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How to be a curious entomologist

Our volunteer, Helen, tells us how an afternoon with the nationally renowned Richard Jones helped her catch the entomology bug. 

The Devonshire Road Nature Reserve tucked away in the middle of residential Honor Oak is a real gem of South East London and only a stone’s throw away from the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

On 22 July, Richard Jones, the nationally acclaimed entomologist, led a group of excited wannabee entomologists into the meadows of the reserve armed with nets, magnifying glasses, collecting pots and test tubes to boot.  

Richard explained the right technique for using the nets, sweeping across the flora and grasses casting our nets far and wide to ensure a good catch to put in our test tubes.  We were advised to let go of species that had already been identified, particularly Bumble Bees and Butterflies and take back to the lab those insects useful for education and research that could be identified and ultimately added to the national database.  We were already feeling like debutante entomologists.

We were shown how to humanely kill our specimens with a form of ether, ethyl acetate, and to prepare and focus our microscopes so we could do the curatorial bit of mounting and labeling our bugs.

Picking up the array of micro pins with tweezers, a vital bit of kit used for spiking the smallest of insects required a great deal of care, patience, and a steady hand when working with the microscope.  For the flatter specimens, mounting them on card with a gum glue was the preferred method before adding data labels to our specimens. We had now become real citizen scientists.

As I left the nature reserve, with a spring in my step and renewed interest in plant bugs, leaf bugs, tortoise bugs, green shield bugs, the soldier beetle, picture-wing flies, and hoverflies – their facts and figures buzzing inside my head, I couldn’t help but feel that life just got a whole lot more curious!


13 Facts About the Horniman Gardens

The Horniman Gardens have been awarded their 13th consecutive Green Flag Award – one of a record-breaking 1,797 UK parks and green spaces in 2017 to receive the prestigious award, the mark of a quality park or green space. To celebrate, we’ve gathered together our 13 favourite facts about the Gardens…

1. Frederick Horniman first opened his garden to the public in 1895, and when he gave his new museum to the people in 1901, the gift included the ‘pleasure gardens’, intended as ‘a pleasant retreat for the visitors after an inspection of the collections themselves’.

2. There have been many changes since then. Over the years there’s been a wishing chair, tennis courts, a water garden, a putting green, and of course the boating lake, the base of which remains at the bottom of Meadow Field.

3. The Horniman’s Nature Trail is the oldest in London. It runs on the site of the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway which closed in 1954. The area was left untended until 1972, becoming a wild woodland. Now carefully managed, the Nature Trail has just received its ninth Green Flag Community Award.

4. Two trees were planted in the Gardens in 1937 to commemorate King George VI’s coronation, as noted in the Royal Record of Tree Planting from the time (page 247). See if you can spot the Purple Beech and Double White Flowering Cherry next time you visit.

5. Our current tree-planting programme includes rare and endangered trees. The Wollemi Pine in the Prehistoric Garden and a recently planted Sapphire Dragon Tree are both Critically Endangered species.

6. The Gardens are also home to other declining or protected species of plants and wildlife – look up and see if you can spot some mistletoe, or down to keep an eye out for stag beetles (be sure to record any sightings).

7. An ecological survey of the Library building’s green roof recorded 52 insect species living there, including a rare type of ant and other unusual species. We also have a living roof on our Pavilion. And, no, we don’t mow them!

8. 97% of our Gardens’ waste is turned into compost on site, and reused for soil improving and mulching. Food waste from the Horniman Café is also composted and used in the Gardens as a liquid fertilizer. Yum.

9. 16 acres can take a lot of watering in hot weather – but 187,000 litres of waste water from the Aquarium’s water filters are reused in the Gardens each year. It has too many impurities for sensitive fish and corals but is perfect for plants.

10. The formal planting in the Sunken Gardens is changed twice a year, for spring and summer. The current design, by Apprentice Gardener Ian, features more than 5,000 salvias, marigolds, cinerarias, and cannas, and took the Gardens team seven days to prepare and plant out.

11. The Tea Clipper Rose was created by David Austin for the Horniman in 2006 to mark the centenary of founder Frederick Horniman's death. Named for his tea-trading heritage, you can see these apricot-coloured blooms beside the sundial overlooking the Sunken Garden.

