In this post: garden bees, extension tubes and woodland lichens
The ‘Stay at Home’ message has ended in England but I’ve learned my lessons in this pandemic year. Macro is a time-consuming activity and the less time spent travelling means more time spent honing the skill and having a good time!
One person whose photos and work ethic I really admire is Penny Metal. Penny’s work is focused on a small park in Peckham, south-east London. She photographs species I would never have imagined possible in Inner London, where green space is a rarity.
The lesson for me here is: keep it local, have faith and you never know what you might achieve. From one of Penny’s accounts last week I saw a mourning bee and a comment that they were abundant.
Now, I’ve only ever seen this bee in rural Surrey near to Box Hill (for those who don’t know, Box Hill is probably the closest SE England will get to a mountain and is a hugely popular place). It seems Penny was capturing a trend – mourning bees were perhaps having a good spring.
And then, on one afternoon last week I encountered this bee in my garden. Mourning bees are parasitic on hairy-footed flower bees, a species my garden is very popular with. I was delighted to witness it feeding on the shrub I can never recall the name of.
That afternoon felt like a watershed moment. Though we have gone from 24 degrees Celsius one week to sub-zero the next, the spring bees are now on the scene. The above is a red mason bee (Osmia rufa), the first I’ve seen this year.
There were more bees, most of whom were not willing to be featured on this blog. To which I would say: whatevs.
This weevil seemed to think it was having a Lion King moment. I’m here for it.
And this yellow dung-fly. It may spend its days cavorting on cow pats, but if you’re willing to pose for a pic for me like this, I don’t care what you get up to.
Away from my garden hedge, I’ve finally bought some decent extension tubes. This is to give better magnification for my macro lens and peer even further into the wild world.
Needless to say, it’s not easy. The woods are not great at the moment, after hot and then very cold weather, the wildlife is a bit baffled. In my local Narnia I tested my new kit out on these Cladonia cup lichens. A nice person on iNaturalist identified this as Cladonia polydactyla. The red tips were so small they could not be seen without a macro lens and the extension tubes. Hopefully it’s a decent start to years of the greatest lichen images the world has ever known.
Last year we installed a pond in our garden. It’s nothing special, just an old washbasin bought from an antique shop sitting on the patio. It has flag iris, some figwort and other aquatic plants bought from the garden centre. I noticed a couple of weeks ago the first resident of the pond, a water beetle zipping around the underwater vegetation. I didn’t get enough of a look to identify it, not that I would have done much there anyway.
One morning I spotted a downy feather resting on the pond’s surface with some drops of dew sitting on it. Looking closely the feather’s fibres were like lightning bolts or fungal hyphae spreading out across the surface of the water. I was crouched down over the pond to the point that the postman didn’t see me and got a fright:
‘You scared the living daylights out of me there, Dan, you’re like a ninja!’
New Instagram handle: Macro Ninja.
Hairy-footed flower bees have continued their territorial dominance of my garden. The male bees are a flippin’ nightmare to photograph, the image above took a lot of channeling my inner ‘macro ninja’ to approach before it flew away.
In the past two weeks the all-black females have appeared and are now being followed by the male bees as their pairing routines develop. Above is an archive image from a few years ago.
An example of why bright sunlight isn’t good for macro photography can be seen in Exhibit Z, above. This was fly does have an orange beard though which was something I hadn’t noticed until I drove up the shadows bar in the editing software.
It’s true that macro doesn’t end when bees and butterflies are no longer on the wing. But there is something about the first flying insects of the year that feels different. Autumn and winter macro is often a static experience, a bit like landscape photography. In spring and summer, if you’re looking to photograph invertebrates, it’s sometimes a case of the wild goose chase, minus the goose. There is more energy required, a different set of skills in approaching skittish bees or wasps. You need to be more patient, and the results can be life-affirming.
After a cold snap at the beginning of February, we’ve seen much warmer temperatures towards the end of the month. The above photo doesn’t look like much, it’s a hawthorn bud. But it’s about to break and with it the incontrovertable truth that winter is finishing and spring is breaking.
Another sign of spring last week was the basking of nursery web spiders (Pisaura mirabilis). Here is one catching some rays on the petals of a winter hellebore in one of their favoured patches.
This spider let me get very close before edging away. When I stepped back I noticed that it had reverted to its favoured spot again.
My homegrown polypores are coming to the end of their fruiting stage, probably because there hasn’t been any rain this week for them. I think it’s turkey tail.
