31 March 2012

Midges - family Chironomidae

Date Photographed: 28/03/2012
Location: Tower Road
Resources: http://lakes.chebucto.org/ZOOBENTH/BENTHOS/xiii.html
Notes: Found out from Jason Green on WAB that there are over 450 species in Britain, so I'm unlikely to get an ID an more specific than family name. The nice thing to know is that they have reduced mouthparts and neither male of female bite!

30 March 2012

Book Review: First Ecology

First Ecology is a great introduction to ecology as a science and the place of species in the natural world. I read the 2004 edition of the book, as this was the one available from the library, it covers a multitude of topics such as: Origins, Species, Populations, Interactions, Communities, Systems, Balances, Scales, and Checks. I think that the book provides a balanced view, sometimes describing how habitats can be restored, but looking at the variety of ways that this could happen. Importantly the book doesn't shy away from the tough topics considering that some species may be more important than others and that extinction is a normal part of life.

The only problems that I have with this book, but that may have been corrected by new editions, is firstly the dumping of text boxes within sections - sometimes breaking the sentence of a paragraph on one page and only taking it back up a few pages later. These boxes, while providing important specific information, may have been better left until the end of the section they are relevant too. Secondly, the book could have done with a good proof reader as there are mistakes littered throughout the book.

All in all though, it's definitely a book that I would recommend and I feel that it has really helped me with my understanding of the natural world and our current state of understanding about how it all works. I can't say that I totally understood it all, but our natural world is a complex place and it's worth revisiting the topics from various sources over a period of time, so it call all sink in. If you're at all interested in ecology, or how our natural world works, then this is a short introduction of around 300 pages and well worth reading.

Own or Loan:         Loan
Read Again:          Yes
Recommend:         Yes
Overall out of Five:3

Wavy Bittercress - Cardamine flexuosa

Date Photographed: 28/03/2012
Location: Tower Road, Melksham
Resources: http://www.ukwildflowers.com/Web_pages/cardamine_flexuosa_wavy_bittercress.htm
Notes: A very small plant, commanly seen as a weed in the UK. Can be told apart from Hairy Bittercress by its 6 stamens, where as Hairy Bittercress only has 4 or 5.

29 March 2012

Leaf Beetle - Genus Oulema

Date Photographed: 28/03/2012
Location: Tower Road - on bedding I'd hung out to dry!
Resources: http://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/cereal-leaf-beetle
Notes: Difficult to ID to a species level without detailed and expert examination.


I was a latecomer to Pandora. I'd heard of Avatar, but didn't know what it was about until last year - two years after it came out. When I watched it, I watched it three times in one weekend. It really resonated with something inside.

It may have been the Nav'i language that was especially created for the film, it may have been the creativity when creating the bioluminescence of the plants, the beautifully feline blue people of the Omatikaya, it could have been the story, or it could have been the way in which every living being could connect with all others.

It could have been any of those things. What was special is that all of these components were skilfully incorporated into a single story, a single experience. Whether watching the original cinematic release or the extended editions the story is captivating and fulfilling.

But of course, the connections of the trees in Pandora isn't just science fiction. The trees and fungi of our world create a sybiotic relationship called a mycorrhiza, whereby the mycelium of the fungus provides additional water and minerals for the tree and the tree provides the fungus with carbohydrates. While these connections aren't electrical as on Pandora, they are necessary.

We also have a wide range of bioluminescence, from the simple firefly and algae to the amazing cuttlefish and jack-o'-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olivascens).

Unfortunately what we don't seen to have are the heightened senses to reach out to our plants in the same way that the inhabitants of Pandora do with theirs. Who knows, perhaps it's evolution in the making. The only thing I know for sure is that it's a brilliant film, even without the hype. I'm watching it again now and while I know the film is already old I still wanted to write a quick post about it and look just a little bit deeper into it all because it still gets to me.

See the clip from the BBC below to see some of the amazing bioluminescence adaptations in the darkest underwater places on Earth.

Common Duckweed - Lemna minor

Date Photographed: 28/03/2012
Location: Tower Road, Melksham
Resources: http://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/common-duckweed

Hyacinth - Hyacinthus orientalis

Date Photographed: 28/02/2012
Location: Lacock Abbey
Resources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/gardening/plants/plant_finder/plant_pages/10623.shtml

28 March 2012

National Gardening Week

There's less than a month to go now before the RHS presents the UKs first National Gardening Week. Between the  16 and 22 April, the National Gardening Week will be aiming to get us all involved in the fun of gardening, which kicks off with the launch of the 2012 RHS Britain in Bloom.