12. One of the newest areas of the Gardens is the Butterfly House, which opened this summer. More than 500 plants create this tropical environment providing habitat, food for caterpillars and nectar for hundreds of free-flying butterflies.

13. Over the summer we’ve been growing 20 varieties of pumpkins and squash in the Display Gardens. They’ve just been harvested – and some of them are whoppers. Watch out for them in a seasonal display, coming soon.

New Ornamental Grass Border for Horniman Gardens

Award-winning plantsman Neil Lucas has designed a new ornamental grass border now on display in the Horniman Gardens.

Over the past few weeks, the Gardens team has been hard at work planting a new border of ornamental grasses in the Horniman Gardens.

Grasses from around the world will feature in a new design by specialist plantsman Neil Lucas, a recognised authority on ornamental grasses and owner of Dorset's Knoll Gardens

  • , New ornamental grass borders on display in the Horniman Gardens.
    New ornamental grass borders on display in the Horniman Gardens.

Neil – holder of 10 consecutive Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals – has created a bespoke design for the Horniman that highlights 20 different varieties of grasses planted in regular-shaped blocks, for a bold visual effect.

Currently surrounding the Horniman’s seasonal pumpkin patch, the border will, in time, frame a more naturalistic central display garden, which will be linked to the opening of our World Gallery in 2018.

About the Art: Wind Organ

We spoke to Ali Miharbi to learn all about his new 'Wind Organ' installation which can be found in the Horniman Gardens.

  • Ali_Miharbi_Wind_Organ_Horniman_300dpi (002), Delfina Foundation− © Delfina Foundation
    , Delfina Foundation

What the materials are that the pipes are made of?

They are made of stainless steel pipes.

How tall they are and their maximum width?

Each of them is 3 meters tall, but there is an additional 75 cm part that is underground to hold them in place. The maximum diameter of the pipes that they’re made of is 7 cm. There are also 2cm and 4cm sections and the poles that support them are also 4cm.

How are the different vowel sounds created by the pipes?

When the wind flows through the slots, the pipes are played by the wind, like a side-blown flute is played. Different combinations of pipe diameters act as filters and change the characteristics of the sounds. Each pole carries three separate flutes welded on top of each other. They face different directions so that they can capture a wider range of wind directions.

How long did each pipe take to make?

Altogether the production took less than a month, but the preparation was longer. There was a period of a few months for testing different materials and techniques by building prototypes. Also, the idea was a result of much earlier projects that used air compressors instead of wind

What inspired this installation?

The Wind Organ is a continuation of my ongoing interest in the materiality of sound, information, and its relationship with space. My solo exhibition at Pilot Gallery in Istanbul in April 2017 was entitled "Pneuma" and revolved around the subjects of wind, voice, breath, the routines as well as the unexpected of everyday life for which weather was not only a metaphor but also a component that sometimes literally flowed through the work. Getting out of the gallery space and experimenting with the wind directly was something I had been thinking for a while and I had been doing research about aeolian harps (there is one in the Horniman Museum collection that I saw during my residency at Delfina foundation in Winter 2017) and other instruments played by the wind, and as an extension of my previous work, I had the idea to connect the voice-like sounds I have been experimenting with, with an instrument played by the wind. Not only the musical instrument collection and the gardens, but also other collections of the museum such as the natural history department all resonated with these ideas.

How did you go about creating it? What different iterations did you go through with this piece?

First came the rough idea where there were many different options for the technique, some of them unknown at the beginning. Then came research. At the end, practical tests gained speed, but they were always informed by what people have done and found out earlier in many other fields such as experimental music instrument building, the acoustics of speech, and aeolian instruments - both contemporary and traditional.

Was the result what you expected?

More and less, but when everything was finished, the final feeling of watching and listening to it had an unpredictable and unexpected aspect which is is a nice thing to have.

What would you like people to think of or consider when they experience the sound or see the installation?

I think this is one of those pieces that speaks for itself, as long as there is some breeze giving it a voice. Even if people would watch and listen to it without knowing that the shapes they see were designed after vowel resonators, they still wouldn’t miss much.

This installation is in our Gardens. How important are nature and the outdoors to your work?

Since this is an instrument played by the wind, it is crucial that the piece is outdoors and directly influenced by the wind. But this is the first time I am making such an outdoor installation. A lot of my previous works consisted of indoor installation and many of them required electricity to function.

