A population explosion

Sundays in this part of Peckham used to be really quiet – you’d be lucky to see anyone walking down the road. For any sign of activity you had to go to the bustling and colourful Rye Lane with its God hawkers, the endless queues in Primark and the greengrocers overflowing with bowls of vegetables for £1. Nowadays Bellenden Road is packed with upmarket shoppers, diners, drinkers and people wandering around with their heads stuck in estate agent literature, vying for space on the pavement. The population has exploded – do these people live here or are they on day-trips from elsewhere, having read in the Evening Standard that Peckham is the cool place to be?

Southern green shield bug (left), and Common green shield bug

Southern green shield bug (left), and Common green shield bug

A less visible population explosion in Peckham has been that of the Southern green shield bug – the unusually hot weather has created the perfect conditions for them to thrive. A recent immigrant to the UK from Africa, Nezara viridula arrived via the route of imported vegetables. Indeed, you may find them living happily on your broad beans or pea pods. In Warwick Gardens they tend to favour the blackberry bushes. The adults can be identifiable from its cousin, the Common green shield bug Palomena prasina, by 3-5 white dots along the front edge of the scutellum. The nymphs, however, are much more colourful, making you wonder how something so striking can morph into a rather bland looking bug.

Southern green shield bug nymphs at various stages of development

Southern green shield bug nymphs at various stages of development

Usually I only see one or two Southern green shield bugs each year – a somewhat uncommon sighting. But this year the nymphs are everywhere! Uploads on Flickr are plentiful, cropping up on Twitter with queries as to whether they are ‘ladybirds in fancy jackets’, and they have been recorded in Jersey for the first time. I like shield bug nymphs. They look so small and vulnerable but somewhat earnest as they get to grips with working out how to live in this world. Bunched together for the first few days after hatching they mill about before braving their independence and venturing further afield by themselves, usually down a plant stalk. Though the 37 Nezara viridula nymphs that hatched on the lavender bush in a front garden in Choumert Road opted to stay together after sussing out that ‘walking down the stalk’ meant landing on tarmac. Another large batch hatched on the bindweed in Warwick Gardens last week, looking like little black shiny beads glistening in the sun, and dispersed into the bramble bushes making them hard to spot. But we did find one – Paul Brock, author of the fabulous new book A comprehensive guide to the Insects of Britain & Ireland, who was visiting the park, scooped it up into a pot and whisked it away to raise in comparative luxury in the New Forest. We wish ‘Warwick’ well!

Escapologist

Onthophagus coenobita caught in spider web, and rescued

Onthophagus coenobita caught in a spider web, and rescued

I keep finding these little beetles, Onthophagus coenobita, not on the ground or sitting on a leaf, but tied up tightly in spider webs. The first time was on a walnut orb-weaver spider web by the railings in Warwick Gardens, cocooned in silk, and as I looked closely I could see it was still moving. I am a bit of a sucker for insects caught in webs and regularly deny a spider of a wasp, bee or grasshopper meal if I see one struggling in a web. So when I saw this beetle I snipped it off the silk and proceeded to help it untangle itself. I used a badge pin to carefully ease off the cocoon and all the while it was pushing itself out with quite a force for a little insect. After being freed it thanklessly flew off while I walked away filled with a sense of do-gooding.

Another one!

Another one!

A couple of weeks later I found another one in a different web… wrapped up in spider silk. I did the same again and it flew off. A few days later another one – this time it had already extricated itself from its silk tomb but needed help getting its final leg out. The next day another one dangling from a silk thread having completely freed itself and dreading the drop to the ground below. I began to wonder if this was the same beetle, living its life as the Houdini of the Coleoptera world, or if it was a game played with other beetles about who could escape the quickest from a dumb spider’s web before being eaten. Either way I still haven’t seen one just running along the ground.

Always take a camera…

The digger wasps are back nesting in the log (see House-hunting in Peckham). Looking at the size of the pile of sawdust gathered outside they have excavated a much bigger burrow in the side of the log compared to last year. I have been watching them as they bring in their hoard of insect prey – this year they have a taste for bluebottle flies. Photographing them has not been easy as the position of the nest hole is obscured by blades of grass which really interfere with focussing, and the wasps disappear pretty quickly down that hole! Several attempts over a couple of days and I have one measly ‘just about in focus’ image of a wasp emerging out of her burrow.

