The fungus capable of mind-control ๐Ÿ„

In June I was down on the Sussex coast at the mouth of the river Cuckmere. During a bioblitz event I was supporting I discovered something I never expected to see. At the foot of either the first or seventh of the Seven Sisters cliffs, the fenceline and surrounding grasslands were alive with invertebrates. One large thistle plant was covered in all kinds of insects. I felt especially drawn to a beautiful orange and black ichneumon wasp clambering over the spiny leaves. But there was something else that caught my eye.

The fly as found

I noticed a dead fly in a quite unnatural position, a bit like an upside down koala. It was clamped onto one of the spines in a way that reminded me of the famous victims of the parasitic ‘zombie fungus’ cordyceps. Luckily I had my macro lens with me and could get a close-up of the fly.

The fly after I had bent the spine tip of the plant over

The body looked an unusual shade for this species and, looking closer, you could see it was kind of mouldy. I showed everyone I could, taking away the images and several questions I needed to answer for myself!

That afternoon I put the photos on Twitter and had a quick reply from Lukas Large, a known fungi expert in the UK. He said it was a species of entomophthora, a group of fungi that kill flies, just as this one had done. It does much more than that beforehand, however.

Somehow, the fungus enters a final stage of mummification where it ‘gains control’ of the fly’s brain and therefore control over its functions. The fungus is then able to make the fly move to a high position in order to disperse its spores from the dead fly. That is mind blowing in more ways than one.

Thanks for reading.

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The orchids in need of fungi ๐Ÿ„

In June I did a long walk in the Surrey Hills around the famous Box Hill. The North Downs are absolutely fantastic walking country, being so easily accessible from London via public transport, and having some of the UK’s rarest wildlife, along with dramatic hilly landscapes and views.

The human (as well as the natural) history of the North Downs is incredible, with much of the North Downs Way coalescing with the Pilgrims Way.

Early on in this walk, I happened upon an area of yew trees and spotted some chicken of the woods growing. It’s always a nice thing to see.

Lured in by the sight of the fungus, I then found a massive dryad’s saddle growing like a gramophone from a beech tree. This is a fairly common larger fungus to find in June. It’s a summer woodland species.

Having moved round to look at the ridiculous gramophone fungus, I spotted what looked like dead growths of a wildflower or maybe a garden plant that had been dumped. After a minute or so I realised it was in fact a type of orchid: bird’s nest.

This isn’t a species I had ever seen before. It certainly wasn’t at its ‘best’, even though it lacks the colourfulness of other species nearby like common spotted or pyramidal orchids. There’s a really good reason for that.

It has a dependency on fungi. Its lack of cholorophyll is because it receives its food from fungi in the soil, which is also in relation to the roots of trees. The orchids were growing under yew but with beech in close proximity. It’s just another reminder of the role that fungi play in maintaining diverse ecosystems.

Away from the orchids, June is a good time to find chicken of the woods. We’ve had a very hot and dry spring/summer in southern England, and along the trail I noticed that a lot of the chicken had collapsed in brittleness. It’s not even worth looking for mushrooms growing in the soil, it’s just so dry. Fungi once again, or lack of, will show you that we are living through hotter and drier summers in southern England.

The North Downs, like its southerly sisters, the South Downs, are a chalky landscape. There are lots of beech trees in this type of soil. This means the very large Ganoderma bracket fungus is a pretty common sight on the many beech trees that are found here.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

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#30DaysMacro 2022: the final week ๐Ÿ“ท

And so to the final week of the 30 days of macro photography challenge. You can see week one, week two, and week three, by clicking their names.

Day 22/30: a seed of unknown origin resting on a fennel stem. I think it looks like Einstein!
Day 23/30: I didn’t manage to get this photo of a green nettle weevil in focus but the colours on its body are incredible. Perhaps it was a bit older and so had lost some scales.

Day 24/30: the very next day I found another green nettle weevil on my green wheelie bin! I don’t think it’s the same one, but it was posing perfectly and in focus this time. I always want to eye in focus with invertebrate photos.

Day 25/30: something that needs its own post here. It’s a fly that’s succumbed to entomophthora fungus, a parasitic species. I was astonished to find this having read about this kind of thing before, but never expecting to see it.

Day 26/30: in my garden as the light began to fade, I spotted these shieldbug nymphs on a grass head. They’re probably green shieldbugs, even though they’re black at this stage.

Day 27/30: another evening photo, this time of a green mirid bug in some rather posh mallow flowers.

Day 28/30: nettles are great for invertebrates. This is a nursery web spider garden her nest web, which will contain her eggs before they hatch into spiderlings. Hence the name ‘nursery web.’

Day 29/30: I took some photos of a large slug eating the remains of some pigeon feathers but I opted for this one instead. I took a similar image towards the beginning of this challenge, so it felt fitting that the hedgerow-snail-shell-portal-to-another-world would be opening once more as it neared the end.

