Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Ichneumon wasps’

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Macro Monday 6th July 2020

Cooler temperatures greeted us this week after the recent heatwave. The gusting winds didn’t go away, though, and that makes it tricky for macro. The constant blowing sways the plants where the insects are, meaning that the number of photos you’ll get in focus will be far fewer than if it was still. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though.

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Though our small garden isn’t up on a hill, it’s beginning to feel rather exposed where it sits in the Arun valley in urban West Sussex. I’m open to letting more of the shrubs grow to create wind buffers, not that it will make a huge different. One of the buffers is this ornamental hedge (which, after 6 months I still haven’t checked the name of in a garden centre). I found this ladybird in a state of metamorphosis, shifting from larva to adult ladybird. You can see its shell appearing from the skin of the larva, like superman minus the phonebox and slower.

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In the raspberry patch I found a solitary wasp. My insect guide gives nothing close to a resemblence to any species.

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The most popular plant in the garden now is this mallow. Lots of different species are foraging from it, to the point where I know an insect has been there because of those massive pollen grains. This is a red-tailed bumblebee, as you can probably imagine.

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I’ve noticed this ichneumon wasp (one of over 2500 species in the UK) spending a lot of time flitting over the flower buds. I presume it is using that needle-like ovipositer to lay its eggs. It has a beautiful chrome-blue eye. Again it has a pollen grain on its shoulder.

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This is another yellow-faced bee that I haven’t managed to identify. I love how papery the petals of the mallow appear here.

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The wool carder bees are still busy in good numbers on the lamb’s ears. This plant has been a revelation this year. At most I’ve counted 5 wool carder bees and this week I saw 3. They seem to be more at ease with me now (if that’s a thing, probably not) and don’t fly a mile when I sit next to the plant to get photos. They also allow me to get much closer than I could back in May.

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They are really attractive bees. What interests me is that they aren’t at all interested in the mallow but only the lamb’s ears and a foxglove which has popped up nearby.

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The lamb’s ears continue to be a perch for lots of different insects. I would say this is a common froghopper.

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The hot weather really has killed part of the lawn but I don’t care. I haven’t even cut it since April! One thing I have noticed is that our yellow-legged mining bee friends have begun to proliferate further into the other living areas of the grass.

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This was one of those cooler days, so perhaps this bee didn’t quite have the energy to get going just yet. Or perhaps it was just wondering what a giant was doing pointing a camera into their doorway.

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On my way back into the house one lunchtime I found a moth fluttering around at the door. I didn’t think much of it with my normal human eyesight but the photograph shows up something far more beautiful. The (undiffused) flash exposes the carpet-like patterns of the scales, with a hint of tiger stripes to the wing tips. It reminds me of curtains closed in a living room.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 15th June 2020

Each week, this blog is defined by the weather the week has thrown out. The headline photo of a wool carder bee sheltering under a leaf defines it pretty well. It’s been grey, sometimes wet, and very windy. That has meant more than anything that I’ve been focusing again on the garden. No trips to local National Parks this week.

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One of the regular lessons I learn from macro photography is that travel is not necessarily helpful. It’s knowing your location. Macro makes a National Park of a flower bed in terms of micro-locations to visit. A beetle is a bison, a bee is a beaver, if you see what I mean. In a raised bed where raspberries are growing prolifically one leaf has fallen and is housing these eggs. I’m not sure what they are, perhaps a shield bug.

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I’ve started to notice more ladybird-related activity (serious stuff). In the same raised bed as the previous image, this ladybird larvae was looking for trouble.

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I didn’t quite get a good enough photo of the moment the larvae began to bother the aphids it was hunting, but you can see it here in close proximity. Ladybird larvae predate aphids, one reason why ‘gardeners’ (that highly opinionated tribe) like them, because aphids can damage plants. These larvae also can give a human quite the nip. When the larvae approached the larger aphid it began to do this aggressive waving of its legs. It seemed to work, the aphid didn’t get anywhere and went to hang out at the tip of the leaf as above.

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I found the next stage of that larva’s development. This ladybird has just exited its pre-adult stage. It had taken about a week or more, which is a lot longer than I thought that would take.

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The cooler, greyer weather is brilliant for macro because it slows insectlife down and creates much softer lighting. Direct sunlight can make images unmanageable. This lacewing-like insect looked to be dining out on some kind of egg or larval stage on a leaf in the hedge. I enjoy the little herd of aphids in the bottom corner.

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In the same hedge I noticed the movement of a small, wasp-like insect. To many people you may think that means yellow and black. I doesn’t but it’s quite difficult to describe. I got lucky with this picture, the autofocus (which is not the best way to take macro, manual focus is better) zapped right on the eyes just before it flew away. I actually thought at first that this was a gall-wasp, the kind that makes galls grow on oak trees and other plants. But I think it’s probably an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species found in the UK. I say this on account of its long antennae.

