Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Insect macro photography’

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Macro Monday 3rd August 2020

Summer came back last week. The annual breach of 30 degrees celsius took place, with more forecast for the month ahead. The warm weather meant there was a lot of activity in my garden, with opportunities to find wildlife lasting until dark.

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The hedge has seemed less active in recent weeks, whereas in early June I could sit in front of it and find too many insects to photograph. But this week I found this tiny sawfly, or at least I think that’s what it is.

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It’s a relative of the bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera). I know this because of its eyes, both the compound side set and the ocelli on the top of the head. The antennae are long and wavy like an ichneumon wasp’s. I didn’t quite manage to get it perfectly in focus but I think the composition came out quite nicely.

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I’ve noticed a number of amber-coloured beetles around the outside of my house and the garden. I also found one in the raspberry patch. I think it’s a hawthorn leaf beetle. It was nowhere near a hawthorn.

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The other week I disturbed something in my garden that flew up from the grass and away into a small tree a few gardens away. It looked a bit like a flying fish. Picking raspberries one evening, under the only trees we have – small sycamore, rowan and a larger magnolia all crammed in – I noticed that this cricket was trying to remain hidden among the long grass. It’s a dark bush cricket.

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One of the most important parts of managing my small garden for wildlife has been to allow the grass to grow long for a time. I’ve also found frogs at the back in a cooler, shadier area where the grass has grown. If you can leave some of your lawn to grow between May and mid-July, I would really recommend it. I only mowed mine this week, mainly because the rye grass is setting seed and my old sleepy cat seems to be allergic. Also, it’s the right time of year in the world of meadow management.

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I’m starting to see more nymphs appearing, and I don’t mean the fairies. That’s another story. This is probably the nymph of a dock bug. Again, it’s in the raspberry patch, which is where this blog ends with a flourish.

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As I mentioned earlier, the warmer days have meant that insects have been active longer. When we were out picking the day’s raspberries, I noticed an insect pollinating the raspberries at speed. I couldn’t get a proper look or get a decent pic.

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Given some time, I saw that the insect, a type of wasp, was going to the same flowers in a cycle around the patch of raspberries. It didn’t mind me getting closer as time went on and the night drew in.

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My first thought was actually quite extreme – Asian hornet! But this wasn’t an invasive non-native, “killer hornet”. It was a species of wasp. With more time to observe it I could see its red eyes and red striping to its body. It’s a red wasp. I love those eyes! Let’s also not forget that these wasps here are pollinating raspberries that my family and friends will later eat. Wasps are pollinators more than they are pests, the tide needs to turn on that damaging myth before our insect populations are harmed any further.

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I know this blog is pretty much a wasp fanzine week after week, but these animals are so amazing. I had never expected to see this species in my garden. But it highlights the joy of this entire project. Each species seen here this week, bar the dock bug, is a new species for the garden list. Many of the species I’ve seen I will never be able to identify, but that feeling of newness and discovery is precious to me.

Next week: more wasps.

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with a Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm f2.8, Raynox 250 adaptor and Nikon SB-700 flashgun with diffuser.

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Macro Monday 27th July 2020

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.

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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.

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I realised it was a species of picture-winged fly! I think it’s a species of Urophora.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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But of course, this blog would not be complete without checking in on those gorgeous greenbottles.

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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 😦

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 20th July 2020

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Have a listen to the podcast, it’s excellent.

▶️ Aperiology (MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY) with Joseph Saunders 

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!

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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.

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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.

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I didn’t get a chance to ID this bee, but I wonder if it might be a blood bee taking a break after pretty much decimating the populations of mining bees that had been in the lawn. That area has now grown silent. I expect it is also the end of their flight season.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday 13th July 2020

The cooler weather continues, interspersed with rain and cloudier days. These are good macro conditions. I spent a couple of lunchtimes outside this week with my heavier macro equipment – I have been very lazy recently only using my smaller mirrorless camera with in-built flash – and what I saw was pretty harrowing but also quite amazing.

