The landscape and weather here have been languishing. Stuck, metaphorically, in a deep rut between the end of the summer season and autumn’s winds and rains, with the anticipation of fall and decay. Fat berries, the spawn of many successful bee blossom visits, weigh down the Sorbus branches on those with less taste appeal. S. ‘Olympic Flame’s are long gone. And the advance guard of suffusing leaf tints only slowly hint at this change now, in September’s last week.
A lethargy which strangely mirrors a personal state of mind induced by what looks likely to be the driest year we’ve ever had here since I’ve recorded such things. Uninterrupted dry, means outside work, means long term fatigue. Though perhaps this state of mind is also affected by my assessment of the apparent national mood of languishing.
For those outside the UK who read this, our media has at last moved on from 18 months of Covid related obsession, to covering the inevitable, but hard to predict, unfolding fall out from 18 months of our unique experiment in state mediated economic shutdown – accelerating inflation, shortages of labour in nearly every sector of the economy it seems; not enough CO2 to stun our livestock pre-slaughter or fizz our drinks (strangely since our climate suffers from too much of the same widespread gas); energy companies going bust on a daily basis; and the lack of HGV drivers impacting on deliveries of anything you can think of, milk, chicken, cement and most dramatically and recently, petrol stations running dry after panic buying from a population unconvinced by government’s reassurances that all will be fine. (Remember February, March and April 2020?)
So, turn off the news, and look and see what’s going on around us, and how much more resilient and flexible the natural world seems to be. It’s seen it all before, and copes somehow, with winners and losers, winters and summers. Picks up the early pointers, the coming change, slows down, recycles, and hunkers down, the better to bounce back in spring.
The garden seems to have been languishing in a similar vein, and I have to try to capture some of this, as is my self imposed want, in words or images. So many times recently, we’ve sat outside in temperatures too balmy for the end of September and commented on just how quiet it is.
Not a breath of wind. (2021 is so far the least windy year for over 60 years, which poses problems for a country now heavily dependent on wind generated electricity).
Minimal birdsong. Maybe the sparrow hawks have had a good year? We’ve certainly seen a few fast sorties through the garden this month.
Last post, I’d played with the issue of words, images or even video, in telling a story, and this was later all turned on its head for me, after reading a piece by Charles Foster, on the Emergence website, which I found after continuing to follow leads on Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life book about fungi.
Titled “Against Nature Writing”, Foster’s quite long read sucked me in with this provocative opening.
“I’M LOSING CONFIDENCE in words.
This is worrying. On many levels. The least significant is that I use words to earn my living. The two most significant are, first, that I use words to tell my children I love them, and, second, that my whole experience of the world is mediated through words. I’ve a vertiginous fear that if words prove untrustworthy, I won’t be able to know anything about anything. And isn’t some sort of knowledge needed for relationship—which is all we have?
So who is this author I’d never heard of before? At this point, only check Foster’s extensive biography, if you’re prepared to feel a little inadequate. Where does he get the time or energy?
“He’s an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. He is known for his books and articles on Natural History, travel (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), theology, law and medical ethics.”
Quite a spread, eh? And he’s managed all of this as well as having 6 children, from 2 marriages. His first degree was in veterinary medicine from Cambridge, 5 years after I was there and I remember kept more than busy by all the demands of the veterinary course, and contemplating a life thereafter in general practice. He clearly felt a need to diversify his interests, so then completed a law degree and became a qualified barrister as well. The best insight I found into this larger than life man, who achieved all this from humble beginnings, is given in this interview in The Guardian, where he talks about the research involved in writing his book Being a Beast. Along with how he applied for and won a scholarship to Shrewsbury School (involving a move from his local comprehensive) without even telling his parents, after reading about such options in the public library.
