I came back from a walk the other day and, customarily, went straight to wash my hands. Looking in the mirror, I noticed something small dangling from my hair. Having just been on a walk my nature senses were fine-tuned and I realised it was an invertebrate. Looking more closely and removing it from my hair with care, I realised it was, one – alive, and two – a jumping spider.
I looked at this tiny spider as it rested on my hand and thought, ‘it’s the same species’. I had my camera with me but perhaps not the best lens, i.e. not a macro, but one with some close-focusing capabilities. I took the spider outdoors, anxious that it might jump and never get outside again. I took photos with what I had. Without a macro lens I had to crop the images heavily in post-processing.
Looking at the photos, I am confident it is the same species again, Ballus chalybeius, the oak jumping spider. That confidence is boosted even more by this purchase, which arrived in the post the other day:
I have no idea where this particular spider came from – possibly from any of the oak trees I walked under? The book above states that the species is one of the only ones found only in trees and bushes. Its common name is oak jumping spider, which means I may have picked it up during my walk as there are no oaks anywhere near my house or along the street. It could also means it’s more common than is understood. That’s the beauty of community science!
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
Hi everyone, No usual blogs from me this week as I’m away in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s been very hot here which makes walking more difficult (for me). The evening light has been absolutely sensational, though. Walked the Muker-Keld loop incorporating the Pennine Way in part. It’s such an incredibly rich landscape of natural and… Continue reading Postcard from the Dales→
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.
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!
Wishing you a happy Bank Holiday Monday if you’re actually able to have one because you’re either English, Welsh, Northern Irish or not having to work through it.
Back in the garden, after last week’s infidelity, it’s quietening down big time. I feel that autumn has come early in my garden. However, I was delighted to be visited by what we all at first thought was a hornet (come on, admit it) but turned out to be a hoverfly.
This is a hornet-mimic hoverfly with the scientific name Volucella zonaria. There’s a helpful guide to them here. These flies lay their eggs in the nests of social wasps, with their patterning probably helping them to fool wasps into thinking they’re also related.
This kind of mimicry is fairly common across the insect world, with all kinds of flies and beetles that mimic the yellow and black patterning of stinging insects like wasps and hornets. There’s even a hornet-mimic robberfly which is quite rare and found on heathlands like Thursley Common.
One arthropod that I spend more time with is my zebra jumping spider neighbour. This spider popped up during a garden lunchbreak. I’ve featured what could be the same spider several times this year. They are fiendishly difficult to get in focus and are much smaller than you might realise. I took about 100 out of focus pics of this spider before I got an injury time winner.
The spider was basking on the rim of a seed tray. It was only later that I saw the reflection in the plastic. It wasn’t a wet day, in fact it was quite sunny and warm. I was relieved to get at least one photo of this beautiful animal in focus to share here.
I’m away next week so may miss out on a post, but hopefully I will have something to share. I always have a macro lens with me wherever I go! Only a little one, mind you.
*Warning*: as you may have guessed, this post contains spiders. Some people may find some of these photos unpleasant, but it may help you to learn to overcome your fear. I am not a spider-psychologist so this is not professional advice, as ever.
Well, what a week that was. Very high nightime temperatures and unbearable heat through the day. I barely spent any time outdoors, let alone in the garden. I really struggle in temperatures over 30 degrees. Most of the images this week come from the post-heatwave days towards the end of the week.
One evening, after the heat had largely dipped, I noticed some odd behaviour from a zebra jumping spider.
It was hanging from the leaf of a climbing rose we have growing from a terracotta pot on the front of our house.
I noticed there was another, smaller, zebra jumping spider (ZJS) lower down on the pot. I think this was some kind of territorial or even courting behaviour. Eventually the ZJS made it down to the terracotta.
It was running around on the edge of the pot, looking for the smaller ZJS. It was a total nightmare to get in focus.
There was also some time to clean its legs while it tried to find out what the other ZJS was up to.
I’ve seen these lovely spiders all throughout the spring, but much less so in the summer. It was nice to see them again.
I also noticed this crab spider floating in midair on its silk. There is something quite weird about this image I think. The limbs look a bit like human or robot arms. This was a pure fluke of hoping it got into focus, even then you can’t really see the spider properly.
I’ve noticed far fewer insects in my garden, probably because the plants we have are largely over. I need to get some late-summer to autumn flowering species like stonecrop to keep things rocking and rolling. I had a look through the hedge while having an afternoon break after the storm took the heat away. I noticed this spider tucked away down in a bunch of leaves in the hedge. The silk is there to help catch prey but also it will react to movement, triggering the spider to attack.
I visited my family home for the first time in 6 months last weekend, a really special experience after such a long time away. My parents are avid readers of this (perhaps that should say, the readers) blog and my mum pointed out to me that there was a big spider in the bath that I might want to include here! YES MUM!
