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Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?

We delve into the festive traditions and mythology surrounding mistletoe.

Mistletoe, or Viscum album, is a curious plant. It is a ‘hemi-parasite’, meaning it grows on a host tree, from which it takes water and support. Don’t worry though, it causes very little, if any, damage to its host. In fact, it has real value to wildlife - six species of insect are specialist mistletoe feeders, including the rare mistletoe marble moth Celypha woodiana and mistletoe weevil Ixapion variegatum. 

It was often seen as a mystical plant because it seemed to appear from nowhere, with no roots, and stayed evergreen when its host tree dropped its leaves in winter. We now know that its seeds are germinated to its host tree by passing birds and its roots are entwined with its host tree. But this small plant must have seemed magical to people long ago.

The earliest account of mistletoe is from the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder. Writing in his Natural Histories in the first century AD, he described how Druids thought mistletoe taken from oak trees was sacred. Many modern Pagans still use mistletoe today.

However, mistletoe is seldom found on oaks. It is more likely to grow on trees such as apple, hawthorn, poplar, lime or conifers.

It is a festive tradition to hang up mistletoe around Christmas and New Year and plant a kiss on anyone you find yourself standing next to while beneath it. But why do we do this?

It is said the roots of this tradition stem from Norse mythology. According to legend, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, Frigg, made all living things promise not to harm her son Baldr because she wanted to protect him. However, she overlooked the mistletoe plant because it was so small. Baldr was then killed by an enemy using an arrow made from mistletoe. In some versions, Frigg’s tears land on the mistletoe and turn its berries to white which brings Baldr back from the dead. In gratitude, Frigg reverses the mistletoe’s bad reputation and kisses anyone who walks underneath it as a sign of gratitude.

It wasn’t until Victorian times that this tradition seems to become popular. It is said that a berry would be plucked for each kiss until all the berries were gone.

  • Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?, A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).
    A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).

Five tonnes of mistletoe are sold in the UK every year, most of which are imported from France. Much of the wild mistletoe in the UK grows in the west Midlands around the English/Welsh border. It is not very common in London but we do have some here at the Horniman, in our Gardens. Our boughs are high up in a tree on Meadow Field and our Gardeners are looking into growing them lower down on the trees so they are more visible.

Visit the Gardens and see what other plants you can spot.

Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School

The Horniman offers a Museum Club for three different local primary schools. Eliot Bank School’s Museum Club spent last term working towards their Arts Award, Discover level. Learning Assistant, Lucy, writes about the group’s work over the term.

Arts Award encourages children and young people to explore and take part in different art forms, creating a log-book to document their work. The scheme was a perfect fit for our Museum Club format, so we decided to pilot Arts Award with them.

Inspired by both the Horniman’s Festival of Brazil summer season and the beautiful Gardens, we decided to create miniature gardens for the project. Over the course of ten weeks, the group grew their own flowers and herbs from seed with the help of our Gardener, Damien.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Horniman Gardener, Damien, shows the students how to add plants to their miniature gardens.
    Horniman Gardener, Damien, shows the students how to add plants to their miniature gardens.

Sketching and taking inspiration from the different spaces in the Horniman Gardens, the group designed their own, scavenging for twigs and pebbles to incorporate into their designs.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Students from Eliot School with their miniature gardens
    Students from Eliot School with their miniature gardens

The Festival of Brazil summer season presented a fantastic opportunity for the group to work with a visiting Brazilian artist to create bandeirinhas (bunting) and to find out about her work, and Brazil, first-hand. They also learnt about Rio’s Selaron Steps, designing patterns and creating colourful mosaics on their plant pots in response.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Colourful mosaics were added to the plant pots
    Colourful mosaics were added to the plant pots

Finally, Helen our Librarian showed the group one of the Horniman’s rare books: a collection of cyanotypes created by the nineteenth century Botanist and Photographer Anna Atkins. The children were fascinated by her work and loved having the opportunity to see such a special object up-close.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Students learnt about Brazilian bunting used in festivals, and made some of their own!
    Students learnt about Brazilian bunting used in festivals, and made some of their own!

Having learnt about Atkin’s work and the science behind her cyanotypes, the group created their own (despite the lack of sunshine!) using leaves from the plants they had grown. The following week, the children taught their families and friends how to make cyanotypes, making them together.

