Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Bees in space

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footprint on the Moon

Image credit: the NASA History Office and the NASA JSC Media Services Center

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing, which seems like a good time to take the next step on our space adventure. You choose the topic of bees in space, so here we go!

In 1984, 3400 honey bees (Apis mellifera) joined the crew of the Challenger space shuttle for a mission in space, housed in an aluminium “bee enclosure module” (BEM) as part of a student experiment to so see whether they could build honeycombs in microgravity. Weightlessness didn’t seem to bother the worker bees too much, and they produced a perfect 30 sq. in. comb. The queen laid 35 eggs, but they didn’t hatch. As honeybees won’t foul their nests, and the enclosure was sealed, the bees had to ‘hold it in’ for the duration of the 6-day mission, and were probably glad to return to Earth!

In 2003, the first ever space experiment from Lichtenstein, dubbed “Spice Bees” by its student designers, launched 3 Carpenter bees (probably Xylocopa c. arizonensis) into orbit on space shuttle Columbia. They were housed in a special balsa wood habitat, and deemed to be more active in microgravity than earth. The students were waiting to weigh the balsa block when it returned to Earth, to see how much wood the bees had eaten during 15 days in space. Sadly the bees perished, along with their fellow astronauts, as Columbia burned up on reentry.

In 2012, scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario performed a series of experiments on Earth to test whether bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) remain effective pollinators at low atmospheric pressures. NASA and other space agencies currently recommend a pressure of 52 kPa for sealed greenhouse environments (for Mars or the Moon), which is cheaper to maintain than the 101 kPa found at sea level on Earth. Experimental results show that plants will grow well at 52 kPa, and bumblees will pollinate them. In contrast, honeybees can’t fly below about 66.5 kPa, and don’t react well to enclosed environments, making bumblebees a better bet for extraterrestrial pollination.

And that’s the history of bees in space. For our next adventure together, I suggest a trip to the Moon. Investigating the possibility of creating a lunar seed bank was a popular second choice in the last vote, so we’ll give that another chance. We could also learn more about the soil on the Moon (regolith), or delve into the history of the Moon trees, which were grown on Earth from seeds that orbited the Moon in Apollo 14. It’s time to choose your own adventure – which way is the solar wind blowing us?

Fly me to the Moon! I want to know more about:

  • Storing seeds on the Moon
  • Lunar soil
  • The history of the Moon trees


More polls:

Burgess, C., & Dubbs, C. (2007). Animals in Space. Praxis Publishing Limited, Chichester, UK.

Chien, P. (2006). Columbia: Final Voyage. Springer.

Nardone, E., Kevan, P. G., Stasiak, M., & Dixon, M. (2012). Atmospheric pressure requirements of bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) as pollinators of Lunar or Martian greenhouse grown food. Gravitational and Space Research, 26(2).

Wikipedia’s list of space shuttle missions

Posted in Blog on Jul 20, 2014 ·

Tag: space

Grinning, winning cress heads

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Day 203/365 : 12.7.13

Photo by kennysarmy

If you’re looking for ways to keep the little ones occupied in the summer holidays, then check out this competition from Chiltern Seeds. Call 01491 824675 or email to request a free “CRESS HEAD PACK”, and they’ll send you a packet of cress seeds, some googly eyes and some coloured pompoms to make your very own Cress Head/Animal/Alien/Loch Cress Monster (I’d love to see a Loch Cress Monster :)

It’s then up to you to decide how to style your cress head, but once you’ve sown your seeds and waited a few days for nature to take its course, then snap a few photos and email them to Chiltern Seeds – the most imaginative cress head will receive a £40.00 book token.

Growing cress is easy, but if you haven’t tried it before, then have a look at my blog post on how to grow mustard and cress for the low down. There’s also a guest post with some other plants little ones love to grow. Happy sowing!

Posted in Blog on Jul 19, 2014 ·

Tag: seeds

Summer garden activities

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Garden Arbor

The house I grew up in had a very large patio. In the summer we had a paddling pool that my parents could set up, that these days would be classed as a swimming pool. It was made from sturdy canvas and poles, and had a plastic seat on each corner. It took quite some time to fill from the hose, and was – of course – completely freezing to begin with. Once the sun had warmed the water up a bit, we had fun splashing around. The pool didn’t have a cover, and my parents never thought to improvise one, so over the next few days the surface of the water would become littered with flies. When it became too disgusting to swim in, we let the water out. The British summer being what it is, it was rarely worth refilling at the weather had usually cooled down by that point. We also used to have the occasional meal outside, on a patio table with an umbrella, but this wasn’t my favourite activity due to the wasps it attracted.

