Friday, 27 July 2012

For Want Of A Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Ecosystems are very finely tuned. Species depend on each other trophically and symbiotically. Sometimes the smallest change can have huge implications, as the proverb quoted above demonstrates.

We have a cooking apple tree in the back garden. It's sandwiched between a "tree of heaven" (Ailanthus altissima) and some privet (Ligustrum vulgare), but has always done pretty well. In 2006, when we moved in, we had a bumper harvest. Same in 2008 and 2010. The odd-number years were usually half as good - I remember reading that apple trees often alternated years. So, being 2012, I was expecting lots of apples.

We have one. And not a particularly impressive-looking one at that. We had a bad apple harvest predicted at the start of the year, due to the mild winter. So the buds started forming early, only to be destroyed by colder, wetter weather during the spring. So hardly any blossoms. The lack of blossoms meant fewer bees were attracted to the garden anyway. Some were able to pollinate the blossoms, but only one fruit developed. Normally by July we have windfalls all over the garden - there has been nothing.

One consequence of windfalls is an increase in the number of wasps. On one hand, it has been nice to sit out in the garden with Paul without wondering whether he's going to knock down plant pots in his bid to escape the next time a wasp appears. On the other hand, wasps are jolly useful for getting rid of pests. They eat aphids. A lack of windfalls means few wasps, which means loads of aphids. Aphids appear to attract the ants, who are busy harvesting them off my Tetrapanax.

So, though the full picture is much more complicated, our dodgy winter and spring has been responsible for loads of aphids around here.


  1. Similar story here. I've been slow at trimming back the trees here these past couple years. So my tomatoes are coming in fine, growing like stink, lovely and green and then BANG: late blight! I gotta research companion planting. Is it true that marigolds keep the pests off?

  2. Marigolds will repel aphids and whitefly, because they emit an odour that they don't like. So planting them with tomatoes is a good move (have a look at the Companion Planting page on the BBC website, and if you can, track down old books written by Bob Flowerdew). Won't help with something like blight though, that's all down to the wet weather and the reproduction of the fungus. Make sure you burn the infected material and don't put the compost on your compost heap.

    1. Already burnt it plus a pile of weed roots I've dug this week. Little bit of driftwood sets it up nicely.

      In other news: CLEVER GIRL!

    2. Damn! What is up with the HTML on this page? The url I was trying to embed under clever girl was

    3. Okay, you need to put in the links using the HTML. so <a href="url"> text </a>. Try that.

    4. Got it! Yes, that's very impressive. I saw this article earlier, which I imagine you'll find fascinating for the behavioural aspects, given your psychology interests.

    5. Vicarious learning that is neither OC nor CC! "No matter how or why it’s done, the mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park have made snare removal part of their culture." It's amazing.

      Adherence to an anthrocentric measure of animal intelligence pisses me off. It's a false etic. We're quick to cry bullshit when someone uses a study of non-human animals to try and explain human behaviour, but we're never so quick to do it when the boot's on our own foot. Psychologists suck at measuring the intelligence of our own species as it is. Sure, there's academic intelligence (which is the classic measure), but how many PhDs can bend a ball like Beckham?

      We started out by basically say "nothing's as smart as us because they can't talk human", but can we speak ape? Take dolphins: their clicks can be immensely descriptive - size, colour, shape, number, location, clan - and the variation in pattern of clicks is due as much to region as to species (dialects, if you will), yet we insist that it is not a language. Apes are capable of processing language and even combining words to create reasonable descriptions see page 5.

      So then we moved the goalposts. We started talking about abstract reasoning, analysis of consequences, vicarious learning. Now we've seen all these with the young gorillas disarming traps, so what next?

      I've read papers on non-human intelligence and they're inevitably full of hedging. "We cannot conclude that the animal is thinking about what it's doing" "this species isn't smart enough to work this out by reasoning, so we don't know why it is doing this". Part of the problem, I reckon, is a cultural problem among humans. We are the masters of this world with a god-given dominion over other beings. This cultural disorder leads us to the logical fallacy that anything which is not human is thus lesser.

      Also, show me the senior, right-into-their-groove biologist who wishes to overturn hundreds of years of ethical precedent and declare all apes, monkeys, dolphins and others of equivalent intelligence (insofar as we can discern such) as being too sentient to be ethically experimented upon? People suck, and those who've done the same thing for long enough to gain the necessary seniority to make such a decision tend to be unlikely to shift much.

      For that matter, show me the judge and jury who'd send an ape poacher down for murder. Show me the politician who'd sign such a law into force, or the CPS person who'd rubber stamp funding for the case.

      No, it won't happen in my lifetime. The cultural shift needed to recognise the intelligence of non-human animals as valid is so massive that it is more convenient all around if it just doesn't happen. We'll find another way to move the goalposts rather than admit that the velociraptors have just opened the kitchen door.

      All of which, sadly, undermines the validity of what research there is.

    6. You know what you should do, MB? Set up a blog. And I don't mean that in a bugger-off-and-get-your-own sort of way - far from it. I really enjoy reading your comments and hope you'll continue. I think it would be wonderful for you to be able to reach more people - not everyone reads the comments on blogs, especially if they subscribe through an RSS feeder.

      One thing I'd be concerned about is that, if it were to be possible to charge an ape poacher with murder, would the legal system have to change to allow, say, a silverback to be charged with murder if he attacks and kills a human? If so, would we expect the gorilla to be sentenced in the same way as a human, or would we have different sentencing guidelines (like we do with children, people with mental health issues etc)?

      I see exactly what you are getting at - this is sophisticated, sentient behaviour. I absolutely think there needs to be greater protection for primates, dolphins, even corvids and parrots? I suspect trying to treat them as humans is not the correct move, but they need extra rights - primate rights, cetacean rights - legislation to protect them.

    7. "this is sophisticated, sentient behaviour. I absolutely think there needs to be greater protection for primates, dolphins, even corvids and parrots? I suspect trying to treat them as humans is not the correct move, but they need extra rights - primate rights, cetacean rights - legislation to protect them."


    8. Still bummed about the tomatoes, as that was my entire crop for the year. So I went down Squires today and cheered myself up with a new addition to my herb nursery: a 10" Laurus nobilis. I'll repot it after I've had a brew as it's a bit cramped in the pot it came in. It's still quite shrubby, so I'll give it some bonemeal and take off the bottommost nodes, see if I can encourage it towards a more treeish pattern of growth.


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