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Yellow-faced bees are tough to photograph, as the above illustrates- it’s not in focus! But it was only later that I noticed something else. At the gap in the flower heads (this is a yarrow from the garden centre) a spider is waiting. I know this because after the bee had flown I saw the spider come out, prey-less.

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On the same flower this rather agile looking hoverfly was seeking a nectar-based lunch.

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The cool, grey days are a good time to look for insects on wooden surfaces. I remember reading a blogpost a couple of years ago all about fenceposts in rural areas for macro. The idea is that when it’s cold, and especially windy, it can be a great place to find insects that are too cold to move. I wish I could say the same for this solitary bee, which only let me get this close after about 15 minutes of muttering to myself while running up and down the garden.

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I’ve bought another thyme plant after seeing how popular it’s been with local pollinators. I was heading in for the evening when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a moth roosting on a leaf like a little bed.

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This is a micro-moth and, like so many species snapped in my garden, I don’t know which kind. I do have a micro-moth field guide but I can’t say it sees too much action.

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It’s important to remember that it’s not all about insect life, though. Cleavers, goose grass, sticky willy, whatever you strange English people call it, it has beautiful flowers. This plant is in the gardener’s ‘weed’ category (not marijuana, though it does have medicinal properties). The flowers are miniscule, and only by using something to magnify your vision can you really appreciate how beautiful they are.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 27th April 2020

It’s true that I started last week’s post with a parasitic wasp in my living room. That phrase is enough to make most of the UK faint. This week it happened again. But rest assured, there are other species to enjoy this week.

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When I see an insect trapped indoors, I am the sort of person who needs to try and let them all out before being able to sleep at night. I accept that is probably a compulsive behaviour reflecting an anxiety disorder. In this instance I didn’t get the chance. I went to drink from my camomile tea, dear reader, and there was a small insect floating in the water.

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I plucked the insect out of my tea and it lay perfectly splayed on my fingertip. It was a tiny ichneumon wasp, a group of insects which I went into more detail about last week. As it dried out its beautiful form began to appear. I found a piece of paper and placed it on the white surface. My cameras are now living in the living room so they were close by and I took a few snaps. It was a beautiful specimen. I am not intending to try and identify it because I will probably get told off by the local Hymenopterist via iRecord.

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My time in the garden in the past week has largely been spent chasing this small bee around. It’s probably a male blue mason bee with the Latin name of Osmia caerulescens. Another book is telling me (not literally) that it’s Osmia leaiana. They have large green-blue eyes and zip around for a while before settling down on a hot surface like a cat in a sun patch.

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To say this tiny solitary bee gave me the run around is probably understatement of the lockdown era next to ‘drinking disinfectant will not help you’.

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The bee liked to rest just long enough on a surface for me to get there. I had to approach it with exactly the right camera settings and focus on my lens to be able to get a decent photo. The satisfaction of getting a decent image was massive. Little wins and all that.

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I think this is a female blue mason bee having a bit of a rest on the roof of the logstore. Safe to say the highlights of the past six weeks in many ways have been getting an in-focus photograph of an insect like this.

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The internet is awash with stunning photos of jumping spiders. They are cute and fluffy with massive cartoon eyes. This was the best attempt I made at getting something in focus. I don’t believe in taking them out of the wild for a photography shoot – the ichneumon wasp doesn’t count! – so I am trying to get them in focus in the wilds of my woodstore shelf roof. If there is any type of spider that will help people get over a fear of spiders, it should be this one.

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My car hasn’t moved very much in the past 6 weeks but it’s proving useful for insects basking in the afternoon sun. This mint moth was doing just that on the bonnet.

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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.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 20th April 2020

The warm weather in Sussex has fizzled out, replaced by cloud and a quite cool wind. It’s thrown the insect life back under shelter, but for a couple of hot lunchtimes when I nipped out into my garden with the camera and one encounter in my own living room.

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One of the more interesting encounters with the animal kingdom in the past week has been this ichneumon wasp. Like many people who try to photograph these insects, I find it very frustrating. Their diversity reaches several thousand species in the UK (not something we can say often in Britain) but they are so flighty that they’re very difficult to photograph. The best results for me have been when some are distracted on flowers in the carrot family (Umbellifers). Ironically, the inchneumon above was in my living room at midnight! Again, I can see one on the garden window as I type this.

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This is a Nomada bee that is a parasitic species. I had tried earlier that evening to snap some solitary bees and wasps in the garden, but this was the best I could do. In the way that landscape photographers lose their cool over beautiful light entering a valley, I feel the same about species like this and the wasp above. A book that helped me to appreciate that there are people far more passionate about ichneumon wasps is The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich. It’s a biographical account of Heinrich’s life and that of his father who travelled around the world discovering new species. It tells the incredible story of his father’s flight from the Nazis in the Second World War and his attempts to protect his collection.

