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A load of garlic baloney

Having trouble getting pregnant? Here's what you should do. Peel four to five large garlic cloves, preferably of the kind with a purplish skin, like the garlic from my kitchen garden in the photograph. Wrap the cloves sausage-like in a clean cotton cloth, tie it together with cooking string and let it soak for ten minutes in some lukewarm extra virgin olive oil. Insert the garlic sausage into your vagina, just like a regular tampon, and leave it there for up to three hours. Within a year you'll be changing diapers. Or not.

Scouring the web for silly remedies based on the alleged healing, antiseptic and blood cleansing properties of garlic, this one topped all. Apparently, in some northern African regions, it is a rather popular fertility treatment, especially amongst childless young spouses. Does it work? Of course not, but I imagine you'd have a hard time convincing any woman desperate enough to stuff garlic up her fanny of its futility. In any case, no matter how ridiculous the practice undoubtedly is, these women should not be ridiculed. After all, when you don't have access to a fertility clinic, you make do with whatever is at hand.
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Home grown garlic: delicious but no cure-all.

I'm not so sure about balding men applying garlic to their skull to redress alopecia. While I suppose this may make performing oral sex with a woman that's just removed a garlic tampon slightly less nauseating, hair loss doesn't strike me as quite as devastating as not being able to conceive. Then again, who am I to judge?

Like countless other plants, garlic really does contain some very interesting substances, but it is not the panacea it is widely believed to be. Most of the health benefits attributed to eating,
smearing or sniffing it are unsubstantiated, dubious or simply proven bollocks. But garlic does lower bad cholesterol and high blood pressure, doesn't it? Perhaps, but only when you eat at least two dozen raw cloves a day and keep this up for weeks on end. Not surprisingly, considering unwelcome but inevitable side effects such as lethal loneliness, nobody has ever tried it.

But what about pest control? Does spraying your roses or vegetables with garlic water really repel aphids, caterpillars, slugs, sawfly larvae and other nuisances? There is good evidence it does, but so does spraying with extracts of many other plants, especially when, as is common practice, some soft soap or detergent is added to them. Not having tried it myself, I prefer to reserve judgement. Meanwhile, I can testify to the fact that garlic really does keep vampires at bay. I've been growing and storing it for over fifteen years now, and I have yet to observe even a single vampire within miles of my garden at 37 Heuvelstraat.
Some owlets are not what they seem

The silver y is a common migratory owlet moth that is far from exclusively nocturnal. Autographa gamma owes both its binomial and English name to the clearly visible, bright y-shaped marks on its otherwise rather dull
brownish forewings. As is the case with many other moths and butterflies, especially migratory ones, its numbers can fluctuate widely from year to year. In the summers of 2010 and 2013, the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat was teeming with them. In the intervening years and ever since the mass invasion of 2013, however, I have never observed more than a dozen at a time. Depending on weather conditions and prevailing wind directions, in most years the first wave of silver y's arrives in either May or June. The fact that these delicate lepidopterans manage to cover the distance between the African or European Mediterranean and the Low Countries or the UK, sometimes ending up as far north as Finland, never ceases to amaze me.

Confusing double

In the UK, the silver y is by far the most common immigrant moth. Even though, on average, its numbers are almost
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Silver y feeding on lavender flowers.

certainly declining, in some years the species is still abundant, especially in coastal areas. Its look-alike, Dewick's plusia, however, has always been extremely rare. It was named after the Essex lepidopterist A. J. Dewick, who
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Dewick's plusia (top) versus silver y (bottom).

caught and identified the first British example of this inconspicuous vagrant in October 1951. By that time, on the continent, this originally mainly Southern and Central European owlet moth had already been recorded in the Netherlands (1934) and Belgium (1936), where it is now a resident species. In recent years, a small breeding population of Dewick's plusia was discovered in the UK too, more specifically in the Beddington Farmlands Nature Reserve in Greater London.

