Monday, 26 November 2012

Flood waters receding

I walked out of work at lunchtime to look at the swollen 'Brue' river running past the college, between us and Glastonbury. It's still up to the edge of the banks and the dykes and ditches around are still overflowing into the fields and roads. The water in the fields (beneath) is at least now flowing back into the drainage ditches, not from them, and in the next day or two the waters will have subsided. 

I talked to Emma yesterday, a friend who is very busy this week working for the environment agency, and we were discussing how although this is framed by the media as a disaster it is of course the landscape doing what it has done for thousands of years, accommodating excess water in the flood planes before it can run away, spreading fertilising silts and mud. We have of course now built houses, farms and roads on these flood planes and are consequently now disrupted when the water rises and even with improved drainage and with all of the sluices and control gates open, we seem unable to prevent it from happening.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Beetles ate my Bumblebees

Spent a rather dispiriting few hours sorting out some of my cases and boxes of collected insects as many of the collections have again been decimated by carpet beetles and clothes moths. Even though I had some napthl crystals in the cases a few weeks ago there were still live wooly bears creeping about stuffing themselves on my beetles, moths and bumblebees. The bees look as if miniature explosives have gone off inside them with a plume of dusty remains only recognisable by their discarded wings. The French stag beetle heads, collected many years ago, were untouched and bits of cockchafer case also but anything soft has been consumed. The bottom of the cases are now a landscape of dust wings and disconnected legs. My board of pinned UK dragonflies and previously perfect bumblebees are also badly damaged with each specimen hovering delicately over an island of dusty remains, discarded by the voracious miniature beetles. I have sorted out the cases and put napthl crystals inside but I'm bot sure much that I can do will stop this happening again as I've also lost several of my best taxidermy birds this year and I really need to get on top of this before I loose more specimens.

Wikipedia - Naphthalene has been used as a household fumigant. It was once the primary ingredient in mothballs, though its use has been largely been replaced in favor of alternatives such as 1,4-dichlorobenzene. In a sealed container containing naphthalene pellets, naphthalene vapors build up to levels toxic to both the adult and larval forms of many moths that attack textiles. Other fumigant uses of naphthalene include use in soil as a fumigant pesticide, in attic spaces to repel animals and insects, and in museum storage-drawers and cupboards to protect the contents from attack by pests.

QUOTE, ref Carpet beetles : 'The larvae are just tiny when they hatch – less than a millimetre in length – which allows them to winkle their way through the smallest of cracks in any museum case. Feeding voraciously on any animal product in sight – they particularly enjoy stuffed animals, fur and feathers, and woollen textiles – the larvae swell up into “woolly bears” somewhat bigger than their ultimate adult forms. The varied carpet beetle larvae is dark brown at either end, lemon yellow in the middle, and hairy all over, while the two spot carpet beetle is torpedo-shaped with tufts of bristles at its posterior end." (From:

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Flooded Landscape

There has been a great deal of rain in Somerset. One unfortunate man actually drowned as his car was washed away in a ford earlier this week and its continued to rain steadily. There was a let up at the end of the week as the rain was replaced by strong winds which blew our rabbit hutch about the garden but today the rain is back with a vengeance. I'm very glad I dismantled the leaning log shelter last weekend, and cleared the leaves from the gutters, and today I found myself crawling on top the my studio shed roof battening down tarpaulin as the water is getting in and damaging my artwork. 

The levels are flooded in great areas between us and Wells with the distinction between the riens, drains and fields all but lost. I always quite fancy running about on the flooded fields when they are like this but the inability to decipher depth from the level surface would surely lead to trouble. The swans free to explore these vast expanses of water, and the gangs of lapwings all seem quite happy with the conditions, although I saw three dead badgers in the road within 5 miles of each other and I wonder if they are perhaps less happy and flooded out of their tunnels when the water is particularly high. The tops of submerged fenceposts, lines of pollarded trees and clear strips of open water are all that currently define the usually clear boundaries between land and water. The South Drain and Kings Sedgemore Drain are both above their banks this afternoon but still flowing strongly, unable to keep up with the sheer volume of water weeping constantly out of the saturated peat.

