Whilst struggling to get started on this post, news has run ahead of me. The suspicion that Trumps’ drone strike to assassinate an Iranian general visiting Baghdad might have unintended consequences has already materialised.
56 were killed in the stampede at the funeral for Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. 176 perished when the Ukrainian Boeing was shot down in error with an Iranian missile fired by jittery troops.
Meanwhile the news that a change in wind direction has caused 2 of the enormous bush fires which have been raging in Australia for the last few months, to join together to form a mega fire larger in area than Greater London, will probably add to the already estimated death toll of 800 million wild animals. Click here, and Click here for more from the University of Sydney.
Back in Blighty, the latest Met Office annual report tells us that “The provisional UK mean temperature for 2019 was 9.4 °C, which is 0.6 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average.This ranks as the eleventh warmest year in the historical UK series from 1910. All top-ten warmest years in this series have occurred this century. The provisional UK rainfall total for 2019 was 1240 mm, which is 107% of the 1981-2010 average, making
this a wet year overall although not especially so.” Click here for more detail.
A decade ago, creating a website and blog hadn’t even entered my mind, though I was already snapping scenes, wide and close. But I wondered what the top stories were in January 2010? Can anyone remember?According to the BBC news website, click here, the most read stories for January 2010 included:
“Heavy snow and icy roads are causing chaos across most of the UK, where Met Office severe weather warnings are in place as the “deep freeze” continues. Hundreds of schools closed, many roads are hazardous, and buses, trains and planes have been delayed. Several airports have suspended flights. Snow fell in Scotland and large parts of England and Wales, in what is said to be the coldest snap in decades.”
“A magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on the afternoon of January 12, 2010, was one more disaster in a country that had suffered from decades of political, economic, and social setbacks and inequalities. With approximately 3 million people affected, this earthquake was the most devastating natural disaster ever experienced in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Roughly 250,000 lives were lost and 300,000 people were injured.”
And at the Chilcot inquiry:
“Tony Blair has said the Iraq war made the world a safer place and he has “no regrets” about removing Saddam Hussein. In a robust defence of his decision to back war, Mr Blair said Saddam was a “monster and I believe he threatened not just the region but the world.” The former prime minister was barracked by a member of the public as he made his closing statement at the end of a six-hour grilling at the Iraq inquiry. He said “Iraqis were now better off and he would take the same decisions again.”
So maybe not much has changed with the world.
Climate or weather.
Yet I sense a personal and generally wider concern about where the world is headed as we enter this decade.
For the natural environment and our species.
Or even our very continued presence in it.
It’s barely 13 decades, or 5 human generations since the internal combustion engine kicked off the exponential exploitation of the world’s stored fossil fuels, a nano period in the history of our planet, yet a crucially critical, and possibly terminal one for Homo sapiens.
For the first time I’m even reading very rational articles questioning whether gardening with ornamental plants will survive climate change upheavals. Click here for an interesting piece by Noel Kingsbury.
“The theme for the blog, “The Garden Impressionists – Outside Musings from Our Garden in Carmarthenshire” gives me some leeway. Essentially I want to communicate through words and images a bit of my enthusiasm for the natural world, in this fairly off the beaten track part of the UK, from a gardener’s perspective…
The blog is mainly observation driven and as well as being a form of long-term diary, it has become a stimulus for me to discover new things about nature, gardening, and the wider world as a result of researching topics which grab my interest. Hopefully some of what I photograph and write about is both entertaining and a stimulus for thought or action on the part of anyone reading the blog:
Like a garden changing, maturing, and ageing with time and the seasons, I see the main value of the blog as recording information and experiences, and reflecting the blogger’s own development, struggles and ageing over the longer term…
I really value the stimulus, and challenge, of producing something worthwhile without the need for monetary reward, and of course the freedom that this approach brings to me for subject selection and opinion expression….
Thanks to Fiona’s pre-Christmas order, and the efficient folk at Blog To Print, the latest hard copies of this blog arrived a few days ago, and it transpired that I’d included so many photos in 2019, that the blog contents needed splitting into 2 separate volumes – a clear sign of advancing years.
Many apologies for any regular readers, who’ve ploughed through even a fraction of this.
So I hope that this first piece for the new decade, contains a typically irrational mix of science, creativity, thoughts and photos, and at least a scintilla of something new or interesting for readers. We’re still fond of looking, seeing and musing.