Digger wasp burrow, and emerging wasp

Digger wasp burrow, and emerging wasp

I was booked to play at Bestival which meant no wasp-watching for a few days. My fellow DJ friend Fábio was over from Lisbon and having witnessed me photographing Portuguese bees, wanted to see Warwick Gardens so we made a quick detour on the way to the station. I don’t take my camera to festivals so didn’t have it with me as I showed him around, pointing with pride to our wasp spider, our array of shield bugs, and the digger wasp burrow. We plonked ourselves by the logs, amongst the mother and baby circle who were completely oblivious to all the action taking place around them, and I explained digger wasps to Fábio. Then it appeared: a female with a pair of copulating bluebottle flies firmly in her grasp. And she sat there for a couple of minutes on top of the log in the perfect position for a photograph. I was mortified as I had been waiting for this moment for days and there I was with no camera. It was if she was saying “Ok, so here I am with not one but TWO flies, which I know you would be impressed to see as I have been watching you watching me hoping for a good photo, so now I will just sit here and taunt you as I see you have no camera. Pff!”. She eventually flew off, circling us, then dropped the flies into the grass – the male still attached to his female and rather bewildered to discover she was paralysed. And I was left rueing the missed opportunity for my wasp-action photograph of the year.

Lesson learned: always take a camera when looking for insects!

 

Little helicopters

Yesterday there was a guy flying his remote-controlled helicopter in the park. It whizzed around making a whirring sound high above the trees. It reminded me of the drone cameras which were popular with the rallyers at this years launch of the Mongol Rally in Battersea Park, where it seemed everyone had one and were avidly flying them over the start line – a birds eye view of the 220 cars lined up ready for a mad adventure. I can’t wait to see aerial footage of the Mongolian steppes and the finish line in Ulaanbaatar. Back in Warwick Gardens the helicopter wasn’t the only thing flying around – dragonflies were showing off their spectacular aerodynamics by swooping and chasing one another around the park.

Migrant hawker

Migrant hawker

It is a good year for dragonflies as southern hawkers, migrant hawkers, a black-tailed skimmer and a broad-bodied chaser have all decided to pay a visit. I like dragonflies as they are such a prehistoric insect that has evolved into a lean, mean flying machine which can fly six ways: forwards, backwards, up and down, side to side, and hover, with an average flying speed of 22-34 mph. That is some achievement and showed up the rather weak limitations of the remote controlled helicopter which could only go up and down and forwards and backwards and somewhat slower!

Black-tailed skimmer

Black-tailed skimmer

Dragonflies start their lives as nymphs in water and are ferocious predators devouring other invertebrates, tadpoles and small fish fry. They can be at the larval stage for five years but most are ready to emerge as adults after three years. When ready they crawl up a plant or reed stalk and emerge from their larval skin. The adults feed on midges and flies.

Broad-bodied chaser (female)

Broad-bodied chaser (female)

The word dragonfly has its source in the myth that dragonflies were once dragons. To the Japanese, dragonflies symbolise summer and autumn and are respected so much that the Samurai use it as a symbol of power, agility and victory. In China, people associate the dragonfly with prosperity, harmony and as a good luck charm. For Native Americans, they are sign of happiness, speed and purity. A somewhat different attitude in Europe has the dragonfly classed as a witches animal sent by Satan to cause chaos and confusion with names like Ear Cutter, Devil’s Needle, Adderbolt and Horse Stinger. In Sweden, folklore suggests that dragonflies sneak up to children who tell lies and adults who curse and scold, and stitch up their eyes, mouth, and ears. The Welsh call the dragonfly the snake’s servant and think they follow snakes and stitch up their wounds, and in Portugal be aware as they think of them as eye pokers and eye snatchers. In Peckham we prefer just to call them dragonflies or as the little boy, who was standing next to me watching them in awe, called them – little helicopters.

Bright young things

Warwick Gardens was awash with children from Bellenden Primary School last week, running around playing football, shouting and swinging from the swings and generally having a great time. Dolled up in orange high vis vests they virtually dazzled in the sunshine, like little daytime fireflies or mini construction workers having a playtime from mending the rail tracks. But they were not the only bright young things in the park – there were jewel wasps competing for the title of the brightest of bright young things.

Chrysis ignita

Chrysis ignita

If you look closely amongst the shrubs you might see a flash of metallic blue/green and red skittering around on the leaves. These are the ruby-tailed wasp Chrysis ignita. Whenever I see them they are running up and down stems, pausing occasionally to have a sniff using their downward-curving antennae to pick up the scent of their host insect. As a cuckoo wasp they are looking for mason bee nests. Once the female finds the nest she explores the entrance to make sure no one is home then sneaks inside and lays her eggs. With a hard body cuticle to protect from stings she is well-equipped to defend herself if she comes under attack from an angry host bee – she curls up into a ball. The eggs hatch into larvae, which eat the newborn host species. The larva complete their development inside the nest and the adults emerge the following spring.

Hedychrum niemelai

Hedychrum niemelai

Another jewel wasp to look out for is Hedychrum niemelai. Its the first time I have seen this beautiful shiny wasp in Warwick Gardens. They love to come out in bright sunshine to feast on the yarrow. The female lays her eggs in the nest of the digger wasp Cerceris arenaria – another first sighting for Warwick Gardens. If a host insect is nesting you can be sure to find its cuckoo!