It is now 10-o-clock and I've just been out to collect my daughter from the theatre and it's again raining heavily as predicted. The Sainsbury's car-park in Street is predictably below water this evening with trolleys abandoned and the van dragging in the giant puddles crossing the roads as rivers of water run off the fields. I'm very glad that we live on the side of a hill, high above the low lands.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

'Supers' full of honey - the bee training continues.

Bob called me over this evening to look at three honey filled 'supers' that he had in his garage. They had come from some other hives that he had in Taunton and are going to be used to feed the hives here in Ashcott. A super sits above the queen excluder above the brood chamber in the hive and is where the honey is laid down in capped off cells with no grubs. It has been a really lean year for the bees and this honey will help sustain the colonies over the winter in the hope for a better season next year. You should only take honey when there is plenty of extra as if you deprive the hive then the colony can diminish in size and vigour and you could loose them over the winter. Hives can apparently contain anywhere between 20 and 100,000 bees ! Bob has extra supers on some of his hives so that the brood chamber and extra super provide a really solid foundation for the bees over the winter. Bees apparently live as house bees for 3 weeks building cells, gluing things with propolis, feeding grubs and the queen, guarding the door, fanning queen scent into the atmosphere to guide foragers and other tasks. When it's particularly cold the bees come out and fan their wings on the outside of the hive to generate heat before going back in and taking turns to share and benefit from the the warmth. Once the bees graduate at about 22 days they become foraging bees and set of to hunt for water, pollen and nectar from within about 2 miles of the hive. They do this for 3 weeks before, at less than 2 months old, unless squashed, eaten or poisoned, they die of exhaustion.

Each frame can hold up to about 4lbs of honey which you get out by cutting the top of the capped cells with a hot knife and then spinning the frames in a special device. In the picture beneath you can see capped cells in the midde. The frames within the super are an interesting mix of the man made, straight wooden frames and the insect made, organic, hexagonal organised chaos. There is a beautiful sweet smell rising off the frames as you hold them, surprisingly heavy and dripping with honey. 
So much to learn.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Memories of Warmth

DSCF3767As the mornings regularly greet us with a light frost and a chill wind, it seems hard to recall the feel of warm sun we had just a few short weeks ago in Italy. A couple of the highlights included a walk in the high alpine meadows of the Sibillini mountains, where large butterflies flitted across our path, thriving in huge numbers. We even came across this Swallowtail caterpillar - something I've never seen even though we live close by their Norfolk heartland.

But our last morning there gave a last moment of contact with the local wildlife. Strolling down to our usual breakfast spot, looking across the rolling, lightly wooded slopes towards the high mountains, a blue sky above and a gentle sadness at our imminent departure inside, I noticed that amongst the grass, in the shade of an olive tree was resting this beautiful hind. Our eyes met for a moment as I clumsily took a photo before she clambered to her feet and, unsteadily at first, trotted off into deeper cover. It was one last taste of the bucolic idyll that had surrounded us for the week. Something in the set of the landscape, in equal parts wild and settled, gently animated with sun-kissed life, just seemed to resonate with something deep inside me - was this a more 'natural' way to live? Maybe it was just the beauty of the place, but there seemed to be a deeper connection, a more equitable balance between man and nature in those hills, so long settled by man but somehow treading more lightly than in intensively inhabited southern Britain. Of course, being a casual holiday-maker one is in a privileged position not least in the ability to merely soak in and enjoy such moments. But the privilege continues - I can hold that moment in my mind's eye and know that it will sustain me until I feel the warm sun on my back again. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Beekeeping beginnings.