Be sure to visit the 'Wind Organ' before 26 November 2017.


Everything you need to know about butterflies

As we get ready to open our Butterfly House, our Horniman volunteer Karen shares some of her best pictures and favourite facts about butterflies with us.

Like many, I adore butterflies, but I seem to see them all too rarely these days. As a child, growing up in Liverpool, I was totally smitten by butterflies. Summer after summer butterflies would appear in abundance in our garden and back then we didn't have mobile phones or tablets, so I would excitedly look them up in reference books I'd borrowed from my local library; from the humble cabbage white to the more exotic looking red admiral, and beautiful tortoise shell.  But these days, maybe because I spend most of my week either in an office or on the underground heading to the office, I’m in relatively few situations where I get the chance to see them. 

I am very fortunate to have a balcony attached to my flat; a small outdoor space of my own where I've tried to create my very own miniature wildlife oasis for insects and birds. I eagerly and regularly buy plants from my local flower shop in the hope that I might attract bees and butterflies, but sadly my gardening skills leave a lot to be desired and invariably my plants die, leaving me seeing very few, if any, of these visitors to my balcony. 

So in order to get my butterfly fix, I've recently been making an annual trip to the Natural History Museum's butterfly house. This was, in fact, the only place locally I knew where I could be close to and enjoy the company of these astonishing little creatures.  But that was until now, as this is about to change.

I have to say that I could barely contain my excitement when I heard that the Horniman Museum was building its very own butterfly house! So in anticipation of this summer’s opening, I would like to share with you some facts I have learned and pictures that I have taken of our colourful garden friends. It’s difficult to do them justice, but I hope you like them.

There are 4 stages in the life of a butterfly and in each stage, the butterfly is completely different:  

They start their life as egg 

  • Butterfly Eggs, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

They then become a caterpillar 

  • Caterpillar, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Then a chrysalis in which the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly and emerges

  • Butterfly Emerging, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

The butterfly then looks for a mate to reproduce and the cycle begins all over again

  • Courtship, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Butterflies are diurnal

They are active during the day whilst sleeping at night, hiding away under leaves, or between rocks. 

  • Butterfly 1, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Butterflies hibernate

It may come as a surprise but some butterflies actually hibernate over the Winter months and some survive this period either as a caterpillar or pupa. 

  • Butterfly 2, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Butterflies don't have noses or lungs

Adult butterflies, as well as caterpillars, breathe through a series of tiny openings along the sides of their bodies, called "spiracles." From each spiracle, there is a tube called a "trachea" which carries oxygen into the body. Butterflies smell using their antennae.

  • Butterfly 5, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Thank you for reading. And just for fun, can you find out which species of butterflies are in the pictures above?

A contrast of colours in our Sunken Garden

Apprentice Gardener Ian Painter, tell us about his designs and planting for our Sunken Gardens summer bedding scheme.

Hi, my name is Ian and I have been working as an apprentice Gardener at the Horniman for almost three years now.

We change our Sunken Garden bedding twice a year, with a summer and a winter bedding. This has been done for many years now, since the Gardens were redeveloped in 2012, and this year I was responsible for planning the summer display.

  • Summer bedding in the Sunken Garden, Connie Churcher
    , Connie Churcher

Both college and work have taught me a lot about bedding, so I knew that I needed to plan. To get started, I looked at previous years’ plans for inspiration and guidance, which we keep for that purpose. The measurements for the beds is 202 square metres: the two c-shaped outer beds are 68 square metres each and the middle four patches equal to 66 square metres.

When it came to choosing the plants for the bed, thinking of previous displays, the Salvia has always been a top choice as it’s highly cultivated and comes in a variety of colours. The previous Salvias we have had were two different cultivars but different shades of red: "Blaze of fire" and "forest fire" which were both very popular. Salvias are resistant to diseases, are easy to dead head and reach about 30cm tall.

I knew I definitely wanted Salvias, because I know how good they look and they are my favourite summer bedding plant, but I wanted to move away from red salvias.

I was taught that the best combinations of colours were either complementary colours or contrasting colours which are opposites on a colour wheel. White is a neutral and can go with any combination of colours.

