IT occurred to me the other day that I have not seen an earwig for years, if not decades. My mother used to grow dahlias and earwigs lodged in the flowers so that if you cut some to bring in, there would soon be one or two wandering about the table. A woman in our village grows spectacular dahlias in a large pot so I tried it this year, putting three tubers of (I think) Bishop of Leicester in a pot so large that I could hardly lift it, with copper tape round it to ward off slugs. The dark leaves sprouted OK and I anticipated a great show of pink flowers. When a few grudgingly opened they were a greyish off-white and most withered before they came out. What a wash-out. And there weren’t even any earwigs.
I think earwigs are jolly little fellows. There are about 2,000 species in the world, with four native to the UK. The only one you are likely to see is the common earwig (Forficula auricularia), which incidentally has no interest in human ears (nor has any type of earwig). The pincers are not strong enough to give you a nip. It is nocturnal and spends the day in cracks and crevices (or dahlia flowers). They might take the occasional bite out of your prized plants but they are much more of a friend than a foe to gardeners because they eat aphids by the lorryload.
Here is the best thing: most insects lay their eggs and go on their way, often dying soon afterwards. However a female earwig lays 30-50 eggs and protects them through the winter. When they hatch, she feeds and tends the nymphs until they are able to fend for themselves.
Here is a video which I think is American but the earwigs look much like our own.
It was dispiriting trawling through YouTube for earwig videos because almost all of them are about how to kill them. I wish people would not automatically assume that insects and other invertebrates must be killed. As I have said before, no insects means no us.
Meanwhile, it’s been an interesting week for invertebrates at Ashworth Towers. Our predecessors put down acres of decking, which was foolish in Lancashire where it rains all the time. When fungus started billowing from it we knew we had to act. So it has all been taken away to be replaced with a lawn. One day last week our brilliant builder Darren came in with pictures of a couple of things he had spotted.
This is a female four-spotted orb weaver spider (Araneus quadratus) which comes in a variety of colours and can change colour to blend with its surroundings. It is Britain’s heaviest spider, and this one is probably ready to lay her eggs. It builds its web close to the ground to catch jumping insects such as small grasshoppers. The female’s web has a funnel-shaped retreat off to the side where she goes during inclement weather. Needless to say the books say it is common but I don’t recall seeing one before.
I don’t think I would have ever identified this, but Darren has a clever app which tells you what is in the picture you have taken. This fly is a victim of the fatal ‘fly death’ fungus, Entomophthora muscae. The dying fly crawls to a high point, straightens its hind legs and opens its wings, which ensures that the fungal spores are dispersed as widely as possible to infect more flies. Again it is said to be fairly common but I had never even heard of it before, let alone seen a case.
Here is a stock picture which shows how the fungus encases the fly.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the difficulty of picking apples from big trees. A reader mentioned mechanical harvesters and I found this video of cider apples being shaken from the trees.
This reminded me of a rather similar video of the almond harvest in California.
This in turn reminded me of seeing almonds being harvested in Mallorca by the traditional method. This is not my own video but it is just like what I saw. You can almost feel the baking heat.
Sheep of the week
The Lincoln Longwool is the largest British sheep, ewes weighing up to 120kg (18st 8lb) and rams up to 160kg (25st). It is a dual-purpose breed developed to carry a heavy fleece of strong, lustrous, lanolin-rich wool combined with a substantial mutton carcase. The fleece grows at the rate of an inch a month, so providing a yearly clip of 12in fibres, nearly four times the growth rate of an average sheep, and weighing around 20lb per fleece.
Lincolnshire was famous for its sheep in the Middle Ages when the wool trade was crucial to Britain’s economy. A curly fleeced sheep appears in the Luttrell Psalter, which dates from c 1325-40. You can see the picture here.
By the end of the 19th century Lincolns were in great demand at home and abroad and were exported all over the world, particularly to South America, Australia and New Zealand, where they were used to improve and develop new breeds.
However after the Second World War fashions changed and demand for wool plummeted. At the same time the Lincoln Longwool genes were established abroad so there was no export market.
By the 1970s the breed was almost extinct. Thanks to the dedication of a handful of enthusiasts, it has been brought back from the brink, but it is still a priority breed on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s watchlist. There are now 91 registered flocks, mainly in their home county of Lincolnshire.
You can read more about the breed and see some great historic photos at the Lincoln Longwool Sheep Breeders’ Association website.
Here is a video of some hungry young rams.
And here is a playful lamb with his mum.
Wheels of the week
This is a 1959 Ambassador Popular. Ambassador Motorcycles was founded in 1946 by former car and motorcycle racer Kaye Don. His name is largely forgotten now, but in his day he was a legend, holding world land and water speed records simultaneously. You can read an account of his life, with some terrific pictures, here. They don’t make them like Don any more.
Ambassador were based in Ascot. At first they used JAP engines made in Prestwich but in 1947 switched to Villiers engines made in Wolverhampton. The Popular was first made in 1951. According to the government vehicle inquiry website this vehicle’s engine is 197cc but the enthusiasts’ sites such as this one say it was a 150cc 30C. No doubt a reader will put me right.
Ambassadors were relatively expensive (though I can’t find a contemporary price) and did not sell well in Britain, but were successful in Australia and New Zealand.
The firm was taken over in 1963 by DMW of Wolverhampton, which closed in 1965.
I found a picture of this machine in a previous life. (I note the caption says it has a 197cc engine.) The current owner has had it since 2019 and has done an admirable job of restoring it.