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Wildlife Garden blog

18 Posts tagged with the wildlife_garden tag

A family of long-tailed tits were noisily searching the woodland canopy for insects, as I arrived at work - a welcoming sight and sound! Following a week's absence from the Garden, the woodland vegetation has changed to a darker green, while the meadows and ponds are now brighter with meadow clary (Salvia verbenaca), bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and an increased number of oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). All these are great plants for insects to forage amongst, but what about the native plants good enough for us to eat?


Our resident foodie, forager and wildlife gardener/ecologist, Daniel Osborne, explores some of our edible plants:


"Until about 7,000 years ago, every human that lived in the British Isles hunted and gathered all of their food. They had and shared a rich knowledge of the uses and edibility of the plants in their landscape and were able to sustain themselves throughout the year. They had skills that, through the study of bushcraft and books like Richard Mabey's Food For Free, I have become confident enough to dabble in. The results have been truly enriching.


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Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)


In these few paragraphs I do not intend to list all edible native species, share recipes or discuss the health benefits or legality of wild food, as these are covered elsewhere with much more expertise and clarity than I could achieve. Instead I will talk about what thrills me: finding new flavours and connecting with our hunter-gatherer ancestors.



Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium)


I think I came to wild food relatively late. Some things like blackberries were familiar to me as a child and my brother and I often gorged ourselves on them in late summer. But I didn't discover wild garlic until my twenties, on the banks of the River Medway near my girlfriend's house at university. And I have not, to this day, ever eaten a pignut.



Wild garlic (Allium ursinum)


The Wildlife Garden at the Museum changed everything for me because it was here that I really started to learn about plants. My identification skills improved, and continue to improve, and what was once an anonymous field or woodland floor is now a host of familiar friends.



Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)


I have been truly amazed at how many of our native plants are edible. I have many still on my list to try, but have sampled a new plant at least every week as my knowledge and interest have grown. During spring I had cheese sandwiches for lunch with wild garlic, chickweed and ground elder. The almond taste of young rowan leaves and the caramel taste of sweet woodruff have opened my eyes to the fact that the range of flavours of the commonly cultivated salad leaves, like lettuce, rocket, cress and spinach, is but a small part of the spectrum.


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Wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosa) in the Cairngorms National Park


When I go camping now or go for long walks in the wilderness, which is, happily, becoming increasingly frequent, I am able to stop and pick leaves, such as young beech, rosebay willowherb or wood-sorrel, or flowers such as primrose and dead-nettle and enjoy the variety of flavours. A big part of the enjoyment for me is knowing how little I know.



Commom nettle (Urtica dioica)


I am not alone in this passion for wild edibles. There are a number of outstanding books and YouTube videos on the subject and our friend and colleague Viv Tuffney recently added her name to the list of wild food authors.



Viv Tuffney's new Nettle Cookbook


Viv Tuffney's book of nettle recipes 'Nettle Cookbook- Recipes for Foragers and Foodies' - inspired by our biennial Nettle Weekend is devoted to the use of one very common and nutritious species. I have been lucky enough to sample some of Viv's cooking, and have used recipes from the book myself.



A delicious nettle and cashew stuffed mushroom made from a recipe in Viv Tuffney's Nettle Cookbook


It encapsulates everything I like about wild food. How, with a little bit of knowledge and effort, it can connect us with our landscape and our past."


Thank you Daniel.


If you would like to try Viv's nettle recipes for yourself, you can get a copy from the Museum's online shop.


The rich warbling song of the blackcap has welcomed us into work over the past 2 weeks! (you can hear an Eurasian blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, as recorded by Patrick Aberg here). Not only that but we've had robins nesting just above the threshold of our shed with the accompanying chatter of baby birds anticipating food, holly blue butterflies visiting clusters of fresh holly flowers, sightings of orange tip, brimstone, peacock and speckled wood butterflies, tadpoles in the main pond, the occasional glimpse of a fox cub, and many more signs that Spring has well and truly sprung.


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A speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) resting on false brome - one of its larval food plants.


The mosaic of ground flora throughout the different habitats in the Garden is changing by the day with a particular blue haze and glorious scent of bluebells in the woodland areas.


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Bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.


Note the spread compared to 12 years ago,  below,  when the woodland glade was less open than it is today.


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Woodland glade in 2003.


But how many of them are the native British species (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) rather than hybrids or the invasive Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)? The scented plants for sure, but what about their relatives?


Museum Botanist, Fred Rumsey explains some interbreeding:


"It's that time of the year again when our woods turn azure with one of our favourite wild-flowers. The cool dry winter has held things back; results from the Museum's online survey on flowering times has shown that over the last few years flowering has in some years commenced almost a month later than in some others, the variation making predictions as to the effects of global warming more difficult.


For some weeks the show has been building in the Wildlife Garden, where, in spite of our best efforts, the majority of our plants show the influence of Spanish bluebells. In this respect our Garden is typical of urban gardens throughout Britain.


The two bluebells are genetically very similar with their distinctions maintained only by their geographic isolation, because they interbreed freely where they meet and the vigorous hybrids are confusingly intermediate in all respects.


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Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica in an urban garden in south London.

© Naomi Lake


Three hundred years of British gardening has undone several thousand years of glorious isolation - Pandora's potting shed door can't now be closed but we can all act responsibly to prevent further spread into the truly wild places as yet unsullied by the paler-flowered, scentless, blue-pollened invader. In the meantime I will still appreciate the spectacle in our Garden, they may not all be 'pure' but they are still beautiful!"


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More bluebells in our Wildlife Garden.


Thank you Fred! You can hear more from him on the main differences between bluebell species in the video on our website.


And in the past week I have been out and about in the woods admiring pure blooming bluebells and contributing to the Museum's bluebell survey. Here are some May Day highlights from woodland near Ashford in Kent:


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A magnificent display of bluebells in Hunt's Wood, near Woodchurch

© Peter Buckley


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Another brilliant display - something for us to aim for in our own Wildlife Garden.

© Peter Buckley


You too can help us with our research by contributing to the Museum's bluebell survey.


And finally, a small diversion: although our fox cubs are shy, the adult male is more relaxed, spending time around the pond banks to the delight of our visitors, but not so to our nesting moorhens.

Our male fox relaxing in the Wildlife Garden.

© Daniel Osborne


While winter tasks kept most of us busy outside for the first quarter of the year, these cold months are also a good excuse to hunker down inside and look back at the previous season's species records, enter new records on our database and consolidate reports on our findings.


As mentioned in one of our early blogs biological recording is carried out - like most activities here - with the help of many volunteers (specialists as well as beginners), and naturally our own scientists, during the course of their working day. Sometimes we enlist the help of aspiring young scientists...


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Volunteer Alex Domenge has spent days entering records on the Wildlife Garden database.


