Category Archives: Biodiversity and culture

Split the kipper: snowfall thoughts of breakfast, fish and childhood games

Kipper 2018-01-21 10.39.16.png

Karin and I had kippers for breakfast this morning, a satisfying and warming treat on this cold Sunday as we watched the snow fall into the garden, softening the edges and hedges:

Snow in the garden 2018-01-21 11.20.48.png

I do like a nice kipper!  Smoking fish to make it last longer has been repeatedly discovered and transmitted as an idea across cultures, and represents a fascinating intersection where wild biodiversity meets human ingenuity.  The north east of England, where I grew up, has a great and ancient tradition of smoking herrings to preserve a portion of the catch, a practice that may have originated with the Vikings who colonised that part of the country over one thousand years ago.

Of all of the North Sea’s edible biodiversity I feel most comfortable eating herring; although there were issues with over-fishing in the 1960s and 70s, current stocks look to be being managed sustainably.  The most up to date information I’ve found is in a Norwegian government report from which I took this graph:


Kippers have had subtle, but interesting, influences on culture, spawning phrases, songs and games. To be “done up like a kipper”* is to be taken advantage of by someone or bamboozled, whilst a “kipper tie” is a fashion hangover from the 60s and 70s, named for its broad proportions.  Of course Supertramp sang about having kippers for breakfast, particularly in Texas “cos everyone’s a millionaire”.  That strikes me as an odd line as herrings (in whatever form) have always been considered a cheap dish. Though I suppose importing them from Craster to Dallas could be quite expensive.

Back to the north east and my childhood, where we played a game called “Split the Kipper”. This involved standing opposite a friend on a grassy field and taking it in turns to throw a knife near to your opponent’s foot.  If it stuck into the ground then your opponent had to slide their foot to that point.  This continued until one of you had your legs so far apart that you fell over – the kipper had been split!  Not the safest game for kids but I never knew anyone to get injured playing it. Like all the best games the point was not just to win but to win beautifully: inching your adversary’s legs apart with accurate knife throws gradually ramped up the tension of the game.  I wonder where the game originated? Is it too fanciful to imagine that it was brought over by the Vikings?

The snow is still falling – wonder what’s for lunch….?


*Whatever you do, don’t search the Urban Dictionary for the definition of the word “kippered”….



Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Gardens

Vermicide: how do you deal with earworms?


Warning: biodiversity content almost nil; bad language content significant.


Language fascinates me, and one of the things that I find particularly intriguing is the way in which metaphors and analogies from the natural world find their way into our writing and speech.  We talk of a “bird’s eye view” or being as “slow as a snail”; say that “from little acorns large oaks grow”, and we are as “ravenous as wolves”.

Which leads me to earworms.  Nothing to do with real worms of course, but fragments of music that worm their way into your consciousness and stay fixed there, repeating over and over and over and over…….

According to Wikipedia other names include brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, and Involuntary Musical Imagery, but I’ve always known them as earworms.  And I’ve suffered from them for as long as I can remember; typically every couple of days I’ll have part of a song stuck in my head that I can’t get rid of.  In recent days it’s been “Long-haired Lover From Liverpool” by Little Jimmy Osmond (which I heard on a Top of the Pops Christmas Special); Joni Mitchell’s “River”; and “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin that featured on a YouTube playlist on New Year’s Day.

Earworms get worse when I’m stressed or when I have a hangover: indeed if I have drunk too much the night before (a rare occurrence these days) I will wake up with a headache, nauseous, AND SOME FUCKING SONG BOUNCING LOUDLY AROUND IN MY BRAIN LIKE A KANGAROO* ON AMPHETAMINES!

At their worst these earworms can last for days and be very hard to shift.  They can also wake me up in the middle of the night and stop me from getting back to sleep.  The only method that I’ve found that can suppress them is to sing another song to myself that masks the offending song.  After much experimentation I find that “In My Time of Dying”, another Led Zeppelin track, is the most effective, perhaps because it’s slow and not especially catchy.

(Bugger, my son James is tidying his bedroom and playing music and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has just come on – almost guaranteed to get stuck in my head!)

If you also suffer badly from earworms I’d be interested to know what methods you use to shift the little blighters: what works for you?


*See what I did there?


