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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
So if ever you wanted to buy me a present… 🙂
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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’.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.