But it's certanly not just about the large scale gardening, more importantly it's about what we can do with our own plots, from acres to pots and adults to tots.

There are different themes throughout the week that aim to educate and empower us all to get gardening:
    14-15 April:  Britain in Bloom Launch
    16 April: Gardening SOS - this one's definitely a good one. For this one day only you can ask the         RHS advisory service any gardening question and learn from their experts - a service normally only     open to members!
    17 April: Gardens of the Nation - I like the idea of this because the RHS would like photos of our         gardens that they will use as a historical record of gardens today.
    18 April:  Horticulture - A Career to be Proud of. If you can get to them, the four RHS gardens will     be holding talks by inspirational people who work in the gardening world.
    19 April: Gardening for the Environment - One that's important on all agendas at the moment,             looking at how what we do affects the environment. Tips for how to garden greener will be the         theme for this day.
    20th April: Get Kids Growing - a new initiative from the RHS will be a campaign to get kids                 gardening.
    21st - 22nd April: Activities for All

It's said that around 20 million of us enjoy gardening in the UK. Let's hope that this gardening week will get many more involved. For more information and updates see the National Gardening Week website, connect on Facebook by liking the page, or connect via twitter #NGW.

All in all, let's hope it's a fab week!

27 March 2012

Ground-ivy - Glechoma hederacea

Date Photographed: 25/03/2012
Location: The Avenue, Claverton

Date Photographed: 31/03/2012
Location: Bull Lane, Eccles, Kent
Resources: http://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/ground-ivy
Notes: Speaking to Sofija on WAB I found out that flower size, colour and shape can vary with ground ivy. Also leaves can be green or reddish. Possibly due to local variances.

Phenology - the science of recording nature

Phenology is a booming citizen science in the UK at the moment, where after an absence of 50 years, a new national scheme was set up in the autumn of 2000.

Phenology is the monitoring and study of recurring natural phenomena by way of recording the arrival, departure, and other key events in the life history of the phenomena. This data can assist in building a database of relevant dates to work out if any changes are due to climate change.

I'd never heard of it until this year when I saw the video below about phenology from the Woodland Trust. I was amazed by the story of Jean Combs who has been recording the date on which the trees in her area came into leaf; for the past 65 years! This intrigued me and I decided to find out more.

Looking at the site run by the Woodland Trust and the Centre of Ecology & Hydrology; Nature's Calendar, we can see that the records are split into spring and autumn. After a quick registration to use the website you're able to add postcodes of the 10km square areas that I would like to enter data for.  Nature's Calendar is a friendly site and says that they are very happy to have locations with only 1 or 2 records, which is ideal because some locations are visited only once a month.

Both spring and autumn datasets look at trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, birds, insects, amphibians and fungi. To make entering your dates even easier the main page for spring and autumn change when the newer species are likely to be first recorded. For example the spring page currently has bluebell (first flowering), silver birch (budburst), peacock (first recorded), cuckooflower (first flowering), horse chestnut (first leaf), and swallow (first recorded).

To get some instant gratification you can view the seasonal event species maps which have a glider that adds dots to the UK for when sightings were made. For instance, the map below shows the first flowering of bluebells up until the 25 March 2012 - which is when I added my sighting from near Bath.

There are also loads of resources on the website giving interesting facts on the species to record and tips on identification, along with really cool desktop images. There's also a great phenology guide.

Each year the project releases a document stating the key things that happened in the previous year. for instance we can see that Lilacs flowered on 16 April 2011, 25 days earlier than the normal (and the earliest on the database) and that there seems to be a trend for things flowering before their normal times. But it's not just for us to have a quick look and then dismiss the results or use them for coffee break chats, the scientists are using them too. A couple of the summaires of current research using these data are:
"What causes geographical differences in phenology of a species, particularly the balance between genetics and environmental factors?"
"How have recent cold winter temperatures affected flowering of hawthorn and blackthorn?"

I've not been overly helpful as yet with only 6 recordings, but I'm hoping that it's 6 more than the project would have had - which can only be beneficial. So, I hope that you'll all check it out and maybe give it a go. Even though we're currently half way through spring, there's still a lot of things to look out for and record. Some of which you may even be able to log from your bedroom window, showing that you don't necessarily need to go out of your way to help this project or our scientists with this important work!