Filed under Biodiversity and culture

The holly, the mistletoe, and the pollinators: an update on an old story


Holly and mistletoe are two of Europe and Scandinavia’s most iconic plants, steeped in folklore and cultural significance, and redolent of the dark days of mid-winter and its festivities.  Last year, together with my colleagues Jim Rouquette and Tom Breeze, I published a study of the value that pollinators add to the wholesale auction prices of these two plants using data from the UK’s largest holly and mistletoe auction that has been held in the town of Tenbury Wells for 160 years.

Holly and mistletoe are excellent subjects for a study of the added value that pollinators bring to a crop as they are 100% reliant on pollination by a range of wild bees, flies and other insects.  This is because both species are dioecious with separate sex plants, therefore any berries produced on a female plant must be due to the activities of pollinators.

Here’s a link to last year’s blog post about that paper and here’s the reference for the paper itself, with a link to the journal where you can download it for free:

Ollerton, J., Rouquette, J.R. & Breeze, T.D. (2016) Insect pollinators boost the market price of culturally important crops: holly, mistletoe and the spirit of Christmas. Journal of Pollination Ecology 19: 93-97

The data set in that paper only developed the story up to 2015 as the 2016 auctions took place too late to include within our analyses.  However I’ve collected the auction reports for 2016 and 2017 and added them to the data set.  The results are graphed below*.

The auction price for holly with berries is rather volatile, but on average over this time period, berried holly has twice the commercial value of holly without berries.  Indeed in the last auction of 2017, holly without berries failed to sell, hence the value of £0.00.  The very wintry weather on the auction day reduced the number of buyers, but nonetheless, to have no one bidding for the unberried holly was unprecedented.

Holly auction prices plot

The pattern for mistletoe is rather similar, but in this case the value of berried material is less volatile than that of holly, and the average value is around three times greater than for auction lots of unberried plants.

Mistletoe auction plot

This data set offers a unique insight into the value of pollinators for two culturally important crops (all other such studies have focused on food or, rarely, fibre crops).  I’ll continue to archive the auction reports and to update these analyses every few years in the run up to Christmas.  If anyone is interested in accessing the data, please drop me a line.

If you want to learn more about the botany of different types of mistletoe follow this link to Mike Fay’s blog post on the Kew website.

Also worth checking out is Manu Saunders’ recent piece highlighting some old Christmas-themed blog posts.

Yesterday was my last day in the office, I’m now officially on leave and looking forward to a restful Christmas and New Year break.  Season’s greetings to all of my readers and thank you for your continued support and interest in biodiversity!



*There are three auctions each year and therefore three data points per annum, except for 2016 when only two auction reports were produced.



Filed under Biodiversity and culture, Ecosystem services, Pollination

Spiral Sunday #33 – an Aeonium from Tenerife (for Karin’s birthday)


Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been extremely busy doing field work and not had great internet connections, hence no postings on the blog.  But this weekend we are staying in a lovely little hotel in a restored 18th century Canarian house in Icod de los Vinos.  So things have slowed down, though the internet is not much better.

I have managed to capture a few images of spirals along the way that I will use for upcoming Spiral Sunday posts.  As it’s Karin’s birthday today, here’s one of an Aeonium species, the group of plants that’s been the main focus of our recent field work.

Happy Birthday Karin!



Filed under Biodiversity and culture, spirals, Tenerife

Spiral Sunday #29 – a pair of guest photos

Spiral from Alex Laws.png

Spiral Sunday this week features a couple of photographs I’ve been sent recently.  The first is from one of my PhD students, Alex Laws, taken on a trip to Cornwall earlier this year.  The artist is James Eddy, not a name I was familiar with, but definitely worth checking out, especially as he is a land artist too.

Which leads us to the second picture, sent to me by a Polish colleague, Marcin Zych, of a spiral-shaped piece of land art he found near Olomouc, in the Czech Republic.  It reminds me (on a smaller scale) of Robert Smithson’s amazing sculpture Spiral Jetty (of which I was unaware until it was kindly introduced to me by Carrie McLaughlin of the Texas Pollinator Powwow).

Spiral from Marcin Zych

Many thanks to Alex and Marcin, and to Carrie too.





Filed under Biodiversity and culture, spirals

Spiral Sunday #28 – hearts and vine


The sun was illuminating the coloured glass of a window ornament and I noticed two things: (i) the lovely juxtaposition between the metal spirals of the ornament and the spiral tendrils of Cyphostemma simulans, a member of the vine family (Vitaceae) that I grew from seed many years ago; and (ii) the fact that our front windows really need washing….  No time for that this weekend, though, been too busy working in the garden with Karin!  That’s Spiral Sunday, enjoy the weather while you can.