My old garden would have been large enough to house a small, temporary pool in the summer, and it’s one thing I would dearly love when it’s very hot. But the new garden isn’t big enough. We have been looking at sheds and greenhouses, trying to fit in everything we want without losing too much of my gardening space. The final design will have to wait until we’ve moved in, and can measure up properly.

I’m hoping to find space for my arbor, so we have somewhere nice to sit. Ryan would like a good BBQ. Fortunately these days there’s a much better range of insect repellents and was traps that can help to keep outdoor dining pest free, but once I’ve had time to do some planting the garden should be chock full of aromatic plants to confuse bothersome insects and keep them busy elsewhere! Some sort of water feature would make any traffic noise less obvious, and make our little garden a relaxing haven for a nice glass of Pimms or wine on a summer evening, making winding down after a day at work a doddle. For those ‘summer’ days that don’t quite make the grade, it would be nice to have a patio heater of some kind; Calor Gas have some very stylish options on offer.

In the cooler hours of the day I will enjoy watering my plants and pottering about in the garden. And, of course, there’s also the joy of picking (and, usually, munching) anything tasty that happens to be ripe as you wander past. I’m particularly looking forward to alpine strawberries, courgettes (although Ryan is not yet convinced he likes them), leafy greens and peppers from the greenhouse.

So… my ideal summer gardening activities would be eating and drinking, relaxing and pottering about. What are yours?

Posted in Blog on Jul 18, 2014 ·

Tag: general

Gum arabic under the microscope

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In this video from the University of Cambridge, Rox Middleton shows us a ‘nanoscale’ image of gum arabic, taken with an electron microscope. Gum arabic is the hardened sap of an Acacia tree; this sample was probably collected in Sudan. If you want to see what it looks like on the everyday scale, I took a photo of a chunk when I visited the Oxford University herbarium. Gum arabic is a food additive, E414, used as a stabiliser. It’s also used in paints and pigments.

Posted in Blog on Jul 16, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jul 9, 2014

Tag: science


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SEM mint image

This isn’t a fantasy alien landscape, its an image of a mint leaf, taken with a scanning electron microscope by Annie Cavanagh. This low-res version is available from Wellcome Images with a Creative Commons license, which allows me to show you how awesome plants are. The spike is a trichome (a hair, essentially). The blobs are oil, sitting on oil glands, and are what gives mint is delicious flavour. The oval structures that look a bit like seeds scattered on the surface, are stomata, the holes that the plant can open and close to regulate its intake of carbon dioxide and the expulsion of oxygen. You can just see the slits along the centre, which is where they would open up.

Posted in Blog on Jul 12, 2014 ·

Tags: science & herbs.

Book classification system

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We still don’t have a date for moving into the house, and nothing is certain, but I am looking forward to the day when I can be reunited with my books. For two years now, many of them have been stored in my parents’ garage; some travelled with me to Kent and although I briefly lived in the same place as some of them, they’re now in a storage locker.

Although I have missed some of my fiction favourites, it’s the distance from my reference library that has pained me the most. Now that it appears the end of the separation is in sight, I have been giving some thought so how I will organise them in their new home.

I used to have an ad hoc system whereby books on a similar topic were clumped together, although it was complicated by the fact that I liked to keep books by one author together as well. I found it hard to keep track of which books I had, and where they were. When I was looking for a book on a shelf it was mostly by the memory of what it looked like – and, when I finally found one, it wasn’t unusual to find out that it looked nothing like I thought.

Keeping track of books in multiple locations has been trickier still. There are a few volumes that have slipped through the net, and are currently… somewhere, but I kept a list of the contents of each box I packed, and stored it in an Evernote database. Over the last few months this has morphed into a Library notebook, in which each book has a record based on a template. It lists the title, author, source details and current location. For non-fiction books it has a space for notes, and for a citation if I think I will want to make use of my research. New books are added as I acquire them, and as long as I keep the locations updated, everything is hunky dory. It’s nice to be able to refer to the database and know that, yes, I do have a copy of that book somewhere. (And it can keep track of ebooks in different formats, which I otherwise tend to forget I have.)

