Hoverflies

HoverflyBlog-EndMay-1-A

I’ve always been interested in tiny creatures.  Well, perhaps ‘interested’ isn’t the right word.  Perhaps I should say ‘fascinated’.  I blame my father1.

For most of my life, it’s all been a bit random, so I’d see something with more legs than I have and quite a lot smaller than me, and I’d want to get a closer look and watch it for a while.  Thanks to Dad, I grew up knowing roughly what most of the common ones were and I could name them by their common family names at least: that’s a woodlouse, this is a centipede, there’s a beetle, etc.  As I grew older, I found that I knew a little bit more than most people.  I found myself saying things like ‘that’s not a beetle, it’s a bug’, or ‘no, it’s not a centipede, it’s a millipede’ and getting mildly annoyed when people didn’t care and still got it wrong.  And as time went on, the little creatures I could identify accurately increased, so that instead of saying ‘I found a beetle!’ I could say ‘here’s a Cockchafer’, or whatever.  I was fairly indiscriminate, but during the last few years my fascination has focussed sharply on hoverflies.

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Hoverflies are fascinating little creatures.  You know those little stripey flying things that hover silently over flowers in the summer?  A lot of people think they’re bees or wasps because they’re stripey, but they’re not, they are flies. They have no sting and they don’t bite.  And – here’s the important bit – they are not all stripey.  There are nearly three hundred different species of hoverfly in the UK, and they range from tiny black things to large furry bumblebee mimics that can sometimes even fool entomologists for a moment or two2.  There are wasp and hornet mimics, as well.

Everyone knows that bees are important to us because they are pollinators3, but not everyone knows that hoverflies are, too.  They visit flowers, they pick up pollen, they visit other flowers and drop some.   And there are a lot of them.   You might be used to seeing them only in high summer, but that’s because you’re not looking for them.  This cool, windy, wet spring has meant that there are fewer hoverflies here than usual, but I’m still seeing them on all but the worst days.  By the time Joe Public notices them, they are out in their thousands – and Mr Public will notice only a handful of species4.

So after a year or so of teaching myself to photograph them – which is surprisingly difficult, since like all flies they have excellent, wide-ranging, motion-detecting eyes, and can move like greased lightning if they feel threatened – I decided to join the Facebook group UK Hoverflies and began to submit records for my area.  It’s run by entomologists who are experts in hoverflies and they are all lovely people who are endlessly patient with amateurs like me who just want to know.  And so my interest was encouraged, and grew, and when I saw that a hoverfly identification workshop was being held in Shrewsbury in May I signed up for it5.

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It was great!  I learned so much more about hoverflies, and picked up some skills which will help me to identify them more effectively.  Of course, to do it properlyI’d need to kill them, and look at them under a binocular microscope with a camera and screen6, which would set me back several thousand pounds, but at least I now know which features to look at and the best camera angles to try for and will be better able to identify the easier ones7.

I’m not into killing them.  I can see why it’s necessary for it to be done by bona fide entomologists who are making what they call a ‘voucher collection’ and by bona fide entomological students who are seeking to become the next generation of experts, but it’s not for me.  So there will always be some hoverflies I cannot identify properly8, and that’s OK.

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We should all be concerned about helping pollinator numbers stay strong.  Not everyone will be willing to go as far as me and have silage lagoons in the garden for hoverfly breeding, but we can all plant the right sort of flowers, can’t we?  And – more importantly – stop using all those damned chemicals.

 

1 My father was an well-known entomologist, who studied beetles and took us kids on field trips.  Unfortunately, he didn’t think it a subject fit for girls so although he told me the names of things when I asked, he didn’t encourage my interest.

2 Without pollinators, a lot of our food crops would not be possible.

3 If they catch them out of the corner of their eye while they are feeding on a flower in company with bees.  Me, I’m not an expert, but I have to tell you that when I saw my first Volucella zonaria I honestly thought it was a hornet until I got the photos home and onto the computer screen where I saw that it was a hoverfly.

4 The stripey ones.

5 Rather rashly, as it happens.  I hate driving long distances, and while I’m aware that a journey of two and a half hours is peanuts to some people, to me it is a Long Trip and I nearly chickened out.  And because various things happened on the day I was due to leave, it was a nightmare journey which took nearly twice as long.  But I got there!  I was also terrified that looking down microscopes all day would give me a migraine (which incapacitates me and would have meant getting someone to take me back to my hotel, which would have been a tad difficult, since the type of migraine I get means I’d have trouble remembering the name of the hotel, let alone my room number), but thankfully that didn’t happen.

