Macro Monday: the mourning bee

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.

Let’s hope so.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

#FungiFriday: beard lichens

Fungi Friday 26th February 2021

This week’s encounters with the fungal kingdom (that I know about), are piecemeal. I am still sticking close to home, so no woods or wildernesses, if you even believe in the latter. You might think fungi can only be found in specific places, but we’d all be wrong about that. Let me tell you, fungi are everywhere. We’re the ones who are harder to find.

Stick of the week

On a walk at a local estate garden in the Sussex Weald, I found and nominated this lichen-encrusted twig for stick of the week. I’m not sure where the hashtag #StickOfTheWeek started but I think it has something to do with the illustrator @Bernoid.

It’s not common that I personally find any unusual lichens in south-east England. Usually you need to go west to Devon, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland or up north to Scotland. This massive oak tree had a sheath of moss growing on its trunk, which was then home to a colony of beard lichens!

I think these are a species of usnea lichen, species I’m more used to seeing in Ireland and on Dartmoor. I learned from a fellow blogger recently that you are supposed to say ‘on Dartmoor’, because ‘in Dartmoor’ means you’re in the prison. I’ve been to the prison museum and have no intention of being ‘in Dartmoor’ no matter how good to lichens are on its doorstep.

Velvet shank

On a lunchtime march from home I re-stumbled upon a gang of velvet shank (Flammulina). I was actually drawn to the site of the first cherry blossom of spring, when I spotted that this churchyard stump was still sprouting shrooms. This is fungus is hard as nails, in terms, because it has toughed it out through the snow and continued to put out fruit. It’s a prime candidate for snowcapped shrooms.

I have some exciting mushroom-related announcements to make in the next couple of weeks. I’m also about to start Merlin Sheldrake’s much anticipated Entangled Life. Have you read it, is it as good as everyone says? Maybe I’ll share some of it in the weeks ahead.

Thanks for reading and stay safe.

More mushrooms

Postcard from the Dales

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

#FungiFriday: Lichens in Dartmoor

Fungi Friday 22nd January 2020

Last week I posted about cup lichens as part of #LichenJanuary, with a heavy focus on the West of Ireland (where President Joe Biden’s ancestors are from, wahey!). This week it’s anotherly westerly part of the British Isles that gets some attention: Dartmoor National Park.

Dartmoor is renowned for its moorland and rocky hillscape in Devon, south-west England. It’s famous for its graphite outcrops or ‘tors’ which dot the landscape. It’s a very wet place, another reason why it’s so boggy. All in all a tremendous place for lichens and other moisture-loving organisms like mosses.

One of the most famous places in Dartmoor is a small area of woodland called Wistman’s Wood, a National Nature Reserve near Postbridge. This well-loved wood is home to scraggly oaks dripping in moss and lichen. These are also exceptional places for lichens. The wood itself is known for its misty scenes, with the trees clinging on to the moisture in the air. That is only a good thing for lichens and mosses.

This bubbly-looking boulder lichen was growing on the approach to Wistman’s Wood. The threads in the lower right-hand part of the image are hairs from sheep or cattle which have squeezed past the rock.

Another boulder held a spidery community of foliose (leafy) lichens.

Mandarin duck with ducklings

Here is a rather nice example of a lichen-covered boulder in the river Dart. This is a female mandarin with her ducklings. This was in June and while rain isn’t unusual in Dartmoor in summer, you can see it has been warmer around the time of the photo because the mosses are blackened and dessicated.

Wistman’s Wood

The lichens in woodland like Wistman’s are found on rocky substrates and the branches of the trees. It’s interesting that these boulders are at great density in this woodland but not the same in the wider landscape. That is probably because the wider landscape has been cleared of woodland and then the boulders left behind, for livestock grazing. Woodland was cleared from Dartmoor long ago, mainly during the Bronze Age, from what I know.

This photo won’t display in portrait, but it’s an oak trunk covered in epiphytes – lichens, mosses and ferns coating the bark. This is the British and Irish equivalent of rainforest, or Atlantic oak woodland.

Dartmoor’s oak branches are rich in beard lichens, I think this is a species of usnea.