Now there have been several times this week when I’ve noticed out of the corner of my eye a shadow moving across the floor. This is something a lot of people are very unhappy about! But it’s the time of year when giant house spiders are becoming more evident. They are fiersome looking things yet they are harmless. They are more afraid of you than you are of it. They have every right to be afraid, because people will likely try and kill them when they see them, out of misplaced fear.
That said, they are a bit scary to look at and those mandibles are massive. I had my small mirrorless camera with me and a macro lens. The images are quite harsh and grainy because the light was so dank and the flash is a pop-up one without a diffuser.
The spider didn’t actually mind me at all. It was trying to remove some spider silk from its legs by running them through its mandibles.
Far from wanting to harm this animal, I am pleased that we can have such close encounters with big insects like these. If you let them go about their business, there’s no problem. No spider in Britain is venomous. This is not Australia!
Thanks for reading.
Photos taken with Nikon D5600 with Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens and SB-700 flash. Giant house spider photos taken with Olympus EM-10 MIII with 60mm f2.8 macro lens.
A couple of years ago my friend recommended a book called The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich. The book is a memoir about Heinrich’s relationship with his father, Gerd, an entomologist who collected ichneumon wasps but who was never fully accepted by the scientific or academic community. Bernd tells the story of his father’s escape from the Red Army in 1945 and how he buries his collection of ichenumonids so they aren’t destroyed. Gerd travelled around the world collecting specimens.
In Britain we have poorer biodiversity than even our closest continental neighbours because of physical separation from the European landmass, intensifying land management practices, the impact of successive ice ages and, furthermore, the fact our climate is not tropical. But even then, we still have over 2000 species, which you can’t say for other fauna like birds or butterflies.
Reading The Snoring Bird consolidated a personal fascination with wasps, one which has not really travelled beyond blogposts, photos and seeking them out where I can. I’m not a collector of anything other than images.
Ichneumons have what we perceive as an unpleasant ecology. Females use their needle-like ovipositor to ‘inject’ their eggs into the burrows of insects, into crevices in wood or, most appallingly to our species, caterpillars or the larvae of bees. The eggs hatch inside the live caterpillar and eat it. It’s probably where the inspiration for the Alien films came from. To balance things out, insects inspired the creation of Pokemon.
Last week I was sitting in my garden catching up with visiting family. I looked to my right at a pot of ornamental yarrow flowers (Achillea). 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.
I have always wanted to see this species. Its scientific name is Gasteruption jaculator. To find it in my garden was a real surprise and one of the highlights of my time seeking wildlife.
Why might it have visited? We actively garden for wildlife, insects particularly, and there is a log store that this kind of species will seek out. A couple of months ago I saw a similar species hovering around the logs, but I couldn’t get my camera quick enough and it moved on.
There are people whose first reaction to seeing this insect may be to kill it because of its ecology. That, to me, says everything about our misunderstanding of nature. A natural history lesson will tell us that without solitary wasps such as these we would have no social bees, a community of insects which prop up our dependencies on pollination of both crops and other flowering plants (including trees). Social bees evolved from solitaries wasps. The ichneumon’s ecological relationship with bees is one millions of years old, one small part of a web of life that has given human societies licence to develop through an abundance of food.
However, this is an insect which has affected the way some of the science’s key thinkers have framed their own mortality. Darwin doubted that any benevolent God could have created animals which behaved in this way. Not sure about you, but I often think that about Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.
A few years ago I encountered a cousin of the ichneumon that visited me in my garden. It has a far shorter ovipositor and its scientific name is Gasteruption assectator. I was walking on the North Downs when I found the insect nectaring on hogweed flowers. A woman passed me and asked what I had found. I said I’d found the insect that made Darwin doubt God. She looked away with a knowing smile:
The garden is very dry and the insects are becoming more scarce, but that can help to focus on a species and reach deeper into their ecology and the relationship we have with them. We’ll get to that in good time.
I’m writing this on a rainy day so hopefully summer won’t come to an end prematurely. I have one plant which I’m hoping will flower soon that my invertebrate friends will like.
I did a lunchtime circuit of my garden on a warmer, sunnier day and found pretty much nothing. I was just heading back into the house when I spotted this zebra-like patterning on a towel that was drying in the sun.
I realised it was a species of picture-winged fly! I think it’s a species of Urophora.
I snapped a few pics and luckily they focused in on the eye. Looking at a towel this close shows what we fail to see with the naked human eye in terms of microfibres.
The fly family were the most visible subjects in the past week. This is a species that seems not far from picture-winged flies. It’s probably Sepsis cynipsea, a scavenger fly. Its wings do this rotating movement as it hops around in the hedge. They’re known for their relationship with cattle dung, and there are farms about 2 miles away so maybe they travel into small towns as well for fun.
Another black and white fly but much larger than the other species above. I really like these flesh flies, their black and ash-white patterning, and bright red eyes are really attractive. I appreciate that is probably not to everyone’s taste.
But of course, this blog would not be complete without checking in on those gorgeous greenbottles.