  • Museum Club: Arts Award Project with Eliot Bank School, Horniman Librarian, Helen, teaches the students about cyanotypes
    Horniman Librarian, Helen, teaches the students about cyanotypes

Their cyanotypes look fantastic and have contributed to a new book that is being added to the library’s collection!

The group loved taking part in the project, and we received lots of positive feedback from their teachers and families. 

Whilst requiring a lot more staff time than our usual Museum Club programme, the structure of Arts Award worked well for the group, giving them focus, motivation and a log-book to be very proud of. 

Finally, by presenting the group’s certificates in a school assembly, the project has inspired more children to join the club this year!’

Rhinos on the Clock

Today, 22 September, is World Rhino Day. Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, explains why the Sumatran rhino is nearly extinct.

Countless species are being driven to extinction by both deliberate and accidental human activity, but extinction is not something we invented. Nature has been selecting species for the bin for hundreds of millions of years. The story of the Sumatran rhino’s demise has a big hairy foot in both of these pies. Whilst the biggest threats to their continuation on the planet are poaching and habitat loss, Mother Nature also seems to be holding up a red card.

Less than 100 Sumatran rhinos made it to see-in the year 2016. Malaysia now has a wild rhino population of zero, and only three in captivity. Indonesia is fairing slightly better but around 90 individuals is far from a healthy population for a planet the size of ours. The last expat Sumatran rhino, called Harapan (meaning Hope), lived in Cincinnati Zoo but was relocated to Sumatra in 2015. And with that heavy-laden trans-Pacific flight, no Sumatran rhinos existed outside of Indonesia or Malaysia.

  • Harapan and Emi, Baby Harapan and his mother Emi at Cincinatti Zoo, Creative Commons
    Baby Harapan and his mother Emi at Cincinatti Zoo, Creative Commons

Mean Old Mother Nature

If you’ve ever had trouble with romance (who hasn’t), Sumatran rhinos can definitely empathise. As a species they are secretive and solitary, and so if two should have the very good fortune of running into each other in the forest (given how rare they are, the chances are automatically low), the first response would likely be aggression. Even if it’s a male and female and the circumstantial rendezvous has potential for the pitter-patter of tiny three-toed feet, the meeting is still likely to rapidly descend into biting and sparring.

With most animal species, when a male or female is ready to ‘settle down’ (if only for five minutes or so) there will be displays of courtship, nest making, or physical signs on/in the body that the time is right. But for Sumatran rhinos, romance is a bore and little if any flirtatious behaviour exists to let the other rhino know of their intentions. An approaching member of the opposite sex is as likely to horn you in the ribs as to ask for your number.

Why does Mother Nature make it so hard for them? Ahhh she’s not even done there I’m afraid. Sumatran rhinos are induced ovulators. This means that a female needs to mate in order for her body to wake up and begin to prepare itself for making a baby, and thus she needs to mate again to actually conceive. By which time, the one and only male rhino that has come along in the last six months is long gone, probably for at least another six months. In species that are induced ovulators, if ovulation does not occur relatively regularly, cysts will start to grow in the womb which can cause real problems when trying to produce offspring. What this basically means is that even if a female Sumatran rhino finds a mate in the wild, she probably won’t conceive anyway.

  • Hairy beast, They say chest hair is sexy, how can they not want to breed?, Creative Commons
    They say chest hair is sexy, how can they not want to breed?, Creative Commons

Intervention of a Good Kind

In the 1980s, rhino specialists (the only job title I want besides my own) put their qualified heads together and agreed a captive breeding programme should be initiated (hence the aforementioned departure of Harapan from Cincinnati Zoo). So began the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesia where rhinos live in a semi-wild (but heavily guarded) area of Way Kambas National Park. A number of highly skilled, extremely motivated, and well-armed individuals called the Rhino Protection Unit protect this crash (collective noun for rhinos) from poachers. The most recent birth at the SRS was that of a little girl in May 2016, and boy oh boy is she a cutie.

The short-term goals of the SRS are to produce as many mini rhinos as possible, as well as to increase our knowledge of their biology and behaviour. The long term goal (best case scenario) is to release a healthy population of rhinos back into the wild. However this obviously requires mankind embarking on a new age of global enlightenment regarding traditional medicines, meaning each released rhino won’t walk their horn straight into a poacher’s duffel bag if left un-guarded. But with education on the rise, and Prince William on their side, we can still hope for this future.