Recording is carried out by observation and surveys. From mosses on walls, rocks and bare ground and the animals that inhabit these miniature forests, to the tree tops where great and blue tits may be spotted feeding on aphids and other small insects in the upper branches, as well as high flying butterflies such as the purple hairstreak that feed off honeydew.


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Purple hairstreak butterfly (Favonius quercus). It's hard to see because it spends most of its time in the upper leaf canopy feeding on honeydew.

© Jim Asher, Butterfly Conservation


Invertebrate surveys are carried out using a variety of methods including pitfall traps for ground invertebrates, malaise traps for flying insects, and light traps for nocturnal fliers.


Former Museum Lepidopterist, Martin Honey, has been trapping and recording moths since before the Wildlife Garden was created 20 years ago using a Robinson light trap. Martin has recorded an amazing number of moths since the garden was created - over 500 species! - and in the process he has taught many of us not only how to identify moths caught in the trap but also day-flying moths and leaf miners.


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6-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae) - one of our most colourful day-flying moths - breed on our chalk downland in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams


As Martin explains:


'A Robinson light trap is fitted with a 125w mercury vapour lamp. The bulb emits both ultraviolet and visible light, so not only moths but also people passing on a 'moth trapping night' would see an eerie glow coming from the centre of the garden. The light attracts moths and other night-flying insects - which enter the trap via a funnel. The insects are 'caught' within the trap and settle on egg boxes that are provided within the trap.


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A light trap with net in the morning to prevent any escapees

© Sue Snell


On arrival in the morning, each egg box is gently removed and checked for insects which we either identify straight away or carefully place in a glass tube for closer examination. Once identified, the specimens are released back into the garden into dense vegetation away from predators, such as robins, which regard the whole operation with hungry interest.'


You can see a little bit about this technique in our short film from 2011 that features Martin:




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The ever opportunistic robin

© Jonathan Jackson


Other nocturnally active insects are also attracted to the light and it is another way of recording insects apart from moths



And this is just how we found an interesting species of ladybird in July last year. This was memorable for more than one reason since I had a young friend and future volunteer assisting me for that day - possibly even a future scientist...


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Anders with light trap


Anders takes up the story about  the light trap set on 25 July 2014:


'To our delight we found lots of different species of insects; moths, beetles, shield bugs and a very interesting little ladybird. It was about 5mm long, quite round, black with no dots.We put all the insects into collecting tubes, identified and recorded each one on to a sheet of special paper...


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Recording sheet


However, we could not identify all of them, so we took them into the 'cocoon' to the entomologists' offices. The man we wanted to see was sadly not there, but another nice man from Italy stepped in to help us. He knew all of the insects except for the little black beetle. Determined to discover the identity of the ladybird we showed it to everyone in the department but no one knew what it was. Finally, it was suggested that we take the specimen to a man called Roger Booth in the beetle section of the Department of Life Sciences. He looked at it and said:


"Hmm, Rhyzobius forestieri", he said thoughtfully, "very interesting". He led us across the room to another man called Max Barclay who confirmed not only that it was Rhyzobius forestieri, but that it may have been the first ladybird of its kind to have been found in the UK'.


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Anders with Rhyzobius forestieri


It was, in fact, the second Rhyzobius forestieri to be recorded in Britain. This was a very exciting find for the Wildlife Garden and also for Anders:


'I was surprised and pleased to hear this and felt a bit like a scientist myself. I'm very proud of my little ladybird and look forward to my next visit to the Museum to see her and all her little bug friends!'

Max went on to publish an article on the beetle in issue 23 of The Coleopterist journal:



Max's paper in the journal, The Coleopterist, issue 23(2), pages 81-83.



A picture of the Rhyzobius forestieri beetle found by Anders, only the second of its kind to have been recorded in Britain (photograph by Harry Taylor)


We'll bring you news of further findings - interspersed over the next few months - with other news about biodiversity in the Museum's living gallery of Wildlife and that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.


And now, our Wildlife Garden has re-opened this year for visitors and, on Saturday 11 April, we will be celebrating Spring Wildlife at a free, day long event in the Wildlife Garden, Darwin Centre and Investigate.


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Investigating pond life at last year's Spring Wildlife event


Come and join in betwen 12.00 to 17.00 and even get to hear the 'nice man from Italy' talk about butterflies in Nature Live: A date with a Butterfly at 12.30 and 14.30 in the Attenborough Studio.


We look forward to seeing you here!


At this time of year deciduous trees can look their most beautiful silhouetted against the sky, revealing their true form and structure. Some shapes are obscured in a wrapping of ivy (Hedera helix), its lush, dark green growth providing a source of food and habitat for a variety of wildlife, as well as a traditional Christmas decoration in our homes.


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Ivy covering a tree stump © Jonathan Jackson.

Although ivy is no parasite it can sometimes cause damage as it climbs and clings to trees and hedges competing for plant nutrients in the soil, and its thick evergreen leaves, competing for light. Occasionally, if left unchecked, the sheer expanse of an ivy wrapping will act like a sail and in winter strong winds will cause the host tree and ivy stems to snap and capsize.

We restrain ivy growth on our trees on our trees in the wildlife garden by cutting it back to just below the crown before it competes for light in the tree canopy. We also keep it in check on the ground, preventing it covering large areas of ground where it would restrict the growth of other woodland plants such as primroses (Primula vulgaris) and lesser celandine (Ficaria verna).

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Ivy growth on the lime tree in the centre of the Wildlife Garden © Jonathan Jackson.


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Ivy starting to spread along the ground © Jonathan Jackson.

But no wildlife garden is complete without a wealth of ivy – albeit restrained.

Just two months ago, we watched our bees (Apis melifera) entering the bee tree laden with pollen from ivy. On a sunny autumn day there’s a constant humming from ivy flowers as bees and wasps congregate around the late autumn nectar. And during evenings a variety of moth species silently feed on ivy’s nectar-rich flowers


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Bees nectaring on ivy flowers.

But both holly and ivy are Important in the life cycle of the holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus). The female lays her eggs on ivy in autumn in time for the larvae to feed on developing flower buds – the chrysalis overwinters and the adult emerges in spring.The spring adult lays eggs beneath the  flower buds of holly (Ilex aquifolium).


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Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) on bluebell © Tim Melling, Butterfly Conservation.

Ivy leaves are a food source for the larvae of several moth species, notably the Swallow-tailed moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria)


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Swallow-tailed moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria) on ivy © Robert Thompson, Butterfly Conservation

Ivy-clad trees and other structures provide thick cover and camouflage for nesting birds as well as hibernating insects – I inadvertently disturbed four common plume moths (Emmelina monodactyla) last week from the base of an ivy-clad fence.


Berries provide nest cover and food for birds as we have written about in a previous blog


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Blackbird feeding off ripe ivy berries in March © Jonathan Jackson.


