An Evening with Hoverflies at the National Botanic Gardens Vegetable Patch

The vegetable garden at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland is bursting with colour. Alongside their now fully organic array of heritage breed fruit and vegetables grows an abundance of flowers.

These blooms are not just pretty faces. They provide nectar and pollen forage for helpful insects such as parasitoid wasps, who will keep your cabbage caterpillar population in check, and some species of hoverfly*:, whose larvae are very effective aphid consumers.


A happy population of hoverfly larvae can munch their way through 70-80 per cent of a greenfly infestation (Gardening Know How) and, as adults, will help to pollinate your garden plants. I’m getting to know these useful, cleverly disguised creatures at the moment, as I survey some pollinator-friendly sites for South Dublin County Council. Michael Viney, whose column was the only part of the Irish Times I read for my entire youth, is also a fan, and recently wrote an admiring tribute to the Marmalade hoverfly, Episyrphus balteatus.

Some flowering plants, such as nasturtiums, marigolds, borage, fennel, rosemary and chives, will also repel insects that you don’t want around your vegetables, such as carrot fly. These secrets of the national veg patch were revealed to me, my dad, and a large enthusiastic crowd of veggie food fans at An Evening with Cornucopia. Part of a series called Feasting from Nature’s Plate, the event featured Swedish chef Eddie Eriksson (surprisingly no Muppets references were made, though after reading this article I want to apologise to Eddie for even mentioning them here) and Organic Gardener Joan Rogers. A fascinating tour of the vegetable garden was followed by mouth watering demonstrations, salads, juices and dessert, and an astonishing amount was learnt!

I was particularly blown away by the tale of the Three Sisters – squash, corn and beans – who grow in community, depending on each other’s beneficial company. Native American farming societies interplant these three crops side by side in the same mound. The corn provides a support for the bean vines. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil and stabilise the corn in a strong wind. The leaves of the squash provide natural mulch to protect the roots and soil moisture. And at the end of the growing season, the left over plant matter can be dug into the soil as compost.

I am fascinated by these interactions and cooperations between species – corn and bean, human and plant, insect and dinner. I recommend planting some of your vegetable garden with some insect-friendly flowers so you can witness it for yourself.


The National Biodiversity Data Centre’s recently published document Gardens – Actions to Help Pollinators contains advice on which plants best cater to the needs of insects:

  • Single instead of double flowered varieties: double flowered varieties provide almost no nectar and pollen for pollinators
  • Perennials over annuals: perennial plants are generally better sources of pollen and nectar
  • Do you see pollinators visiting it? When choosing plants to buy at a garden centre, you will quickly realise what flowers pollinators visit most. Also keep an eye out for the Royal Horticultural Society’s “Perfect for Pollinators” logo, which is now used by many suppliers of garden plants

Letting an area of your garden grow wild and seeing which wild flowers come up is also a great way to give nature what it needs.

While you wait for them to grow, a couple of events remain in the Botanic Gardens’ Feasting from Nature’s Plate series, and they are well worth attending!

Another interesting feature of the Botanic Gardens’ vegetable patch: the blight-susceptible famine potato, with more modern potato breeds on either side.

*Edit: An original version of this post made a really clever pun out of the fact that some hoverflies are called drone flies. I’ve since been corrected – only Eristalis tenax can claim this name, and its larvae do not eat aphids. Plenty of others do though, so keep growing those flowers amongst your veg!



Madagascar No.3

Adult Lanternfly
Adult lanternfly in Manafiafy, Sainte Luce, Madagascar

When my Dad visited Madagascar, Juveni, one of my ecotourism students, gave us a guided tour of the village where he grew up. I had lived just up the road from Manafiafy for nearly a year, but this tour opened my eyes to a rich history of missionaries and taboos, and some tasty secrets.

I must confess, the tasty secrets are what I remember best. A stroll through some short, coastal vegetation sent a couple of bizarre, colourful creatures whirring into the air. These creatures, Malagasy lantern bugs (most likely Zanna madagascariensis), are Juveni’s favourite snacks. They’re supposed to taste a bit like shrimp!

But beware:

“American naturalist John C. Bannor recalled in 1885 stories of an insect called lantern fly whose bite could instantly kill people, animals and even trees. People at least were saved – according to the myth – if they had sex within 24 hours.” – The Myth Behind the Lantern Bug

Zanna species, or sakandry, eat lima bean plants and their relatives. I’m no botanist, but I wonder if a lima bean growing project in Sainte Luce could provide two sources of protein for local kids (beans and bugs) and help to replenish the poor soil in the area with nitrogen.