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I have mentioned before that part of my lawn is dying, likely due to the lack of spring rain. I don’t mind this because it annoys people who like tidy gardens and it provides a habitat niche for wildlife. In this case, it was for the benefit of yellow-legged mining bees (I still haven’t confirmed that ID but will go with it). The ground will recover anyway in the autumn and winter. I was sitting on the grass to see if some of the mining bees would be coming out. I noticed a dead bee and took a photo. Then I noticed another one. There was another insect hovering over the area of mining bee nests which at first thought was something like a ruby-tailed wasp, as I could see its red ‘tail’ or lower body. I was desperate for it to land so I could get a photo. When it did, I was amazed at what happened next.

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It flew down straight to the nesting holes and pulled a roosting mining bee out.

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A wrestling match then ensued among the dead grasses surrounding the nesting hole.

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I recognised that the insect was a blood bee, having seen them for the first time last month on the South Downs. The blood bee was the stronger of the two.

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This was the best image I got from what I realised was the blood bee stinging (perhaps) the mining bee and either paralysing or killing it. By this point the adrenaline was pumping for me also. The mining bee began to thrash around when it was released by the blood bee and it lay next to another mining bee which was still alive but fading away. I believe the blood bee had pulled the mining bees out of the nests (perhaps they were a male and female together in one nest) and killed them to use the nest for itself. It was at this point that I began to notice more dead mining bees and it dawned on me – I was watching the raid of a blood bee on an entire colony of mining bees in my own small garden.

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I had gone back to work after that 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.

The next day I went out again at lunchtime to see how the mining bees were doing. I found a detached ‘doorway’ of soil which had a dead mining bee in it but there were several sitting in their doorways.

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I don’t think there can be any sense of change for this community of bees (bearing in mind they’re not social but solitary, beyond their pairs). They will be aware of the threats they face, not least the house sparrows that often pluck bees and butterflies from the air. Some were still visiting flowers and there was no sign of the blood bee.

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There was need for a lockdown here, the mining bees had no choice but to go on. Of course, that is not comparable to the situation our species finds itself in.

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Nearby, this common yellow-face mining bee was recharging its battery in the hedge. It was really nice to finally get a decent image of this very small badger-like insect.

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It’s been a tough week for the mining bees in general. I was looking around a patch of cranesbills in a shadier corner and saw a dead bee floating in midair. Then I noticed the crab spider which had caught it. The spider was so well camouflaged, reflecting the fact that this species is able to change colour to match the flower it is hunting from. This is probably Misumena vatia, a common crab spider found in gardens, woods, meadows and urban habitats. This spider was turning the bee around and dropped it from its perch. I wonder if it climbed down to get it.

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Only a couple of inches away, another crab spider had caught a mining bee. Not a good day at the office!

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Wasps have had a lot of coverage in this blog and I was delighted to find a species of big-headed digger wasp (Ectemnius) on the fence one lunchtime. I was involved in a conversation with a neighbour at the time and had to say, sorry, I need to try and photograph this wasp! It would have been great to see it head on, but it didn’t hang around.

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We’ve let the grass grow long in parts of our small garden. At times I’ve heard the sibilant sound of a cricket or grasshopper, showing the importance of allowing the grass to grow. In the hedge one lunchtime I found this speckled bush cricket. It really did not like me noticing it and would shuffle into the leaves to try and hide.

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Ending on a gentler note than this post began with, I have been trying to grow courgettes this year after experiencing the same panic that many people felt about supermarkets back in March. I didn’t stockpile toilet roll-shaped pasta though. Many of the courgettes are now flowering and I was interested to see if they had any value for insects. Sure enough, this flower was rammed with pollen beetles.

Thanks for reading.

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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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Thursley Common, Surrey, June 2018

I’ve recently moved somewhere new and with that comes an interaction with new landscapes. In the United Kingdom, a distance of 25 miles can open up entirely new experiences in the outdoors through the sudden change in soils, topography and local culture. I have moved further south into Sussex, in touching distance of a tangled web of counties (West Sussex, East Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire), communities and habitats. One landscape that feels closer than it ever did is lowland heathland, a landscape I’ve come to learn more about in recent months.

