Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: a ruby-tailed wasp in the Adur valley

I got to spend the afternoon wandering around the Adur valley recently. The River Adur runs through West Sussex where it reaches the sea at Shoreham. There are wonderful views of the South Downs, especially from the area I was wandering around.

Truleigh Hill on the South Downs, seen from the Adur valley

This landscape fascinates me because it was once a much wider and wilder estuary. The town of Steyning had its own port, but the river’s margins and the marsh has become farmland. Looking at the maps you can see Rye Farm, with Rye potentially from the West Saxon word for ‘island’, just as it once would have been when surrounded by water or wetlands.

The River Adur

It was the end of a very rainy period and the insect life was out in force. There were hundreds of bumblebees on tufted vetch in the damp margins and probably thousands of newly emerged grasshoppers.

I wasn’t alone on this walk and so couldn’t linger too long. But along one of the lanes I found some umbellifers. On one flowerhead there was the unmistakable green and red of a ruby-tailed wasp!

They are stunning insects – with metallic blue-green thorax and a ruby-red abdomen.

The wasp was feeding on hogweed, a popular plant with pollinators.

This is a better view of the ruby abdomen.

There were just so many insects out and about, it was a joy but also a massive distraction. Buttercups are often the favoured haunt of sawflies – the earliest relative of wasps. This is a species in a group of rather elongated sawflies.

Tufted vetch was growing in the flowery margins where the bumblebees were in great number. There were also large numbers of small tortoiseshell butterflies.

On a fence near the river a blue damselfly was eating some kind of bug. It was so focused on chewing its prey that I could get very close indeed.

The number of ladybird larvae was also great, with many either on the hunt for aphids or setting themselves up for their metamorphosis.

Elsewhere on hogweed I found these carpet beetles. They are very, very small and can’t seem to tear themselves away from the nectar.

The Adur Valley with Chanctonbury Ring in the distance on the South Downs

Thanks for reading.

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Unlocking Landscapes podcast: Being a Bee Doctor with Dr. Beth Nicholls

After a month off this summer, Unlocking Landscapes is back and this time it’s outside, with a guest! In August I met up with Dr. Beth Nicholls at Bedelands Local Nature Reserve in West Sussex. Beth is a researcher on the subject of pollinating insects, with a key focus on bees. She works at the… Continue reading Unlocking Landscapes podcast: Being a Bee Doctor with Dr. Beth Nicholls

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: is that a nationally scarce spider sitting on the fence?

*Update: this record has now been accepted as correct by the county expert and has become official ๐Ÿ˜*

Most of the jumping spiders I find in my garden are sitting on the fence, LITERALLY.

The jumping spiders are a group of beautiful arachnids (spiders and arachnids are not insects FYI) that are renowned for their cartoon eyes and ‘cuteness’. There is something very ‘floofy’ about them. This video by Thomas Shahan has some lovely images of some American species:

I love to see them in my house, exploring the doors and window frames. One got into difficulty recently and was captured as prey by another window-dwelling species. Even the indoor parts of our homes are wild places at macro level.

Most of my macro is getting done through intensive 5 minute breaks during my working day, in which I take rushed and low quality photos (as seen here). I am stuck at a computer all week at the moment and these micro-macro garden safaris are keeping me ‘productive’.

I spent some of the time checking out one of the fences where I’ve found lots of interesting species like hornet-mimic hoverflies, digger wasps and jumping spiders (above).

During one break I noticed a tiny jumping spider exploring one of the posts and attempted some snaps. The pics are grainy and nowhere near portfolio quality, but that’s not what matters here. I put the photos on iNaturalist and an Italian spider expert gave an ID of Ballus chalybeius.

I tweeted the British Arachnological Society and they were happy enough that it was this family, with only one species within that family in the UK. Looking at the map of their records, it has not yet been recorded in this part of West Sussex. It’s also Nationally Scarce. Bingo!

One of conservation’s big problems in the UK is its insularity and misanthropic tendencies. Thankfully organisations like BAS are active on sites like Twitter to speak up for spiders and to engage with people online. Nature conservation in the UK is claimed to be better when bigger and more joined up. You could say the same for its ability to communicate and gather information. That’s me off the fence, then.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: this bee is Goodenough for me

One of the things I love about the insect season in England is the diversity. We are surrounded with doom messaging around wildlife in the UK – it really is too much – but that’s what you get if you only look for birds. The invertebrate world is far richer, more complex and fundamental.

