The most difficult thing I have ever had to write – Insects – A Very Short Introduction

A wonderful post by Professor Simon Leather.

Don't Forget the Roundabouts

The book!

I have written a lot of papers (more than 220 according to Web of Science) and quite a few books, two real ones (Leather et al., 1993; Leather & Bland, 1996) and eight edited volumes, over the last forty odd years. Up until now I thought the most exacting piece of writing I had ever done was my entry for the Biological Flora (Leather, 1996). I mention this because it has a very similar feel to my most recent, most difficult piece of writing, Insects, A Very Short Introduction.

I did my PhD on the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (Leather, 1980) during which I developed a real love for the bird cherry tree, Prunus padus. Just to illustrate this, my second son’s middle name is Tuomi – Finnish for bird cherry. Over the next decade or so I expanded my studies on to the…

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Giving thanks


The world has changed a lot since I last visited my blog. The other day Constance and I stopped on our morning walk to watch a bush buzzing with bees. “Look mummy! Bees!” said Constance. “That means spring is coming!” She talks now.

Yet in many ways, the world has stayed the same. This past week has been emotionally exhausting. International Women’s Day highlighted the achievements of women throughout a global pandemic, but also the huge setback it has caused in terms of gender equality as the larger share of childcare has fallen upon women working from home. A disproportionate amount of hate has been directed towards a young couple in California for saying how online bullying has affected their mental health. And the tragic disappearance of Sarah Everard has sent many into a frenzied outpouring of public grief, which may not be what her family and friends would wish for at this time.

Thinking of these recent events made me want to step back from the world just as it starts to open up. Then my mind returned to the bees and their first cautious flights after a winter lockdown. They don’t know what will be waiting for them outside, but every year they start where they are. We can’t change what has happened in the past, but we can change where we are going.

This time last March, I was running around after a 20-month-old toddler with a fever (mine) of 38.4C, on a good day, and pain in my lungs and chest. I had caught a virus. I don’t know if it was The Virus because, like many others, I was not tested and will never know for sure, but it has taken almost a year to recover. Today I breathe with lungs that feel almost clear again, and I look forward to celebrating Mothering Sunday with my 2-year-old in a few hours. She doesn’t know it’s Mothering Sunday, so I won’t get a lie-in with a cup of tea. But I’m looking forward to surprising her with a pretend make-up set that she has been asking about for ages.

To give thanks that I am still here, and so are my loved ones, when others have lost much more, I have made a set of nature-inspired postcards – some of which are featured in this post. The files are freely available to download below as printable pdfs. Each download contains six postcards sized at 105 x 148mm (4.1 x 5.8 inches). I hope you will enjoy using them – they look quite nice printed on glossy paper. Thank you if you have continued to follow my blog during my very long maternity leave from keeping bees. I don’t know when I will return for good, but I wish for you all to enjoy the warmer days of spring.

What do bees and babies have in common?

What do babies and bees have in common? They don’t read the same books as me.

Our queen bee arrived on 20 July. We named her Constance Amelia Maund. She is about three months old here and staring at the sunlight through the trees for the first time.

As you may have guessed, I have been on ‘bee maternity leave’ since then.

You see, I read lots of baby books before she arrived but threw them out not long after. Constance clearly hadn’t read about ‘the routine’. Instead, I stuck to Dr Spock’s reassuring words and let baby lead the way. Dr Spock is like the Ted Hooper of the baby book world.

Like bees, babies also help you to see the world through new eyes. Constance loves her pram walks. On mild, autumn days we stayed out for hours looking at the sunlight through the trees and the colours of the autumn leaves. For me too, it was like seeing these things for the first time and realising how wonderful they are.


Sometimes I would get her out of the pram and we would walk beneath the weeping willows so that she could feel the gentle branches sweep across her face and to take a closer look at the ducks. She wasn’t sure about the ducks.



After the clocks went back, our walks became shorter and our trips to the library more frequent – a good opportunity for Constance to see all those books she was supposed to have read.


She mostly likes the touch-and-feel books, particularly That’s not my unicorn!.

Winter is here now. I tell Constance lots of stories to keep her entertained on dark December days, particularly about the bees and how they are looking forward to spring as much as we are.

