Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Mysterious White Insects on Madagascar Dragon Tree: Mealybug Infestation or Scale Insect Outbreak?

We further interrupt this already un-routine blog for another digression into a mysterious plant insect investigation. But, this story actually begins with a consideration of air quality in space station and how I acquired these specific houseplants in the first place. If you're interested in the problem of volatile solvents in household air sprays, and the afflictions suffered by tropical houseplants, read on...

We live in a top floor flat which has its windows on its roof. Air doesn't really "blow" through the house so much as it kinda randomly pours in, and this flat definitely has got some humidity and ventilation issues. I used to combat this with air sprays, but then I became curious about how air sprays work, and ended up finding out that a lot of air perfumes including my sprays of dubious provenance (thanks TK Maxx) actually may contradictorily deprove air quality in enclosed household spaces. Furthermore, many household cleaners and pre-made wipes were likely to release more volatile organic compounds into the trapped air.

So I got George to carry home three pots of Dracaena Marginatas (Red edged Dracaena), which were one of the plants studied in the NASA clean air study. The study was trying to determine which household plants would be potentially effective in cleaning the air in space stations, but obviously it also has very useful applications in indoor earth habitats.

This particular type of Dragon Tree was found to reduce the levels of benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene in the air by just living in the room. They are very low maintenance and rather importantly, they were also on SALE at the Homebase closest to us...

I also tried to switch to more basic methods of doing the household cleaning and descaling with combinations of citric acid, sodium carbonate, and Dr Bronner's castile soap. Say what you will about the crazy text all over the Dr Bronner soap bottles (bringing new meaning to soapbox - its certainly Dr Bronner's soapbox for his unusual moral philosophy), but the soaps work excellently and definitely do the job of keeping 'Spaceship Earth' clean.

Dr Bronner
Gaze upon this amazing picture of Dr Bronner from the 2015 ALL ONE REPORT, which begins with these words:
"In all we do, let us be generous, fair & loving to Spaceship Earth and all its inhabitants."

This morning whilst cleaning the bathroom in anticipation of first ever visit of my parents to London (and visit to our flat here) - I discovered that the Madagascar Dragon Tree living in the bathroom was covered in tiny white ovals! It was so horrifying I didn't take a picture of it. It wasn't mould, I could see that this was a bug problem, but these tiny stationary bugs were too tiny for me to perceive any detail with the naked eye (under 1mm big, but terrifyingly numerous). The infestation looked quite severe, and it seemed to have come on overnight. Some parts which were covered by dots had even turned a bit more yellow. I initially thought it must be mealybugs, but weird ones considering that they didn't have the usual furry fingery parts of the mealybug showing - but I supposed that perhaps there were weird strains of mealybugs in Britain - I mean, I'm not a mealybug expert! Who knows what the british mealybugs might be up to!

Most normal humans might consider throwing out their shockingly diseased-looking potted plant at this stage, but I decided that I was not going to do the normal thing. NO! I decided that I couldn't allow this plant to be eaten by mysterious white dots without trying to understand what was going on, so I googled for the instructions on how to eradicate mealybugs from a plant.

Techniques recommended included controlling the infestation using the mealybug's natural predators such as ladybirds or green lacewing. I considered going to the park and picking up as many ladybirds as I could, but I don't think George would want our bathroom to become a flying ladybird habitat (furthermore, we don't have the pleasure of having the time to breed flightless ladybirds which need to be bred by selective breeding like the Japanese have done).

Ladybird Transportation

To be fair, I'm quite sure if I needed to, I could actually find a handful of ladybirds and bring them home. Some are flighty, but some are quite tame and patient and will allow you to carry them for unreasonably long periods of time. This was a ladybird which I recently carried from a hot, uninteresting concrete pavement near Forest Hill - all the way to the very top of Crystal Palace Park...


If I could give everyone a strangely philosophical warning on the sheer tedium of houseplant treatment, it would be this:


After I spent ages cleaning each side of each leaf of the Dragon Tree, it looked much better. I was convinced it would survive this infestation of mysterious white dots.

Crucially, I also took a leaf from the bin and examined it with my USB microscope.


For comparison:



Looks like it is actually a kind of scale insect, a limpet-like creature which sits on plants and sucks the sap out of your poor juicy houseplants. How on earth did it get into our bathroom? The bathroom with its window mostly closed? I don't even know...

On an aside, I also wonder how many other people were induced to purchase plants on the NASA Clean Air Study list like me. Did the release of the list increase the sales of those specific plants, or are people not logical like that when it comes to their choice of houseplants?...

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Creatures of London: South London Parakeets, Hairy Hungry Caterpillars, and Medicinal Leech Barometers

I've been labouring over my remaining documentation of archives and libraries in London, but right now we interrupt my series of posts on Serious Things with a rather frivolous digression about various creatures of London, including the show-stopping Parakeets! Miraculously fluffy Caterpillars! And Giant Medicinal Leeches!