6 The camera and screen would avoid all neck strain and allow me to get on with the job without risking a migraine.  I coveted it, but for an amateur like me, it’s an unjustifiable expense, which would be equivalent to a couple of weeks in Italy at a really nice hotel.  I do have a hand-held digital microscope to which I could add lighting, a stand, screen, etc to at a relatively low cost (we’re talking hundreds rather than thousands), but as it is, it gives me a migraine.

7 Some need to be dead.  You need to be able to move heads and wings and legs to see the hidden bits and sometimes you need to dissect them.  I could get interested in that, but I don’t want to kill them, so I’d have to simply find them lying around with their legs in the air.

8 Yes. Quite often the stripey ones.

Predictive Text

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You may recall – those of you who have been reading my blogs for a while – that I am learning Italian. I started about six years ago, but it’s an ongoing process and will continue to be so.  However, I can now hold a conversation in passable Italian on quite a wide range of subjects1, and I often talk to my Italian friends on Skype, or exchange a few words with any Italians I can lay my hands on while out and about in England, because the thing about a second language is that if you don’t use it, you really do lose it.

Anyway.

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Those of you who were paying attention may further recall that my dearly beloved OH promised me faithfully, about two years ago, that he would also learn Italian. We were in Italy at the time and I think he got fed up with being left out of conversations which he couldn’t understand. After all, how did he know what I was saying to the handsome young waiter to make him smile so?2

And lo! We got home, and he did not learn Italian. He completely and utterly failed to learn more than odd word. And, I admit it, I have been teasing him about that and kind of (sort of) nagging him (just a little!) about fulfilling that promise and bloody well learning it. And a few months ago he decided that … well, alright then, he would. And he booked a week in Florence at a language school specialising in teaching Italian to foreigners and chose a class for beginners over fifty, and that’s where he’s been this week.

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He found it quite hard going, because neither of us realised that this language school’s approach to teaching Italian to foreign students consisted of speaking purely in Italian with a lot of gestures. This might work for the clear-eyed and clean-limbed youth, but for the over-fifties? Uh .. perhaps not. And what’s more, there were only two people actually over fifty years old in the class, which was mostly composed of much younger people, and they hadn’t thought fit to inform him of this.  However, when OH and a few others startlingly failed to miraculously grasp the meaning of the lesson which was being taught in a language they had actually come to learn and of which they had no understanding, they were given some extra, one-to-one teaching and he did in fact come home knowing a little bit more than when he left.  But I still think it was a swizz.

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The dictionary up there? I asked him to get me the Oxford-Paravia Italian-English dictionary while he was in Italy because it costs over £200 here, and it turns out that the reason for that is that it’s out of print. This dictionary (Il Ragazzini) was recommended to him in a bookshop, and my friend Paola endorsed this recommendation, so he risked a hernia to bring it home for me3.

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Predictive text? Well, when his connection has been up to it, we’ve been Skyping to keep in touch. The screenshots in this blog are from one of those conversations. Enjoy!

 

1 Yes, I really can! I can, for instance, discuss the state of the world, how to cook culurgiones, the fact that English people consider a certain Italian ex-politician to be a buffoon, and why twin grand-daughters can be dangerous. I can also relate the story of the Pirate’s vegetable garden.   I might not always do it in very good Italian, but people can usually understand me.  That in itself is a minor miracle, considering the topics listed above.

2 Usually it’s something along the lines of ‘Is the pannacotta made with fish gelatine?’ or ‘do you have any egg-free pasta?’, but I admit, it can stray quite a long way from there, given time and encouragement.

3 It is a hardback, it measures 18cm x 25.5cm x 8cm, it weighs a ton, and comes in its own slipcase.

A question for International Women’s Day

Women

Today is March 8th, which is International Women’s Day, and I have a question for you: are you a feminist?

To answer that you first have to define feminism, but it’s actually much harder than you’d think. The official definition something along the lines of:

“Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. Feminists typically advocate or support the rights and equality of women1.”

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But the people shouting with the loudest voices over this issue tend to be hard-liners. That is to say, they have their own definition above and beyond what is written there, and are not shy about expressing it, or loudly denigrating those who disagree with their interpretation, and that I do take issue with.

