Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: this bee is Goodenough for me

One of the things I love about the insect season in England is the diversity. We are surrounded with doom messaging around wildlife in the UK – it really is too much – but that’s what you get if you only look for birds. The invertebrate world is far richer, more complex and fundamental.

In April and May the first of the nomad bees make their appearances. I spend a lot of time making a fool of myself trying to keep up with these solitary bees. They are extremely beautiful and very cool-looking. Twice in April I witnessed nomad bees in my garden and on both occasions they passed me by.

One afternoon while #WorkingFromHome I went downstairs for a break. I noticed an insect on the inside of the windowpane. It was a nomad bee! I couldn’t believe my luck. I grabbed my camera and attempted to get some photos of this now very slow bee (it was a cool, wet and grey day). I got some average images and then decided it was time to get this bee back into the wild. I ushered it onto my hand and found that it didn’t want to leave my skin. It gave me a great opportunity to take some better images. I’m not sure of the species, they are difficult to separate.

I had another bee-break but this time in my garden and on a better day. There was so much happening in the hedge I didn’t know where to look. I saw three nomad bees flying around and resting but never long enough for me to get a decent pic.

The sun dipped in momentarily and the cooler air forced the nomad bee to remain on this leaf. I got as close as possible. When I submitted the photo to iNaturalist someone suggested it was Gooden’s nomad bee. That’s… Goodenough for me. Now do people see why iNaturalist is so much more preferable to iRecord? You get help with your identifications, not just thanks but no thanks from our man in the shires.

What do nomad bees do? They’re parasites of solitary bees, with some species laying their eggs in the sites of others. Their eggs hatch and the larvae consumes the eggs of the host, before eating its food stash. Not nice in human terms (because we’re all so lovely) but definitely something that has been occurring for many millions of years.

Thanks for reading!

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Latest from the Blog

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: how I garden for wildlife (in 3 minutes) – video

This morning I recorded a 3 minute video zipping through the key areas of my garden and how they support wildlife. Just before I pressed record a sparrowhawk nearly took my head off as it was chased away by a starling! Wish I’d caught that on the video.

Here I quickly outline the key habitats and luckily manage to film some bees demonstrating why ‘weeds’ are important, too.

I think I promised something like this a few months ago, so enjoy! Of course I’d love to do some more in future if I can find the time.

Thanks for watching!

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: City Nature Challenge 2021 (in the South Downs…)

In recent months I’ve become somewhat addicted to iNaturalist. It’s a website or app which collects species records but has AI which can identify a species from a photograph. It can be used by anyone and even has an auxiliary app called Seek which can scan plants, animals, fungi and other animals and identify in real time. It’s the way ecological monitoring is going. Nature conservation is dominated by too small a cohort of people and needs to find ways to open its doors to more people. I will never forget hearing of a lifelong species recorder who wouldn’t provide their sightings to science, and that they would rather be buried with them than share them.

It’s lamby time

Onto more inclusive ways of thinking, over this bank holiday weekend it’s the City Nature Challenge (CNC) where people the world over submit species records to iNaturalist and into the project. As of 10pm on Sunday 2nd May there have been 631,418 sightings submitted. Amazing!

I went to a part of the South Downs that was just about included in the Brighton CNC catchment. I used my zoom lens rather than a dedicated macro because I was doing general ‘work’ with creatures great and small. I used an Olympus 12-45mm lens which can still do macro to a degree (in normal camera terms it’s 24-90mm because I was using a Micro Four Thirds camera, which has a cropped sensor). It worked like a dream.

Xanthoria parietina, a sunburst lichen

I photographed each species once, rather than everything, which would never work – can you imagine? I’d still be there now. I really noticed how, even though I probably recorded about 100 species on the South Downs Way, it was dominated by a small number of species. Ground ivy was very common, as was hogweed, white deadnettle and nettles.

Another Xanthoria sunburst lichen

The most dominant species were nitrogen-loving, just like this golden shield lichen above which is able to deal with fertiliser and other agricultural pollutants. I wonder how different things might have been before the Second World War’s agricultural boom. The Downs is known to have lost a vast area of chalk grassland in the 20th century, one of the rarest and richest habitats in Britain.

Two ravens (centre) and a red kite

I will save you all the generic images of flower-less plants. I did manage to capture record shots of ravens mobbing a red kite, of which there were several. I love ravens, they are such intelligent and characterful birds. They are also not quite common enough to feel as familiar as crows or jackdaws.