But unless I label my shelves with very specific location data, my Evernote catalogue isn’t going to help me find the book on the shelf. So over the weekend I decided to become a complete and utter library nerd and develop a personal classification system, so that I could label my books and shelve them in a way that makes some sort of sense.

I’m reasonably familiar with the Dewey Decimal System (DDS) from a user’s perspective, since it’s quite popular in libraries. The basic idea is that it is a ‘tree’ system, with ten umbrella subject categories at the top, each one of which is broken down into ten divisions, each one of which has ten sections. You end up with a classification for a book that looks like “629.786 FRE”, which includes the first three letters of the author’s surname, and means you can shelve books alphabetically within each section.

The problem with the standard DDS for me is that a) I wouldn’t use a lot of the classes, and b) I own so many different kinds of gardening/plant books that I keep running out of sections to put them in. So I looked at the topics of the books I do have, and tried to work out my own, personal classification system. I won’t really know whether it works or not until I have tried to shelve all my books, but I reckon they should all be covered by this:

Class 000: Plants and gardening

000 General gardening
000 General gardening
001 Horticulture
002 Wildlife gardening
003 Composting and soil
004 Permaculture
005 Community gardening
006 Weeds
007 Plant diseases
008 Garden pests
009 Garden history

010 Edible gardening
010 Edible gardening
011 Fruit
012 Vegetables
013 Herbs
014 Unusual crops
015 Edible flowers
016 Perennials and forest gardening
017 Foraging
018 Heritage varieties
019 Wartime gardening

020 Ethnobotany and anthropology
020 Ethnobotany and anthropology
021 General ethnobotany/ anthropology
022 Plant use
023 Food culture
024 Drugs
025 Aphrodisiacs
026 Off-grid living

030 Botany and plant science
030 Botany/ plant science
031 General botany reference
032 Plant identification
033 Botanical Latin
034 Botanical history
035 Propagation

040 Fungi and microbes
040 General fungi
041 Fungi cultivation
042 Microbes

050 Garden animals
050 General animal reference
051 Chickens
052 Bees
053 Insects and minibeasts

Class 100: Food

100 General food
100 Food
101 Food memoir
102 Food history
103 Spices & seasonings
104 Tea and coffee
105 Other drinks
106 Seaweed and algae

110 Recipes
110 General recipe books
111 Garden to table
112 Asian
113 Middle Eastern
114 Spanish
115 Nordic
116 Baking
117 Vegetarian
118 Ices
119 Slow-cooking

Class 200: Science

200 General science
200 General science reference
201 Popular science
202 Chemistry
203 Physics
204 Space
205 Environment

Class 300: Humanities

300 General humanities

310 Writing
310 General writing
311 Freelance
312 Science
313 Home & garden writing
314 Publishing

320 Languages
320 Languages
321 Spanish

330 History
330 History

340 Crafts and hobbies
340 General crafts/ hobbies
341 Photography
342 Papermaking
343 Drawing and illustration
344 Travel

It clearly has plenty of room for expansion. You may be thinking that it’s overkill for a personal library. It might be – but I have over 300 titles in my non-fiction collection and, having had the experience of wanting to pick up a book I once read but no longer own, I am loathe to have any more clear outs. Plus, it may be nerdy, but putting it together made me happy :)

I should be able to use my Brother garden labeller to label my books – the labels don’t fade, they’re removable and don’t leave behind a sticky residue (I know from using them for pretty much everything for a few years!). They may have to go vertically on the spine, rather than conventionally horizontal, but I can live with that.

Even once you have a classification system, what number to give a particular book is a bit of a judgement call. I have a copy of The Complete Yurt Handbook, which stumped me for a little while. I nearly put it in with the food books, because it’s the details of Mongolian food culture in it that I really enjoy (I’m never likely to build my own yurt!). Having put it to one side for a little while though, I found some other titles it naturally falls with – hence the “Off-grid living” section. In some ways it doesn’t matter, as long as you can find the book, but I like the serendipity of going to look for a particular book in the library, and finding something even better close by on the shelf.

