A waiting game

Missing tree

The gap where the silver birch tree stood

Walking through Warwick Gardens the other week I noticed something amiss. It took a while to realise that the silver birch tree which trailed its beautiful leafy branches over the fence in the Football Quarter had been chopped down. In its place was a view of the house which had previously had been obscured. My heart sank as this was the tree where I first discovered Orientus ishidae, the leafhopper which caused so much excitement in the bug world and subsequently put Warwick Gardens on the entomological map. But why? After talking with the homeowner whose garden the tree was in, she explained that she “wanted more light in my garden”. She asked if it was a problem as she had spoken to the council who had given her permission to cut it down. Well what could I say? Its not my tree, or even my park, and the tree was growing in her garden… BUT it was the possible host plant for a rare insect, as well as a family home to birch catkin bugs, birch shield bugs, mottled shield bugs, parent bugs and southern oak bush-crickets. It’s a real habitat loss and I am deeply saddened, but it is also a lesson about education. After our conversation the homeowner said that if she had known about the insects living there she would have just pruned the tree.

Orientus ishidae nymphs on ivy

Orientus ishidae nymphs on ivy – time will tell if they will be back this year

Orientus ishidae has been spreading through the UK and its host plant has yet to be established. In Cambridge one was found on wisteria, in hopping distance of echinops, honeysuckle, cotoneaster, lavender. I have been finding our nymphs living on the ivy which grows adjacent to birch tree, and every year I see them expanding – last year we had a record 10 nymphs. Now I will have to wait until August before I know whether they are breeding on the ivy or just hopping over from the birch tree to bask in the sun. If it is the latter I fear the loss of a very beautiful insect in our park. Only time will tell.

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!