Some of the less flamboyant lichens, but probably more common, are these pore lichens. I think pore lichen is an American name, which isn’t used in Britain. I don’t really care and am always frustrated with the rigidity by which species recorders approach these issues. We need common names to encourage more interest in nature. I know Tyrannosaurus rex is a popular name, but Latin names do not capture the imagination in the way that common names do. Stinkhorn, anyone?

As someone who grew up in a city, cemeteries were some of the first places I began to notice wildlife. I think they are special places also because their atmosphere is so different to the rest of the built-upon or managed landscape. At Widecombe-in-the-Moor, there is one of the best lichen cemeteries I know. Not that they’re dead, they’re well and truly alive and kicking.

This cross is a dream. There are foliose and crustose lichens, and it hasn’t been tidied up by the cemetery managers (I don’t. The air quality is also excellent in this area, allowing for more species to find a place to live. Below is a selection of the species I found growing on gravestones in this cemetery:

I couldn’t let this woodlouse get away without being included along with these frosty fruiting cups.

Above is a really cool insect, a downlooker snipefly! I’ve also found this species on lichen-encrusted boulders in Western Ireland, a similar climate and landscape type.

The village of Widecombe has a large sycamore growing on the edge of the green. This tree shows why scyamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) is a good wildlife tree, because it can provide habitat for lichens.

It looks like a perfect place to sit and cotemplate the amazing lichens you can find in Dartmoor.

Thanks for reading.

Further fungi

#FungiFriday: the golden shield lichen

Fungi Friday 8th January 2021

Once again in England we have to stay at home to stop the spread of the horrific Coronavirus, with only one exercise trip outside allowed each day. When I’ve been heading out I’ve been passing through a local churchyard and cemetery on some days. These are the perfect places to find lichens, especially where there are old gravestones and trees. I thought I would kick off #LichenJanuary by looking at one of the most common lichens, which may help people to gain an interest and see that there is a way in. To identifying them, rather than becoming one.

A quick intro to lichens. Lichens are a partnership of fungi with either algae or cyanobacteria. The fungus provides the physical structure for the organism and the algae or cyanobacteria turns sunlight into sugar through photosynthesis. Fungi, to my knowledge, are not able to photosynthesise. This is another reason why fungi partner with plants, which of course are able to harvest sunlight for food. There are a number of species on the branch seen here. The most prominent species is showing off its cup fungi, a type of ascomycete (ass-co-my-seat). Ascomycetes produce spores in the ‘ascus’ (singular) or ‘asci’ (plural) and shoot them out. Most mushroom-type fungi are basidiomycetes, which drop spores from the ‘basidia’ in the gills.

Now, fungi are hard to identify, and lichens can be even more difficult. That is such a massive understatement, because some fungi will never be seen and some lichens you just won’t ever notice. We’re talking generally of things you are likely to see in your life. Above and below is a common European lichen, tolerant of air pollution, which many lichens are not. It’s the golden shield lichen, Xanthoria parietina. If you want to learn more about lichen ID I would really recommend using iNaturalist which has good artificial intelligence and also some experts floating around who will help you to ID them.

Here’s another close-up of the golden shield lichen. It really can be found all over, and looking at its behaviour above, you can see why. It is a dominant species in urban areas.

From the top of the image above you can see Xanthoria creeping in on some rather pretty lichens. This is my favourite ever lichen photo. I spotted this fallen poplar branch several days before I took this photo and returned again to capture it.

Here’s Xanthoria with a hint of its pale blue colouring. Like other species which benefit from the increase of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere and the soil, nettles and brambles, for example, I think Xanthoria is a symbol of our impact. As things change over time, I wonder how its dominance will shift over time.

Next week: pixie cup lichens!

Thanks for reading.

Further fungi

Macro Monday: Jack Frost

Macro Monday 4th January 2021

Wishing you a pleasant New Year and hoping for more fun in 2021. I’d like to say thank you to everyone who stopped by in 2020 to read a post or to comment. I really enjoy reading your comments. The number of people visiting doubled in 2020 so it’s great to know what I’m sharing is being seen by some. People from all over the world are tuning in, so hello from my little corner of south-east England!