Filed under Biodiversity and culture, Gardens, spirals

Celebrating Conrad Gesner Day 2017 (and Spiral Sunday #27)!

Gessner house Zurich March 2008 018

Happy Conrad Gesner Day!  Who is he, you may ask?  And why does he have a day?  Conrad Gesner (sometimes spelled Konrad Gessner) was a Swiss naturalist and polymath, born on this day (26th March) in 1516; he lived much of his life in Zurich, where he died on 13 December 1565.  Gesner was an extremely important figure in Renaissance science and scholarship, and when I visited Zurich in 2008 to give a seminar at the university, a tour of the old town revealed a number of references to the great man, including the memorial stone above.

Gesner’s Historia animalium (“History of Animals”)  is considered one of the founding texts of modern zoology, and for that reason he is memorialised in the name Gesneria Hübner, 1825; this is a genus of moths in the family Crambidae.

However Gesner was also a botanist and wrote a couple of books on the subject, though his Historia plantarum was not published until two centuries after his death.  To celebrate Gesner’s botanical achievements Linnaeus erected the genus Gesneria L. for a group of flowering plants.  Sounds odd to have the same name for two very different types of organism, but this cross-kingdom duplication of genera is allowable under the various codes of taxonomic nomenclature.

Gesneria in turn is the type genus for the family Gesneriaceae.  It’s quite a big family (about 3,450 species in 152 genera) and is ecologically important in the tropics and subtropics, where species may be pollinated by insects and birds, and are often epiphytic on trees.  It’s not a particularly economically important family, though a number of genera are widely grown as ornamentals, and there are specialist gesneriad growers and collectors.  The more familiar plants include those mainstays of Mothering Sunday (which by coincidence is also today) African Violets (Saintpaulia), Cape Primroses (Streptocarpus) and gloxinias (Gloxinia):

Gloxinias 20170325_105735

As I was looking through my photographs from the trip to Zurich in 2008 I spotted the following image of some wrought ironwork from the old city which may well be contemporary with Gesner.  This seems a fitting way to celebrate both the great man and this week’s Spiral Sunday:

Spirals in Zurich March 2008 119.png Happy Birthday Dr Gesner!



Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Gardens, History of science, spirals

Spiral Sunday #26 – a bumper crop from Birmingham Botanical Garden

Today Karin and I took a drive up to Birmingham to visit my daughter Ellen, who is studying applied performance and community theatre at Birmingham School of Acting.  After picking her up we went for lunch at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  Now, I’m a bit of a botanic gardens collector; I love visiting them, and keep a life list of those I’ve visited and a wish list of those I’d like to visit.  So I was sure I had been to the Botanical Gardens as a PhD student during a British Ecological Society conference at the University of Birmingham.  But when we arrived there I had no recollection of the glasshouses or the layout, it was not familiar at all.  Odd how the memory plays tricks, one way or another.

I can recommend a visit, though – the Gardens looked stunning even this early in the season; lots of plants in flower and even a buzzard circling low overhead.  It being Spiral Sunday, of course, I was seeing spirals everywhere; in the unfurling fronds of a tree fern (Blechnum gibbum):

Blechnum gibbum 20170319_154939.png

On a cast iron garden seat:

Seat spiral 20170319_154601

In the flowers of a variety of camellia:

Camelia 20170319_150934.png

In the leaves and flower cones of Banksia grandis:

Banksia grandis.png

And in the design of a sun hat in the Gardens shop:

Sunhat 20170319_162432.png





Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Gardens, spirals

The Danish for garden is “haven”: five reasons why I love Gardeners’ World


The latest series of the BBC’s flagship horticulture programme Gardeners’ World started on Friday, heralding its 50th year of broadcast – quite an achievement.  I’ve long been a fan, and a few years ago jumped at the chance to take part in one Science in the Garden special episode with Carol Klein (which I’ve posted about previously).  Since Friday I’ve given some thought as to what I get from the programme and have come up with a list of the main reasons why I love watching it:

1.  At its heart, Gardeners’ World is about the main subject of this blog and of my career: biodiversity.  Specifically the programme is centred on the biological richness of wild plants and the diversity of the horticultural varieties that we have created from them, for food and for ornament.  Spinning off from this is the acknowledgement that, although much of it is not native to Britain, this plant biodiversity (and the way in which we manage it in our gardens) can have important positive benefits for the wildlife of our country, including birds, amphibians and reptiles, and insects such as bees and butterflies.  This is particularly the case in urban settings and I’ve noticed a welcome trend in recent years for Gardeners’ World to include more features about city horticulture.

