High rise living

The chronic need for housing in London is big news at the moment. Land is at a premium and house building has to fight for space amongst the fancy office blocks and shopping malls that are littering our city. There is talk of building on the green belt, extending suburbia, despite legislation making that impossible; our brownfield sites are being handed over to build yet more supermarkets, and soon people will be able to build in their gardens. Add to that the loss of front gardens to parking the ever increasing sales of cars, contributing to flooding and chokingly high levels of pollution. All this erodes our green spaces – valuable both to wildlife and our health and sanity. We need to utilise the thousands of houses that stand empty, heavily tax the people who buy just for investment, and build upwards. Tall housing is a win – multiple occupancy for humans and opportunities for living roofs offering high rise meadows and other wildlife friendly habitats. Couple that with some living walls and solar panelling we could start to restore the lungs of our city. Simple really!

Woodworm holes,

Beetle holes, Yellow-faced hyleaus bee and Chelostoma campanularum bee

The solitary bees and wasps of Warwick Gardens have utilised the empty beetle holes in one of the tall standing totem poles. There is a whole community of tiny bees buzzing with all the fervour of living in a multiple occupancy block of nests. The main occupants – Hylaeus and Chelostoma sp – spend a lot of time out and about in the park collecting pollen to store for their young, zipping back to their nests every so often, while the parasitic wasps lurk around waiting to lays their eggs in these nests. Today as I watched a bee go into her nest a Gasteruption jaculator wasp was also watching… when the bee left the wasp stuck her oviposter in the hole and laid her eggs. On hatching they will feed on the grubs of the bee as well as on stored food. These dainty fairy-like wasps do have a dark side!

Gasteruption jaculator checking bee hole,

Gasteruption jaculator checking bee nest, preparing, and oviposting

Also living in the tower block is the tiny mason wasp Microdynerus exilis which is new to Warwick Gardens. She is nesting higher up the block. I am excited to find this wasp as it is a Notable B species and thus uncommon, only found in the south of England. I first saw one wrapped around the stamens of a buttercup in early June, so it is good to see it nesting in the park.

Microdynerus exilis

Microdynerus exilis

The penthouse is occupied by the wool-carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, one of our largest solitary bees. At the moment they are busy feeding on the black horehound, with a characteristic darting flight pattern – the males are fiercely terrirtorial, defending their territory vigorously against other males and insects and will fly at intruders to move them on. Nests are constructed in existing aerial cavities like beetle holes. Our bees are nesting in the top crevice of the totem pole with nests made of the shaved hairs of plant stems.

Wool-carder bee

Wool-carder bee

All is good in this high rise block of hymenoptera and its great to sit and watch all the comings and goings. Though lurking in the shadows are the dark things… the walnut orb spider sits and waits for the moment a bee flies into its web. Just like a moody landlord waiting for the day you can’t pay the rent…

Walnut orb spider

Walnut orb spider

Tortoise beetles, bugs and butterflies

Its been a while since my last post and Warwick Gardens has burst into life. It seems the warm winter and the recent hot weather has allowed certain species to flourish. The new edible hedge is doing well with the first fruit being a fine crop of fat gooseberries, the thistles are back with a vengeance and a new patch of black horehound has sprung up. The insect life is certainly abundant with record numbers of bees, beetles, bugs and butterflies. There have been new sightings of red-headed cardinal beetles, the plant bug Leptopterna ferrugata, bordered shield bug and a tiny wasp which i am trying to get an ID for… But this post is about all things tortoise!

Tortoise beetle and larva

Tortoise beetle and larva

The Green tortoise beetle is what I would call a paranoid beetle in the way it has equipped itself to avoid detection. I usually find them face down tucked between the thistle leaves but this year they have decided to hang out on the Lesser burdock. The vast leaves of this plant are a playground for these beetles – I have never seen them so active! Running across the leaves, flying, mating and, of course, when you approach them they behave just like tortoises, pulling their antennae and feet in and pulling their ‘shell’ tight down around them. They really blend into the green background, making them difficult to spot. The larvae are equally careful about being detected: these little spiky beings carry their poo on their backs!

Tortoise shield bugs

Tortoise shield bugs

Another new sighting in the park has been the Tortoise shield bug. I have been really pleased to find these as they have been on my ‘wish list’ for a while. I spotted the first one amongst the comfrey bushes when I was photographing flower bees. Since then I have found five. They seem to differ in colouration – from a rather dull brown to wonderful pink/brown mottled ‘tortoise’ markings. They have been mating so the next challenge is to find the nymphs. I will keep you posted!

Tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillar and adult

Tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillar and adult

Our best known British butterfly has to be the beautiful Tortoiseshell butterfly. One of the first butterflies out in the spring, they are the denizens of urban gardens. Their bright orange tortoiseshell markings really brighten up the day. This year they have been in abundance in Warwick Gardens, with a fine showing of caterpillars on the nettles.

