Toadstool Trials

Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Amethyst Deceiver, Panther Cap, Barefoot Amanita, Charcoal Eyelash, Yellow Fairy Cup, Devil’s Bolete, Witches’ Butter… The exotic “common” names for Irish and British species read like a spell book. A catalogue of human suspicions and accusations, promises of seduction and plenty.

I heard some of these names for the first time at an exhibition of Irish fungi at the National Botanic Gardens in September. As mycologists Maria Cullen and Howard Fox regaled us members of the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club with bizarre facts and folklore, mushroom foraging began to sound like Russian roulette, or meddling with the occult.

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Amethyst deceiver (Laccaria amethystina)

We are right to be somewhat wary of fungi. A representative from the Poisons Information Centre, invited by Maria and Howard, spoke to us of an Asian expatriate who mistook our Death Cap for the edible Paddy Straw Mushroom, used frequently in Asian cuisine. The result was a liver transplant, but could have been much worse.

A fungus has even been accused of triggering the Salem witch trials. Claviceps purpurea (Fr.), or Ergot, grows on grains such as rye, a staple food source in Salem at the time of the “witchcraft” outbreak. Ergot contains ergotamine, related to LSD, the consumption of which can cause a burning sensation from nerve damage in the limbs (known as St. Anthony’s Fire), psychotic behaviour, convulsions and hallucinations – all symptoms recorded in the unfortunate Salem “witches”.

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Ergot (Claviceps purpurea)

This theory was first proposed by a psychology major, called Linnda Caporael, who found that there was plenty of warm, damp weather around Salem in 1691. Perfect conditions for the fungus to thrive. You can read more about it in this article taken from the very reliable-sounding Uncle John’s Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader.

Maria Cullen suggested that the women might have been the first to develop the symptoms because they scoffed a sneaky rye scone before the men got home for dinner. And who is going to eat leftover rye scones baked by a witch? Yet she was quick to assure us before we left that fungi are not out to get us. The main reason they possess such powerful toxins is so they can break down the cellulose in the organic matter they consume.

Indeed, many fungi could be considered friends, providing antibiotics, dyes, delicious risotto and many more products that we use. Even Ergot has gone some way to redeeming itself, as a treatment for migraines.

Doting on a roundy little dumpling of a Boletus mushroom, I wonder if a mushroom would feel bad if it knew it had poisoned someone, letting my anthropomorphantasies get entirely carried away. Then Maria tells me that some similar species contain tubes that lure tiny insects in and valves that stop them from ever getting out again, and I wonder…

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Adorable little bolete.

Moral of the story: Just like in the human world, there are harmful mushrooms and helpful mushrooms, but they’re all just trying to get along in life and digest their environment.

To really get to know your mushrooms, I recommend getting your fungi foraging fingers on a copy of Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe by Roger Phillips and Lyndsay Shearer (Pan Books, 1981).

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Laura Poff -There is nothing more…

Ormond Studios

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There is Nothing More…

There is Nothing More… is the first solo exhibition by Laura Poff. Her practice is predominantly drawing based and also encompasses sculpture and installation. Through repetitive methods and actions, she creates works that endeavour to evoke something of the meditative state involved in their construction. She references organic forms and patterns, and through a process of automatic drawing, transforms them into fluid and ambiguous compositions.
The exhibition takes its title from the Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows”. The works on display take inspiration from the author’s mediation on Japanese aesthetics, and their preference for all things soft and nuanced, specifically the impact of darkness. To quote Tanizaki, “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
The…

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Entomology GO: the next Pokémon?

As Dublin Inquirer journalist Cónal Thomas recently wrote such a generous article about me, I feel I owe it to him to finish the blog post I told him I was writing when he interviewed me several weeks ago!

Unlike many naturalists, I’m biased towards Pokémon GO. I’m optimistic that it could be a stepping stone for many into the real and valuable world of biological recording, especially with some great wildlife recording apps out there.

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Vince Tan, a talented macro photographer and fellow Facebook Entomology fan!

Although I never became involved in the original Pokémon games, I used to come home from school to watch the cartoons and sketch the characters in my school uniform – the closest I had to an animé costume! I was far less interested in catchin’ ’em all and pitting animals against each other in battle than I was in Brock’s romances with Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny, Bulbasaur’s magical garden, and donuts which looked suspiciously like sushi…

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Extract from a Reddit discussion on the ethics of Pokémon fights

But I can’t help being excited about Pokémon GO, as the benefits are hard to ignore. Articles abound on how it helps people with depression, anxiety and autismyoung burns unit patients, and lonely dogs at animal rescue shelters. Augmented reality, on that screen we were already addicted to anyway, is showing us landmarks we’d never noticed in places we’ve lived for years, providing an icebreaker for meeting new people and bringing out the best in our communities. Sure, bad stuff has happened too, but there’s always one…

Of course, what I’m most interested in are the enormous similarities the game shares with real life entomology, as outlined in this Buzzfeed by Dr Bryan Lessard (aka Bry the Fly Guy), a postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection! Not surprising, when you learn that Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri was obsessed with insects from early childhood. Like Tajiri, I hope that Pokémon GO can be a tool for getting people outdoors and encouraging interest in wildlife, simply by putting people in a better position to notice it. This is sort of how I imagine it:

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An illustration of bug type Pokémon, original artist unknown! Source: bugtypepokemon.weebly.com

Recently, during an insect survey, I encountered a young man supervising his son as he hunted Pokémon along the Grange Road Cycleway in Dublin. The boy barely glanced up from his game when I showed him a large wasp-mimic hoverfly in a jar, giving me somewhat less confidence in my theory. But my disappointment was shortlived – his father was fascinated!

I showed him several different species of hoverfly – more variations on the wasp theme and one that had tricked me into thinking it was a bee! He marvelled at each one and asked lots of questions. The look on his face as he left expressed that blown away feeling most effectively brought about by nature surprising you. It still surprises me every day.

There are some great apps out there for finding and identifying animals and plants in a Pokémon-esque fashion (if you use your imagination and make the sound effects yourself). Many of them enable you to make an important contribution to our knowledge of the distribution and conservation status of wild species by submitting a record of what you’ve found. Here are a few examples:

  • Identify Irish Butterflies for Android does exactly what it says on the tin, very straight-forwardly, and allows you to submit a record with a photo if you wish.
  • iRecord Ladybirds is a handy identification tool, but use with caution as not all species on it are present in Ireland!
  • Although I haven’t tried it yet, ChirpOMatic UK looks pretty exciting. Like Shazam, you can record a bird singing and it uses automatic recognition to identify it for you! As we share our bird fauna with the UK, this should also work in Ireland.

You don’t need fancy apps to record wildlife! Choose a group with a small number of species to begin with (ladybirds, butterflies or shieldbugs are a great place to start). Get yourself a good Pokédex, I mean, ID chart, field guide or key. Join a friendly facebook group such as the Beetles of Britain and Ireland, who will help to verify the identity of your ladybirds as long as you’re willing to give it a go first. Submit your sightings to a recording scheme such as the All Ireland Ladybird Survey or the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club Shieldbug Survey. Contact me if you would like more guidance, and…

Biological Recording GO!

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Bugsy and Bugs by L-mon on DeviantArt

 

 

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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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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…

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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).

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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.

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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.

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