It started with a kiss.
Actually, I can’t remember whether it did, in the early morning in question, but it was certainly in the bedroom that at some point I’d registered a buzz. Since we always leave our Velux roof-light slightly ajar at this time of the year, I’m alert to scout honey bees venturing in as a good sign that the swarm season might be about to begin here. But the pitch of this particular buzz seemed a little deeper, so I looked around the still dim bedroom to find the culprit which by then had become silent, and eventually found her on one of the purlins – a large common queen wasp, Vespula germanica.
It seems that the frequency of buzzing is in fact quite distinctive for different species of flies, bees and wasps, and recent work has even shown that with sophisticated auditory monitoring equipment, pretty good species detection can be made ‘in the field’, in spite of ambient background noise, by analysing the pitch of such buzzing. The noise is generated both by the wing movements and the activity of the thoracic flight muscles, as the wings are beaten. This Japanese research also seems to confirm my thought that a wasp tends to make a slightly lower frequency buzz than a honeybee, when in normal flight, which is what was being monitored in this study.
Having seen the queen slowly working along one of the tung oil treated ancient timbers, which divide up our sloping ceiling, I reckoned she was probably rasping off wood fibres as a material source for constructing a nest somewhere. Returning to the bedroom after retrieving my camera, I thought I’d take a few photos of her, and by then she’d relocated to the central apex purlin, running between the A frame trusses. As I zoomed in whilst filming a short video clip, I remember exclaiming to a worried Fiona, who was lying in bed next to me standing beside her feet on the mattress, that I’d made a mistake – she wasn’t just rasping for material, she was actually beginning to build a nest, right above the foot of the bed.
Needless to say, Fiona wasn’t happy at this prospect, but I’m indebted to her tolerance borne out of many happy years of marriage that she reluctantly agreed to my plan to leave her be, to allow me to watch and record just how she managed to build the structure. With the proviso that we’d have to call time on it when we left for a few nights away a week later, and the Velux had to be closed. The still images included here show just how speedily over 4 days the nest was begun, and the first eggs laid. But for anyone as fascinated by this, as I was, I’ve made a short(ish) video of the process. It’s an example of how one can only appreciate some of the extraordinary techniques and body movements employed by a wasp in starting one of these structures, if you watch their movements, in real time.
For anyone who thought I was far too relaxed about allowing this, I knew that this already mated (last autumn) and overwintered female, would first have to lay the eggs which would develop into worker wasps to help her in growing the colony. Then wait for them to hatch out. Then feed them all with caught protein – invertebrates – spiders, maybe flies or caterpillars, etc. Then, once mature, the larvae would have to spin a silken cap for a cocooned final metamorphosis, before emerging as young adult wasps. The whole process was likely to take well over a month, so we’d only have to tolerate a single, albeit quite large and loud wasp, whizzing past me at the computer as she left the construction site, and returned to the bedroom at frequent intervals through the day.
In the end, she disappeared on the morning of day 5, eventually being found a couple of days later by me on a bedroom rug. Perhaps I hadn’t removed the simple blind from the still ajar Velux early enough for her on this particular morning? Usually, she whizzed out well before 6.00 a.m. when I’d first woken up – so much earlier than any self-respecting honey bee would be active, at least around here.
If you watch the video, you’ll see just how much she managed to achieve of the construction in this short space of time. But watching this process led to a number of questions or ideas for me, which I haven’t been able to answer satisfactorily after a considerable amount of time searching on-line:
Does she make use of silk in some way to help secure the eggs and then larvae, once they’ve hatched out, in her downward facing paper hexagonal cells? I knew that honey bees don’t produce silk, but almost all of their cells are slightly upwardly inclined though essentially horizontal and made of and capped with wax (the very different vertical queen cells use the special properties of royal jelly to help secure the egg and larvae which I’ve discussed here). But wasps don’t produce royal jelly, as far as I can discover. There are clips in the video where you can see the wasp whizzing around the central pillar of the nest with her antennae twitching as is the tip of her abdomen, and then climbing over the developing cells and eggs, and probing into the cells. In addition, once the outer ball of the nest has been finished you can see her positioned inside the nest, below the open cells, in periods of frenetic activity where her legs are working at high speed for long periods, almost as a spider does when spinning/weaving silk. I can’t find any similar videos, or references to this though, so pose this as an unanswered question. But if she doesn’t use silk, then how are the eggs prevented from falling out?
