Star Wars wedding

My sister is getting married next month, and (one of) the themes is Star Wars, so I drew these pictures for her – they’re going to be table centre pieces.

The Millenium Falcon 千年隼 qiān nián sǔn
The Citadel Tower on Scarif, location of the Death Star plans. Plus AT-AT in deely boppers.
Princess Leia’s rebel blockade runner Tantive IV. And balloons.
Continue reading →

A day teaching art

I love teaching art, but it’s especially nice when you’re in the middle of a botanical garden (云山花海), shaded from the bright summer sun under the shade of trees. A lovely day. Thank you to Ning Jing (宁婧) who organised it all, great to see her son James again too.

Continue reading →

Signing books

The Dali Sketchbook is still selling steadily, which I’m very happy about.

Two years ago I was still writing a few careful sentences of thank yous and best wishes in my finest handwriting, but I noticed today after signing thousands of books that I now just put down a messy scribble. This gave me a strange glow of accomplishment, the signed books look just like the jagged scrawl of a proper author.

Licking aphids

When out walking the dogs I passed a giant bamboo, and there was a deafening buzzing sound coming from it. I got closer, and the leaves of the thing were covered in bumblebees, honey bees, ants, all sorts in a furious cloud.

Which is odd. Aren’t bees just supposed to go for nectar? Is the bamboo putting out some kind of sweet sap or something?

So I asked my sister, a lady with a chainsaw trained to know about these things, and she said it’s quite normal, they’re just hanging out licking aphids.

Mmm, aphids.

So I went back and she was dead right – tiny little white aphids covered all the bamboo leaves.

The aphid character “蚜” uses tooth “牙” as a phonetic, both are second (rising) tone

Why would you want to lick an aphid?

For the sugar, it turns out.

I remember something about ants ‘farming’ aphids like dairy cows, ‘milking’ the honeydew aphids produce as food. Some ants even nurture ‘herds’ of aphids, and others take aphids’ eggs into their nest over the winter.

Well, the bees and other insects on this plant are doing the same thing, eating aphids’ honeydew, but are being more opportunistic. The bees use honeydew just as they use nectar: As sugar-water that they can turn into honey, which is then stored in the hive to be eaten later. The bees lick the honeydew off the aphids, or more commonly from the copious amounts the aphids drop onto the leaves.

Literally ‘cotton aphid’ (cotton = 棉花 mián hua)
English names: Woolly aphid (other species are known as greenfly and blackfly, aphids’ colours vary greatly)
Chinese name: 綿蚜 mián yá
Family: Aphididae (蚜科yá kē, the aphid family)
Subfamily: Eriosomatinae

For farmers and gardeners, aphids are a terrible destructive force! They feed by sucking the sap of plants, weakening them, and the honeydew they produce (a sugar-rich sticky, clear liquid) sticks to the plant and spreads fungi (a sooty mould that gardeners loathe).

They don’t lay eggs. Flightless females give birth to a host of other flightless females without males involvement (they’re clones), then they start colonising the plant. Later in the season she gives birth to winged females that can head off to start new colonies on other plants. Males do mate with females in autumn, which leads to a batch of eggs which is how aphids live through the winter.
Where we are in Yunnan I haven’t seen the typical yellow and black striped ones
English names: Bumblebee*
The English name ‘bumblebee’ first appears in the Middle Ages, referring to the way the bees bumble around in a clumsy, awkward way.
Chinese name: 熊蜂 xióng fēng (‘bear’ bee, for its fat, furry appearance)
Family: Apidae (蜂科fēng kē, the bee family, mainly bumblebees and honeybees)
Genus: Bombus (‘booming, buzzing, humming,’ 熊蜂属xióng fēng shǔ)
Latin name: Bombus schrencki (orange back white bum), Bombus muscorum (orange back pale yellow abdomen) **

They live in small colonies of a few hundred at most. They have short tongues (proboscis), and so generally pollinate open (shallow) flowers. The thick fur is insulation, bumblebees are much better at living in colder climates than other bees. Bumblebees can warm themselves up by intensely vibrating, and in cold weather have to do this before they can fly.

Although bumblebees do not have the elaborate ‘honey dances’ of honeybees, they are known to ‘excitedly run around in the nest for several minutes’ after they find a good source of food, tipping off their coworkers.

In spring the queen emerges from her winter sleep, finds a suitable hole for her colony and starts laying eggs. Unlike the neat, hexagonal combs of honeybees, bumblebees make little ‘cups’, the queen lays up to 15 eggs in each.

These eggs turn into female workers, who then collect nectar and pollen and bring it back to the nest. Most bumblebees are female – a colony is the queen and all her daughters doing the work. Near the end of the summer she’ll lay a batch of eggs that turn into males, but their sole job is to go off an mate with a new queen. Then die. Most of the males don’t even get to do their one job in life. This new queen with her now fertilised eggs goes to find a place to sleep through the winter, and the old nest and old queen all die off.

