House clearance

Rotten Lodge

Rotten Lodge

There has been some major demolition happening in Warwick Gardens. One of the logs mentioned in The Bug Quarter has finally succumbed to being rendered useless partly due to decomposition. This housing block in the Log Quarter has been home to solitary bees and wasps for the past few years and they are now being forcibly evicted by either the council foxes or youths with nothing better to do. Admittedly the log has seen better days – a rather shabby exterior full of holes, cracked bark, and fungus graffitied along the damp ground-floor walls. The interior is a brittle honeycomb of tunnels between the lignin, and filled with sawdust echoing their use as nurseries and still ringing with the distant sounds of buzzing gone by. The structure is just not safe. And no, an estate agent certainly wouldn’t recommend buying this log, not even as a fixer-upper.

Solitary bee, wasp, and wasp larva in cocoon

Solitary bee, wasp, and larva in cocoon

Some of the resident bees and wasps have already excavated their nests, stocked their larders and laid their eggs. Unfortunately they 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 rove beetles 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, had 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.

Rove beetle

Rove beetle

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”. Their ideal would be to replace Rotten Lodge with a shiny new log, the longest in Europe, complete with layers of varnish for an impenetrable surface to keep out the riffraff – “we certainly wouldn’t want woodlice and weevils littering the neighbourhood”. It would be designed with style in mind. Holes drilled in neat and tidy rows, inspired by some of those fancy bee hotels but much more minimalist, would be sold off as ready-made bijou homes for the wealthier bees and wasps. It would be multi-functional to include habitats for humans complete with a rooftop picnic area, parking for pushchairs and nice tidy planting. And they would call it The Seat, befitting their ideal vision of a new Peckham!

The fly who looked like a dog

Is it a dog or a fly?

Is it a fly or is it a dog?

Once upon a time there was a fly called Conopid. Well, that was her family name. To most people she was a thick-headed fly. To her mates she was just plain Myopa as no one really knew if she was Myopa pellucida or Myopa tessellatipennis. Unfortunately, to determine her true identity she would have to be dissected and slid under a microscope and she didn’t want that. Myopa spent her days hanging around on flowers waiting for solitary bees to parasitize – she was rather proud that her abdomen, which acted like a can opener, could pry open the segments of a bee’s abdomen to insert her egg. She particularly liked Andrena bees and Warwick Gardens was full of them. But sometimes Myopa felt ‘overlooked’ as she realised her family weren’t that well studied. She knew she was rather aesthetically-challenged, which meant it was unlikely she was ever going to appear on the front cover of BBC Wildlife Magazine. At the very most she could hope to find herself being discussed in a specialist Conopid recording scheme. Most of all she was well aware that her lifestyle was rather repellent to bee lovers. But Myopa wanted to be noticed and she contemplated this as she took a rest on a sycamore leaf.

Then one day a photographer did notice her. Word on the ground was she was a very friendly photographer and not going to sweep you up in a net and pop you in a pot. Myopa had heard legendary tales about other insects who had been photographed and showcased on the world wide web. Some had even been published on blogs and in magazines! This was her chance for some fame. Myopa sat very still as the camera loomed in, determined not to fly off as the shutter came down again and again. She knew she was looking her best as she posed for her portrait.

And then it happened. Myopa was all over the internet, on Facebook and Twitter, and she was liked by lots of people. She was ‘awesome’ and ‘fabulous’ and ‘cute’. And she didn’t mind that she looked like a ‘Disney dog’ or ‘Fido’ or a ‘Cartoon dog’ because now she had a starring role in a blog and lots of people knew who she was. She had her 15 minutes of fame, and she had been talked about. Contented, Myopa flew off and lived happily ever after.

It’s nearly spring!

Early mining bee, Eupeodes luniger, hairy-footed flower bee

Mining bee Andrena bicolor, hoverfly Eupeodes luniger, hairy-footed flower bee

The sun has been shining for the past few days and the temperature is such that I have discarded my thick coat and roll neck jumpers and opted for long sleeved t-shirts and a leather jacket. That means one thing – spring is nearly here. I say ‘nearly’ as the flowers need to catch up and bloom as us insect photographers are getting impatient! There are murmurings on Flickr with the odd hoverfly and small tortoiseshell butterfly appearing, and postings of insects ‘from the archives’, which means we are all sitting here twiddling our thumbs and waiting to start pressing our camera shutters. It can be quite competitive in the entomology world – whose bees have appeared first and where in the country, “blimey your Eupeodes hoverflies are out early”, that twinge of jealousy when someone posts an insect you have never seen but always wanted to – but it is wonderful to see how the insect year unfolds online. In Warwick Gardens the hairy-footed flower bees are out, the hoverflies have started to appear and yesterday I spotted the first mining bee of the year. Yep spring is nearly here.

The Bug Quarter

Gentrification is taking over our city and nothing is stopping it. Soho as we know it is about to be turned into a shiny haven for shoppers with affordable homes for the rich, sweeping away its long cultural history as the bohemian side of town. London is being carved into ‘Quarters’ – such a poncey name for neighbourhoods. Mayfair has become The Luxury Quarter, The Shard – ‘Western Europe’s first vertical town’ – spearheads The London Bridge Quarter, Waterloo and Baker Street have their own Quarters, and Dalston is making a bid to become The Artist Quarter. At least their Quarters have a maze of roads contained within them. In Peckham we now have an Art Deco Quarter which is essentially a few buildings on the corner of Rye Lane and Blenheim Grove. Hardly a maze. So in the spirit of gentrification I have decided to divide Warwick Gardens into Quarters.