I now know that dry lowland heath has been drastically lost over the past 150 years and it is rarer than rainforest. It is a human-made habitat with intrinsic ties to a pre-industrial way of life where local people grazed their animals, cut and burned heather, extracted sand, cut trees, but were unable to grow crops due to the poor fertility of the soils. It is subject to epic conservation projects in some places, like the Heathlands Reunited project working across the South Downs, tipping into Hampshire and Surrey in places outside the South Downs National Park.

My family have roots in Ireland and I have spent time there learning about the way of life of people who lived in the wild and very wet western areas. To my ancestors heather was an incredibly diverse resource. It could be cut at the right age to produce all manner of items, most fascinating to my mind were lobster pots weaved from woody heather growth. The subsequent cutting of heather allowed new growth and light to reach the heathland, benefiting many different species – denser growth for ground nesting birds, increased flower abundance – and a mosaic of vegetation lengths which further the species diversity through the creation of micro-habitats.

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With the popularity of the rewilding movement in the UK, heathlands are a point of contention because an argument for landscapes to be left to ‘adopt their natural state’. This is at odds with the desire to see heathlands humanised again, what is shown to produce the richest conditions for their wildlife. Heathlands which are ‘left’ or ‘rewilded’ become simply poor quality woodland in the sense of the lack of species diversity.

One site stuck in that tangled-web of counties is Thursley Common, a National Nature Reserve managed by Natural England in Surrey. I visited Thursley for the second time in June on a hot but mercifully breezy day. There were many thousands of dragonflies on the wing – so many I declined to ‘tick off’ the vagrant red-backed shrike which people were heading over to see but completely ignoring the riot of Odonata  – and the sandy paths were brimming with rare insect life.

Having visited Thursley a year before with a tour from the site manager, I had an idea of where the good stuff was and some background on their ecology. Over the winter I had looked forward to returning to try and photograph the heath sand wasp and mottled bee-fly. Thankfully the weather was perfect for this.

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Kneeling down on a sandy track it was possible to see the heath sand wasp, found only on lowland heath, mainly in the south of England. It was caching moth larvae that it had been hunting out in the heather. It’s hilarious how they use a small roll of sandy soil to close their doorway before heading off again to hunt on the heath.

They have every right to be cautious. Lying in wait on tiny scatterings of twigs were mottled bee-flies, a rare insect that parasitises the nest of the sand wasp. It wasn’t clear whether the sand wasp was wary of me or suspicious of the presence of the fly (do insects experience suspicion?) but at times the bee-fly deigned not to move, creating a kind of stand off between the two insects as the sand wasp waited to fly off to hunt and the bee-fly waited to hover and throw its eggs into the hole.

Sure enough, after the wasp had moved away, the bee-fly was hovering over the nest hole, chucking its eggs in like a footballer volleying the ball into an open goal.

These are two species which, without managed heathlands (interestingly much of the management they benefit from is the result of footfall exposing sand along the paths) would be lost. Woodland’s return would mean a loss of light, warmth and resultant heather growth where the sand wasp’s prey is found, meaning that the structure that binds these species would collapse.

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Another unusual insect along the paths was the hornet robberfly. This is another type of fly that can be found in heathland and is classified as rare. It is possibly the largest fly in the UK but it looks like a hornet. Like many of our flies (bet you don’t consider them your own) it mimics the appearance of a predatory wasp to give a greater sense of protection. In terms of natural selection, it has survived probably because it looks like a species that has a world-shattering sting at the tip of its abdomen.

Robberflies do exactly what their name suggests, they steal insects and eat them, sucking them dry in about thirty minutes in the case of the hornet robberyfly. The best way to see them is through a macro lens and to hang out somewhere that you know has lots of other insects present. Some stunning photos are out there with robberflies holding on to their fly prey.

I spotted the hornet robberfly because it was sitting on a pile of manure, exactly where it likes to spend its time in life. It was using the manure as a perch to hunt where it can blend in with the hay stems that a horse or cow can’t quite digest. They also lay their eggs in the crevices of the dung.

It was a privilege to see these rare species, unseen to almost everyone (obviously), only present because of good management and an appreciation that human impacts can be positive for living things other than ourselves.

 

 

 

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