House-hunting in Peckham

People are queueing up to live in Peckham as it has become so damn trendy. House prices have rocketed and everyday there is a letter through my door from some unscrupulous estate agent urging me to sell my house as ‘you live in a highly desirable location and we have a long waiting-list of people wanting to live in your street’. Tough, I ain’t going nowhere!

Ectemnius cephalotes out hunting and in her tunnel

Ectemnius cephalotes out hunting and in the entrance to her tunnel

The digger wasp Ectemnius cephalotes is also house-hunting. Her requirements for the perfect nesting place is an old log, tree stump or timber stack. She is even happy to share with other females. There is a good choice of possible apartments in Warwick Gardens as there are nine large logs used as seating at the top end of the park. These double up as housing estates for various species of insect. Earwigs, woodlice, centipedes, solitary bees and wasps, beetles and spiders all find living here a ‘desirable location’. For the past couple of days our wasp has been scouring two particular logs, checking every nook and cranny for a suitable place to lay her eggs. Although willing to renovate an old nest, these digger wasps are super confident at DIY and will dig holes in the wood with their large jaws to create cavernous tunnels with separate cells for storing prey items.

Ectemnius cephalotes with hoverfly Syrphus ribesii, and pulling it into her tunnel

Ectemnius cephalotes catching a hoverfly Syrphus ribesii, and pulling it into her tunnel

Once the wasp has excavated her tunnel and constructed her cells she needs to stock up on food for her larvae to feed on. Ours favours large hoverflies, in particular Syrphus ribesii, which look very similar to her. She will catch them in flight and with supreme dexterity pull them into her tunnel. I was surprised at how quickly this happens and just managed to photograph it! They will be stored in the cells. When her cells are full she will seal up the entrance to the tunnel and lay her eggs. Each cell will have one egg and the larva will have up to 12 flies to feed on. The adult wasps emerge in early summer.

Anyone for bush-crickets?

The park gets rather busy in the summer. Children running around yelling, boys playing football and basketball, the occasional family picnic and people lounging around enjoying the sunshine. Competing to be heard above all the noise are the chirping crickets – that unmistakable sound of summer.

Roesel's bush-cricket nymph and female adult

Roesel’s bush-cricket nymph and female adult

Warwick Gardens is home to four species of bush-cricket. The loudest and most prominent is the Roesel’s bush-cricket. I have a real affection for these having spent much of the year watching them grow from tiny nymphs to majestic adults. They like to hang out in the long grass and are very well disguised making them rather difficult to see. The nymphs are especially cute, emerging in May and only noticeable if you stand still long enough to see this tiny insect hop around, especially after it has just rained. And they can really hop! The male adults start to sing (or stridulate) in July to attract females. Stridulation occurs when the weather is hot and sunny enough to achieve the peak temperature for stridulation. The song is similar to the ‘hiss of overhead electricity wires’. Interestingly the song gets louder when a train passes by the park or when a plane roars overhead. This is the best time to look for them as you can locate them by the sound and looking for the movement of the wings. But you have to be stealth-like as they stop singing altogether if you approach them with a camera!

Speckled bush-cricket nymph and male adult

Speckled bush-cricket nymph and male adult

Another common cricket you can see in the park is the Speckled bush-cricket. These secretive insects usually hang out in the lilac bushes or camouflaged amongst the leaves of the oak tree. I find them very graceful. They are bright green with a speckled body and very long antennae, with the male sporting a brown stripe along his back. They are flightless, relying on their long legs to hop. As with all bush-crickets the the females have broad and upturned ovipositors which they use to cut open plant stems and lay their eggs, and the nymphs go through several instars before maturity. Compared to the Roesel’s bush-cricket this cricket has a very weak call, their tic-tic only audible with a bat detector. Unlike other cricket species, the female is able to respond to the male’s calls with a weaker call of her own, which attracts the male to her. They feed on leaves and flowers.