I never had the chance to snack on lantern bugs myself, but I think I would prefer the softer-looking nymphs, with their little fluffy bums.

Baby Lanternfly
Nymph of a lantern bug, with waxy fluffy secretions for distracting and tricking predators!

Bees? BEES?!

My favourite genre of joke has for many years been the bee joke. Bees?! Bees. That is to say that I have laughed loudest and longest in my life at these sweet moments in comedy:

  1. When Eddie Izzard was covered in bees
  2. When Manny ate all of Bernard Black’s bees
  3. When Gob Bluth announced his business plan to sell bees as gifts, and Arrested Development flew with it right through to Season 4, like true gentlemen honey farmers.

On the day of her wedding, my dear sister looked at me and her best friend and said, “What was I thinking when I put you two messers together as my bridesmaids?” As we began to proceed gracefully down the aisle, a bumble bee flung itself out of my bouquet and the uncontrollable giggling began…

Bee roundabout.jpg

Today, while scouring the internet for an excellent joke I once heard about IMDb, I came across a fellow named Tem Blessed, who has a more serious but equally eloquent message for us about these precious insects. Heed his wise and catchy words.



Madagascar No.2

Finally a post about insects! Ants are amazing. So amazing, in fact, that we managed to teach two whole environmental education classes to our conservation club with the title “Ants Are Amazing!” (“Mahalatsa Ny Vitsiky!” or “Mahagaga Ny Vitsiky!”, in Malagasy).

Ants are Amazing
Club Atsatsaky drawing ants in Sainte Luce, Madagascar.

Let me tell you some mere snippets of information about why ants are so amazing.

There are over 600 described species of ants in Madagascar, and likely to be well over 1000 in total. There is a single colony of Argentine ants that stretches over 6000 km across Europe. Ants farm aphids, “milking” them for honeydew, and they collect leaves on which to grow tasty mildew. If a group of army ants loses the pheromone trail of the main foraging party, they will form a continuous circle called an ant mill, and run round in circles until they die of exhaustion.

The first time I lived in Madagascar, a fellow volunteer was collecting dead things to bring home to his artist friend. We needed to dry out a large bug. So we built an anti-ant tower out of Eau Vive bottles, with a platform of salt upon which to place the bug body, and a moat of water round the bottom. Overnight, the ants built a bridge by floating grains of sand across the water. They reached the bug and devoured it.

Ant attachs cockroach
One of the adorable, bumbling big ants that lived in our longhouse, drags a young cockroach kicking and hissing across the mahampy reed floor mat.

I only seem to have photos of Ants Being Awful. And, as anyone who has read 100 Years of Solitude or has been held under siege in a forest glade by biting ants will know, they can behave pretty atrociously. But you have to admire their team work and tenacity…

After learning the Malagasy word for amazing, I proudly announced to the camp chef that the dinner she had prepared for us was mahalatsa, thinking she would be pleased. She looked very taken aback, and turned to the guides for some sort of explanation. It turns out that mahalatsa means amazing in the startling, surprising, bewildering kind of way. Perhaps rather appropriately when it comes to ants.

Ant caterpillar attack
Malagasy ants ganging up on some sort of 80’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Caterpillar toy?

Madagascar No.1


I’ve had the astonishing honour of living 19 months of my life in Madagascar, most of them in Sainte Luce, as a neighbour of the gentleman in this photo. Literally thousands of photographs came home with me to Ireland and there are not enough words in the English language to describe what each memory means to me or what it was like. This is the first in a series of attempts to show my Madagascar to you, grain of sand by grain of sand.

Here is sweet, shy Solo, whose name means “replacement”. Solo helped out in the conservation camp kitchen and always found me the juiciest coconuts. One evening I was sitting in our wooden research station, entering data into the SEED Madagascar Conservation Programme work computer, as the resident gecko licked my lychee peels. I spotted Solo hefting this precious newborn zebu calf down the road in his arms. Its mother had given birth while out grazing, and he was carrying it home to the village. A band of small boys followed him, triumphantly bearing the calf’s umbilical cord and placenta high in their hands. Waste not, want not!

Why I Let Myself Fall Down the Hill

A beautiful card arrived in the post the same day I wrote about My Neighbour Totoro and empowerment through nature and risk. It commemorated a joyful day last summer when two of my loveliest friends made the reckless commitment to be actively loving to each other for the rest of their lives. One of my happiest memories of that weekend is of slithering down the slick grassy side of a Norman motte in stunning St. Mullins, Co. Carlow. I was wearing my good coat, for weddings and job interviews. I would have worried about tearing it or muddying it, but by the time I lost my footing I had no choice in the matter!

