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The multicoloured menace

At the time, the count stood at eight species. But the 7-spot, the one and only truly archetypal ladybird, had not yet ventured in front of my camera. Small wonder, for I rarely got to see the species in the garden. Supplanted by the harlequin ladybird, its Asian nephew? In greenhouses all over the world, this extremely variable beetle, also known as the multicoloured Asian ladybird*, is deployed as a biological weapon against aphids. All Asians in my garden are the descendants of escapees. In 2001, the first harlequin ladybirds are observed in the wild in Flanders. The
following year, they turn up in the Netherlands and by 2004 they've crossed the English Channel. It's not clear whether or not and to what extent they pose a threat to native species, such as the 7-spot ladybird. By now, however, in many European gardens they are already by far the most common species. They simply reproduce faster and are also somewhat larger than their indigenous competitors. Their advance to the north appears to be unstoppable. Whatever the case, in the summer of 2010, during an umpteenth vain attempt to take a sharp and compelling photograph of
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Just in time. My very first photograph of a 7-spot ladybird.

a fluttering silver y, a good old-fashioned 7-spot lands plump on my left hand. Not hesitating one second, I merrily click away, but after only the third click the ladybird has flown. By sheer luck, one of the three snaps turns out pretty decent. Strangely enough, the following weeks I observe dozens of 7-spots in the garden, while not even a single harlequin ladybird shows itself. Only later that year, from September onwards, every now and then I once again happen upon a multicoloured Asian. Has the red, orange, yellow and black menace abated? It seems unlikely, but locally 2010 clearly was anything but a good year for the over a hundred colour varieties of this invasive exotic.

* Literally translated, this is the common Dutch name for the harlequin ladybird. In Dutch, the name harlekijnlieveheersbeestje, literally harlequin ladybird, refers to Harmonia quadripunctata, the 4-spot ladybird. Confused? Aren't we all!
Orange is the new small bluetail

The Low Countries boast two species of orangists. The first is found mainly north of Belgium, in a country that put itself on the culinary map with a handful of rather mundane cheeses, salty liquorice, partially gutted raw young herring and croquette rolls from vending machines. The second species occurs almost exclusively south of the Netherlands, in a country famed for its chocolates, beers, waffles and surreal politics. By and large, northern orangists are devoted royalists, miserly conservatives and practising Protestants. Conversely, the southern species
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Hup Holland Hup! In small bluetail circles, all fans of the Dutch national football team are females just out of the cradle.

is predominantly republican, somewhat more progressive and decidedly secular. According to most taxonomists, the southern orangist is in fact simply a Flemish-born champion of the Greater Netherlands. He or she (to my knowledge, no precise data on the sex ratio are available, but female southern orangists have hardly ever been observed) dreams of uniting the habitats of all orangists into a single continuous territory with one official language, one dominant culture and one invincible national soccer team. For better or worse, however, by the end of the previous century the species had become extremely rare. Reportedly, today, it is on the verge of extinction. The same cannot be said of the small bluetail to the left. If anything, the population of this relatively rare damselfly appears to be increasing in numbers. In the Low Countries, ever since the local disappearance of the pygmy damselfly in the 1950s, this barely 3 cm long creature is our smallest indigenous damselfly*. Newly
emerged female small bluetails are easily recognisable: they turn as conspicuously orange as half the Netherlands on Queen's Day** or during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The photograph was made a couple of days following the final in which the Dutch national team, nicknamed Oranje or Orange, was skilfully slaughtered by La Furia Española, the team of the country that happens to produce just about half of the Dutch import of oranges. Female small bluetails soon turn darker. They end up green or blue and can be hard to tell apart from other small damselflies. Males are often mistaken for the slightly larger blue-tailed damselfly, one of our most common species.

* In April 2016, the discovery of a population of pygmy damselflies in the Netherlands was announced. The exact location was kept secret.