South London's Parakeet Invasion


A few weeks ago we made a merry afternoon's excursion to walk around Richmond (meandering somewhere around the rather posh residential neighbourhoods of Sheen or Mortlake), and we reached the Thames and were sitting by a tree when a rather insistent squawking began issuing forth. There weren't any birds visibly sitting in plain sight, but all of a sudden I spotted a small green face popping in and out of a small hole in the tree! It seemed both excited but also scared of us, and George took the very excellent picture you see above.

Yesterday in Lewisham (around Ladywell) whilst visiting a friend, I saw a family of about 5 green parrots flying past, squawking merrily overhead as they passed a beatific garden scene replete with summer's blooms at their peak, gentle wind chimes, and an inexplicably affectionate black cat which decided to make my lap its bed for half an hour.

After some googling it appears that wild parakeets in South London are A Thing, and no less there are several juicy theories as to why they are so plentiful in South London!

BBC2 - The Great Parakeet Invasion

The Bogart Theory is that parrots imported from Africa to be used in scenes in the Humphrey Bogart & Katharine Hepburn movie "The African Queen" (shot at Isleworth Studios in 1951) somehow escaped and began breeding in the area. The Hendrix Theory is that Jimi Hendrix released two parakeets in the 60s on Carnaby Street, but its unlikely that two birds did this all. Finally the Escape Theory is that the noisy parakeets perhaps escaped from the homes of pet owners fed up with their voiciferous nature, or maybe that they escaped from some cargo at Heathrow Customs...

In any case, apparently these birds do not go very far from where they were born so whatever the case it was humans who were responsible for letting them loose in this part of South London.

Hairy Caterpillar Season

It seems to be the peak of caterpillar and moth season around here lately. I have learnt the hard way that one must keep the shutters down at night or else the moths will roost - or should I say, roast - in your high power halogen lamps!

Here are two very hairy caterpillars I found in the neighbourhood. Both were probably soon to become moths and seeking a location suitable for its merry business of pupating, as they were found rather inadvisably crossing the pavement - so I picked them up and put them in the bushes. I also used this visual chart to identify these caterpillars...

Sycamore moth caterpillar

Buff Ermine caterpillar

I was so amused by this little fellow that I took it home whilst I googled about what type of caterpillar it was. But George said I could not have a caterpillar as a pet and I couldn't determine instantly what kind of host plant this type of caterpillar would eat, so I returned it to the bush nearest to the part of pavement I found it.

Also, if you look for information about "caterpillars in north london", you end up with various terrifying stories about poisonous caterpillars in Enfield and KILLER CATERPILLARS. And if you google for "caterpillars and snails", you'll get stories about how a small percentage of caterpillars have evolved to eat insects as well as snails.

"Meat only, please" - apparently this caterpillar won't eat its vegetables even when its starving...

Oh, the very very hungry caterpillar... they seem so misunderstood. Yet, just to be sure, lets not tempt fate by picking up hairy caterpillars with my bare hands and putting them in my snail tanks...

Merryweather's Tempest Prognosticator / Leech Barometer

Whilst strictly speaking I haven't had the pleasure of personally making the acquaintance of any delightful medicinal leeches recently, I encountered the story of the rather curious Tempest Prognosticator / Leech Barometer (aka AWARD-WINNING CUTTING EDGE VICTORIAN WEATHER PREDICTING TECHNOLOGY!) whilst looking through the Great Exhibition catalogue. Furthermore it has also occurred to me that the motion of leeches resembled that of caterpillars and snails, and I am somehow drawn towards these creatures...

So what is the leech barometer, you might ask? It consists of 12 leeches were placed individually in 12 bottles, arranged in a circle "in order that the leeches might see one another and not endure the affliction of solitary confinement". (Aw bless...) (FOR ALL YOUR BAROMETER RESTORATION NEEDS!) has an excellent doc on CARING FOR YOUR LEECHES which extols the virtues of the medicinal leech as the ideal pet. I urge you to read it if you have ever wondered to yourself "Should I acquire some medicinal leeches to be my next housepet?", or want to read of the 9 rules for reading the behaviours of leeches in bottles:

1 If the leech take up a position in the bottle’s neck, rain is at hand.
2 If he form a half-moon, when he is out of the water and sticking to the glass, sure sign of a tempest.
3 If he is continual movement, thunder and lightning soon.
4 If he seem as if trying to raise himself from the surface of the water, a change in the weather.
5 If he move slowly close to one spot, cold weather.
6 If he move rapidly about, expect strong wind when he stops.
7 If he lie coiled up on the bottom, fine, clear weather.
8 If forming a hook, clear and cold weather.
9 If in a fixed position, very cold weather is certain to follow.

I wish my snails were useful for weather prediction, for I often wonder and observe them, hoping they might be useful in divining something other than the presence of sliced cucumber in the vicinity.

Anyway, I soon became convinced that a leech might be a more suitable pet than a caterpillar, as it is apparently "low" in maintenance and reports are that a leech reportedly survived being in a cupboard for TWO YEARS. Not that I am advocating putting leeches in a jar in a dark cupboard for two years without food, but just acknowledging the extreme hardiness of the creature. I began to look for leech videos online, and promptly came across this excellent channel in which a Japanese youtuber seems to have bred some impressively gigantic medicinal leeches...