You see, what I believe is that yes, women should have the vote, and the basic rights accorded to men, and be treated equally in the workplace, etc. But I also strongly believe in the difference between the sexes, which is based in our biology and is irrefutable. And I believe in the right of any individual, male or female or trans, to behave exactly as he or she wishes to behave, provided that they do so within the law and without hurting anyone else.

This means that if I want to dress up to the nines for an evening out with my husband (whose name I have taken, because I wanted to), and go out in full make-up, perfume, high heels and sparkly/gauzy/frilly dress, it is absolutely my right to do so and expect to be treated respectfully2. However, if I put on a skirt which barely covers my naughty bits and a top cut right down to my navel, and go out alone to a late-night club, it is absolutely my right to accept that I do so at my own risk, in the full knowledge that it is going to excite some men3 and that I am putting out a subliminal ‘Hey guys! I’m available and I’m up for it’ signal. Because that’s the way hormones and social signals work.

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We all use a non-verbal language which I’m going to call ‘Human’, and we use it all the time4. It’s partly about facial expressions and gestures, the ones we all know about; the nods and smiles and waves, the hands on hips and the stabbing finger, and we know full well what we’re saying, don’t we? But the rest of Human is the really interesting bit, and the bit most of us know little about. Pheromones play a large part in Human communication, but so do body position, head tilting, small contractions in the muscles around our eyes and mouth, tensions in the hands and fingers, weight shifting, respiration depth, pupil size, rate & pitch of speech, and so on. Whether we like it or not, we are all sending out these social signals, all the time. And sometimes these contradict what we are telling people in words.

So. There are feminists who see the softer side of their gender-driven natures as something which will betray them and which must be suppressed, and it’s absolutely their right to do so if they wish, but it can happen that a women believes she is behaving like a strong feminist, whereas she is actually saying something entirely different in basic Human.

This is a problem because it appears that many quite ordinary, decent men can get confused, because they have no clue what women want – in particular, the individual women they meet and deal with on a day-to-day basis. For instance, many young women wear tee shirts with slogans across their breasts, and yet if a man dares to allow his eye to be caught by the writing, he is glared at and made to feel as if he’s assaulted them. Isn’t this a little unfair? Unless, of course, you yourself never, ever, read a guy’s tee shirt?

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I have always been a bit uncomfortable with the feminist movement, while at the same time approving of many of its aims: equality in pay and opportunity in the workplace, the right to vote, to take public office, to be taken seriously as a person first and a woman second.

However, I strongly disapprove of anyone dictating to me what I should and shouldn’t do, whatever sex they are, and I reserve the right to wear make-up and/or a bra (or even a corset if I should so wish) dye my hair, and to remain unoffended by wolf-whistles, compliments, or the odd wink from a tradesman. Quite frankly, I’m tired of all the nonsense. Of course women should be able to feel safe on the streets and in the workplace, but is it really necessary that all men should be regarded as potential rapists in order for this to happen?

Do we really want to put the whole masculine gender into a such an invidious position?

CinnamonRolls

This is a far from scholarly blog, but it seems to me that the worrying increase in levels of depression and suicide in men – particularly young men – in our society today may possibly be linked to a communication problem. They are reading the subliminal messages of the women they meet, who appear to be giving the right signals, but then they are slapped down when they make an approach. Result? Confusion, leading to anger and frustration, and – because society now requires more self-restraint than ever before – this can be transmuted into depression, which actually seems to be a fairly predictable response. Remember, too, that ‘Care in the Community’ means that we have people living among us who may not actually be very good at ‘Human’, or indeed at impulse control – and this includes vulnerable men as well as vulnerable women5.

Chrissie Hynde may have been indulging in ‘victim blaming’ herself, as spokeswomen from the feminist movement have said, but there is a teeny tiny little grain of truth in what she says, because, like it or not, there are always consequences.

Perhaps what we all need to remember is that in this life you can pretty much do what you want … if you can take the consequences. This does not, however, in any way mean that I excuse those who choose to perpetrate violent crimes against women.

1 From Wikipedia

2 Of course, people might laugh .. especially since I’m likely to fall flat on my face if I attempt to walk in high heels.

3 Ha. Well, stranger things have happened! I might be the wrong side of sixty and weigh enough to be worth two whole smaller people, but you know what they say. There’s no accounting for taste.

4 Some of us are considerably better at it than others. Some of us have a really feeble grasp of it – at least at the conscious level.

