Student exchange trips at our school were hell. Weren’t they for every pre-pubescent teenager? Well, the bit where you had to go abroad was. Living with a complete stranger, with little idea whether, and to what degree, his non-English-speaking family were maniacs.
Thankfully at our school we also had exchanges with people who could speak the same language - namely Americans and South Africans, on tour for football and rugby. It was one of these visits that woke me up to something striking about local nature.
Here’s the scene: it’s a small kick-about at the park. Us vs. the Americans. We’re one-nil up and the the ball goes into some long grass. One of our American opponents rushes in after it. Seconds later he’s back, without the football, screaming and clutching his bare legs in shocked agony. Stinging nettles. The look on his face was one of panic, his eyes flinging across each of our faces, seeking reassurance that he wasn’t actually going to die a long drawn out death there and then. He was utterly shocked. Well, I thought. Interesting…
It was my first recognition of the fact we have plants that can defend themselves just as well as the plants I had seen on the Life of Plants (which was on TV at the time). And this bloody plant was everywhere now I think about it (weirdly, they’re also native to North America – perhaps our American friends didn’t get out much).
Nettles. A stinging plant, armed with tiny barbs capable of deterring animals. Under a microscope these barbs are actually hairs (called trichomes), but if you ramp up the magnification you’ll see that each hair is more like a hypodermic syringe, each one loaded with a tiny dose of histamine.
And they can grow to triffid size (2 metres if you’re asking), just like those ones on telly.
I’d never really thought of this plant as an impressive spectacle, a fascinating example of adaptation to foil herbivores, yet here it was before my very eyes, deterring humans from another continent.
Urtica dioica: Stinging bastards*
I got this awe-struck feeling again a few years later at a service station, when watching Australians encounter our wasps for the first time. Their tourist bus had parked next to a bin, from which wasps were coming to and fro, and the foreign passengers were viewing the bin like there was some sort of vicious bear in there. Those that did pass chose to run, and did so with great cries of “European wasp! European wasp!”.
Could they really have been Australians, you ask? A nationality possibly more at home with venom than any other - could they really be fearful of our lowly wasps? But then, to be fair to Australians, our wasps are actually quite scary and have a wily resourcefulness about them when you think about it. Plus, they are quite inquisitive (dare I say nasty seeming) at times, unlike their family’s representatives in other climes (like Australia).
Just like with stinging nettles, we’re lucky to have such impressive feats of evolution so close to us (and our bins)…
Are European wasps really that impressive? Well, yes. It’s a resourceful and highly social insect that we’ve become rather blasé about – in reality we have a neat little product of evolution we’re talking about here. A species capable of building nests the size of a VW Beetle (or a Beatle come to think about it). A social insect capable of building such intricate nests, armed with knowledge of one thing: an inordinate fondness for hexagons. An insect with a yearly cycle of societal profligacy and societal decay (picture those drunk wasps at year-end). We could learn a lot from them.
Just like stinging nettles, wasps are wildlife examples worthy of any TV rainforest drama.
So, wasps and stinging nettles. These are impressive feats of nature, and I suspect that that if we looked at them with fresh eyes every now and then (like my exchange colleagues or Australians) we’d be better able to inspire our UK audiences about the impressive nature we have outside the back door, or in school grounds.
Sometimes it takes someone from another country, screaming wildly in a service station car-park, to remind you.
Allow me to term a new phrase then. Incredimals: animals that provide us with fascinating insights into the complexity of nature’s diversity, but that we overlook because, well, they’re all over the bloody place. Here’s five off the top of my head…
Woodlice – turn over a bit of wood and you will see these animals, crustaceans (we all remember this from school). What’s always impressed me though is that this crustacean is such an important decomposer – yet it’s an imposter, an aquatic astronaut (terranaut?) still at the top of its game in The Age of Insects. Bravo.
Woodpeckers – here you have a beak evolved for picking insects out of bark, but that later evolved into a tool for drumming, for declaring territory and sexual prowess. I love how sex has picked up on this behaviour and used it to meet its ends. The noise certainly carries better than some birdsongs.**
Aphids – sex is pretty central to the theory of natural selection, but aphids like to mix things up by also practicing parthenogenesis. If one finds a nice uninhabited plant, then they multiply to conquer. You would if you could.
Swifts – animal migration is an incredible thing but don’t forget that swifts, maybe more than any other bird, have evolved to become masters of the air - they eat, drink, mate and sleep in the atmosphere above.
Mallards – sure, peacocks tails are impressive examples of sexual selection, but you can see the same iridescence on mallards at this time of year, and for the same reason. Very nice too.
So there it is. Let us come together, as people who love wildlife, and spread the word about these incredible examples of evolution, that you can find just outside the backdoor.
Turn off the telly, log-out from YouTube and scream it from the rooftops: “European wasps! European wasps! European wasps!…”
So what else is happening this week? I’ll tell you: newts.
If you have a garden or school pond now is great time of year to find out more about the newt species that may be present. The best way to do this is with a torch. Go out before bed and carefully scan the pond edges with your torch looking for this amphibian in the midst of its courtship rituals.
Unlike the raucous mating of the common frog and common toad, newt mating behaviour is a much more measured affair. Males stand proudly in the open, near the bottom of the pond and when they see a female they carefully waft pheromones towards her with sensual flicks of the tail. Patient observers may even see the gentle transferral of a spermatophore from male to female. He drops it, she picks it up. The female uses this packet of sperm to fertilise her eggs internally, before laying more than 500 eggs individually on submerged pond plants.
You can report your sightings to The Great Easter Newt Hunt – www.arguk.org
Funding opportunities for wildlife projects…
Here’s some funding schemes that might help you with school ground development projects. Check the deadlines though – they’re approaching…!
SITA Trust Enhancing Communities Programme - Fast Track Fund (Max. Value: £ 10,000) - www.sitatrust.org.uk/community-funding
Support is provided for community projects in qualifying areas of England, Scotland and Wales. The type of projects supported include improvements to nature areas and community spaces (allotments, school grounds, village halls).
Bernard Matthews Fund (Max. Value: £ 2,000)
Financial assistance is available to voluntary and community groups for projects that address a clear need and where they will make the most impact. I’ve never used this one – if anyone has used this scheme, and would like to provide feedback please do so below!
Lastly, I just wanted to apologise for the gap in blog posts recently – I have no excuses, except excuses. I hope to get back in the swing with updates each week or two!
Enjoy what nature’s got out there for you – this blog has been written to a wonderful melodious background provided by dunnocks, blackcaps, swallows and blackbirds in the backyard. What a lovely time of year this is.
* It doesn’t really mean that. The genus name Urtica comes from the Latin verb urere, meaning 'to burn,' because of these stinging hairs, and the dioica means 'two houses' because the plant usually contains either male or female flowers.
**What I really love is that at some point in the woodpeckers’ early evolution, female proto-woodpeckers must have started getting more interested in the noise of male woodpeckers pecking the bark, rather than their ‘songs’. Can any ornithologists elaborate perhaps? Their early birdsongs must have been truly awful if so.