Absent Parent bugs

Parent bug nymphs with not a parent in sight

Parent bug nymphs with not a parent in sight

Last year I wrote about Parent bugs, marvelling at the fact the mother sits with her nymphs until adulthood. This year it seems this has all changed. I have been watching 11 families of nymphs in Warwick Gardens and none of them have a mother in attendance, even early instar nymphs. I have found them laying eggs and soon after the female has gone. I would have expected a couple of females to fall by the wayside, but all of them? This has got me wondering about what is happening to them. Maybe its an early brood thing – the adults overwinter and breed in the spring so maybe they have just died off before raising their nymphs? Has it got something to do with the warm winter – did they breed too early? Or are the adults being predated – there are certainly a lot of shield bug predating wasps in the park, especially on the southside, and a juicy adult bug would be perfect for the larder. But surely not all the adults would have been taken, especially as the abandonment is happening on trees on both sides of the park?

I have even trudged around the streets of Peckham looking through every silver birch tree I come across and have found plenty of nymphs being brooded by their mothers. So it seems the abandonment is only happening in Warwick Gardens. Have our females formed a union and gone on strike after voting to rescind their parental duties? The nymphs certainly seem to be happy going it alone and not rebelling like teenagers and running amok hosting Facebook parties. They prefer to hang out as a gang on a leaf; so well-behaved that maybe the mothers are feeling unnecessary and trying out a new form of liberal parenting. If this phenomenon continues will our Parent bug have to be renamed the Absent Parent bug?

On a serious note I would be interested if anyone else has noticed Parent bug nymphs without the adult present. Many of our nymphs have reached adulthood and starting their own families so I will be watching to see if this pattern continues.

Hipster flies

Peckham used to be relatively free of hipsters until the Overground started to spit them onto our streets, transported from their spiritual home in Shoreditch and no doubt digging the irony of being in south London. They are a strange cultural subset, looking rather like bored lumberjacks in limbo cycling around the forest-free streets in their checked shirts, skinny jeans and large spectacles. Their beards seem to sit uncomfortably on the face as if the fashion dictat threw them a cynical reason to make us all laugh. Or is that the irony?

The dapper Gymnosoma rotundatum

The dapper Gymnosoma rotundatum

To be fair, Gymnosoma rotundatum is more of a dandy than a hipster. But it does have a beard! Decked out in a dashing black shirt and bright orange pants with three black spots down its back, like large buttons, gives rise to its common name the ladybird fly. Rather than cycling it flits around Warwick Gardens, stopping on leaves and flowers and taking time to pose for photos. It belongs to the Tachinid family of flies. Tachinids are parasitic and ours has a preference for shield bugs. They lay their eggs on the bug and when the eggs hatch, the larvae bore into the body and feed off the insides. When they are ready to pupate they crawl their way back out and into soil. Rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle!

High rise living

The chronic need for housing in London is big news at the moment. Land is at a premium and house building has to fight for space amongst the fancy office blocks and shopping malls that are littering our city. There is talk of building on the green belt, extending suburbia, despite legislation making that impossible; our brownfield sites are being handed over to build yet more supermarkets, and soon people will be able to build in their gardens. Add to that the loss of front gardens to parking the ever increasing sales of cars, contributing to flooding and chokingly high levels of pollution. All this erodes our green spaces – valuable both to wildlife and our health and sanity. We need to utilise the thousands of houses that stand empty, heavily tax the people who buy just for investment, and build upwards. Tall housing is a win – multiple occupancy for humans and opportunities for living roofs offering high rise meadows and other wildlife friendly habitats. Couple that with some living walls and solar panelling we could start to restore the lungs of our city. Simple really!

Woodworm holes,

Beetle holes, Yellow-faced hyleaus bee and Chelostoma campanularum bee

The solitary bees and wasps of Warwick Gardens have utilised the empty beetle holes in one of the tall standing totem poles. There is a whole community of tiny bees buzzing with all the fervour of living in a multiple occupancy block of nests. The main occupants – Hylaeus and Chelostoma sp – spend a lot of time out and about in the park collecting pollen to store for their young, zipping back to their nests every so often, while the parasitic wasps lurk around waiting to lays their eggs in these nests. Today as I watched a bee go into her nest a Gasteruption jaculator wasp was also watching… when the bee left the wasp stuck her oviposter in the hole and laid her eggs. On hatching they will feed on the grubs of the bee as well as on stored food. These dainty fairy-like wasps do have a dark side!

Gasteruption jaculator checking bee hole,

Gasteruption jaculator checking bee nest, preparing, and oviposting

Also living in the tower block is the tiny mason wasp Microdynerus exilis which is new to Warwick Gardens. She is nesting higher up the block. I am excited to find this wasp as it is a Notable B species and thus uncommon, only found in the south of England. I first saw one wrapped around the stamens of a buttercup in early June, so it is good to see it nesting in the park.