5 Who may not have great judgement skills but also need to be protected.

On disappointment and optimism

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Spring, it appears, is springing rather early this year. I’ve had daffodils and bowls of hyacinths in the house for a couple of weeks, and violets from the garden joined them a week ago1. But I’m a tad disappointed because people on the insect groups have been reporting bee sightings for a couple of weeks, too, and I have seen not one.

True, there was a bee-fly last week, which nearly flew into me (daft thing was not properly awake, I fear) but I couldn’t photograph it to ID it properly because a) I had no camera with me and b) I had a grand-twin by the hand and we were about to cross a road.   So that was a tiny bit disappointing, though it was lovely to see.

However, a couple of days ago, OH and I decided to take Sid to a local nature reserve called Cuckoo’s Hollow, which is small, quite ‘managed’2 and has paved paths for mobility challenged dogs, people in wheelchairs, cyclists, and spouses who do not wish to get their feet muddy.

This was a Bad Decision, because Cuckoo’s Hollow is in the process of being … um … managed.

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Not exactly a beauty spot, is it?

There is a project underway to dredge silt from the lake, which has apparently become more and more silted up over the years, with reeds encroaching into the open water.  It has to be done because the nature reserve is part of the plan to reduce flood risk for the housing area which surrounds it, and I can’t argue with that.  However, they are also digging some of the reed beds out by the roots and they are removing tons of silt which they are dumping here, on the bank.

Now, the reed beds are home to swans, moorhens, coots and ducks and possibly the endangered and protected water vole3.   And I am concerned about the fact that they are removing the reeds from their favourite side of the lake, and they are doing it now, when the birds are beginning to court and think about raising their families.  It was supposed to be done ‘during the month of February’ to avoid disturbing nesting birds, but the work doesn’t look to be half-way finished to me, and as I said, spring is coming early.

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But do you know what the daftest thing is?  This reserve is basically a lake, fed by a brook, with a lot of plain old ordinary grass and some belts of trees.  There was one relatively small area bordering the lake where a good mix of wildflowers grew: geraniums (blue) and cranesbills (pink), big ox-eye daisies, hawkweeds, foamy white cow’s parsley and other umbellifers, ground ivy, speedwell, thistles and knapweeds, etc.  Bees, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles loved them, and so did I.  And yes, I said ‘grew’, because that sea of mud up there is exactly where they used to be.

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They will have seeded, of course, and some will have very stubborn roots, capable of regeneration, but …

This area is also where they plan to dump the silt they’ve dredged out of the lake to leave it to dry, when it will be harrowed and planted with grass.  The silt – I am reliably informed – will be too rich in nutrients for many wildflowers and it could be that grass is the only thing which will grow there.  And not only that, the silt is where many hoverfly, dragonfly and damselfly larvae are overwintering, ready to emerge4 in the mid-to-late spring and early summer.

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The above pictures of insects in this blog were taken on this little wildflower patch last year.  I doubt there’ll be any new ones this coming summer.  The first is of Oedemera nobilis, a flower beetle.  The second, Bombus vestalis and an Apis mellifera (honeybee) foraging for nectar in  the thistles. The third is Osmia caerulescens, a solitary bee, approaching a white clover flower.

This all sounds more disappointing than optimistic, doesn’t it? But nature can surprise us with unexpected regenerative powers, so I’m hopeful that all is not lost.  Maybe not this year, but perhaps the year after we will see some beautiful wildflowers and insect activity at Cuckoo’s Hollow?  And I found my first hoverfly of the year today!  I present to you, Eristalis tenax, feeding on dandelion.

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1 I planted a TON of spring bulbs last autumn.  I have a lot of crocuses, snowdrops and little daffodils!  Yay me!  However, the 150 snakeshead fritillaries which I planted have not deigned to show their pretty little heads so far, and of the 50 or so hyacinths I put in, only those I planted in pots have surfaced.  I think the mice eat them.

2 ‘Managed’ means that the grass is mown, the trees are coppiced and things like dredging the lake are done.  I know, reserves have to be managed.  Some are more managed than others.

3  They did not wait for the survey to be done before they began work on the grounds that there are wooden supports for the bank under water and they ‘did not think the voles would be able to nest there’.  Seeing as the biggest population of water voles in the UK is at the moment living happily on a deprived housing estate in Glasgow, two miles from the nearest water and under decomposing mattresses, I’d respectfully suggest that they are more adaptable than our local environment chappies think!