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

http://uknhb.blogspot.com

Beeyond Peckham #1. Split – Beglika

Every so often it is good to get out of Peckham. A perk of being an international DJ is the chance to snoop around other habitats and look for more ‘exotic’ insects. Wherever I play I always look for the nearest flea-market so I can stock-up on vinyl records, and a patch of wasteland where I can look for insects. Airport baggage allowances can cause a few headaches though, trying to squeeze a camera and a large music collection into hand luggage usually results in a few clothes not making it into the suitcase! At least taking a few photos doesn’t weigh anything… the vinyl is another matter.

Last year I was invited to play in Croatia, Bulgaria and Turkey – a chance to take a holiday through the Balkans…

Koteks

Koteks – the best place to photograph insects!

First stop – Croatia. I was booked to play nine evenings in GhettoArt Bar, hidden within the warren-like streets in the old town of Split. Split was beautiful and very hot… it was August and temperatures were in the 40°s. I spent most of the time wilting in the heat, especially as there was no air-conditioning in my room, or in the bar where I was DJing. The nearest respite was the social realist-style Koteks shopping centre over the road from the house I was staying where I could cool off near the freezers in the supermarket. Even the beach, a 20 minute walk away, seemed too far! This complex turned out to be the best place to photograph insects. At the back was a wasteland area cornered by two main roads and spattered with grass and umbelliferae. There was also a patch that was regularly watered, so amongst the parched dry earth was an oasis of clover-clad lawn and lavender bushes. I spent every morning there, shaking off the hangover from the night before.

There were wasps galore. Sand wasps, potter wasps, beewolfs, strange looking square wasps and mammoth wasps that looked terrifying. They flitted around the umbelliferas sharing the flowers with Conopid flies and the occasional dragonfly. Bright red beetles and bugs mated on the plant stems. The clover was food for bees and butterflies, and hidden in the lavender bush was a mantis so well camouflaged that it took me a while to realise what I was looking at. Once photographed it slipped from view never to be seen again.

Cicada nymph case, front view of a cicada and adult cicada

Cicada nymph case, front view of a cicada and adult cicada

And in the background was the continuous chirping of cicadas. I have never come across so many – especially at such close range. Evidence of them was everywhere, on every tree could be found empty nymph cases littering the trunks. My days turned into ‘spot the cicada’ as I walked around town, stopping at every tree to try and spot these beautiful insects high up in the branches. And their chirping en masse was hypnotic, contributing the perfect soundtrack to a lazy few hours on the beach.

After 10 days my time in Split was over… I had successfully entertained the tourists with my DJ antics. I also had a tan, a metal sculpture of a prawn, a memory card full of insect photos and a rakija hangover. It was time to board the bus to Sarajevo…

The full set of photos from Split can be seen here: Insects of Split

Forward to Belgrade

I missed my bus from Split to Sarajevo. I had to hang around for the next one which meant I arrived in Sarajevo at midnight. It was dark and I was disorientated, and with no Bosnian money in my pocket I walked to the hotel. I was knackered after my marathon DJ stint in Split so my time in Sarajevo was used to recuperate, check in on the Olympic Games and feast on cevapi. As a lover of graphic design I also spent a couple of days walking round this haunting city taking photos of old signage. I even found some fusty vinyl records tucked away at the back of a junk shop. Next stop – Belgrade.

Swallowtail caterpillar
Swallowtail caterpillar

I like taking long bus rides – the coffee stops are a great opportunity to look for insects. There were only six of us on the bus to Belgrade, so running off to search the nearest habitat once the bus had stopped caused a few curious looks in my direction. But who cares when you can find Swallowtail caterpillars! The scenery on the journey was exquisite, even when we passed a forest fire and nearly got hit by the plane that was trying to put the fires out. I got told off at the Serbian border when I tried to get off the bus to take a photo of a butterfly I had spotted through the window: “Madam, you must not go anywhere, we are checking your passport” (in Serbian – the hand gestures said as much!). I was in Belgrade to see my friends Shazalakazoo. I ate the legendary sweetbreads, drank alcohol with the gypsies by the river, and got shown around the sights of Belgrade at night by a randy Slovenian accordion player. And went looking for insects….

The 6 Legs exhibition
The 6 Legs exhibition

The first stop was the Natural History Museum which was showing an exhibition of model insects. Rather fabulous and I especially liked the model springtail. I even purchased a book on Serbian heteroptera with pages full of lovely illustrations in a language I have yet to master. The grounds of the Beograd Fortress saw panoramic views of the Danube and buzzed with the sound of grasshoppers.

Buffalo treehopper and Agalmatium bilobum
Buffalo treehopper and Agalmatium bilobum

I wasn’t prepared for finding a Buffalo treehopper. It was looking at me whilst I was trying to photograph a bee… I stopped short when I realised what it was. These large hoppers originate from north America and have become classed as an invasive species in Europe. It was shy and wasn’t too happy being photographed, showing its distress by hopping far away – these guys can jump! There were a few hoppers in Belgrade, the Citrus flatid planthopper being very numerous. My favourite was the Agalmatium bilobum which looked like a tiny elephant.