A heath snail

One of my favourite encounters was with this heath snail which was curled up (so to speak) in the flower head of a dandelion or hawkbit. I instantly saw this and started talking to myself dangerously loudly about what a nice image it was. I hope you agree!

Hawthorn trees with the Arun Valley in the background

I inspected some old hawthorns that were dotted on the edges of the grasslands. I’ve heard they’re good places in the South Downs to find lichens. Though I found nothing outrageous, there were some beautiful species growing on the branches.

These are possibly the beard lichen Ramalina farinacea. iNaturalist has a weird name of farinose cartilage lichen. Farinose seems to mean mealy or floury. That’s a new one for me.

A small parcel of woodland atop the Downs

On this section of the South Downs Way there is a sudden square of woodland which the path cuts through. I had always thought this was perhaps planted or some recent woodland that had grown up on fallow land. But I found something that makes me think very differently about it.

Town hall clock

This is the first time I’ve seen town hall clock or moschatel. I was amazed to find it. It’s an ancient woodland indicator, which suggests that the woodland is far older than I had realised.

Cowslips flowering en masse

It was nice to witness the typical downland spread of cowslips. Last year we got locked down before this began, and now I’m just getting back here at the point that they’re peaking.

The view towards Amberley

The weather started behaving like something you’d expect in the Yorkshire Dales which cut my species recording short, bar a few desperate snaps in the cold and wet march back to the start.

I managed to capture this footage of a hunting kestrel, hardly macro, but worth sharing.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: it’s time to squash our stupidity around wasps

Social media is a dangerous place sometimes. People can end their careers at the click of a button. This blog may end my career as a bee-keeper, which hasn’t started yet.

Last week a video appeared in my Twitter timeline of a bee-keeper filming the swatting of a wasp. “Don’t tell Chris Packham” was the punchline (pun not intended). For any readers outside of the UK, Chris Packham is a wildlife conservationist with a large following and strong presence in the media. The video drew criticism from many established conservationists, Dave Goulson, for example, who has written several books about the importance of a wide range of insects, many of which are found in gardens.

The video was deleted and the bee-keeper evidently realised they had made a mistake and had something to learn (great stuff, now stop killing wasp queens please). But it was the kind of interesting insight that can only sometimes be provided by a mistake. Is the crushing of wasp queens (this person claimed to have killed more than 40) common practice? Is it encouraged by people within the industry, on the quiet? Judging from the bee-keepers I know, I would be absolutely astonished by that. What did astonish, however, was that this individual used to provide a monitoring service for the English government’s department for agriculture!

A German wasp harvesting woodshavings in my garden to build a nest somewhere

In keeping with that, a fellow bee-keeper pointed out that wasps remove a huge number of agricultural pests from the environment, which will ultimately benefit the farming of honey bees. Therefore killing wasp queens was harmful to far more than that squashed insect. Unfortunately this dim-wittedness is all too common in Britain, a micro-version of the continental European hunter’s desire to kill anything with a curved bill and talons, as I once heard someone say about the situation in eastern Europe.

It offers uncomfortable questions around industrial bee-keeping, which is a form of livestock farming, that may need to be fully addressed.

In much better news, there was a watershed moment for wasps in the media in the same week, however. Damian Carrington of The Guardian published this excellent article about the importance of wasps. It has some amazing science in it but also pointers to the economic importance of social wasps. This paragraph stood out:

Overcoming prejudice against wasps will not be easy, the scientists said, because they have long been portrayed as hateful. The ancient Greek polymath Aristotle wrote that โ€œhornets and wasps โ€ฆ have nothing divine about them as the bees haveโ€. In the Bible, God sends hornets as punishment to sinners in three different books.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/29/stinging-wasps-are-precious-not-pointless-say-scientists

Anyone who read this blog last year knows I have been trying to make this point in a more amateur way week after week. Wasps are not just one black-and-yellow species that annoys you at the picnic table every August. In the UK we have thousands of species, something you can’t say about most animals on these isles.

Take this solitary wasp, which I referenced in a previous post. iNaturalist reckons these are in the family Cheloninae, a group of ichneumon wasps. This wasp was absolutely tiny, with about 20 of them gathering on the edges of a shrub. They are one of several thousand species we have in the UK, with their value potentially not understood by science and certainly not economically. For 99.9% of the population that is the case due to their size and the fact that, you know, why would you look unless you blog about this stuff?