How is this incredibly sophisticated behaviour ‘generated’? A wasp brain contains around a million neurones. Our own brains contain around 86 BILLION neurones. Yet given even a skilled human craftsman, could they complete the task of producing, for the first time, with no guides, instruction or YouTube videos to follow, the making of such a structure with no tools – just their own hands and teeth? And all made from their own harvested wood pulp. Would they be able to get anywhere near this level of ‘skill/sophistication’? Yet the wasp has no (as far as we know!) specific instruction passed on to her from the queen of the nest from which she emerged, perhaps with 2,000 other young queens, last autumn – a nest (as above), which by then would have anyway looked completely different to this starting structure.Pondering this difference in brain size and innate behaviours, made me reflect on genes and how they work – sequences of the double helix DNA which the nuclei in all our cells contain and which actually work by coding for the production of specific proteins. By incredibly complex systems, the genes can be switched on or off within individual cells, and it’s these activation/de-activation processes which, for example, help to explain why some cells will be programmed to develop into a nerve cell, or a muscle cell, a liver cell, or a kidney cell. The complete DNA instruction book, or genome, for a human contains about 3 billion chemical molecule ‘bases’ which code for about 20,000 genes on 23 pairs of chromosomes. Click here for more. But what about all the DNA which we share with much ‘simpler’ animals, or even other life forms – all humans have 99.9% of the same DNA, but click here for how much we share, and with what – e.g. 50% with trees, 44% with honey bees, and a massive 70% with slugs, apparently? Gosh, I wouldn’t have put slugs higher than bees. The 44% sharing with honey bees (and wasps?) is interesting, since it led me to another new word discovery and concept – gestalt holistic vision. (gestalt, in German, = ‘unified whole’ – click here for more on the concept of how humans interpret the world) Bees and wasps are also, like us, capable of facial recognition and learning, up to a point, and this is something that apparently has proved to be very difficult to incorporate into artificial intelligence technologies. (Does Holistic Processing Require a Large Brain? Insights From Honeybees and Wasps in Fine Visual Recognition Tasks). Our expertise at recognising faces is largely based on such “holistic processing” – the gluing together of different facial features to provide superior recognition. This is thought to be a sophisticated cognitive process that develops with experience at viewing faces. Once we are familiar with a face, the different features – like eyes, nose, mouth and ears – are processed together as a “gestalt” (a unit that incorporates all elements) to allow (most) of us to reliably recognise individuals. I suspect that as a regular hand weeder in a naturalistic garden, my weeding ability depends very heavily on this type of visual processing – spotting a small aberrant (by which I mean one of a target group of ‘unwanted’ flowers or leaves) amongst a sea of varied greens. Rather than my brain having to process each pixel of detail separately and then try to work out what’s wanted and what isn’t.
What about all the non-coding (nc) or ‘junk’ DNA that our cells contain (around a massive 98% of the total)? This term relates to sequences of our DNA (those 3 billion ‘bases’ I mentioned) which don’t code for any actual genes. Trying to dig into this topic as a layman is really tricky, but there are the occasional attempts at a general review, which I found, like this one. But perhaps a lot of this apparently surplus DNA may play a role in explaining epigenetics?