I have no idea what our ‘routine’ will look like next year. I hope to have a couple of Saturday afternoons here and there to visit the apiary and bring back home more stories from the other beekeepers to tell Constance.

Until then, I’d like to wish humans and hymenopterans everywhere a very merry festive season.


The bee garden from May to July


Our neighbour’s buddleia is thriving much to the delight of bees, butterflies, hoverflies and wasps, and providing a feast of insects for the birds.

Our own garden has overgrown in the heatwave as preparations for a special arrival (we don’t know yet whether we will have a queen bee or a king drone) have taken priority this summer.

But we have made some big changes to the garden. The fish have gone to a better place – someone my mother found was able to rehome our goldfish in a magnificent pond easily ten times the size of our tiny pool.

The frog ponds are teeming with tadpoles and the frogs have shown their appreciation over our lack of garden maintenance by sitting on rocks sheltered by ivy.

The solitary bee nests hidden beneath the untamed clematis are filling up nicely, as far as I can see. Ours truly is a secret garden this year.


At the apiary, mine and Emily’s hives were very kindly looked after by Thomas Bickerdike until he found two excellent beekeepers to take over Everlasting’s and Angelica’s colonies. So like Emily, I have said farewell to our lovely Ealing bees but in the knowledge that they have two new wonderful keepers, Jo and Dinesh, under whom they will thrive and make new queens and new stories.

This is a big week for John and I as our due date approaches, so it is here that I will leave the bee garden for the summer. I hope that your prayers and good wishes will be with us, until I return to gardening and blogging in the autumn.

UPDATE Our baby girl Constance has arrived and is doing wonderfully.

In the bee garden from March to April


The grape hyacinth flows like a river of blue along garden borders, hedgerows and woodland spaces. A small, hardy plant that doesn’t seem to mind the cold. It has patiently waited for the bees while the crocuses withered in late frosts.


These plump, purple-blue flowers are receiving many bee visitors as spring awakes.


Like our toadflax, grape hyacinth spreads quickly to fill beds and borders. If you don’t mind flowers that choose where they want to go (I don’t mind, it’s my idea of lazy gardening), then grape hyacinth looks pretty when planted under trees and left to wander across the lawn (a very charming planting scheme I’ve seen in neighbouring gardens).

If you prefer a tidier garden, you could try planting grape hyacinth in a spring container as an Easter present for the bees. But I can’t promise it will stay contained.

I came across a few garden escapees during a local walk. Grape hyacinth and cowslips bolting under the gate.



The dandelions are also coming out and some are growing up in the trees.


The soil is still too wet in our garden to do much – not that much needs to be done. Mulching our beds and containers with gravel, bark or leaves in October has helped to slow down the growth of weeds this spring, although the long, cold winter has probably helped too.


After a second serving of snow in March we put the bee house back in the shed to keep warm. I also expected the frogspawn to freeze but it has survived. However, we did lose one of our goldfish, Zachary, after the thaw. John buried him at the bottom of the garden with our other two fish under the stones.


When the weather frustrates your gardening, as in beekeeping, there is little else to do but make plans. I’ve been eyeing up the lungwort (pulmonaria) that’s sprung up uninvited in my parent’s garden (and which my step dad calls ‘weed’). It would look nice growing in the shade of our ivy.

The lungwort hasn’t made itself any more popular by planting itself right outside my parent’s front door. This busy flight path has resulted in a standoff between bee and human each time the door is opened. I would show you a close-up photo of these determined little insects, but I’m not able to bend down as easily with my camera these days.


John and I are expecting our own new arrival in July. For now, the bees, birds, fish and frogs can take care of themselves, and I think they will do just fine.

NEXT POST: In the bee garden from May to June.

A year in the bee garden – January

In January, the squirrels hop across the lawn digging up their buried treasure. It’s a good idea to keep the squirrel house full of monkey nuts unless you want spring bulbs unearthed and bird feeders raided. The magpies like the nuts too, and squabble with the squirrels.

Shoots of snowdrops and crocuses begin to poke above the ground. It has been so cold this winter that few brave bumblebees have been seen.

There is not much to do in the garden while the ground is hard, and little point in tidying up fallen leaves where insects and other creatures may still be sheltering till spring.

If you are tempted to do some gardening and accidentally disturb a queen bumblebee nesting underground, put the earth or leaves gently back to avoid disturbing her further.