4 Or not, as the case may be.

So it’s 2016, is it?

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What do you mean, it’s been 2016 for several weeks?  But I’m sure it was Christmas only a couple of days ago!!

Don’t worry. I haven’t really lost my marbles.  The Christmas decorations have been packed away in their boxes and returned to the loft, but it seems that it’s only in the last week that I’ve had a kind of breathing space from being really busy and/or unwell.  You see, it was in the run-up to Christmas that my stupid old neck1 started giving me trouble again and though I did go to the chiropractor, I ended up with visual problems which took me to the hospital A&E because I feared it was a detached retina, and then on to an opthalmologist who said it wasn’t, and to my doctor who said it was a migraine-type disturbance almost certainly due to my neck problems and I should ‘learn to know my limits’.  It lasted a week or so before slowly settling down and then I caught flu.

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Yep, I know, most people who say they have flu only really have a bad cold, but this laid me up for two or three weeks and I was still coughing badly for another week.  Well, that was before Christmas and I still cough now and then.  It seems to have triggered a kind of vicious circle with my asthma, but it is improving, I’m happy to say.

Anyway, this is not going to be a post all about my boring health2.

I’ve decided that I’d like to get back to blogging again and so I’m setting myself the task of writing more consistently with a view to getting a blog book done at the end of the year. It’ll be a bit more like a diary of my life, though still written in the same style as I’ve always done: some factual stuff, some righteous anger, some gentle wit perhaps, and a lot of guff3.   What triggered this decision?  Because after a longish break, I’m back doing the family genealogy again and one of the things which has kept me so busy was a book which I’ve just made using Photobox.  You don’t see the connection, do you?  But if you stick with this, you will.

In case you don’t know, Photobox is a website which helps you to make all kinds of stuff using your own photographs.  I’m really only interested in the photo books, because they’re really versatile and well-suited to making really quite neat and tidy records of all those bits of family history that I have knocking around.  I’ve now made several books: I did one of the family photo albums which my father made when I was a child, I made one each of my two sons’ childhood drawings, and now I’ve made a ‘scrapbook’ of my mother’s life.

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When Mum died in 2011, my brother and I cleared her bungalow, which was packed to the gills with all kinds of stuff she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) throw out. There were bags and bags full of old magazines, catalogues, pamphlets, scraps of paper, greetings cards, letters, bills – you name it – all mixed up together.  There was a whole ottoman full of knitting wool and there were scores of knitting and sewing patterns. There were example of some in those being worn in the old family albums, dating back to the 1960s, that’s how old they were.  Ornaments, clothes, trinkets, gadgets, umpteen pairs of scissors and trays of ancient cutlery, hundreds of (by then) dead houseplants and empty pots and vases.  Single gloves waiting in vain for their partners.  Half empty bottles of alcohol dating back to the year dot.  I can’t tell you how much stuff we found.  It was bloody hard deciding what to bring home4, and it has taken an absolute age to sort through it, but I’ve done it.

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One reason that making the book was so difficult was that, before the migraine and then the flu hit me, I’d bought a 100-page photobook credit with Photobox5 and I had to use it before the end of December.  Since I was only just fit enough to stand in the kitchen and cook the Christmas dinner when it came to it, it was a close-run thing, I can tell you!  I had hundreds of photos and papers to scan and resize and upload, and I also spent some time searching through dust-laden boxes for bits and pieces which I knew I had somewhere, and wanted for the book.  Did I tell you I was still coughing?  Maybe all that dust didn’t  help.

I’ve decided to do another book for my Dad’s life, and I’m also collecting stuff for an eventual book for my own.  I have no idea when I’m going to fit our own family photo albums in!

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Ah, well. It’s all good fun, isn’t it?  One must have one’s hobbies, or one really would go nuts.

1 And I do mean ‘old’.  I got my first senior discount yesterday.  It was a peculiar mixture of a ‘Wow, excellent!’ moment and mild depression.  But anyway, the neck was damaged decades ago carrying No. 1 son on my shoulders, and doesn’t get any better with age.

2 There are quite a few, from myxoedema to fibromyalgia and including things like torn rotator cuffs, sprained ankles, asthma, TMJ, allergies, the neck, and … well, it’s all just boring.