Macdunnoughia confusa is supposed to be quite common in the Low Countries by now, I've observed and photographed it only once in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat, feeding on the flowers of a butterfly bush. But it wasn't until I edited the photographs that I noticed it wasn't just another silver y. It appeared to be slightly more colourful and the not truly y-shaped silvery marks on its forewings ended in a straight, narrow white line to the dorsum. Nowadays, of course, whenever I see an owlet resembling a silver y fluttering about, I take a really good look at it, always hoping to discover the telltale markings of a Dewick's plusia. Silly, I know, but in the end so is everything that makes life worth living.
A curious case of clarity

"Everything should be made as simple as possible. But not simpler." This famous quote is attributed to Albert Einstein, but I find it hard to believe he ever said anything as blatantly illogical as that. Though not exactly a nice guy*, he was, after all, a genius. Obviously, you cannot make anything bigger, smaller, faster, slower, longer, shorter, warmer, colder, harder, softer, darker, brighter, more complicated or simpler than possible. Even a pussy-grabbing, unpresidented tweeting twat like Donald Trump would never say he'd make America greater than it can possibly be. He only wants to make it great again. Which I dare say, for a country he himself, most of his backers and loads of his opponents claim to be the greatest nation in the world, is already a rather ludicrous ambition. Doesn't making America great again imply that it's no longer great, let alone the greatest? The alleged Einsteinian aphorism is usually construed as a warning against oversimplification and a rule of thumb for nonfiction and particularly science writers. Fine by me, especially since I am too thick to truly grasp most of post-Newtonian
physics and depend almost entirely on popularizations and clever analogies to get my brain around Higgs bosons, dark matter, parallel universes, wormholes, strings, singularities and other mind-blowing, counter-intuitive weirdnesses.

Nature abhors simpleness

While the human brain may very well prefer simplicity, the uni- or multiverse obviously doesn't give a damn. If it did, it would never have come up with anything as ridiculously complicated, hideously muddled and utterly unpredictable as life. Take,
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Third or fourth larval stage of a 22-spot ladybird.

for instance, holometabolous insects like butterflies and beetles. Whether they are known as caterpillars,
wireworms, grubs, maggots, straw worms, woolly bears, wigglers or cutworms, the larvae of these creatures rarely look anything like their parents. In fact, when you discover a larva you are not familiar with, you already have to be something of an entomologist to identify the insect order or family it belongs to, let alone its genus or species. A good case in point are the larvae of nearly all ladybirds or, if you happen to be American, ladybugs**. If I had a pound for every e-mail asking me to identify a weird looking, spiky insect that turned out to be just another larva of a
harlequin ladybird, I could buy at least half a crate of premium Belgian beer.

A spotted lemon oddball

On 16 July 2017, while photographing a patch of flowering
procumbent yellow sorrel growing at the foot of a climbing rose, I discovered a tiny ladybird larva that I'd never seen before. Notwithstanding, I was able to identify the creature to species level on the spot, without having to consult an insect guide, identification key or Google. That's because, if not its general appearance, at least its colours exactly matched those of a ladybird that I'd
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For obvious reasons, the 22-spot ladybird is also known as the spotted lemon ladybird.

already observed and recorded many times before: the 22-spot ladybird. Naturally, though pretty confident that I had it right, having learned not to take anything for granted, I triple-checked. Lo and behold, it really was a 22-spot ladybird larva. If only things were always that simple! The fact that it doesn't take a trained eye to identify its larva to species level, is by no means the only peculiarity that sets the 22-spot apart from nearly all other native ladybirds. Unlike most of its family members, it is neither carnivorous nor herbivorous. It is fungivorous, feeding
predominantly on all kinds of powdery mildews, including those that commonly affect vegetables like beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins. Both adults and larvae gorge on the stuff, which makes them good candidates for the biological control of these fungal plant diseases, especially in greenhouses***. Sadly, many of the most widely used fungicides in traditional, integrated and organic farming, such as myclobutanil and wettable sulphur, are toxic to these beetles. Collateral damage? In the long run, presumably, killing the enemies of your enemies is not exactly a sound strategy. But I guess that's putting it much simpler than it can possibly be.

* I admire Einstein, but only as a physicist. In my book, as a man, he was a jerk and a failure. The way he treated his first wife, Mileva Marić, their daughter and their second son was simply appalling.