Ryan bought me a Personal Library Kit, so I can be a proper librarian – it has a date stamp, and sticky wallets you can put in the books to mark in the date books are returned, and removable cards so you can keep track of which books are on loan, and who has them. Not that I intend to lend my books to many people – that’s a very quick way to lose friends!

Anyway, labelling and shelving my books should be a fun rainy day project once we’ve moved into the house. How do you keep track of yours?

Posted in Blog on Jul 10, 2014 ·

Tag: books

Daisy trick

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In this video from Cambridge University, Dr Beverley Glover uses a Scanning Electron Micrograph to explain the ‘trick’ that makes daisy-family plants more attractive to pollinating insects.

Posted in Blog on Jul 9, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jul 9, 2014

Tags: flowers & science.

Hampton Court Flower Show: The Jordans Wildlife Garden

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If you’re off to the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show next week, keep an eye out for the Jordans Wildlife Garden. Jordans, famous for their cereals and cereal bars, are using their first show garden at the event to showcase their long-term commitment to the British countryside. They believe that good food comes from working with nature, and the show garden features food that can be foraged from the countryside, creating a natural ‘larder’ that doubles as a shelter for birds, bees and butterflies. It should provide plenty of inspiration to gardeners who want to support British wildlife.

Oat fields outline the sides of the garden, and there are swathes of species-rich meadow curving through the space. A cut log wall and grassy banks surround the garden, forming a wildlife-friendly edge. A reflective pool in the centre of the garden is surrounded by a nut terrace, feeding both human and non-human visitors. Mixed native hedgerow and fruit trees surround one side of the garden. The local wildlife will benefit from insect hotels, bird houses and feeding stations.

The garden was designed by Sheila Botham, who offers up her tips for designing a wildlife-friendly garden on the Jordans website. Ed Kimber (winner of the first series of the Great British Bake Off) has also contributed a series of recipes to complement the garden, the planting plan for which includes the following edible species:

Corylus avellana (hazel)
Malus Golden hornet (crab apple)
Prunus cerasifera (cherry plum)
Amelanchier lamarchii (Juneberry)
Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn)
Prunus spinosa (Blackthorn (Sloe))
Rosa pimpinella
Lonicera japonica
Rosa rugosa
Wild carrot
Wild rocket
Alpine strawberry
Foeniculum vulgare ‘purpureum’
Origanum laevigatum ‘Hopleys’
Monarda ‘Prarienacht’
Common daisy
Wild thyme
Cats ears

I’m not going to Hampton Court this year, so if you go – please come back and let me know what you thought of the garden!

Posted in Blog on Jul 4, 2014 ·

Tags: events & wildlife.

Choose your own adventure blog

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In Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I take a look at some of the journeys familiar plants have made across the globe, and touch on their arrival in previously inhospitable places – underwater, Antarctica and even outer space. Since writing it I have become increasingly interested in the idea of plants in space, and have blogged about some of the current projects (lettuce on the ISS, and a ‘Mars’ greenhouse in Hawaii, you can scroll through the posts by selecting the space blog category). Researching the history of plants in space has proven to be quite a challenge. It’s not that there’s no information available, it’s that there’s a lot, and it’s a fascinating topic. Tracking down one piece of research inevitably brings up something new and shiny, and you’re off down a rabbit hole. It occurred to me that it’s a bit like a maze, and I thought we could treat it like a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

So… here’s the plan. I’ll write a blog post on something interesting I’ve found during the course of my research, and then list three rabbit holes I could have quite happily fallen down. You’ll have a few days to vote on which topic you’d like to hear more about, and then a couple of days later, voila! a new blog post will appear and we’ll repeat the process. We’ll be going on a research adventure together. Ideally I’d like to do one new post a week for the series, but whether I’ll be able to keep that up is another matter (things are a little busy here).