What better way to get started in 2021 than by looking at the smaller things in life, in the face of all the big things our tiny brains are having to compute at the moment. On New Year’s Eve I went out for a walk to my local patch and found it covered in frost.

When I was a child my dad told me that Jack Frost lived down the side of the bed and if you put your leg or hand down there he would get you. I had visions of some icy blue bloke living under my bed until I was old enough to know better. Thanks dad.

Thankfully Jack Frost wasn’t out on a walk at the same time on NYE.

Frost and ice are macro cliches, if there is such a thing. Regardless of how the photos may come out, it is fascinating to zoom in on the micro world when it’s covered in frost. Here was a birch seed frozen to the underside of a bramble leaf. I like how the seed looks like a butterfly. There are many similarities across nature in this way, the likeness of a natural river channel to the blood vessels or the structure of some vascular plants.

This area is covered in bracken in the summer. In the winter it falls into matts of vegetation which stop any trees or plants from breaking through. The woodland ecologist Oliver Rackham reckoned bracken was the most common plant in the UK and that its domination was due to the loss of roaming hogs (either as wild boar or commoner’s livestock) from the landscape, where they cause disturbance to the soil when rooting around. The thing about a lot of plants, regardless of their impact, is that they can be very beautiful. That’s why beauty is not often a good compass for how we treat the land. Rhododendrons, anyone?

Mosses come into their own in the wetter winter months. They bring colour to otherwise dour landscapes. Woods are beautiful places but they can be grim in the December-January bind when the light is low and mud takes precedent. These are the sporophytes of what I think are a type of feather moss. They produce spores, like ferns and fungi, to reproduce. It’s an ancient form of reproduction which pre-dates insect pollination.

While I will leave the lichens to their #FungiFriday slot, I thought this lichen and moss bouquet was a lovely way to see out/in the old and new years.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

#FungiFriday: it’s raining, it’s sporing

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The South Downs

Fungi Friday 28th February 2020

A fungal perspective on February would probably say that it was ok if you live on a fence post. The poor people who have had their lives ruined by flooding in Britain probably wish they too live on stilts. And so February saw itself out with yet more heavy rain and flooding. But it also carried the early signs of spring.

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The closest thing I got to a true fungus (whatevs that is) was this turkeytail fanning out from a fence post. It’s a reminder that to a fungus, a fence post is just a dead tree that we have put somewhere away from the woodland it was once growing in. There are also a smattering of crustose lichens in the background.

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The best chance of finding something fungal to photograph was on some raised timber somewhere. I found this very marshmallow-like polypore bulging from a crevice in a fencing rail. You know times are hard when it comes to this. Behold the pores developing underneath as the specimen expands.

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As you can imagine, the 100%-fungi fungi ran out quickly. This lichen stood out to me a bit like the archetypal graffiti you see alongside railway lines. I went to a secondary school with a rich mix of graffiti artists (I know that this is not a universally held description) and this reminded me of that.

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This is a heavy crop so the photo isn’t winning any awards, but the lichen’s orange fruiting cups are really cool. I read this week that these cups are ascomycetes in fungal terms, better known as ‘cup fungi’. Their biological name as a structure on the lichen is ‘apothecia’. The ascomycetes are the largest group of fungi in the world and are also known as ‘spore-shooters’ (but don’t confuse them with puffballs like I once did). Normal mushrooms are basidiomycetes and produce their spores in the basidia which are usually present inside the gills we all know and eat.

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This is a pic from last week (is that allowed?) where you can see the apothecia of the lichen. The spores are released from these navy-blue discs and shot out into the air.

Bonnet spores - Octoberr-2018 djg-1

Just to illustrate, above you can see spores being released from a bonnet mushroom. This was taken with a high-resolution camera and lens, with some additional lighting. I didn’t know this had been captured until I looked at the photo later on my computer.

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Back to this week and there are signs of winter coming to an end and the return of some mushrooms. This fly has what I guess might be goat willow pollen on it, meaning that they’re flowering and spring, it cometh.

