Stripes are in Vogue

As featured in the latest issue of BQ magazine

Its early October and the insects of Warwick Gardens are so excited – it’s time for the annual Autumn Fete. The grasshoppers are fat and fully grown and the mottled shield bugs are finally adults after several moults, whilst the Roesel’s bush-crickets, whose love songs kept up the spirits of Summer, can barely wheeze after weeks of wooing. The long grass is faded and falling over and the blackberries have been picked. Thankfully the green alkanet, a Trojan of the plant world, is still opening its blue flowers to everyone. It is time for one last party before the winter sets in. And as usual the Fete will be held at the most popular bar in the park – the Ivy Bush – currently in full flower and offering free nectar and pollen on tap.

This year there is a fashion show for the pollinators and the theme is stripes. There is a real buzz in the bush as the designers step up onto the stage.

Lesser hornet hoverfly – Volucella inanis

First up are Diptera & Gabbana presenting their new ‘Bella Volucella’ plus-sized range. The lesser hornet hoverfly showed off an elegant bodycon frock in light orange and black striped suede with a shiny black and chestnut patterned collar. Everyone loved their creation and applauded the designers for their inclusivity.

German wasp – Vespula germanica

Next up is Vivienne Waspwood waving a placard shouting ‘God Save the Pollinators’. Having spent years dressing the individualistic ichneumon wasps in her retro punk black leather-look catsuits she finally had a chance to bring in some colour and produce a uniform for the social wasps: black and daffodil yellow stripes with a few dots and a scanty black hairy ruff. Everyone cheered except for the tiny flies who flew away in fear of being eaten.

Ivy bee – Colletes hederae

Ivy Saint Laurent chose to dress the ivy bee. A sleek black and beige striped pencil skirt with a massive furry stole in rich caramel. The other insects oohed and aah’d at the sheer beauty of her, as they had only seen her a couple of times since she arrived from France a few years ago. The stylish design was one step up from the honey bee deemed rather dull at last years’ show.

Holly blue – Celastrina argiolus

Then Galliano rocked up with a butterfly. He hadn’t read the brief and presented a holly blue. Not a stripe in sight, but a thin white border around the lustrous blue ombre wings. To the audience this was a breath of fresh air – the stripes were getting confusing and all too similar.

Wasp spider – Argiope bruennichi

Meanwhile down amongst the grasses is the circus of wasp spiders who have been dressed by Gaultier, flamboyant in cream and lemon yellow stripes outlined in black. They have spent the night spinning their famously chaotic webs with its striking zig-zag pattern ready for the classic game of Catch The Grasshopper. As for the grasshoppers they are enjoying outwitting the spiders with spectacular leaps and bounds over the webs, though occasionally one mis-steps and gets quickly pounced on and wrapped up in silk.

It was a day to remember. And now to look forward to spring.


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.

Vespula vulgaris and Vespula germanica

Vespula vulgaris and Vespula germanica

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.

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!

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!

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!

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

Stocking the larder

Astata boops

I went blackberry picking in Warwick Gardens this morning. The bushes hang over the fence from one of the gardens and are laden with ripe, succulent fruit. I stewed some in red wine with star anise, cinnamon and a squirt of honey (yum!) and packed the rest away in the freezer for later.

Another creature stocking up her larder was Astata boops, a fine-looking shield bug-hunting wasp. She looked rather happy to have caught a Birch shield bug nymph and was running up and down the birch tree working out a way to carry it back to her nest. These wasps make their nests by burrowing into the ground and building cells. The tunnel can be 10cm long and usually contains two or three cells. Our wasp has her nest near one of the blackberry bushes as she flew off the tree and disappeared into a hole under the grass. The female fills each cell with a shield bug, lays her egg in it and seals up the cell. The entrance to the nest is also sealed and guarded by the male. The larvae feed on the shield bugs over winter and emerge as adult wasps in the spring.

Fairies in Peckham?

Gasteruption jaculatorOne of the prettiest creatures to visit Warwick Gardens has to be this wasp with the most fantastic name – Gasteruption jaculator. It is a parasitic wasp closely related to the ichneumon wasp, belonging to the Evanioidea family. They daintily dance around the flowers like fairies, stopping to feed on nectar. To us they are good fairies as they pollinate our plants, but to solitary bees and wasps they are BAD fairies!

Easily identified by the extremely long ovipositor, the female visits the nests of various solitary bees or wasps and pushes her ovipositor into the nest, depositing her eggs on or near to the eggs of the host. On hatching the young larvae will devour the grubs and supplies of pollen and nectar of its victim. The adults grow up to 10–17 millimetres.