A median wasp pollinating raspberries in my garden last year

In recent weeks I’ve watched a wasp queen land in my basin pond to drink, sometimes several times a day from what I can see. She flies in and always picks the same spot. I love to see her. On a sweeter note, I watched another queen (or perhaps the same one?) visiting gooseberry flowers to nectar. In the late summer we’ll pick the fruit she helped to create, and wasps will be welcome here. This offer is unconditional, despite how annoying their workers will be in the summer to come.

Thanks for reading (and not squashing).

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: a hairy day in the hedge

We are at that point in British springtime that feels like a tipping point. The leaves of most deciduous trees are out in small, decorative versions of their summer selves.

The insect life has passed meaningful boundaries: mason bees have have hatched from the hotels and the early species are looking a little overwhelmed by the new life around them. Take the hairy footed flower bees. Now they will rest for a photo, after a month of never settling much at all.

I spent a five minute screen break in my garden observing the silent flight of a mourning bee, a bee that targets the hairy-feet. Its flight was deceptive, hard to know what kind of insect it was. That must be part of its success.

My small chunk of ornamental hedge was once again alive with insect action. There was a party of solitary wasps dancing at the edge of the hedge where I have had to cut back and replant. I will never be able to tell you their truest selves, such is their familial diversity.

A solitary bee that I see often but haven’t yet identified was flying in good numbers. It is such a hairy thing, with a flush of ‘facial’ hair and bristles jutting out from its abdomen. I think it’s an Andrena mining bee.

Hoverflies are always part of the picture. Droneflies flew in midair, legs akimbo, or else bathed with their motorbike helmet compound eyes monitoring my distance.

A brief visitor to the edge of a flower pot turned out to be something more interesting. Users on iNaturalist identified it as a species which is likely an accidental introduction to the United Kingdom, a species I haven’t knowingly seen before.

I spent some time with my camera-mounted face glued to the bee hotel. I am beyond caring what onlookers now think, simply because I’ve shared sightings with my neighbours and they are so keen to let me know what I’ve missed.

I’ve taken their advice on garden plants. Now a beautiful blue Lithodora sits in a pot on the patio, nectared on by hairy-footed flower bees. Lithodora is a borage relative, native to southern Europe.

Evening when the sun is softer can be a good time to check hedges for calmer insects at the end of a busy day. I found a non-biting midge with its punk-antennae. An expert on iNaturalist informed me that it is rare to identify these insects beyond family level, of which there are many! Whatever its acute identify was as a life form, this miniscule, barely visible to the naked eye. Its bottlebrush headpiece was the perfect way to see out a hairy day in the hedge.

Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII and 60mm f2.8 macro lens with 16mm extension tube

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Recent posts

Macro Monday: the mourning bee

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.

Let’s hope so.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday: the macro ninja

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.

Another sign of my rustiness is this sighting of a queen wasp visiting the small hedge. She was nectaring on flowers of the-plant-I-can-never-remember-the-name-of. I have posted quote a lot in the past year about wasps, I love them. A user on iNaturalist identified this as a common wasp queen, Vespula vulgaris.
The same plant was supporting both more species and the non-sensical notion that non-native plants or animals have no place on These Great Isles. This was perhaps the second or third marmalade hoverfly I have seen in the garden this year. They are a nice entry into the world of hovers and are super common.

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.

The nursery web spiders were basking once more in their spring way. They are lovely spiders and I think could probably help more people to partially overcome any fears they may have. This was an interesting article (with a clickbait title) on spiders being pushed into civilisation by floods in Australia. And then there was this about the discovery of a depiction of a spider god in Peru. I wish people revered invertebrates in the way they did birds and mammals. Also, fungi.

Finally, a sign of spring’s imminent arrival is this bunch of guelder rose flower buds. Enjoy these spring days if you’re living in the Northern Hemisphere, they’re gone before you know it.

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with Olympus E-M5 MIII and 60mm f2.8 macro lens.

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Macro Monday: Return of the Mac(ro)

Macro Monday 1st March 2021

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.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday: a spring inkling

Macro Monday 8th February 2021

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!

Thanks for reading.

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Photos taken with Olympus E-M5 Mark III & 60mm f2.8 macro lens

Further reading

Macro Monday: Jack Frost

Macro Monday 4th January 2021

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.

Thanks for reading.

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