3 Guff = nonsense, rubbish, drivel, waffle or empty talk.  In Norfolk dialect, it would be called ‘squit’, apparently!

4 Not the alcohol, no.  That was an easy decision; we poured it down the loo.

5 The way Photobox works is that you choose what you want to make and buy a credit for it.  You then have a certain amount of time in which to complete your project or you lose your money – which is a bit crap, but that’s the way it goes.  I only buy credits when there’s a special offer, and I pay a little bit extra to get three months to create it instead of the usual one, but when you have a 100-page book to do and no scans done, it’s still a bit tight.

At last. The Experts have caught up with me!

Sugar-1

I have been saying for decades now  …

Well, I’ve been saying two things: firstly that foods like cakes and biscuits and desserts and drinks continue to get sweeter all the time, and secondly that manufacturers need to start giving us more choice in this.

Actually, I’ve been saying more than that, to as many people who’ll listen to me, and as often as the subject crops up.  I’ve said that the insidious increase in sugar content of so many foods is to blame for more health problems than high fat content, that feeding a sweet tooth seems to make it sweeter, that sugar is addictive, that the food manufacturers are fiendishly clever because they know this and try very hard to hook us young with overly sweet breakfast cereals, desserts, yoghurts etc aimed directly at children, and also that I would not be unhappy to see a tax put on sugar.  Nobody needs it in these quantities, and it’s positively dangerous for some of us.

I do have a sweet tooth, and it’s often my undoing when it comes to trying to keep my weight down, but I do wish I could buy a chilled coffee drink, for instance, with no damn sugar in it!  When I drink coffee at home I never add sugar, so why would I want an iced coffee with about four teaspoons of sugar dissolved in it when I’m out?  If you doubt how much sugar is in those things – and in ice lollies and ice creams – try letting one warm to room temperature and then taking a swig. You’ll be shocked at how sweet they really are.  Fact: the more you cool things, the less you can taste the sugar.

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Let’s think about the things which have sugar added – things which, if we made them at home, would usually contain none at all.    Bread, for instance.  It is not necessary to add sugar to bread.  OK, some recipes call for it but many do not. Those that do add it as a kind of short-cut to ‘feed’ the yeast and get it started more quickly, and it’s actually a lot more healthy to give bread a long fermentation time, which uses the yeast more effectively and more thoroughly and results in an ‘old-fashioned’ loaf instead of the playdough-textured Chorleywood1 type.

Have you ever noticed that the biscuits and fruit pies and cakes you buy are so much sweeter, and yet somehow less satisfying, than those you make at home? They are full of sugar and other refined ingredients, including glucose-fructose sugar which fools your body into thinking that you’re still hungry and encourages you to overindulge2.  Eat them quickly and you’ll feel slightly unwell because your poor body is trying to process  the overload of fat and sugar.  Homemade biscuits and cakes don’t do this – at least, not so quickly or so thoroughly: because there’s no glucose-fructose syrup, because you need to chew them more, and because they are simply more satisfying.

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Processed meats are difficult to find sans sugar.  Ham, pastrami, the so-called deli-meats, meat pies, meat patés, sausages and so on, go take a look at the ingredients lists if you don’t believe me.  Mayonnaise3.  Bottled sauces.  Gravies.  Even frozen chips.  Why the hell would anyone think of putting sugar in chips?

Then there are fruit juices and fruit ‘drinks’, which are often nothing more than flavoured sugar water. I make a drink called ‘ACE’ at home, which I discovered in Italy. ‘ACE’ stands for (vitamins) A, C and E, and it’s easy and quick to make using bottled carrot juice, and chilled, unsweetened, orange and apple juices. The original recipe calls for a dash of lemon, but the apple and carrot juices will have this added already. You do not need sugar for this drink, and it’s simply a matter of getting the proportions as you like them, so just experiment. Our taste runs to around one third carrot juice, and then the proportions of apple and orange depend on which brands I buy, but usually just a tad more orange than apple. If you’re not used to such an intense, pure-fruit juice, try adding sparkling mineral water to taste – or even simply tap water… but please, no sugar!

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Sugar is in all those things to ‘educate’ your tastebuds to keep coming back for more, and to make the food processing easier.  Does it do us any favours at all?  No.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to read this article, in which food experts are calling for a reduction in the amount of sugar allowed in processed foods.  Three bloody cheers!  Never mind vilifying obese people and telling us how we lack self-control, for fuck’s sake, how about beginning to point the finger at those really responsible for the increase in the population’s weight: the food industry?

