Stacks Image 139
Stacks Image 153
Stacks Image 157
At daggers drawn

The grey dagger (Acronicta psi) is the spitting image of the dark dagger (Acronicta tridens). According to most sources, identification of these moths to species level involves minute examination of their genitalia. Since this requires killing them, I do not even consider taking a stab at it. Both species owe their scientific and common
names to the dagger-shaped markings on their wings that resemble the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet: psi or ψ. This character is also the symbol of the planet Neptune, named after the Roman god of the seas, who unleashed or averted tempests using his fishing spear or trident. There are several other species of moths that owe their name to a Greek letter and are often rather hard to identify, such as the plain golden Y (Autographa jota), the silver Y (Autographa gamma), the ni moth (Trichoplusia ni), the grey chi (Antitype chi) and Eugraphe sigma. The latter is found in most of Europe, but not in the British Isles, which probably explains why it does not have a common name in English. Anyway, when something looks like a grey dagger, flies like a grey dagger and lives like a grey dagger, chances are that it is really a dark dagger. One look at their respective caterpillars, however, is enough to ascertain that they truly are two separate species. Unlike the adult
Stacks Image 190

Unmistakably the caterpillar of a grey dagger.

moths, their larvae do not resemble each other at all. The specimen in the photograph to the right is without doubt a grey dagger caterpillar. I capture it on 10 October 2010 on the patio by the garden pond. Presumably searching for a suitable place to pupate, the caterpillar climbs up the table and subsequently treats me to a fascinating ten-minute demonstration of artistic gymnastics. An open pack of Rizla Blue Regular Double, my favourite brand of cigarette paper for over thirty-five years, serves it as balance beam and horizontal bar. In Flanders and the Netherlands, both the grey and the dark dagger are very common moths. That is not the case for the large dagger (Acronicta cuspis), a closely related species that is somewhat larger and extremely rare.
Politically correct lily

Some species seem to change identity more often than some men change their underwear. These days, for instance, the perennial formerly known as Schizostylis coccinea should only be addressed as Hesperantha coccinea. Since it was the only Schizostylis species, its new identity entailed the demise of an entire flowering plant genus. Not only does it listen to a new botanical name, its old common name is gradually becoming obsolete too. In South Africa, its country of origin, the kafferlelie or kaffir lily is now called rooirivierlelie in Afrikaans or river lily in
Stacks Image 221

The river lily 'Mrs. Hegarty' is a pink cultivar of what used to be called a kaffir lily.

English. That's because, today, the word kaffer or kaffir is considered an ethnophaulism, the use of which is widely disapproved of. Strange as it may sound, the word is actually derived from Arabic and originally meant 'unbeliever', 'pagan', 'atheist' or even simply 'non-Muslim'. Apparently, Portuguese explorers that picked up the word kaffir from Islamic traders thought it only referred to the black African peoples they encountered from the 15th century onwards. Later, both Dutch and British navigators and colonists adopted the word, which at the time was still neutral. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that it acquired negative connotations to finally become a racist term of abuse. According to some sources it is also the origin of the Dutch verb uitkafferen (to scold) and the Dutch noun keffer (a small yapping dog). In my opinion, however, the latter is probably onomatopoeic in origin, while the first is more than likely derived from the word kafri, which is Hebrew for a country dweller, farmer or yokel. Both Arabic and Hebrew are Chinese to me, but I can't help noticing that the words kaffir and kafri are very similar indeed. It would be truly ironic if it turned out that the South African Boers that scolded their dark-skinned neighbours for being kaffers were actually kaffirs themselves. To many of my Arabic speaking fellow human beings, of course, as an atheist, I myself am a despicable kaffir too. Perhaps that's why I rather regret the fact that the red and pink kaffir lilies that I've planted in the garden years ago, are now going through life as red and pink river lilies. Today, in large parts of Europe, these exotics are very popular waterside perennials, if
only because in our climate they tend to start flowering just when most other pond plants are past their prime: from mid-September to late autumn. It often snows before the last river lily fades. Various sources claim the species isn't truly winter-hardy and recommend protecting it with a layer of dead leaves. In the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat, the large-leaved linden next to the pond takes care of that. Whatever the case, the river lilies are thriving and don't seem to mind my secretly calling them kaffir lilies at all. Incidentally, I am still fond of the sweets that Flemish people call negress's tits and nun's buttocks or, as our politically somewhat less incorrect Dutch neighbours say, negro kisses and – it really shouldn't get any more boring – old-fashioned, white and pink marshmallows.
Like snow and fire

I've never seen one before. I've never even heard of them. But in June 1997, when we move from the city of Ghent into our new home in a rural part of Geraardsbergen, the firebugs in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat instantly catch my eye. They gather on the trunks of the large-leaved linden and the silver birches or on the outer walls and windows of the house, often in their dozens and always in the sun. Inadvertently stumbling across a wriggling
tangle of these red and black insects can be quite unnerving. But they are totally innocent and rarely venture indoors. Best leave them alone. Throughout the winter, when there are hardly any other insects to be found in the garden, the firebugs remain active. A ray of watery sunlight on the wooden walls of the shed is all it takes for them to rally in numbers. Small wonder they play a leading role in quite a few episodes of Garden Soap: There simply are no other insects that I get to observe so often and in every season. Interestingly, the species produces an anti-bacterial substance that may one day
Stacks Image 260

Firebugs remain active throughout the year. They love sunbathing, but don't mind a bit of snow.

be used as an antibiotic, perhaps even to treat MRSA infections. Pyrrhocorin, the peptide in question, kills bacteria and is now known to protect several species of true bugs against bacterial infections. The substance was discovered in Philadelphia, around the turn of the century, by a team of scientists led by professor Laszlo Otvos Jr. The team has since developed and tested several synthetic analogues and, reportedly, the first results are very promising. In a day and age where scientific research is heavily dependent on fundraising, however, first results nearly always are. So I wouldn't hold my breath.
Sleeping beauty

I am pleasantly surprised when, in the first spring after its construction, I already discover two species of newts in the garden pond: the palmate newt and the slightly larger common or smooth newt. Not bad at all, especially since only five species of salamanders are native to the Low Countries. Sooner or later, alpine newts – actually the most common newt in the region – should turn up at 37 Heuvelstraat too. The northern crested newt, also known as the great crested or warty newt, is very rare in both Flanders and the Netherlands. Consequently, the chances of this up to 17 cm long amphibian ever turning up in the pond are exceedingly slim. The fifth species, the impressive fire
Stacks Image 291

In captivity, smooth newts can live for up to 20 years or more.

salamander, is the only one that is not semi-aquatic. Unlike the newts, it spends its entire adult life on land. In the Netherlands, fire salamanders are only found in the region known as South Limburg. In Flanders, by far their most important habitats are the hilly deciduous forests of the Flemish Ardennes. That's where I live, but since fire salamanders are devoted forest-dwellers, they won't even play a supporting role in this Garden Soap. The specimen in the photograph is almost certainly a juvenile smooth newt. (Hybrids of smooth and palmate newts have been found in the wild,
which rather complicates matters.) I accidentally discover the little creature, more than likely born in the pond, hiding under a rock that I regularly turn over to observe the development of a clutch of slug eggs. The photo dates from end-September 2009. It's pretty cold that day and the animal appears to be in dormancy. Newts do not truly hibernate and come out of dormancy as soon as temperatures permit. In 2011, I observe the first newt in the pond on 17 January. A fortnight later, the pond is frozen over again.
Painfully magpie-eyed

Corns. I don't have them, but sadly my wife does. Poor thing! Judging by her grimaces, corns can be very painful indeed. But what truly intrigues me are some of the most common words for them in Dutch, German and French. As far as I know, English has no good synonyms for 'corn', at least not for the kind one wouldn't dream of
consuming. Apparently, the word is derived from cornu, the Latin word for 'horn'. Literally translated, both in Dutch and in German corns are called 'corpse-thorns' (likdoorns; Leichdornen). What's really puzzling, however, are the synonyms for 'corn' that refer to the eye of a crow (Krähenauge in German), the eye of a partridge (Hühnerauge or œil-de-perdrix in German and French), and the eye of a magpie (Elsternauge or Eksteroog in German and Dutch). Admittedly, the edge of a tiny fraction of the corns that can be admired in all their glory on the World Wide Web is slightly reminiscent of a bird's eye-ring. But the eye itself is missing. In fact, the corns in question look rather like craters. They are not convex, but concave. Not ball-shaped, but cup-shaped. Not an eye, but a hideous empty eye-socket. Nevertheless, the age-old association between corns and crows or magpies in German and Dutch can hardly be a coincidence. For one, both birds do have a piercing look and a badass reputation. Moreover, they are notorious, generally loathed scavengers. To date, except for the far less common jay, crows and magpies are the only corvids in the garden. But while all the crows are regular guests, at least some of the magpies are breeding residents. The specimen in the photograph is a newly fledged youngster, captured just a few seconds after a rather clumsy belly landing on the dewy grass of the chicken run. Laying flat on my stomach, manually focussing through the mesh fence and the grass blades, I try to get a clear shot. Unlike its parents, meanwhile going berserk and making a racket
Stacks Image 330

Eye to eye with a newly fledged magpie.

high up in a nearby cherry tree, the chick doesn't appear to be shy at all. Quite the contrary! It stumbles towards me, looking both curiously and slightly aggrieved. Perhaps it is attracted by the telephoto lens. After all, the story that magpies have the same weakness for bling as your average gangsta rapper isn't just hogwash. I take only one photo and make myself scarce. When I turn around, some ten meters from the scene, the parents have already joined the reckless rascal. They will keep a magpie's eye on it for six to eight weeks longer.
When birders put the cat among the pigeons…

I've just finished Freedom, the bestseller by the American novelist Jonathan Franzen. Highly recommended, even if I struggled to suspend my disbelief once too often and found the finale a bit of a letdown. Walter Berglund, one of the novel's main characters, loves birds and hates cats, both with a passion. In his opinion, cats simply do not belong in the Americas. In the United States alone, on a yearly basis, cats are said to be responsible for the premature deaths of at least 365 million adult songbirds and countless chicks. Bird vet and parrot behaviour therapist Jan Hooimeijer, until the end of 2013 owner of the Bird Hospital in Meppel (the Netherlands), is adamant: every free-roaming cat is one too many. He advocates a ban on cat flaps and a legal obligation for cat owners to keep their pet indoors. Outdoor kennels are okay, but when your compulsory microchipped cat escapes, you risk a fine. Bigoted busy-bodying? Certainly, but that does not detract from the fact that many of Dr Hooimeijer's arguments are perfectly valid. Why shouldn't cats and cat owners be subjected to the same rules as dogs and dog owners? True, one rarely or never reads about a toddler being viciously mauled by a roaming cat. But many people do end up in hospital with severely infected scratches or bite wounds requiring treatment with strong antibiotics. Cats are invasive exotic predators, originally imported from Africa and the Near East. They are serial
Stacks Image 361

Who trusted God was love indeed – And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw – With ravine, shriek'd against his creed
(Alfred Tennyson)

killers, ruthlessly butchering native birds, rodents, reptiles, amphibians and even insects just for the fun of it. Moreover, they can spread rabies and infect humans and other animals with dangerous parasites like Toxoplasma gondii and Toxoplasma cati. There are plenty of reasons to join in the choir and start chanting Cats in Kennels! (Canada) or Cats Indoors! (USA). Beating one's head against a stone wall, however, one is soon accused of being a raving lunatic. Small wonder Jan Hooimeijer runs up against the exact same bewilderment and outrage as Walter Berglund in Freedom and any organization that campaigns
for a legal prohibition on free-roaming cats. Passions are aroused, emotions run high, and before you know it the debate degenerates into a vulgar slanging-match with foolish remonstrations and mutual threats. Notwithstanding the fact that many pet cats are actually lousy hunters, barely able to catch a slug, there's really no denying that, as a species, cats cause carnage. The results of studies on the impact of free-roaming and feral cats on biodiversity and populations of native species, however, are far from univocal. All I know is that, in spite of the daily (and nightly) raids of some five murderous neighbourhood cats, bird populations in our garden are actually increasing. Of course, that doesn't prove anything. Year by year, the garden simply becomes more animal-friendly and offers birds more food, shelter and safe nesting places. Even though they are allowed and even encouraged to explore the garden, Moke and Lieske, our adopted shelter cats, rarely venture outdoors. Together, in two years time, they have killed three shrews and one newly fledged blackbird. All the other birds they got their claws on were sparrows and finches that crashed into one of the reflective windows of the house. The greater white-toothed shrew in the photograph fell victim to Lieske. Anyhow, it seems unlikely that birders and cat lovers will ever hit it off. One thing's for sure: the day a ban on letting cats outdoors is imposed, is the very day I'll stop keeping them. After all, you wouldn't keep a parrot under lock and key either, would you now?
Double insulation

In the second episode of Garden Soap, you will be introduced to Mrs Five Legs, a severely handicapped wasp spider that nevertheless cheerfully weaves her way through life. Now there's something I can relate to. My wife and both our children are visually impaired. Our daughter-in-law has bad hearing and our grandchildren have bad
manners. (Just kidding, Stijn and Naomi!) As for me, while I vote and dress left, I'm practically deaf on that side now and hard of hearing on the other. Oh well, one learns to live with it. Take Mrs Five Legs. In spite of missing 37.5 percent of her limbs, she still manages to weave a splendid web and catch prey. Quite impressive! She very nearly succeeds in producing offspring too. She spins a perfect egg cocoon, which she guards for several days. Then she disappears. Two weeks later, on 20 September 2010, I witness a male blackbird snatching the cocoon from between the pond vegetation and furiously
Stacks Image 400

The eggs of a wasp spider are double insulated. The egg sack in the photograph sits in the much larger cocoon that is typical of the species.

pecking at it. As I close in, the rascal flies off, sounding its alarm call. I pick up the badly damaged cocoon only to find it completely empty. Not an egg to be seen. Gobbled up, I imagine. Then, some ten centimetres from the crime scene, I spot a much smaller cocoon. I take it inside, carefully open it and uncover a tightly packed bunch of orange-yellow eggs. Apparently, the conspicuously large cocoon of a wasp spider is more like a breeding chamber that protects the real egg sack and offers the spiderlings a cosy place to safely spend the winter. Unless a blackbird decides otherwise…
Comment on this episode

If this is your first visit to 37 Heuvelstraat, please take some time to explore the site and sign the Guestbook. See you around!
(Comments on the Dutch and English versions of the site are merged. Feel free to comment in French or German. I may, however, respond in English.)
Geraardsbergen, 5 Februari 2011.
Latest revision: 5 Februari 2011.