  • Ratu and baby, Ratu and her baby resting at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary , Creative Commons
    Ratu and her baby resting at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary , Creative Commons

References

Hance, J. (2015). Officials: Sumatran rhino is extinct in the wild in Sabah. [Online]. Available at: https://news.mongabay.com/2015/04/officials-sumatran-rhino-is-extinct-in-the-wild-in-sabah/ [Accessed 16th September 2016]

Payne, J. (2016). Tragic death of Sumatran Rhino points to the need for a single species recovery programme. [Online] Available at: http://www.borneorhinoalliance.org/resources/comment/tragic-death-of-sumatran-rhino-points-to-the-need-for-a-single-species-recovery-programme/ [Accessed 14th September 2016]

Save the Rhino (2015). Sumatran rhino Harapan embarks on new life in Indonesia. [Online] Available at: https://www.savetherhino.org/latest_news/news/1374_sumatran_rhino_harapan_embarks_on_new_life_in_indonesia [Accessed 21st September 2016].

Save the Rhino (No date). Indonesian Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. [Online] Available at: https://www.savetherhino.org/asia_programmes/sumatran_rhino_sanctuary_indonesia [Accessed 16th September 2016].

Save the Rhino (No date). Indonesia: RPU Programme. [Online] Available at: https://www.savetherhino.org/asia_programmes/rpu_programme_indonesia [Accessed 16th September 2016].

Save the Rhino (No date). The challenges of breeding Sumatran rhinos. [Online] Available at: https://www.savetherhino.org/asia_programmes/sumatran_rhino_sanctuary_indonesia/the_challenges_of_breeding_sumatran_rhinos [Accessed 15th September 2016].

Save the Rhino (No date). An heir and a spare. [Online] Available at: https://www.savetherhino.org/asia_programmes/sumatran_rhino_sanctuary_indonesia/stories_from_the_field/an_heir_and_a_spare [Accessed 21st September 2016].

Schaffer, N. E., Zainal-Zahari, N. E., Suri, M. S. M., Jainudeen, M. R., and Jeyendran, R. S. 1994. Ultrasonography of the Reproductive Anatomy in the Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 25 (3): 337-348

Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies

Our new pollinator bed is designed to be a banquet for pollinating creatures like bees and butterflies. Andrea, our Gardner, shows us around the pollinator bed and tells us the best way to plant for pollinators at home.

This summer, you may have noticed a new border spring into life in the Gardens. Last autumn we started to plant up the bandstand terrace bed with herbaceous perennials, which began flowering in the spring, and are still going strong, creating a lovely splash of colour. As it is still the first year, some of the plants might look a bit sparse, but over the next couple of years, they will get bigger and fill out the bed.

This border contains about 50 different species of plants and has been designed to be attractive to pollinating insects. Pollinating insects like bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies transfer pollen from one flower to another, helping the plants to fruit and set seed.

As farming practices have changed over the last few decades, there has been a steep decline in the wild flower population that was previously their main food source. As a result, many of their populations are in decline. This may result in problems in the future with food production, as so much of our food is reliant on plants being pollinated, so it is important to help them out.

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Photo by Andrea Benson
    , Photo by Andrea Benson

There are many different pollinators, and there is no one plant that is a good food source for them all, which is why variety is important.

Some flowers, like those in the daisy family, are popular with a variety of pollinators. The flower head is made up of many small florets, each one a nectar source for the insects. This includes flowers like the Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower), and the Echinops ritro Veitch’s Blue (Southern globethistle).

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Photo by Andrea Benson
    , Photo by Andrea Benson

Other flower shapes are not so simple. The Salvia guarantica ‘Black and Blue’ (Hummingbird sage) has lipped flowers with long tubes. Bumble bees and solitary bees use the lip as a landing platform and push their heads inside the flower to reach the nectar, coming back out with pollen covering their back.

Others, such as the Lychnis chalcedonica (Maltese cross), have their nectar deep inside a small tubular centre to the flower, which moths and butterflies are able to access with their long thin tongues.

As well as planting a variety of different plants, it’s a good idea to try and create a display that has a long flowering season – especially early and later in the year, when alternative nectar sources might be scarce. Winter/spring bulbs like Crocus, Galanthus nivalis (Snowdrop) and Eranthis hyemalis (Winter aconite) can provide a food source early on in the year, while plants such as Salvia and Rudbeckia (Coneflower), that continue flowering into the late summer and early autumn, cover the other end of the year.