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I admit it. I have struggled with my weight all my adult life.  I, along with all the rest of you who are unlucky enough to have succumbed to an addiction to sugar (and those who are genetically predisposed to put on weight4), have had to employ more self-restraint than most simply to avoid getting to the point where I can no longer walk due to damaging my joints with the extra avoirdupois.  We, unique among addicts, cannot go cold turkey.  We still have to eat to live, and must therefore suffer the torture of struggling with our addiction on a twice or three-times-daily basis.  It’s a bit like trying to give up smoking while allowing yourself two puffs of a cigarette three times a day – but while smokers are now offered help from their doctors, obese people are still blamed for their lack of self-control.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we are the last remaining group of addicts who are punished for their problem.

It really is about time that the government stopped telling us it’s all our fault and withdrawing vital health services5, and began to help us by bringing in legislation to restore our food supplies to something which does not continually poison us and scupper our best intentions.  We cannot all prepare all our own food from scratch, and that reminds me:

Who suffers most from being fed processed, pre-prepared food?

Sugar-5

Those who cannot help themselves by preparing their own food, that’s who.  Those in institutions of any kind: schools, nursing homes, respite homes, residential facilities for the elderly, prisons …

And hospitals, where we should be fed a diet conducive to regaining health, but far too often are not6.

 

<sup>1</sup> – See link: The shocking truth about bread

<sup>2</sup> – See links:

Effects of fructose on brain may promote overeating

Fructose effect on brain may explain link to obesity

Sweet poison: why sugar is ruining our health

Sugar, not fat, exposed as deadly villain in obesity epidemic

<sup>3</sup> – Whose ingredients, as all the purists will tell you, should be very simple: a good quality oil, plus egg.

<sup>4</sup> – See link: Genetic mutation causes obesity

<sup>5</sup> – See link: Lose weight, or your operation is cancelled

<sup>6</sup> – See link: Hospital food: what’s the prognosis?

 

 

 

 

 

Pollinator Awareness Week: 13th – 19th July 2015

Bee-Wingbeats

This week is Pollinator Awareness Week!  Yes, you heard it here first1.

‘So what?’ I hear you say. Well, see, the thing is that without pollinators, we’d all be in the shit be in serious trouble, because an awful lot of food crops need to be pollinated somehow, and the way most of them get pollinated is by the transference of pollen from flower to flower by insects.

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Our main pollinators – as I’m sure you all know – are bees. The trouble is, our honeybees are struggling and nobody really seems to know why. Some blame neonicotinoids (‘neonics’) and other pesticides. Some blame pollution. Some blame modern farming practices and/or the horrible tendency government agencies have for ‘tidying up’ our verges and footpaths and parks, etc2. Some blame honeybee diseases spread by mites. Some say it’s a combination of factors.  And some freely admit that they don’t know.

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The result, in America, has been the growth of the practice of renting out colonies which are hawked around the farms to pollinate crops. This has its own problems, apparently, from stressing the bees and laying them open to opportunistic infections to bee-rustling.

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Now, there are also a lot of native bumblebees, but not only are they in trouble too,  it seems that in some countries they are not managing to relocate themselves from areas which have grown too warm for them due to climate change, and are dying out locally.

So what are we left with? Well, there are many, many solitary bees which do a sterling job, and many people don’t even know about them because they tend to be quite small compared to honeybees and bumbles and can easily be overlooked.

And there are hoverflies3.

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You may not know this, but hoverflies are considered by many authorities to be the second most important pollinators after bees, and it’s a sad fact that an awful lot of people don’t know how to tell the difference, and so fear them both equally. This leads to a lot of untimely insect deaths4

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So, dotted throughout this post are some pictures. Some are bees, and some are hoverflies. Some of the hoverflies look quite a lot like bees, but you will notice a difference in their faces, their eye shape and their antennae (and if you’re extra-observant and look closely, their wings). I’m beginning to learn more about hoverflies and how to identify them, and I am by no means an expert, so I reckon if I can do it, so can you.

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What can we do, though, about the pollination problem? Well, unless you want to see an era where thousands of poorly-paid people are put to back-breaking work pollinating flowers with a paintbrush, perhaps it would be a good idea to plant some ‘bee-friendly’ flowers in the garden, for a start, and to go easy on the insecticides?

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After all, what’s more important: preventing a famine or having a pretty lawn?

Okay, so that’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek.  You should all know by now that I don’t really do scaremongering.  But seriously, we would all be in serious trouble without insect pollinators, and we should all take time to think about that.

