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.

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Wasp kitchens

Aphid-hunting wasp selecting her beetle hole

Aphid-hunting wasp Pemphredon sp in her beetle hole

A plethora of new kitchens are popping up around Peckham. In the days before gentrification we called them ‘restaurants’ or ‘cafes’. The solitary wasps of Warwick Gardens, already ahead of this trend, have secured their premises in the log circle and are busily repurposing, upcycling and retrofitting old beetle holes in readiness of opening their own seasonal pop-up kitchens.

They will, of course, only be choosing 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.

Wasp with aphid

With an aphid

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 skillfully sliced off with sharpened jaws and the precision of a master butcher, their bodies stacked high in larders like slowly drying hams.

Wasp with crab spider

Spider-hunting wasp Dipogon sp with a crab spider

And every care is taken to ensure the food will be tasty and plentiful. 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. The ambience has to be just right because these are very special diners. They are the larvae of the wasps. Bon appétit!

Normcore bugs

My friend was over from Istanbul at the weekend. She heads the design team for the largest jeans company in Turkey and was in town to snoop around at what London has to offer in terms of fashion trends. When I see her its the only time I get to talk about fashion, not a subject I am particularly hot on. This years’ unlikely trend is ‘Normcore’. Apparently its all about blending in and looking rather boring. Some fashion statement and an indication our clothes designers have completely run out of ideas! Either that or they have taken hipster irony to a new level. Reading up about normcore lead me onto an article in the Guardian where the comments rang with complete derision with someone declaring ‘at last – after 73 years – I’m fashionable’.

Plant bugs blending in

Mirid bugs blending in

In Warwick Gardens there are plenty of normcore bugs. The mirid bugs, in particular, prefer to ‘blend in’. They don’t flaunt themselves in flamboyant jackets à la Vivienne Westwood like ladybirds, or mooch around in smart Paul Smith-style suits like shield bugs, or even whizz around in fancy Zandra Rhodes ‘look-at-me’ stripy dresses like they do in the hoverfly world. Mirid bugs are more of an M&S style of bug. But at least, for a season, they can pride themselves with being on-trend.

A population explosion

Sundays in this part of Peckham used to be really quiet – you’d be lucky to see anyone walking down the road. For any sign of activity you had to go to the bustling and colourful Rye Lane with its God hawkers, the endless queues in Primark and the greengrocers overflowing with bowls of vegetables for £1. Nowadays Bellenden Road is packed with upmarket shoppers, diners, drinkers and people wandering around with their heads stuck in estate agent literature, vying for space on the pavement. The population has exploded – do these people live here or are they on day-trips from elsewhere, having read in the Evening Standard that Peckham is the cool place to be?

Southern green shield bug (left), and Common green shield bug

Southern green shield bug (left), and Common green shield bug

A less visible population explosion in Peckham has been that of the Southern green shield bug – the unusually hot weather has created the perfect conditions for them to thrive. A recent immigrant to the UK from Africa, Nezara viridula arrived via the route of imported vegetables. Indeed, you may find them living happily on your broad beans or pea pods. In Warwick Gardens they tend to favour the blackberry bushes. The adults can be identifiable from its cousin, the Common green shield bug Palomena prasina, by 3-5 white dots along the front edge of the scutellum. The nymphs, however, are much more colourful, making you wonder how something so striking can morph into a rather bland looking bug.

Southern green shield bug nymphs at various stages of development

Southern green shield bug nymphs at various stages of development

Usually I only see one or two Southern green shield bugs each year – a somewhat uncommon sighting. But this year the nymphs are everywhere! Uploads on Flickr are plentiful, cropping up on Twitter with queries as to whether they are ‘ladybirds in fancy jackets’, and they have been recorded in Jersey for the first time. I like shield bug nymphs. They look so small and vulnerable but somewhat earnest as they get to grips with working out how to live in this world. Bunched together for the first few days after hatching they mill about before braving their independence and venturing further afield by themselves, usually down a plant stalk. Though the 37 Nezara viridula nymphs that hatched on the lavender bush in a front garden in Choumert Road opted to stay together after sussing out that ‘walking down the stalk’ meant landing on tarmac. Another large batch hatched on the bindweed in Warwick Gardens last week, looking like little black shiny beads glistening in the sun, and dispersed into the bramble bushes making them hard to spot. But we did find one – Paul Brock, author of the fabulous new book A comprehensive guide to the Insects of Britain & Ireland, who was visiting the park, scooped it up into a pot and whisked it away to raise in comparative luxury in the New Forest. We wish ‘Warwick’ well!

Escapologist

Onthophagus coenobita caught in spider web, and rescued

Onthophagus coenobita caught in a spider web, and rescued

I keep finding these little beetles, Onthophagus coenobita, not on the ground or sitting on a leaf, but tied up tightly in spider webs. The first time was on a walnut orb-weaver spider web by the railings in Warwick Gardens, cocooned in silk, and as I looked closely I could see it was still moving. I am a bit of a sucker for insects caught in webs and regularly deny a spider of a wasp, bee or grasshopper meal if I see one struggling in a web. So when I saw this beetle I snipped it off the silk and proceeded to help it untangle itself. I used a badge pin to carefully ease off the cocoon and all the while it was pushing itself out with quite a force for a little insect. After being freed it thanklessly flew off while I walked away filled with a sense of do-gooding.

