The vaccine bug

Mosquito

The mosquitoes of Peckham are feeling really miffed. At the start of the year, much fuss was made of the new Covid-19 vaccines and a call was made for helpers in the vaccination rollout. The mosquitoes, still in larval form, got wind of this and started congregating in the ponds, pools, and puddles of Peckham. They were excited as by the time they emerged as adults they were eligible to volunteer. Basically, they had the right equipment – a long proboscis acting as the thinnest of syringes, together with a light touch, and the ability to bite you in unlikely places. And they didn’t need PPE or to sanitise their legs or wear masks; they even knew that a large proportion of them would die splattered against a bedroom wall. A real kamikaze attitude.

They applied and were instantly rejected. “Not enough experience”. Not enough experience? the mosquitoes whined in unison. After all, they were experts at spreading diseases – malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus, yellow fever, West Nile virus – why not just load up with the vaccine and inject people? Some even tried to volunteer for the vaccine trials, especially as a lot of their friends had already escaped the swamps and were being reared in sterile white laboratories. Admittedly they were being subjected to genetic modification for other uses, but hey-ho, it seemed a small sacrifice.

The mosquitoes felt it was time to rebrand themselves as the good guys – how marvellous it would feel to be held up as the heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic rather than one of the most hated insects on the planet. They talked about saving the NHS millions of pounds, calculating if they all pulled together they could jab a whole country in a week given the right muggy conditions. They even had perverse ideas about how to dupe the anti-vaxxers by convincing them the swollen itchy needle hole in their arm is ‘just a mosquito bite’. Obviously, they would have to get around DDT and other nasty mosquito repellents, or flying too close to citronella candles; and those pesky nets are an obstacle. Nevertheless, they were experts at surreptitiously crawling up inside someone’s trousers or under a t-shirt, though they would have to quell their annoying whiny buzzing so as not to be squashed. But in their tiny minds, it could be done…

For the many…

Figwort weevil_9917

Figwort weevil (Cionus scrophulariae)

This is Jeremy. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders, on a leaf-edge at the possibility of winning a General Election. He’s a small beetle up against the Tory wasps who feel they have a God-given right to rule the allotment. He was unexpectedly voted in as leader by a committee of momentum beetles who realised this maverick backbench weevil might actually be their ticket to power.

His plans for the allotment are simple: organic planting for the many insects who have suffered for years from the effects of insecticide, public owned plots and free compost for all. He wants state ownership of the old logs and leaves left lying around to rot for the essential mulch munching woodlouse workers, the nationalisation of pollen and a ban on the building of privately-owned insect hotels for the privileged few.

Every insect will be considered in his manifesto. Sustainable aphid farms for ants, higher taxes for corporate honeybee hives, the scrapping of homogeneous flower banks and adequate welfare for winter hibernation. There will be protection of sap-sucking rights for bugs, squatter rights for nomad bees, and the right to self-identify as both a caterpillar and a butterfly.

Campaigning hasn’t been easy. The wasps, led by a rather toxic individual, have been very noisy, swarming around the allotment buzzing ‘Get Wexit Done’ and lying about absolutely everything. Their manifesto is based on stinging all the insects and privatising the fruit and vegetable crops so only they can reap the rewards and screw everyone else.

Yet the vote is split amongst the other insects – some view Jeremy as a natural campaigner for those at the bottom of the food chain, others see him as a pest for munching through all the vegetables and upsetting the status quo. The flies quite like the idea of having a share of the fruit with the wasps. The solitary bees, set to benefit from the new proposals, are conflicted as they can get rich on all the pollen in the allotment and are considering setting up a more liberal party and going into coalition with the other key pollinators the hoverflies. Even the beetles, historically loyal to their own kind, are rebelling against a socialist weevil takeover.

But it is winter and most insects are hibernating. It might only be the flies and woodlice at the ballot box. Whatever happens it will be interesting.

 

Leafing the nest

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.

Leafcutter bee excavating and old spider nest

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.

The ants have joined in

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.

The first leaves are brought in

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.

The nest building has begun

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.

The nest is finished