This week I have been reading The MIR space station: A precursor to space colonization by David M. Harland, who is an author and space historian. He has put together a very detailed book about the history of Soviet space stations – the Salyut series and Mir. I have been guilty in the past of assuming that advances in space have mainly been made by Western nations (NASA is very good at disseminating information, and the USA is justly proud of its space programme), but in fact a lot of nations contribute to space research, and a lot of pioneering plant science came out of the Soviet programme. It was on Mir, for example, that the first plant completed an entire lifecycle (from seed, to mature plant, to seeds) in space – the result of a concerted effort to overcome the many problems inherent in horticulture in microgravity. (Objects in orbit around the Earth experience ‘weightlessness’ because they’re always falling; although this is sometimes referred to as ‘zero g’ or ‘zero gravity’, it’s more accurate to say that the gravitational forces are very small – hence microgravity).

Harland’s book isn’t about plants, it’s about space exploration. He goes through each and every space mission relating to the Salyut stations, and Mir, through to the Shuttle-Mir missions and the plans for the ISS. (The book was published in 1997, and so pre-dates Mir’s demise in 2001.) What saves this from being a very dry recitation of facts is that Harland includes a lot of the human aspects of space exploration. The book doesn’t gloss over the very real risks that the cosmonauts were taking, or the lives that have been lost. He relives the drama of cosmonauts being stranded on a damaged and leaking space station, after a collision with a supply vehicle. He draws out an important thread – that a continuously manned space station (such as the ISS) has a much greater chance of long-term survival, as the crew can fix (very often with considerable creativity to overcome a lack of resources) very serious problems that would jeopardize the continued existence of a station if it happened to be unmanned at the time.

There’s plenty about the joys and problems of being in space. If being a glorified medical guinea pig doesn’t put you off the idea of being an astronaut, perhaps this will – apparently one consequence of weightlessness is that stomach gases do not rise to the gullet; instead they pass through the intestines and give rise to highly aromatic, intense flatulence! Imagine that smell waiting to great new arrivals when they open the airlock…. That’s generally not a problem gardeners on Earth have to deal with, unless they choose to feed their dinner guests with homegrown Jerusalem artichokes ;)

And so it turned out to be a surprisingly fascinating read, chock full of detailed information (some of which I skipped over), but eminently readable and it details a non-Western chapter of space exploration that we perhaps haven’t heard enough about. Along the way it allows us to read some of the early history of plants in space, providing a jumping off point for further research into those experiments.

Which means that it’s time for me to hand over to you to choose the next step of our adventure. Would you like to continue to delve into the history of of those early plant experiments, and learn more about the first plants in space? Or wander off down a tangent and look at what happens when you take honeybees into space? We know that bees are a critical part of Earth’s ecosystem, and they may be an essential feature of self-sustaining manned missions (to the Moon, or Mars), but how do they fly in microgravity? Or perhaps you’d like to come back to the present, and find out more about the possibility of using the Moon as a safe repository for our most precious treasures – including a lunar seed bank.

Have a think about which path you’d like our journey to take, and then cast your vote. I’ll count the votes on Monday evening and start working on the blog post you’ve chosen :)

Update And our first winner is Bees in space! Watch this space for a blog post on that topic in the next week or so, and then it will be time to pick again – so don’t worry if your favourite topic didn’t get picked this time, there’ll be other opportunities as our journey together unfolds.

Space bees won!

Posted in Blog on Jul 3, 2014 ·

Last modified on Jul 7, 2014

Tags: space & books.

Plate of the Nation - foodies wanted!

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Mayfly Television is making a new Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall TV show called Plate of the Nation (working title), which will take a look at how we cook and eat as a nation to provide an insight into the very heart and soul of modern British home life.

The show is about what we cook and eat, how we behave with each other in the kitchen, who our self-appointed household head chefs are, what we talk about at the dinner table and how food brings us all together.

They are now searching for foodie families and households across the nation!

They are looking for everyone from carnivores to vegans to showy self-styled chefs to people who don’t know how to boil an egg, and everything in between.

They want couples, solo chefs, shared communal kitchens and raucous family homes.

Most of all they want households where the kitchen is busy and filled with laughter.

If this sounds like your house or one you know, they’d love to hear from you.

Email: or tel: 0207 148 6731

NOTE: expressing interest in a show is not a guarantee you will be chosen to take part
Data Protection: Mayfly Television will not share your contact information with any third party without your consent and have in place systems and practices to protect your data. If you are under the age of eighteen, please ask your parents to make contact on your behalf.

Posted in Blog on Jul 1, 2014 ·

Tag: food

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