Back in London and a chance to see what my Mum and Dad’s garden had to show for itself on the first day of May. This is when we really start to get into the pollinator season, which peaks in July. The weather was perfect for macro with no harsh light.
I noticed how the dandelions in their pre-flowering phase also look like lions. Their name actually means tooth of the lion from the French “dent-de-lion”, which is one of the great common plant names in my view. Also a reminder of how the English language takes from so many others (did you know English also contains ‘Viking’ words like sky, eggs, and happy?!) The leaves look like teeth but the flowers look like lion’s manes. I’d love to learn more about the history of the name in England.
The ladybirds were quite active. We may be looking at the invasive harlequin here.
I saw this micro-moth on a few occasions, if they are the same species. Their behaviour was similar and their patterning is also.
It’s always nice to see a bee-fly, unless you’re their prey. They can’t have much longer left of their season.
My Dad spent ages trying to control the Spanish bluebells that were running rampant. They are a difficult species to remove. That said they are attractive both for photos and some pollinators like mason bees.
My final image was of a hoverfly I see quite a lot that holds its wings in to its body, making it difficult to observe its markings. I think this one looks like a metallic robot from a 1980s sci-fi movie.
I spent Good Friday with my Mum in London and managed to sneak in 5 minutes of macro photography in her garden. It was a warm but fairly overcast afternoon, which is pretty perfect for macro. This is because the light is softer, creating less contrast in images, and not so hot that insects are hyperactive.
Every spring my Mum and Dad’s garden explodes with self-seeded forget-me-nots, lesser celandines and garlic mustard. The forget-me-nots are truly stunning flowers.
Up close and under a macro lens they are even better. I didn’t get a photo of their full spread, but this tweet completely sums up how I feel about them:
I think it’s a good idea to normalise calling certain things ‘wildflowers’ rather than ‘weeds’.
Years ago my Dad used an old enamel sink to make a pond. We put some marsh marigold in which has proven very content indeed in that small basin. It’s a good nectar source for bees in particular.
One of my Dad’s favourite plants in the garden was the smokebush which grows outside the kitchen window. The colours are incredible when in full swing, but the plant is no less beautiful when it comes into leaf. One of the last proper conversations with my Dad was when I told him I had cut this back (it was getting quite big) and he thanked me for it. I can’t tell you how significant that is now.
I noticed a familiar bee whizzing around the gooseberry bush – another of my Dad’s favourites, which he would pick fruit from and put into desserts, but also curse the woodpigeons who sometimes ate all the crop in one go! This little red bee is a tawny mining bee, one of the early solitary bee species that we get in southern England. Here you can see it pollinating the gooseberry flowers, that highly valuable ecosystem service you may have heard about. Also note the ant approaching!
The ant is clearly approaching the bee, which in turn is shifting ready to fly. You can just about make out the ant’s mandibles opening in a threatening manner.
The ant has done its job and the tawny mining bee has fled the scene. I can only guess that the ant sees the bee as a threat to any aphid farming operations which are taking place on the plant, or happening nearby. The mining bee is no threat to the ant or the aphids. It only wants nectar and pollen.
I didn’t know that I had captured this scene – it is out of focus after all! But it is a reminder if you spend even a few minutes looking you will find some drama going on out there.
Two years ago I began posting a weekly macro blog, mainly because of the UK Covid-19 lockdowns, which only allowed us to leave the house once a day. I kept to those rules to protect other people, ultimately sacrificing much of the time I would have been able to spend with my Dad in the final two years of his life. If you’re in the UK and in touch with current affairs, I think you probably know why I’m making that point. During the lockdowns I spent a lot of time in my garden, in a house we had only just moved into, and relished the opportunity to get to know the tiny lives being lived in the small space of my back garden.
I mention all this because I now have nothing like the same amount of time to spend outdoors in the garden. So what time I do have out there is precious. One thing that hasn’t changed too much is that I am one of those privileged people who is able to work flexibly and I can visit my garden on breaks. I’m yet to receive a passive aggressive post-it note from a bespectacled Somerset MP.
I popped out one morning recently and found a neighbour had returned, though they were rather nervous about leaving their own quarters. For many people, it’s a similar issue.
Last June I got some of my best ever macro photos as I leant over my fence, straining my lower back to capture photos of a fencepost jumping spider. I was pleased to see this beautiful spider in the same spot once again this year. It was rather timid and if I got too close it would dart back in. The photo above has been edited to bring out the shadows so you can see those beautiful cartoon eyes. I think this species is mainly interested in hunting the flies and other winged-insects that bask on the hot spot of the fence top.
The spider did venture out on occasion, but after a couple of minutes I felt it was best to leave it to do its work, what is of course key to its survival.
In June 2021 I undertook a variant (not that kind of variant) of the Wildlife Trusts’ 30 Days Wild campaign. I decided to try a month-long project of taking a macro photo every day: #30DaysMacro.
It was a lot of work, mainly in processing and tweeting the photos to keep up with the community aspect. But it reminded me of the importance of making time for yourself each day, even if only for 5-10 minutes, to go outside and look at things other than a computer or phone.
In the past 18 months my salaried work has become screen-based, when once I used to spend several days outdoors each week talking to people and monitoring wildlife. It’s not healthy, but it’s a byproduct of UK lockdowns.
I feel a bit as if this was such an intensive assignment that it has burned me out a bit photography-wise, among everything else happening in Brexitland (it didn’t come home in the end 🦁🦁🦁). I definitely hurt my back from some poorly considered leaning over waist-high hedges (bending with my lower back, not knees, etc.).