Day 30/30: I spent the morning in a very nice woodland in Hampshire for the final day of the challenge. I witnessed many inverts at a period when I couldn’t photograph them, but when I had five minutes I found this leaf beetle exploring the edge of its world.

Thanks for reading!

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#30DaysMacro: week three ๐Ÿ“ท

See week one and week two via these links.

Day 15/30: looking around my Mum’s garden in London, I was harnessing the softer evening light and hoping some insects would come and bask. Lo and behold, this large red damselfly flew over my shoulder and landed on a leaf half an arm’s length away!

Day 16/30: I’m not convinced 2022 is a particularly good insect year in the SE of England, but small tortoiseshells have been out in force this year. This one was on a salvia at Polesdon Lacey in the North Downs.

Day 17/30: at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in East Sussex, I notice peacock butterfly caterpillars racing across the concrete causeway. Somehow, this caterpillar had been hugely unlucky, with its head being trampled on by a foot or a bike. There was a bloke zipping around on an ebike that looked like a motorcycle, which may have been what squashed it. Other caterpillars did make it across, where they were headed I have no idea.

Day 18/30: the difficulty of a photo challenge each day is managing your expectations and trying to keep things simple. I took this photo of a micro-moth in my house at about 9pm or later. At first it looked like a little smudge but with the benefit of flash and a bit of editing, it has red hair like me!

Day 19/30: speaking of red hair, I was taking some macro photos in my garden when a fox that visits us most evenings came as close as she ever has. She always comes to sniff my camera but her boldness suprised me. I recorded this video quickly on my phone. It got quite a lot of traction on Twitter which was quite exhausting but nice that people are interested in foxes.

Day 20/30: at lunchtime I went to a nature reserve within walking distance and found lots of damselflies gallivanting in a nettle patch. This blue damselflies were focused enough for me to get quite close and take a photo.

Day 21/30: I like this photo because the fennel leaves and stems make it look quite abstract. This is probably a meadow spittlebug, a common leafhopper. I took this one after sundown.

Thanks for reading.

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#30DaysMacro 2022: week two ๐Ÿ“ท

I’ve been slow to post week two of my June 2022 macro challenge, mainly due to offline and online duties. But don’t worry, the photos are still being taken and I’m on track to get it all done!

Day 8/30: some heavy rain in West Sussex brought some of the more ephemeral mushrooms out into the open air. These mower’s mushrooms (also known also brown mottlegill) appeared for a day or so after a downpour on my unmown lawn. It has been so hot and dry that the lawn has barely even grown anyway to be honest!

Day 9/30: I spent a good few hours walking around a local woodland expecting miracles (“assumption is a curse” as an old school friend used to say). Instead I just remembered how difficult woodland invertebrate macro can be. It was only until I got out onto the heathland, where the sun hit the woodland edge, that I saw more interesting things. This pic above isn’t perfect, it’s a bit shaky I think, but I do love the story. Ants and aphids have mutualistic relationships which allow the ants to harvest honeydew and the aphids to be protected from predators and also disease. The ants can remove diseased aphids to stop outbreaks. Amazing!

Day 10/30: This was one of those days when I was out and about doing other things but had a camera with a lens with me that did macro. This is a lesser stag beetle clinging to the corner of a brick wall.

Day 11/30: I only managed to venture out into my garden as night was falling. I found an absolutely miniscule wasp of some kind, as well as a typical yellowjacket harvesting wood shavings from the fence. The bug is probably a mirid or plant bug growing into an adult.

Day 12/30: in my garden again and I found this quite beautiful mirid bug.

Day 13/30: venturing out for a long-distance walk in the Surrey Hills, I was amazed to find bird’s nest orchids growing under some yew trees on chalk. I have never seen this orchid before and wasn’t ever expecting to see it. The delights of hiking or rambling over longer distances, especially in June.

Day 14/30: back in the garden with the mirid bugs. This was a very small, perhaps juvenile of some kind, pottering about on a very hairy hazel leaf in my garden.

Thanks for reading. Next up: week 3!

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#30DaysMacro 2022: week one ๐Ÿ“ท

Every June the Wildlife Trusts run a campaign called 30 Days Wild. The aim is to encourage people to notice nature at this special time of year and do one thing each day that connects you with the wild world around you. Last year I did #30DaysMacro, taking and posting one macro wildlife photo each day in June on Twitter. This year, I thought I’d have another go. … Continue reading #30DaysMacro 2022: week one ๐Ÿ“ท

The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ช

Here are some landscape images from a March visit to Mayo which I’ve been posting a bit of recently. This landscape fascinates me in many ways: the cultural history (of which my family has links), the ecology and geology. My family’s cottage is located near a mountain range that would probably be classified as hills… Continue reading The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ช

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#30DaysMacro 2022: week one ๐Ÿ“ท

Every June the Wildlife Trusts run a campaign called 30 Days Wild. The aim is to encourage people to notice nature at this special time of year and do one thing each day that connects you with the wild world around you. Last year I did #30DaysMacro, taking and posting one macro wildlife photo each day in June on Twitter. This year, I thought I’d have another go.