To quote from his own website “Ultimately (my books) are all presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions ‘who or what are we?’, and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’
Clearly he’s not going to stop writing anytime soon, but I guess that this quote and his provocative writing style will see me buying his latest book, “The Screaming Sky” about his longstanding obsession with swifts, birds which used to grace the valley here in earlier times, but which have disappeared over the last decade or so.
How appropriate also that a couple of weeks ago, our edition of the excellent Country Life magazine dropped into the mail box with an excoriating attack by Charles Quest-Ritson, (CQR), one of its regular garden columnists and author of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Garden Year Book, on the award of a prestigious Gold medal to a small garden at the recent Tatton Flower Show, named “Weed Thriller”. You can view the garden here, and read that the team behind the garden wanted to showcase the merits of many “weeds” not just aesthetically and visually, but for their value to wildlife.
CQR abhorred the untidy jumble, and used words alone to demolish the philosophy behind this garden, writing that:
‘The excuse for this disgraceful jumble of unwelcome plants is that “native plants are not just beautiful but essential to wildlife”. Yes, we know that. But the proper place for weeds is outside the garden.’
It won’t come as a surprise to many regular readers that whilst I didn’t find this particular tiny show plot aesthetically pleasing, and indeed a bit of a jumble, I do sympathise with the principle of using native plants or weeds, amongst more exotic plants to try to create interesting and diverse communities of plants, fungi and animals in our garden spaces.
Much of this post is a riff on this theme, and I feel CQR may be missing a trick by ignoring some of our native species, which have really shone here, in the last month, as the curious mix of weather which we’ve enjoyed in 2021 has continued, with the third prolonged dry spell of the year, and at last a little more sunshine and warmth to accompany it. At this rate, 2021 may end up as the driest ever year, since I’ve recorded such information here, (that’s tempting the Gods’ controlling mean reversion fate), but the Met Office maps for our part of Wales illustrate that as well as being drier than normal, it’s also been much less sunny, which has delayed the flowering time of many stalwart late season perennials like Asters and Sedum. But not, thank goodness, the more recently introduced natives like Knapweed, Centaurea nigra, Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca, and Devil’s-bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis, which have given a fabulous lengthy display of flowers through August into early September, which have drawn in huge numbers of bumble and honeybees, flies and butterflies.
When all this has nearly finished, and the seeds are forming, the birds move in. To draw the curtains and see a charm of goldfinches and other small birds working the stems, early morning in light drizzle, is indeed an uplifting sight.
So perhaps CQR is missing a trick, and should indeed have anticipated just such a change in direction for the RHS, to suit the current zeitgeist, when they appointed a new President, Keith Weed, (ex Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, and also their then head of beauty and personal care products). Perhaps Weed sees part of his role as an opportunity to promote all “weeds” and leave a truly lasting legacy and mark on the world, over and above what he achieved with Dove, Brut, and Vaseline? To quote from Unilever’s current mission statement:
“We believe in Positive Beauty, for people and the planet. In beauty that not only does less harm but also does more good.
Through our beauty and personal care brands, we’re taking action to drive positive change. We’re setting out to transform the systems that hold individuals back – by advocating new policies, laws and social norms that will promote inclusion, health and wellbeing for all members of society.
With more than 1 billion people using our products every day, we have an opportunity to use our scale for good. We’re embracing a new era of beauty. One that’s inclusive. Equitable. Regenerative. Positive. So that people and the planet can thrive together.”
So come on Keith, draft a few lines, to promote Knapweed, Devil’s-bit Scabious (DBS), Tufted Vetch, Sea Campion, Silene uniflora, Germander Speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys and yes, even Marsh Bedstraw, Galium palustre, to any other sceptics like CQR, who’ve yet to appreciate their merits.