The fish pond and frog ponds were checked regularly this month to make sure they didn’t freeze. As usual, the goldfish took advantage of each inspection to beg for food.

Soon it will be time to hang out the solitary bee nests that have been hibernating in the sheds and to prepare this year’s nesting tubes.

Coming soon: February in the bee garden.

Review: Living with essential oils


Last Sunday evening I stood in the kitchen grating orange zest for a citrusy sponge mix. The sweet orange smell brought joy to my baking and the cake rising in the oven fragranced our house with the taste of home. It reminded me what a difference scent can make to daily life and got me thinking about a review I was recently invited to do.

I was over-the-moon when Buff & Butter offered to send me five essential oils to review. Given that winter came in February, I chose rose geranium and myrrh for warmth and comfort, and cedarwood, mandarin and peppermint to uplift and energise.

As an aromatherapist I love to make fragrance a part of everyday life. I also like to share recipes that anyone can make with ingredients and equipment they already have at home. For my review of Buff & Butter, I used one essential oil for five days of the week. I hope that you find the recipes as easy and enjoyable to use as I did.

Monday: Mandarin-and-vinegar fabric conditioner


I opened my bottle of mandarin oil on Monday. The sweet citrus scent with a touch of flower blossom was pleasing and playful. Mandarin is a lovely essential oil that is gently uplifting and soothing.

Inspired by the aroma of Sunday baking, I used my mandarin oil as a homemade fragrance for Monday’s laundry. I like my housekeeping to be as natural as possible and use washing soda, or substitute washing powder for part bicarbonate soda, for laundry detergent and use distilled white vinegar for fabric softener. These clean clothes nicely and don’t leave them smelling of either soda or vinegar.

Add a teaspoon of mandarin oil to half a cup of distilled white vinegar for the laundry rinse cycle to give bedsheets and towels a beautiful sweet orangey fragrance, while the vinegar softens fabric beautifully.

Buff & Butter mandarin essential oil (Citrus nobilis).

Tuesday: Cedarwood room spray


Tuesday 1 March was the start of meteorological spring but someone forgot to tell the weather. It was cold, windy and rainy in Ickenham, not the sort of day for opening the windows to let in fresh air.

Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica) is a wonderful essential oil with the clear scent of lofty trees. Some find the aroma calming and others find it strengthening, like a walk through a mountain forest. It’s also a good oil for inhaling due to its decongestant properties – helpful for those leftover winter colds.

Cedarwood is ideal as a fragrance for the living room. If you don’t have an aromatherapy burner or vaporiser, you can use a plant spray. Add 10 drops of essential oil to 300ml of water then pour into the bottle and shake well before spraying the room.

I spray two or three times in the air to finely disperse in the middle of the room and avoid polished surfaces or leather furniture. The cedarwood room spray has a subtle and lingering sweet leafy aroma.

Buff & Butter cedarwood essential oil (Cedrus atlantica)

Wednesday: Myrrh room fragrance


I opened myrrh as my midweek essential oil. It had a dark spicy scent that would make an exotic room fragrance. Some find myrrh’s rich resinous aroma calms the nerves. I find the fragrance has a tranquillising effect when used in small amounts, which is sometimes more helpful to an overtired mind than an essential oil with a sedative effect such as chamomile.

This is another simple method to fragrance a room when you don’t have an aromatherapy burner or vaporiser. I poured boiling water into a small bowl and added six to eight drops of myrrh oil. I left the bowl on the dressing table in the bedroom, closed doors and windows and let the scent evaporate into the room.

Buff & Butter myrrh essential oil (Commiphora myrrha)

Thursday: Lazy peppermint lip balm


One of my favourite uses for peppermint oil is in lip balm. A lip balm is so easy to make by melting a little beeswax in olive oil, but this week’s recipes were for everyone to make using other ingredients around the home. Not everyone has beeswax in their kitchen cupboard unless they’re a beekeeper or aromatherapist! But most people have a tub of vaseline in the bathroom cabinet. This peppermint lip balm is even easier to make.

I never buy perfumed vaseline when I can add a few drops of natural fragrance. Add two to three drops of peppermint oil to a 25g jar of vaseline and use a cocktail stick to stir. (I warm the vaseline in sunshine first to make it easier to stir.) The method can be a little messy, smooth the mixture with the back of a teaspoon and wipe off excess around the sides with a kitchen towel.

