This is Boris the brown-tail moth. Don’t be fooled by his buffoonish appearance – his children by many mothers cause havoc by decimating our hedgerows and trees, destroying our public services and dismantling the social fabric of our country. Found mainly in the conservative southern England constituencies, the oven-ready eggs, laid in batches, hatch into hairy caterpillars who weave webs of lies and deceit, their hairs causing intense irritation and rashes for anyone who comes into contact with them. In urban slang ‘brown tail’ means to have a shit. I fear Boris will brown tail all over us if he gets elected.
It’s taken 6 years, 1000s upon 1000s of photos, I’ve gone through 2 lenses, and been on the most enjoyable learning curve for this…. my new book. Meet the tiny residents of Warwick Gardens… all 555 of them!
Warwick Gardens is an ordinary park in Peckham, south east London. It’s not a nature reserve and has nothing special to warrant it as such. But, after 6 years of photographing the insects, I have unearthed some delights: regional rarities, species new to the country, and some astounding-looking insects, whether it be jewel wasps, camouflaged weevils, or thick-headed flies.
Peckham is being tidied up, revamped and rebranded. This book is a portrait of the insects who live in Warwick Gardens, a story of life in the bushes. Written with a wry look at the gentrification of Peckham through the compound eyes of our tiny neighbours, it reveals the comings and goings, the politics, the celebrations of birth, death and survival.
Paperback, 236 pages, over 600 colour photos
or from Review bookshop, 131 Bellenden Road, Peckham, London SE15
In my porch, a leafcutter bee has decided to build her nest in a damp-proofing hole in the wall. First, she had to excavate the mess left by a previous tenant – a spider – by pulling out all the debris.
It’s early morning, and our bee has resumed her chamber-making duties. Her distant cousins, the ants, are running around eager to help. They are hoping for some pollen scraps. But it seems a password is needed to enter the nest – if you’re not on the list you’re not coming in. Luckily, our bee knows the secret code.
She starts to line the cavity with leaves, cut to size and usually harvested from a rose bush, carrying the leaf plugs to the nest between her mandibles. These are plastered to the walls with saliva, creating a cosy chamber. During the day she collects pollen, stored on the hairs of her underbelly. She likes ‘flat’ flowers like daisies, so she can wiggle her abdomen over the stamens to collect the dust. The pollen is stored in the chamber for the bee larvae to feed on once hatched. Then she will lay an egg and seal up the chamber, creating a bijou home for one of her young.
Once the first cell has been sealed up, she starts the whole process again. Depending on how long the cavity is, leafcutter bees will make enough chambers to fit. She could probably fit four chambers in a damp-proofing hole. Female eggs will be laid first, the male eggs last.
Closing the nest up can be a tough job. It gets harder to fly in with a leaf, and the pesky ants are still in the way. Discarded leaves litter the ground below, unsuccessful attempts at negotiating a way to shove a leaf into a nearly full hole. Sealing the nest takes time and a lot of leaves and saliva to make it watertight and safe from predators. The young bees will emerge in spring, the males flying out first followed by the females.
‘Tis the season to be merry. The office parties are in full-swing, tinsel and baubles adorn all the shops, and there is a general panic in the air over what presents to waste your money on for those relatives you only see once a year. On the telly its all happy families enjoying Christmas in soft focus, surrounded by so much food you could feed a continent. Most of the insects of Warwick Gardens have the right idea – they have gone into hibernation.
Over in Poo Corner the dung flies are having their Christmas parties. Looking rather dashing in their yellow fluffy attire they really standout against the dark brown satin sheen of newly laid dog turds. These steaming castles of poo are the place to gather in numbers to meet other like-minded flies, perhaps find someone to mate with, and to generally hang out and get drunk on the blood of tiny insects.
Not for them lurking with mosquitos in a sweaty corner at a gig in the Bussey Building, or vomiting up stale beer with the bluebottles at the back of Bar Story, nor a lively evening with the house flies flitting around the lights above the pool tables at Canavans. No, these guys really love a shit party and there are shit parties popping-up all over the park.
It’s the middle of August and ever since the Referendum there has been a quietness to the park. Not much is happening, and many residents have decided to go some place else where they feel welcome. The social wasps are out and about, attracted by the ripening fruit in the orchard. But there is a wariness in the air as an article has to be triggered and everyone is waiting to see what happens next. The Queen common wasp has started her nest in a loft in Lyndhurst Grove and already built up an impressive entourage of loyal workers. She is an incidental queen, put into power because her predecessor chose to fly off when the going got tough, having made a pigs-ear out of the silly referendum. This new queen enjoys making life uncomfortable for insects: cracking down on the rights of free buzzing, a stiff policy on non-native species allowed into the park, and stinging anyone who isn’t a well-paid pollinator. She is snappily dressed, all yellow and black stripes, with a formidable weapon in her tail which she has already admitted she will use if threatened. She rules over a strong and stable nest of conservative identikit workers who tend to her every need, except one who is a bit wayward, rather rude and untidy with no sense of tact who has insulted many insects in the park. For some bizarre reason, he has the job of representing the nest.