Almost all the photos were taken in my small urban garden, with a handful taken away from home. All were in Sussex. I am adamant that travelling for macro is often unwise, depending on your focus. Macro takes a lot of time and if photographing wildlife, you need to know your patch. Otherwise you spend ages trying to understand the landscape when you could be taking photos.
Below I go through the photo captured each day. Hopefully this post unclogs my macro blogs, which have been waiting on this monster post for a while now.
Thanks for taking a look and I hope it inspires you to consider the wilder things in life.
1st June 2021: aphids protecting their young (I think) on the underside of a sycamore leaf.
2nd June 2021: a noble false widow spider in my porch. There is a whole lot of hysteria about this species, which has actually been in the UK since the 1800s. It has caused me no trouble.
3rd June 2021: a moth resting on a leaf at dusk. I was working quite hard to get this pic and as the temperature fell it calmed a bit and let me get close.
4th June 2021: a noble false widow spider on my kitchen surface ledge. The weather wasn’t great on this day, so I had to find something in my house!
5th June 2021: a red and black froghopper in the South Downs near Alfriston. I walked 20 miles on this day for Macmillan Cancer Support and found this lovely hopper snoozing in the field edge.
6th June 2021: a mint moth selecting its preferred thyme flower. This is one of the more common or visible day-flying moths I encounter.
7th June 2021: a green shieldbug, the most common of its kind in my garden.
8th June 2021: one of the highlights – a fencepost jumping spider in my garden (on the fence!). I wrote a post (lol) about this encounter which you can read here.
9th June 2021: a bumblebee worker drinking aphid honeydew from the curled leaves of an apple tree in my garden. This was fascinating behaviour, with many bees of different species visiting this tree to nectar. I posted it on Twitter and a lot of people got in touch to say they were seeing the same thing. Glad I shared.
10th June 2021: a wonderful caterpillar in my green alkanet patch. I’ve not attempted an ID yet.
11th June 2021: this is a fly I see often in the garden. It is so cool. Its wings often whirr around its body as it walks around a leaf.
12th June 2021: a weekend away in East Sussex, met this well-travelled painted lady butterfly along a country lane.
13th June 2021: the carapace of a European green crab at Rye Bay.
14th June 2021: a beautiful gingery moth that spent the weekend looking after my house for me. Not sure of the species.
15th July 2021: the halfway point and an exciting find. I spotted a bee in the garden which looked unusual. Having got a photo I saw that it was a sharp-tailed bee. Delighted to have this in my garden as I’ve never seen one before and it was a new species for the garden list.
16th June 2021: green nettle weevils are funny. They play hide and seek sometimes. This weevil was happy enough to have its photo taken for a little while.
17th June 2021: a wet and rainy day when I thought a photo might not be possible. The hedge in my garden was alive with these beautiful snails. I opened the aperture to allow blur to occur and highlight the swirling shell.
18th June 2021: common jelly spot grows on the bird table in my garden. After enough rain has fallen it bursts back to life and probably chucks out some spores.
19th June 2021: a plume moth on another wet one in the garden. I love the pattern on this species, which I think may be a beautiful plume.
20th June 2021: a trip to the Adur Valley which I blogged about here. A ruby-tailed wasp, one of the most beautiful insects in the UK.
21st June 2021: another rainy day. I have learned how to find meadow spittlebugs in grass heads in recent years after finding one just outside my back door.
22nd June: a hairy masked bee (perhaps the American name), one of the yellow-faced bees, Hylaeus. These are tiny bees and not easy to photograph.
23rd June: one of my favourite partners in macro, a zebra jumping spider. They’re devilishly tricky to get in focus sometimes. I think this is just out, but I like its posture.
24th June: a running crab spider waiting for its lunch delivery. The fly behind probably didn’t know it was there.
25th June: another highlight which caused quite a lot of back strain! Here you can see an ant harvesting (and I think consuming) the honey dew from aphids they have farmed. This needs a blog all to itself to go through the amazing ecology of these two species.
26th June: I went to my local nature reserve, a farm managed by the council, to look for some different types of arthropod (insects and spiders, basically). It was hard work but I got some decent images. I like this one because it looks like this beetle is attempting to get better signal! This visit needs its own blog post as well.
27th June: I was tired after my macro outing the day before but managed to find this small green fly in my garden. I like its 1980s robot-like compound eyes.
28th June: I had been observing a large, dangly spider that lives in the corner of my kitchen for several weeks. I decided to get a closer look and was amazed by what I found. This is a cellar or daddy longlegs spider. They are from the tropics and are well established in the UK, having been here for hundreds of years. This also needs its own post!
29th June: I planted stachys (lamb’s ears) especially for this species, the wool carder bee. I haven’t seen much of them this year but they did show up towards the end of June. I love them, they’re also easy to photograph in cooler weather as they just clamp on to the flowers and chill. I blogged about them in 2020.
30th June 2021: and so the final day. I dropped by a favourite Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve on the way home, which I posted about here. This tiny slug was having a good look at me as I searched for mushrooms and slime moulds. It felt like a good reminder that as much as I was watching the wildlife, it was also watching me.
Thanks for making it this far and I hope you will spend some time out there looking out for insects, spiders, slugs and snails. They need us.
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.
The light was low over the Arun valley. To the south the Sussex coast was a band of grey concrete, the horizon between sky and sea broken only by the pale sticks of the offshore wind farms. The Isle of Wight rested out at sea to the west like a great sleeping sloth.
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.
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
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.
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!