I realised that I stood a chance of photographing this male common darter, Sympetrum striolatum, because, as its name suggests, its hunting technique was to keep darting out from the corner of the herb bed then returning to sit in the same spot, soaking up the sun on the stonework.
Thinking that it would be too restless for me to get close to it, I went for my 40-150 mm zoom lens but, when it went on to settle by the pond, I could have got close enough to use the macro. The zoom couldn’t focus any closer than a couple of feet.
The female common darter yellow, which gradually fades to dark olive.
When I cleared duckweed from the pond in the early summer, I came across perhaps a dozen dragonfly larvae which were about the right size to become darter dragonflies, each of which I coaxed back into the pond.
The highlight on its compound eye is hexagonal, as are the individual lenses that make it up.
It has yellow stripes running along the length of its black legs.
Our greenhouse has a bit of a question-mark hanging over it because we’re keen to keep getting away in the springtime, which is just at the time when we should be getting things going in there.
Long Hot Summer
Last year while we were away, an earlier than expected scorching spell of weather withered the young tomato plants and they never really recovered, so it was a lot of work and watering for a few handfuls of not so brilliant tomatoes.
This spring we were away so much that we didn’t put any plants in at all but we were glad of that later when it turned out to be a record-breaking hot, dry summer. They would have struggled to survive in the searing temperatures that can build up in the greenhouse.
The drip irrigation system that I rigged up a few years ago for when we go away has never been as successful as hand-watering would have been.
Most mornings this summer it was too hot to enjoy sitting out on our southeast-facing patio, so hot that on occasion, when I sat down to put my gardening shoes on, I’d lay down my gloves on edge of patio because the paving slabs were uncomfortably hot to sit on.
We realise that we need a shady corner where we can sit out, so our plan is to dismantle the greenhouse, move the shed down there then construct a simple shelter in its place that we can use in either sun or rain.
The Modern Greenhouse
When bought our house thirty-five years ago, we were offered the greenhouse as well (at a price of course!), so it’s going to be a wrench to let it go.
What I can’t bring myself to part with just yet is my dad’s book on The Modern Greenhouse, as I’d like to browse through it to get a bit of insight of what his ambitions were during my school and student days when he got so into growing under glass in his cedar-framed greenhouse that he had a second, leant-to, greenhouse built against the high Victorian brick wall adjacent to it.
How up-to-date the book was in 1970, I’m not sure as my dad’s copy is the fourteenth edition of a book first published in 1938 and revised only once, in 1955.
My drawing of the potting bench (top) was made on my iPad in Adobe Draw, tracing from a photograph. I’d already reduced the photograph to pure black and white but I realised that I shouldn’t be too literal as I traced it, or it wouldn’t look like a pen and brush ink drawing, so I tried to be fairly free.
Oak apples are at their freshest – spongy and sometimes rose-pink – around the time of Oak Apple Day, the 29 May. The day commemorates the Restoration of the Monarchy in Britain on 26 May 1660, when Charles II returned from exile.
The summer generation of the gall wasp Biorhiza pallida, has already emerged. As many as thirty of them live in separate larval chambers in the gall but they’re often joined by parasites and by inquilines: live-in lodgers that don’t attack the resident larvae. The variety of species sharing the gall probably explains the different sizes of the exit holes that they’ve made.
The fertilised females will go on to penetrate the ground and lay their eggs in the roots of oak trees. The larvae usually spend two winters developing underground, each in its own root gall, then emerge early in the year. This early spring generation will all be wingless and all female.
The unfertilised females climb into the branches of the oak and lay numerous eggs at the base of a bud. An oak apple forms from each bud and, as in my photograph, often several of them are clustered together. Males and females develop in separate galls.
These were on a small sessile oak growing by the towpath alongside the Calder & Hebble Navigation, downstream from Horbury Bridge.
These artichoke galls began to form earlier this summer when a female gall wasp Andricus fecundator laid a single egg in each of the terminal buds of this branch of a sessile oak.
Artichoke galls are also known as larch-cone galls or hop galls. The larva develops protected by the overlapping scales.
An adult female will emerge in the spring to lay her unfertilised eggs in the emerging catkins of the oak. The alternate summer generation of male and female gall wasps will emerge from the resulting hairy catkins galls in May or June.
This sessile oak was growing on the embankment of the disused colliery railway which formerly connected Hartley Bank to Addingford, crossing the canal and river en route.