Siberian squill - Scilla siberica

Date Photographed:22/03/2012
Location: The Courts gardens, Holt
Resources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/gardening/plants/plant_finder/plant_pages/5925.shtml

Honey Bee - Apis mellifera

Date Photographed: 25/03/2012
Location: Whitehall Garden Centre, Lacock
Resources: http://www.arkive.org/honey-bee/apis-mellifera/

Common carder bumblebee - Bombus pascuorum

Date Photographed: 25/03/2012
Location: The Avenue, Claverton
Resources: http://www.arkive.org/common-carder-bumblebee/bombus-pascuorum/

26 March 2012

Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale

Date Photographed: 25/03/2012
Location: Bushey Norwood, Claverton
Resources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Taraxacum
Notes: While the Dandelion normally throws out many leaves, I noticed that in this field it didn't. I assume this is due to the heavy concentration of grass and some other plants such as Ground Ivy leading to too much competition. See photo below for plant with leaf.

Date Photopgrahed: 28/03/2012
Location: Tower Road, Melksham

Bluebell - Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Date Photographed: 22/04/2012
Location: St. Gile Church, Stanton St. Quinton
Resources: http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Hyacinthoides-non-scripta.htm

Colt's Foot - Tussilago farfara

Date Photographed: 25/03/2012
Location: The Avenue, Claverton (Rugby field)
Resources: http://www.bioimages.org.uk/html/t607.htm

Date Photographed: 06/05/2013
Location: Nr. Silver Street wood, Wiltshire
Notes: In the photo top left, you can see the flowers. The leaves, lower left, appear after the flowers have gone over. The seed head, while reminiscent of the dandelion clock, is much more interesting and looks like a head of white fluffy hair (technical term).

25 March 2012

A warm welcome to British Summer Time

Well we lost an hour in bed last night, as we have done since the introduction of BST in 1916, but were compensated with record breaking warmth in the UK today.

Scotland reached 22.8C which broke previous records. Wales reached a maximum of 20.7C, Northern Ireland reached 20.9C, with England sitting in between the two with 20.8C in Keswick.

It was certainly an interesting day, during our walk (well mainly sitting) with Cazzie the geocaching canine, I spotted Blue Bells flowering. I wasn't the first, the phenology website run by the Woodland Trust notes the first recorded flowering Blue Bell on the 17 March this year. To put it in perspective, 2011 saw the Blue Bell first flower on the 12 April, which is the average time it begins to flower. It looks like its going to stay nice in the South West tomorrow, but the East will see fog.

What a lovely start to BST!

Plant labels and encouraging pollinators

Walking through the garden centre today, I realised that there are lots of logos on the plant labels. This got me wondering what they all meant. I've known about the RHS AGM logo for a while and learnt about the RHS Perfect for Pollinators after watching Sarah Raven's Bees, Butterflies and Blooms on iPlayer. But today I noticed some logos on the plant labels that I hadn't seen before and thought I'd write a quick post about what I found out.

The fine looking logo on the left is from a company called Farplants based in West Sussex and the largest wholesale supplier of outdoor plants  to garden centres in the UK. The logo was introduced in 2010 and while they don't have a list available online, they do point us in the direction of the RHS. More on that below.

The two logos to the left were introduced by Bransford Webbs. The Union flag plant pot logo is to show their pride in plants that have been grown in Britain and it always at the foot of their labels. The Plant for wildlife logo was introduced in October 2011, what I didn't know at the time I took the photo is that on the back of the label Bransford Webbs also include a bullet point that outlines the benefits to wildlife that this plant provides.

Finally there are the RHS logos for the Award for Garden Merit and the Perfect for Pollinators. The Award for Garden Merit (AGM) is awarded to plants trialled by the RHS that are shown to provide outstanding excellence in ordinary gardens with no highly specialist care required, not particularaly susceptible to diseases or pests, and of good constitution along with some other criteria.

The Perfect for Pollinators designation means that the plant will provide pollen and nectars for many types of pollinating insects including some of the 25 British bumblebees.

To conclude I wanted to pass on some good advice that Sarah Raven gave on growing plants encourage pollinators on the BBC programme:
  • choose single rather than double blooms,  
  • choose different shaped flowers, 
  • choose a range of plants that flower at different heights to provide for different types of insects, and 
  • choose a range of plants to ensure that you have flowers throughout the season. 
For more advice see the Perfect for Pollinators see the dedicated RHS page. It's also worth checking the RHS pollinators plant list, that's also recommended by Farplants, which is ideal because it splits the plants into months and seasons.

So check the labels and try to get some great pollinators to go with your garden design. Most of all, let's have fun getting those pollinators into our gardens and feeding on the plants rather than our fizzy drinks and BBQ food!

Which way to the civilisation?

