Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Insects’

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Macro Monday 10th August 2020

Welcome to the weekly wasp.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

‘I remember reading about them,’ she said.

Thanks for reading.

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Recent photos taken with Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm F2.8 macro lens, Nikon SB700 flash and Raynox 250 adaptor.

 

 

 

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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 25th May 2020

Happy Bank Holiday Monday to British readers. Recent weather has been hot, with strong winds coming in on Friday, blowing macro out of the equation. I’ve kept to my routine of garden and local walking.

Last week I said the bumblebee workers were beginning to appear, and this week I’m keeping up to my promise.

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I took lots of photos of bumblebees visiting flowers but they are very difficult to get in focus because of the shallow depth of field that macro lenses have. Therefore, the only decent photos I got were the header image and this here. These open spiked flowers are excellent for bumblebees, similar to foxgloves.

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I had better luck with the solitary bees such as this mason bee visiting a cranesbill flower. I’ve noticed that our bee hotel is now quiet and the early spring activity has ended. But the mason bees are still active. I wonder where they’re spending their time?

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A few weeks ago I mentioned a mason bee that was giving me the right royal runaround. I think this is the same bee. I can see it from the window upstairs as it find the same place to bask on a sleeper that separates our garden from the brick patio.

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Here he or she is again up close. I love the golden sheen of its head, it’s almost like something from an episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

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This is a new bee for my garden list and a species I haven’t seen before. It’s a relative of the hairy-footed flower bee which is a common early spring species. I think it’s a four-banded flower bee, Anthophora quadrimaculata. They nest in buildings. There’s plenty of dodgy mortar around where I live to provide them with a home.

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Moving on from the bees, despite what this hoverfly may have wanted, many species pretend to have the look of a wasp or bee. This is an area of evolutionary biology I’d like to learn more about (if you know a good book, please let me know). This is a bee-mimicking hoverfly. This one is mimicking a carder bumblebee with its ginger thorax (I’ve got one too).

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It’s not just hoverflies that mimic bees and wasps. One afternoon I noticed there was a wasp beetle sitting on my window ledge. In London I’ve seen these beetles on yellow and black things that help them to camouflage. I once saw one on the pedestrian road crossing box which is black and yellow. Urban insectlife at its best.

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In the bug world I found this mirid bug posing on the lamb’s ear (which, by the way, is so close to flowering). It had a lovely orange glow to its body and eye, merging with the green.

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When I was a teenager I can recall insects crash landing behind the TV on summer nights when we had the window open. The culprit was almost always a hawthorn shieldbug smashing into the lamp. This week one tried to join me at my desk while I worked from home. Perhaps this was the same bug that I originally met on the garden fence.

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Having spent time trying to find jumping spiders, they are now coming to me. Eating lunch in the garden, I have found jumping spiders exploring my arms and legs. They’re really very sweet arachnids. I’m not sure if it’s producing this spider silk or just crossing it.

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This was another chance encounter in the lamb’s ear, where all the cool invertebrates hang out. I couldn’t resist keeping the background bokeh in the crop.

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I accept that some spiders are less cute and fluffy. But this yellow crab spider was incredible. It was hanging around the lamb’s ear seeking its prey. It didn’t really mind me getting close with my small mirrorless camera. I know many people are missing hugs right now, but this probably isn’t the hug you’re looking for.

Thanks for reading.

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Planthoppers on a sage leaf

Macro Monday 4th May 2020

This week I’m going to get my excuses in early. The weather in West Sussex has been cool and wet over the past week. The insect life has was shoved back into March, with April ending as many would have expected it to start. This is not good for fairweather macro photographers.

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Working from home for 40 hours a week doesn’t help. Lunch breaks are spent trying to make food, rather than having it ready to eat. This is also the time in the day when the insect life is most active – that is not necessarily a good thing because they’re too quick and the light can be very harsh. Last week it chucked down all kinds of rain during my lunch breaks. Saturday was much better though and the time for the flowering of lambs’ ears gets closer and closer. The image above shows my main studio.

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Up close you can see how attractive the leaves are for planthoppers. They look warm and easy to attach to. This planthopper had its own window through which it could look out onto the world.

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I noticed far fewer bees this week, though the bumblebee colonies are open for business. This fly was resting on a raspberry leaf.

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We have inherited most of the plants in our garden and I am waiting to see what these flowers are. For the past few weeks ants have been feeding on the leaves as they open, no doubt producing nectar or something that is useful to them.

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Zebra jumping spiders are one of the only species I ever see in my garden but for maybe one other. I’ve actually had one in the bathroom sink. At last, I managed to get one with its eyes in focus.

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I am very fortunate to be able to walk to the countryside from where I live. I haven’t driven or travelled to any green space other than on foot or by bike for six weeks. I believe very strongly that people should not be taking the piss at the moment. Also, the guidance from the police is massively confusing and I know it is acceptable to drive a short distance away if you need to for exercise. This is a nature reserve on the edge of the River Arun that I visited at the end of the week. My garden is small and in an urban location with little connectivity with wider green spaces. Here however there was much more going on.

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In 2014 I went to the Czech Republic at this time of year and there was a ‘plague’ of St. Mark’s flies. I have never seen so many insects as I did then in Czechia, they were in the towns and the countryside. I enjoy how chilled this insect is here.

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The hazel hedges are now fully in leaf. I found this species of lacewing with a beautiful jade eye and black and white markings to its body.

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I really have no idea what this fly is, perhaps a dancefly. That is a proboscis you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. It’s obviously used to suck the life out of something.

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This is a lovely time of year. I love when the trees flower. This is possibly the biggest clutch of oak flowers I’ve ever seen on one branch. If you can find joy in new things like this, you’re winning.

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The oak saplings are leafing in the grasslands, where people probably don’t want them to be.

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The first clovers are now coming into flower. Starting this weekly(!) blog in March means that now there’s a chance to look more at flowers. It will be very sad to miss the chalk downlands this year because it’s too far from my home to get to. One thing this time should teach us is how important green space is for our health. If this situation does not lead to greater protection for green space and the drive to provide more of it, then what will?

Thanks for reading.

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Nomada rufipes

Nomada rufipes, a cleptoparasitic bee that I spotted on Farthing Downs on the edge of London. It steals from an Andrena bee to survive, but I only saw it drinking nectar from the heads of these ragwort flowers.

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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.

Turnip sawfly

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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