'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

Go here to find out more.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The Two-Spined Spider

Sometimes on a summer day when sitting in my garden near the sitrus* I see this sort of spider. I have a sneaking suspicion that, supposing I were significantly smaller, I would be startled by this spider. I submit this suggestion because the the two-spined spider's slanted spines are shaded so as to seem to stare at someone or something that surveys it as being suitable for supper. I suggest it would be so surprising the predator would stop seeking supper here and search for it some situation less strikingly stereoscopic.
This spider succeeds in seeming scary from several spots, as my second snapshot shows.

Something else strange; the egg sac of this small spider is a surprising spindle-shape and can sometimes be spotted suspended under a stick.

Some say they have seen a six-spined spider, but as even a superficial scan shows it's not similar, it's surely a separate species.

* you would essify it too.
* They are truly to be found on lemon trees. Check up if you don't believe me.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


When my boys were young, they couldn't say the 'er' sound in 'worms'. They replaced it with 'or', as in 'more'.
It was a quirky and extremely specific speech defect; temporary, but amusing while it lasted. They could not read at the time, and in any case, it wasn't that they had seen the word 'worms' because it extrapolated to any 'er' sound. 'Words' were 'wards', 'girl' became 'gorl' and 'dirt' was 'dort'.
So I was asked for permission to dig for warms in the dort, for how to spell the ward 'gorl', told that baby boards eat warms, and other examples I have forgotten. Cute.

Cute might also be a description for this piece of writing from the late 1700's, by Gilbert White, early naturalist:

"Lands that are subject to frequent inundations are always poor ; and probably the reason may be because the worms are drowned. The most insignificant of insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the economy of Nature than the uncurious are aware of, and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention, and from their numbers and fecundity.

Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and plants into it, and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lump of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excretement, is a fine manure for grain and grass. Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away ; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms ; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work ; and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation, and consequently sterile ; and besides, in favour of worms, it should be hinted that green corn, plants and flowers, are not so much injured by them as by many species of coleoptera (scarabs), and tipulae t (longlegs) in their larva, or grub-state, and by unnoticed myriads of small shell-less snails, called slugs, which silently and imperceptibly make amazing havoc in the field and garden.

These hints we think proper to throw out in order to set the inquisitive and discerning to work.

A good monography of worms would afford much entertainment and information at the sae time, and would open as large and new field in natural history. Worms work most in the spring, but by no means lie torpid in the dead months : are out every mild night in the winter, as any person may be convinced that will take pains to examine his grass-plots with a candle ; are hermaphrodites , and very prolific."


In my search for a good image of a worm cast to accompany this post, I came across this one. But oh dear, look at the words. It appears not much has changed in over two hundred years... What a pest those worms are!

To provide balance, here is another recent piece of writing about worms. This comes from an old blog of CJ, Geeb's brother.

"Have you noticed how very rarely one comes across worm casts on the lawn nowadays? They used to be all over everyone's lawn at one time but now they are quite a rarity....

Unfortunately the worm population of many parts of the UK is under great threat at present from the New Zealand Flatworm (Arthurdendyus triangulatus and related species). The upper surface is dark, purplish brown with a narrow, pale buff edge. The underside is also pale buff. They are pointed at both ends, and ribbon-flat. A mature flatworm at rest is about 1cm wide and 6cm long. When extended, it can be up to 30cm long, and proportionally narrower. This interloper first arrived in the UK in the 1960s and feeds exclusively on earthworms. It can reduce the numbers to below detectable levels in the right conditions. The species common on Merseyside and in the South-west is the orangey-red (Australoplana sanguinea var alba).

A worm cast (also known as worm casting or vermicast) is a biologically active mound containing thousands of bacteria, enzymes, and remnants of plant materials that were not digested by the earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris and other species). The composting process continues after a worm casting has been deposited. In fact, the bacterial population of a cast is much greater than the bacterial population of either ingested soil, or the earthworm's gut. An important component of this dark mass is humus which is a complicated material formed during the breakdown of organic matter. One of its components, humic acid, provides many binding sites for plant nutrients, such as calcium, iron, potassium, sulphur and phosphorus. These nutrients are stored in the humic acid molecule in a form readily available to plants, and are released when the plants require them. So despite the fact that in large quantities worm casts used to look unsightly they were good for the soil..."


