kept ‘accidentally’ leaving the lid off until Stick Insect moved full-time into the philodendron plant on the window sill and I could dispense with the jar. It has been happily living there since, coming out to munch on the bunch of privet I leave in a vase on the side. And at night when I come home I usually find it galavanting around the window. Now my morning ritual is to look for where it is sleeping – disguised in the philodendron, artfully posed across my metal flowers or hanging stick-like from the basil plant. Once it nearly got chopped in half as it decided to hide in a bunch of parsley I was using for stew.

Hanging from the basil

Hanging from the basil

As for Sputnik and Stick Insect living together? For a cat who is a stealth killer of all things with six legs and wings Sputnik has yet to notice Stick Insect. The disguise is that good. We have a happy home.