Another one!

Another one!

A couple of weeks later I found another one in a different web… wrapped up in spider silk. I did the same again and it flew off. A few days later another one – this time it had already extricated itself from its silk tomb but needed help getting its final leg out. The next day another one dangling from a silk thread having completely freed itself and dreading the drop to the ground below. I began to wonder if this was the same beetle, living its life as the Houdini of the Coleoptera world, or if it was a game played with other beetles about who could escape the quickest from a dumb spider’s web before being eaten. Either way I still haven’t seen one just running along the ground.

Always take a camera…

The digger wasps are back nesting in the log (see House-hunting in Peckham). Looking at the size of the pile of sawdust gathered outside they have excavated a much bigger burrow in the side of the log compared to last year. I have been watching them as they bring in their hoard of insect prey – this year they have a taste for bluebottle flies. Photographing them has not been easy as the position of the nest hole is obscured by blades of grass which really interfere with focussing, and the wasps disappear pretty quickly down that hole! Several attempts over a couple of days and I have one measly ‘just about in focus’ image of a wasp emerging out of her burrow.

Digger wasp burrow, and emerging wasp

Digger wasp burrow, and emerging wasp

I was booked to play at Bestival which meant no wasp-watching for a few days. My fellow DJ friend Fábio was over from Lisbon and having witnessed me photographing Portuguese bees, wanted to see Warwick Gardens so we made a quick detour on the way to the station. I don’t take my camera to festivals so didn’t have it with me as I showed him around, pointing with pride to our wasp spider, our array of shield bugs, and the digger wasp burrow. We plonked ourselves by the logs, amongst the mother and baby circle who were completely oblivious to all the action taking place around them, and I explained digger wasps to Fábio. Then it appeared: a female with a pair of copulating bluebottle flies firmly in her grasp. And she sat there for a couple of minutes on top of the log in the perfect position for a photograph. I was mortified as I had been waiting for this moment for days and there I was with no camera. It was if she was saying “Ok, so here I am with not one but TWO flies, which I know you would be impressed to see as I have been watching you watching me hoping for a good photo, so now I will just sit here and taunt you as I see you have no camera. Pff!”. She eventually flew off, circling us, then dropped the flies into the grass – the male still attached to his female and rather bewildered to discover she was paralysed. And I was left rueing the missed opportunity for my wasp-action photograph of the year.

Lesson learned: always take a camera when looking for insects!

 

Little helicopters

Yesterday there was a guy flying his remote-controlled helicopter in the park. It whizzed around making a whirring sound high above the trees. It reminded me of the drone cameras which were popular with the rallyers at this years launch of the Mongol Rally in Battersea Park, where it seemed everyone had one and were avidly flying them over the start line – a birds eye view of the 220 cars lined up ready for a mad adventure. I can’t wait to see aerial footage of the Mongolian steppes and the finish line in Ulaanbaatar. Back in Warwick Gardens the helicopter wasn’t the only thing flying around – dragonflies were showing off their spectacular aerodynamics by swooping and chasing one another around the park.

Migrant hawker

Migrant hawker

It is a good year for dragonflies as southern hawkers, migrant hawkers, a black-tailed skimmer and a broad-bodied chaser have all decided to pay a visit. I like dragonflies as they are such a prehistoric insect that has evolved into a lean, mean flying machine which can fly six ways: forwards, backwards, up and down, side to side, and hover, with an average flying speed of 22-34 mph. That is some achievement and showed up the rather weak limitations of the remote controlled helicopter which could only go up and down and forwards and backwards and somewhat slower!

Black-tailed skimmer

Black-tailed skimmer

Dragonflies start their lives as nymphs in water and are ferocious predators devouring other invertebrates, tadpoles and small fish fry. They can be at the larval stage for five years but most are ready to emerge as adults after three years. When ready they crawl up a plant or reed stalk and emerge from their larval skin. The adults feed on midges and flies.

Broad-bodied chaser (female)

Broad-bodied chaser (female)

The word dragonfly has its source in the myth that dragonflies were once dragons. To the Japanese, dragonflies symbolise summer and autumn and are respected so much that the Samurai use it as a symbol of power, agility and victory. In China, people associate the dragonfly with prosperity, harmony and as a good luck charm. For Native Americans, they are sign of happiness, speed and purity. A somewhat different attitude in Europe has the dragonfly classed as a witches animal sent by Satan to cause chaos and confusion with names like Ear Cutter, Devil’s Needle, Adderbolt and Horse Stinger. In Sweden, folklore suggests that dragonflies sneak up to children who tell lies and adults who curse and scold, and stitch up their eyes, mouth, and ears. The Welsh call the dragonfly the snake’s servant and think they follow snakes and stitch up their wounds, and in Portugal be aware as they think of them as eye pokers and eye snatchers. In Peckham we prefer just to call them dragonflies or as the little boy, who was standing next to me watching them in awe, called them – little helicopters.