I just thought I'd drop a quick post about a nugget of useful information from the Ordnance Survey:

"The furthest point from a metalled road in Great Britain is on the hillside of Ruadh Stac Beag, between Letterwe Forest and Fisherfield Forest in Wester Ross, Highland, Scotland. The distance from here to the nearest road (A832) is 11 km (7 miles)."

Metalled in this context means the crushed rock that's used to build the road, so it may be that in the UK at least, navigation is the most important of all survival techniques to learn.

As you'll most likely have some idea of where you were or where you were headed, it's important that you can walk in a reliably straight line. In this way you'll be by a road within the day, depending on terrain, and then having some idea of where you started you'll known which way to follow the road to the nearest settlement. So in this way - a straight line is the way to civilisation.

To have a look at what may well be our most remote location in the UK, click here.

Lord of the Flies

A plane crashes on to an island. A person who hunts and has faith. A person of science and rules. A person who takes an inventory of names. A beastie.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that I was talking about the immensely popular TV series Lost; with Locke the man of faith who hunts boar, Jack the man of science and the leader, Hugo who checks everyone against the manifesto, and the 'Black smoke'. But I'm not writing about the similarities between Lost and Lord of the Flies. I'm just wondering if any of us would cope as these boys initially did.

Even after all of our 'survival' training thanks to the upsurge in popularity over the past few years of Bushcraft on TV, after checking to see if we were on an island or the coastal region of a mainland. Would we then check for resources before making a signal fire and building shelter?

Unfortunately after a hunt for the beastie that's terrifying them, the boys break up into tribes which leads to them going wild and a brutal killing. The boy that's killed is the same on that realised that the only 'beasties' on the island were the boys themselves. It's also the same boy that found the truth behind the island beastie.

Very quickly a whole culture is created by Jack, the leader of one of the tribes, including supernatural beliefs involving the beast. It's clear to see that there's a lot of fear and it's actually every boy for himself.

In the film and we see a brutally honest portrayal of Jack's savagery and Ralph's civilisation approaches, although perhaps a little extreme. The 1963 film is shot in black and white with some interesting film angles. It's a film that takes its time all the way through, from us hearing all the boy's names in the beginning to the 30 seconds or so that are spent watching a boy not saying anything to his rescuer as he is too bewildered. We see early on that it was important to Ralph for the signal fire to be kept going for a chance of rescue. A fire did bring about rescue, but it was a forest fire set by Jack's tribe using the glasses stolen from Piggy, for the purpose of trapping Ralph.

The last shot is poignant,  as we see Ralph crying. I don't think that these are tears of joy at being rescued, but tears of grief for the boys Simon and Piggy who didn't make it and for his the innnocence he has lost since arriving on the island.

It's definitely a film that's worth watching and a book that I'll be looking out for.

24 March 2012

Goodbye to the Busy Lizzie?

It's been reported over the past few years that the Impatiens Downy Mildew has been spreading and it looks like this year will be a crunch year for Busy Lizzies. While you can still buy Busy Lizzies from many places online, it's worth noting that big chains such as B&Q will not be stocking them this year and are promoting alternatives, which is seen as important especially as sales of Busy Lizzies can reach £25 million annually.

The alternatives to Busy Lizzies as seen on the Thompson and Morgan page include the Sunpatiens series, which are lovely alternatives, along with Begonias and Petunias.It's important to note that the Sunpatiens require more warmth and sun and aren't so good in the shade.
Sunpatiens from the Thompson and Morgan site.
So what's the problem?
The problem is a fungus-like organism called Plasmopara obducens which affects the plant in two ways. The first is that the leaf turns yellow and a white powder on the underside of the leaf can be seen. Secondly the plant can be reduced to bare stems, with the leaves and flowers dropping from the plant. If the plant is affected very badly it will die.

Defra report that the first outbreak on cultivated Busy Lizzies occurred in the UK during 2003, prior to this there are no records of this pathogen in the UK. It's interesting to note that while Defra say that records are incomplete, there have been no records of powdery mildew on wild UK Impatiens, which may suggest that this issue only affects our cultivated Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana).

Unfortunately this pathogen is present in various European countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, along with States in North America and in Asia.

What can we do?
Unfortunately there is nothing that we as gardeners can do to stop this as there are no chemical treatments or controls for the downy mildew.  If you find the infection then it's best to bury the infected plants at least 50cm. Don't compost them and it's best not to put them in the green waste collections. It's also recommended that Busy Lizzies are grown in the area for at least 1 year, although it's probably best not to grow them in the area for a few years to ensure that the spores are no longer viable.

You could also raise plants from seeds, but as the spores are dispersed through the air it's still possible that these Busy Lizzies will be infected. For more information see this page from the RHS.

