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

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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

Shades of grey

Bellenden Road, or ‘Bellenden Village’ as it is now known, is turning grey. It seems the local shopkeepers have got hold of a job-lot of grey paint and are liberally splashing it over their shop fronts – Flock & Herd the butchers, Anderson & Co the cafe/deli, General Store which sells artisan food items, Bias the boutique (who have added a hint of blue to their grey), and now the local Payless who have decided to change their name to Village Grocer and paint the frontage… grey. Delving into the world of paint colour swatches these greys have fancy names: Urban Obsession, Brushed Clay, City Break, Night Fever, Blizzard… None, though, are called ‘Woodlouse’.

Common woodlouse Oniscus asellus

Common rough woodlouse Porcellio scaber

Woodlice are numerous in Warwick Gardens. These little crustaceans play an important role in our ecosystem breaking down wood and leaf matter. The best place to find them during the day is under logs where they share their habitat with other mulch munchers such as earwigs and worms, as well as in wall and bark crevices. They emerge at night to feed and socialise. The rough woodlouse is typically dark grey with irregular patches in lighter shades of grey and is covered in tiny tubercles giving it a rough and non-shiny appearance. Woodlice are one of the few crustaceans that live permanently on dry land. 

Woodlouse spider

Woodlouse spider Dysdera crocata

Woodlice have many natural predators, forming a large part of the diet to some creatures and an occasional snack to others. Common shrews are know to consume vast numbers of woodlice. Hedgehogs, toads, frogs and newts also eat them and foxes are known to include them in their diets. Its most fearsome adversary is the Woodlouse spider Dysdera crocata, seizing woodlice in it’s pincer-like jaws and injecting them with a poison that kills in a few seconds. Its also one of the ugliest spiders I have ever seen!

Mottley crew

Mottled shield bugs Rhaphigaster nebulosa

Mottled shield bugs Rhaphigaster nebulosa

Its autumn and my Mottled shield bugs have gone into hibernation. I say ‘my’ because I have become quite attached to them! Warwick Gardens has a healthy population of these bugs – very surprising as Rhaphigaster nebulosa was only discovered in Britain from the London area in 2010. Originating from mainland Europe I am rather chuffed they choose to live in such abundance in Peckham.

They appear in summer as nymphs. My first sightings of them were in 2011, sunning themselves on a lilac bush, and every August I wait for them to appear on the same bush. Photographs don’t do them justice. Coloured a mottled bronzy-grey, with a hint of pink when the sun catches them, they are like little gleaming medals. And their banded antennae which wave around when alarmed give this shield bug added cute personality. As with all shield bugs the nymphs go through several instars before the final moult into adulthood. This year I counted 19 nymphs, mostly on the lilac but a couple had strayed to an oak tree further up the park. They have a tendency to suddenly pop out from under a leaf to bask, especially when the sun comes out after the rain.

Early, mid and late instars, and adult Mottled shield bug

Instar progressions, and adult Mottled shield bug

I have yet to find out on what plant they feed – on the continent they feed on the sap of deciduous trees. The only trees in the vicinity are ash, birch, oak, hazel and lilac, so the host plant is up for debate and needs more studying. Maybe we need to understand how they came to London, whether it was through the garden centre route or via the Channel Tunnel in foliage swept along the train lines, and if they have adapted to a new diet. The females lay clusters of small, barrel-shaped eggs on the undersides of leaves, so my mission next year is to look for these. For now my adult mottled shield bugs have disappeared into the undergrowth to hibernate, taking their secrets of adaption with them. I can’t wait until next August.

New neighbour, new bee

A few weeks ago I got told off by my new neighbour for playing music too loud –  at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. The following week he threatened to call the police on the guy who lives below me for playing his music too loud – at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. Surely a futile exercise – I am sure the police have better things to do on a Saturday afternoon than answer a call about loud music in Peckham! All this has unsettled me. I don’t play my music that loud and not that often so his claims about the “walls continuously shaking and my pictures are coming off the wall” didn’t quite compute to my sporadic soundtrack of Serbian accordion music. I expect a bit of noise in Peckham – its what makes this area such a colourful and vibrant place to live. If you want a quiet life move to Nunhead. My point to him was about tolerance – barging into a new area and trying to call the shots is not going to earn you many friends.

Ivy bee Colletes hederae

Ivy bee Colletes hederae

A much more welcome newcomer to Peckham is the Ivy bee Colletes hederae. A handsome solitary bee, it feeds on ivy (Hedera) hence its name. Bee enthusiasts everywhere have been on the look out for it as it is a relative newcomer to the UK, and sightings in London have been scarce. A real quest, especially looking for a stripy insect amongst all the other stripy insects flying around at the moment. Richard Jones has written an informative article on Ivy bees, though I have beaten him to a local discovery by finding one in Warwick Gardens. The three large ivy bushes in the park are blooming – they flower in sequence, about three weeks apart. At the moment the middle bush is where the action is. The other striped insects wasps, honey bees and hoverflies are swarming all over it, excited by the nectar available on tap. And the noise! The buzzing is loud and frenzied and sounds remarkably like a distant helicopter. Amongst all this commotion is where I found our ivy bee, quietly feeding. I hope its not going to complain about the noise!

The Bees Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) are currently mapping the ivy bee. If you do see one please report it on their monitoring page: Colletes hederae mapping project