In April and May the first of the nomad bees make their appearances. I spend a lot of time making a fool of myself trying to keep up with these solitary bees. They are extremely beautiful and very cool-looking. Twice in April I witnessed nomad bees in my garden and on both occasions they passed me by.

One afternoon while #WorkingFromHome I went downstairs for a break. I noticed an insect on the inside of the windowpane. It was a nomad bee! I couldn’t believe my luck. I grabbed my camera and attempted to get some photos of this now very slow bee (it was a cool, wet and grey day). I got some average images and then decided it was time to get this bee back into the wild. I ushered it onto my hand and found that it didn’t want to leave my skin. It gave me a great opportunity to take some better images. I’m not sure of the species, they are difficult to separate.

I had another bee-break but this time in my garden and on a better day. There was so much happening in the hedge I didn’t know where to look. I saw three nomad bees flying around and resting but never long enough for me to get a decent pic.

The sun dipped in momentarily and the cooler air forced the nomad bee to remain on this leaf. I got as close as possible. When I submitted the photo to iNaturalist someone suggested it was Gooden’s nomad bee. That’s… Goodenough for me. Now do people see why iNaturalist is so much more preferable to iRecord? You get help with your identifications, not just thanks but no thanks from our man in the shires.

What do nomad bees do? They’re parasites of solitary bees, with some species laying their eggs in the sites of others. Their eggs hatch and the larvae consumes the eggs of the host, before eating its food stash. Not nice in human terms (because we’re all so lovely) but definitely something that has been occurring for many millions of years.

Thanks for reading!

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Latest from the Blog

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.

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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.

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#FungiFriday: moss bells in the wintry Weald

Fungi Friday 18th December 2020

The temperatures have crept up again after a period of freezing cold and foggy mornings. During one of those colder December days I visited a favourite place to find fungi. I was surprised by just how much had managed to fruit, though it was mostly quite small.

My first find was this common puffball mushroom, looking well nibbled and past its pomp. Almost all of the mushrooms I found and spent time trying to photograph were growing in beds of moss. That says to me that the mosses were providing a warmer, wetter platform to fruit from, protecting the mycelium of the fungus from the cold beyond its fronds.

I had a lot of fun photographing galerina mushrooms, otherwise known as moss bells. One of the most famous mushrooms in this family is the funeral bell, for reasons you can probably guess. I am not at a point to identify moss well, but I do know this is common feather moss. And that is an old oak leaf.

I found some lovely moss bells as I worked my way further into the beech, oak, hazel and holly woodland. In England we don’t have much in the way of wooded ‘wilderness’ that North America or Russia is famed for. But in the south-east of England, the Sussex Weald is perhaps the closest thing we have to a vast woodland area. Woods in England are split up by private ownership and mixed land use, with many small woods cleared for agriculture or building. If you want to see what a fence looks like, come on over. However, the Weald to the east of Sussex is the most wooded area in England, and much of it is ancient, broad-leaved and ‘natural’ woodland.

Moss bells are actually parasitic on mosses, though they evidently do not cause it the kind of bother the word ‘parasite’ brings to mind. The submarine telescopes surrounding the shroom here are moss sporophytes, which release the spores to allow the mosses to reproduce elsewhere. Much like mushrooms!

Have a look on moss growing on fallen trees or on the trunks of trees. You might get lucky and find yourself a moss bell.

I’m annoyed with myself because I’ve seen this tiny mushroom with its Hellraiser-esque, spiny cap, but I didn’t take the chance to note it and now I’ve forgotten. It was growing in a crevice in a fallen tree. The veins in the decaying oak leaf show just how small it was. That’s the second time it’s made its way onto this blog without a name. Sorry no refunds.

Another fallen tree was covered in mosses, ferns, lichens and, of course, a community of mushrooms. Sulphur tuft is a winter stalwart. So if you’re reading this, sulphur tuft, thank you. There are some other interesting things going on here, with the decaying wood already beginning to turn into something like soil, and the roots of something trailing across and feeding on the substrate. That’s life.

The final species group I found on mossy logs was the bonnets. They also seem able to handle the cold weather in the way that ground-based shrooms can’t.

I always forget that September can be a good month to find fungi, if it’s not too cold. Hopefully this blog, which has now been running for a year, does go to show how many things you can find throughout the year. Autumn is not the only time to find fungi. It’s everywhere, all of the time.