There are many lovely plants that can be chosen as replacements and we may even find that a new species of plant takes the place of the Busy Lizzie, although hopefully in time there will be a control available and we'll be able to welcome the Busy Lizzie back into our bedding. Until then try not to be impatient for the Impatiens! (Sorry, it just had to be said!)

23 March 2012

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis - or the ant parasitic fungus

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a pathogenic fungus from a group of around 400 known species of Cordyceps. Most species target a particular host, in our example the ant.

The spores infect the ant and before killing the ant changes its behaviour. This change makes the ant climb to a high position to enable the fungus to have the ideal conditions to fruit and ensure that the spores from the fruiting body are distributed well. When the ant has reached this position the fungus kills the ant and over a period of time the fruiting body will sprout from the back of its head, while the mycelia of the fungus will replace the inside tissue of the ant leaving an exo-skeleton.

The clip from the BBCs Planet Earth, narrated by the wonderful David Attenborough, shows that when unaffected members of the colony find ants infected by the Cordyceps they take them some distance away from the colony. This is presumably to try to ensure that the colony is safe from infection when the Cordyceps eventually releases spores from the ant.

Anyway, enjoy!

Arthrobotrys anchonia or the Nematode killing fungus

While we enjoy looking at the fruiting bodies of fungi, sometimes going on fungi forays to try to learn a bit more about identifying them, there is a darker side to some fungus.

Fungus like Arthrobotrys anchonia need to get some or all of their nutrients from nematodes, which are basically a type of tiny worm. Some types are used in horticulture to control slugs by entering the slugs and releasing a bacteria that kills the slugs. Nematodes also happen to be the most numerous multicelled creature on the planet.

Nematophagous fungus, as they are officially known, specialise in trapping and digesting certain nematodes by using either a passive system, such as a sticky net, or an active system such as lasso-type rings that constrict the nematode as it travels through one or more of these rings. There are around 160 of this type of fungus currently known and it's the constricting rings of the Arthrobotrys anchonia that has gotten me quite excited!

As seen in the image above, the nematode has slipped through two of the rings, but the rings haven't yet enlarged to constrict the nematode. It doesn't need to rush really as it is reported that this only takes 1/10th of a second for the rings to expand and constrict the nematode, as seen in the video from The Private Life of Plants below:

There us much more information available by clicking to go through this website.

Maidenhair Spleenwort - Asplenium trichomanes

Date Photographed: 18/03/2012 / Third photo: 02/05/2012
Location: The Avenue, Claverton / Third photo: Lacock Abbey garden
Resources: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/species/maidenhair-spleenwort
Notes: The third photo shows the spores that are on the underside of the leaves.

Cow Parsley - Anthriscus sylvestris

Date Photographed: 22/03/2012
Location: The Courts garden, Holt
Resources: http://www.plant-identification.co.uk/skye/umbelliferae/anthriscus-sylvestris.htm

Spring Starflower - Tristagma uniflorum sp.

Date Photographed: 18/03/2012
Location: Portway, Warminster
Resources: http://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=plant/tristagma-uniflorum
Notes: Also known as Ipheion.

Glory of the snow - Chionodoxa forbesii ‘Pink Giant’

Date Photographed: 18/03/2012
Location: Winsley (Roundabout Winsley Road and B3108)
Resources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/gardening/plants/plant_finder/plant_pages/5487.shtml

Bulbous Buttercup - Ranunculus bulbosa

Date Photographed: 18/03/2012
Location: Winsley (Roundabout Winsley Road and B3108
Resources: http://www.plant-identification.co.uk/skye/ranunculaceae/ranunculus-bulbosus.htm
Notes: I was surprised to see a buttercup flowering so early in the year as the earliest flowering is normally April/May, but as Aeshna on WAB mentioned the Bulbous Buttercup is an early flowering variety. My book advises that it flowers between Mar and July.

22 March 2012

Stinking Hellebore - Helleborus foetidus

Date Photographed: 22/03/2012
Location: The Courts garden, Holt
Resources: http://apps.rhs.org.uk/plantselector/plant?plantid=3063
Notes: I've been looking forward to seeing the native Hellebores and initially thought that I'd also seen the Green Hellebore, but after enquiring on WAB this turned out to be Corsican Hellebore. The green parts that look like petals are actually sepals and during their lifecycle are increasingly used for photosynthesis. The third photo down focuses on the nectar tubes (nectaries), just inside the sepals. The last photo shows a flower that has been fertilised. There are two nectaries and two stamen remaning, these will eventually fall off.