** Up until 2013, Queen's Day was a Dutch national holiday, celebrating the monarchy under the House of Orange-Nassau. Since Queen Beatrix abdicated in favour of her son Willem-Alexander, the holiday is called King's Day. It is held on 27 April, the birthday of today's northern orangists' exalted ceremonial ribbon cutter.
Nine to twelve…

Time stands still. At any rate according to the environmental movement. For just about half my life, I've been told that it is vijf voor twaalf or five minutes to midnight, implying that we are on the brink of disaster*. Fed up with all the commotion, the meadow grasshopper in the photograph decides to take a look for itself and size up the situation. Apparently, it is not yet five but only nine minutes to twelve. Comforting? Even though I'm not losing any sleep over it, I often fear it's too late anyway. But too late for what? Admittedly, that's not exactly clear to me. Too late to halt
global warming and ward off climate catastrophe? Way back in 1990, the year of the first IPCC Assessment Report and some sixteen years prior to the release of An Inconvenient Truth, I purchased and read two books on the enhanced or anthropogenic greenhouse effect: The End of Nature by Bill McKibben and Dead Heat: The Race against the Greenhouse Effect by Michael Oppenheimer and Robert H. Boyle. The message was clear: The end is near, unless we change course and radically reconsider our way of life. We haven't, of course, and we won't. No we can't! Twenty years on, the end is so near you can almost touch it. Or is it? In hindsight, both alarming books gravely overestimated both the expected global warming and its negative consequences. Simply a matter of finding an audience? I grant the authors the benefit of the doubt, but impending Armageddon always sells better than deadly dull, careful predictions based exclusively on
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Five minutes to twelve? This meadow grasshopper knows better!

trusted data and repeatedly tested models. Meanwhile, I'm afraid the ongoing debate on global warming, which I still follow with great interest, is basically a gigantic waste of precious time, means and energy. Is the planet really warming up? If so, is that mainly due to an enhanced greenhouse effect? Are increasing anthropogenic emissions of CO2, CH4 and other greenhouse gases to blame for that? Will the resulting climate change cause more natural disasters, famines and other calamities? Even if all that is true, global warming is still not a problem in itself, but only one of the many consequences of a problem we really can do something about. It's the overpopulation, stupid!

* Actually, ever since January 2015, the Doomsday Clock stands at three minutes to midnight.
Drama on red leaf lettuce

In Dutch it is called Amerikaanse roodrand or, literally translated, American red-rim. It is my favourite cultivar of leaf lettuce. It does not produce a cabbage-like head and has slightly scalloped red and green leaves. On American websites, look-alikes are often simply referred to as red leaf lettuce, but so are many lettuce varieties that are manifestly different. Less tender than butter lettuce and not as crispy as iceberg lettuce, it is at least as tasty and
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The victim could not be identified, but the perpetrator is Machimus atricapillus, commonly known as the kite-tailed robberfly.

far easier to grow. Early each new vegetable garden season, usually around the middle of March, I sow about four metres of American red-rim, more often than not in two rows that are 30 cm apart. I thin the seedlings to approximately the same distance, taking care to select only strong and healthy looking ones. Until well into August, fourteen hefty plants is all it takes to provide a small family with fresh lettuce on a regular basis. Pick only the lower leaves, gradually working your way up the stem, which can easily reach a height of up to a metre. The colourful plants eventually produce small but lovely
yellow flowers. Besides adding a decorative touch to our kitchen garden, the large knobbly leaves also offer shelter to spiders, harvestmen and countless insects. One of the regular guests is Machimus atricapillus, a profusely moustached robberfly that uses the lettuce both as an observation post and a dinner table. It catches its prey, mostly other flies, on the wing and literally sucks the life juices out of it. Its white larvae spend the winter in the soil and are reputed to be no less ferocious.
Counting the blues