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Photo by Andrea Benson
    , Photo by Andrea Benson

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Photo by Andrea Benson
    , Photo by Andrea Benson

Over the next few years, we’ll continue to tweak the planting display. We’ll be adding some more spring bulbs, as well as assessing how well the plants are doing, and replacing any that have died or are struggling. We’ll keep a good mix of variety and seasonal food source for the pollinators, as well as ensuring there is a long lasting and colourful display for all our visitors.

If you want to help out at home, you can. A list of pollinator friendly plants can be found on the Royal Horticultural Society website. By adding any of these plants to your garden, you’ll be doing your bit. You don’t even need much space. A window box full of spring bulbs or a pot with a couple of sunflowers in will be a welcome refreshment for the pollinators flying around your area.

Send us your pictures of pollinator-friendly plants using the hashtag #Horniman. 

The Pollinator boarder has been created with support from the Finnis Scott Foundation

Saving Coral Reefs

Did you know we are doing ground-breaking coral research behind-the-scenes? Our Aquarium Curator, Jamie Craggs, tells us about the threat to coral reefs around the world and how we are working to solve it.

‘Coral reefs are incredibly diverse habitats. One square metre of coral reef contains as many different types of animals (genera) as a whole hectare of Amazon rainforest.

They also support millions of people through food security, coastal protection and income through tourism.

But coral reefs are under threat. Human activities like pollution, overfishing and climate change mean we are losing coral reefs at an alarming rate.

How do we stop this?

The only way to understand how to recover the coral reefs is to understand coral reproduction. We need to look at the way reefs naturally rebuild themselves, so that we can help the process.

In their natural habitat, most corals reproduce over one or two nights a year during a mass spawning event. All coral in one area spawn at once and the event is dependent on the right climatic conditions, temperature and phases of the moon. 

But once or twice a year is a very short time to study coral reproduction!

That’s where Project Coral comes in.

What is Project Coral?

Project Coral is a research project looking at coral reproduction led by the Horniman Museum and Gardens along with international partners. The main aims of Project Coral are:

1. To understand reproduction.
Coral have occasionally spawned in aquariums, but it has always been accidental. By understanding what makes coral tick in the wild, we have created a research system which mimics their natural environment. This allowed us to produce the first planned spawning event in an aquarium in 2013. We are now developing protocols so that corals can be spawned at different times of the year.

2. To share our knowledge.
If the research community has access to the same set up as ours then we could potentially be looking at far more spawning events every year then we currently have. This would give us more chance to study how coral reproduction will be affected by future ocean conditions as a result of climate change.

3. To help restore the coral reefs.
Once we have more opportunity to study coral we, along with the international scientific community, will have more of a chance to produce baby coral which can be used to reseed dying reefs.

4. To supplement the hobby trade.
If we get to a point where we can produce baby coral, we might also be able to produce them for the aquarium trade, a practise that will provide alternative sustainable income for people that rely on coral reefs.’

Read more about Project Coral.

You can help save the coral reefs by supporting Project Coral research.

Up close and personal with Hawkmoths

Think Moths are dull? Think again! Our volunteer, May, tells us how surprising and beautiful these creatures can be. In her first blog, May tells us all about the Hawkmoth. 

'My name is May and I have just graduated from University where I studied Biology. I have been volunteering at the Horniman for just over a year and insects are my passion! I have been fortunate to work on the insect collection alongside the Horniman’s Keeper of Natural History, Jo Hatton. My main task as a volunteer is capturing data about the collections. I ensure each specimen has been electronically recorded with its own unique identification number and make sure this is associated with all of that specimens’ data including the date the specimen was collected, the species name and its locality.

Fact File: Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor)

Did you know? The Elephant Hawkmoth gets its name from its caterpillar’s resemblance to an elephant’s trunk. These caterpillars have four eye-spots which startle and warn off predators. The adult moths are more vibrantly coloured, though the specimens shown here have faded slightly with age.

Fact File: Privet Hawkmoth (Sphinx ligustri)

Did you know? The Privet Hawk moth is the largest Hawkmoth found in the UK with a wingspan of up to 12cm. As caterpillars, they feed on Privet bushes and it this foodplant gives the species its name.

As a keen entomologist (someone who studies insects), I feel that the beauty of moths often goes unnoticed, probably due to the fact that most species are nocturnal, which can make them harder for us to spot. The occasional drab species that finds its way into the bathroom is often the only time we get to encounter moths up close. 