I was on the point of pulling out areas of the bedstraw from the terrace garden, above, as it does look a little messy once the seeds are forming. Like a suppressed, emaciated form of the dreaded goose grass or cleavers. Although when in flower, it created a vital uplifting frothy white for this area of the garden, and a foil for the blue Triteleia flowers, which emerged amongst it. Late in their flowering season, I hand pollinated the Triteleia in a (successful) bid to generate some seeds, since no insects that I could observe ever seemed to visit these North American origin bulbs. However, I’d noticed a few large, black, curiously ridged lumps deposited amongst the bedstraw stems and wondered where they’d come from, and it was after I’d pulled up the first couple of handfuls of bedstraw foliage, that I spotted the enormous, middle finger sized, basking form of an Elephant hawk-moth, Deilephila elpenor, caterpillar resting on one of the bedstraw’s fragile stems. I checked out the larval foodplants for this, one of our most dramatic moths, and sure enough as well as willow herb and fuchsia, bedstraws (Galium spp.) are mentioned. Goosegrass really is a thuggish and unattractive step too far to allow anywhere in this garden, but the following day I spotted another, much smaller caterpillar, barely a yard away. So I opted to leave the messy stems for a little longer, to be removed in the annual magic terrace cut back, in the knowledge that these fabulous insects will have benefitted from my decision to intermingle this unruly native into our multicultural planting.
But I’m really jumping ahead of myself. The last 6 weeks has seen our often annual summer crescendo of hospitality build (after a virally mediated year off in 2020), and dovetail with dry weather induced, major external property repairs and maintenance. It’s a very long house to paint annually, such is the cheap, quick and ancient method of lime wash application, with Fiona’s own specially evolved technique, and this year 14 doors for me to repair, rehang and paint on the barns alone.Not to mention a bit of final haymaking too. So whilst in the last month we hugely enjoyed a very successful NGS weekend with nearly 40 visitors spread over 3 sessions over a weekend, above, a long overdue visit from my cousin and husband, and a return by our son’s family and the 6 grandchildren, below, enlivened by some mucking about in the hay shed; jumping into fairy rings in the lower hay meadow,
and a memorable night when the wind dropped, the clouds dissipated and they all lay silent, coat wrapped, on the shrubbery lawn, desperately hoping for a shooting star amongst the thousands of stationary ones. We saw a few satellites, then frustratingly I clocked two shooters, which the youngsters missed with much sadness since wishes had been prepared in advance, but this special moment would surely linger in their minds for a while as they headed home to the city.We needed a mini-recharge at the coast to recover from all this. Camera intentionally left behind, we were blessed with 3 days of glorious warm sunshine, some last swallows, many musical choughs, dolphins, seals and the fabulous mental switch off that walks along this part of Ceredigion’s coastal path always provides.
This last few weeks has also clocked up a number of firsts here. After writing about moles earlier in the year, it seems they’ve finally discovered the potential of the garden. Presumably two youngsters on the move, trying to carve out their own territories, didn’t make it successfully and were probably caught by our neighbour’s cat, and left un-eaten, on paths in the tyre garden and meadow copse. The second fatality timed for me to point out the tiny eyes and enormous digging hands, to the interested visiting children, in early August.
A special day, mid-August, saw us seeing not only 15 or so butterflies sunning themselves on the terrace slate path, but also a novel distinctive large fly, busily working the DBS flowers. It was sufficiently striking to be easy to identify as the pellucid fly, a hoverfly, Volucella pellucens. Such snazzy markings hint at its lifecycle, which as an adult is strictly vegetarian, feeding on nectar and pollen and so serving as a valuable pollinator of the flowers it visits, but the striking black and white wing and abdomen markings, together with the yellow face hint at its need to locate the nests of social wasps, which it’s able to walk into apparently unopposed, laying its eggs, which upon hatching will feed on nest debris, and sometimes the wasp or bee larvae. The striking bee/wasp mimicry probably also deters predatory birds from attempting to catch the adult flies.