Source: spider huntsman: ペットの巨大ヒル2/My pet giant leech2

However, it soon became clear the level of total madness or sheer masochism involved in GIANT LEECH REARING. The youtuber who made these videos also notes that these gorgeous leeches got so big because they've been fed on his blood only - a touching or even charming prospect, until you read this knowledgeable commenter who bravely attempts to quantify the blood required in this procedure of keeping your bloodsucking pet alive on your blood alone:

A very good point, as shit is about to get real in the other videos...

Source: spider huntsman: ペットのヒル達/My pet leechs

Source: spider huntsman: ペットの巨大ヒル/My pet giant leech

Noooooooooooooooo I don't want to be eaten by my pet...

You will be glad to know that for the time being I have decided against having a pet leech...

Also I was worried about spider huntsman so I went to his twitter to check that he is still alive. He is still active on twitter and feeding more leeches with his arm which has healed and is not scarred or bloodied or ravaged by his army of pet leeches. He also seems to be selling a whole range of colourful and extremely beautiful horse leeches... which eat SNAILS... Noooooooooooooooo I don't want a pet which will eat my other pets...

A Visit to the Bishopsgate Institute Library

Located in a prime spot opposite Liverpool Street and on the A10, I have walked past this place countless times, with its beautiful entrance sign. Paradoxically repelled by its grand entrance (designed by late Victorian architect Charles Harrison Townsend who also famously designed the Horniman Museum and Whitechapel Gallery), I never once stepped in, having previously simply assumed it must be one of those private workingmen's clubs to which I had no business barging into.

No doubt today I only have my own ignorance to blame for my failure to investigate further into the Bishopsgate Institute earlier, but in a document about the history of the institute released on its centenary, it seems that I am not the only confused person - "It appears that the Institute had something of an identity problem in its early years; when the caretaker was interviewed in 1899, he noted that "One ingenious person entered with a pair of roller-skates in one hand and asked to be directed to the rink. On Saturday a gentleman, carrying a Gladstone bag, and with a travelling rug thrown over his arm, rushed up and asked when the train left. But the most disconcerting experience was when a young woman entered and demurely asked 'Is this a matrimonial agency?" Her disappointment was quite saddening when informed that marriages were not performed there..."

(I was so excited about being inside this place that I forgot to take interior pictures of the main reading room. It is oddly almost exactly the stereotype of the grand old public library I had in my head when I say "I'm going to the library". And in the past, so many a time have I languished around the Brick Lane area, eventually sitting in the Old Spitalfields Market wishing there was somewhere to sit and read or do something other than jostle with rushing business people in suits and angsty travellers speeding past with their angrily overweight luggages. If only someone had told me about this back then!)

Unlike many other libraries in London, no registration or proof of identity is required to come to peruse the library's books (or make use of its fine reading tables). Besides the reference library, on request it has an amazing collection of books, maps and other materials on London, the East End, labour, and activism/protests. A very enthusiastic archivist/librarian whose name I sadly didn't manage to catch showed us around and told us briefly about the history of the collection. First established as a workingmen's library for the working class in London's East End, many of the books in the collection today were the result of one librarian - Charles Goss. His unbridled collecting was not so much celebrated during his time, but he was responsible for building up the significant collections on London history, labour history, freethought and humanism whilst going on his extremely long lunch breaks and buying insane amounts of books by the wheelbarrow. (While he was with the library, he also campaigned to raise the status and pay of library staff. Also the man had a magnificent moustache...)

In the main reading room, there's a magnificent skylight which has survived the Blitz (and people throwing small rocks at it), and the original bookshelves have also survived till today - they have got little handles on the side which people could use to climb up and access books on the higher shelves by themselves. However, this useful design addition proved to be divisive for the sexes - victorian notions of women's ankles being "indecent" resulted in women asking for a separate reading room so that men would not glimpse their ankles as they climbed up using the handles and reached up for the books in a flash of prudish ankle absurdity. (I'm curious how the books were separated then between the rooms...)

The Minute Book of the First International Working Men's Association, 1866-69

Apparently the library had been consciously painted in a neutral calm colour as in the past there were concerns that the books alone being read in an excitable environment might spark some sort of mad revolt. In fact, the single most famous manuscript in the collection is the Minute Book of the First International Working Men's Association, 1866-69. The book was allegedly hailed by some as the moment of the birth of socialism, although disputably being just an ordinary meeting which just happened to be followed by an argument between George Howell and Karl Marx. (It's also got squiggles on the back, speculated to have been made by a bored notetaker). Due to the book's popularity status (even Stalin wrote to the Institute to ask to see the book!), the book was eventually deposited at the bank across the road for safe-keeping for over 20 years...

More about its archives/collections
120 Years of Events, including various lectures such Shackleton on his return from the South Pole
Horse Urine and Oysters