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The truest sign of winter going back to where it came from is these froggy peeps, about a week later than 2019. More from them in a bit, if I find the time. Rebbit. Soon enough they’ll be sheltering under toadstools in the woods, where they belong.

Thanks for reading.

More fungi

#FungiFriday: still loving lichen

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Fungi Friday, 14th February 2020

Storm Ciara blew in on Sunday and probably washed any winter shrooms away. But I’m still spending my time with the symbiotic fungal folk found in lichens. The lichens have had a good week, heavy rain has been interspersed with some lovely winter sun.

Near where I work there are lengths of low post-and-rail fences that are covered in lichens. They’re likely to be sweet chestnut and not to be treated with any chemicals. This patch above is a joy, a mass of cladonia cup lichens with mosses and some crustose lichens smattered in between.

This is probably Xanthoria parietina which is a very common yellow lichen. I think it looks like scrambled eggs! The colours have only been very mildly edited here, it really was vibrant.

These are the fruiting bodies of the cladonia cup lichens in the previous image, far more alien-like.

These fences are close to the river Rother which was flooding the surrounding landscape in an epic manner. It’s done it twice now this year.

As you can imagine, for the mushrooms of the fungal world, this is too much water!

This is a dead alder tree that sits in the centre of the river. You can see the blue-green hue from the riverbank, the presence of lichens enjoying a sunny and moist spot to prosper in.

Next week I will actually have some 100% fungi to share!

More fungi

How mushrooms are helping to fight poverty in China – Time

#FungiFriday: more like #LichenJanuary

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Flooding from the river Rother in West Sussex

Fungi Friday: 17th January 2020

Storm Brendon rocked up this week in Sussex and gave freedom of movement to the Arun and Rother. Temperatures have tickled 11 degrees but are set to crunch back down this weekend. Mushrooms must think, guys, WTAF?

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I see images of nice looking shrooms on social media, things like velvet shank glowing orange like sweets on tree trunks. All I saw were the melted ice lollies of sulphur tuft (Hypholoma fasiculare) on an embankment. It gets worse:

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Probably some bonnets, like a scene from the Netflix drama You. The rain has been too much for these Mycena. But have hope.

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Where there are non-chemical treated fence posts, there is hope. That hope comes in the form of our symbiotic fungi-algae friends, the lichens. This is a great time of year for lichens due to the amount of rain and their resistance to winter weather. They are hard to shift.

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The fruiting bodies here are known as apothecia. I love them. They are like cartoon eyes or mouths. Wonder what they’re trying to say. Obviously it’s a climate warning.

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This one just takes the biscuit. My lichen guide is in Ireland where it belongs, with all the other lichens. So I’m sailing in the dark and just here to appreciate the beauty of these ancient, life-giving organisms.

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These fencing rails are a reminder of how important dead wood is in the biosphere as a structural support for biodiversity. No doubt lots of other organisms will make a home for themselves in these lichens.

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This is a finger post with the yellow being the paint of an arrow pointing in the direction of the public footpath. I love the little apothecia eye cups on the right hand side.

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Living wood also provides a platform for lichens to grow. I can’t cope with the colour range in the species which dominates the image here. They were growing on the bark of a fairly young beech tree. A few people did glance over when they saw me effectively hiding behind the tree with a camera. In actual fact the camera was jammed up against the bark taking macro pics. Still, could have gone wrong.

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Here you can see the brown streaks which are fissures in the maturing bark as it grows. Patches of foliose or leafy lichens are growing in among the crustose species.

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This was their view, an oak tree fanned out before the South Downs ridge. Not a bad place to be for a lichen.

The British Lichen Society are running the hashtag #LichenJanuary. Lichens are for everyone so it’s good to see such a niche group spreading their knowledge to the masses(?) for free.

Thanks for reading and please share any interesting lichen finds (or indeed identifications) in the comments. Some interesting mycological articles this week:

Mushrooms and orange peel: could biotech clean up the building industry?

Ikea to use packaging made from mushrooms that will decompose in a garden within weeks

More mushrooms