Whilst watching this fly work the flowers, I gazed up to a see a pair of falcon like birds circling ever higher overhead. I dashed for the camera, my trusty Lumix, which is now showing its age but is proving difficult to replace with the current shortages which seem to be creeping into life in late 2021 in the UK. It struggled to latch onto the birds, which struck me as more angular, slimmer winged birds, than ones I’ve seen before. In the end I identified them as a pair of Hobbies, Falco subbuteo. These are migrant, fast flying falcons that catch and eat dragonflies, and smaller birds, on the wing. There’s a good You Tube by the BTO as to how to differentiate hobbies from other falcons, which you can view on the link below.
If you enlarge these blurry, small images you can see the distinctive creamy neck, and reddish-brown “trousers” that help with an identification. So, another new species seen at Gelli Uchaf, after all these years.
There is an even more dramatic Hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella zonaria, which we were fortunate enough to be able to see thanks to Andrew’s eagle eyes, though not photograph on a trip to Aberglasney, where it was milling amongst a huge number of flies, including V. pellucens, and indeed an actual hornet, hunting, on a bush of Chinese Privet, Ligustrum lucidum. Classically astute readers may note the similarities in species names – pellucens and lucidum – which derive from the Latin verb lucere, meaning to shine.
The third hoverfly mimic recorded, which I’ve seen intermittently through late summer, but failed to photograph until recently, is the bumblebee hoverfly, Volucella bombylans. This species even occurs in two variant forms to mimic the different bumblebee species which it mimics, and along with the other two, also has to manage to enter the bee nests, to lay its eggs. There’s clearly more scope for me to look at flies in more detail, since like many casual observers, I used to assume that the insects which look, and sound (in the case of drone flies), like bees visiting flowers in the garden aren’t, but rather are some of these great impersonators. Click here for a few more examples – I had no idea that the dreaded Narcissus bulb fly, Merodon equestris, a scourge of daffodils and something we almost certainly now have here, has 4 different colour forms which all mimic the different common bumblebee species.
The best way of distinguishing all of these mimics from real bees or wasps is to look at the shape and size of the eyes; then the very different, stubby antennae; and finally the fact that whilst bees and wasps have 2 pairs of wings, all flies have just 1 pair.
Flies belong to the “order”, in phylogenetic classification, Diptera, a subgroup of the larger group of all insects. From the Greek words, di = two; and ptera = wings; and all flies only have a single pair of wings.
In contrast, bees and wasps are members of the Hymenoptera, a subgroup with two pairs of wings, but where the ptera is prefaced with the Greek hymen. The possible reason for this nomenclature is ambiguous, since hymen means membrane, and these insects do indeed have membranous wings. But then so do most flies! However, the two pairs of wings that bees and wasps have, can be joined together for flight, by a series of tiny hooks or hamuli, on the leading edge of the hindwings. Click here for an amazing image of these, which I won’t be including anytime soon, given the copyright costs involved!
These hamuli can be quickly slotted into grooves on the trailing edge of the forewings allowing the forewings and hindwings on each side of the body to function as a single surface. The wings can disengage and fold over each other when the bee is within the confines of the nest. Hymen was also the name of the Greek God of marriage, whose presence at weddings was thought to be vital for the marriage to be a successful one. The other more frequent use of the word as the membranous vaginal barrier broken during first sexual intercourse, shares a similar Greek etymology, but has no direct links to the named God, apparently.
Finally, butterflies and moths, Lepidoptera, which always peak in numbers in our garden in early September, again have 2 pairs of wings, but these are distinguished by being covered in scales – lepis. Butterflies usually rest with both wings folded together above the body, when not basking to absorb heat. Moths are posturally way more inventive, most spectacularly illustrated by our local Angle shades moth, Phlogophora meticulosa. This example was spotted resting at the base of our barn wall this week, with very precisely folded wings like a paper aeroplane, a strategy which I’m pretty certain is linked to its ability to switch to bat escape mode flight, which I’ve witnessed and discussed here.
And with such a lengthy, stretched, possibly even hymenous link, on to wasps.