Microdynerus exilis

Microdynerus exilis

The penthouse is occupied by the wool-carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, one of our largest solitary bees. At the moment they are busy feeding on the black horehound, with a characteristic darting flight pattern – the males are fiercely terrirtorial, defending their territory vigorously against other males and insects and will fly at intruders to move them on. Nests are constructed in existing aerial cavities like beetle holes. Our bees are nesting in the top crevice of the totem pole with nests made of the shaved hairs of plant stems.

Wool-carder bee

Wool-carder bee

All is good in this high rise block of hymenoptera and its great to sit and watch all the comings and goings. Though lurking in the shadows are the dark things… the walnut orb spider sits and waits for the moment a bee flies into its web. Just like a moody landlord waiting for the day you can’t pay the rent…

Walnut orb spider

Walnut orb spider

Tortoise beetles, bugs and butterflies

Its been a while since my last post and Warwick Gardens has burst into life. It seems the warm winter and the recent hot weather has allowed certain species to flourish. The new edible hedge is doing well with the first fruit being a fine crop of fat gooseberries, the thistles are back with a vengeance and a new patch of black horehound has sprung up. The insect life is certainly abundant with record numbers of bees, beetles, bugs and butterflies. There have been new sightings of red-headed cardinal beetles, the plant bug Leptopterna ferrugata, bordered shield bug and a tiny wasp which i am trying to get an ID for… But this post is about all things tortoise!

Tortoise beetle and larva

Tortoise beetle and larva

The Green tortoise beetle is what I would call a paranoid beetle in the way it has equipped itself to avoid detection. I usually find them face down tucked between the thistle leaves but this year they have decided to hang out on the Lesser burdock. The vast leaves of this plant are a playground for these beetles – I have never seen them so active! Running across the leaves, flying, mating and, of course, when you approach them they behave just like tortoises, pulling their antennae and feet in and pulling their ‘shell’ tight down around them. They really blend into the green background, making them difficult to spot. The larvae are equally careful about being detected: these little spiky beings carry their poo on their backs!

Tortoise shield bugs

Tortoise shield bugs

Another new sighting in the park has been the Tortoise shield bug. I have been really pleased to find these as they have been on my ‘wish list’ for a while. I spotted the first one amongst the comfrey bushes when I was photographing flower bees. Since then I have found five. They seem to differ in colouration – from a rather dull brown to wonderful pink/brown mottled ‘tortoise’ markings. They have been mating so the next challenge is to find the nymphs. I will keep you posted!

Tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillar and adult

Tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillar and adult

Our best known British butterfly has to be the beautiful Tortoiseshell butterfly. One of the first butterflies out in the spring, they are the denizens of urban gardens. Their bright orange tortoiseshell markings really brighten up the day. This year they have been in abundance in Warwick Gardens, with a fine showing of caterpillars on the nettles.

Beetle of the week: Cardinal beetle

Warwick Gardens is looking rather green and blue at the moment. The green alkanet has taken over the whole of the garden side of the park and is ablaze with blue flowers, though if you look closely you will see they are bejewelled with colourful ladybirds. But up by the log circle you can see flashes of bright red – the cardinal beetles have arrived.

Black-headed cardinal beetle

Black-headed cardinal beetle Pyrochora coccinea

There are three species of cardinal beetle in the UK – the red-headed, black-headed and scarce cardinal. The most common is the red-headed cardinal beetle. We are lucky to have the rarer black-headed variety in Peckham! They are striking looking beetles about 20mm in length, with bright red wing casings, shiny black head and long, black, toothed antennae. They are usually found on flowers at the edges of woodlands and parks, and the black-headed cardinal is an indicator species for ancient woodland. Maybe their reason for settling in Warwick Gardens is a throwback to when the Great North Wood stretched to Camberwell. As predators they feed on other insects flying around the flowers on which they are perched. At the moment our beetles are scuttling up and over the logs looking for somewhere to lay their eggs. The larvae will live under loose bark or within rotting wood where they feast on the larvae of other insects.

Cardinal beetles are often mistaken for red lily beetles – the gardeners’ nemesis. These beetles are much smaller, with red dimpled wing casings, and have been seen in Warwick Gardens. Please familiarise yourself with these as I don’t want our cardinal beetles squashed!

Update 6th May

Oops! That last sentence just rang true! The problem comes when your preferred habitat happens to be a children’s adventure playground. I am taking a magnanimous view of this squashed cardinal beetle I found on the logs as I think it lost its life under a foot as children do like to run over the logs. I hope the beetle managed to mate and lay eggs before the demise… at least there are another three beetles running around.

Squashed cardinal beetle

Squashed cardinal beetle