This woodland is quite heavily dominated by holly. For many people in the UK, that’s seen as a bad thing, with the idea that woods should be nothing but light. In the Sussex Weald, holly indicates ancient woodland and holly is a key species. At least one woodland was protected because of its populations of wild holly. I absolutely love it, having worked with it for several years. It coppices very well and the timber is great for small-scale green woodworking like fencing and posts. Of course at Christmas it makes lovely wreaths.

The holly was providing protection for areas of the woodland floor that seemed to be very rich in smaller fungi. This bizarre thing is a yellow club fungus. It was part of a community of many more.

Though I’m not quite sure what this species is, probably a parasol relative of some kind, it was a surprise to see it. I wonder if the newly fallen beech leaves were providing a layer of warmth which protected the fungal mycelia in the soil from frost, allowing them to produce mushroom fruiting bodies?

I’ll end this week’s post with perhaps the most strange thing I found, down in the leaf litter again (but not without moss). Having looked at my massive fungus tome, I think this is a species of clavulina, which is not far away from a coral fungus. These fungi are ectomycohrizzal which means they have a symbiotic relationship with a plant. That means they have been able to agree a trade deal of things that they could not otherwise gain as standalone species. I hope the British and European toadstools in Brussels can take some inspiration. Though the trade between plant and fungus might have taken several million years to agree. Uh oh.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: the most mushrooms I’ve seen in one day

Fungi Friday 20th November 2020

A few weeks ago I visited a favourite Sussex woodland renowned for its fungal life. Mushrooms were to be found everywhere. I was blown away.

I’m writing this a month later, having been taken out of the loop by illness for two of them (not Covid, thankfully) and now a national lockdown in England (Covid). Judging from a wintry woodland walk yesterday, I expect the trip will be my experience of the mushroom peak of 2020. So here’s how it went:

I knew it was going to be a fruitful visit when I turned into the reserve and saw mushrooms on either side of the lane. This amazing family of shaggy inkcaps provided a perfect autumn image. You can see the larger specimens heading into their state of deliquesce where the ink begins to form and drop, spreading the spores.

Across the lane these younger shaggies were just appearing from the soil.

There were puffballs in close attendance, including this very large pestle puffball. It appears that someone had been clearing the vegetation around it to get a better photo. That’s a bit of a no-no.

A more modest puffball was growing close by. I was testing out a new camera bought after trading in some underused camera equipment. I was using an Olympus E-M5 Mark 3. It’s a micro four thirds mirrorless camera, much smaller and lighter than my usual full-frame Nikon equipment. It passed the mushroom test with flying colours.

I have been thinking a lot recently about how photography may at times get in the way of my experiencing the outdoors. If you become weighed down with equipment, or perhaps distracted by other things, likewise with people, problems or other plans, it can hamper your ability to enjoy the moment. That was becoming an issue for me with photography. Taking photos required a lot of kit and much of it heavy. I have begun to question if it’s really worth it. Hence trying to lighten up both my equipment and my mentality.

In October there were a huge number of magpie inkcap images on social media. It has clearly had a good year. I wonder if in future that kind of data can be harnessed to understand the prevalence of certain species. A bit like open source investigate journalism.

Porcelian fungus has also had another solid year. There is one tree I head to, a semi-collapsed beech tree that is always home to these beauties in autumn. I like to photograph this fungus from below, sometimes using a light to illuminate the gills.

Porcelain fungus is translucent and glossy, so that helps it look even better in photos.

On the same log I found this mushroom, probably a bonnet. It was only later that I noticed the thread of silk running from the gills to the moss. That’s the beauty of macro photography, you don’t see everything straight away. It goes to show how poor our eyesight really is and how much we miss.

Further into the woodland I found this lovely cluster of shaggy scalycap mushrooms, just peaking and perhaps beyond their best. Here I used a tripod and an external LED to light them from underneath. I used a zoom lens and once again the camera was a winner.

There were mushrooms absolutely everywhere. It was probably the most mushrooms I have ever encountered in a single day. This stinkhorn is only the second I’ve ever found. Interestingly I had passed it earlier in the day and the black sludge that covers the top of the fungus had disappeared by about an hour or so later. I believe that is eaten by the insects you can see here, in order to spread the spores. It’s a gross fungus but utterly fascinating.

I know a pile of logs alongside the path that is always good in autumn for coral fungus. I was not to be disappointed. This could be a scene from The Little Mermaid or perhaps the ruins of some Bavarian mega-castle.