** While they do look more like bugs than birds, they are in fact beetles.

*** Sources:
  • Mycophagy in Coccinellidae: Review and synthesis, Andrew M. Sutherland, Michael P. Parrella, 2009 (PDF).
  • First record of the mycophagous ladybird Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata on greenhouse cucumber plants in Crete (Greece), K. Karataraki, E. Goumenaki, E. Raftakis, D. Goutos and E. Kapetanakis, 2015 (PDF).
The only Chalcolestes in the village

Hi there! You may know me as the western willow spreadwing, the willow emerald damselfly or the green emerald damselfly. But my real name is Lestes viridis. Well, it used to be. A couple of years ago, they started calling me Chalcolestes viridis. Something to do with my way of life and what I looked like when I was much younger, innocently chasing water fleas, blissfully unaware of sex. Those were the days! I don't mind. As a matter of fact, I'm rather pleased with my new name. It makes me feel kind of special. While there's dozens of Lestes out there, there's only three of us Chalcolestes. One of them, the eastern willow spreadwing or C. parvidens, used to be regarded as a subspecies of me, but got promoted to species level because of some minor behavioural, morphological and genetic differences. It's quite hard to tell us apart. In fact, we are so closely related that, given half a chance, we will readily and successfully interbreed. If I'd been born in Italy or the Balkans, I might very well
have been an F1 hybrid. But in the Low Countries and most of the rest of continental Europe, I am, so to speak, the only Chalcolestes in the village. Near the end of the last century, for no good reason whatsoever, some of my conspecifics crossed the Channel and began colonizing the South of England. I hear they are doing fine, and wish them the best of luck and the mildest of winters. But what about the third and last member of my exceedingly small genus? Apart from the fact that, like all lemurs and most tenrecs, it is endemic to Madagascar, so little is known about C.
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When resting, the willow emerald damselfly spreads its wings, almost like a dragonfly.

silvaticus that it may eventually turn out to be just another Lestes after all. From the looks of it, though decent portraits are rare and hard to find, that's what I'd put my money on.

Specialer and specialer

In the Low Countries, today, my former genus is represented by just four species: the emerald damselfly (
L. sponsa), the scarce emerald damselfly (L. dryas), the southern emerald damselfly (L. barbarus), and the small emerald damselfly (L. virens). In the UK, only L. sponsa is locally common, while L. dryas and L. barbarus are rare and L. virens is missing. From a distance and to an untrained eye they all look the same and are easily confused. They also resemble me, far more than any other local damselfly species, which is of course why I used to be regarded as one of them in the first place. We do have a lot in common. When resting, for instance, unlike all other damselflies, unless newly emerged we spread our wings, almost like dragonflies. This eccentricity earned us the nickname spread-winged damselflies or, in short, spreadwings. In Dutch, we are known as pantserjuffers or armoured damselflies. All of us look like we're made of meticulously polished metal, fearless knights in green or golden shining armour. Lestes is derived from the Greek for robber, thief or predator and Chalcolestes makes me a copper or bronze bandit. Isn't that something? I am somewhat larger than any local Lestes and my abdomen is
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The thorax of the willow emerald damselfly features a telltale thorn or spur.

noticeably longer. My brownish pterostigmata are clearly outlined and both larger and paler than those of mature local Lestes. Males of my genus also show no signs of the bluish pruinescence that is so typical of most mature Lestes males. There are other differences, of course, such as the colour and shape of our appendages. When in doubt, however, simply take a good look at the side of the thorax. Unlike that of all other spreadwings, my thorax has a telltale thorn-like marking, commonly referred to as a spur. But what really sets me and C. parvidens apart, not
only from the members of our former genus but from all other European damselflies and dragonflies, is that we deposit our eggs in tandem into incisions in the bark of living wood, such as that of overhanging willow or alder branches. Risky business, but it works.

Earning your wings

We lay our eggs in late autumn. At first, safely enclosed by a gall-like growth, they develop quite rapidly. But then, as winter approaches and temperatures drop, development slows down, almost coming to a halt. The next spring, our pro-nymphs hatch, break through their enclosure and drop into the water. If they are lucky, that is. If not, they vigorously skip about, hoping to eventually end up in the aquatic environment they so desperately need. If all goes well, which I'm afraid is hardly ever the case, two to three months later our final instars leave the water for their last and most hazardous moult. When successful, they have truly earned their wings and fly off. We now look like adult willow emerald damselflies, but we are not yet sexually mature. This is when you will often find us hunting far away from suitable breeding sites and when some of us, like me, end up in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat. Sad to say, while the garden boasts a nice pond, it lacks overhanging branches. Unlike all the other damselflies and dragonflies in the garden, bar an occasional visitor such as the
banded demoiselle, we do not reproduce here. In the meadows and coppices of the small nature reserve across the road, however, there are plenty of brooks, puddles and pools with overhanging willow branches that are simply perfect for our purposes. So that's where I'm off to next. See you around!
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Geraardsbergen, 22 August 2017.
Latest revision: 8 November 2017.