Gossamer-winged butterflies or Lycaenidae are a family of relatively small to medium-sized butterflies, including blues, coppers and hairstreaks. Worldwide, the family comprises some six thousand species, which amounts to about forty percent of all known day-active Lepidoptera*. In Dutch, the family is often simply referred to as blauwtjes or blues. Rather confusing, since the same common name is used for the subfamily Polyommatinae, just
like in English. Of the sixteen species of indigenous gossamer-winged butterflies observed in Flanders in the previous century, two are extinct. According to the Flemish Red List nine species are either critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable or rare. Of one species, the white-letter hairstreak, the status could not be evaluated, but in recent years it has only been observed in the vicinity of Brussels. Currently, only four of the fourteen species still present in Flanders appear to be safe. Of those, three are common in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat: the common blue, the holly blue and the small copper. One day, I also observed and photographed the vulnerable brown argus. In the Netherlands, in spite of the reintroduction of the scarce large blue and the dusky large blue near Den Bosch (1990), the family isn't doing any better. According to the Dutch Red List ten native species are either extinct or critically endangered. Three species are endangered, one is vulnerable and two are near threatened. Only the quartet
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The caterpillars of many butterfly species are monophagous. Those of the holly blue are less fussy and have a sweet tooth for at least twelve different host plants.

that is still common in Flanders is considered to be safe in the Netherlands too. In sum, in the Low Countries these are extremely hard times for the family of gossamer-winged butterflies and many other day-active Lepidoptera. Not counting vagrants and migratory butterflies, such as the red admiral and the painted lady, both in the Netherlands and in Flanders only 23 species of native butterflies are not in any way threatened. However, notwithstanding many efforts to turn the tide, even some of these species are clearly in decline.

* Give or take a couple of thousand species and ten percent or so. The family's a bit of a taxonomic mess and currently under revision.
Long may they hover!

The Belgian Species List includes eleven species of Sphaerophoria, a genus of hoverflies with remarkably long and narrow bodies. When you never get to see one of them in your garden, it must be about as boring as the first few chapters of the Book of Numbers or as dead as the silence following a dirty joke about the Prophet during Friday
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Very likely a long hoverfly and certainly a female.

prayer in a Wahhabi mosque. A weed free, closely cropped lawn enclosed by a neatly trimmed conifer hedge, for instance. A single common dandelion in flower and, rather sooner than later, a Sphaerophorid hoverfly will land on it. The specimen in the photograph is clearly a female: Its eyes do not touch in the middle and its body is far less cylindrical than the stick-like male abdomen. The yellow, black and sometimes orange patterns of all Sphaerophorid hoverflies are highly variable, which makes it next to impossible to identify them to species level from a photograph. The sole
exception are male long hoverflies, a very common garden species. Their wings are markedly shorter than their barrel-shaped bodies. When I took the photograph, numerous males of this species were hovering about. So it's a fair chance that the portrayed female is a long hoverfly too.
Smile, you're on camera!

It's terribly hard to look at the portrait of this common darter without almost immediately finding the creature in question rather sympathetic. That's because the dragonfly appears to be smiling. Almost a smiley! Of course, this does not say anything whatsoever about the disposition of the animal – the exoskeleton of insects precludes facial expressions – and everything about your own. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin
maintains that most facial expressions and certainly smiles are not learnt but innate. This explains why we all recognise them and why they have more or less the same meaning in all cultures. Most people are even perfectly capable of distinguishing a genuine smile from a fake one, such as the smile of a salesgirl in a fashion boutique kindly asking if you are being served. Nevertheless, we still prefer such a clearly artificial smile to a neutral, let alone a surly face. Why are most people so fond of dolphins? Because they always appear to be smiling, even when on the verge of drowning, entangled in one of those giant gillnets. I don't know if it has ever been researched, but it wouldn't come as a surprise to me if, on average, people with naturally drooping mouth corners turned out to have less friends, less nice jobs and lower incomes. It certainly seems telling that, in the beauty industry, mouth corner corrections are quite popular. Say cheese! the
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Wear a smile and have friends; wear a scowl and have wrinkles. (George Eliot)

photographer shouts. So why, of all people, do fashion models hardly ever smile, certainly not while on the catwalk? Are they famished? Do their high heels pinch? Are they dying for their next line of coke? According to insiders, it is because smiles are so irresistible that nobody would notice the clothes. According to outsiders, in most cases that would actually be a good thing. I have no idea who Lee Mildon is or was, but numerous websites attribute the following witticism to him or her: "People seldom notice old clothes if you wear a big smile." A bit corny, but still. And apparently it goes for new clothes too.
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Geraardsbergen, 5 Februari 2011.
Latest revision: 28 August 2016.