This year I am putting in more nectar rich plants which I know are good for bees. I’ve also got a new, bigger bee hotel as seen above. For anyone who’s interested I’ll put together a post on my wildlife garden and what has and hasn’t worked.
The other day I saw a baffling tweet from someone angry that people were declaring ‘spring is here’. The person mansplained February and told people to ‘get your head down’. For me, observing even the most minute hint of spring in midwinter is a real cause for hope, especially in a pandemic. For me it’s the vixen’s glass-shattering bark in January, a sign that foxes are mating, and that cubs will soon be playing in the railway sidings among primroses and (in British urban environs) Spanish bluebells.
The seasons are not chunks of meat separated out through the year. I think it’s important we notice and appreciate the smaller things. They can teach us about our changing world.
Now to the macro. Last week we had one day of glorious sunshine, amongst what has otherwise been a grey sky shutdown. My personal relationship with direct sun is getting more complicated, with skin that burns within minutes without protection. This is the kind of weak winter sunlight I can get behind, or in front of?
On that sunny day I popped into my garden for just 10 minutes to catch some of those gentler rays and see what was stirring in the wild micro-world.
This fly was not bothered at all by my presence. I think it’s something like a yellow dung fly.
Revisiting one of the best patches for spiders and other inverts in my garden, I found this nursery web spider basking on the petal of a winter hellebore. They remind me of early spring, the time of lesser celandines.
On a nearby foxglove leaf was another spider. This is a species of wolf spider which is commonly found in this little patch. My spider knowledge is basic, but I would say these two species are common in urban areas.
Finally, it was nice to see some genuine larger fungi growing. This is maybe turkey tail or smokey bracket, a small polypore nonetheless. It’s growing on a small stump left from a tree of a former owner. I’m glad it’s there!
In this post: garden bees, extension tubes and woodland lichens The ‘Stay at Home’ message has ended in England but I’ve learned my lessons in this pandemic year. Macro is a time-consuming activity and the less time spent travelling means more time spent honing the skill and having a good time! One person whose photos… Continue reading Macro Monday: the mourning bee→
Last year we installed a pond in our garden. It’s nothing special, just an old washbasin bought from an antique shop sitting on the patio. It has flag iris, some figwort and other aquatic plants bought from the garden centre. I noticed a couple of weeks ago the first resident of the pond, a water… Continue reading Macro Monday: the macro ninja→
Wishing you a pleasant New Year and hoping for more fun in 2021. I’d like to say thank you to everyone who stopped by in 2020 to read a post or to comment. I really enjoy reading your comments. The number of people visiting doubled in 2020 so it’s great to know what I’m sharing is being seen by some. People from all over the world are tuning in, so hello from my little corner of south-east England!
What better way to get started in 2021 than by looking at the smaller things in life, in the face of all the big things our tiny brains are having to compute at the moment. On New Year’s Eve I went out for a walk to my local patch and found it covered in frost.
When I was a child my dad told me that Jack Frost lived down the side of the bed and if you put your leg or hand down there he would get you. I had visions of some icy blue bloke living under my bed until I was old enough to know better. Thanks dad.
Thankfully Jack Frost wasn’t out on a walk at the same time on NYE.
Frost and ice are macro cliches, if there is such a thing. Regardless of how the photos may come out, it is fascinating to zoom in on the micro world when it’s covered in frost. Here was a birch seed frozen to the underside of a bramble leaf. I like how the seed looks like a butterfly. There are many similarities across nature in this way, the likeness of a natural river channel to the blood vessels or the structure of some vascular plants.
This area is covered in bracken in the summer. In the winter it falls into matts of vegetation which stop any trees or plants from breaking through. The woodland ecologist Oliver Rackham reckoned bracken was the most common plant in the UK and that its domination was due to the loss of roaming hogs (either as wild boar or commoner’s livestock) from the landscape, where they cause disturbance to the soil when rooting around. The thing about a lot of plants, regardless of their impact, is that they can be very beautiful. That’s why beauty is not often a good compass for how we treat the land. Rhododendrons, anyone?
Mosses come into their own in the wetter winter months. They bring colour to otherwise dour landscapes. Woods are beautiful places but they can be grim in the December-January bind when the light is low and mud takes precedent. These are the sporophytes of what I think are a type of feather moss. They produce spores, like ferns and fungi, to reproduce. It’s an ancient form of reproduction which pre-dates insect pollination.