But what of ivy’s seasonal associations and other uses? Roy Vickery tells us more:


Although it’s associated with Christmas, at least in urban areas ivy is not used a great deal as a Christmas decoration. Like holly it would remain looking fresh throughout the festive season before the widespread installation of central heating, now when homes are warmer and drier its leaves soon lose their sheen and then the twigs lose their leaves. Sometimes stretched crepe paper, usually red, was wrapped around fruiting ivy to make ornamental ‘roses’.



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Fruiting ivy – still green this week and unpalatable to birds © Jonathan Jackson.

However, there are records from places as far apart as Morayshire and Essex that ivy was considered to be unlucky and should not be brought indoors. Alternatively, as reported from Staffordshire in 1983: ‘Holly and ivy must not be taken in house until Christmas Eve and must be removed by January 6th.’

Presumably an exception was made on washdays when water in which ivy leaves had been boiled was used to clean the blue serge fabric from which the uniforms of railway men, postmen, and others was made. In County Derry: ‘With an old clothes brush take your husband’s serge suit and proceed to brush in the liquid, especially [into] the lapel and neck and cuffs.  Then take a clean cloth and iron it all over. It’s like new.’



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Ivy beginning its ascent up a London plane tree (Platanus x hispanica) in the Wildlife Garden

                                         © Jonathan Jackson.


And ivy leaves, either fresh, boiled or seeped in vinegar, tied on to corns and left on for about three days, will successfully remove the corn and its root so that it doesn’t return. Other medical uses included the treatment of burns in County Cork and eczema in Derbyshire.

Farmers would tempt sick sheep by offering them ivy: ‘If they did not eat ivy, they were going to die.’

Although it widely assumed that ivy is poisonous, Brian Bonnard in his Channel Island Plant Lore (1993) record that during the German occupation of the Islands in 1940-5 ‘ivy berries were boiled and eaten’. We do not recommend this.

Thank you Roy. You can read more about the uses of ivy and much more on Plant-lore Archive.


With seasonal evergreens in mind, you may like to see the progress of our mistletoe (Viscum album), planted in 2009 by Jonathan Briggs and featured in our wildlife garden blog two years ago. The plant has grown considerably in 2 years and .......


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Five and a half years after planting, our mistletoe has produced berries for the first time…

© Jonathan Jackson.


And finally, garden sightings this week also included… fox 23_12_14.jpg

A healthy young fox captured on camera today © Daniel Osborne.


Merry Christmas and Happy new Year!


It's been a while since we reported from our Wildlife Garden but work continues outdoors - and we've been enjoying the season's wildlife gardening and wildlife watching. Here we share a few hightlights from the past two months.


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The Museum as seen through the Garden's trees

© Jonathan Jackson


Throughout October and early November flashes of deep orange were spotted over the ponds, belonging to the common darter dragonfly (Sympetrum striolatum). They darted from the chalk to main pond, male and female in tandem, with the female ovipositing (laying eggs) near clumps of water soldier (Stratoides aloides) that I'd already eyed up for removing during our planned pond clearing day. The sight of this acrobatic pair laying eggs did of course change our plans slightly to avoid disturbing recently laid eggs.


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Common darter dragonfly in September. The last sighting this year was on 4 November

© Jonathan Jackson


The female lays eggs directly into the water during the late summer months, and sometimes into autumn as was the case this year. The eggs over-winter and hatch into larvae the following spring. Later in the summer, the full-grown larva crawls out of the water up on to a plant stem - such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) or reed sweet grass (Glyceria maxima) - before emerging transformed into a beautiful dragonfly. To find out more about dragonflies visit the British Dragonfly Society's website.


Flashes of gold and red goldfinches have recently been seen foraging amongst alder cones and teasels. Our beautiful autumn visitors, goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis), have also been heard and seen squabbling amongst greenfinches (Carduelis chloris) around the bird feeders.


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European goldfinch feeding on teasels

© David Tipling Photo Library


Throughout the mild days of October our Bee Tree honey bees were still collecting pollen from ivy and any remaining flowers such as black horehound. They were also spotted around the entrance to the hives on warm November days. They are fastidious in their personal hygiene and, as bee-keeper Luke Dixon informs me, will take advantage of warm winter days to exit the hive and freshen up.


There are a few flowers remaining in our garden now and they include several blooms of bedraggled hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo), the bright pink of red campion (Silene dioica) and dwarf gorse. There is one new flower of the season and this is the fresh yellow of common gorse. As the flowers of dwarf gorse (Ulex minor) fade the flowers of common gorse (Ulex europaeus) begin to bloom and next year dwarf gorse will take over again for a few months ... giving rise to the old saying "When gorse is in blossom, kissing is in season."


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Common gorse - the first flowering date this autumn was on 28 October

© Jonathan Jackson


But it is the golds and yellows of beech, hornbeam and field maple that are sensational again this year. Museum photographer, Jonathan Jackson, captured these colourful images just last week:


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Beech (Fagus sylvatica) between meadow and chalk downland habitats

© Jonathan Jackson


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Beech leaves

© Jonathan Jackson


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Field maple (Acer campestre) in a hedgerow

© Jonathan Jackson


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Hazel (Corylus avellana)

© Jonathan Jackson


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Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

© Jonathan Jackson


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Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur)

© Jonathan Jackson


And though few berries remain - the blackbirds have stripped rowan of its fruits early this autumn compared to last year - there are still remains of shocking pink spindle berries, with their orange seeds just visible.


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Fruits of spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

© Jonathan Jackson


For more about seasonal sightings in other areas visit Nature's Calendar from the Woodland Trust.


The garden has an autumnal feel to it as meadow plants fade and set seed, and rose-hips are blackberries are ready for harvest. But it is now that heathland plants come into their own with the heather (or ling as it is sometimes called) and dwarf gorse in flower attracting a variety of bees including our own honey bees.


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Heathland in flower with heather (Calluna vulgaris) and dwarf gorse (Ulex minor)

© Jonathan Jackson


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Honey bee (Apis mellifera) on heather (Calluna vulgaris) this week

© Jonathan Jackson


Luke Dixon, our beekeeper, tells us what honey bees and beekeepers are up to at the moment:


"The bee season is coming to an end and the bees in the Wildlife Garden are preparing for winter. Honey bees are the only bee to survive through the winter as a colony. All other bees and wasps are dying off now and just the newly mated queens will live through the cold months. But the honey bees have been storing up honey so they have something to eat when the cold weather comes.


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There is still plenty of activity at the entrance to the bee tree.

© Qais Zakaria

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Inside our bee tree in the Wildlife Garden

© Qais Zakaria


The bees in our other hives have also made honey and we have harvested a little of it while leaving most for the bees for the winter.