I knew I wanted purple as my girlfriend had inspired me to use that colour, and I wanted to go with a contrast of colours, so the colour wheel led me to yellow.

With these colours in mind, I discovered a Salvia called “Salsa Purple” and used the contrast of Marigold “Yellow Boy”. I needed a third colour but struggled to find a dark orange or a baby blue to maintain the contrast, instead opting for a neutral: Cineraria “Silver dust”.

  • Summer bedding in the Sunken Garden, A bee tucking in to Salvia Salsa Purple, Connie Churcher
    A bee tucking in to Salvia Salsa Purple, Connie Churcher

Now I had my three colours and plants, I needed some height. A good dot plant for summer beddings is cannas so I got a “Tropical white” canna to sit in the purple Salvia groups and the silver Cineraria. Not only does it add the lovely green of the stem to the bed colours but it has a lovely white flower.

  • Spot planting, Connie Churcher
    , Connie Churcher

The next step was to sketch out a design. As well as it being colour co-ordinated, it shows how I wanted the plants laid out. The blue dots are the cannas.

  • Summer bedding in the Sunken Garden, The design for the Sunken Gardens, Ian Painter
    The design for the Sunken Gardens, Ian Painter

We started by rotavating the bed, which turns the soil, and added chicken manure pellets before smoothing the bed out. At this point, we measured the bed using my plan, and used bamboo sticks to mark out points, using sand to create the lines. My drawing was to the scale of 1cm = 1metre.

  • Summer bedding in the Sunken Garden, The rotavated bed with bamboo sticks that mark out the pattern, Ian Painter
    The rotavated bed with bamboo sticks that mark out the pattern, Ian Painter

  • Summer bedding in the Sunken Garden, Then the different sections were marked out in sand, Ian Painter
    Then the different sections were marked out in sand, Ian Painter

Once the marking out was done I transported the plants to the site and the planting was finished over a week.

  • Summer bedding in the Sunken Garden, You can see the pattern forming with the plants, as well as the sand marking out the scheme for when we get to that area , Ian Painter
    You can see the pattern forming with the plants, as well as the sand marking out the scheme for when we get to that area , Ian Painter

Finally, we watered the plants with a sprinkler and spread slug pellets by the box hedging. 

I’m pleased with how it has turned out. It’s caught a lot of attention and pleasant comments, so I am very proud of it. Although this post makes it sound brief, it was a lot of hard work!

  • Summer bedding in the Sunken Garden, The finished result, Ian Painter
    The finished result, Ian Painter

The other members of the team and I put our heart and soul into making the bed and would love you to visit to see our hard work. I hope you have enjoyed this blog or learned something new, and if you do visit I hope you’ll love the summer bed as much as me and the Gardens Team do. 

Muddy Bees is back

With our outdoor play session returning Wednesday 5 July and Tuesday 26 September, volunteer Gemma Murray provides us with some great ideas how you can have some messy but manageable fun at home.

Muddy Bees is an outdoor play session for under 5s run by the Horniman throughout the summer months and there are two more sessions left for this year: Wednesday 5 July and Tuesday 26 September.

Since we are lucky enough to have our wonderful Gardens at the Horniman Muddy Bees takes place on a grand scale. With a massive water butt, several tables, and tonnes of pots and pans, we can offer you sand, water, mud pie making, and lots of messy fun.

However, often parents will ask us for ways to replicate our games in the more confined spaces of their own homes and gardens. So here are my top five outdoor game ideas, be warned though, there's always bound to be a little mess.

Plant Sprayer Shootout

Set up a series of targets around your garden, this could be anything from plastic cups and bottles to something as simple as a sheet of paper with a target drawn on it. Arm each child with a plant sprayer and see if they can hit the targets. Older kids will have to stand further back than younger ones in the interest of fairness. Watch out, there's a high chance that this could spill over to a fully fledged water fight.

Water Drawing

Another one that makes use of plant sprayers, but a clean set of paint brushes and a pot of water works just as well. This one couldn't be simpler, just let your little ones loose on whatever surface they can find. Fences, patios, and walls will all become blank canvases for them to express themselves on, and you could end up with a clean patio for their troubles too.


Chalk can look rather tasty so make sure nothing ends up in your kids' mouths, but, like water, chalk offers a chance for children to express their artistic sides with minimal cleanup so drawing on pretty much anything goes. 