Epigenetics (on/upon – genetics) itself seems to be a struggle too, for a layman, but I began thinking about it first when I’d heard that a few years ago some unfortunate lab mice, which have an inherent penchant for the smell of cherries, apparently, were put through an unpleasant trial. Each time they were exposed to a cherry like smell, they also received, a short time later, a small electric shock. Result? Within about 20 such exposure events, they’d start to shudder at the smell, even without the actual shock being administered. But the experiment continued, and the mice were allowed to breed, with no further cherry smell/shock exposures. These offspring seemed to exhibit a similar shuddering to the cherry smell, as their ‘shocked’ parents. The offspring mice were also allowed to breed, again with no cherry/shock exposure. Guess what? The ‘grandchildren’ mice still exhibited a shuddering response when exposed to the smell. So this study hints that certain behaviours can be inherited, without the actual gene sequence which might be involved in odour recognition being altered in any detectable way. Possibly by suppression of the activity of some of the relevant mouse genes?
In some ways this trial echoed the hypothesis made by an amateur Australian biologist, Danny Vendramini, a few year earlier. In his theory, a second mode of evolution, which he termed teemosis, evolved around the Cambrian period of explosive biodiversity about 539 million years ago. This is when practically all major animal groups began to appear in the fossil record for the first time. It only lasted for about 20 million years and resulted in the divergence of most modern multi-cellular organisms. The event was accompanied by major diversification in other groups of organisms as well.
Before early Cambrian diversification, most organisms were relatively simple, composed of individual cells, or small multicellular organisms, occasionally organized into colonies. As the rate of diversification subsequently accelerated in this sudden burst, the variety of life became much more complex, and began to resemble that of today. Vendramini postulated that:
“in multicellular animals, powerful, traumatic emotions generated by stressful environmental circumstances (such as predatory attacks, sexual encounters, accidents and misadventures) can be genetically encoded into an animal’s ncDNA. Once encrypted in ncDNA, these traumatic emotions can be inherited by offspring, providing them with an emotional memory of the traumatic event.
I call these quanta of inherited information, teems, (derived from ‘Trauma Encoded Emotional Memory’) and suggest they are the genetic medium by which adaptive information (in the form of an emotional memories) is transferred from one generation to the next.”
Vendramini’s theory hasn’t seemed to gain wide acceptance, (yet?) but then it seems that no one has yet come up with an alternative simple explanation of how epigenetic behavioural changes are actually passed on, though they clearly are, as the mouse experiment I referred to demonstrates.
Finally, I had to ponder the savant syndrome. Typically associated with a small percentage of autistic people, it describes individuals who possess, or develop, extraordinary mental powers, often in the field of maths, memory or music. Way beyond a normal human’s capabilities. But savant syndrome can also occur in some previously healthy elderly people with fronto-temporal dementia, as well as after certain types of cranial injury. The prospect of huge unexplained dormant mental potential (triggered, or released, by CNS injury) existing within anyone is fascinating. Does this in some way link back to hidden, inherited capabilities, or also to all that ‘junk’ DNA?
It’s quite a thought that in spite of huge advances in technology and science we still don’t understand how the wasp ‘knows’ how to build its nest. It’s also sobering to reflect that we may well pass on and burden our children with many of our own acquired or even inherited behaviours or tendencies, unbeknown to us, or them. Or indeed that many of our most valuable ‘life-learned’ lessons of a ‘Teem’ nature, affect us after child bearing age, so can’t be passed on. I suppose this is an area where Homo sapiens has at least the potential to outperform the simple wasp – through acquired knowledge and information transmitted in the multitude of ways now available to many of us on the planet.
However, the current slew of economic, political and conflict news stories confirm that we’re really not terribly good at learning from our lessons of history, are we? Perhaps if we either bred later, or died earlier, we’d be making a better deal of passing some of this experience and knowledge more directly on to our offspring, if not in our genes then epigenetically, in some unfathomable, for now, way?
I was surprised to get a late evening phone call on Bank Holiday Monday, from the lovely Richard Bramley, boss of our local, fabulous ‘Farmyard Nurseries’.