I’m threading it daily on Twitter:

I’m going to break the posts up into one each week. It’s actually a lot of work so blogs will be confined to this for now. Here goes!

Day 1/30: zebra jumping spider

My first encounter was with this zebra jumping spider in my garden. I got a bit lucky as it held this position and faced the camera for a good few seconds. They’re usually quite, er, jumpy! I also found some other nice subjects, though, including a mint moth (which seems very common in my garden) and a beautiful greenbottle fly.

Day 2/30: wasp beetle

In the garden again. Really pleased to find a wasp beetle in the hedge just resting on a leaf. They’re another one of those wasp-faking insects, using those terrifying colour patterns to warn any predators. I also found this ichneumon wasp (I think). That is a fairly lethal looking ovipositor protruding at the rear.

Day 3/30: snail vortex

June has been quite wet and grey so far, which is helpful for macro in some ways but not all. The snails get a lot of motivation from the wet hedges and shrubs. This caterpillar was hiding away in the aromatic chambers of a rose flower.

Day 4/30: bumblebee-mimicry

In the garden I spotted this bumblebee-mimic hoverfly on the fence. I’d seen them a couple of days ago duelling over territory, but they were too energised then to get a photo. This one was nice and chilled. It’s nice seeing all those yellow pollen grains, though I’m not sure which flower produced them. The caterpillar here may be the one that was taking shelter the previous day.

Day 5/30: wasp cleaning antennae

Guess where? Garden again! Another cloudy day but quite warm so the insects were out and about. I got quite close to this wasp which was giving its antennae a good clean.

Day 6/30: bee phone pic

Due to work commitments/time constraints I couldn’t spend any time in my garden with dedicated macro equipment. I was walking down a main road in town and saw a nice siding of thistles in front of a housing development. Lo and behold, there was my macro photo. A white or buff-tailed bumblebee was nectaring on that lovely pink bloom.

Day 7/30: the slug ate my salvia!

A day of rain, as evidenced by the raindrops around the hoverfly. Also more motivation for the slugs and snails (who have my backing) to teach me not to plant certain things in the flower bed. The slug here was doing a rather acrobatic job of eating the salvia I planted out recently. There’s also a very soggy bumblebee, and some kind of lacewing or hoverfly larva.

Thanks for reading. See you next week!

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Wasp-faking at Bedelands ๐Ÿ

Last August I recorded a podcast with Dr. Beth Nicholls about bees. The podcast was recorded at Bedelands Local Nature Reserve in the West Sussex Weald. You can listen to that entertaining jaunt (your thoughts and mine) through bees here.

I only had a couple of hours to record with Beth and spent the time afterwards seeing what was living there. There was a lot of wasp-faking going on, that’s for sure. It’s taken me nearly a year to actually find the time to look through the images and process some of them.

Bedelands is a Local Nature Reserve (a local authority designation for green spaces of ecological and public significance on land which is in public ownership or similar) in Burgess Hill. It’s a mixture of Wealden woods of oak and hornbean, some wetlands, and Wealden grasslands. The grasslands seemed to be quite rich to me in both invertebrates and flora. A lovely space.

This is a very cool hoverfly that can be found over quite a large international range. It’s one of the more obvious wasp-mimic hoverflies. Its scientific name is Chrysotoxum bicinctum. Absolute wasp-faker.

A more common hoverfly is one with a great common name (among others) – the footballer! It’s another wasp-mimic species. The football name comes from the stripes along the thorax (below the eyes above) which look like Newcastle, Grimsby or Juventus style kit colours.

In the moth world, I found this small grey-brown species that appeared much like a grass head. It was reaching over an oak leaf and wasn’t bothered about my lens getting super close. This appears to be one of the grass veneer moths. Moth knowledge is not strong in this one.

The scales of moths are quite incredible up close, like little roof tiles or pieces of paper.

Here’s a closer look.

Moving into the non-insect, invert world, August is a month of arachnids. This is a European harvestman, a harmless thing. They use their legs to do their ‘seeing’.

The desiccated seed cases of a flowering rush was the hiding place of one of the ground crab spiders.

I have been seeing this in my garden, but they seem to be quite common elsewhere and in places like grasslands.

Perhaps the most exciting and dramatic sighting was this wasp spider, of which there were a couple around. They’re recent arrivals in the British wildlife community, and another addition to the wasp-mimic gang.

The underbelly of the wasp spider doesn’t do justice to its name. From this angle you can see just where it gets its name from.