Bumblebees are not aggressive, only the females can sting and will only do so if cornered.

Both bumblebees and honeybees have hind legs that have evolved into ‘pollen baskets,’ (the scientific name corbicula (plural corbiculae) is Latin diminutive for basket) with long hairs that trap and transport pollen – bee larva are fed nectar for carbohydrates, but they also need pollen for protein.

English names: Asiatic honeybee
Chinese name: 蜜蜂 mì fēng (same as English, honey 蜜 + bee蜂)
Family: Apidae (蜂科fēng kē, the bee family, mainly bumblebees and honeybees)
Genus: Apis (the honeybee, Apis is Latin for “bee”)
Latin name: Apis cerana

Honeybee hives have around 50,000 bees. They famously have the bee waggle dance to tell their comrades where food sources are located.

Male drones can sting you but will die after doing so, so they don’t do it lightly.

* To be pedantic, it should be ‘bumble bee’ and ‘honey bee’ (separated by a space) not ‘bumblebee’ and ‘honeybee’, because they are both types of bees. It’s proper to write ‘butterfly’ and ‘dragonfly’ as one word as they’re not flies – but as bumblebee and honeybee are much more commonly used I went with that.

** Of the two species of bumblebees I’ve seen, both kind of match, and they’re definitely in China, but… If I’ve got it wrong and you know the species please let me know.

Aoguang, Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean

In Chinese cosmology, heaven is ruled by the Jade Emperor (玉帝 yù dì), the underworld by Yama, King of Hell (閻王 yán wáng), and the oceans by the Dragon Kings. 

In Journey to the West, Monkey visits Aoguang, Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean (東海龍王敖廣 dōng hǎi lóng wáng áo guǎng) who lives in a Crystal Palace (水晶宫 shuǐ jīng gōng) at the bottom of the sea. Monkey takes the Dragon King’s treasure, the Pillar that Holds Fast the Sea (定海神針 dìng hǎi shén zhēn, originally a stick for measuring the depth of sea water used by Yu the Great, controller of floods). The Pillar became Monkey’s famed weapon, the Golden-banded Staff (如意金箍棒 rú yì jīn gū bàng) that shrinks the size of a sewing needle and fits behind Monkey’s ear when he is not fighting.

I’m very fond of the Dragon King’s ineffectual army of shrimp soldiers and crab generals, which is used in modern Chinese as an idiom meaning ‘useless troops’. 

Ladybirds and harlequins

Ladle bug.
English names: The seven spot ladybug (America), the seven spot ladybird (other English speaking countries)*
Chinese name: 七星瓢蟲qī xīng piáo chóng (Lit: ‘seven star ladle bug’, ladle 瓢 because of the shape)
Family: Coccinellidae (瓢蟲科piáo chóng kē, the ladybird family)
Genus: Coccinella (‘scarlet’,瓢蟲屬piáo chóng shǔ)*
Latin name: Coccinella septempunctata (septem = ‘seven’ and punctus = ‘spot’)  

The ladybird eats aphids and other insects that can damage plants, and so is a favourite with farmers and gardeners.

Living in rural China, many bugs are surprisingly familiar, like the seven spot ladybird. However they also have these massive (2-3 times the size) variously patterned monster ladybirds, called harlequins in English and the boring ‘variegated’ ladybird in Chinese.

English names: Harlequin ladybird, Asian ladybeetle, Halloween ladybeetle (America only)
Chinese name: 異色瓢蟲 (异虫) yì sè piáo chóng
Family: Coccinellidae (瓢蟲科piáo chóng kē, the ladybird family)
Genus: Coccinella (‘scarlet’,瓢虫屬piáo chóng shǔ)*
Latin name: Harmonia axyridis  

It has one of the most varied appearances of any species in the world, appearing in all kinds of colour and pattern combinations. And apart from the colours, the other way to tell it apart from the regular seven spot ladybird is that the harlequin is at least twice the size.

Native to Asia, it’s an invasive species in Europe and North America, having a terrible effect on other ladybird species, not least because it eats their eggs and larva.

I later found out harlequin ladybirds are now common in the UK, having been introduced 15 odd years ago, but that was after I left.

The harlequin is named for the chequered-costumed jester of late Medieval Italy.

小丑 = clown, 哈利昆 is just a transliteration.

Both species of ladybird protect themselves by playing dead, and can secrete a foul liquid from their legs which makes them taste unappealing, you may see this if they get stressed out when you handle them. Or try to eat them.

* Entomologists prefer the name lady beetles as though they’re insects they are not ‘true bugs’. A true bug is one that belongs to the Hemiptera order of insects, all of whom share similar ‘sucking mouthparts’: This includes aphids, cicadas, bed bugs, and shield bugs, so really not that many families.