Going beyond the bones

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The day felt primeval as I walked up the path to the Natural History Museum with mist after the rain cooling in the air and rumbles of early morning traffic behind me. It was unnaturally quiet and still inside as I made my way past the diplodocus skeleton standing in Central Hall and down a dim corridor to start my time journey.

I was here before opening hours for a breakfast viewing of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, a temporary exhibition running from 13 February 2014 to 28 September 2014. The exhibition builds on the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain research project led by Professor Chris Stringer, the Natural History Museum’s expert on early humans and a Fellow of the Royal Society. As I work for Royal Society, I’d been lucky to be invited along.

The 13-year research project had unearthed evidence that pushed back the arrival of early humans in Britain from 500,000 years ago to 950,000 years ago. So while Homo sapiens only appeared on the scene in Britain around 40,000 years ago, the story of our ancestry begins, almost, one million years in the past. This is where the breakfast tour of the exhibition started – with the earliest glimpses of human life viewed through fossil evidence of flint tool flakes and ancient pine cones. Our guide, curator Ellen Simonssen, led us through each room – through a different time, a different climate, and a different step in our history.

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In the room of the rhino butchers we were shown how our ancestors had a taste for large animals like rhino, horses and deer. But this was a time zone that they shared with other predators, ‘So holding on to a large carcass meant competing with lions and hyenas,’ said Ellen. Leaving behind one brutal existence for the next, we entered the big freeze. This zone was the Ice Age with sound effects of a desolate wind-blown landscape.

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Emerging from the thaw were the Neanderthals who came to Britain around 400,000 years ago, and again 50,000 years ago. We stood with exhibits of skulls and teeth against a backdrop of painted walls and video installations – pictures and sounds opening a window into a lost world. ‘We wanted to go beyond the bones and show what these people were really like.’ The bones might not have looked like much, we were told, but they were amazing discoveries that had never been displayed together before.

Our time journey continued apace into a world that heated up and rising sea levels pushed humans out. We were now 125,000 years ago. There was not even an echo of human life here, just the sound of the waves and the roars of roaming beasts. ‘But it was quite an exciting world. Imagine hippos in the Thames, and also rhinos and elephants.’ I felt quite disappointed that Charing Cross doesn’t look like this when I get off the tube each morning.

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We turned the corner as the Neanderthals returned to Britain and the first evidence of Homo sapiens was found. Two specially commissioned model reconstructions – Ned the Neanderthal and Quentin the Homo sapien – gave us a feel for how these ancient neighbours lived, as did the cannibalised remains of skulls fashioned into bowls. It was still a cold, harsh climate with humans rationalising the need to eat meat. On that note, we ended our time journey just 12,000 years after the Ice Age.

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We had reached the story of modern science as curator Jenny Wong introduced us to a project that explored our genetic ancestry in more detail and put the exhibits into greater context. Scientists analysed the DNA of six well-known personalities to unearth the roots of the wider human family tree.

The exhibition had collected 200 of the most important fossil specimens and archaeological objects in Britain and woven the tapestry of our steps through time. Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story had gone far beyond the bones.

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Thanks to Jonathan Tyzack and Emily Williamson at the Natural History Museum for inviting me to the breakfast viewing. I highly recommend going!

Find out more about Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story on the official website and view the fantastic films on the YouTube playlist including how the life-like early human models were made.

A break in the clouds

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After a perilous week of tube strikes in London and crocodile scares in Bristol, yesterday was a reminder that this is the most perilous time of year for honeybees.

The apiary was unexpectedly a buzz with beekeepers due to a change in the association’s calendar that had postponed the scout hut meeting till next weekend. There were two types of cakes on the table and I was advised to have a slice of each so as not to offend anyone. But it was too blustery for even the hardiest of Ealing beekeepers to stay for cake. John Chapple was the first to leave, wearing his festive Christmas-pudding style woollen hat.

The wind was getting stronger, so Emily and I went to quickly check the weight of the hives and fondant in the roof before we both were blown away. ‘There are purple crocuses out already, and snowdrops!’ Emily said excitedly, ‘Spring really is coming!’

Here are the purple crocuses that Emily was so excited about.