There were many fly agarics to be found, probably in the hundreds. One patch was in incredible condition. When I find scenes like this, it gives me an adrenaline rush, knowing I have a limited amount of time and opportunity to get the photo. You can see why I don’t take photos of birds or rare mammals, I would get far too excitable and probably drop the camera.

These fly agarics were some of the most vibrant I have ever encountered. Do check out my blog regarding the bizarre cultural tales about this fungus and the impact its had on our image of Christmas.

This fly agaric was untouchable. It’s the kind of thing I dream of all the year round. I love the way the leaves have been pushed up but still clamour at the stipe of the fungus. It was a perfect specimen. It’s the only place to end. I will be going looking for mushrooms this weekend but after weeks of torrential rain, I fear they may have been washed away. With colder temperatures coming soon with December’s arrival, it could be the end for our fungal friends. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

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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 Rรฆdwald 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

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Macro Monday: a National Park in a flower bed

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Macro Monday 15th June 2020

Each week, this blog is defined by the weather the week has thrown out. The headline photo of a wool carder bee sheltering under a leaf defines it pretty well. It’s been grey, sometimes wet, and very windy. That has meant more than anything that I’ve been focusing again on the garden. No trips to local National Parks this week.

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One of the regular lessons I learn from macro photography is that travel is not necessarily helpful. It’s knowing your location. Macro makes a National Park of a flower bed in terms of micro-locations to visit. A beetle is a bison, a bee is a beaver, if you see what I mean. In a raised bed where raspberries are growing prolifically one leaf has fallen and is housing these eggs. I’m not sure what they are, perhaps a shield bug.

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I’ve started to notice more ladybird-related activity (serious stuff). In the same raised bed as the previous image, this ladybird larvae was looking for trouble.

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I didn’t quite get a good enough photo of the moment the larvae began to bother the aphids it was hunting, but you can see it here in close proximity. Ladybird larvae predate aphids, one reason why ‘gardeners’ (that highly opinionated tribe) like them, because aphids can damage plants. These larvae also can give a human quite the nip. When the larvae approached the larger aphid it began to do this aggressive waving of its legs. It seemed to work, the aphid didn’t get anywhere and went to hang out at the tip of the leaf as above.

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I found the next stage of that larva’s development. This ladybird has just exited its pre-adult stage. It had taken about a week or more, which is a lot longer than I thought that would take.

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The cooler, greyer weather is brilliant for macro because it slows insectlife down and creates much softer lighting. Direct sunlight can make images unmanageable. This lacewing-like insect looked to be dining out on some kind of egg or larval stage on a leaf in the hedge. I enjoy the little herd of aphids in the bottom corner.

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In the same hedge I noticed the movement of a small, wasp-like insect. To many people you may think that means yellow and black. I doesn’t but it’s quite difficult to describe. I got lucky with this picture, the autofocus (which is not the best way to take macro, manual focus is better) zapped right on the eyes just before it flew away. I actually thought at first that this was a gall-wasp, the kind that makes galls grow on oak trees and other plants. But I think it’s probably an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species found in the UK. I say this on account of its long antennae.

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Yellow-faced bees are tough to photograph, as the above illustrates- it’s not in focus! But it was only later that I noticed something else. At the gap in the flower heads (this is a yarrow from the garden centre) a spider is waiting. I know this because after the bee had flown I saw the spider come out, prey-less.

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On the same flower this rather agile looking hoverfly was seeking a nectar-based lunch.

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The cool, grey days are a good time to look for insects on wooden surfaces. I remember reading a blogpost a couple of years ago all about fenceposts in rural areas for macro. The idea is that when it’s cold, and especially windy, it can be a great place to find insects that are too cold to move. I wish I could say the same for this solitary bee, which only let me get this close after about 15 minutes of muttering to myself while running up and down the garden.

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I’ve bought another thyme plant after seeing how popular it’s been with local pollinators. I was heading in for the evening when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a moth roosting on a leaf like a little bed.

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This is a micro-moth and, like so many species snapped in my garden, I don’t know which kind. I do have a micro-moth field guide but I can’t say it sees too much action.

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It’s important to remember that it’s not all about insect life, though. Cleavers, goose grass, sticky willy, whatever you strange English people call it, it has beautiful flowers. This plant is in the gardener’s ‘weed’ category (not marijuana, though it does have medicinal properties). The flowers are miniscule, and only by using something to magnify your vision can you really appreciate how beautiful they are.

Thanks for reading.

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