Warwick Gardens' Quarters

Warwick Gardens’ Quarters

The Bug Quarter
The home of the upwardly mobile, this is where a lot of bugs have decided this is the perfect place to raise a family. The canopies of hawthorn and silver birch trees provide an aerial playground for birch catkin bugs, parent bugs, hawthorn shield bugs, birch shield bugs, red-legged shield bugs, common green shield bugs, and the occasional mottled shield bug who has decided to up sticks and move out of the Football Quarter. Even the box bug, once historically rare and only found living at Box Hill but has recently begun an expansion through southern England, has moved in after finding a suitable home on the hawthorn.

Hawthorn shield bug nymphs, box bug nymph, birch shield bug

Hawthorn shield bug nymphs, box bug nymph, birch shield bug

The Log Quarter
This is the largest housing estate in Warwick Gardens, offering a mixture of multiple-occupancy logs that house a wide variety of invertebrate families. The long term mulch-munching residents – woodlice, bark beetles, fungus beetles, beetle larvae – share the space with short-let summer homes for solitary bees and wasps who burrow into the wood to make their nests. A popular picnic spot for people who spend their lunchtimes eating sandwiches and playing with their iPads, and for children who enjoy jumping over the logs oblivious to the life beneath them, this is one area that will be earmarked for redevelopment in the future once all the residents have decomposed it.

Cis boleti, Saddle-backed bitana, blue mason bee

Cis boleti, Saddle-backed bitana, blue mason bee in her nest

The Football Quarter
The south side of the park, situated next to the football pitch, is the main food boulevard. The habitat here showcases some of the finest food available in the park from season to season. Green alkanet is on the menu throughout the year and ragwort and yarrow are specialities in summer. In the spring the comfrey plants open their flowers up to hairy-footed flower bees, their leaves providing posing platforms for bee-flies and spiders. On sunny days the lilac bushes, home to the notable ‘Peckham’ leafhopper Orientus ishidae, proffer their leaves for insects to take a rest and indulge in a spot of sunbathing. The tall grass fronds act as plush elevated restaurants for mirid and plant bugs, whilst the ground levels are stomping grounds for chanting crickets and grasshoppers on the look out for a mate. The ivy bars are in flower from September offering a constant drip of sweet nectar to wasps, hoverflies and red admiral butterflies. This is the place to ‘celebrity spot’ the flamboyant dragonflies, butterflies and jewel wasps who visit in the summer. Ladybirds and Corizus hyoscyami bugs add a splash of colour, and narcissus flies prance around in fur coats doing a remarkable impersonation of a bumblebee. And in the winter, once everything seems to have disappeared into hibernation, wolf and nursery web spiders use the space to lounge around in relative peace and quiet except for the occasional disturbance of a football crashing into them.

Common blue butterfly, Corizus hyoscyami, Narcissus fly

Common blue butterfly, Corizus hyoscyami, Narcissus fly

Poo Corner
This is the seedy side of Warwick Gardens frequented by lazy dog walkers. Overshadowed by trees nothing much grows here except for swathes of nettles and bramble. This is where you will find the yellow dung flies and greenbottles swarming around piles of dog shit, and is characterised in the warm summer months by the faint whiff of urine. Not the best place for a picnic. Attempts to gentrify it last year failed miserably as the hedge that was planted in an effort to make the area more upmarket got swamped by nettles. Local bad boys, the horse chestnut leaf-miner moth, have vandalised one of the conker trees leaving it with an eerily stunted growth. In August nettle bugs gather on the nettles in large numbers in an orgy of mating, unaware of the comb-footed spiders that lurk under the leaves waiting to capture their next meal. This is also one place to spot the bright red velvet spider mites on the look out for a dinner of tasty springtails that live amongst the fallen leaves in autumn.

Dung fly, greenbottle, horse chestnut leaf-miner

Dung fly, greenbottle, horse chestnut leaf-miner

Wasp kitchens

Aphid-hunting wasp selecting her beetle hole

Aphid-hunting wasp Pemphredon sp in her beetle hole

A plethora of new kitchens are popping up around Peckham. In the days before gentrification we called them ‘restaurants’ or ‘cafes’. The solitary wasps of Warwick Gardens, already ahead of this trend, have secured their premises in the log circle and are busily repurposing, upcycling and retrofitting old beetle holes in readiness of opening their own seasonal pop-up kitchens.

They will, of course, only be choosing 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.

Wasp with aphid

With an aphid

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 skillfully sliced off with sharpened jaws and the precision of a master butcher, their bodies stacked high in larders like slowly drying hams.

Wasp with crab spider

Spider-hunting wasp Dipogon sp with a crab spider

And every care is taken to ensure the food will be tasty and plentiful. 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. The ambience has to be just right because these are very special diners. They are the larvae of the wasps. Bon appétit!

Normcore bugs

My friend was over from Istanbul at the weekend. She heads the design team for the largest jeans company in Turkey and was in town to snoop around at what London has to offer in terms of fashion trends. When I see her its the only time I get to talk about fashion, not a subject I am particularly hot on. This years’ unlikely trend is ‘Normcore’. Apparently its all about blending in and looking rather boring. Some fashion statement and an indication our clothes designers have completely run out of ideas! Either that or they have taken hipster irony to a new level. Reading up about normcore lead me onto an article in the Guardian where the comments rang with complete derision with someone declaring ‘at last – after 73 years – I’m fashionable’.

Plant bugs blending in

Mirid bugs blending in

In Warwick Gardens there are plenty of normcore bugs. The mirid bugs, in particular, prefer to ‘blend in’. They don’t flaunt themselves in flamboyant jackets à la Vivienne Westwood like ladybirds, or mooch around in smart Paul Smith-style suits like shield bugs, or even whizz around in fancy Zandra Rhodes ‘look-at-me’ stripy dresses like they do in the hoverfly world. Mirid bugs are more of an M&S style of bug. But at least, for a season, they can pride themselves with being on-trend.

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!


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!


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!