On the other side of the park are the industrious German wasps. Though not big on presentation their nests are impressively constructed by a studious workforce, having honed their skills in engineering which are the envy of the hymenoptera world. Queen Vespula Germanica rules her realm in a somewhat christian and democratic way, often dealing with skirmishes that break out between neighbouring nests in her role as a de facto leader of a union which has grown so large no one quite knows who’s in charge. Identified by a 3-dot Merkel-Raute stamped on their faces, the workers are not best pleased with their queen and her ratings have plummeted. She will soon be up for election.
Before long our queens will have to meet to discuss the common wasps leaving the park. The German wasps are understandably hummed off as their dream of the union is beginning to fall apart. They will have to negotiate who has the rights to harvest the juice from the plums and pears, with access to the common orchard being the biggest priority, and who will have buzzing rights over annoying the humans. There are worries about the open border policy, fearing swarms of hornets, forcibly smoked out of Dulwich Park by the Council a couple of years ago, could be given free access to Warwick Gardens. And real concerns about the Asian hornets, seduced by a warmer climate, who are threatening to come over ’ere and kill all our ’oneybees. If it doesn’t go well, the common wasps may be cast out, left with making a go of it alone with only the blackberries to trade with. What a mess.
Its the middle of July and Warwick Gardens is looking a bit worse for wear, reflecting the vibe of the country after voting to leave the EU. The foxes have flattened the foliage; the bindweed, with their delicate white trumpet flowers a foil for the hidden intentions of domination, has spread insidiously over the nettles and brambles suppressing any hope of freedom of growth; and the daisies are looking a bit weary with having to regrow after being constantly mowed down. The yarrow, hoping to host their annual festival of pollen and nectar, have popped up in an empty venue.
Last year this place was buzzing. It was noisy and full of life – a showcase of the sheer diversity of invertebrates in the park. But it seems that this year is one festival too many; the insects are preferring a more boutique ‘meadow-style’ festival offering a mélange of flowers and a more discerning flavour of nectar, sown especially to add colour and variety to bland parks. Everything is really quiet. The Roesel’s bush-crickets, normally hired to chirrup up business, chose to leave the park believing it was overrun with migrant species, a cynical lie perpetrated by unscrupulous anti-orthopterists; and the remaining grasshoppers have gone on strike, aghast that the crickets were lied to. The flies, patriotic and always up for a fight, are flitting around making nuisance for the non-natives. A few red capsid bugs are creeping around, anxious not to be mistaken for a Pokémon Go character, but all the while wishing that they could be found and appreciated as a real living thing. Even the mirid bugs got bored waiting for the party to start and just buggered off. And the weather hasn’t helped. A dull wet spring and cool temperatures have exacerbated and confused many residents about when and where to start a family. Its like nobody cares, exhausted at the changes around them.
The mottled shield bugs have had their lilac habitat ripped away by someone ‘wanting a better view of the park’, and having arrived in Peckham only a few years ago feel rather rejected. The hawthorn shield bugs, with their brightly coloured coats of majesty, have had their ancestral home savaged by cuts, the lower branches lopped off to make it cheaper to maintain. And the parent bugs and birch catkin bugs got ousted from their favourite independent tree in the multi-species part of the park, chopped down by someone ‘wanting more light in their garden’. They had to relocate to the big corporate birch trees on the other side of the park. Unfortunately it seems they didn’t ‘fit in’ as they have disappeared, leaving the planthoppers with no one to play with. Or, as this is the main constituency of the rather moderate birch shield bug, maybe the birch catkin bugs, with their left-wing ideals about ‘rights to live on the same tree – we share the same host plant’, were viewed as a threat to the stability of the community, fuelled by pedantic catkin politics, forcing a campaign to stop them taking over.
At least the green shield bugs, the hard-working bugs of the park with no obvious affiliation to any plant, are holding on. Those green shield bugs who everyone knows so well that they are prefixed with ‘common’ and generally taken for granted by the conservationists. The bugs who spend their days dutifully sap-supping, impervious to the strange weather we are having, almost neglected until someone prods them too far and they revert to their chav name of ‘stink’bug’. How long before they realise they are the only prey for the bigger enemy – the solitary wasps with a taste for shield bug nymphs on the hunt to stock their nests with the fattest, juiciest specimens to feed their offspring.
If ever there was a character that represents old Peckham it has to be the stag beetle. A proper south London geezer, dressed up to the nines in a sharp, shiny suit tinged with purple, brandishing a fine set of red antlers held aloft with pride and demanding respect as Britain’s largest beetle. With an ancestry going back to when the Great North Wood covered the area, he favours the old haunts in Peckham – those dusty, rotting log piles hidden at the end of gardens owned by people who have lived here for years and understand how the neighbourhood works. The trend for tidy gardens with paving, minimal planting and a complete lack of soul which are currently monopolising our streets are utterly useless to him. The stag beetle needs the perfect nursery – piles of old logs where their grubs can chew rotten wood to their hearts content and grow fat without being disturbed for the next few years until they are ready to morph into adults.
Like any dandy the stag beetle is almost hopelessly unfit to do anything other than hang around looking cool. Cumbersome in flight they look faintly ridiculous flying around, antlers waving, on a warm spring dusky evening, trying their absolute best to find a lady to flirt with. On a night out with the boys they can get into fights where a test of strength with their antlers will win the day. Unfortunately all that bravado can’t stave off fatal attacks by wide-boy corvids, hipster cats or under the feet of humans who have no respect for anything other than themselves.