My lazy peppermint lip balm smelt delicious – sweet, sharp and so clean it almost made my lips feel sparkly!

Buff & Butter peppermint essential oil (Mentha piperita)

Friday: Rose geranium cream bath


On Friday I opened my bottle of rose geranium oil and smelt a fragrance that was like a rose slowly unfolding. Its floral scent was simply sensational, I wanted to bathe in it. So I ran a bath and poured in rose geranium oil blended with cream. A luxury bathtime treat worthy of Cleopatra!

Pour 150ml of double cream into a small jar adding 15 drops of rose geranium oil. Shake well to blend and then add the contents to a hot bath, swoosh around thoroughly.

This rose geranium cream bath would also make a lovely homemade gift for Mothering Sunday. Pour the blend into a pretty jar and label for mum to use same day!

Buff & Butter rose geranium essential oil (Pelargonium species)

So there you go, five ways to use five essential oils at home every day of the week.

The iced orange bundt cake also turned out well.


Disclaimer: I received Buff & Butter‘s five essential oils for free in return for a review and, as you can see, they were beautifully versatile to use. I loved their particularly fresh fragrance which evoked memories of summer meadows.

A beekeeper’s notes for the year

front cover

In summer the stories of different hives hang about like threads in the air as the beekeeper walks around the apiary and the bees criss-cross past the flowers and trees. From early spring to late autumn, the hives are seen with queen cells, artificial swarms, drone layers, pearly brood, rainbows of pollen, and row upon row of glistening nectar. Colonies are inspected, swarmed, re-queened, split and united again. Last year I kept a note of each month’s observations of the hives and of the apiary as it changed around them.

beekeeping notes

My monthly notes have been summarised into a small photo book following walks around the apiary through winter, spring, summer and autumn. These past five years of sharing hives with Emily Scott at Adventuresinbeeland’s blog has shown that keeping regular notes of personal observations about the bees, as well as hive records, is so helpful, particularly during times of unseasonable seasons. The beekeeping calendar changes as often as the weather and writing down our experiences of keeping bees through bitter or mild winters and hot or chilly summers is invaluable.

You can freely download A beekeepers notes for the year by EmmaSarahTennant or receive as a free ebook here. You can also order a hard copy on my Blurb bookstore here, for which you’ll need to pay the Blurb store price for printing and postage, and for which £2 I’ll donate to the charity Bees for Development.

I would like to say a huge thanks to everyone who has read, liked and commented on my blog posts in 2015, and a Very Happy New Year to all!

Summer surprise 

Our first summer in the Crooked House is passing quickly. The blue tit family has flown away and the mason bees are sealed behind mud doors.

This year’s crop tastes of blackberries and lime. My kitchen was filled with the smell of freshly spun comb after I took three frames of honey from Queen Melissa’s hive. The comb dripped generously as the wax caps were taken off.

The honey was not as clear as last summer’s pale straw-like harvest, but it was surprisingly easy to spin out in a new extractor. I poured some of the golden liquid into a mini pot for Emily, leaving the rest to settle in a bucket before it is filtered and jarred.

The smoker was billowing in the hazy sunshine when I arrived at the apiary. There were more surprises waiting inside the hive.

Queen Melissa’s workers had built a wave of natural comb in the space left by one of the super frames. We carefully upturned the crownboard and removed it intact to take home.

A quick inspection of the supers showed that the queen cells had now disappeared. Had the workers succeeded in their attempts to supersede the queen, or given up?

I returned the wet frames to the supers for the bees to clean up, before opening the brood nest. There was no sign of Melissa for a second week. The numbers of bees climbing over the frames made the inspection difficult and I couldn’t clearly see eggs. The brood nest looked small, had a young rival overthrown Melissa after all? We decided to wait till next week before putting in a test frame of eggs to find out.

The swarmed colony from Pepper’s hive is building up strongly. The new queen has been named Peppermint for her mother, and for the lively spirit of the bees that she makes. I didn’t see the queen, but the brood nest gives confidence that she is inside and laying well. I’ve noticed that queens are good at hiding later in the season.

Pepper’s workers were busy licking up a pool of honey from more natural-built comb inside the hive. We’re going to tackle that next weekend.

