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.
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 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.
This article first appeared in the Space #147 issue of Litro magazine.
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.
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.
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 recent chatter to encourage more bee hives in our cities is somewhat alarming to me. I wouldn’t want to be a honey bee – spawned from a hybrid queen sent in the post, brought up to live a life of domesticated soviet-style drudgery, drugged up to the wing tips on pesticides, plagued by viruses and under attack from mites and fungus, worked too hard, often on a monoculture diet, continuously smoked out of their homes to have the fruits of their labour wrenched out beneath them, then left in the winter with barely enough food to eat. All in the name of having something sweet to spread on our morning toast. No wonder they are such moody insects and no wonder their colonies are collapsing.
I am being cynical. Of course honey bees are important. ‘The economic value of honey bees, and bumblebees, [note the add on and why not just ‘bees’] as pollinators of commercially grown insect pollinated crops in the UK has been estimated at over £200 million per year’. (The British Bee Keepers Association). All well and good but I see there is no mention of the other economy – the sale of honey – which I see as a bigger problem and rarely seems to be included in statistics. And we are being misled – honey bees only pollinate 30% of our crops. Which leaves me to wonder why we need them in our cities? The only ‘crops’ we have in cities are allotments and orchards and pollination of these is easily done by our other pollinators – solitary bees, wasps, flies, hoverflies, beetles, bugs, butterflies and moths. And its these we need to be focussing our energy on.
Research has shown honey bees maybe infecting bumblebees with diseases, but we don’t yet know what the effect of honey bees have on our other solitary bees. Viruses and mites brought in by honey bees, often imported, surely must have an impact, as well as the pesticides to control these. Much is made of colony collapse but how long before we see a collapse of all our insect societies due to measures taken to preserve the lives of honey bees. Less hives, especially in cities where habitat is at a premium, would allow our native bees to flourish and restore their populations which are on the decline. But we need varied and healthy habitats to ensure the survival of all our insects, not just bees. To consider preserving and encouraging the plants that naturally occur in an area – local planting feeds the local insects. Even the current trend for wildflower meadows in parks to ‘attract pollinators’, though commendable, is rather worthless if stuck in the middle of a large swathe of lawn with no shade or allowance for nesting habitats. They are also costly and time-consuming to manage. Far better to distribute those wildflowers amongst other planting, or scatter a few seeds next to a wall. Or even just ‘let it go wild’! The area left unmown in Warwick Gardens is a good example of allowing the natural growth of local plants – after 3 years we are seeing crops of clover and mallow flourish, creating a carpet perfect for grasshoppers to hide in and flowers for hoverflies and butterflies to feed on. The yarrow, loved by beetles, has also expanded its range. Yes sometimes we do need to manage it but at a much lower level – pulling up the odd fat-hen plant that has run riot is maybe not a bad thing! We often forget we have to allow for some of our pollinators that feed on other insects and this is rarely mentioned in plans when considering planting. Some solitary wasps stock up on sap-sucking shield bugs and aphids to feed their young, and the inclusion of plants and grasses to accommodate these is vital. Meanwhile, all these insects will be pollinating the beans and peas you are growing on your allotment.
So why do we need hives in our cities? Education? Studies of beekeeping for ‘unruly’ kids has benefits, especially around respect and responsibility. I can’t argue with that but a big part of me would prefer to promote the life of our solitary bees. Watching mason bees and leafcutter bees building their nests in a bee hotel is not only fun, it also teaches us important lessons about the fragility of life. Solitary bees have to defend themselves against cuckoo bees and parasitic wasps without the back-up of an all-stinging all-waggle dancing army. Their life is harder and more hit and miss. All the more reason to treasure them.
And the other reason for hives? Honey. Honey should be a speciality food, like truffles, expensive and hard to come by. I worry that the current trend for all things ‘olde and crafty’ will see a rise of pop-up hives, hipster honey and mead. The air in our city is pretty grim so I can almost see a diesel flavoured honey appearing on the shelves, along side a bottle of mead with a ‘hint of carbon monoxide’. And all the while the poor little honey bee is working itself to death to put that sugar hit on your toast. Harsh, I know. But ideally I would put a ban on hives altogether until the honey bee has had a chance to recover, and allow our other pollinators to take the credit for all the hard work they do.