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Harvesting honey in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams


It has the wonderfully complex taste of all urban honey. Town bees have much more to feed on than their country cousins and the honey they make contains all the flavours of the many different flowers that they can forage on, from the chestnuts and limes in the nearby royal parks, to the marjoram, dandelions, heather, holly and ivy nearer to home. Tasting the honey at the end of the season is one of the great rewards of beekeeping.


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Honey-filled comb

© Qais Zakaria



We've had to close up the front of the hives to make the entrances as small as possible. Predatory wasps are a real problem this time of year and they been raiding the hives in search of bees and honey to eat. By reducing the hive entrances, the bees have a better chance of defending themselves. We've seen plenty of battles between wasp and bee around the hives.


As the weather gets colder the bees will form a cluster in the depths of the hive, keeping warm and protecting the queen. We'll leave them in peace until the warm weather returns and there is once again pollen and nectar to bring into the hives'.


Thank you Luke.


  • The bee tree is laden with bees and with honey. You can check on them yourself with the webcam inside the hive.
  • You can meet our beekeepers at our Hedgerow Harvest event on Sunday 5 October which falls close on the heels of Science Uncovered when you can visit us all to find out more about the Museum's work, and our work in the Wildlife Garden.


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Taking advantage of late-flowering hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) in flower in the Wildlife Garden fen

© Jonathan Jackson


We are continuously looking to increase the biodiversity of our living exhibition of habitats and wildlife within its current confines and, with green roofs in mind, we asked Paul Richens for advice. "Start small," were his good words! Our first green roof was created in 2009 on our smallest shed using meadow turfs. This was extended two years ago, over our adjoining log store, resulting in a small raised meadow area visible from the Darwin Centre courtyard.


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The meadow roof in spring...

© Jonathan Jackson


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...and in summer.

© Jonathan Jackson


Our meadow roof is a mix of wildflowers including red clover (Trifolium pratense), oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) and grasses such as Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), red fescue (Festuca rubra) and smooth meadow-grass (Poa pratensis). The roof is slightly pitched preventing waterlogging but flat enough to hold the substrate, making it ideal for this plant community.


We treat it as a meadow, with a cut in early spring, and again in late summer. It has just been cut by our volunteer Tommy who has returned to help us before leaving for further study in Oxford.


The next step was a 'green' cover for the pitched roof of our new sheep shed - Larissa Cooper took up this challenge and tells us how:


Last year we created an additional habitat in the Wildlife Garden. Not another woodland, or grassland, but a living roof on top of the shed our sheep sleep in. Our latest green roof was created in November 2013.


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The sheep shed roof before we added the green roof.

© Jonathan Jackson


It has a slight pitch so water will drain away a lot quicker than a flat roof which was a big consideration when designing the new living roof. The shed builders had provided a roof strong enough to support vegetation. We wanted a roof which would require little watering, be beneficial for invertebrates, and aesthetically pleasing and looking at it now, I think we may have achieved this!


Collaborating with information and tips from Living Roofs and two books: 'Building Green - a guide to using plants on roofs, walls and pavements' by Jacklyn Johnston and John Newton and 'Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls' by Nigel Dunnett and Noel Kingsbury, this is how we did it:


The roof comprises eight layers: (from bottom to top), with layers 2 to 6 depicted in the photograph that follows.


  1. roof top
  2. geotextile
  3. butyl rubber
  4. geotextile
  5. recycled ridged foam
  6. fleece
  7. substrate
  8. plants


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Layers added between the roof below and the substrate and plants on top.

© Larissa Cooper


  • Step 1 - We added layers 2-4 which will act as a waterproof membrane, protecting the roof surface from any possible water or root damage. These layers overlapped the roof and were trimmed at the end.
  • Step 2 - We fixed the wooden framework to the edge of the roof to hold in all the materials.
  • Step 3 - We added the recycled foam in layer 5 which helps to drain away any water via the ridges underneath, but also retains moisture, minimising the watering needed.
  • Step 4 - On top of the foam we used wool fleece for layer 6. This layer will retain moisture, but also acts as a root barrier to the other layers, preventing the plants damaging them. The fleece is made from wool which will eventually break down and become part of the substrate.
  • Step 5 - before adding the substrate we inserted crossbeams and fixed them to the outer frame. These beams will be covered by vegetation, but prevents the substrate from slipping in wet weather.
  • Step 6 - Time to add the substrate. Ours comprises poor quality topsoil (subsoil is preferable), mixed with gravel and crushed brick and aggregates. But you could use a number of different materials here from crushed brick and aggregates, compost, even clay balls. If planting wildflowers and wanting to attract invertebrates, the lower the quality the better!


If you are making a living roof at home, you can use old blankets for the fleece layer, and polythene for the waterproofing. A living roof can be created on a budget with a bit of planning and a few freecycle posts!


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We planted the roof in November with a mixture of sedums and coastal plants. The plug plants tended to do better than the potted plants.

© Jonathan Jackson


  • Step 7 - Finally, the planting. We selected combination of sedums: English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum) white stonecrop (Sedum album), biting stonecrop (Sedum acre) and reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre); and coastal cliff plants: rock sea-lavender (Limonium binervosum), sea campion (Silene uniflora), thrift (Armeria maritima) and Jersey thrift (Armeria arenaria). These plants are drought tolerant, and also rich in nectar which will help to attract the insects.


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The roof just after planting and with the layers still needing to be trimmed

© Jonathan Jackson


The plants adapted well to their new habitat.


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From this...

© Jonathan Jackson


5b - c - johnathan Jackson.jpg this in just 8 months! Here you can see the sedums, rock sea lavender and thrift in flower (along with a lonesome poppy which found its own way there).

© Jonathan Jackson


We also added a small log pile and a brick pile to create added niches for invertebrates to shelter in.


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Log pile made from a selection of small logs which will hopefully attract some beetles and woodlouse.

© Larissa Cooper


Nine months on and the roof is in bloom, with the stonecrops and rock sea lavender in flower. Bees have been seen foraging for nectar and we will shortly be carrying out a more in-depth invertebrate survey.


Living or 'green' roofs are becoming more popular in the UK, but they are not a recent trend. In Europe, Germany leads the way as the country with the most living roofs. London's green roof guru, Dusty Gedge, estimates that in London alone, there is potential for 1,000 hectares of surface area to be "greened" - that's around 7 more Hyde Parks or around 2,400 more Museum Wildlife Gardens! If you think that we have recorded over 2,500 species of plants and animals here in the Garden you can see that the implications for installing green roofs can have nothing but a positive impact on our native wildlife.


Living roofs are not only great for wildlife, they can also offer environmental protection against floods, reduce heat loss and the heat-island effect in cities and also add insulation. There are many different designs of living roof and almost any roof can be converted so long as it can bear the load. I can recommend you taking a look at Living Roofs if you would like to explore doing so in further detail.


