The We’evils of Peckham’s Gentrification

This article first appeared in the Space #147 issue of Litro magazine.

Scarce fungus weevil Platyrhinus resinosus, with mite infestation

My name is Platyrhinus resinosus and I live in Peckham

My name is Platyrhinus resinosus. I am a weevil and I live in a log in a small park in Peckham. I moved into a council log when a grant was given to spruce up Warwick Gardens a few years ago. It suits me well as I have my own cramp-ball fungus to feed on, though I do have to contend with upstart spiders who weave their webs over my patch with absolutely no regard for my personal space. My home is in the Log Quarter of Warwick Gardens, an area of high-density log housing, populated by beetle larvae, woodlice, earwigs, spiders, solitary bees and wasps. We have a buzzing little community here. Yes, we have our problems – the mining bees have a hard time in the summer when they have to fend off parasitic wasps wanting to inject eggs into their nests; the beetle larvae cause havoc to the log interiors, and the woodlice make quite a noise at night with all their chewing. And spiders can be a nuisance, especially for the flies. All in all we try to get on with each other. But things are changing.

New species have moved into the area, with fancy names like ‘mottled shield bug’, ‘mosaic leafhopper’ and ‘southern oak bush-cricket’. They have taken over the lilac bushes, conveniently positioned to look down on the more common species in the park. This area, next to the football pitch, is the main food boulevard with its ivy bars, thick long grass, lush blackberry bushes and the big-leafed showy lilac bushes. It’s the trendiest place to be and full of pop-up food stalls offering a range of artisanal kebabs of plump aphids and shield bug nymphs, alongside cocktails of dandelion nectar, ragwort pollen and craft yarrow stem juice.

It used to be relatively quiet here, but since the council stopped mowing a patch of grass and let it run wild with flowers it’s become really noisy with visitors swarming in from the surrounding areas to party. The hoverflies tell me stories of ladybirds running amok, bees drunk on pollen and crickets chirruping loudly all day long in a desperate attempt to find someone to mate with. This is the place to see all the well-heeled fashionable insects: the brightly coloured butterflies, sleek whizzy dragonflies, jewel wasps in their fancy metallic clothes, and the hipster ladybird flies with their beards and orange polka-dot shirts. Habitat is at a premium and I did hear that the parent bugs and their families had been pushed out due to the high rent of catkins and forced to move to the silver birch tree next to the railway line.

Solitary wasp with shield bug nymph

Solitary wasp with an artisanal shield bug nymph kebab

In my log a plethora of new kitchens have popped up. In the days before gentrification we called them ‘caffs’. The solitary wasps have repurposed, upcycled and retrofitted old beetle holes in readiness of opening their own seasonal pop-up kitchens. Their menus promote ‘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 skilfully sliced off with sharpened jaws and the precision of a master butcher, their bodies stacked high in larders like slowly drying hams. 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. And these diners are special – they are the young wasp larvae.

One of the logs on our manor is up for renewal. It finally succumbed to being rendered useless partly due to decomposition. This log has been home to bees, wasps and beetles for the past few years and they are now being forcibly evicted by either the council foxes or human vandals with nothing better to do. Admittedly it has seen better days – a rather shabby exterior full of holes, cracked bark, and fungus graffiti’d along the damp ground-floor walls. The interior is a brittle honeycomb of lignin, filled with sawdust echoing their use as bee and wasp nurseries and still ringing with the distant sounds of buzzing gone by.

The Log Quarter in Warwick Gardens

The Log Quarter in Warwick Gardens

Unfortunately some of the residents didn’t receive their eviction notices in time and their homes have been brutally ripped away and strewn across the park, the contents spilling out onto the grass exposing still-ripening larvae cocooned in silk. Tiny beetle larvae caught up in the carnage struggle with being exposed to the outside world and succumb to being carried off by ants, whilst the centipedes emerge from hiding to see what all the fuss is about. The woodlice, who occupied the lower floors and have always had their antennae to the ground, have already moved their families to another log after realising the beetle larvae neighbours had been eating away at the upper floors and were in danger of being crushed. And the common wasps have moved in, like bailiffs, to pick over the remains and take all the free sawdust to build their nests.

Soon the developers will move in with “a vision of the log as a horizontal city for thousands of insects to live in and enjoy”. Knowing developers they will probably replace it with a shiny new MDF log, complete with layers of impenetrable varnish rendering it totally useless to us beetles. Holes drilled in neat and tidy rows, inspired by some of those fancy bee hotels, will be sold off as ready-made bijou homes for the wealthier bees and wasps, with a noticeable lack of affordable lignin making it impossible for the hard-working mulch-munching insects to set up home. And they will make it multi-functional to include habitats for humans complete with a rooftop picnic area, parking for pushchairs and nice tidy planting.

There is even a new edible hedge stretching all the way along the side of the railway line. This regenerated area is a sprawling estate of shiny new shrubs and fruit trees, replacing the perfectly established clusters of black horehound, thistles and nettles deemed rather unattractive and scythed into oblivion. Stylish architectural sculptures of dead wood dot the area, no doubt hoping to attract the rather distinguished stag beetle to make a home here. At the moment the local insects are not keen on the hedge as it contains plants they have never seen before, and as they were never consulted on what plants they would like, are rather pissed off. Instead they have been converging on a tiny patch of tatty thistles, purposely left off the weeding roster and preserved as a nod to the ‘heritage’ of the area, in an act of defiance. My cousins the vine weevils have had to find somewhere else to live as their habitat has gone, and we really don’t know what will happen to the tiny spear-thistle lacebugs who have lived in the park for generations.

It will be interesting to see who moves in or whether it will end up half-used and entomologically unloved, a moral of regeneration gone wrong. And now there is talk of creating a meadow full of all the big flashy commercial wildflowers such as ox-eye daisy, poppy and knapweed ‘to bring more pollinators into the area’ – a sort of Westfield of the wildflower world. Yet another expensive homogeneous development devoid of individualist character promoted by over zealous but under-appreciative landscapers, upsetting the local demographics and taking all the credit away from the lowly daisies and dandelions who have spent years effectively doing the same job.

So I sit here, on my log, watching the changes with a sinking heart. The park has become unrecognisable to when I moved in. I see fewer of the insects I grew up with, having had to move to ever decreasing pockets of habitat just to survive. Gone are the days when we would stop and have a friendly chirp over a blade of grass, the new neighbours deigning to give me only a cursory glance as they scuttle by with an air of snobbish arrogance. And soon even I will be gone, a remnant of old Peckham, remembered only in the pages of an insect identification book.

The Bug Quarter

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.

Warwick Gardens' Quarters

Warwick Gardens’ 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.

Hawthorn shield bug nymphs, box bug nymph, birch shield bug

Hawthorn shield bug nymphs, box bug nymph, birch shield bug

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.

Cis boleti, Saddle-backed bitana, blue mason bee

Cis boleti, Saddle-backed bitana, blue mason bee in her nest

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.

Common blue butterfly, Corizus hyoscyami, Narcissus fly

Common blue butterfly, Corizus hyoscyami, Narcissus fly

Poo Corner
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.

Dung fly, greenbottle, horse chestnut leaf-miner

Dung fly, greenbottle, horse chestnut leaf-miner