Tom’s experiments in natural comb-building have been a success at the apiary. He pulled frame upon frame of curved comb built without foundation or wire by the bees. “I’ve noticed that the bees use every bit when they make the comb themselves,” said Tom. “Whereas on the foundation they sometimes leave cells untouched.”

At the entrance of the hive, Tom pointed out the drones being kicked out in droves by the workers. It seems early in the season for a drone exodus, but perhaps another sign of how quickly this summer is passing by.

The flower beds in my garden have been full of their own surprises this summer. A Sunday afternoon of weeding revealed a beautiful yellow Missouri primrose hidden behind a wall of thistles. She blooms at dusk and has had a lot of visitors in the morning. A lacewing, a hoverfly and a sweat bee (Lasioglossum sp.) have basked in the sunshine of her petals.

The rampaging weeds at the back of the garden in the vegetable patch remain untouched. I’ll dig over the earth in autumn to sow runner beans and potatoes, but for now the foliage is providing a habitat for creatures like hornet mimic hoverflies and the new leafcutter bees in the bug hotel.


I’ve called the big leafcutter who comes and goes most, Albie. They are more shy than the masons.

A new family of baby sparrows have been landing on the garden decking to play in the makeshift bird bath (a large salad bowl filled with water and stones). They give hope that despite the march of the drones, there is still new life to come from this summer.

A beekeeper’s notes for May

bumble foraging

Today was sunny and warm for foraging. The garden was buzzing with honeybees, bumbles, solitary bees, and other pollinators. “Do damselflies buzz?” I wondered as a bright blue streak flew past.

Fairer weather had attracted cake-foraging beekeepers to the apiary with a small crowd sitting down for cream sponge and chocolate chip. I tried a slice of each and Jonesy told me his latest queen dramas. “I bought a new queen from Greece,” he said. “I’ve called her Olivia.”


Pulling on our suits, Emily and I followed Jonesy past the overgrown apiary path to visit Olivia. She was still in a cage with the worker bees desperately crowded around her. We all hoped that they would greet the new queen kindly. We’ll have to wait and see.


A bumble bee was slowly walking towards the hive reigned by Queen Pepper. Emily tried to discourage her from going inside, because Pepper’s lively ladies would probably nip off her hairs.

The Bailey comb change was interrupted on Pepper’s hive, because the colony was split in an artificial swarm about three weeks ago. This I feel is a possible disadvantage to doing a Bailey comb change later in the season, by becoming interrupted by the swarming instinct, but the wet weather at the start of spring made us wait.

Pepper wasn’t spotted in her hive, but Emily found eggs so the queen was there at least three days ago. The bees were content and doing well for stores and brood, and even have a super on top.


The split colony was behaving well, but there was no sign of a new queen, eggs or much in the way of brood or stores. We’ll check again next week, as new queens can take their time to settle in, before deciding whether to re-combine the colonies.

Melissa’s hive had completed the Bailey comb change. I found eggs in the top brood box along with nicely even biscuit-coloured worker brood and plenty of stores. The honeycomb in the bottom brood box was almost emptied, but it was still full of bees. How to get them out? Shake the bees?


We chose a gentler option that had worked in previous years. With the top brood box placed on the hive floor, we created a space above the colony using an empty brood box and put the bottom brood box above this. The cavity should encourage the bees to rob out any remaining stores and move downstairs, but it will be quite crowded. This is a strong colony. Another super will be needed to give the bees more space.


At home it was peaceful to sit in the garden and let nature take care of itself. I got out my camera for the first time since the start of the year and captured the blue tits coming and going from their nesting box.

blue tit feeding blue tit flying

The mason bees are behind bars after I found strange sticks poking out of the bug hotel. It was suggested on the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook Group that larger birds like magpies and crows might use sticks to poke out the bees. The cage seems to have deterred the birds, I’ve found no more strange sticks and the bees don’t mind it.

bees behind bars

The red leafy tree is yielding delicate tiny flowers beloved by honeybees and bumble bees. I could just about see a fat fuzzy bumble hanging off foliage in the branches above.

bumble in sun

All is well in the hives and garden for May – long may it last. Tomorrow rain is forecast, let’s hope it passes soon.

My next post will be in two weeks’ time, while I catch up with all of yours!