My time in Belgrade was short. On my last day I had listened to the most amazing music courtesy of my friend Uros and got drunk at a beer festival. Laden with more vinyl finds I boarded the night train to Sofia. I was heading to Beglika Festival in the Rhodope Mountains…

The full set of photos from Belgrade can be seen here: Insects of Belgrade

Forward to Beglika

I arrived in Sofia at 7.30 in the morning and stocked up on strong coffee. My phone had stopped working so trusted that I was going to be picked up! It was a 5 hour drive south to the Rhodope Mountains, with 2 hours up a dirt track. There was some amazing scenery on the journey but I wasn’t quite expecting the beauty of the lake where the festival was being held. My lodgings for the weekend was a wooden hut six feet from the edge of the lake surrounded by a habitat of wild flowers. A lake that steamed at dawn.

My accommodation overlooking the lake
My accommodation overlooking the lake

The festival was actually 8 kilometres from where I was staying, on the opposite side of the lake. I was dropped off and told I was being picked up in 2 hours to be taken to the festival. Enough time for a shower and prepare myself for DJing but not enough time for a snooze. I hadn’t actually slept for 36 hours apart from a short nap on the train… and wondered if I could stay awake. Adrenalin is a good thing in these circumstances as I didn’t get on the decks until 1am. Fuelled by rakija I can’t actually remember how it went or what tunes I played!

My morning hangover was the perfect time to have a look around the habitat I was staying in. Lush flowers were everywhere along with a constant chirping of grasshoppers. Big thistle heads full of bumblebees dominated the landscape along with tall grasses enjoyed by ants. I found colourful bush-crickets and butterflies and lots of grasshoppers.

Transport to the festival was by a small dinghy across the lake. My friends Balkan Mashina who were playing at the festival even had to take their equipment on this dinghy – the looks on their faces when they saw how they were travelling was a picture. That night I listened to some fabulous music, drank evil garlic rakija and laughed so much I nearly collapsed. The following morning I walked the 8 kilometres back to our huts with a friend. We were drunk and marvelled at the steaming lake, argued about which direction to walk and looked adoringly at sleeping bumblebees in thistle heads. Beglika inspired me – pure mountain air is good for the soul. I want to go back and spend more time there. But this time I was preparing to go on to Istanbul and that is another story…

The full set of photos from Beglika can be seen here: Insects of Beglika

Master of disguise

Scarce fungus weevil Platyrhinus resinosus, with mite infestation

Scarce fungus weevil Platyrhinus resinosus, with red mite infestation

Every so often some rather interesting species appear in Warwick Gardens. I have already talked about the Mosaic leafhopper and the Mottled shield bug, but nothing quite prepared me for finding a Scarce fungus weevil. I like thumbing through guide books to insects – I have a wish list of species I’d like to see: Green tiger beetleMole cricketPuss moth caterpillar and the Scarce fungus weevil which looks remarkably like a broken twig or a bird dropping. Last summer I was sitting on one of the logs munching a packet of crisps when something caught my eye. It looked like twig… and it moved. Closer inspection revealed two eyes, six legs and a short snout covered in fine hairs. It was the most unusual weevil I had ever seen, and as for looking like something else to ward off predators, a true master of disguise.

Scarce fungus weevil

Scarce fungus weevil (front view)

True weevils are small beetles that have a reputation as pests. Fungus weevils belong to a small group of weevils from the Anthribidae family – their antennae are not ‘elbowed’ as in true weevils and are usually larger. The larvae of the Scarce fungus weevil, or Cramp-ball fungus weevil as they are also known, develop inside the dark balls of the Cramp-ball fungus, or King Alfred’s Cakes, which grows on the dead wood from ash trees. This fungus is easily identified as it resembles burnt cakes. The adult weevil feeds on the wood around the fungus. When disturbed they tend to fold their legs in and fall to the floor, where they look just like a bird dropping. It is listed on the National Biodiversity Network’s Gateway as being ‘Nationally Scarce’ and comes under the category ‘Notable B’ which means it is uncommon in the UK. In fact there are hardly any records of it in London so all the more reason to celebrate its presence in Peckham! How it got here is a mystery – I would have expected to find it in woodland, somewhere like Sydenham Hill Wood or Nunhead Cemetery, but no records exist there either. As for possible reasons to be in Warwick Gardens – there are two ash trees in the park and one in a garden that backs onto the park. And the log seating is dead ash where there is plenty of fungus growing. I will be looking out for Cramp-balls.

The current concerns about ash dieback disease are worrying when it comes to the survival of Scarce fungus weevil. As they rely on dead ash, if the dieback continues there will eventually be no new trees and subsequently no dead wood to feed on. Symptoms of ash dieback must be reported to the Forestry Commission. You can do this here: Tree Alert