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Nine months on and plants are well established on our new roof.

© Jonathan Jackson


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Inspired by the sheep shed and making use of the cut-offs we made a mini roof for our insect hotel.

© Jonathan Jackson


Our new roof has added not only to the biodiversity of the garden with additional plant species, but also looks rather beautiful too. Now if only my landlord would let me loose on the garage at home...


Thank you Larissa - your landlord shouldn't need too much persuading once they see the work you've done here! And to close, here's one more image from our beautiful new roof.


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Thrift (and self-sown clover) amongst the sedum today.

© Naomi Lake


As national Be Nice to Nettles Week closed, our plans for our own Nettle Weekend on 31 May and 1 June gathered pace - Roy Vickery prepares the way for the plant with many names and many uses:


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Common nettle, Urtica dioica.

© Derek Adams


"The smell of young stinging nettles evokes the beauty of early summer, that time of year when broad-leaved trees are covered in fresh green leaves, red campion brightens our hedgerows, and early orchids appear in grassland. Insects re-emerge and become active, and insect-eating birds boldly search for aphids and other small beasts to feed to their young.


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Aphids and a ladybird predator in our Wildlife Garden during May.

© Derek Adams


Butterflies such as the small tortoiseshell and red admiral lay their eggs on nettles and soon young caterpillars emerge.


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Nettle tap caterpillar (Anthophila fabriciana) on nettle. You can find out more about nettles, butterflies and moths in Alessandro Guisti's Curator of Lepidoptera blog.

© Harry Taylor


Now is the time to collect nettle tops for eating as a green vegetable or in soups, in a few weeks time they will be too tough to enjoy.


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Nettle tops prepared for the pot.


It is also now when early turkeys are hatched and, before the discovery of antibiotics, nettles were added to their food to try and keep them healthy. Now is also the time to start brewing nettle beer, formerly a drink much used in rural areas. It contains little alcohol, just sufficient to kill any microbes which might have been present in rural water supplies.


The stinging nettle was also valued as a fibre plant. Its fibres are strong, but difficult to extract. Fibres prepared in early summer are fine and satin-like, later in the year they are similar to hessian.


Wherever nettles grow it seem they've been believed to be useful for treating painful joints: if your knees are already painful, 'beat them with nettles'; if they are not, ramblers might find comfort in knowing that being stung with nettles early in life is said to prevent the later onset of rheumatic conditions.


In recent years the nettle, an ordinary - but also extraordinary - plant has been celebrated at events held around the country, including the Museum, so come and find out more".


Nettle Weekend will be held at the Museum on Saturday 31 May to Sunday 1 June: join Roy and the rest of the Museum nettle team to discover the many uses of the common nettle and some of its relatives from around the world. For more information about the event, download the PDF attachment to this post.


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Nettle Soup or dyes from Nettles? Come and find out more at our Nettle Weekend.

© Derek Adams


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Herbarium specimen of Himalayan Giant Nettle (Girardinia diversifolia), one of several specimens on view at our Nettle Weekend. See fine fabrics woven or knitted from the fibre of Nepalese nettle.


Nettle weekend at the Natural History Museum is part of the Chelsea Fringe.


At this time of year we are watching for the first signs of life on the ground, and in this exceptionally mild winter the glossy green spikes of bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) leaves had already started poking through the leaf litter in late December followed by the curled leaves of dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis). And in a small corner, the blue-green tips of snowdrop have been gently pushing through the soil.


Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) were not planted in the Garden and do not belong in the woodland plant communities that we're trying to create, but when a single snowdrop flower first appeared a few years ago I didn't have the heart to remove it and I have watched it reappear each year with steady but increasing vigour. Its first flowering date has varied by a few days to a week - the latest being 4 February last year - a harsh winter. We found it in flower at lunchtime today - 27 January -  though there were plenty of earlier sightings elsewhere in the country as reported in The Woodland Trust's Nature's Calendar.


Wildlife%20Garden%2027Jan2014_037[1] copy-700px.JPGSnowdrop in the Wildlife Garden - lunchtime on 27 January

Jonathan Jackson


But is it or is it not indigenous to Britain? Museum botanist, Fred Rumsey, tells us more about this dainty flower and how it arrived in this country:

Snowdrops are so familiar to us and are so ubiquitous in those areas around where we live that it has been natural to think of them as native.



Common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in drifts in a wooded Somerset lane

Fred Rumsey


However, this isn’t the case and although we know that they were present in British gardens by 1597, the first records from a wild situation were not made until 1778. Clues to their true status can be gained by looking in detail at where they appear in our landscape and in which habitats.


In most cases it is apparent from where the plants have escaped as most plants grow near gardens, when in wilder places they usually appear with other plants of garden origin; seed-set is often poor and most spread is by gradual division of the bulbs. This clonal spread is often most apparent where the double flowered ‘flore pleno’ forms have been planted.



Galanthus ‘Blewbury Tart’: found in St. Michael’s churchyard, Blewbury, Oxon. in the 1970s - it has upward facing rather spiky double flowers

Fred Rumsey

People often don’t realise that there are actually quite a few species of snowdrop (genus Galanthus). Views differ on how many, but most authorities currently recognize 20. These are distributed from southern-central Europe, through the eastern Mediterranean, down to the mountains of the Middle East but with the highest concentration of species and diversity in Turkey and the Caucasus.



Galanthus ikariae: a broad green-leaved snowdrop from the Greek Islands. Plants now sold as this are usually the similar G. woronowii from the Caucasus. It has a smaller green mark.

Fred Rumsey


While all rather similar in appearance subtle differences help differentiate them. The key points to look at are the arrangement of the leaves when they emerge: are they separate and facing each other, or does one wrap round the other? Are the margins flat or neatly folded under?



Supervolute vernation: the inner leaf wrapped by the outer, as shown by Galanthus elwesii and very different from that shown by G. nivalis

Fred Rumsey


What colour are they: grey, greeney-grey or green; matt or glossy? The flowers too differ: when are they produced, from Autumn to late spring, and in their form - the shape and colouration of the three smaller, inner perianth segments being most useful to tell the species apart.

Much of the horticultural interest in these plants though is not centred on the wild-type species but on the selected cultivars of them, many of which are of hybrid origin. The return of soldiers and tourists from the Crimean wars with floral souvenirs in the shape of the more robust and free-seeding Galanthus plicatus (pleated snowdrop) brought excellent breeding stock back into British gardens. These when mixed with the common snowdrops in our gardens have given rise to some of the most garden-worthy and persistent snowdrop cultivars.



Galanthus ‘Wasp’: a popular cultivar with narrow outer perianth segments and strong markings on the inners which together give its waspish appearance

Fred Rumsey

In recent years these plants have been experiencing a huge surge of interest with many more gardeners overcome by ‘Galanthomania’ - the demand for new and interesting named cultivars pushing prices up to stratospheric levels.



