Beijing, 17 August 2013

It was flowers in the Spring. It is insects in the high summer. Because this posting, following on from my previous two on dragonflies and crickets, will be on water striders. I began to notice them a week or so ago, on my daily crossings of my piece of canal to and from work. As is my habit, I was looking over the water to see what was new, when a sudden, evanescent dimpling of the water surface caught my eye. Then there was another, and then another … No doubt about it, the water striders were out and about, skittering across the water’s skin.


I love these insects, they are part of my childhood. During those long summer holidays which my family spent in France with my grandmother – golden-hued in my memory – I spent a lot of time with my cousins biking across the countryside. In those days, there were still a lot of lavoirs, washing stations, dotted across the countryside. They were places where the women (no men, of course …) used to come to wash the family’s clothes.


They were located along a stream. Sometimes, a basin would be built alongside the stream, fed by it and discharging back into it.


But just as often, the women washed directly in the stream; if necessary, a small dam was thrown across the stream to create a pool of still water for washing.


By the time my cousins and I were biking around, the lavoirs were hardly used any more. The march of the washing machine across the landscape was underway. But the infrastructure was still largely intact. We would often stop at the lavoirs, for a rest, to splash our faces, wash our bikes if needs be – and to watch the water striders. The pools of still water which had been created for the washerwomen were very much to the striders’ liking, so they haunted these spots. With the casual cruelty of little boys, we would take a poke at the striders, watching them skim away across the water’s surface. We were fascinated by their ability to stand on water (it’s not for nothing that another name for these insects is Jesus bugs).

I’ve been boning up on water striders, primarily to understand how it is that they can stand on water. I won’t bore you with the details, but it has to do with being light, spreading this light weight over a number of legs, and having a lot of hairs on those legs. This is enough for them not to break through the water tension. Who wouldn’t like to be able to walk on water? With our weight, we can only walk – or at least sit – on mercury.

man floating on mercury

I remember being fascinated by this photo when I saw it years ago in an article in the National Geographic on mercury. Now, with everything I know about the awful effects of mercury on people, it makes me shudder profoundly.

In passing, I’ve also learnt how water striders feed.  When an insect falls into the water, the strider senses its struggles through small vibrations and ripples in the water surface. It darts across to the poor thing, pierces it, and injects saliva. The enzymes in the saliva digest the victim’s tissues. The strider then sucks up the partially digested broth.

Now that I’ve totally grossed out my wife and any other normal readers, I put in this nice close-up picture.

Pond Skater Portrait



Water spiders:
Man floating on mercury:
Water spider-closeup:

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg


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