But not all moths are brown, despite what many people think! There are over 2,500 species of moth in the UK. My favourites belong to the family Sphingidae, commonly known as the Hawkmoths. These moths have earned their name through their fast, powerful flight and incredible night vision. The two specimens above are examples of Hawkmoths found within the UK. Both species share a vibrant pink colouration which is rarely seen in moths. This allows them to be easily identified.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some of these remarkable moths first hand, through my moth trap. I received a moth trap for my 13th birthday and it is the best present I have ever gotten to this day. A moth trap is a closed square box with a mercury light bulb that emits a very bright light. The inside of the trap is lined with empty egg boxes for the moths to settle on. Attracted by the light, moths fly in through a small gap in the centre of the trap, but are often unable to find their way out again. Instead they settle on the egg boxes for the rest of the night. When you check the trap in the morning, you can then see all the moths resting among the egg boxes and then release them once they’ve been identified and counted.

I remember the first time I caught a Privet Hawk-moth in my moth trap. I was completely taken by their beauty, and fascinated by their almost fluorescent pink colour. I could see my neighbour peering over the garden fence trying to work out what I was looking at. I took the moth over to her and she gasped and exclaimed “It’s almost as big as your hand! I didn’t know moths could be so bright! It is beautiful.” We both watched as the moth flew away, perfectly demonstrating its powerful flight and resembling a hawk in the sky. I was so pleased to have had the opportunity to show someone how beautiful moths can be and to convert her perceptions of moths being dull!

If you want to learn more about these fascinating insects head to the UK moths website to explore the diversity of moths that you can find in your own backyard! 

Below are images of an Elephant Hawkmoth that I caught whilst running a moth trap in my garden.'

Share your moth pictures with us using the hashtag #horniman on Instagram and Twitter. 

Big Butterfly Count 2016

This year we are taking some time to celebrate beautiful butterflies and marvellous moths.

Join us for our Big Wednesday event where you can take part in the Big Butterfly Count on the Nature Trail with entomologist Richard Jones, go on a story tour with Mr Horniman and do some butterfly-inspired art and craft.

What is the Big Butterfly Count I hear you ask? It is a nationwide survey aimed at helping us assess the health of our environment. It runs from 15 July – 7 August, and during this time thousands of people across the UK will take count of butterflies and moths.

To take part you just need to spend 15 minutes counting butterflies and moths during bright and sunny weather. You can count during a walk, or sitting in one place – a perfect thing to do during a visit to the Horniman Gardens. You can even download a handy identification chart to help you spot different species.

Information about how to take part from the Big Butterfly Count:

How to count:

If you are counting from a fixed position, count the maximum number of each species you can see at a single time. For example, if you see three Red Admirals together on a buddleia bush then record it as three, but if you only see one at a time then record it as one (even if you saw one on several occasions) – this is so that you don’t count the same butterfly more than once . If you are doing your count on a walk, then simply total up the number of each butterfly species that you see during the 15 minutes.

How to send in your counts:

You can send in your sightings online at bigbutterflycount.org or by using the free Big Butterfly Count smartphone apps available for iOS and Android.
Remember – every count is useful, even if you don’t see any butterflies.
The Horniman staff will be taking part in the Big Butterfly Count and we will keep you updated on how many we see!

Tag us in your butterfly-counting pictures at the Horniman by using #Horniman on Instagram and Twitter.

The wildflower meadow bed

This year we have a new wildflower meadow bed coming into bloom in the Gardens. 

The wildflower meadow bed sits against the outside west wall the Sunken Garden. It was sown in October of last year, so this is its first year in flower and it is looking great. 

We used a wildflower seed mix to fill the bed, from a company called Pictoral Meadows that is specially tailored to suit the semi-shady site where the bed sits. 

The bed will be a permenant display. In the spring our Gardeners will cut it down and it will re-grow each year. 

At the start of the year it looks like a bed of weeds, but as the summer goes a mixture of woodland plants start to appear. It flowers from May through to September and by the end of the summer it is a beautiful mix of colours and scents. As you can see, the bed already looks wonderful. 

Can you identify any of the following plants?

Red Campion (Silene dioica)

Herb bennet (Geum urbanum)

Ox eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Crane's-bill geranium (Geranium pratense)

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

Tag your photos of the wildflower garden with #GrowingGardens and #Horniman on Instagram and Twitter.