The tussocks I grasped on the way down gave way, one by one, between my fingers, and each time it seemed funnier than the last. As I hurtled towards the base of the hill, I began to rotate until it was my head which would be the first to meet any rocks along the way, but still I laughed. I was free of all responsibility. There was nothing I could do to change my circumstances, except to laugh!

At the bottom, I lay in a heap, eye to eye with a shiny soldier fly, with straw up my jumper and grass stains on my good coat. I bloomed where I was planted, laughing too hard to tell my friends that I was alright, more than alright!


I felt that giddy freedom from caution and worry which is so hard to come by these days. It’s there when you’re bouncing in the back of a camion in rural Madagascar, with barely a seat, let alone a seatbelt. Sprinting along a strand with a new friend, determined to make it off the beach before dark, armed with nothing but a swiss army knife and a flimsy piece of driftwood. Following the dog’s homeward bound after a storm brings down a tree in the park!

It’s in the safety net of nothingness at the high point of a swing. At the mercy of centrifugal force during a vigorous luascadh. In the palm of a constant hand, remembered through prayer, suddenly and with great relief. In the midst of hysterical howls and tears, at the hands of a skilful tickler.

It is rare and difficult to plan, but it feels nourishing and necessary. So be reckless and roll down that hill.



Why Hayao Miyazaki Let the Girl Fall Down the Tunnel


This Summer, the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin are showing some of Studio Ghibli‘s most wonderful films. I recommend taking the chance to see My Neighbour Totoro on the big screen this Friday, 20th May, as I did last year on Culture Night

My Neighbour Totoro is set in 1958, in a rural Japanese idyll. It was an era apparently free from “stranger danger” and a litigious public, where children could rove woods and rice paddies unsupervised and carefree. As my nephew (aged two) pointed out, “the girl fell down the tunnel!” Yet she emerged unharmed and all the wiser for having had the experience.

On the day of their arrival in this rural Japanese idyll, four-year-old Mei and her 11-year-old sister, Satsuki, playfully pushed and pulled the rotting wooden post of their new porch, giggling under a rain of soft splinters. Instead of purely sharing in their enjoyment, I caught myself fearing for their beautifully animated lives. I leaned over and whispered to my boyfriend the name of a disintegrating cliff-edge bar in Madagascar, where I used to sit at the landward edge of the table, fearing for our own lives. Mei spent a full morning entirely alone, exploring her new and unfamiliar surroundings. I watched with admiration, but also tiny flickers of uninvited worry, as she sent a cloud of tadpoles wriggling with her little hand. It was a shallow pool – but deep enough to drown a child! Her rusty old bucket made an excellent telescope, but won’t somebody please think of the tetanus!

I don’t know where these worries came from. I spent my own childhood splashing about with tadpoles and rusty buckets, enjoying and surviving every minute of it. How did I fall victim to the marketing campaigns of the big “cotton wool” corporations? What do we need to do to regain our sense of safety, or failing that, our sense of reckless abandon? Where did we lose it to begin with?

Empowerment of children through nature

This train of thought led me to discover Isaac Yuen, who has already written a far more in depth tribute to the empowerment of children through nature as portrayed in My Neighbour Totoro. Delving into Yuen’s blog, Ekostories, I felt I had discovered a kindred spirit. He describes his work as “taking notes at the intersection between nature, culture, and identity”.

Mei and Satsuki tested the power within themselves by shouting up a dark stairway at the soot gremlins. At that moment, a small voice in the cinema piped up, “Bad idea!”. I wondered how much time the children sitting around us get to spend carrying their own experiments through all the way to the results stage, uninterrupted by warnings. How do we enable children to discover for themselves without fear that what climbs up a tree must come down? Where can we let them run wild, find ways to translate pent up energy into creative action, and maintain their awareness of the connection between mind and body?

The OWLS Children’s Nature Charity provides just such opportunities to children in Dublin, in safe, but not restricted, environments. OWLS club members can build their own shelters, learning from trial and error about the physical properties of materials, spatial reasoning, construction, design, and teamwork. Pond dipping presents them with the stunning diversity of creatures beyond what they are taught at school (I’ll never forget how cheated I felt when I learnt in my twenties that there are 101 species of bee in Ireland, and at school we had learnt only two!). It is a chance to familiarise themselves with how water bodies work, how to stay safe around them, and how to face the things that make them squeamish. As a volunteer with the club, I have seen painfully shy children become confident experts and leaders in their chosen field, because nature has something to offer everyone. As soon as my nephew is old enough to join I will be bundling him off to meet real life Meis and Satsukis!

AJS Fanore
The new generation learning about the joys and challenges of wind at Fanore, Co. Clare.