Hello darkness my old friend: tips for dealing with dark winter mornings

As memories of summer fade into autumn’s golden hues, we see the days shortening and must tackle those dark morning starts. It’s not something our ancestors had to contend with – they rose with the sun – but it’s one of the demands of modern working life.

If, like me, you’re relatively happy with a sunlit early start, but find autumn and winter mornings difficult, here are some tips on coping with dark mornings once the clocks have gone back.

Top tips for dark morning starts

1. Get out during the day, even if it isn’t sunny. Exposure to natural daylight can lift our mood, even on an overcast day.

2. Keep up exercise. It may feel harder when the weather isn’t at its best, but regular exercise is a great way of combatting daytime fatigue. A daytime walk, run or cycle outside will combine exercise and daylight exposure.

3. Think about taking a vitamin D supplement. Our skin synthesises this vitamin when exposed to light so shorter days may mean we are producing less.

4. Connect with nature. Getting outside is also a great way to stay in touch with the natural world. This is great for our wellbeing; noticing the little changes around us helps to remind us that spring is on the way.

5. Stay Hydrated. When we wake up we need to hydrate and this can contribute to feeling fatigued. While a caffeine fix is the first choice for many, try drinking some water first.

6. Prep the night before. Get as many things done each evening so you don’t have to start each morning with an unappealing to-do list. This might include choosing clothes for the next day, making a packed lunch, or packing your work bag.

7. No screens before sleep. If you’re finding it hard to sleep, or you aren’t feeling refreshed on waking, make sure that you aren’t using a screen for the last hour before bed. The light from screens can disrupt the natural rhythm by which our body prepares for sleep each day.

8. Turn off the snooze button. It’s very tempting to think ‘just a few more minutes in bed’ but it may be better to start your day straight away and avoid the risk of oversleeping. Turn the snooze button off and and put your phone or alarm out of reach, so you have to get up to turn it off.

9. Turn the light on. Put the light on as soon as you are awake. This will help your body maintain a sleep-wake rhythm and avoid daytime fatigue.

10. Try listening to some epic music on your way to work. Something like the film theme from The Lord of the Rings will make even a familiar walk or the most humdrum commute feel like an momentous quest!

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Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

I wrote this post for the ‘Crunchy on the outside’ blog from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It’s a Zooniverse citizen science project that might be of interest to anyone running a school science club from KS2 upwards.

Measure beautiful bees from around the world to help biologists understand why bee species are declining. The Big Bee Bonanza is a new citizen …

Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

All about ants! I wrote this for the Crunchy on the outside blog in response to a question we received that really made us think about ants and what ‘success’ means in terms of a species.

Noah contacted us recently with an intriguing question: ‘What is the most successful species of ant?’. It really got us thinking! Insects are a very …

Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

‘Do earwigs really eat your brains?’ and other pressing questions.

An interview for the University of Oxford Environmental Sustainability Group about my schools outreach work with the HOPE for the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford:

https://sustainability.admin.ox.ac.uk/article/talking-biodiversity-with-hope-for-the-future-project#/

You might also be interested in the Insect Investigators Summer School we are running in August 2021, and the online resources we produced for young people at home.

First published 24 July 2021

Picture credit: Barry R Dean CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lost for natural words?

Galium aparine.
Image credit: Eveline Simak CC-BY-SA 2.0

What would you call this plant? For gardeners it might be a weed, for naturalists, a wildflower, and to botanists it’s Galium aparine. For our ancestors, it was an important natural resource: edible, medicinal, useful as animal fodder, and important in cheese production.

For generations of children, though, it has simply been a source of fun. The stems, leaves and seeds are covered in tiny hooks. These evolved because they assist seed dispersal when they become caught in animal fur. This means that the plant will also easily stick to clothing leading to games and pranks that young children love.

Surface of G. Aparine fruit.
Image credit: Stefan Lefnaer CC-BY-SA 4.0

For these reasons, G. aparine has a host of common names. You may know it as ‘goosegrass’, ‘cleavers’, ‘stickybob(s)’, ‘sticky willy’, ‘hitchhikers’, or perhaps ‘Velcro plant’. It has also been called ‘bedstraw’ because it was once used as a mattress filling. It has many other names, and that’s just in English. The plant is known to many cultures because it has a widespread distribution across Europe, North Africa and Asia. It is also found in North America and has become naturalised in Central and South America, and many other parts of the world.

Despite its long social history, our connection to this plant might be becoming lost to modern children. I hope that the wonderful names for this plant are not disappearing as one of the ‘lost words’ described by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris in their wonderful book of the same name.

In my work for the HOPE For the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, I visit schools for ‘Insect Discovery Days’, helping them to discover new things about insects and their importance in ecosystems. While we frequently find children who are a fount of knowledge on this topic, when we begin to explore local green spaces, especially in urban areas, I find that children are disconnected from nature and may not have words to describe even common plants and animals that they find.

To my surprise, this happened recently when children were lost for words to name this common plant. There was a lot of new growth across the ground in a wooded area and it began to stick to children’s socks and trousers, as we explored the copse. Some children found that it then stuck to the arms of their coats as they tried to pick it off, much to their delight.

For many of the group this seemed to be a new experience. When we began to discuss it, it became clear that most children did not have a name for the plant. When I asked them what they would call it, I had one response of ‘sticky bobs’, but most children responded with adjectives like ‘sticky’ or ‘prickly’ rather than common nouns.

I responded with some names I knew it by and explained how the tiny hooks made it stick to clothes. We also found some aphids feeding on it.

I was glad to have introduced them to part of the natural world (anof course, the insects we were there to study) as well as a little of its folklore, but remained disconcerted that this information, such an intrinsic part of my own generation’s childhood, was so new to them.

Fortunately, that school has a well planned and protected wildlife area and are partners in a community orchard – especially welcome in an urban setting. Perhaps, as we all emerge from the restrictions of lockdown, we can take some time to reconnect with nature, and help children share in the simple delight that previous generations found in the natural world around them.