Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Our balcony garden has a hanging basket with ivy, spotted deadnettle and snapdragon (the latter grown from seeds I got for free from Beefayre).

Snapdragons have a specialist pollination strategy. Their corolla tube, which contains nectar and pollen, is closed by two "lips" which prevent most insects from entering and stealing their nectar. Only bumblebees – their preferred pollinators – and a few other insects can trip the trapdoor mechanism and gain access to the tube.

I've spent more time than I care to admit watching honey bees trying and (and failing) to enter our snapdragons.

And here is a common carder bee – a type of bumblebee – showing you how it's done:

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Love and Death on the Peninsula

For my birthday last week, I decided to treat myself by taking the afternoon off and going to the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park. Last year a species of bee was spotted in the park for the first time in Britain, and I've wanted to go there ever since.

I could not definitely identify the viper's bugloss mason bee even if I saw one – there are nearly 250 species of solitary bees in the UK and I can recognise only a few common ones – but I did see some other cool insects. What's more, I was able to identify most of them using the field guides in the park library.

Exhibit A: the common red soldier beetle. This insect is often seen copulating on hogweed, hence its amusing nickname, the hogweed bonking beetle. Here is a nonconformist pair, mating not on hogweed but on hemp agrimony.

Exhibit B: common blue damselflies. Before mating, the male (blue) uses claspers at the tip of his abdomen to grasp the female behind her head to prevent other males from dislodging him. My friend Lalanti taught me how to tell apart damselflies and dragonflies: when resting, damselflies hold their wings parallel to their abdomen, while dragonflies hold them at right angles.

Exhibit C: a thick jawed orb weaver spider which has ensnared a solitary bee slightly larger than itself.

Friday, July 7, 2017


Last night I was reading a graphic novel – Just So Happens by Fumio Obata – which brought back a lot of memories about Japan.

In 2011, I spent six months working at a law firm in Tokyo. Almost from the first week, I felt an inexplicably strong affinity for the country and its people – the trains, the beaches, the language, the street maps, even their obsession with ranking. At the end of my stint, on my flight back to London, I was thinking back on the last few days – the staff at the café where I had breakfast every morning pooling together to buy me a hamper of Japanese souvenirs, one of the older secretaries in our office saying「また来てね。みなさん待っています。」("Please come back again. We're all waiting.") – and I realised I was trying (not very successfully) to hold back tears. I had not been this sad even when I left my hometown, Calcutta, to work in London – perhaps because I knew I could go back during holidays, and when I did, it would be (almost) like I'd never left. Whereas if I went back to Japan, it would almost certainly be as a tourist, which is not the same thing at all.

Anyway, back to the book. Just So Happens has a panel showing the protagonist coming home (a faithful reproduction of Narita airport).

When I first arrived in Japan in 2011, I couldn't read Japanese at all. By the end of my stay, I could read basic Japanese, and when I went back there on holiday two years ago, I noticed something interesting. While the English text simply says "Welcome to Japan", the Japanese text has a slightly different – and for me, rather heartwarming – message: okaerinasai or "Welcome home".

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Easter Egg Tree

Sometime back I speculated that knowing the name of a thing can be an obstacle to seeing it. But knowing the names of things can also induce us to look more carefully. "We see with our categories," said the infamous Wendell Johnson. The quote is usually invoked to suggest that categories can be limiting, but if we cannot but see with our categories, perhaps the best we can do is to have more and better categories.

After reading The Cloudspotter's Guide, I started taking more notice of clouds (which London skies are seldom without). Since I took up beekeeping, I look more carefully at bee-like flying insects: that is how I recently realised that a "bee" I photographed on a trek 8 years ago was in fact a hoverfly exhibiting Batesian mimicry.

In 2010, I summed up my attitude to trees as follows:
I like trees in the abstract, but regrettably, I know little about them. Which is to say, when I see a tree, I appreciatively say to myself, “Ah, a tree,” and I leave it at that. But I can’t help feeling a twinge of envy for people who can spot and identify trees, and who, even while strolling through a city street, sometimes remark upon an unusual tree, or point out a commonplace one and mention some interesting attribute.
This state of affairs persisted more or less unchanged until last month. Then, inspired by some tree identification walks and lectures I attended during London Tree Week, I decided to educate myself. Accordingly, in the last couple of weeks I have been skiving off work for an hour or two in the afternoon, trying to identify trees around our university campus with the help of a field guide.

