Nature 2020 June

Chick-Chack

I’m sure you will want to know more about the Greater Wax Moth. For starters it is one of several so-called snout moths, a totally undistinguished family of small cream or fawn coloured Lepidoptera. They are just one of that myriad of nocturnal flying insects. Even less attractive are their whitish caterpillars which come complete with contrastingly coloured feet that look as though they have been manicured in a fetching black nail polish. These grub-like larvae are also known as the waxworm.

If there was a Latin scholar in the house there is a clue in the last part of their scientific name, Galleria mellonella, as to its other moniker (mel = honey). Its alternative name ‘bee moth’ also gives a clue where the larva of this insect can most frequently be found. The female moth lays its eggs within the cracks of the surface of a bee hive. The newly hatched caterpillar is drawn by the odours emanating from the centre of the hive, and crawls into the honeycomb. Living amongst the bees as parasites, they feast on bee cocoons, pollen and, most significantly, devour the beeswax used by bees to construct their honeycombs. The UK Government recognises it as a threat to UK hives due to the uncontrolled importation via honey bees from abroad.

Any anglers reading this would tell you that these caterpillars are affectionately called ‘waxies’. Apparently, as a fish bait they are especially appreciated by salmon trout and char. Exploring further into their commercial uses I find they are a favourite amongst herpetologists, or rather their pet reptiles and amphibians. These waxworms are also listed as a valued component of the diet of humans favouring entomophagy or insect-eating! Some 2,000 insects and other arthropods, such as scorpions and spiders, are also considered safe and beneficial for humans to eat. Large scale commercial insect farming is emerging as a future supply of protein enriched food. The waxworm has been identified as one such candidate to exploit as an alternative food source for humans.

As you read this, Oak Apple Day (29 May) has just passed. A relative of the bee is responsible for the spherical protuberances that appear on oak trees. Oak apples are a reaction by the oak tree to a chemical produced by the larvae of a gall wasp. An egg is laid into the buds at the tip of a newly grown soft green stems by a female gall wasp. As the newly emerged grub eats the fleshy buds it injects an acid chemical. To resist the acid attack the tree produces these characteristic excrescences about the size of a small marble which provides a safe haven for the larva to grow within.

Oak Apple Day commemorates the restoration of the Monarchy when Charles II marched triumphantly into London in 1660, 360 years ago this year. Its association with the oak apple is not clear other than the day was originally a Public Holiday declared by Charles II and became known as Royal Oak Day: a nod to the Oak Tree in Boscobel Wood, Shropshire in which Charles told Samuel Pepys he hid from the Parliamentarian Army. The Victorians abolished this Public Holiday in 1859 though the tradition of commemorating the day still persists in some places under its new moniker. For example, in Devon Oak Apple Day is also known as a Chick-Chacks Day on account of the sound made when one ‘apple’ is whacked against another in a game of ‘oak apple marbles’.

Oak woods have long been fertile places for myths and legends about the mysterious peoples and mystical creatures that live there. Just pause to think how many children’s stories and fairy tales involve dark forests and the strange entities that are encountered there. Many authors, for example AA Milne, found inspiration for their stories from visiting woods with their children and making up tales to keep their children amused. ‘The Hundred Acre’ wood, where Winnie the Pooh and his friends lived, is based on a 500-acre wood in Ashdown Forest in Sussex.

Another such author was JRR Tolkien. He was born in South Africa but was brought up in Warwickshire where, as a boy, he would spend many hours in the woods climbing trees. He was engrossed in the unique features of the oaks he encountered and expressed this in early writings, prose and poetry, as well as through fastidious sketches accurately depicting both their stature and (importantly for his future writing of The Lord of The Rings) their movement in the winds and gales.

Later, exploring the oak woods around Oxford, he made up elaborate stories, ascribing individual personalities to each of the different trees he encountered. Tolkien wrote, towards the end of his long life, that trees with which he had developed an affection that were needlessly destroyed made him sad and angry. In his writings he assigned the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to those who were in harmony or, conversely, in conflict with trees: another affectation which influenced how trees (like the Ents) and their adversaries (the Orcs) were depicted in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

In search for a film to watch last month, I happened on ‘Tolkien – a biography of his early life’. At Oxford, as a student, Tolkien was much influenced by Joseph Wright, then Professor of Comparative Philology. Wright was a blunt-speaking Yorkshire man and the most renowned expert of his day on the structure and history of languages and dialects. A scene in the film was drawn closely from Tolkien’s own account of these two characters’ first meeting. Wright expounds at some length on the depth of meaning of a single word. Here, according to the film script, is what he said to the young Tolkien:

“A child points and is taught a word. ‘Tree’. Later he learns to distinguish this tree from all the others. He learns its particular name. He plays under the tree. He dances around it. Stands underneath its branches for shade or shelter. He kisses under it. He sleeps under it. He weds under it. He marches past it on his way to war, and limps back past it on his journey home. A king is said to have hidden in this tree. A spirit may dwell within its bark. Its distinctive leaves are carved onto the tombs and monuments of his landlords. Its wood might have built the galleons that saved his ancestors from invasion. And all this, the general and the specific, the national and the persona he knows and feels and summons somehow however faintly with the utterance of a single sound: ‘oak’.”

Wright concludes by telling Tolkien that oak is a Saxon word derived from ‘eig’ of old Norse. Not far removed from the good ‘Ents’ of Middle Earth which some suggest was Tolkien’s moniker for his favourite tree: the good Oak.