Why not dip into the interesting and sometimes surprising facts below and see if you knew them already, or maybe not? Nature really does hold some surprises for us – it’s a fascinating world out there!
Did you know – the animal kingdom is divided into invertebrates (animals without backbones) and vertebrates (animals with backbones). Amphibians, such as our own great crested newt and midwife toad, are cold-blooded vertebrates that evolved from fish. They are adapted to live on land but most have to return to the water to breed.
Did you know – the name ‘amphibian’ is derived from the Greek amphi meaning ‘double’ and bios meaning ‘life’ reflecting the process of change that amphibians go through in their development from larvae to adult. Amphibian eggs are laid singly, in clumps or in strings of clear jelly, like frog spawn. They don’t have shells and can only survive in a moist environment. In the process of turning from aquatic larvae breathing through gills, frog and toad tadpoles grow their legs and lose their tails as they change into air-breathing adults.
Did you know – many frogs and toads have smooth skins which are covered in mucus. They are camouflaged to help avoid their predators. The tail-less frogs and toads are probably the most varied group of amphibians. There are three groups of amphibians altogether, the other two being the worm-like caecilians, and the tailed amphibians such as newts and salamanders.
Did you know – the midwife toad was introduced to Bedford from France in 1904 amongst some ferns imported by a market gardener, and has since spread to surrounding villages such as ours where they live in holes in the pond wall (and sometimes in the spring pop into at least one nearby cottage), to neighbouring counties and even further afield. Unlike some other introduced species such as the grey squirrel, the midwife toad seems to be happy to share its habitat. Listen for their bell-like call in the early evening.
Did you know – frogs hop but toads walk. In fact, a toad can walk a very long way when it comes time to go from its hibernation hide out to the pond where it will breed. It is very choosy about where to breed and will pass by waters that it doesn’t find satisfactory. It is very determined too and isn’t put off by roads, walls or other obstacles. But sadly many do not make it safely to the other side of the road. Nature lovers have put up road signs to warn drivers of toad crossing points to try to ensure more survive the great trek. Oh, and toad tadpoles are jet black whereas frog tadpoles are dark brown.
Did you know – the small red-eyed damselfly was first seen in this country in Essex in 1999. Since then, it has extended both northward and westward. It was first identified in Bedfordshire at Priory Country Park in Bedford in 2001 and subsequently spread to other sites in the county, including our village pond.
Did you know – a dragonfly has 30,000 separate lenses in each of its compound eyes, giving it the sharpest vision of any insect. As it swoops on its prey, it pulls its legs forward like a basket to scoop up its victim. It can reach speeds of almost 100 km/hour to escape from birds. Newly hatched dragonflies are called nymphs and look like fatter, wingless adults. They are ferocious hunters often feeding on young fish and tadpoles.
Did you know – the brown hawker and southern hawker belong to the ‘hawker’ group of dragonflies. The name is derived from their habit of patrolling their territory regularly like a hawk. Members of the ‘darter’ or ‘chaser’ group of dragonflies tend to rest on plants, darting out to catch their prey or to chase away intruders.
Did you know – damselflies are the smaller and more slender relations of dragonflies. Although they appear very similar, there are several differences – most obviously, the damselfly holds its two wings together over its back while resting, whereas the dragonfly holds them out flat at the sides of its body.
Did you know – sometimes bees can give you a sharp reminder that they are not just full of sweetness. A bee sting is acidic and treating it with a weak alkali like soap or bicarbonate of soda can relieve the pain by neutralising the acid. A wasp sting though is alkaline and can be neutralised by treating it with a weak acid like vinegar or lemon juice.
Did you know – although called the mistle thrush, that bird is not known to favour mistletoe berries in Britain. But they do like the red-berried mistletoe in the Mediterranean. Aristotle first recorded the bird’s liking for them in the 4th century BC and the name has stayed with them since. It is sometimes called the hollin thrush because of its appetite for red holly berries, or the storm thrush as it will sing before and during bad weather when other birds take cover.
Did you know – the kingfisher’s bright ‘electric’ colours are a warning to predatory birds that its flesh is foul tasting and best avoided! Kingfishers usually nest in the bank of a stream in a burrow that can be up to one metre (three feet) deep. So there is no need for their eggs to have any camouflaging colours. Contrasting sharply with the birds’ shimmering plumage their eggs are a plain glossy white.
Did you know – Africa has the world’s biggest bird – the ostrich; the fastest land animal – the cheetah; and the largest land animal – the elephant. But you won’t see many of those round Biddenham village pond!
Did you know – how the dog rose, the wild rose, got its name. It seems the ancient Greeks believed that its roots could cure a person bitten by a mad dog. Henry VII adopted the wild rose as the Tudor rose and it is still a symbol of the British monarchy. This fragrant, delicate flower has been a favourite since Roman times when its petals were gathered and showered down from the ceiling at banquets. For many years children were brought up on rose hip syrup, which is rich in vitamin C although it has fallen out of favour in more recent times – we must take care of our teeth! But you might still enjoy your rose-flavoured Turkish Delight?
