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!
So lockdown is over – why bother sitting in the garden when we’ve all been given the green light to take ourselves and our Sainsbury’s bags for life (not) to the Dorset coast. All 500,000 of us. I’ll tell you why not, because I mostly stayed alert in my living room watching the garden get burnt to a crisp by plus-30 degree heat, and blown hither and thither by gusting winds. In my magnified eyes, this is not the time for macro photography.
Last week I didn’t notice the level of social media OUTRAGE around the fact that flying ants were on the wing again. I love these moments in the year, unapologetic expressions of ecological processes starring wildlife. When once we might have seen megafauna heading off on mass migrations (wild horses, etc.) now we just get flying ants in June. This ant, with its shameless expression of wing-ability, was spending the evening on the gate.
A judge of how much our wildlife has been reduced is that there are no toads to hoover up the offerings from the Hymenopteran (bees, wasps and ants) gods. The photo above was taken on one of those evenings in Peckham in south-east London circa 2015. It’s probably London Wildlife Trust‘s most-used toad pic. Might just retire.
After watering the plants of an evening I found this vine weevil roosting in a weed (purple loosestrife) for the night. Two things ‘gardeners hate’. Personally, I’m not bothered. My attitude towards invasive species is taking on an apocalyptic framing – if they can deal with, even prosper in, the world we are cultivating, fair play mate.
Vine weevils are so despised because as larvae they eat the roots of plants. How very dare they! I was actually like so pleased because this was the first weevil for my garden list. Is it still a lockdown list, or is it a ‘great thawing’ list. We may never know.
This brief flirtation with the evening garden (sounds like Danielle Steele) provided some new species for my garden list. The most excitement(!) came from this solitary wasp, a species of ‘tube wasp’ (nothing to do with Transport for London) which was visiting an ornamental yarrow. I papped a pic in hope and it just about worked out. It could be this species.
In the category of ‘non-portfolio images’ was this very small black wasp. This is probably a species in the Crossocerusgroup.
You can see where they get the common name of ‘square-headed wasps’. Plenty of those to be found on Twitter if you click any trending item. Kidding guys, your opinion on #countryfile really mattered yesterday!
This is the larva of a lacewing, which are sometimes found collecting ‘trash packets’ as the Americans might say, of bits and bobs they find on their travels across soil and shrub. I know what you’re thinking: Ernest Hemingway. Think again.
Here’s one from 2019 in the garden I used to manage (the estate agents were not happy). Aren’t we all like this little lacewing larva, collecting our bits and bobs on life’s journey. No plastic or fossil fuels required in this case, though.