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What a difference a week makes though. Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were about the same weight, but Chamomile’s was much lighter. All three hives have plenty of fondant in the roof, so there is little that we can do except watch and wait.

This time of year is a waiting game for beekeepers. After over-wintering, the colony will soon be in need of new stores and new bees to forage. The winter bee reaching the end of her life must find the reserves to nurse and rear the first of a new generation of summer bees. How will she manage it? Ted Hooper explains in Guide to Bees & Honey how the lives of workers are extended, sometimes as long as six months, to carry the colony through winter and to start again in spring:

‘The winter bee is a rather different animal from the summer worker, the difference being brought about by feeding and lack of work. In the late August and early September the workers feed very heavily upon pollen, and this brings their hypopharyngeal glands back into the plump form of the young nursing bee. At the same time, a considerable amount of fat, protein and a storage carbohydrate called glycogen, or animal starch, is stored in the fat body. This fat body is an organ composed of a sheet of large storage cells spread along the inside of the dorsal part of the abdomen. It is present in all honeybees, but is considerably enlarged in the winter worker. It provides an internal store of food, which is probably used to start brood rearing in the spring. These physical changes in the worker occur when it is not involved in rearing brood; in fact its lifespan appears to be inversely proportional to the amount of brood food produced and fed to larvae.’

Of course, after all that, the workers will still need good weather and a plentiful flow of nectar to start the season. The apiary’s snowdrops felt like a small ray of hope amid news of storms and floods.

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Snowdrops instil a child-like and spring-like feeling in everyone. My mum has a lovely memory of these pretty flowers from when she was six years’ old: ‘When I was six, I thought I was going to hospital to be a nurse, instead they took my tonsils. Afterwards my mum took me home, and she’d put a vase of snowdrops by my bed.’

Hopefully the apiary’s bees will appreciate the snowdrops lying beside the hives as much, during a break in the clouds.

Links of interest:

The Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop theatre opened this weekend and I can highly recommend a visit. There are snowdrops, tours and, of course, delicious afternoon tea and cake in the Tangerine Dream Café. Emily and I visited for a honey tasting a couple of years back, and really enjoyed the Garden.

Blogs to read:

If only British beekeeper Ted Hooper MBE (1918–2010) were alive to share his experience and words of wisdom through blogging. Well, I’ve found the next best thing – Professor Simon Leather, entomologist and blogger! His blog Don’t Forget the Roundabouts shares stories and teaches on things of entomological interest, urban ecology and conservation, and there’s quite a bit about aphids. I really like his recent post: It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects. You can also follow on Twitter @EntoProf.

 

Street lights

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‘The night sky isn’t always black,’ said Wei as I aimed my camera at the silhouettes of buildings outside Waterloo station and expected my lens to be swallowed up by the blackness of space. What I got was an electric blue shot of London’s cityscape revealing colours in the night sky that I had never seen. This was Destination Blue Hour – the magical moment when the sun drops below the horizon on a cloudless day electrifying the sky with a blue glow.

Wei is the organiser of the London Camera Club on London Meetup setting monthly ‘missions’ for anyone with a camera (DSLR or automatic) or camera phone to join and practise photography. I had signed up for Mission 6 – Destination Blue hour, for £2, on October 28, 2012, 4:30pm. Our meeting point was Waterloo station, South Bank exit, where we would head towards Hungerford Bridge, Victoria Embankment, Westminster Bridge and walk along the South Bank.

Destination Blue Hour is also referred to by photographers as the ‘Golden Hour’ or ‘Magical Hour’ Wei told us. While many photographers get up early to capture the sun rise, Wei prefers the evening sun: ‘You’ll be able to see blues and oranges in the pale sky against the glow of street lights without any special effects’.

We were told to keep all flashes off and, for those of us with a DSLR, Wei had provided guidelines for experimenting on manual. I chose a low ISO of 100 and, as I don’t have a wide angle lens, a low aperture of F3.5 (and lower), while adjusting shutter speeds of 1/30–1/8–6. I was surprised with the results.