He’d just noticed that the many Hydrangea plants he’d grown on from half a tray of tiny seedlings, above, which I’d dropped off with him a couple of years ago, were already showing developing flower heads – I’d had no success nurturing the half that I’d kept!He’s such an enthusiast, growing a vast range of lovely plants in a business he set up from scratch nearly 30 years ago, and hasn’t lost any of his love for the excitement of growing new things over all that time. I was also really excited to see what they were looking like, so Fiona and I arranged a trip over the following day.
And here they are, with a few more forms he’s already planted out in his amazing developing woodland garden, beside his extensive nursery. We’ll be really keen to go back and have another look to see how the flowers turn out, but the fact that many of the plants have wonderfully coloured leaves even this early in the spring, hints that many may have originated from seed collected from Hydrangea serrata ‘Kiyosumi’, no doubt cross pollinated by our honeybees with the several other forms of Hydrangea growing in the garden.
I’m also enjoying the first flowers from Primula sieboldii, which I’d hand pollinated and saved 2 and 3 years ago, and are beginning the long slog of hoping to raise a few more Erythroniums after a session with my tiny artist’s paintbrush working the 3 different forms in flower at the same time at the end of April, having noticed that although honey bees visited the flowers, few viable seed pods seemed to form on the earlier E. dens canis flowers.
There are already a number of strong, erect seedpods forming on some of the later flowering plants, which I’ll have to remember to pick and sow before they split.I’ve also started the annual seed harvest of Crocus, snowdrop, snowflake, and early daffodil seed capsules, but missed most of the Eranthis and Anemone nemorosa. Ah well, there’s always next year, and many will have fallen and a few germinate in situ.
We heard from Richard Bramley that the wonderful garden at Bryan’s Ground in Herefordshire which we visited, I note from this blog 10 years ago, has recently been sold, and the owners who crafted the extensive garden over many years have moved to West Wales. It seems that the garden is no longer opening to the public. Such is the fate of most privately created gardens, over time – a slow burn slog in the making and maintenance, yet ultimately ephemeral in nature. (Though thankfully not as ephemeral as the Ephemera below, which appeared over us sitting at the terrace table, for the first time ever, bang on cue in the middle of May, the 14th. Perhaps this is why the Wagtails have re-located from the stream – see later?)
Bryan’s Ground was also, like Gelli Uchaf, a garden featured by Claire Takacs in her book ‘Dreamscapes’. But apart from the distant memories of our visit, and the text and images in Claire’s book, we have 2 more physical reminders of our trip.Firstly, it’s where we picked up a plant of Polemonium ‘Lambrook Mauve’, our favourite Jacob’s ladder, which is such a reliable and easy to propagate form, which we grow all along one side of the tyre garden walk. It’s flowering profusely now, as it always does for a good 6 weeks. We also recalled being shown on arrival at the garden, by co-owner Simon Dorrell, a range of shelves displaying a collection of items of pottery and the like, which they’d uncovered over their many years of working the soil in creating the garden. We’ve copied the idea in a smaller way, with our own eclectic shelf display of Gelli finds, from over the years.
Pieces of rusty metal, old boot, bones, and many small fragments of pottery, often found in the middle of our lower fields, when we collect molehill soil. How did they get there? A still life, of lives and times past.
We’d also included a salvaged mossy bird’s nest sitting there, perched on an old fox skull, and beside the stones, broken pottery pieces and assorted glass bottles. This last week, I’ve noticed that it’s been repurposed, lined with sheep’s wool, and even now has a clutch of eggs laid in it. Will they make it? I doubt it, since it’s in such an open space, but full credit to the mother for having a go, and recycling and making use of materials already available. A beautiful effort, though not somehow quite as impressive a feat, to my eye, as Winnie’s creation.
Today, I finally had confirmation of the birds responsible – a pair of beautiful (yellow flashed) Grey wagtails, Motacilla cinerea, which we often see down by the stream, but I’d noticed, unusually, in our yard about a week ago. It’s quite a trip for them from the stream side banks which is where they typically nest, and indeed we’ve never seen them nesting in the garden before. Perhaps the permanently low water levels this spring, or even the garden Mayflies, has made them look further afield?