To The Man on the Street’s acute frustration, wasps are now active. I saw a wasp peeking out from behind a leaf in a hedge one lunchtime and found that it wasn’t moving. I picked it up and saw that it had been predated, with its lower abdomen missing. I think this was probably the work of a bird, as species like great tit are known to eat bumblebees by basically disemboweling them. House sparrows are also in good numbers in my garden and I often see them picking bees, flies and butterflies out of the air. In this case I’m praying that insects don’t feel pain 😦
Over on the other side of the garden, this wasp was doing its woodcarving work. These woody fibres will be taken away and used to build the stunning nests they make. For anyone who has read this blog series before, you’ll know that I love wasps and am keen to promote their conservation in any way I can. Let’s talk about their nests a bit.
This probably isn’t a common wasp nest but it’s the best external image I have. It’s a nest in a protected landscape in Czechia, the White Carpathians. I think it’s a social wasp nest, rather than a solitary species because it’s a bit bigger but I could be wrong.
This was also taken in Czechia but in a different location. This is what it looks like inside a social wasp’s nest. Can you believe that this is built by wasps? It’s absolutely mind-blowing. We were walking along a forest road and it was sitting there on the ground. The best explanation we could come up with was that the nest had been predated by a honey buzzard and dropped in flight. Honey buzzards mainly eat this kind of thing. At least, that is the most spectacular explanation for why we found it.
So next time you consider needlessly destroying a wasp nest, think about all the craft and insect-skills that went into it. Do you really need to harm it? Can you learn to accept them and keep a safe distance? Can you learn to love them?
Happy 4th month to this blog. I started it as a way to find some focus in the impending lockdown back in March. Since then I’ve taken probably some of my best macro photos, but not necessarily from an aesthetic point of view. I’ve been getting to know my small garden, this being the first year of living with it. I’ve had some amazing encounters with tiny wild animals, and this week was no exception.
On Saturday morning we were sitting in our living room watching the latest episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race All Stars (#TeamShea). The pause button was hit when I noticed a wasp-like creature trying to get out of the window.
This image gives a sense of how active the insect was. It was running non-stop, which gave me a hint at what type of insect it was – a spider-hunting wasp! Also note the very curly antennae. This was a great moment because it’s only the first of its kind I’ve seen in the UK. The only other time I’ve seen one is in Czechia. There are over 40 species of spider-hunting wasp in the UK and I’m not about to try and identify it! They get their name from their hunting of – you guessed it – woodlice. Kidding, spiders. I’ve never seen one with spider prey but I know they need to move fast. They paralyse spiders with a sting and then drag it to their burrow. It’s a tough life out there in macro world.
Earlier in the week it was a real pleasure to listen to a podcast featuring macro photographer Joseph Saunders. Joseph takes photos of amphibians and invertebrates. In the podcast he talks about the challenges of being a black man with a disability in America, but also his desire to work in conservation. Anyone who doesn’t think systemic racism is real needs to listen to what he has to say.
He’s an accomplished photographer who knows his stuff and has had a passion for amphibians in particular since a young age. It would be wonderful to see people like Joseph being given greater prominence in the photography and conservation world, as movements such as black birders and black botanists weeks have done in the United States.
Apparently macro photography now has its own ology – Aperiology, ‘to describe the tiny aperture used to keep these creatures in focus, and the huge world it opens up to us.’
Amen to that!
Now back to my garden, where I am failing to grow courgettes at every turn. However, the yellow flowers have proven attractive for small bees like this yellow-face bee. Not that I’ve seen them taking nectar or pollen from the flowers.
There is a patch of cranesbill which has been the main lure for both pollinator and macro photographer in recent weeks (sounds like I’m talking about someone else – I mean me). The garden is drying out and many flowers have gone to seed, including the lamb’s ears, which has been such a feature this summer.
This tiny pollen beetle was trying to work out how to make its way down from the flower. I enjoy the little pollen grain attached to its back, as in previous weeks.
Greenbottles are one of the most common larger insects in my garden. I think they’re beautiful. Though their faces do have the look of a corset to them. I remember coming home from family holidays to Ireland after two weeks and finding loads of dead flies in our kitchen. We don’t get insect numbers like that anymore, likely due to the insect armageddon (‘insectageddon‘) we are working so hard on right now.
They also can be very willing subjects. This greenbottle is perched on the seed-head of wood avens, which anyone with a cat will know well.
Most of the time spent in the garden was under grey skies and low light. This small white butterfly was roosting in the hedge. I totally over-exposed it and had to under-expose it again in post-processing, which you may be able to tell from the harsh tones to the left-hand side. It’s nice and sharp on the butterfly’s eye though.
Not far away a hoverfly was perched on the broken tip of a branch. Ther weather was cool enough to keep the hoverfly at bay, so I managed to get a couple of photos.
Again, finding one place that is easy to get to is going to be where you will probably find most ‘success’ with macro photography. If you’re travelling a long way to a place you don’t know there are so many things to stop you from getting on with the fun stuff of actually finding things and photographing them. Macro should slow us down and cut out a lot of the messing around. You need to chill out.