Water Trays

Make your own paddling pools with just a tub of water. This works very well with babies but big brothers and sisters will probably want a piece of the action too. Adding food colouring to the water can prove an interesting experiment for older kids who want to see what colours they can mix together but can lead to bright blue fingers leaving their mark. 


Gather up ingredients to brew a 'magic' potion in any waterproof container you can find. Sticks, mud, leaves, petals, stones, or whatever your kids can get their hands on are sure to result in something as magical as it is messy. Last year, my kids were delighted to discover that their concoction made in a chocolate tin has transformed into a viable pond full of growing grass and little wriggly things. I was a little less thrilled when it came time to clean up.

Spring Welly Walk

This spring, a group of young explorers and their families walked the length of the Horniman Nature Trail.

They were accompanied by nature guide Shayna Soong and armed with binoculars and a Signs of Spring spotter sheet.

Only one of the families had visited the trail before, so this was a real walk on the wild side for most of the group.

The Horniman Nature Trail lies in an area that once formed part of the so-called Great North Wood. Other fragments of this wood are found in this area at One Tree Hill and Sydenham Hill Woods.

In 1865 a railway line was built to bring visitors to Crystal Palace. This was the London, Chatham and Dover line. Almost all trees and vegetation were cleared to make the railway. A railway bridge used to cross London Road here to the Lordship Lane station.

On our walk, we looked for historical clues and relics that remind us of its history as a railway line, such as the bumpy clinker underfoot.

We also looked for signs of spring. The challenge was to keep an eye out for blossom, flowers, birds and pond life and fill out a spotter sheet. Once the sheet had been filled out, they could shout out BINGO (but not too loud as to disturb the wildlife!).

We used a parabolic microphone to listen to birdsong which brought the lively chirping and tweeting so much closer.

A male newt from the pond was met with shrieks of delight as it showed off its breeding spots and crests. We also looked at the bat boxes and bird boxes along the route.

What will the Summer Welly Walk bring?  Come along on Saturday 8th July to find out!

We also have two exciting Bat Walks coming up, one for families on the 11 August and one for adults on the 18 August. Come with us to explore these exciting creatures. 

Birds in the Horniman Gardens

Ornithological consultant and bird expert David Darrell-Lambert tells us what to expect at our annual Dawn Chorus Walk

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert
    Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert

How long have you been leading the Horniman Dawn Chorus Walk?

My first one was seven years ago, seven years! I didn’t realise that it has been so long.

Are the Horniman Gardens a good place to hear the tweets of the dawn chorus?

The Horniman Gardens are an excellent place to hear the explosion that erupts as the dawn chorus starts. You have a nice mix of habitat there with the wooded section along the bottom of the hill, the open grass section in the middle and the gardens at the top. This means you get a nice variety of birds and not too many so you are bombarded, which can be daunting.

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Stock Dove, David Darrell-Lambert
    Stock Dove, David Darrell-Lambert

What birds are you likely to hear?

A great variety, from Great Spotted Woodpeckers to Blackcaps to Goldfinches to Great Tit to Wrens – you can stand on the Nature Trail and hear two miniature Wrens trying to out-compete each other with their loud vocal skills. Once the early birds have finished then you get the second wave with species such as the Goldfinch jangling away from the various chestnut trees in the grounds.

What are the most distinctive bird tweets?

That would be either the Robin, which sings the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with long pauses between each burst, or the Great Tit, singing the mechanical Tea-cher, Tea-cher, Tea-cher.

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Robin, David Darrell-Lambert
    Robin, David Darrell-Lambert

Do you have any good tips for bird watchers and listeners out there?

Don’t try to learn more than one or two every time you go out; you’ll just overload yourself. Join a guided walk and listen to the explanations as to how you can distinguish between the different bird song you can hear. If you don’t know what species is singing, try to find it or record it on your phone, then you can upload it to a website and ask people what it is.

What do you love about listening to the dawn chorus?

You never know what you will hear or how the birds will behave. Only last week, I heard a Wren giving an odd song/call – a rattle all on one note – that stumped me completely.

Book tickets for the Dawn Chorus Walk on 6 May or join David on Big Wednesday: Spring for a free tour.

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