Brazil Food Garden

The Horniman’s Festival of Brasil extends out into the Food Garden this summer. Among wildflowers in the green, gold, blue and white of the Brazilian flag, we’ve grouped some of our food plants by recipe to give you a taste of the country’s vibrant food and drink culture.

Brazil’s cuisine is a mixture of European, African and South American influences, and in the display you’ll find plants from the Old and New Worlds and from temperate and tropical regions.

One of the most important tropical crops for us to include was Manihot esculentum, otherwise known as cassava or manioc. This fast-growing shrub is native to Brazil and produces starchy tubers – like potatoes or yams – that have been a staple food in South America for thousands of years. You can find cassava growing in the tacaca and arrumadinho sections of the garden.

It is not an easy plant to source in the UK and ours were grown from seed sown in January this year.

Elsewhere in the garden you’ll find the black beans needed to make the popular pork and bean stew feijoada, the okra used in the West African-influenced caruru, and of course the lime and sugar cane needed to mix a proper caipirinha

It wouldn’t be a Brazilian summer without a bit of colour so around our recipes we’ve sown a mixture of wildflowers in the colours of the Brazilian flag.

Against a background of green foliage Glebionis segetum (Corn marigold) gives us yellow, Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower) blue, and Silene latifolia (White campion) the white of the stars in the centre of the flag. The seed was sown in April and is just now – with no help from the June weather – starting to come into flower.

Look out too for a splash of red from the bedding Salvia ‘Forest Fire’ (the red Salvias that have been popular bedding plants since the 19th Century were bred from the Brazilian native Salvia splendens) and some lively Brazilian street art on boards around the garden.

Behind the scenes and brilliant bees

Behind the scenes and brilliant bees! One of our Engage volunteers, Shelagh, tells us her top five favourite things about being a Horniman volunteer. 

'I've been an Engage volunteer since April 2012, and besides working in the Nature Base and on the Object Handling Trolley, I have helped out at the Mud Kitchen with the Stroke Group, the craft workshops, and making bug hotels and bird treats with children.

I missed being a volunteer for nearly a year from Autumn 2013 due to cancer treatment and coming back has been an important part of my recovery.

The top five things I’ve learned from volunteering with Engage are:

1. Wonderful BEES!
The live bees are a unique catalyst for conversation and learning with visitors and amongst the volunteers. You can see the queen laying eggs, pollen-laden workers coming in and unloading their 'pancakes' of pollen and stacking them into cells, 'waggle-dancing', workers taking a disc of wax from between their own segments and moulding it on to the comb. When people are gazing in on this miniature world and all its goings-on, they (and we) are in a really opened-up and curious state, and the conversations can go in so many directions: the life of bees and our relationship to them, food, hierarchies, the environment etc. I often wonder what other catalysts for this kind of opened-up conversation we could create.

2. The Horniman is a fantastic community resource.
This needs a whole blog to itself! Not only are the museum and gardens a brilliant green space in SE London, but the Horniman proactively reaches out to the local community in learning and entertainment and attracts a wide diversity of visitors. Over the years my family and I have been frequent visitors to the Horniman for drumming and dance classes, 'Late' events, live music, watercolour and writing workshops and just to hang out in the cafe.

3. The Horniman is good to its volunteers.
When I was looking for voluntary work in spring 2012, I tried several organisations and the Horniman stood out a mile for being organised, friendly, communicative and offering good training before and after starting the work. As volunteers, we are also encouraged to contribute our ideas to enhance visitors' experiences of new exhibitions. The backstage and social events also help to create camaraderie amongst the volunteers.

4. Behind the scenes at the museum.
I was amazed to learn that only a tiny amount of the museum's objects are on display at any one time, and was fascinated by the visit to the collection at the Central Store early on in my time as a volunteer. The Engage Backstage events are a great way to learn more about the collections, their care and origins. Visitors often ask us questions about where the objects come from - in many cases, no one knows where, when or who collected the object. We have also had the chance to see new exhibitions being installed e.g. Plantastic.

5. Back to the bees.
Following my own curiosity about the bees has led me to find out more about them - who knew that they not only communicate information about food sources to each other through the 'waggle dance' but also by vibrating the combs, or that the temperature the larvae are reared at can influence what sex they turn out to be, or that the colony is not organised as a hierarchy with queen or "top bee" in charge? Biologists now believe that the colony can be seen as a "super-organism" i.e. the whole colony is equivalent to a single animal.'

Find out more about becoming an Engage Volunteer.

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