The phenology of snowdrop cultivar opening is playing out in typically predictable fashion, though still running a little late for many forms. As I write this on January 11th, we’ve about 73 different forms “open”. Though my definition of an “open” flower would differ from a strictly botanical, or indeed insect, viewpoint.
For the flowers to open their outer segments and so expose the hidden pollen, nectar, stamens and stigma/style ovaries, a temperature of about 10 degrees C is needed, which usually arrives with a burst of warmish, winter sunshine.
However, in this year’s grey, wet but generally mild weather, sunshine has so far been in very short supply. Notwithstanding this, on January 9th, with little wind and a hint of lightening in the grey, temperatures were high enough for many of the early stalwarts to open their flowers properly.
A new variety here, G. “Watlington Greenman” above, and below, acquired in 2019 and flowering for the first time seems very special in this regard, being able to open outer segments wide even in cool drizzly conditions. Looking vigorous as well, it’s one to watch in years to come, having been found and named by Paul Barney of Edulis nursery who now lists a huge number of forms each year. Click here.
What was even better was that my walk to check which new forms had dropped their flowers to horizontal or below overnight (my definition of the flower “opening” and creating significant visual impact), coincided with my first honeybee sighting in months.
Even better, this intrepid early worker bee spent a few minutes refuging inside the barely opened lanterns of “Mrs. Macnamara”. She quickly seemed exhausted and spent a few moments resting before noisily heading off. I guessed that given the very short weather and flying windows which present bees with foraging chances so early in the year, she may have come from one of our hives.
The following day, with cooler temperatures of about 5.5 degrees C, but light winds and full sun, I was ready with the camera at about the same time of 10.20 am. Sure enough a single bee appeared, gathered pollen and nectar for about 5 minutes and headed off. Within a further 10 minutes, a bee re-appeared. Then another, and another. Within half an hour most clumps of snowdrops with properly opened flowers were being visited.As were the first opened flowers of the sublimely scented Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’.
What a delight for me to spend an hour or so, after so many weeks of unpromising weather, simply watching the bees, and their ability to comb the pollen onto their hind legs whilst still hanging onto the flower, or even in mid-air.
Yet how much more thrilling must it be for the bees?
Weeks on end, pressed tight in a warm, dark, unventilated space, with, well just other bees.
Then suddenly honeyed, perfumed nectars and rich orange pollen to collect.
And fresh air.
And early birdsong.
Can bees experience ecstasy?
(Try googling ecstasy, to see how word definitions have morphed over time. Click here for a more erudite than most link, to the poem “The Ecstasy” by John Donne; or click here for stunning porcelain figures of this title by Angela Farquharson, an artist member of our gardening club).
Perhaps Apistasy, or Apiphoria would fit the bill:
Apistasy / Apiphoria – noun: the sensory overload and euphoria which honey and bumble bees experience on their first foraging flight after their winter hibernation, or dormancy.
Sure enough, later in the day, I checked out the 2 remaining hives, and there was a steady trickle of bees purposefully flying in and out from one hive, the first swarm of last year, with some carrying orange pollen.
Whilst on the subject of bees, I thought I’d include a brief science section, as is my want, relating to honeybee queen cells.
I included some photos of these cells recently when discussing the lead up to natural swarming behaviour by honeybee colonies. What had passed me by, was the practical issue created by building these special large wax queen cells hanging downwards (usually) from the base of comb. Very different in form to the typical honey or worker larvae holding cells, which are also built from wax, but tend to be angled slightly upwards of horizontal – very helpful for ensuring the contents stay in place.
Some clever recent research has explored the physics of these queen cells, and how the developing queen stays inside, and doesn’t fall out! (“How Honeybees Defy Gravity with Royal Jelly to Raise Queens” – click here). After being built, the queen bee will lay an egg in the base of these cells, and the cell is then provisioned with royal jelly by worker bees, which is critical for the hatched egg to develop into a larger larva which will emerge as a virgin queen bee (and not an “ordinary” female worker bee).
Work by May Berenbaum in 2015 hints that it’s probably not the royal jelly which determines whether a queen will develop, but more the lack of these larvae being provisioned with any pollen or honey as part food sources. It’s now thought that some plant based phenolic chemicals such as p-coumaric acid (and other flavonoids) in pollen and honey (bee bread) which is mashed up and fed to the majority of female eggs by nurse bees, are key controllers of bee caste development. Worker bee larvae fed this more diverse food source have ovaries that don’t develop, and shrivel. This seems to happen because these flavonoids significantly affect the expression of genes important in determining bee caste development. So, what the identical female bee eggs are fed does indeed determine whether a queen bee emerges, but it’s not the queen jelly which achieves this, rather the lack of bee bread. Click here for more. Or here.