While I will leave the lichens to their #FungiFriday slot, I thought this lichen and moss bouquet was a lovely way to see out/in the old and new years.
Today is the winter solstice. The darkest and shortest day of the year is the perfect time to look back at one of my fondest summer macro memories. It might also cheer some of you to see photos of sunnier, warmer times, teeming with wildlife.
In August 2016 my friend Peter Beckenham and I travelled to South Moravia in Czechia. This trip was completed by train, with a route of London-Brussels, Brussels-Cologne, Cologne-Prague sleeper, Prague-Brno and back. I really recommend this (maybe not right now) as a much better way to travel than flying. You see more, go to more interesting places and reduce your environmental impact.
For macro photography I was using a Nikon D750 and Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens. Most of the photos seen here were taken at f11.
Moravia is home to varied landscapes, rivers, wetlands, mountains and woodlands. It of course suffers from the vagaries of intensive agriculture, particularly because of the impacts of the Soviet Union. But its protected landscape system is strong and there are many committed environmentalists who spend much of their free time recording species and promoting and educating people about nature.
The reason I know about these meadows is purely because of local ecologist, conservationist and educator Zuzana Veverkova. Zuzka has taught me so much about European nature, landscapes and cultural heritage. All the thanks here go to her.
The meadow is at the end of a street in the Kyjovka valley. It is surrounded by woodlands, largely managed for forestry and intensive arable farms. Zuzka works to enhance the landscape by advising on the creation of meadows, orchards and other sustainable landscape models which will provide habitat for the rich biodiversity of the area.
You didn’t have to be in a meadow to find diverse invertebrate life. In Zuzka’s post box (attached to an external wall of the house) a colony of European paper wasps had built a nest. They are ready to sting you, so I observed from a distance. They were feeding on umbellifers in the slither of garden in front of the house. We don’t have this species in Britain.
Another species of wasp, but instead an ichneumon (probably a Gasteruption species) was foraging on the flowers.
The wasp action didn’t end there. A red sand wasp had burrows in the soil. I’ve mainly seen this type of wasp on heathlands in the UK. They’re rare because of their dependence on a single habitat type, one of which, in heathlands, has seen a lot lost to forestry and development in the UK.
It was pretty incredible to see that the wasp had caught a honey bee as prey and was leaving it to one side while it went about its business.
The meadow itself, where the ‘garden’ insects are likely to have been visiting on longer foraging trips, was not far away. Here is my friend Peter Beckenham pretending he lives in the meadow. Pete is a bird-nerd and he had plenty to find in this area. He heard a common rosefinch calling in the trees in the distance, a species I haven’t seen yet.
When Zuzka introduced us to the meadows, she immediately found something cool for us to see. This is a European praying mantis. I feel like the mantis could be mistaken for a puppet master here, directing the movements of Zuzka’s hand. They do of course have some sinister behaviour anyway.
The meadows were kitted out with flowers, matching some of the most diverse grasslands Britain has to show, if not more so. Of course continental Europe has far richer grasslands than Britain due to geological processes, connectivity with a wider landmass and probably climactic reasons. We have also ploughed up 97% of ancient grasslands in the Britain. But this wasn’t even a nature reserve. In the UK people fight campaigns over much less diverse habitats, which is still very important.
We visited in August, so there was some quite mild weather which meant the insects were less active. That is perfect for taking photos because the animals are slow and usually perched somewhere helpful. This is a cricket.
On a flower stem this cricket was poised, its wing casings apparent here in their translucent green.
It was very easy to miss this long-horn moth, having attached itself to the sepals of this scabious flower. These are day-flying moths, which include some very beautiful species.
An ermine moth was nectaring on this umbellifer. They look like dalmatians.
I felt sorry for this shieldbug with a red spider mite attached to its head. iNaturalist suggests this is a species in the Carpocoris family.
Nearby was a green shieldbug hiding away in the florets of field cow wheat. I love the colours in this photo and it’s definitely one I consider a ‘portfolio’ image.
One morning in the meadow, after a night of rain, I found hundreds of small blue butterflies perched in grass heads. A Czech user on iNaturalist suggested this is silver-studded blue. I find some blue butterflies really difficult to identify. This image conveys the beauty of a macro lens: a sharp, thin field of view, with a dreamy blur of green in the background.