  Galanthus ‘Hippolyta’: a very neat double flowered hybrid raised by H.A. Greatorex in the 1940s

Fred Rumsey



Galanthus elwesii ‘Grumpy’

Fred Rumsey


Each year during the brief season some bulbs change hands on internet auction sites for many hundreds of pounds. Flowers in which the green colouration normally just found on the tips of the inner segments occurs over much of the flower seem particularly sought after and fought over, as are those with more peculiarly shaped flowers with all of the segments similar in shape and colour - my favourites of these are ‘Trym’ and ‘South Hayes’.



Galanthus ‘South Hayes’

Fred Rumsey


Thank you Fred, and for the beautiful photographs.


On return from a week's absence, I was eager to see how our autumn pattern of colours had developed over the past few days in the Garden - ever hopeful that the leathery leaves of the London planes had been whisked away by the high winds last week - they hadn't. But the leaves of field maple had now turned a vibrant yellow and the beautiful honeyed glow of beech had faded. Several hazel have yet to turn colour and many berries and hips remain on trees and shrubs. Here is more, from Larissa who finds some striking comparisons with last year:


"This time last year I wrote about the autumnal work we were busy with in the Wildlife Garden. It was 27 November and autumn was well under way. This year, it all seems a bit late. News articles have appeared since October debating whether autumn is late, and by the Woodland Trust’s estimations from data collected in their citizen science project Nature’s Calendar, autumn did arrive around 14 days later than previous years.


So it got me wondering and digging around last year’s photos to compare them to this year and there are definitely some variations. The first noticeable difference on last year is the abundance of fruits and berries we have had in the Garden. In fact the rowan (Sorbus acuparia) is still holding on to some fruit not yet eaten by the blackbirds – who haven’t had a short supply of food this year!


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Rowan fruits are in abundance this year with large bunches such as this one covering the trees.

© Jonathan Jackson


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The rowan tree last year, on 14 November 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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The same rowan tree this year, on 21 November 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


You can see from the above two pictures the branches of the rowan trees in 2012 were bare compared to 2013, where the leaves are hanging on and the fruits are abundant.


At the edge of the meadow, the beech (Fagus sylvatica) and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) trees last year were already vibrant in mid-November, but the colours still hadn’t matched 2012 by late November this year.


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Our beech woodland in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And the beech this year, on 21 November 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Looking out from the bridge across the chalk pond, you can see from the pictures below the green leaves on the trees that had already turned two weeks earlier last year.


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The chalk pond in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And the chalk pond in 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Our other woodlands such as this coppice area in the centre of the Garden are strikingly different, and the mature lime tree (Tilia x europea) in the centre of the garden still had some leaves late November this year.


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Our coppice woodland in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson


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And a similar view of the coppice woodland in 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson


Even now, in December things seem behind of last year. We are still raking falling plane tree (Plantanus x hispanica) leaves and looking up at the branches, some still rather full! I can’t help but view them by how many bags they will fill. The Hazels (Corylus avellana), oaks (Quercus robur) and silver birch (Betula pendula) also have many more leaves still attached compared to last year.


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Hazel, oak and birch trees still clinging on to some leaves this year ...

© Larissa Cooper


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... compared to last year

© Sue Snell


But there is a positive side to this. This time last year, the ground was frosty and cold...


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Leaves on the ground were covered in frost this time last year.

© Larissa Cooper


...which we are yet to experience this year, but when we do, we'll still be out there in the Wildlife Garden, preparing it for you all to come and enjoy when we re-open on a daily basis again in spring!


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No frost in the garden yet this year...

© Larissa Cooper


You can help the woodland trust monitor wildlife phenology by taking part in their citizen science projects at Nature’s Calendar.


Thank you Larissa!


And for more autumn delights from the Wildlife Garden you can watch Mark Spencer on his fungal foray in the Garden last month:



Although it's been quiet on our blog recently, we have been busy elsewhere preparing for and hosting important events, two at the start, and one at the end, of June: our annual Bat Festival (in partnership with the Bat Conservation Trust), the Open Garden Squares Weekend, and the Wildlife Gardening Forum conference this week.


And naturally we’ve been busy in the Garden itself sowing seeds, potting on, planting, caring for new plants, removing invasive plants ... as well as observing and monitoring our wildlife. Spring stunned us with a spectacular show of woodland flora, making up for the slow start to this year:


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Spring woodland in our Wildlife Garden


And now the buttercups are blooming. Three species are flowering amongst other early summer species in our meadow and chalk downland habitats, woodland glades and along paths.


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Buttercups on our chalk downland. © Derek Adams


Gardening with native flowers is full of surprises: certain species that we thought had disappeared reappear with renewed vigour. So is the case with buttercups and it’s been an especially good year for the buttercup family so far. The first of the buttercup family to appear was lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) on 13 March.


New Image celendine (Custom).JPGLesser celandine (Ficaria verna). © Derek Adams


Small clumps planted over the years have spread tentatively, until this year, when they exploded into brazen golden clumps announcing the already late spring. After several disappointing years, wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) exceeded our expectations this spring with their generous covering beneath silver birch and oak from March to early April.


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Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa). © Derek Adams


Later, marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), our third member of the buttercup family to bloom this spring, appeared around pond edges and the fen.


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Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). © Derek Adams


A few plants of columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), a less obvious member of the buttercup family, are still flowering along the hedge boundaries to the north of the garden and are a subtle addition in parts of our woodland areas.


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Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris). © Derek Adams


But the buttercups that are currently shining in the Garden are meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), bulbous buttercup (Ranunculous bulbosa), and creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens).


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Meadow buttercups in meadow. © Derek Adams



Although superficially very similar, there are a number of features that distinguish these three species, including:


  • Bulbous buttercup is in bloom slightly earlier than meadow, and creeping buttercup. It has a grooved stem and its sepals are reflexed. It also has a swollen (bulbous) base to its stem


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Under side of bulbous buttercup showing reflexed sepals. © Derek Adams


  • Meadow buttercup has rounded stems and more deeply cut leaves than the other two species, and sepals are spreading beneath its petals. It also generally grows taller than the other two species - the tallest in our Wildlife Garden stands at 1.30 metres.


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Meadow buttercup - note the sepals under the petals. © Derek Adams


  • Creeping buttercup, has grooved stems, spreading sepals and, true to its name, a creeping habit, spreading by means of runners - disliked by most gardeners!


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Creeping buttercup: a demonstration of its creeping habit...


As well as brightening our meadow areas, the buttercups also bring a special glow to the hedge banks and pathway verges.


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Hedge bank. © Jonathan Jackson


Buttercups attract a variety of insects and can be seen below hosting a honey bee and ladybird.


