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

Macro Monday: the macro ninja

Last year we installed a pond in our garden. It’s nothing special, just an old washbasin bought from an antique shop sitting on the patio. It has flag iris, some figwort and other aquatic plants bought from the garden centre. I noticed a couple of weeks ago the first resident of the pond, a water beetle zipping around the underwater vegetation. I didn’t get enough of a look to identify it, not that I would have done much there anyway.

One morning I spotted a downy feather resting on the pond’s surface with some drops of dew sitting on it. Looking closely the feather’s fibres were like lightning bolts or fungal hyphae spreading out across the surface of the water. I was crouched down over the pond to the point that the postman didn’t see me and got a fright:

‘You scared the living daylights out of me there, Dan, you’re like a ninja!’

New Instagram handle: Macro Ninja.

Hairy-footed flower bees have continued their territorial dominance of my garden. The male bees are a flippin’ nightmare to photograph, the image above took a lot of channeling my inner ‘macro ninja’ to approach before it flew away.

In the past two weeks the all-black females have appeared and are now being followed by the male bees as their pairing routines develop. Above is an archive image from a few years ago.

Another sign of my rustiness is this sighting of a queen wasp visiting the small hedge. She was nectaring on flowers of the-plant-I-can-never-remember-the-name-of. I have posted quote a lot in the past year about wasps, I love them. A user on iNaturalist identified this as a common wasp queen, Vespula vulgaris.
The same plant was supporting both more species and the non-sensical notion that non-native plants or animals have no place on These Great Isles. This was perhaps the second or third marmalade hoverfly I have seen in the garden this year. They are a nice entry into the world of hovers and are super common.

An example of why bright sunlight isn’t good for macro photography can be seen in Exhibit Z, above. This was fly does have an orange beard though which was something I hadn’t noticed until I drove up the shadows bar in the editing software.

The nursery web spiders were basking once more in their spring way. They are lovely spiders and I think could probably help more people to partially overcome any fears they may have. This was an interesting article (with a clickbait title) on spiders being pushed into civilisation by floods in Australia. And then there was this about the discovery of a depiction of a spider god in Peru. I wish people revered invertebrates in the way they did birds and mammals. Also, fungi.

Finally, a sign of spring’s imminent arrival is this bunch of guelder rose flower buds. Enjoy these spring days if you’re living in the Northern Hemisphere, they’re gone before you know it.

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with Olympus E-M5 MIII and 60mm f2.8 macro lens.

More macro

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

Macro Monday: ship burials and robberflies at Sutton Hoo

Macro Monday 14th September 2020

The insect world is winding down, it’s true, but September can be a great month to see invertebrates. This is especially true for spiders in gardens (and in your house!). At the beginning of the month I visited Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This blog focuses on two locations, firstly the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo, near Ipswich.

Sutton Hoo is famous for its Anglo-Saxon ship burials which, on the eve of the Second World War in 1939, threw up one of the most incredible archaological finds in British history. An entire ship was found to have been buried, with much of the discovery based on the chemical shadow of what was once there. An amazing haul of items was discovered with the boat, thought to be that of King Rædwald of East Anglia, a pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon king who died in approximately 625 AD.

The boat he was buried in was probably hauled up here from the river Deben, where the boats are moored, by Anglo-Saxon warriors and buried under a mound of earth.

The National Trust have an exhibition centre which displays mainly replicas of some of the 3000 things found in the mounds. Museum collections are great for macro because they’re well lit and isolated by the darker backgrounds. This was a replica of one of the items found.

This gold pendant dates from the 4th-5th century AD, so 1600-1700 years ago.

Outside, I didn’t have macro in mind. I was carrying my micro four thirds camera and lenses which are so light they can be carried anywhere. Walking around the estate I noticed a feather on the ground, and that an insect was resting on it. I couldn’t believe it when I looked closer.

It was a robberfly, with prey in its spear-like mouth parts. Note here how I cropped to include the beautiful fronds of the feather.

The robberfly wasn’t bothered about me. When I got really close, I could see it had an ichenumon wasp as prey! Heathlands are exceptional landscapes for insect diversity, so there was always a thought in the back of my mind that something like this could crop up. This blog could not be posted without some reference to wasps.

This is an image which I hope I haven’t laboured, but it’s just an incredible thing to find resting on such a beautiful macro subject in its own right – a feather. You do see this kind of image again and again on Instagram, where I’m sure people are feeding prey to robberflies in order to get a photo in a studio. That’s not my style.

Walking around the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, we found lots of red and orange caterpillars on the move. I’m not sure of the species! ID welcome in the comments please.

We then moved on to the Suffolk coast, which is just down the road from the Sutton Hoo estate (great job by the way, National Trust). In the long grass of one of the dunes this very similar black and orange moth was holding tight to a blade of grass.

He’s a pretty rad looking dude up close.

Coastal landscapes are something of a foreign language to me in ecological terms. A visit to the coast is far more an emotional or spiritual experience (I don’t swim), a reminder of childhood, or our vulnerability when faced with the vastness of the sea. A line was drawn in the sand.

I managed my first marine macro photo! This tiny crab was pointed out to me by my companian who was spending her time seeking out stones and other small things on the shoreline. Taking photos of tiny animals under moving water is a challenge I probably won’t have to take up again any time soon.

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with Olympus OM-D EM10 MIII with 60mm f2.8 macro lens and 45mm f1.8 lens

More macro

Macro Monday: bees bring life to a dying lawn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Macro Monday 22nd June 2020

There has been a dry patch on my lawn that has really suffered this year. I’m not into lawns and am not of the generation that gets angry about an unmown garden. I let it rock and roll. This patch has been dying back to expose the soil underneath, a dry grey substrate. The lack of rain this spring has meant that it’s suffering. But recently I’ve begun to look at it in a different way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I noticed that there were some small burrows appearing in the exposed areas of soil. On closer inspection there were about 10-20 very small insects flying around the area. Some were going in and out of the nesting holes. They were mining bees!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I waited around for a while. The weather was moving between hot sun and cloud, meaning the bees were busy but then would slow down and disappear into the burrows. Some were waiting to appear. I think they are yellow-legged mining bees due to their appearance and their nesting behaviour, but I’m not sure. The bee above was doing some DIY, cutting through a dead grass stem that was blocking its front door.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bees seem to gather pollen from trees or flowers which make their legs even more yellow. According to the book there is a second brood in mid-June, which would explain why I’ve only noticed them appearing now – in mid-June.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I won’t be trying to water that area of the lawn anymore. It’s a reminder to me that it provides an element of a garden’s habitat mosaic. In the small space we have, I don’t think there would be anywhere else suitable for these lovely insects.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While I was sat waiting for the chance to get photos of the yellow-legged mining bees, I was right next to the lamb’s ears. This plant has delivered the goods this year and I would encourage anyone who wants to support wild bees, especially solitary species, to plant it out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I counted five wool carder bees, which is a record so far in my garden. Two of them were mating at one point, as seen above.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nearby there were a couple of yellow-faced bees. You can attempt an identification from the markings on the bees, but I haven’t got round to that yet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The breaks from the sun and cool breeze did slow the bees down at times, which is very helpful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Earlier in the week, during a rather wet and unsettled day, I took a potential ‘portfolio image’. I’d noticed a leafhopper roosting in a grasshead outside my front door. Later I noticed it was still there. I pulled the grass down towards me and sat on the ground. The bug was so relaxed it posed for this photo. I am really pleased with it and shows how garden macro really is the best. It took a matter of a couple of minutes before I was back inside again!

Thanks for reading.

More macro