2.  Gardeners’ World has long championed a more environmentally friendly approach to horticulture, bringing in ideas about using peat-free compost, minimal use of biocides, recycling and upcycling, composting, and growing your own food, long before any of this became fashionable.  Indeed there’s a strong argument to be made that earlier presenters such as the late Geoff Hamilton were responsible for such fashions gaining mainstream exposure, influencing the habits of millions of people in Britain.  That kind of influence should not be under-estimated.

3. Gardeners’ World reminds me of my dad, who died in 1996.  I can recall him watching it back in the 1970s when Percy Thrower was the presenter and my dad had an allotment a short walk from our small terraced cottage house, with its tiny concrete backyard.  Some of my earliest memories of plants and nature relate to that allotment: a huge rambling rose along the fence; a greenhouse made from old window panes, filled with the rich scent of tomatoes; a toad that dad put in that greenhouse to eat the slugs; rainwater tanks hosting little communities of wriggling insect larvae.  After the allotment plots were cleared by the local council and sold for development my dad erected a greenhouse in the backyard, and grew shrubs and bedding in large pots.  In the early 1980s this was joined by a second small greenhouse for my cactus and succulent collection, many of which I still have.  Some of the best stories in Gardeners’ World are as much about people and their relationships with one another and with their gardens, as they are about plants and gardening per se (see also number 5, below).

4.  Despite having watched the programme for many years I still get new things from it.  Each season I gain inspiration for new plants and new ways of working with the garden that Karin and I are developing here in Northampton, which I’ve talked about quite a few time; see for example:  Renovating a front garden…, my post about Scientists and gardens, and the series I did on pollinators in the garden for Pollinator Awareness Week.  Gardeners never stop learning.

5. Being from the north of England I’m intrigued by the linguistic links between that part of our country and Scandinavia, particularly shared words such as “bairn”, and place-name elements such as “holm”.  Karin is Danish and these connections of language are something we often discuss.  Recently she pointed out that the Danish word for garden is “haven”.  Although it’s not pronounced in the English manner that word is probably the best single way of describing how I feel about our garden; it’s a haven from from the outside world, a place of rest and security, contemplation and physical activity, emotionally supporting us, and providing resources and space for the wildlife that uses it.  Although we don’t do much work in the garden during the winter, each year the start of a new season of Gardeners’ World reminds me of the pleasures to come in our own haven.

Of course there are sometimes things that irritate me about the programme: it can be a bit too cosily middle class at times, occasionally the advice offered can be simplistic or inaccurate, and some of the “scientific” trials of plant varieties lack rigour and replication.  Nonetheless, it’s a programme I have grown up with and one that I love to watch.  Happy Anniversary Gardeners’ World, here’s to 50 more years!



Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Urban biodiversity

The decline of the “humble bee” – a short follow-up from yesterday’s post

The piece I posted yesterday about whether the names two of our most well known pollinators should be spelled honey bee/honeybee or bumblebee/bumble bee generated a lot of interesting comments on Facebook, Twitter, and on the blog.  A few people pointed me to the “Snodgrass Rule” that informal names should be combined only if the species concerned are not members of that particular taxon (e.g. “butterfly” rather than “butter fly”, because they are not “flies”), in which case “honey bee” and “bumble bee” are correct.

If I was ever aware of this entomological convention I’d certainly forgotten about it, but it strikes me that there’s a lot of examples outside of entomology that break the rule, e.g. hummingbird, goldfinch, catfish, ground ivy, etc.

A couple of commentators also asked me about the old term “humble bee”, as used in Frederick Sladen’s 1912 book “The Humble-Bee, its Life-History and How to Domesticate It”.  So I added this to the bumblebee/bumble bee search on the Google Ngram Viewer, taking the time frame back to 1500, and the results are very intriguing:

screen-shot-2017-03-01-at-09-59-55 It would appear that “bumble bee” pre-dates “humble bee” by a considerable period, with the former being superseded by the latter from the late 1600s onwards, until “humble bee/humblebee” started to decline in use from the end of the 19th century.

I’ve also searched using the term “dumbledore”, which is an old local name, but it was also applied to other buzzing insects such as chafers, making interpretation of the results difficult.  There’s more on the etymology of bumblebees on Wikipedia if you’d care to follow it up.

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion!



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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity and culture, Honey bees