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So, this is an exciting time of year for we gardeners with different species of flowering plant coming into bloom in rapid succession (including other members of the buttercup family).




P.S. Another big event in the Wildlife Garden is approaching, with Big Nature Day on Saturday 13 July


With bees very much in the news this month, here is our own bee news from our Wildlife Garden bee-keeper, Luke Dixon:


“We have a new bee tree in the Wildlife Garden. It is a great trunk of oak, two tonnes hewn from a tree in The National Arboretum, Westonbirt, Gloucester. It took a specialist team from Norbury Park Sawmill, Dorking, Surrey to fell the tree and cut it into shape.


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Delivery of the new bee tree

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria



And another team to remove the old bee tree and prepare for the new tree...


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Spencer Abberley who, with beekeeper Qais Zakaria, removed the old bee tree and prepared the pit for the new tree

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria


Then yet another specialist team and two mighty cranes to lift it into the Wildlife Garden and gently lower it into the hole in the ground where the old bee tree once stood ...



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New bee tree about to be lowered into the ground

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria


The old tree had served the garden and the bees well and never has London known a happier colony of bees. Unlike many of their urban sisters, these bees had survived season after season. The colony had thrived in this first bee tree, living in a plastic observation hive, building down natural comb. The only disturbance was visitors opening the doors in the tree to reveal the 'wild' colony, living as bees have done for millions of years, hidden away in the dark interior of a tree.


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The colony of bees in the old bee tree

Image copyright: Derek Adams


The original colony came from Lambeth Palace and it was the Palace beekeeper, John Chapple, who had suggested the bee tree. A team at the Museum built the hive inside that first tree and John Chapple and I collected a bucket of bees from one of the Palace hives and carefully removed a sealed queen cell that was about to hatch.


We placed a few strips of wax in their new home as a starting point to build new wax comb, tipped the bees into the hive, wedged in the queen cell amongst them and then left them to it. After a couple of weeks the new queen had hatched; there were swathes of 'wild' comb, eggs and larvae and the colony was established.

But then, last year, the weight of bees and honey and comb in the colony reached a critical mass and split the hive apart. It was time for a new and larger hive. With fellow beekeeper Qais Zakaria, we set about designing a new bee tree with a bigger hive and a system that enables removal of the bees should they again grow too big for their home.


Danny Smith, one of the beekeepers at the London School of Economics and who made their beautiful oak portable observation hive, built our new hive. The new bees came from Oxford in a nucleus box, living on frames just as in any traditional bee hive. This time the bees were shaken from their frames into the new hive. We made sure the queen was amongst them, knowing that if she was in the new hive the thousands of other bees would stay with her.


Within a couple of days the bees had built down five pieces of wild comb some six inches long and were already making honey. Soon the queen was laying. The combs the bees came on were placed in one of the Wildlife Garden’s traditional bee hives, the emerging young combining with that hive’s colony.


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Inside the new bee tree

Image copyright: Jonathan Jackson

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The new colony of bees lost no time and promptly set to work collecting pollen and are seen here at the hive entrance

Image copyright: Jonathan Jackson


And the original bees? Their hive might have split and begun to fall apart, but that had not bothered them at all. When we removed the old bee tree we gently removed the colony within and found them a new home. You can now visit them at the Kennington Lodge Community Apiary in South London.


And you can visit our new bee tree every day that the Wildlife Garden is open. All we ask is that you treat the bees with respect: open the door onto their world slowly and be sure to close it after you have looked at them."


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Bees prefer to be kept in the dark

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria


Thank you Luke and Qais, Spencer and Danny for all the planning, digging and tweaking necessary to install our new bee tree new colony of bees and thank you to our new bee tree-funder, who wishes to remain anonymous.




With the Wildlife Garden opening earlier this week and our first event of the year due to happen this Saturday 6 April, Larissa has been looking around the garden for the first signs of Spring ...


"Sitting at my desk in the Wildlife Garden shed, I heard something scratching outside. Thinking the squirrels were raiding the bird seed, I crept to the window to catch them at it. No squirrels, then the sound came again but from under my feet. It was the foxes confirming our suspicions they had taken up residence under the shed again.


Despite the chilly weather persisting, the garden is slowly beginning to wake up around us with the first bluebells, daffodils, primroses and cowslips appearing, and the blackthorn beginning to blossom.


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Wild daffodils in the Wildlife Garden were some of the first to flower this year.

© Derek Adams


The leaves of the wild garlic have carpeted the woodland in one area while, in another, dog’s mercury is making an appearance.



A squirrel climbs a tree above the wild garlic covering the woodland floor.

© Jonathan Jackson

However, this is a poor show compared to last year when around this time wood anemone, marsh marigold, wood sorrel, and wild cherry amongst others were all in flower.



A bumblebee enjoys the nectar from a hybrid bluebell in 2012. We haven't spotted many bumblebees yet this year.

©  Jonathan Jackson  


Although the sleepy frogs and toads are yet to wake up, the birds are gathering supplies for their nests. This wren spent a whole day meticulously constructing a nest only for it to be blown down the next day.




This wren spent the whole day building a nest precariously balanced on the shed porch ... Unfortunately the wind blew down its efforts the next day!

© Larissa Cooper

It’s not just the wrens who have been busy. The moorhens have been spotted carefully choosing dry leaves and pieces of reed before carrying their finds into their nest box. The box is so full - as you can see from the picture below - there is scarcely space for the moorhens themselves. The moorhens are not the only birds on the pond preparing for spring. Over the last couple of weeks, a group of mallards have also been visiting the garden on a daily basis.



You can see just how full the moorhen nest box is!

© Larissa Cooper


The staff and volunteers in the garden are just as active with preparations for the opening of the garden at the beginning of April. The laid hedges have all had a trim to encourage bushy growth which will benefit both the birds looking to nest and the small mammals which hide in the base of the hedge.



One of our laid hedges trimmed and ready for spring growth.

© Larissa Cooper


In some of the hedges we have added new whips (the name given to nursery-grown small trees and hedge plants) to fill a few gaps. Elder and wild cherry have been added to the hedge bordering the Darwin centre courtyard and the Wildlife Garden and will be allowed to mature within the hedgerow providing nectar for insects and food for birds.


I love this time of year, if only it was a little warmer…"


Thank you Larissa

Watch out for details of our Spring Wildlife and other events on our web page.


With the return of wintry weather there’s little chance of finding many flying insects at the moment so - when not pruning or planting up hedge gaps in the Wildlife Garden - we’ve been focusing on animals found at ground level under stones, logs, leaf litter and within pitfall traps (n.b. more about pitfall traps another time). Amongst these animals, woodlice are a rewarding group to study as some of us learnt at a Woodlouse Workshop we attended a week ago last Sunday.