Southern oak bush-cricket male adult

Southern oak bush-cricket male adult

The Southern oak bush-cricket is a more unusual cricket to find in Peckham. This is a non-native species having hopped across the Channel in the 90s, probably on the back of a lorry, as it another flightless cricket, or even in a Landrover as a friend texted me a photo of one sitting happily on his dashboard. It has become widespread in southern England and appear as adults in August. As an arboreal species I never seem to find any nymphs as they are tucked under leaves higher up out of my reach. It is carnivorous feeding on small insects. The male does not have a ‘song’ as such, but drums on leaves with its hind legs. Last year the BBC Radio 4 series Saving Species featured an article on the Southern oak bush-cricket and they came to Warwick Gardens, a guaranteed place to find one of these lovely crickets. It was an interesting couple of hours – entomologist Tristan Bantock, who was being interviewed, had to contend with inquisitive children as he swept the bushes, and several retakes as the interviewers microphone was so sensitive it picked up all the background noise of trains, planes and chatter. There was even a chance that we wouldn’t be able to find a specimen, even though I had assured them there was one hiding in the ivy! There was, along with an Orientus ishidae leafhopper…

Long-winged conehead nymph and female adult

Long-winged conehead nymph and female adult

Our final cricket has been rather elusive of late. I first found the Long-winged conehead in 2009 but didn’t see it again until this year – they seem to have bounced back as I have recorded five nymphs in the past couple of weeks. The long hot summer and an abundance of tall grass has been the perfect environment for them. Their stridulation is a ‘prolonged rapid chuffing noise inaudible to many’ but audible with a bat detector. Along with the Roesel’s bush-cricket it is omnivorous with a diet of insects and grasses. Two things noticeable about this cricket are the very long antennae and the extended ovipositor on the female. Their main form of locomotion is walking, though their long wings enable them to fly to escape predators.

Stocking the larder

Astata boops

I went blackberry picking in Warwick Gardens this morning. The bushes hang over the fence from one of the gardens and are laden with ripe, succulent fruit. I stewed some in red wine with star anise, cinnamon and a squirt of honey (yum!) and packed the rest away in the freezer for later.

Another creature stocking up her larder was Astata boops, a fine-looking shield bug-hunting wasp. She looked rather happy to have caught a Birch shield bug nymph and was running up and down the birch tree working out a way to carry it back to her nest. These wasps make their nests by burrowing into the ground and building cells. The tunnel can be 10cm long and usually contains two or three cells. Our wasp has her nest near one of the blackberry bushes as she flew off the tree and disappeared into a hole under the grass. The female fills each cell with a shield bug, lays her egg in it and seals up the cell. The entrance to the nest is also sealed and guarded by the male. The larvae feed on the shield bugs over winter and emerge as adult wasps in the spring.

Life and death on the Lesser burdock

The thistles have run out of steam so the pollinators have migrated to the other side of the park to a patch of Lesser burdock. This plant has wandered. Two years ago there was just one small plant and now there are four mighty specimens standing two metres tall. It has some fancy names: burweed, louse-bur, common burdock, button-bur, cuckoo-button and wild rhubarb.

The purple flowers are in bloom and provide nectar and pollen for bees, flies and butterflies, and the large leaves serve as platforms for grasshoppers and earwigs to sun themselves. The bumblebees are loving it and skit between the flower heads. Ants and Picture-wing flies run up and down the stalks. These are interesting little creatures – Richard Jones has written an informative article about them: Picture-wing flies.

 Braconid wasp and mummy cases

Braconid wasp and mummy cases

Yesterday I was wondering about some strange little aphid shells with holes that were attached to one of the stems. Further research identified them as ‘mummy cases’, caused by Braconid wasps. These tiny wasps are beneficial parasitic wasps, as one of their hosts is the aphid. After a female wasp injects her egg into an aphid, the larva slowly devours it. An aphid parasitised in this way is called a mummy. By the time the aphid dies, the fully grown larva has cemented it to the leaf surface and the aphid shell becomes parchment-like or black. The larva pupates inside the mummy, and when fully developed, the adult wasp cuts a hole in the casing and emerges. The empty mummy case, with its hole, remains on the leaf. There are lots of Braconid wasps flying around our Lesser burdock, and understandably not many aphids! 

Fairies in Peckham?

Gasteruption jaculatorOne of the prettiest creatures to visit Warwick Gardens has to be this wasp with the most fantastic name – Gasteruption jaculator. It is a parasitic wasp closely related to the ichneumon wasp, belonging to the Evanioidea family. They daintily dance around the flowers like fairies, stopping to feed on nectar. To us they are good fairies as they pollinate our plants, but to solitary bees and wasps they are BAD fairies!

Easily identified by the extremely long ovipositor, the female visits the nests of various solitary bees or wasps and pushes her ovipositor into the nest, depositing her eggs on or near to the eggs of the host. On hatching the young larvae will devour the grubs and supplies of pollen and nectar of its victim. The adults grow up to 10–17 millimetres.