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For those interested, here are a few links for further reading.  If you do nothing else, please listen to the podcast. It’s very accessible and easy to understand:

Hoverflies are effective pollinators of oilseed rape

The trouble with bee-keeping

The touble with bees (nice podcast on this page)

Almond pollination in 2012

Planting for pollinators – RHS

1 – Or maybe you didn’t, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

2 – For ‘tidying up’ read ‘mowing down everything in sight, including the useful – and pretty – wildflowers and grasses on which our insects depend, and leaving behind a brown stubbly mess.

3 – Well, alright, a considerable number of other insects contribute to pollination, but generally in a smaller or less effective way, according to what I’ve read.

4 – And even fewer pollinators.

A Question of Language

AQuestionOfLanguage

My dear OH has some endearing habits, and one of them is to regularly impart little bits of random knowledge – he calls them ‘Interesting Facts of the Day’. The latest one of these turned into a rather amusing conversation.

It went like this:

OH: “Did you know that language is handled in a particular part of the brain?”

Me: “Yeah, colloquially known as the ‘language centre'”

OH: “Broca’s .. ”

Me: “Yes, Broca’s Area”

OH: “Well, did you know that if you learn a second language it’s handled in the same area?”

Me: “Yes, go on … ”

OH: “But if you learn a second language as an adult, you grow a new bit of brain in that area, just for the new language?

Me: “Wow .. you do?”

OH: “Yes!

Me: “Wow. I’ve grown a new bit of brain, and you haven’t!!”

OH: “Yeeees. Demoralising, isn’t it?”

Me: “No! No – you should learn! You can do it! You have the brain.”

OH (Musing): “I wonder what happens to those people who learn more than one new language? What if they learn six new languages – do they grow six new bits of brain? Why don’t their heads explode?”

Me: “Hahaha! You probably handle all the new languages in the one new bit”

OH (Getting a bit sidetracked): “Hey, why is the butter still out?”

Me: “Perchè ho ancora fame”

OH (Trying again): “Why is the butter out?”

Me: “Perchè non ho finito la mia colazione!”

OH: “But why is the butter out? It’ll get all hot and miserable!1

Me: “I told you. I’m still hungry and I haven’t finished my breakfast”

*Pause*

OH: “Yes, but you told me with your new bit of brain, and I heard it with my old one!”

Me: “There is a solution to that … ”

1 OH uses some very picturesque language, sometimes. But in fact I forgot to put the butter away and it did indeed get hot and miserable. Positively depressed and tired of life, in fact, judging by the way it had sagged and was sitting huddled at the bottom of the dish.

Aliens! Doing Alien Things!

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Well .. it is at least one explanation, is it not?

Looking out of my bathroom window (the only one on that side of the house high enough to see over the hedge), I spotted these very odd .. well .. crop circles, I suppose. Leaving aside the possibility of aliens dropping in to say hello in a very idiosyncratic manner, I’m thinking that someone1 probably started to spray the wrong field with weedkiller – or maybe the right field with weedkiller instead of insecticide.

Either way, I doubt the farmer is terribly happy about the result. I mean, what happens now? If he harvests the rest of the field, surely he can’t allow any of the affected wheat into the food chain, and how on earth is he to make sure of that?

We rely too much on pesticides of one sort or another, I know that much.

1 Someone who now wishes he were somewhere far, far away, probably. Or that he had decided to become a filing clerk instead of an agricultural worker.

A new definition of ‘dry’

MorrisonsDryCureHam-Unopened

See, I always thought that ‘dry’ was the opposite of ‘wet’. That is; without moisture, or at least with a very low moisture content.

But I bought a pack of Morrison’s ‘Dry Cure’ ham a few days ago which was anything but dry. It was covered with a sheen of moisture, and there were actually droplets of water1 on the surface of the meat.

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So what on earth is up with that? It says ‘Dry Cure’ quite plainly on the label and yet when I opened it up, there it was practically sitting in a puddle of water!

Dry cure? Pull the other one.

Morrisons, please explain. I’m listening. Meanwhile, the only one who’s going to be eating this crap is Sid2.

1 Well. I say ‘water’, but in fact it is probably a kind of chemical soup composed of preservatives and salts.

2 Which is why there are a couple of slices missing. I didn’t eat them, Sid did – and with every appearance of enjoyment. But then, he can’t read.