The study day, held in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, was led by Museum scientists Miranda Lowe and Duncan Sivell and covered an introduction to woodlouse anatomy and classification, as well as ecology and recording methods. Below are just a few of the many interesting facts we learnt:


Woodlice are crustaceans and are related to crabs, lobsters and shrimps. They belong to a group called Isopoda which means ‘equal legs’. Most Isopoda are marine animals but woodlice are one of the few groups of crustaceans that have adapted successfully to life on land. They live in damp dark places, beneath logs, stones or leaf litter, where they feed on rotting wood and other decaying vegetable matter, helping to recycle nutrients back into the soil.


Miranda described their basic anatomy, general body form, and some of the diagnostic features that help to distinguish between the different species. Woodlice have an oval flattened body which will vary in colour and form depending on the species, and seven pairs of legs (pereopods).



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Common striped woodlouse, Philoscia muscorum - their colour can vary but all have a dark head and dark stripe along their back

© Martin Angel


The general body form of the different genuses explains some of their behaviour – there are six types: runner, clinger, roller, creeper, spiny form and non-conformist, of which the first four only are found in Britain. When you pick up a woodlouse, you may recognise it by its body form - for example, if disturbed, the common pill woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare, will roll into a ball. Conversely, a common striped woodlouse, Philoscia muscorum, is a definite runner ...



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Common pill woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare

© Martin Angel


Apart from body form, shape and colour, another useful diagnostic feature is the antennae and it is important to examine the individual sections. For example, the common rough woodlouse, Porcello scaber, has a flagellum (end section of an antennae) made up of 2 segments whereas the common striped woodlouse has a 3-segmented flagellum. We were equipped with microscopes to observe these finer details.




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Common rough woodlouse, Porcellio scaber

© Martin Angel


These woodlice are three of the five species most commonly found in gardens - together with the other two species, they are known as the ‘Famous Five’. The remaining two in this club are common pigmy woodlouse, Trichoniscus pusillus, and the common shiny woodlouse, Oniscus asellus.

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Common shiny woodlouse, Oniscus asellus

© Harry Taylor, Natural History Museum


The different body form and characters may explain many of the affectionate, common names that woodlice have acquired throughout the ages and in different parts of the country. Duncan introduced us to some of these names such as slater where he comes from in the north, bibble-bug, cheese-pig, roly-poly and chuggy pig. The authors of Bugs Britannica discovered 80 nicknames for woodlice!


Duncan also told us more about the favourite habitats of woodlice and how to collect and record the different species. We explored the dark and damp underside of logs, leaf litter and compost bins in the Wildlife Garden and returned to the lab to identify our collection.


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Common shiny woodlouse at home

© Derek Adams, Natural History Museum


In our brief foray in the bitter wind, we found 5 different species - four of the Famous Five and Porcellio dilatatus. We know there are at least seven different species in the garden in addition to the honourary woodlouse, the landhopper, Arcitralitrus dorrieni.


But this is just a taster of the some of the fascinating facts and details we learnt about these endearing little animals. At a later date Miranda will write about the landhopper which has made itself at home in the Wildlife Garden.


Thank you Miranda and Duncan


For the past few days we have been coppicing and pollarding some of our hazel, alder and field maple, using the cut poles as binders and stakes for our woven fence repairs. Woven fences border the meadow and other areas where sheep-proof fences are necessary.


The woven fences are also reminders of one of our volunteers, John Chabrillat, who sadly died in November. John, originally from France, had lived in England for around 40 years and still retained an endearingly strong French accent. In retirement John worked as a conservation volunteer for several organizations including the Surrey Wildlife Trust and Ealing Council park rangers. He had been a volunteer in the Wildlife Garden since autumn 1997. John specialized in woodland management.


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John Chabrillat working on a woven fence


Always arriving in the garden promptly at 9.30 am on his appointed day, John often brought his own tools - such as bill hook or hatchet - cleverly wrapped up in newspaper to avoid any suspicion on the train. I was reminded of his hachet-carrying habit by Roger of the Surrey Wildlife Trust where John often worked in Nower Wood nature reserve


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John preparing coppiced stems for his woven fence



John shared his skills in coppicing, pollarding and hedge-laying and was always looking to perfect his own techniques by attending the coppicing workshops held here for Museum Members and volunteers.


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John learning how to ‘bodge’ during a woodland workshop


He taught us how to build woven fences using hazel and ash. Any surplus wood would be neatly sawn or chopped up and used for log piles created in his inimitable style. 


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One of John’s log piles – ideal habitats for toads, newts, fungi and many invertebrates


John worked on a variety of other tasks throughout the year including weekend sheep care. He was full of interesting facts and funny anecdotes and arranged reciprocal volunteer outings between Nower Wood and the Museum. He grew vegetables in his back garden and in summer months would present us with gifts of tasty home-grown tomatoes.


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John making a woven willow barrier


We have missed John since he ‘retired’ from volunteering nearly 2 years ago and, now we know he will not be returning, it seems fitting in this season of woodland work to remember John - a true woodsman -  and to describe the art of coppicing in his words, as they appeared in an article for the Wildlife Garden page of the Museum’s Membership magazine, Nature First in Spring 2002.


Coppicing by John Chabrillat, conservation volunteer:

"Although coppicing is generally associated with the open countryside, it also finds its place - albeit small - in the Wildlife Garden. Coppicing consists of cutting trees, preferably saplings, to ground level, and then allowing the stumps (or stools) to grow back for up to 12 to 15 years. This resulting growth is a straight piece of timber, ideal for weaving into fencing or hurdles, tool handles, or in medieval and Tudor days, wattles for wattle and daub houses. Hazel and sweet chestnut are still the main coppice trees in southern England, and sometimes English oaks are allowed to grow to maturity for heavy timber - this is called coppice with standards.


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Workshop leader, Rob Graham demonstrating coppicing in the Wildlife Garden


Coppiced woodland produces a better structure of growth than would occur naturally. Many more plants will grow and it provides a more attractive environment for birds and insects, including butterflies, as has been proven in conservation coppicing. It has been said that when man developed coppicing, it was the only time he improved nature.


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Coppiced woodland benefits spring flowers such as primroses (above) and bluebells and stitchwort (below)


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The practice may have been introduced in this country by the Romans. It is still widely practiced in France and Italy for firewood and charcoal production. It was certainly practiced in Norman times here, as ‘coppice’ is an Anglo-Norman word derived from the old French copez (to cut). In England it had become the most common way of woodland management by the end of the 13th century. Before the use of coal, it provided a renewable source of timber and firewood, which helped to maintain a constant supply of fuel for the iron industry without endangering the survival of woodland.


In the Wildlife Garden, hazel and ash are coppiced to provide supple and smooth stakes for ‘dead’ hedges, which make good stock-proof fences to control our summer sheep."


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One of John’s woven fences visible behind the sheep he loved to watch


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Goodbye and thank you John

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