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As nightfell, and so did the rain, our mission changed from Destination Blue Hour to Street Lights & Motion as Wei encouraged us to have fun playing with ISO 100 and very low shutter speeds to capture London’s traffic. I thought my first attempt was a fail, but Wei was delighted with this photo of an invisible bus speeding past…

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… so I tried some more…

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It was an amazing tour as I saw London through new eyes. Wei is a fantastic teacher and I highly recommend his camera club and workshops. The evening ended at a pub where we were told to choose one photo to show the group and then have a drink, and a packet of crisps, to share our experiences.

Since then I’ve rarely gone out without my bulky Canon 600D stuffed inside my bag. Wei opened up a whole new world of night photography to me and gave me the confidence to keep my DSLR setting on manual. I’ve tried his techniques many times while out and about. Here’s Tower Bridge at night and a walk along the Thames with a view of the glittering Shard.

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The low ISO and slow shutter speed method works well for darkened interiors I found at the Natural History Museum’s After Hours when visitors can explore the museum in a different light.

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I love London.

And closer to home in the western suburbs of Greater London – a dusky walk at Osterley Park House and Garden provided the opportunity to capture a fair at the mansion and eerie lights across the lake.

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If you live in London and have an interest in photography, I highly recommend Wei’s workshops. Destination Blue Hour 2 is scheduled for 27 October, this time for £2.50!

To find out more about Destination Blue Hour and night photography visit http://www.bluehoursite.com/.

Next post: 26 October ‘What our bees did’

Too cold for a bee’s nose

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Another fine day of sunshine and showers in London and it is hard to remember that just over a week ago a blanket of snow had fallen and transformed the city into a winter wonderland. The weekend that it snowed I had been caught in a wintry blizzard when walking in Wimbledon woods and froze these scenes on camera.

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The woodlands were part of a nature reserve with signs to indicate local species, including the green woodpecker. This inquisitive bird can live in an apiary for years before, one day, it learns that tasty treats of bee larvae and honeycomb may be found inside the hives.

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More on woodpeckers later…

The snow had lasted after the weekend until Monday. Those who made it into work enjoyed a lunchtime walk around Regent’s Park as the afternoon sunshine took a sideways slant through the trees.

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There was more to see than just snow – this tree has eyes!

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And these pigeons huddled on top branches to keep warm.

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And spying through the bushes on the penguins at London Zoo!

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London has its own microclimate and by Tuesday the snow had left the inner city completely. In the meantime, a little visitor had landed at the apiary in search of food – woodpecker-bored holes were found on the side of one of the hives. Pat had found similar holes in his hives at Osterley a few weeks ago, so it appears that the woodpeckers are spreading the word.

While Pat and John had wrapped most of the hives in chicken wire, I paid an early morning visit before work to finish the job on our colony and the two that we are looking after for Clare and Charles. A few bees were curious to see what I was doing and poked their heads outside the entrance, but it was far too cold for their noses and they soon went back inside.

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Emily had spotted snowdrops trying their hardest to grow through the hard ground a few weeks back. Not long now till spring.

Related links

Snowmageddon
Winter watch for bees

You may also be interested to read this bittersweet post by Daniel J Marsh on Death of a colony – a beekeepers loss. A stark reminder that January to March is when colony losses are often reported. You can also follow Daniel on Twitter: @danieljmarsh

Snowmageddon

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As temperatures in Sydney, Australia soared to a record-breaking 45.7˚C this week, my ex-pat friends complained that they were missing the snow in England. Holly Galt tweeted: ‘Ah London, you are making me so homesick! Love a good snow day. #Snowmageddon’ @hollygalt

The snow hadn’t yet arrived, but as Holly is from 12 hours in the future it was possible she knew something that I didn’t. And on Friday the snow arrived.

My work’s Medicinal Garden looked very pretty in the snow.

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However, as nice as it looked around Regent’s Park, I didn’t want to sleep at my desk overnight, so we all left early while the trains and buses were still running. I enjoyed a snowy walk home through Northolt Village.

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On Saturday morning I awoke to find Narnia outside my window and temperatures around 0°C. Positively balmy! Being one of the few beekeepers insane enough to prove that we can still have our tea and cake on a Saturday afternoon – even in snow, I arrived at the apiary not surprised to find a small crowd.