The last word from me: Every time I set out to explore an insect (or critter) recently, I have found the same phenomenon: PARADOX. Within such a diverse group of animals, I expect to find a contradictory mass of information and beliefs. But contradictions and paradoxes keep occurring within a species too... How very fascinating.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Losing Touch

For some time now a theory has been coagulating in my brain. First, in no particular order, some factoids:*

Since 2008, more than half the world's population live in urban environments.
Most people no longer have to compete directly with predators and scavengers for their food.
Humans need a certain amount of stimulation and will actively seek it.
Fear and excitement produces adrenalin.
Many people watch television for stimulation.
Television encourages people to stay indoors.
In the past, most real insect encounters occurred outside
These days, most real insect encounters occur inside the home.
For many people, television 'nature' programmes or movies are the main information source for ideas of 'nature'.
Many 'nature' programmes sensationalize insects.
More people than in the past are exhibiting signs of insect phobias.

Putting all these together I come up with my theory:

That the real life connections and encounters between humans and insects is decreasing and being replaced by sensationalist, adrenalin-driven exaggerations and simplifications portrayed in many television nature programmes. This will result in increasing incidence of disconnections, gross discrepancies, myths, phobias, and generally foolish misunderstandings and silly stories about insects and other little critters. This is in an age where the biological knowledge-base of this group of animals has never been larger and is growing all the time. The reality is actually much, much more marvelous! But more complex and subtle.

So, if it has been a while since you've had a real insect-human encounter, may I politely suggest you go outside soon...and leisurely watch. Ants. Or something. Maybe take a kid along too?

* May or may not be true.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Grey House Spider

Spiders are so useful around the house! This one is a fairly common visitor to ours and it eats everything it catches in its web. I am always happy to see it munching away on a fat blow-fly in summer.
It is Badumna longinquus, the Australian Grey House Spider, although actually its only grey due to fine hairs that cover its abdomen. More a sort of raw umber brown with those warm reddish striped legs.
This one refused to stand still on its own identification page in my Crowe, and was much happier when it had slipped under the book and onto a branch of the wisteria.

Like its relative the black house spider B. insignis, it builds a rather messy nest, which sometimes gets bits and pieces stuck in it (not a reason for sweeping it away, I plead). When the webbing loses its stickiness these two spider species just seem to weave on a few more strands, usually at night. It's rather like a human house that's just been added onto as the family has grown. With a broken fence, a couple of old cars and a dead pear tree out the back, maybe.

Female Badumna are very shy to leave their homes and will be quite reluctant to vacate if you try to frighten them away. They will slip quickly back into their funnel-shaped room in the centre or back of their web, where there may also be a couple of cocoons of eggs or babies developing. Some of these babies may stay around and eat tiny midges and other food that may be too small to be noticed by the mother. It is unusual among spiders for the mother to share her home with her growing babies.

Badumna's main predator is the white-tailed spider, although I once read of a Badumna defending itself successfully and the white-tail beating a hasty retreat, with a limp, ha ha!

Most people, including farmers, probably don't realise how useful spiders are in eating insect species that would otherwise be a pest in our gardens and houses. It's hard to calculate the effect if all spiders were to be suddenly eliminated from the world, but the increase in pests would possibly be noticed within six hours!

Spiders are generalist feeders - meaning they eat anything, but they will eat more of those species that are very numerous, so they are very good at keeping populations from getting out of control.

Spiders are also very numerous themselves, and are able to go a long time without eating, so they are there waiting and hungry in spring when the pest insect numbers start to really take off. So don't kill them off in winter! Your vegetables will thank you!

The large numbers of spiders' offspring (and, indeed, that of all insects) provide an important food source for birds and other animals.

Here is a little information on a great Chinese study that helped to educate farmers about the importance of spiders and other insects to their crops. It also showed them the importance of providing 'rough' strips of uncultivated land on the borders of fields, and that pesticides killed off the beneficial species as well as the pests, and altered the ecological balance.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Coming the Raw Prawn with Me.*

Prawns a la TLVD
(Serves two as a lunch and 4-8 as a starter)
About 40 prawns
4 tsp crushed garlic
3 ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped
about 1/4 cup white wine
2 tbsp avocado oil
2 tbsp sweet chili sauce
salt and pepper to taste

1. Fry prawns and garlic in oil for about 4 minutes, turning over once.
2. Add the wine and reduce by about half.
3. Add the tomatoes and chili sauce and, tossing the prawns in the liquor frequently, reduce the liquor until it's a thick consistency and coats the prawns. Season to taste.
4. Serve with fresh brown bread and butter.