Did you know – the alder tree (spot those near our pond) loves wet places, where it can grow like a weed albeit a tall one, up to 22 metres high. Out of the water, its wood is not all that useful because it rots very easily. But put it in water and you could support, well, you could support a city on it. And that is just what the Venetians have done. Most of the piles driven into the bed of the lagoon to keep Venice above water are alder trunks. Alder was also used for making clogs, and makes good charcoal. Seasoned alder is a rich brown colour and was sought by furniture makers, although it was prone to woodworm. An old custom was to put an alder branch in cupboards to attract the beetle, which prefers alder as the place to lay its eggs.
Did you know – our pond, in common with other inland bodies of water, sometimes looks as if it’s covered by a green blanket, particularly in the summer. This is common duckweed. It gets its name because it is a valuable part of the diet of wild ducks, swans and other water birds. This tiny floating plant rarely flowers, usually reproducing by forming buds and dividing. It is cultivated in some places for water treatment purposes, acting as a bio-filter by feeding on organic waste. Because of its high protein content, it has also been proposed that it could be harvested to provide fodder for domestic animals.
Did you know – the most adaptable creatures on earth are the insects. They can live in places as extreme and different as glaciers and hot springs, deserts and tropical rainforests. About half of the 25 major groups of insects live in freshwater. Some spend nearly their whole lives in water, like the water beetle. Others grow up in the water and emerge into the air as adults, like mayflies and caddis flies.
Did you know – some aquatic insects are air breathing and visit the surface regularly for air supplies, which they store by a variety of means, for instance trapping air under wing cases or on hairs under their bodies. Others have specialised ‘gills’ to take oxygen from the water, and others can absorb dissolved oxygen through their skin.
Did you know – the four back feet of the pond skater have thick pads of hair that repel water and keep it from sinking as it ‘skates’ across the pond surface. The water boatman moves itself through the water with oar-like rowing movements of its legs. The dangerous bits of the water scorpion are at the front, unlike its dry land namesake: its tail is a harmless breathing tube.
Did you know – that when we think of a duck, the picture we have in our mind is probably of a mallard. It appears everywhere. Not least, on our village pond. It’s the largest surface-feeding duck in the country. You’ll see it in the town and in the countryside: on streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. In urban areas and other well visited spots, it can become quite tame. Once though, it was known just as the wild duck. Only the male was called a mallard, coming from a mixture of Latin (masculus meaning ‘male’) and old German (hart meaning ‘bold’ or ‘hardy’). It’s the female which makes the familiar ‘quacking’ sound. The male has a green head, maroon breast, yellow bill and greyish body with a black tail; and the female is a dull buff and brown colour, with a greeny-yellow bill and violet blue patch on the wing.
Did you know – coots and moorhens with their dark plumage are very similar in many respects, even their aggressiveness at mating and nesting times. And they are often seen together on the same stretch of water. So which is which? If it has a red bill and forehead, it’s a moorhen: a white bill and forehead means it’s a coot. And moorhens tend to skulk around the water’s edge whereas coots are happy to venture further out. The coot is an energetic but clumsy diver, so if it looks to be behaving as ‘crazy as a coot’ it probably is one!
Did you know – water snails are divided into two groups, depending how they breath. Pulmonates such as the great pond snail and the bladder snail breath air, like land snails. They float up to the surface and take a gulp of air into a lung-like cavity. The other group, known as prosobranchs, including valve, river and spire snails breath by absorbing oxygen from the water through gills.
Did you know – apparently, for every human on earth there are 1,000,000 ants. Ants are social insects living together in large colonies and with complex systems of communication. They are found all over the world although the majority of the 9,500 different species live in the tropics. Ants have two pairs of compound eyes, three single eyes, two antennae and three pairs of legs. Each ant has a particular role in its colony. The queen runs the nest and mates with male ants. The worker ants that gather food, and nurse the eggs, larvae and pupae are females. The soldier ants that guard the nest are also females.
Did you know – pheromones are key to ants’ systems of communication. Ants lay trails of pheromones that other ants can follow using their antennae to pick up the smell. In this way, foraging teams can home in on food. If a nest is attacked, ants release pheromones to warn the other ants in the nest. Most will run for cover but the soldier ants will defend the colony. They attack enemies with their large jaws or sting them injecting painful formic acid.
Did you know – the wood pigeon used to be just that – a woodland bird. But changes in land management and large scale mechanised farming have extended its range and boosted its numbers. It can do considerable damage to crops. Large flocks can quickly strip a crop of beans or take the tops off a field of turnips: it is not the farmers’ best friend! But the wood pigeon’s song, the soft ‘cu–cooo-coo-cu-cu’, is one of the most recognisable sounds of summer as we sit by the pond, in our gardens, or watching the village cricket team. And listen out too for its wing clapping as it reaches the top of each climb in its display flights.
Did you know – there are more than 40 species of ladybirds in Britain, some amazingly with up to 24 spots and some without any spots at all. Gardeners generally welcome their presence because they eat aphids and mildew. The most abundant is the two-spot ladybird, usually having red wings with two spots, although it can be black with red spots and, confusingly, sometimes might have four spots, or might be yellow. Another very common species is the ten-spot ladybird, generally yellow with ten black spots. But again just to confuse us all, it can be black with yellow spots. The main purpose of the bright colours is as a warning to birds – stay away: we don’t taste nice!