A few weeks ago, I’d been alerted to the presence of an underground wasp nest beside the curving path down through our sloping field, Cae Efail, by a collection of khaki coloured gravel chips at the entrance to an apple sized entry hole. The following day, sitting at our terrace table for our morning cuppa, I spotted the table surface was peppered with similar coloured, but much smaller accretions, which could be crumbled between the fingers to a soily dust. I’d never noticed this before, and then found the same material was present on the other tabletop, stone slab seats and even the car roof. The whole of the garden seemed to be a dropping zone. Surmising that the material came from the wasps, I set to with the camera, and quickly established that the wasps were indeed working really hard in numbers to remove this from the nests.
It took a bit of effort to finally track down an explanation, and I’m including the video clip below to show the various stages of activity. As a wasp colony expands through the season, and these are (probably) the common wasp, Vespula vulgaris, the queen wasp that had chosen to build underground after emerging from hibernation, together with her worker progeny, have a design challenge. To expand the paper nest, which is similar to the familiar ones we find in sheds and roof, to accommodate the burgeoning number of larvae, the wasps need extra space. Rather like honey bees, which build their combs very exactly, leaving just enough space for 2 bees to pass on either side, wasps need to maintain about a 1 cm gap around the external surface of the papery nest, which hangs from a pedicel or stalk from the roof of the underground chamber. So they set to, with their strong mandibles to scrape away at the soil surface, wetting it with collected water mixed with saliva, to be able to mould a small pellet which they can then grab in their jaws and fly out from the nest. Presumably they fly these some distance away and drop them indiscriminately (?) to avoid drawing attention to the nest entrance.
This same nest had been ripped open earlier in the year by a predator, fox or badger I guess, drawn to the protein rich larvae. I’m sure that this mud dropping is a regular annual event here, and that this year’s continued dry spell at this time of the year, meant that the pellets hung around on surfaces for long enough for me to notice them. But something still perplexed me. Surely all these pellets couldn’t have come from the nest in the field nearly 50 metres away?
And so the day after our first set of garden visitors had enjoyed their walk round the meadow copse, I did an early morning walk round the paths, in part to be the first to physically snag and remove the many spider threads which always appear overnight, as above. As I looked up at the lovely morning mackerel sky, I was struck by a stream of insects just above head height. Too small for bumbles, and too early, at 7.00 am for this number of honeybees to be out and about. Tracking them back was easy. They were all emerging from a hole barely 2 metres off the garden path and taking the most direct route to gain height between the surrounding trees, were whizzing past my ear as I stood.
The necessary warnings were given to the day’s visitors and a suitable sign erected, and I’d be interested to hear from any readers who’ve observed this mud carrying. Googling You Tubes of underground wasps lead to a gamut of clips of enormous nests dug out from sites in the U.S.A. But the poor wasp, unlike the honeybee, has a very poor and inadequate press, and it took me ages to find this UK site, The Big Wasp Survey, and the work of Professor Seirian Sumner (SS). There’s much of interest here about the huge benefits of having wasps in a landscape or garden; a very useful identification guide to the different British species; and also the tantalizing prospect of a soon to be published, UK based book on their ecology, by SS, which seems to be way overdue.
I’ll be more reluctant to destroy their nests in future, though in the case of this Tree wasp, Dolichovespula sylvestris, nest, expanding in early summer beside an upper window in desperate need of painting this year, there seemed to be little alternative. Though there always is, isn’t there?
September, particularly in a year like 2021 which has been generally benign for flies and insects, (as evidenced by our poor sheep some of which have had a torrid time with being pestered by Head flies, Hydrotea irritans), also sees peak spider activity.
There’s a wonderful, clear review of the amazing properties of spider silk, which you can read here, (Lin Römer &Thomas Scheibel – The elaborate structure of spider silk). The most interesting aspect of its use, is by orb weaving spiders, which create some of the roughly 130 different web designs constructed by different species for the capture of prey. These are the created using several distinct types of silk, from different spinning glands, all of which have different physical properties. The frames and radii of orb webs are made of a quite rigid silk, from what are called the major ampullate (MA) glands. This silk is also always available for the spider to use as a dragline option to escape a predator.