* click

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Cockroach in my Art

Black NZ Cockroach

There is an innocuous native New Zealand cockroach. It lives outside, rarely comes indoors, and then only if you transport it, say in firewood. It is more rounded than the German (Blatella germanica) or American (Periplaneta americana ) or Australian/ Gisborne (Drymaplaneta semivitta) roaches.
It's a lovely dark black, can't fly, has shortish antennae, eats decaying plant material and its only shortcoming from a human perspective, is that it can make an unpleasant smell if scared. Its common name is, rather unimaginatively, Black Cockroach. Its latin name is much more interesting: Platyzosteria novaeseelandiae.

I have been painting them. En masse. I'm not sure how successful the works are. I blue-tacked them to the wall to try them out. They aren't especially scary. Nor are they especially beautiful, although there is a certain pleasing designerly quality I suppose.....

But what I'm getting around to saying it that I painted one individual near the lounge door. And, even though I know I was the one who put it there, and it was made with a potato stamp so the legs are too fat, the feelers are black acrylic, felt-pen, and is very much two-dimensional, it still makes me give a little jump of alarm every single time I walk through the door! Weird.

Information about NZ cockroaches from Landcare Research

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Still Windy

It's a very blustery day again today... the wind is roaring down the river corrugating the surface and a duck was sitting very still on the bank trying hard to be invisible to me. She would have found it hard to keep position on the water today, let alone make progress upstream.

The winds have blown half of a willow down too. But the sun is making an appearance earlier and earlier, and the magnolia flowers are almost over and the daffs are out. Spring is here!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Windy Tuesday

When I went for my walk this morning a strong wind was trying to blow the big avocado tree inside out...

But there was a silver lining to the scurrying clouds... no, not the leaves all over the ground (that's not an especially good thing unless you are one of the exceedingly rare New Zealand flightless Avocetera birds that feed exclusively on leaves of Lauraceae species).

I'm referring to all those lovely avocados on the ground. By the way, did you know that the plural of avocados has no 'e', i.e., not avocadoes, as in tomatoes and potatoes? Possibly you did. Possibly it doesn't bother you either way. But until recently I did not know this fact. Actually, I was beginning to think, in addition to my present position of Apostrophe Police, I should take on the role of Avocado Police, such was the proliferation of (I thought) incorrectly spelled road-side stall signs. I hereby humbly announce I was wrong.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Monday, 5 September 2011

Naked bus Saga finale. Hooray for Naked Bus!


Thank you very much Naked Bus!

I'm sure I will enjoy my trip. It is my Father's 81st birthday.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

Naked Bus Saga continues.

Hello Helen.

Thank you for your prompt email. I very much appreciate you rebooking my return journey Hastings to Rotorua for me. However that still leaves the problem of the outward trip.

And, with the greatest respect, I did indeed send my email before the 24 hours before the journey, as per Naked Bus policy. If you will check your records (including below) I'm sure you will find this out. You mention the 27th. The 27th was when I received the automatically generated message from Naked Bus. Was this later than usual? If so, perhaps for the same reason that I could access neither the booking form online nor Naked bus directly by phone?

I remember clearly there was about 25.5 hours before my journey was to have taken place (11.05am), that is, I sent my email (on the Naked Bus website form) between 9 and 9.45 am the day before (the 26th). As I have said, I tried repeatedly to change the booking from before 8 am that morning.
I would greatly appreciate your further attention to this problem.

Katherine De Chevalle

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Naked Bus Saga 3.

Hello Tim

Thank you for your response.

Oh But But But, You can see by the time and date of the email I sent (in desperation, after wasting a good hour of my work day trying to get through to the naked bus booking form, AND phoning at least three times direct), that it WAS sent prior to when my bookings would have expired. There is no reason why I would have done this when I could have made the booking changes myself, surely? Apart from not being able to? I was very frustrated, but rested easily once I'd sent it, knowing the date and time would reassure anyone.

Please will you reconsider? I am a Master's student and cannot afford to pay the full amount again, albeit less 25%, for this travel, when I have already paid it. Naturally I do realise I have to pay the booking fee for the change.

With respect,
Katherine De C.

NB. this exchange occurred on August 1.

The first part of this saga is here
Part 2 is here