Fly of the day: Conopid fly

Conopid fly - Physocephala rufipesThe park is looking rather brown after all the recent sun. There are very few flowers apart from yarrow and a scattering of mallow, and the last remnants of thistles have seeded and spewing fluffy spores all over the place. The brambles are heavy with fruit and the hawthorn berries are slowly ripening a deep red colour. But there is a flash of yellow that stands out in the middle of all the brown – ragwort. Its only a small patch, just nine plants, and it is a feast of pollen for flies and bees.

The conopid fly is a regular visitor to this patch. It’s more commonly known as a thick-headed fly and is rather ugly looking. It is a parasitic fly and lays its eggs in bees and wasps. This one – Physocephala rufipes – parasites bumblebeesThe eggs are often inserted by the female fly between the bumblebees’s body segments while in flight, and they hatch out soon afterwards. The larvae eat the bee from the inside.

Peckham leafhopper nymphs

Halfway through the first year of my survey I photographed a leafhopper. As I didn’t know what it was I posted it on Flickr. An excited entomologist, Tristan Bantock, got back to me to say it looked like Orientus ishidae, the first sighting of this species of leafhopper in the UK. It originated in Japan and had made its way to Germany and had been expected to arrive at some point in the UK. He was somewhat astounded that it could be living in Warwick Gardens. My first reaction was “blimey”. I really wasn’t expecting to find something this momentous in my little park. Tristan arranged to visit the park where we found another specimen which he took away to formally identify. The find caused a stir in the leafhopper community and the next two weeks saw a flurry of entomologists visiting the park with sweepnets much to the amusement of the park users. It was even reported in Southwark News – I felt proud I had put Peckham on the entomological map.

Orientus ishidae is a beautiful looking leafhopper with an orange mosaic pattern on the wings. It has now been given the common name Mosaic leafhopper. The railway line that runs along the other side of the park is a possible explanation of how it landed in Peckham, having been swept in by the passing trains. I found a couple more in the following weeks sitting on the lilac. But we didn’t know what the host plant was – what it was feeding on.

Two years later and I am deep amongst the bushes looking for Parent bugs on the birch catkins. Having got used to spying really tiny insects, a strange little dot on the underside of a birch leaf caught my eye. A few snaps with my camera revealed a rather funky looking creature with a red striped body and pink knees. I had a sneaking suspicion I had found the Orientus ishidae nymph. It was cocky – raising itself on its legs and swaying from side to side and squirting a clear liquid from its abdomen in defiance at being disturbed. It was so cute. I fell in love! An email to the leafhopper community confirmed the ID. My leafhopper is breeding and happily living in Peckham. And it looks like we have established it is feeding on birch. I visit them everyday to check they are doing ok and notice they change colour as they grow older – moving from a deep red to a sandy colour but with the same distinguishing markings. Exciting!

Peckham Moth Night #1

Of all the insects I have photographed in Warwick Gardens moths have been sadly lacking in my species count. Most moths are nocturnal. I have photographed daytime fliers –  everything from grass moths, clearwings and the ubiquitous Jersey Tiger moth. I needed to sit in the park at night time with a light which somewhat scared me in the middle of Peckham. The solution was to hold a social event – I advertised a Moth Night. So with help from my friends Lou, who came along with lights and a structure to hold a white sheet, and Simon who allowed a long extension lead from his kitchen, we hunkered down with a crate of beer, some books on moths and a camera, and waited for the skies to darken. The turnout was surprising… about 20 of us humans enjoying a balmy evening, sitting on the logs drinking beer and staring at a white sheet waiting to see what arrived. We initially got the lighting wrong and replaced the white lights with a light used for screen printing. Then all hell broke loose – we were bombarded with everything! Bugs, ladybirds, mosquitoes, flies…. and some moths. The moths were mainly small and spectacularly brown, except for the beautiful yellow Brimstone moth. It was hilarious watching everyone scrabble around trying to catch them in jars. Thanks to Mike, who knew something about moths, we were able to identify a few of our finds and I was adding to my species count. We were also visited by a rather gorgeous leafhopper Ledra aurita, which was so bizarre to look at it had us all laughing, and a funky Acorn weevil popped by to bask in the light. And just as we were packing up at midnight a lovely Broad-bordered yellow underwing landed. Moths rock!

We all had a great time. We all learned something new and we all want to do it again. Peckham Moth Night #2 will happen in September.

Photos from the night can be found here: