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Stick 'em up! This is a robbery!

Moke and Lieske, our adopted shelter cats, are anything but formidable hunters. Their favourite prey are blowflies, damselflies and snout moths with scorched wings. On a warm night in May, Moke may pluck a cockchafer or two out of the air. Lieske can't be bothered. She also shows no interest whatsoever in the grasshoppers that fascinate her high-strung brother. Instead, she assiduously applies herself to hunting shrews. For hours on end, she patiently guards the entrance to a shrew tunnel. Then, suddenly, she strikes out. But not exactly like lightning. In fact, I've seen slugs with better reflexes. It's almost a miracle that, from time to time, she actually manages to catch a shrew. In most cases, the poor thing is either an ingenuous youngster or getting a bit long in the tooth. Definitely not the Usain Bolt of its species. The only relatively large prey neither brother nor sister can resist, are frogs. As
befits well-mannered domestic cats, they always bring them home, alive and well. Consequently, in the kitchen, the living room or on the covered patio by the garden pond, we regularly come upon a hapless croaker in a tight spot. It always concerns a common frog, and we always find the pitiful creature exhibiting the same weird posture: motionless, flat on its stomach, forelegs held high. Like a schoolgirl in a cinema watching a particularly gruesome scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street, it will often cover its eyes. Herpetologists call this posture the unkenreflex, from
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A common frog demonstrates a partial unkenreflex on camera.

Unken, the German common name for Bombina, a genus in the family of fire-bellied toads. Whenever they feel threatened, these toads will hold their forepaws well above their heads, hoping their brightly coloured throats and bellies will scare off any assailants. This defence mechanism has been observed in many species of toads, frogs, newts and salamanders. It appears to be pretty effective. The fact that common frogs will often exhibit similar behaviour, however, is still a bit puzzling. They don't have any warning colours and make no attempt at flashing their throats or bellies. Many herpetologists refer to the posture as only a partial unkenreflex. Mesmerized, our cats stand by and watch, obviously somewhat apprehensive. A stay of execution? Probably, but we always arrive on the crime scene well in time to rescue the frog from its predicament. Partial or not, the unkenreflex saves its skin.
How many legs does a spider have?

Far too many, at least according to my wife and millions of other more or less arachnophobic bipedal great apes. It's a classic question even many preschoolers can confidently answer. But ask adults, and you can bet your boots that at least a quarter of them haven't got a clue. That's odd, since spiders lurk truly everywhere and their legs are generally by far their most eye-catching bodily parts. Apparently, their fear of spiders is so intense that many
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Out in the open, risking life and limb.

people simply can't bear to take a good look at them. Even a photograph of a spider instantly makes their flesh creep. No doubt, referring to the dawn of our species in a less than hospitable environment, evolutionary psychologists can perfectly explain this phenomenon. Fine, but much good it does the totally harmless house, kitchen and garden spiders in my part of today's world. They are being vacuumed up, squashed flat and swatted away to the eternal hunting grounds, relentlessly and in inconceivable numbers. For obvious reasons, we believe that two legs is the standard all creatures should aspire to. Four legs tenderly remind us of a rug rat in a romper. Six are already two too many, but we don't want to make a fuss. We're not that bigoted, are we? But eight? No, that's way over! It is clear evidence of manifest impertinence. Of all the cheek! So we reach for the cobweb brush, the vacuum cleaner or the fly swatter. Or we call in our fearless, cold-blooded
consort. How does one impress an arachnophobic young lady with a WWF membership? By carefully and bare-handed picking a giant house spider off of her bathroom tiles and heroically releasing it in the garden. Of course, one does not tell her that, outdoors, the disorientated animal doesn't stand a chance in hell and will probably soon end up in the stomach of a blue tit or another spider-catcher. In the summer of 2010, when I discover a five-legged wasp spider in the garden pond border, I once again realize just how under-endowed in the limb department us mammals really are. It's a rough deal. Mrs Five Legs is three legs short, but doesn't seem to mind. She is, as I soon find out, anything but disabled.
Old and weary…

Remove three quarters of a human liver, and the organ will spontaneously grow back to its normal size. (Don't try this at home!) Sadly, the regenerative power of most other human organs leaves much to be desired. The same is true of all our limbs and extremities. Chop someone's arm off, and it's lost forever. Not even a barrel of holy Lourdes water will induce recovery. Cancerous tumours miraculously melt away, but amputated limbs never grow
back. Once in a blue moon, a lost fingertip will regenerate, but only in very young children. Not a prayer in hell for teens. Ever since most newspapers replaced real journalists by copy-pasting beardless nincompoops making farts in the Sahara sound like Swiss alphorn concerts, they regularly feature stories about pig's bladder extracts and other panaceas that supposedly stimulate the regeneration of lost appendages, like fingers or toes. Bullshit, of course, but how eagerly the public gobbles it all up. When none of the bands on the line-up of a summer rock festival you used to attend rings a bell, you know you are getting on in years. Another sure sign of senescence is the time it takes for burns, grazes and cuts to heal. I was barely eighteen when I first noticed that it took my body much longer to repair superficial wounds. Over thirty years on, recovery often takes several months. Spells trouble! Meanwhile, I find some solace in the fact that even the much-vaunted
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Strapping lady outstrips reckless damsel.

regenerative powers of most spiders are not unlimited. Mrs Five Legs has grown old and weary. Already an adult, she will never moult again and will have to spend the rest of her short life on five legs. Fortunately, that is all it takes to weave a perfect web and catch hearty prey. Two days after the damselfly, a grasshopper jumps into the newly repaired web. Within seconds it too is immobilized and gift wrapped. Mrs Five Legs sure knows the ropes.
Unidentified flying Dalmatian

It's always exciting to discover a new species in the garden. On 28 July 2010, I photograph this lovely small moth on the leaf of a garden pond plant. The distinct pattern of black dots on its white wings persuades me into thinking that it will be child's play to identify the species. Boy, am I ever wrong! I soon find out that it concerns an ermine
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A bird-cherry ermine moth? Possibly, but it could also be one of four other indigenous flying Dalmatians.

moth of the genus Yponomeuta. Worldwide, this genus includes just over one hundred species, but in Belgium and the Netherlands, depending on the source, only eight or nine of them occur. The trouble is they all look so similar that it is often impossible to distinguish them with the naked eye. Nevertheless, of the eight indigenous Yponomeuta species on Microlepidoptera.nl, I can immediately rule out three: Y. irrorella, Y. plumbella and Y. sedella. Five to go! But even experts can't tell the apple and willow ermine moths apart, at least not in the field. The spindle, orchard and bird-cherry ermine moths are also so similar that I can't rule out a single one of them. I'm only an amateur after all. Most of these moths owe their name to the favourite food of their often extremely finicky caterpillars, but since four of the five host plants grow in the garden that's not much help either. Only willow trees are missing, but there are some very old ones in the meadows just across the road from 37 Heuvelstraat. A
hopeless case? Afraid so, but I'm still thrilled with my very first Yponomeuta. Besides, I now know what distinguishing features to watch out for. Looking forward to a subsequent encounter with one of these perplexing flying Dalmations, I promptly set out to take a closer look at the specimen by the garden pond. But, to quote Woody Allen: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans."
Let the first not be the last

Armed with my trusted camera and my newly acquired knowledge of ermine moths of the genus Yponomeuta, I once again set forth into the garden. But the bird has flown. Then, right next to the pond plant my flying Dalmatian was resting on, I spot a tiny damselfly with an exceptionally large prey. Well fuck me backwards with a barge pole! My camera at the ready, I sneak up on it, but just before I press the shoot button, the damselfly bites off the white wings of what clearly used to be a moth. I won't swear to it – eyewitnesses are rarely reliable, especially not when they are an involved party – but I'm convinced that I am observing the metamorphosis of my unidentified ermine
moth into a small bluetail's lunch. Just my rotten luck, though I suppose I should in fact be grateful. For no matter how beautiful and captivating these moths may be, their ravenous caterpillars have a bad reputation. In spring, they often appear en masse. They devour their host plants, wrapping up entire trees and even cars in their frass-filled communal silk webs. Not a pretty sight, but it doesn't do much harm and most host plants will survive the onslaught. Of course, when the caterpillars invade a fruit tree, there won't be much to harvest. Small wonder commercial fruit growers control species like
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I firmly believe that I saw some incriminating black dots just before this small bluetail bit off the white wings of its prey.

the apple ermine moth and its caterpillars with all legal, fortunately often nontoxic or comparatively innocent means at their disposal. The caterpillars can be a great nuisance, but not in my garden. Are these moths locally scarce or do the great and blue tits that forage and breed in the garden keep their caterpillars in check? Perhaps the bats that skim the orchard at dusk catch most of them. Whatever the case, I've never seen a web teaming with ermine moth caterpillars here and, to date, my first sighting of an ermine moth was also my last*. A pity, since research by Dutch biologists shows that these small creatures are actually quite interesting and can teach us a lot about evolution and speciation.

* In the summer of 2013, at the back of the garden, a hawthorn shrub was infested with caterpillars of the hawthorn moth, another ermine moth. The next year, by the end of May, I discovered and removed some webs with apple ermine caterpillars in one of our apple trees.
Eros and Thanatos

Love and Death. It could be the title of a three inch thick Russian novel teeming with exalted Ivanovas and tormented Ivanoviches. Pyramus and Thisbe, Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet: How strange that, of all people, these rather oafish, utterly inexperienced and more often than not annoyingly lachrymose adolescents have become the icons of Love with a capital L. After all, before long their all-consuming passion turns into a spine-chilling drama with a tragic denouement. What's so romantic about prematurely and perfectly pointlessly dying in each other's arms? Imagine the Montagues and Capulets burying the hatchet in a timely manner. Romeo and
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For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
(William Shakespeare)

Juliet are ceremoniously joined in matrimony, have kids and live tolerably unhappily ever after. When Romeo breaks into a serenade, it is beneath the balcony of his mistress twenty years younger. Meanwhile, Juliet seeks and finds comfort in the arms of her confessor, Romeo's best friend's canopy bed and gallons of amaretto. Surely, there's a novel in that. Love does not only drive humans to madness, it also incites other animals to energy wasting, somewhat ridiculous and risky behaviour. Take, for instance, those remarkable, often conspicuously heart-shaped mating wheels, typical of
most damselflies. Charming? Not when you know that it actually concerns a savage rape that often lasts for several hours. The villainous males are even equipped with a brush-like scoop that allows them to remove the sperm of the preceding sex delinquent. Of course, forming a mating wheel is fraught with risk. Safe and accurate flying is next to impossible, and before you know it, you may well end up in the web of a merciless cross orb-weaver. That's exactly what happened to the small bluetails in the photograph. The male is already dead. The female is still struggling, trying to escape. To no avail. Five minutes later, the spider hauls the firmly wrapped twosome into her robber's den. Saving it for a rainy day.
A plea for the Red Crystal

Scaeva pyrastri owes both its English and Dutch common names to the creamy-white bars on the upper side of its otherwise pitch-black abdomen. In English it is called the pied hoverfly, which makes perfect sense. In Dutch, however, it is known as the witte halvemaanzweefvlieg or white half moon hoverfly. Now that doesn't make sense at all. After all, it is only half moon when you can see just about half a full moon or a quarter of the Moon's surface. To me, the markings on the abdomen of this hoverfly are more reminiscent of some sanitary towels or panty liners than of the Moon in its first or last quarter. No, I do not propose to rename the creature and start calling it the white menstrual pad hoverfly, but the white sickle or crescent moon hoverfly would have been more apt. For exactly the same reason, it has always bothered me that, in Dutch, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross is called the Rode Halvemaan or Red Half Moon. The cross is a cross, but the half moon is clearly not a half moon: It is either a waxing or a waning crescent, depending on whether you observe the Moon from the northern or the southern hemisphere. The most obvious Dutch names for the organization would have been the Rode Sikkel, Rode Maansikkel or even Rode Sikkelmaan (Red Sickle, Red Moon Sickle or Red Sickle Moon). But perhaps that would have been all too reminiscent of the crossed red hammer and sickle, the communist symbol that makes its
debut during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Red Crescent emblem is officially adopted in 1929, over fifty years after its first appearance in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and sixty-six years after the foundation of the International Red Cross in Geneva. To the Ottomans, the cross is the symbol of Christianity. In addition, the red cross on a white background is reminiscent of the tunics of the Templars and other crusaders. Red Cross founder Henry Dunant, who was awarded the very first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, insists that he simply reversed the colours of his home country's national flag. In 1815, in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, the European superpowers of the day officially recognize the eternal neutrality of Switzerland. For a country that – with the exception of a couple of megalomaniacs like Hannibal, Charlemagne and Napoleon Bonaparte – every sensible commander will tiptoe around, it takes little effort to maintain that status. By its own account, choosing an inverted Swiss flag as its emblem emphasizes the neutrality of
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While many flies in the garden are hard to identify, Scaeva pyrastri can only be confused with its cousin Scaeva selenitica (which has yellow markings) and a couple of other, usually smaller hoverflies with white or yellow comma-shaped spots.

the Red Cross organization. Quite understandably, the Turks don't buy that and, dropping the star, reverse the colours of their own national flag. The Persians like the idea, but since they loath the Turks, they go for the red lion and sun. This emblem – imagine having to paint that on an army ambulance or the canvas of a field hospital tent! – is also officially recognized in 1929. Then there were three. In 1949, the emblem of Magen David Adom, Israel's first aid and disaster relief organization, comes very close to joining the trio. By ultimately rejecting the Red Star of David – as well as the Red Swastika, the Red Rhino, the Red Flame, the Red Lamb and all other new candidates – the organization implicitly admits that its initial choice of a red cross was a capital marketing blunder. Like misfortunes, such blunders never come singly.

After officially adopting both the Red Crescent and the Red Lion and Sun (which, in 1980, Iran's ayatollahs swap for the Red Crescent), the organization can't come up with a single sensible argument for rejecting the Red Star of David and any other religiously or nationalistically tinged emblems. The fact that Magen David Adom is not allowed to join the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is obviously discrimination. Trying to steer a
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middle course, righting a wrong with another wrong, the organization also excludes the Palestine Red Crescent, founded in 1968. That should keep the synagogue, the mosque and the church happy. It doesn't, of course. Under pressure from the United States – the American Red Cross withholds over 40 million dollars in contributions – the organization seeks a way out of the impasse. In December 2005, a brand-new, fully neutral and unclaimed emblem is proposed and officially adopted: the Red Crystal, also known as the Red Lozenge or Red Diamond. It concerns a red square on a white background, resting on one of its four corners, into which a recognized national symbol may be incorporated. The very next year, together with the Palestine Red Crescent, Magen David Adom finally becomes a full member. In Israel, they are allowed to use the Red Star of David. On foreign missions, however, they have to use one of the four internationally recognized emblems: the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, the Red Lion and Sun or the Red Crystal. Problem solved? Not really. Over ten years after the official recognition of the Red Crystal, the new emblem is still a noble stranger. Small wonder, for it is just about as prevalent as polar bears in the Antarctic. One never gets to see it. When a company launches a new logo, it abolishes the old one and invests heavily in its communication, visibility, recognition and prestige. But the Red Crystal is not promoted. Even worse, the three old emblems, one of which hasn't been used for over thirty years, are simply retained. When, exceptionally, a Red Crystal would turn up in a conflict zone, the warring parties would probably use it for target practice. Of course, both the Red Cross and the Red Crescent are very strong brands. Abolishing their logos from one day to the next would not be a good idea. But why not simply incorporate them into the Red Crystal? That way, everybody would soon get used to the new emblem. It would be exceptionally visible, omnipresent and a clear affirmation of both the unity and the neutrality of the organization. Before long, nobody would still talk about either the Red Cross or the Red Crescent, but only about the Red Crystal. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement would become the International Red Crystal Movement. Sounds better and isn't abhorrent to Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians and all other adherents of a delusion that is neither Christian nor Islamic. Even Pastafarians and
atheists could easily reconcile themselves to it. But no. Instead of rectifying the Eurocentric blunder of its founder once and for all, the organization prefers to erect an extra floor on top of an already shaky edifice. Since the foundations are weak, sooner or later it will collapse. But perhaps it is not too late yet. Perhaps regional and local divisions of small, democratic and pluralistic countries like Belgium or the Netherlands should set a good example and consistently switch over to the Red Crystal. Perhaps the rest of the world would follow. Naïve? Starry-eyed? Utopian? Quixotic? I wonder how many times good old Henry Dunant was told exactly that…
Snails are shitheads!

Like its brown-lipped cousin, the white-lipped snail prefers to live in obscurity. For a creature that is on the menu of numerous other animals and can't exactly take to its heels like an antelope, that's probably a wise thing to do. Nevertheless, I often bump into these snails in the garden, especially in the winter or during an exceptionally dry period. On such occasions, I find them firmly glued to a branch, a wall or the underside of a leaf, waiting for warmer or wetter weather. Quite attractive and interesting, but not a scene that makes for a compelling photograph. Snails can be rather photogenic, but only when captured in full action. I discover the snail in the photograph hiding between the tall leaves of a horseradish, that virtually indestructible perennial famed for its exquisite, spicy taproot,
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Unlike brown garden snails, white-lipped snails are pretty harmless. But they're all shitheads anyway.

where it is warm, dark and moist. Perfect conditions for a snail, but not for a photographer. When I pluck it off of a leaf, the snail instantly withdraws into its shell. I place it on top of one of the wooden poles bordering an elevated garden bed and patiently wait. It's an experiment. As soon as my guinea pig shows itself, I gently tap on its shell. And then it happens: the snail defecates! My experiment confirms earlier observations and my suspicions that snails are chicken shit. Whenever they feel threatened, they instantly empty their bowels. In an emergency, many animals will excrete all kinds
of repellent muck. Skunks, of course, but also countless species of bugs and other insects. Even humans are prone to shit their pants. When, at the scene of the crime, a burglar leaves behind a steaming turd chock full of incriminating DNA, that is not a sign of depravity. The scoundrel is, literally, scared shitless. Ignoring the tail, the anus of most mammals is situated right at the back. The distance between mouth and arse is as large as possible. Humans are less well designed. Your anus is just about halfway. But count your blessings: not only is the anal opening of the white-lipped snail situated on its back, it also points in the wrong direction. The snail shits on its head. Disgusting? Repulsive? Not really, but still not something one wants to be reminded of while polishing off a dozen escargots à la bourguignonne for starters.
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Latest revision: 18 October 2016.