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Ichneumon wasps are also what made Darwin consider that such is nature’s cruelty, there can be no benevolent God. On a sunnier day I managed to get closer to a very small wasp. That is, I think it’s a wasp. Some solitary wasps are, upon closer inspection, sawflies or other relatives.

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’!

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Solitary bees are close relatives of wasps. One book I read said that bees evolved when a solitary wasp decided to eat some pollen instead. I’m not sure what species this is. There were a couple flitting around and resting nicely for their close-up.

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It was basking on the yellow leaves of the hedge.

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We have just moved to a new house (it’s quite old) and so I have been watching to see what the unknown plants get up to before removing or replacing anything. This is a geranium that seems quite popular with the local bees. This solitary bee was covered in pollen.

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That hot lunch break (also think I had some hot food) was topped by a seasonal first. I noticed that a hedge in a neighbouring garden had an unusual flight movement around it. It rested to catch some rays and then I could see it was a large red damselfly. Now that is definitely not a wasp.

Thanks for reading.

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Swanscombe Marshes, August 2015

The Swanscombe marshes are threatened by an impending planning application by London Paramount. They want to build a theme park on this vast wildlife haven. Is that really the best use of wild land when wildlife is in severe decline in Britain? I don’t think it is. I visited Swanscombe in March and have written this poem. There is a petition by a locally-led campaign to save the marshes, please sign it if you like what you see here.

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Swanscombe has a number of different habitats: reedbed, brownfield, hedgerow, woodland, farmland and species rich brownfield grassland.

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The grasslands along Black Duck Marsh are covered by wild carrot, birds-foot-trefoil, kidney vetch, red clover and a number of other nectar rich plants. This has attracted a number of interesting insects which have seen flower rich meadows and waysides disappear over the past 50 years. The insect above is an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species in Great Britain.

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It’s unusual to see early bumblebee around in August, but here one was, feeding on hawkweed oxtongue, a weedy plant that provides a great deal of nourishment for invertebrates at this time of year.

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Turnip sawflies were seen across many of the flower heads of wild carrot, a common plant at Swanscombe. Sawflies are lesser known pollinators related to bees and wasps.

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Sited alongside the Thames, it was not surprising to find a few migrant butterflies. There were a number of clouded yellow (too quick and unsettled for me to photograph) and this painted lady. It was fresh and may well be readying for its amazing journey south through Europe to North Africa where its parents had set off on their journey in the spring. How they can find their way back is not yet known to science.

On the southern slope of the rocky bank that runs through Black Duck Marsh, lucerne grew in large clumps. Even on a grey and breezy day there were a number of butterflies there. This, however, is a day-flying moth, the latticed heath.

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There were patches of kidney vetch growing along the rocks of the Black Duck Marsh bank, and we wondered if small blue, a very rare butterfly in Britain that relies on the plant, could be present. We didn’t see a small blue but I did find this common frog hopper, the insect responsible for what I knew as a child to be ‘cuckoo spit’.

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Common blues were flying low in the grass, possibly laying eggs on birds-foot-trefoil.

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The breeze made macro photography very tricky, but I tried to make the most of the grey sky, wild carrot and lacewing feeding on its flowers.

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Sitting on the bank of Black Duck Marsh we were visited by this stunning hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis. This insect is in the family Volucella, a group of hoverflies which mimic bees and other Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) in order to deter predators and instead fool them into thinking they’re a threat.

Brownfield is a poorly understood habitat, it is also in the firing line as the housing crisis intensifies in the south of England through lack of affordable housing and poor planning in central London (I’m referring to the luxury accommodation, property banking boom), to name but a few symptoms. As for its importance to wildlife, willow tit is a severely declining bird in England but is now seemingly favouring brownfield over ancient or more established, secondary woodland. Brownfields are often so rich because, like Swanscombe, they are free of pesticides and are left to establish of their own accord. Many brownfields are more precious and indeed green than parts of the Green Belt, a measure ordained to protect open space. They’re also pointers to the feeding opportunities that non-native species like the above white melilot can offer to native insects like bees, a group of insects that offer £560million to the UK economy through pollination (Bumblebee Conservation Trust).

The Channel Tunnel could be heard as it raced underneath our feet. The above photo is the largest spread of birds-foot-trefoil I have ever seen, all growing on the spoil from the original development of the tunnel. Again, brownfield habitats can be some of the richest in Britain. This area would be lost to the development.

There were a number of pathways cutting through the marshes, like this buddleia byway.

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My single memory from visiting Swanscombe Marshes in August will be the colour of the grasslands, the yellow of the trefoil, the white of the carrot and purple and blues of the lucerne. Please sign the petition to raise awareness about this unique and diverse wild place. There is time to make a difference and Save Swanscombe.

See more at the campaign page for Save Swanscombe Marshes

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