Far from being a wilderness, the meadow was on the edge of a municipal part of a village that was growing, but slowly. I spent my final morning of that trip taking photos in the meadow. What you can’t see in this image are swallows flying low across the top of the sward. A special memory! Then again, they were eating my subjects…
On social media in recent weeks one of the dominant fungi photographed has been a bright red cup fungus. This species is one of the most visually stunning, standing out like an elf’s sore thumb in a winter wood. I’m talking about scarlet elf cup.… Continue reading #FungiFriday: scarlet elf cup→
As someone who works from home 9-5, I have to break up my days and get exercise through one or two short walks a day in the daylight hours. I often pass through a cemetery on one of those walks. Last week I noticed a double gravestone which was acting as a green wall. It was absolutely dripping in moss. I tweeted about it:
The best moss images I’ve managed to take have been in the New Forest National Park. This is juniper haircap moss, which I caught just as the evening sun was slipping away:
I liked the mossy cemetery scene so much, and even though I stepped in dog poo at the time, the next morning I headed back. This was the photo I had in mind:
I had about fifteen minutes and this was the best I could do at the time. I really need a tripod and more time to get this right. Nevertheless, when I looked closer at the stone itself, I noticed a herd of miniscule invertebrates:
I recognised them as globular springtails. This is possibly my first attempt so hopefully I can get a clearer image in future. There’s a helpful guide to them here. Springtails are found in huge numbers in soils and are a key part of soil biodiversity. Apparently they also enjoy graveyards.
I think what the springtails are particularly interested in here are lichens. Thankfully, I am also interested in lichens and we’re about to move into that season. I was so enamoured with the springtails that I went back at lunchtime. It appeared then that the springies were actually grazing the lichens.
This is not over. (Technically for this week it is, but you know what I mean). Hopefully more springtails next week.
I did say this blog would make the odd appearance, outside of insect season. Here we go again! I’ve spent some decent stints in the woods recently. It always surprises me how much there is to see at a very small scale in woodlands at this time of year. That’s even before the frost, snow or ice has come into play. In southern England it looks like snow could be coming.
I was looking for fungi on both occasions but with less of a sense of expectation. It’s a better way to be, you’re more relaxed and open to finding new things. Though most plants have shed their leaves by December, there are many which are evergreen. Some plants look especially nice when there has been a bit of rain, with honeysuckle being one of them. This is a time of year when YouTube photographers will be posting videos about droplets.
Honeysuckle is a plant renowned for its scent, which is beautiful. I have fond memories of walking home from the train station at night in south London with the whiff of honeysuckle flowers coming from a local nature reserve. The leaves are tough, what you might expect from an evergreen plant. The cells are not allowing much movement of water molecules, or even gases, which means the water droplets sit on top. I may be wrong about that.
Oak leaves are not evergreen, but they are very tough. A fallen oak leaf is a great platform to find water droplets.
I think quite a lot about how weird some of the things I photograph are. I wouldn’t change that. Most of the well known photographers have massive tripods and are looking for the perfect light in some amazing landscape. Generally I am down in the leaf litter looking for the smaller things. It’s an incredible place to be.
You do find some very unusual things. I spotted this moth, species unknown to me, which had been predated perhaps, or had succumbed to the cold. It looked just like a leaf with an water droplet resting in its underwing. Leaf litter is such an important part of woodland, with the soil being the most important part of all. It’s where much of the magic happens. A UN report has warned about the need to protect soils without delay.
Soils are formed in woodland by decaying organic matter which is recycled by fungi, bacteria and invertebrates. Inside a fallen tree I found these slime moulds, another recycler and consumer of organic matter. I think these are a species of Trichia.
Naturally, last week I summed up this spring and summer of invertebrate life in my garden, thinking it was all over. I was sitting outside one lunchtime, enjoying the kind of sun that doesn’t burn my very pale skin for once. I had seen something flying around that didn’t quite look like a fly and was too small for a bumblebee.
I didn’t pay too much attention to it and went to check on my tomatoes. It was there that I noticed a small bee holding on to a short leaflet of one of the tomato plants. I was really surprised, it looked like a solitary bee. Almost all of their flight seasons have come to an end.
I have a couple of insect books but in October I can’t bring myself to leaf through them. But in this case I had to. I couldn’t work out what the species was. It didn’t really match most of the species, except for one group: the colletes. They have a common name of ‘plasterer bees’ and their most famous species is the ivy bee, which I haven’t ever encountered. The bee above was in Peckham in south-east London at a special wildlife garden managed by London Wildlife Trust. It’s feeding on tansy.