Lime trees, particularly a variety of the Common Lime, Tilia X europaea, with a columnar shape, were a favourites with the Victorians and were planted in the grounds of a now-vanished villa, here in the Dearne Valley between Barnsley and Rotherham. The century-old trees were given preservation orders when new houses were built in the old walled garden.
Unfortunately, even with preservation orders, trees do eventually start to die back and one of trees here needed major surgery to keep it alive.
The nursery colony of pipistrelle bats which were resident in its cavities each year during the summer months moved to snug new quarters the following summer, in the apex of the house next door.
On Saturday evening, around 9 p.m., we watched them emerging and lost count of home many there were. I’d say well over a hundred. There would be a pause and then several would shoot out one after the other.
Some of them headed straight for the tree that had been their nursery roost, others hawked about overhead, appearing and disappearing at lightning speed in the gathering gloom above us.
We’re on coal measures here. This sandstone boulder serves as a garden feature at the foot of a still-thriving lime.
On our journey to Leeds via Morley Tunnel, the bracken by the trackside is turning autumnal and the rosebay willowherb has mainly gone to seed. Birch, ash and sycamore foliage is tinted with ochre but buddleia and Himalayan balsam add a splash of purple on waste ground by Morley station.
I’m returning to an A5 portrait sketchbook after a few months using smaller travel sketchbooks but none of my quick sketches of a cupola and a Dutch-style gable, drawn from the M&S cafe on Trinity Street and the White Stuff on Vicar Lane even begins to fill the page.
Room for one last little landscape sketch in my postcard-sized Seawhite Watercolour Travel Journal: a stubble field at Field House Farm, Overton, seen from the Seed Room Cafe at the Horticentre. The houses of Thornhill Edge sit amongst the trees on the ridge in the background, on the far side of the Smithy Brook Valley.
The original sketch is 9 cm, just over 3 inches, across.
This female Common Cucumber Spider, Araniella curcurbitina, scuttled away as I gathered up the ivy that I’d cut back from behind the herb bed. I’d spread an old shower curtain on the ground to catch the trimmings, hence the background; the weave of the cloth gives a clue to the scale: the spider is just half a centimetre long, excluding legs.
The cucumber spider is common on trees, woods and hedgerows, where it spins a small orb web. It has a conspicuous red spot on its underside, just below the spinnerets. The male has boxing-glove style pedipalps (the small front pair of legs).
Britain’s Spiders, A Field Guide
Identifying it gave me a chance to use my new field guide, Britain’s Spiders, by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith (2017).
As I already have two spider field guides on my shelf, Collins Field Guide Spiders of Britain & Northern Europe, by Michael J. Roberts (1995), and The Country Life Guide to Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe by Dick Jones (1983), did I really need another?
Dick Jones had support from Kodak and Pentax when he photographed 350 species of spiders and harvestmen for the Country Life Guide(top right), but his Kodachromes can’t quite match the clarity of the digital photographs in the latest guide, which also has the advantage of up-to-date distribution maps, even so, the Country Life Guide is useful to have for a second opinion when you’re checking out a species.
Collins Field Guide
If you were getting serious about identifying spiders, you’ll need a copy of Michael J Roberts’ guide, because, in addition to 288 colour paintings, he includes 1,500 line drawings of the spiders’ reproductive organs, which would be essential if you were trying, for example, to distinguish between the Common Cucumber Spider, Araniella curcurbitina (which is most likely to be the one that I found), and it’s near identical relative, the Cucumber Spider, A. opisthographa.
“The distinguishing features of the male palpal organs are best seen from below,” says Roberts, “and this is difficult with a field microscope, unless the specimen is particularly obliging.”
He explains how to construct a homemade ‘spi-pot’ to harmlessly examine a spider in the field. But don’t feel inadequate if you can’t tell one species of cucumber spider from another because it seems that even the spiders themselves occasionally get it wrong:
“Very rarely, specimens may appear rather intermediate, possibly due to hybridisation.”
I haven’t turned on the hose pipe during this long dry spell but this weekend the pond had got so low that I felt I had to. The surface was entirely covered with duckweed, so I put on my arm-length waterproof gloves and pulled it out around the edges, then used a pond net to scoop up the remaining clumps in the middle.
A A Milne’s poem Bad Sir Brian Botany came to mind. The bit where Sir Brian gets his comeuppance from the villagers:
“Sir Brian went a journey, and he found a lot of duckweed . . . “
I left the piles of duckweed at the water’s edge to give the pond life a chance to find its way back and gave a helping hand to a few ramshorn snails, dragonfly larvae and black water beetles that I spotted struggling.