A short walk from our campus is a street called India Place. I have been there many times, as it is home to the High Commission of India in London, so I cannot have failed to see the two handsome trees at its northern end.

Only today did I really notice them. I was also able to identify the species: Koelreuteria paniculata – common name: Pride of India.

I felt like I had stumbled upon an anonymous town-planner's Easter egg. Happy solstice, everyone!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Succulent Bowl

For the last two years, we have mostly grown vegetables on our balcony garden – tomatoes, courgettes* and onions, for example. However, this year we are diversifying into flowers, herbs and – heaven help us – decorative plants. (But perhaps this is not such a radical shift; after all, the first ever plant I ever bought on was a decorative palm.)

The new additions include five small succulents...

...which we used to make a succulent bowl.

We chose an arrangement that we thought looks aesthetically pleasing (for now). I will be interested to see how it develops as the plants grow and change their shape.

*Five pedantry points if you were about to point out that tomatoes and courgettes are technically fruits.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Teenage Album Art

My first audio CD, if memory serves me right, was Def Leppard's Euphoria, purchased soon after its release in 1999. Before that, barring three or four secondhand LPs, my music collection was entirely in the form of audio cassettes. And about 90 percent of that was blank cassettes, recorded over with music I had borrowed from Dipanjan.

Dipanjan was my classmate. His brother played in a band, and as a result he had an enviable music collection. This was a time when music stores in Calcutta mostly stocked two kinds of albums: recent releases, and much older music (Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Nat King Cole). Dipanjan lent me the first Beatles album I ever listened to (Rubber Soul – to this day my favourite Beatles album) and introduced me to many of my favourite artists and bands.

I would only keep a cassette for three or four days before returning it and borrowing another. In that time, I had to decide which songs, if any, I wanted to record and keep. Blank cassettes were cheaper than pre-recorded cassettes but still fairly expensive, so only a few albums got the honour of being recorded in their entirety. Mostly, I made mixtapes, and for some of the mixtapes, I made album covers. My father recently scanned two of them for me.

I was 13 or 14 when I made the first one. We were studying metamorphic rocks in Geography, and I thought I had made an exceptionally clever pun. The Gothic watercolour drawing might suggest a heavy metal mixtape, but I only went for that look because I thought listening to heavy metal was cool. In reality, the album is filled with the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Bon Jovi. The second, made a year or two later, was named after a Pink Floyd song.

While I was still in my wannabe metalhead phase, I heard the phrase acid rock somewhere and assumed it was a particularly extreme version of hard rock. Accordingly, I asked Dipanjan if he had any acid rock albums, and Dipanjan, in his infinite wisdom, gave me The Worst of Jefferson Airplane. The album name and cover did nothing to dispel my illusions about acid rock, but when I put it on, it was all folksy ballads and gentle psychedelia. I loved it. The Worst of Jefferson Airplane is one of the albums I recorded in its entirety.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Shunbun no Hi: Bees

For the past two years I've been an active member of our college beekeeping society. Actually, 'active' may be putting it mildly: I talk about bees incessantly, to the point of alienating my friends and family. Somewhat surprisingly, bees haven't featured prominently on this blog, save for this six-year-old post, written when I had no beekeeping experience whatsoever.

Our hives are on the rooftop of one of the campus buildings, smack in the middle of London. The first time we went up to check on them this year was on January 24. Luke, a professional beekeeper was just saying shouldn't expect much: he had not seen any active bees so far that year. Much to our surprise, our bees were buzzing about like it was springtime – a sign of the good health of the colony.

Happy equinox, everyone!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Class Consciousness

Yesterday on the train back from Cambridge I overheard some interesting conversations between a small boy and his grandfather.
Boy (noticing the first class section of the compartment, just behind him): So there's a first class and a second class? Like the Titanic?
Boy: That hill would be great for cheese rolling.
Grandfather: What's cheese rolling?
Boy: It's a sport!
Grandfather: Like, on PS3?
Boy: No, in real life!