Thanks for reading.

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The lackey in the Cuckmere valley ๐Ÿ›

I was out and about in the Cuckmere Valley in May and had the chance to learn a little bit about some of the species found there. Here’s a small selection of images, a blend of phone pics and some from my camera.

Once again I was treated to the sight of early spider orchids, a plant I blogged about only recently. This was a big surprise, having spent a lot of time looking for them elsewhere. This is a nationally rare plant and I won’t be giving away its location. I did get the chance to learn that the flower mimics the scent of the buffish mining bee. The male bee is lured in and attempts to mate with the flower, thereby pollinating it. In the photo above you can see the pollen grains that have been helpfully, accidentally, applied by the visiting bee.

The mining bees live in the nearest exposed areas of chalk where they drill their burrows. It’s a short commute to their deceptive orchid neighbours.

The blackthorn hedges were holding populations of moth caterpillars that cover the branches in webs of silk. This is the kind of thing that pops up in local newspapers as some kind of wild clickbait. The moth is known as the lackey in English. What the significance of that name (or any of the number of weird moth names) is unclear to me.

We found this proto-Mesolithic (Stone Age) scene, with a discarded King Alfred’s cakes fungus. The fungus had probably been used to maintain the fire of one or more disposable barbecues. The stones were littered across the scorched earth like the throwaways of some prehistoric stone mason.

On the banks of the Cuckmere’s static meanders are ranks of hoary cress. At first I thought they looked like a type of sedum but in fact they’re in the cabbage family. This is an introduced species.

A view back up the Cuckmere meanders, at very low levels for the time of year. Two little egrets can be seen here.

Thanks for reading.

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The South Downs

April flowers at Nymans ๐ŸŒน

My partner and I made a couple of visits to Nyman’s in West Sussex recently to drown our sorrows after the death of our lovely rescue cat. We drowned those sorrows in flowers. Nymans is one of the jewels in the Sussex Weald, with amazing views across woodlands towards the South Downs.

I usually photograph less formal landscapes than National Trust gardens, but perhaps I am too particular sometimes. The stark colours against the grey backdrop of the day (literally) make for really pleasing images. All the pics here are ‘straight out the camera’ and I haven’t edited them. Olympus cameras produce beautiful jpeg files which my experience with Nikon equipment has never matched.

Thanks for reading.

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Poetry: Grief is you

Grief is you Realising you have their Mannerisms, gestures That you are the legacy It’s the unsustainable pressure It’s punching the mattress Repeatedly At 3:15 on a Tuesday afternoon It’s the throwing away Of old medicines And foods you thought They might actually eat Grief is the guilt All the things I did wrong Didn’t… Continue reading Poetry: Grief is you

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From Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst in the New Forest ๐Ÿ‘ฃ

In April I walked from Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst and back in the space of two days. This post focuses on the first day walking from Brockenhurst railway station. Iโ€™ve created a route of the walk here. These are probably the New Forest’s biggest towns, with Brockenhurst being bigger than Bournemouth until the advent of the… Continue reading From Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst in the New Forest ๐Ÿ‘ฃ

Early spider orchids ๐Ÿ•ท๏ธ

Chalk grassland is an incredible habitat. It’s extremely rich in plants and animals, with high cultural value from the historical assosciations with human activity over at least 8000 years. In the UK it defines the downlands of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Wessex. Sounds like an episode of The Last Kingdom. Thankfully I was spared the sword (this time).

In early May I was fortunate enough to visit a chalk grassland site near Brighton with two people who knew the landscape extremely well. I had been invited to visit this area to help find early spider orchids 3 years ago but the pandemic got in the way of travelling there.

A landscape raked by stone, bone and iron

I visited on a sunny day in what was a very dry spring indeed (I hate how dry winter 2021/spring 2022 have been). We had heard of hundreds of orchids in recent weeks at the site but only found 3. It was baffling. Perhaps we were just too late and the dry conditions had brought an end to their season earlier than expected.

These orchids get their names from the fact their flower looks like a spider. You may be familiar with the names of bee, fly, man, lady, lizard and monkey orchids also.

They are truly beautiful.

During the survey a woman came over to talk about orchids. Her knowledge was incredible, with known locations across Kent and Sussex. She travelled by train from her home in north London.

She showed us a gentian, a type she said was only found at this location in the UK.

Perhaps the most abundant plant was milkwort, appearing in white, pink and blue.

This is some kind of daisy (probably hawkbit) with petals that look like hands shielding something.

There were a fair number of small beetles in the grasslands, including this click beetle (I think).

A nice surprise was finding a small blue, one of the rarest butterflies in the UK. This is a very small blue, though most of them in Britain are small anyway. They’re pretty much tied to chalk grasslands from what I know.

Thanks to Phillippa, Jan, James and Monica.

And thanks for reading.

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The South Downs