Did you know – bats tend to keep themselves to themselves. All 16 British species are protected, they all eat insects and we must not make them homeless if we find them in our loft or attic. Indeed, the Chinese consider it very lucky to have bats in the house. The common pipistrelle is the one we are most likely to find interested in lodging with us. It is our smallest and most common bat and most likely to be seen just after sunset almost anywhere in Britain, including around our village pond.
Did you know – that little hummingbird you may have seen hovering around our Bedfordshire blossoms will actually have been a hummingbird hawk-moth. These moths hover noisily by their chosen blooms to lick the nectar with their long tongues. While preferring to operate in sunlight, they can also be seen on cool, dull or wet days. Really hot weather can make them a bit sleepy and they will come out then in the cooler morning or evening. The hummingbird hawk-moth is most attracted to flowers which are rich in nectar, such as jasmine, buddleia, primula, viola, verbena and phlox. The caterpillar, which grows up to 60mm in length, is green or brown. It has a pale line on its sides and at the rear a blue horn with a yellow tip.
Did you know – hawk-moths are very fast fliers. They can reach speeds of up to 60 kph. But of them all, the hummingbird hawk-moth beats its wings the fastest. Others in the family are the elephant and the death’s head hawk-moths. When alarmed the former pulls in its ‘trunk’ and sways from side to side. Unusually it can also see in colour, even when it is too dark for human beings to see at all. The death’s head is named after its markings. Its favourite food is honey that it will often steal from old fashioned bee hives.
Did you know – the primrose is one of the best loved British wildflowers and the symbol of Spring. It was Disraeli’s favourite flower and 19 April, his birthday, is called ‘Primrose Day’. You can see them by our pond. And of course the primrose is associated with Bedford Hospital. In days gone by, the scented blooms were used to make drinks and as a dressing for veal. An infusion made from the roots was used for nervous headaches.
Did you know – we can’t offer you a bluebell wood in full flower in May by the pond, but some bluebells do bloom there if you look carefully. But sadly the sight of swathes of bluebells is becoming increasingly rare as ancient bluebell woods have disappeared. It is against the law now to dig up the bulbs, but many plants are destroyed by crushing or trampling down the leaves as feet stray from paths. The flowers appear on only one side of the stalk and the upright stems bend slightly when in full flower. Some plants have white or pink flowers instead of the conventional blue. In Scotland the bluebell is known as the wild hyacinth and the name bluebell is given to the harebell. Confused?
Did you know – among the trees by our village pond are some large horse chestnuts, producing conkers in the autumn. The horse chestnut was introduced into Britain from the Balkans in the latter half of the 16th century. The game of conkers had been played before then with smaller cob nuts or even snail shells. But the game took on a different dimension with the availability of the bigger, tougher, glossy chestnuts, although they weren’t used as conkers until the 18th century. Before then they were eaten by sheep, cattle and deer. And the Turks fed them to horses to cure the breathing disorder of ‘broken wind’. But humans benefited too. The light, easily shaped wood from the chestnut tree used to be used to make artificial limbs.
Did you know – the very impressive ‘candle’ flowers have made the horse chestnut a favourite to ornament parks, estates and avenues, and many can be seen in and around Bedford. It was very popular in village centres and on village greens, where its extensive span offered shelter from rain and shade from the sun. Under the spreading chestnut tree ….
Did you know – bulrush or reedmace? Why the confusion? It seems because Victorian painter, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, painted his famous picture ‘Moses in the Bulrushes’ illustrating the story in the Bible but using for his bulrushes the reedmace rather than the plant then known as the bulrush. As the painting became so well known, so the confusion arose. You’ll have no trouble spotting reedmace, or are they bulrushes, by our pond, with their brown sausage-shaped female flower heads, which are made up of thousands of tiny flowers. The male flower is the thinner spike growing from the tip. The broad leaves were once used for weaving baskets and making boats.
Did you know – to most of us Iris Pseudacorus is simply the Yellow Iris. You can see it flowering on the margins of our pond from May to August, and around other ponds and rivers of course. It has even spread to salt marshes in Scotland. In the language of flowers, iris means ardour and it has been the inspiration for writers and poets. The roots have been put to more practical uses over the years. Crushed roots mixed with daisies and strained gave a liquid, which was poured into the patient’s nose to treat toothache. Perhaps we’ll pass on that one! It has also been used to make black dye and, boiled with copperas, to make an ink.
Did you know – the extent and variety of the pond’s animal life depends on plants. A good growth of greenery provides food, shelter and nesting sites for the creatures that live in and around the pond. The types and amounts of plant life depend not only on the quality of the water but largely on the amount of sunlight the pond gets. Sunlight is the energy powering life and in the summer is in plentiful supply (we hope). Green plants capture the energy from the sunlight and turn it into chemical energy in their tissues – which is known as photosynthesis. A creature eating a plant takes in some of that chemical energy. It will use up some of that energy itself in its daily life and it may pass some on as well, if it happens to be eaten by another creature!