I found Emily, Stan and Albert doing some detective work having found evidence of bird footprints in the snow on hive roofs and a suspicious dent in the wood of John’s hive. Could it be that an Ealing woodpecker has discovered the tasty treats inside our hives?

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Emily and I checked on our bees next. The hive is still quite heavy with stores, although they have eaten a large hole in the fondant. This allows us to observe the colony in winter and see that the bees look healthy and are active. A few workers were light coloured and fuzzy, they might be new bees if the queen started laying again in late December.

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By now my body temperature was around -1°C, so we went to join John and the boys huddled around the kettle and Emily’s delicious jam cake.

Snow is forecast to return on Sunday, while the sun continues to shine in Sydney. As Holly would say, I know where I’d rather be. #London #snow

Rain or shine, the otters like it fine

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With the passing of the winter solstice and the lengthening of days, the bees are too busy preparing for spring for us to visit. Otters, on the other hand, are always happy to entertain their guests.

WWT London Wetland Centre is a popular nature reserve close to the heart of the city and described as a ‘haven for birds, wildlife and people’. Considering how close I live to the reserve it was the ideal place to enjoy a day out with my mum and walk-off recent over-indulgences.

It was a cold, grey Sunday with rain threatening in every cloud, but there was plenty of winter wildlife to see. The courtyard’s main glass observatory offered incredible views of the reedy lake, with ducks, geese and wading birds, against the misty, yet familiar, skyline of the BT Tower, London Eye and the Shard.

After bird watching – my mum’s a bit of a twitcher – and a walk around the lagoons, we went to see the otters being fed.

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The wetland is home to a family of Asian short-clawed otters who live in a specially designed holt where visitors can watch them swim, play and feed. In the wild, Asian otters are threatened by habitat loss and hunting, so this family is part of a breeding and conservation programme. Why not the European otter? The keeper explained that the Asian otter provides better opportunities for observation and entertainment. ‘We know from experience that the Asian short-clawed otter exhibits well, whereas the European ones tend to be more solitary, more shy. If we had six or seven European otters, they would probably be at the back, drinking wine.’

The otters were fun to watch, but I’m not sure that they found us very entertaining. When they realised we didn’t have any food, they soon grew bored of us.

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The sleepy otters yawned and dipped their tails in water until the keeper arrived for the daily feed. They watched him with intent as he entered the holt and chased him across the rocks till he stopped to throw pieces of meat.

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While the otters enjoyed their meal, the keeper apologised to the crowd for making a quick exit. ‘They only tolerate me when I have food, but once they know it’s gone then my ankle might look tasty,’ he explained. ‘Not that I’m scared or anything’ as he cautiously backed away from the pool. As if on cue, the otters paused tearing chunks of meat to watch his hasty retreat behind the trees at the top of the holt. They looked at each other with narrowly slit eyes, then ran across the rocks and up the hill to cut him off. There was a commotion in the bushes, but to everyone’s relief the keeper ran out with both his ankles.

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These otters will eat almost anything, apparently, which made me think that this morehen was braver than the keeper as he waded in their pool.

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The otters were not the only wildlife devising plans. I saw this plotting pigeon sitting on a bridge, until he caught me watching and purposefully looked like a pigeon again.

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The ducks and geese were more relaxed and happily enjoying swimming in the lagoons as the rain began to fall. I’m not sure what type of duck this green-eyed beauty is, but the exotic-looking goose is Egyptian.

016b 016cAt 3pm it was the bird feed with the warden. So we watched as the geese eagerly waddled up and the children threw feed in the water. By this time we were getting cold so it was time to leave, but I look forward to returning in spring to see more wetland wildlife including slow worms, dragonflies and bats.

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I really recommend a visit to WWT London Wetland Centre. Rain, wind or shine – the animals don’t mind. There is lots to see in all seasons, although for me the highlight was the otter feed.

A very Happy New Year everyone and may 2013 bring luck, love, prosperity and good fortune!

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Related links

WWT London Wetland Centre
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT)
Nothing hotter than an otter – Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland writes about her visit to WWT London Wetland Centre
ZSL London Zoo ‘Keeper for a Day’: dreams do come true – my favourite animal adventure of 2012, being a zoo keeper at London Zoo for the day