Royal jelly (RJ) is thus the only food stuff the developing queen larva receives. RJ is a composite secretion of two specialized head glands in the worker bees: the mandibular glands, which produce mainly fatty acids (FA), and the hypopharyngeal glands, which contribute proteins, primarily belonging to the major royal jelly protein (MRJP) family. Together they form a nutritionally complete food.
However, RJ also has some fascinating physical properties. When brought together in the acid environment of the final mix (thanks to the FA’s), fibrils begin to develop in the liquid (the microscopic string like structures below) as a result of a polymerisation process between 2 of the protein constituents. These fibrils dramatically increase the liquid’s viscosity to a treacle like consistency.
What’s more remarkable is that this polymerisation is a reversible pH dependent process – raise the pH (make the fluid less acid) and the fibrils disappear and the jelly becomes more liquid. The researchers assume that it’s at the very last stage, as the 2 different glands’ secretions are transferred to, and mix in the queen cell, that this chemical reaction occurs. Obviously if it happened within the worker bee, it would prove very difficult for the jelly to be placed into the queen cell since it would be too sticky.
Apparently a similar pH change and chemical transformation occurs as silk “fluid” leaves a spider’s spinneret and changes from liquid to the amazingly strong tensile thread we all recognise in spiders’ webs.
It’s brilliant that this research paper is open access and allows copying of several of the above images, and the little video clip. Many thanks to the research team and publishers for allowing this. I hope that you find this as amazing as I do.
So, RJ is a kind of bee Araldite, but one that works as a queen bee larval food as well. It wasn’t until 1934 that Paul Schlack patented 2 part epoxy resins. Araldite itself, patented in 1943, the familiar 2 tube adhesive which requires mixing for glue activation to occur, uses a different form of polymerisation, which is irreversible and has, as far as I know, no nutritional benefits!
It seems that the bees, with millions of years of development under their wings, may indeed have been first movers in this field of clever chemical polymerisation.
Finally, to update on the knocking mouse (rodent) which first appeared on the evening of Christmas Eve. My stethoscope was brought into service over the next few days to try to pinpoint exactly where in the internal wall, close behind the radiator, it might be burrowing. Days passed with the sound appearing usually in the evening in bursts of activity.
Then, after listening and watching some of our Christmas music acquisitions, the strange synchronicity struck me. We’ve heard occasional scratchings before in ceilings, but nothing of this volume. And on Christmas Eve.
We’re great fans of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music and indeed had a DVD of Matthew Bourne’s version of the Nutcracker, but this Christmas had at last become familiar with the real story behind the ballet, which links back to a Gothic fairy tale written by a Prussian, E.T. A. Hoffman in 1816 -“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. Set in Nuremburg on Christmas Eve, in which young Marie Stahlbaum’s favourite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls. This was later adapted by Alexandre Dumas, where Marie was renamed Clara, and the story simplified. It was this later version, largely lacking the importance of the mouse king/queen, which was the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s music. Click here for more.
It happens that the excellent Septura CD, which features a new arrangement for their brass septet, includes Peter Jacobi reading the story synopsis. Watch the clip below for a feel for the brilliant arrangement, playing and recording.
The Zurich ballet’s new performance takes the ballet back closer to the original Hoffman story line with some wonderful contemporary dancing and fabulous costumes. Well worth a watch if you enjoy ballet, and in this clip you’ll see how the mice get quite a central role.
I’m guessing mice, or even their larger cousins have co-existed in our homes and myths for centuries. I now feel that the Nutcracker will come alive with new resonance in years to come.
As a final plug for more local musical wizardry, do check out this recent recording.
Soar, a collaboration between classically trained Welsh harpist Katrin Finch and Senegalese Seckou Keita playing the Kora, a West African harp made out of a gourd. It’s stunning contemporary music, produced by those talented folk at Cardigan’s Mwldan Arts centre. The CD case/booklet is a work of art in itself and I’m not surprised that at this year’s BBC folk awards, they were named Folk Duo of 2019. Click below and enjoy the opening track, “Clarach” named after the first Osprey to be reared on the Dyfi estuary, after their re-introduction to Wales.
For those who don’t know, and I didn’t, Ospreys are migratory, heading back to West Africa after their chicks have been reared, Click here for a review by more competent folk music critics than me, as to just how good it is.