Silk fibres made in the separate minor ampullate glands are used to create a secondary spiral structure which is constructed as a template for the creation of the capture spiral, after the anchoring threads and radii have been crafted.
The capture thread of the spirals of a web are of a completely different silk formed by the spider’s flagelliform glands (F). This silk is highly elastic, in contrast to the MA silk, and used to dissipate the tremendous disruptive forces of a large insect like a bee, flying into a web at speed.
A special silk cement produced in yet another set of piriform glands, is used to attach the ends of the MA silk to surrounding structures, as well as for joining the different parts of the web together.
F silk isn’t itself sticky, so most spiders use a complex mix of organic molecules, salts, fatty acids and small glycoproteins which are produced in yet another ‘aggregate’ gland and this complex sticky compound is then applied by the spider as a wet glue to the threads.
Now, if like me you found this incredibly complex, bear in mind that many species of spiders consume their web once a day, and then completely reconstruct it overnight thus recycling the complex materials involved in its making, to create a pristine catching net for the following morning. Their very lives depend on it.
For more on the mechanics of the construction of the webs, click here. (The secondary frame in spider orb webs: the detail that makes the difference – Alejandro Soler & Ramón Zaera). For more on how spiders modify their webs to reflect changing environmental conditions, click here.(Construction of the orb web in constant and changing abiotic conditions – Phangurha, Josh).Or if moving images are more your thing, for a wonderful time lapse of the process, there’s this from BBC Earth:
I’ll finish with something else linked to the news agenda at the end of August/early September. How time flies, at least for us – the shambolic debacle of the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, the evacuations and chaos at Kabul airport, and the return of Taliban led authoritarian rule for that country.
Way back in the late nineties, just as the availability of music on line began to usher in a new era of potential for easy music availability to anyone with an internet connection, I asked Fiona if she could find and download me a selection of tracks. She duly did, and I provided the cover image of the flames from the peeling bark of our Acer griseum, backlit with the setting sun. An early venture into the creative options that digital technology was allowing.
I also came up with the title, appalled as I then was, to hear that the hard line Taliban regime had apparently banished music from Afghan society. How could a society exist without music? And why ban it?
Fast forward barely a generation, through the tragedy of the World Trade Centre attack; the West’s decision to engage in that country; the loss of lives, civilian and military; the vast sums of money spent in the grand endeavour; and the ultimate apparent futility of it all. And the Taliban have returned.
My music tastes have evolved and expanded, as has my preferred font. I haven’t listened to many of these tracks in years, but they included several of my favourite songs from the ’70’s, 80’s and 90’s which if not one hit wonders, weren’t included on any of our own CD collection at the time.
Whilst our home burned TTT CD no longer plays, perhaps cursed from afar, more likely the result of simple degradation over time, I wondered about the future of music in Afghanistan, something we all surely still take for granted in the UK?
I discovered that there’s a traditional Afghan instrument. A two chambered lute with 3 melody strings, multiple sympathetic strings and 2 or 3 separate drone strings called a Rubab, (or rabab) hand hewn by craftsman from the trunk of a large tree, with a stretched goatskin over the sound chamber and often embellished with mother of pearl inlay, which has a history dating back over 5000 years. To read more click here.
As the West seems to have decided to largely forget Afghanistan for now, links nearly severed, the song below is to poignantly remind me of this sad time, and a different take on “airport music” composed back in 2018 by the Israeli world musician, Yaron Pe’er. I hope you enjoy it’s beautiful, moody melancholic melody and rhythm. An autumnal sound for 2021.
As I finally sign off, rain has returned, the winds are once more blowing, and the Waxcaps are fruiting in the meadows.