Spent a wonderful morning with Bob, along the path opposite my house, having made an approach to ask if he would mind me talking to him about keeping bees. He didn't mind 'at all' and after 3 hours of bee talk I am much better informed and raring to learn more. Bob has been keeping bees for 40 years and I am going to help him in the coming year to learn the ways of the beekeeper. We got on really well which is great as there is clearly a great deal to learn. What is particularly nice is that although I am of course interested in the production of honey I am perhaps more interested in the work life of the insects themselves and a very 'busy as a bee' life it is !
Here are the 20 or so of Bob's hives with local bees and a few hives with a different strain of hardy bees from Snowdonia in Wales and some French ones also.

Bees coming in after flying in the autumn sunshine collecting pollen from the late flowering plants and arriving at the hive entrance on the landing board.

An open hive. This small hive had contained a 'nuke' ( nucleus of a new colony ). Unfortunately the colony have died or moved on but the evidence of their initial work was there to see with the brood chamber frames all sealed into place with propolis.

Old frames full of 'dross' to be cleaned over the winter in preparation for setting up new brood chambers with larger frames and super's with smaller honey frames. Far too much to write down her but we talked about how to catch a swarm, what smoke does, the life of the bees, queens, how to look after the hives over the year, how colonies generate heat during winter and the importance of being calm and not panicking. More later as the seasons progress. I need to get a suit.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Insect Lab

Found the work of US artist Mike Libby online. Wonderful quirky sculptures combining watch parts and insect specimens. Terrific combination of found objects, specimen, intricate detail, precision and suggested fantastical function. Wonderful interesting objects.

Quote from Mike Libby's website:
'Robot-like insects and insect-like robots are the stuff of science fiction and science fact.
Often in science fiction, insects are frequently featured as robotic critters.  There are many examples in TV, movies, video games, comic books, even on album covers.  From Cronos to The Golden Compass, the insect/robot archetype has been used, re-used and re-imagined countless times.
Both biologists and engineers look to insect movement, design and social behavior to inspire new technology and applications.  Some of the most advanced aircraft is smaller than a dragonfly, and NASA scientists are making walking rovers and “swarm theory” probes for planetary exploration.  Technology is finding that the most efficient design features comes from natural systems.'

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Locust Birth

A group of my locusts have all recently matured into adult specimens. They seem to respond to sudden feeding, as when presented with a glut of new brambles last week the juvenile locusts all hatched out in the space of a few days. 

They crawl up onto the branches and whilst clinging upside down they remain still for a few moments and then begin the slow process of shedding their immature skins. It seems incredible that the large adult specimen can appear from the juvenile form, the insect doubles in size and the soft adult must somehow mature within the juvenile whilst still wearing it's youthful skin. How can one form exist almost perfectly grown within the smaller still functioning form ? To sit with the children watching the  unfolding of the adult is astonishing, as the new head, thorax, abdomen and legs imperceptibly shrug out of the smaller skin as if extricating from a tight wetsuit. The new adult form then hangs from it's abdomen for an hour or so as the wings unfurl and stiffen leaving the abandoned shed skin husk, with it's functionless wing stubs, hanging on the bramble. If left in the tank the locusts eat the shed skin.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hiding from the cold

Thursday: After a terrific autumnal family meal in Strumpshaw, Adam and I went to look at a small wren that I had seen squeezed into a small space under the roof of the boiler shed. The wren was still there, small and alert under the eves, and we talked about how we had heard that wrens can sometime congregate in the 100's in nest boxes to keep warm as the weather gets cold. Inside the boiler shed itself there was also a long eared bat suspended from the joist on the ceiling. I have seen long eared bats in the boiler shed before but this is the first this year, with it's ears curled up almost mechanical in appearance folded against the roof - like the creature in the shuttle unfolding in Ridley Scott's film Alien.

Note: On Friday evening there were 2 bats on the ceiling but when I looked during Saturday daytime there were no bats in the shed. Presumably they roost in the day and fly during the night but I have only seen them in the shed at night and only in the colder months of the year so presumably they roost elsewhere in the summer.