It was lovely to see this bee and for it to pose so obligingly. If you know what it is please let me know!
Autumn is here and the invertebrate season is coming to an end. Temperatures are dipping below 14 degrees and heavy rain is coming. It’s goodbye to our minibeast friends, those tiny ecosystem engineers, for another six months.
It was six months ago that I began this blog, just as the UK was locking down into the Covid-19 pandemic, which has sadly claimed so many lives. Ironically, we are now waiting on the Government to limit our movements once more, as the virus comes back at pace, and cold and flu season arrives.
To our wild neighbours, Covid-19 is not a thing, though it is thought to have originated from the exploitation of wild animals, amid patterns of increasing harm to wildlife habitats. I think writing this weekly blog has helped me greatly to focus on the fact that human life is not the only thing and our troubles do not define everything.
Nature is a powerful thing that even in the smallest lifeform expresses something wild and free. Nature is not an emotional force but it gives hope.
My small urban garden in West Sussex has been the focus of this blog. I am privileged to have a garden and value greatly how it enriches my life. Many people do not share this same privilege, not even hav I’ve recorded at least 62 species of invertebrate: 16 species of bee, 8 wasps, 1 ant, 9 butterflies, 3 moths, 7 flies, 3 bugs, 5 beetles, 4 spiders, 3 damsel/dragonflies and 3 other types of insect. Of course, there are so many more that I’ve missed and those I am unable to identify.
I thought I would wrap up this insect, spider and other invertebrate season by listing some of the highlights below. I’ll be spending the autumn and winter using what I’ve learned to make the garden even more accommodating for wildlife in 2021.
Thanks to everyone for your time in reading these blogs, and for your contributions in comments or elsewhere. Though I will try and post some Macro Mondays through the autumn and winter period it won’t be every week. I wish you well through the months ahead!
“Like 25% of all humans, I am now confined to a new way of living. Work from home if you can and exercise in your garden if you have one. It’s not military arrest, yet. So like many others who are promoting our #NaturalHealthService online I’m starting a weekly Macro Monday blog series.”
“This may be news to some people, but we owe our way of life to solitary wasps. Bees, which are crucial to food production, evolved from them about 130million years ago and their heritage is far more ancient. Everyone hates on the common social wasp Vespula vulgaris, but the are many thousands of species that you slander when you say ‘I hate wasps’. As Chris Packham once put it, when asked what is the point of wasps, ‘what is the point of you’!”
“The biggest surprise in the garden this week was spotted early one morning before I started work. On the side of a hexagonal flower pot I noticed some unusual wing shapes. I realised it was an insect and nipped inside to get my camera. It was in the shade and temperatures were only just rising. It was a mayfly, one of 51 species in the UK. I know very little about this group of insects other than that they appear en-masse over rivers and that they only live for one day. How did it get to my garden? The River Arun is ten minutes walk away but it was a real joy to think it had used my garden to shelter for half its short life.”
“With the physical distancing measures still in place, it’s not possible to do any meaningful macro work away from home. I have been on my official walk from home with a macro lens but it’s not the time. Despite this, the one thing I am reminded of again and again is, with macro I get my best results in my garden. It’s a small patch in a network of open gardens in an urban location, but it gives me the chance to focus on small areas.”
‘A couple of weeks ago I noticed a new species visiting the lambs’ ears in my garden. After work I had gone into the garden to morph into a normal human again. The sun had moved to the point where shade was covering the flowerbeds but still an insect was busy and behaving in an unusual way.’
‘Ok, I know what you’re thinking: you have a nice garden. You’re too kind, but it’s not mine. This is the South Downs National Park. I visited the South Downs for the first time in three months with one aim in mind: macro.’
‘I had gone back to work somewhat shocked by the smash and grab episode. I did feel sadness for the mining bees and the killing field which had appeared in my garden. But that’s a human response to an issue that doesn’t exist. We should feel much greater sadness or anger for a wider loss of habitat than we should say a magpie or jay raiding a nest. You have to remember the bigger picture.’
‘I had noticed a bit of activity and glanced over to see a slender insect flying around the flowers. It was the equivalent of a video buffering over a poor quality internet connection. When it landed on one of the flowers I recognised it instantly as an ichneumon wasp. I ran inside to get my camera and managed to get some good photos: in focus, well lit and sharp enough.’
Thanks for reading, for your comments, likes and support. I hope these posts have helped someone else to become interested in bees, wasps, spiders and other local wildlife. They need us!