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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Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: a hairy day in the hedge

We are at that point in British springtime that feels like a tipping point. The leaves of most deciduous trees are out in small, decorative versions of their summer selves.

The insect life has passed meaningful boundaries: mason bees have have hatched from the hotels and the early species are looking a little overwhelmed by the new life around them. Take the hairy footed flower bees. Now they will rest for a photo, after a month of never settling much at all.

I spent a five minute screen break in my garden observing the silent flight of a mourning bee, a bee that targets the hairy-feet. Its flight was deceptive, hard to know what kind of insect it was. That must be part of its success.

My small chunk of ornamental hedge was once again alive with insect action. There was a party of solitary wasps dancing at the edge of the hedge where I have had to cut back and replant. I will never be able to tell you their truest selves, such is their familial diversity.

A solitary bee that I see often but haven’t yet identified was flying in good numbers. It is such a hairy thing, with a flush of ‘facial’ hair and bristles jutting out from its abdomen. I think it’s an Andrena mining bee.

Hoverflies are always part of the picture. Droneflies flew in midair, legs akimbo, or else bathed with their motorbike helmet compound eyes monitoring my distance.

A brief visitor to the edge of a flower pot turned out to be something more interesting. Users on iNaturalist identified it as a species which is likely an accidental introduction to the United Kingdom, a species I haven’t knowingly seen before.

I spent some time with my camera-mounted face glued to the bee hotel. I am beyond caring what onlookers now think, simply because I’ve shared sightings with my neighbours and they are so keen to let me know what I’ve missed.

I’ve taken their advice on garden plants. Now a beautiful blue Lithodora sits in a pot on the patio, nectared on by hairy-footed flower bees. Lithodora is a borage relative, native to southern Europe.

Evening when the sun is softer can be a good time to check hedges for calmer insects at the end of a busy day. I found a non-biting midge with its punk-antennae. An expert on iNaturalist informed me that it is rare to identify these insects beyond family level, of which there are many! Whatever its acute identify was as a life form, this miniscule, barely visible to the naked eye. Its bottlebrush headpiece was the perfect way to see out a hairy day in the hedge.

Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII and 60mm f2.8 macro lens with 16mm extension tube

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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.

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The Sussex Weald: deer reclaim the Forest

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, August 2020

I stand on the long, straight track that cuts through the heart of St. Leonard’s Forest. I recently looked for it on a map from the 1870s. I thought it might have been a 20th Century addition to ease forestry operations. To my surprise, it was there cutting through what today remains a heavily wooded landscape.

Looking around, it’s probably even more wooded now. In the 1870s, the woodland was likely oak and beech with holly underneath. Where pines now stand abandoned to nature, heathland probably expanded over more open areas.

The name ‘forest’ actually denotes open land where laws once controlled gathering of natural resources and the hunting of animals, with brutal consequences for rule breakers. ”Aforestation’ was the implementation of Forest Law on more land, often at the expense of entire vilages of people.

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At one point in history, a third of England was subject to Forest Law. It was a landscape of oppression, violently enforced by England’s Norman conquerers after 1066. The management and control of deer was a key part of the Norman forest landscape.

The track is endless in this crepuscular light. At the edges ditches are stuffed with bracken which has yellowed in the August heatwave. Sudden explosions of heather interrupt the vertebra-like leaves of the bracken.

Ahead I can see two people or animals. The light is fading, the sun has slipped beyond the pines. As I get closer I can see one is a roe deer. The other figure has gone. The deer are grazing the edges of the ditches, stopping to check on my progress. I’m moving slowly, but hurrying with my hands to change the lens on my little camera to one with more reach. I get closer but it doesn’t fear me. It turns and walks away into the dark woodland.

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Walking further down the old track, a pathway, broad and green appears on my left. Two fallow deer are looking at me. They must have been grazing with the calm roe I have just passed, but they are less accepting. They scarper, one zig-zagging and leaping to distract what is a would-be predator.

Then, from the bushes, a roe deer has been startled and lurches across the path into the undergrowth that the fallow deer has disappeared into. Squashed into that small green lane, that burst of animal limbs felt almost like watching a stampede.

The Sussex Weald

#FungiFriday: a week of cake and jelly

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Fungi Friday 5th March 2020

A couple of weeks ago I was inspecting a bird table in my garden and spotted a moss growing from its ‘roof’. This bird table has been, literally, around the houses and has probably gathered many organisms along the way. Looking more closely I found some jelly fungi.

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The weather has been showing signs of spring, with queen bumblebees on the wing and what I am sure was a male hairy-footed flower bee travelling through the gardens. On Monday I was in the garden briefly and had a closer look at the bird table. On the edge I found a nice cluster of what I think are lemon disco (yes, great name!).

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During a brief trip to The National Trust’s Nymans in the Sussex Weald this weird species was on the decaying heartwood of an old cherry tree. It’s a slime mould known as false puffball. If you press it with your finger it bursts, a bit like other Lycoperdonย slime moulds such as wolf’s milk (search for it).

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Elsewhere, the state of Sussex’s rivers shows how high the rainfall has been so far this year. But the lichenised-fungi are benefitting.

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Along this stretch of the river Arun, these beard lichens were profuse. One hawthorn was so covered with them it seemed like there would be no room for leaves in a couple of weeks!

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Lichens were doing well in other places too. This knotty old fencing rail was making a home for these cup lichens (Cladonia). Lots of countryside fence posts are home to these lichens.

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Not far away from the gushing Arun was a veteran ash tree with lots of King Alfred’s cakes growing from the damaged bark. In this image you can see the folds of the cambium where the tree is trying to protect itself from fungi and other invading organisms. This fungus will have a boom from the amount of dead ash trees caused by the evil fungus behind ash dieback disease.

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To people outside the UK or without a grasp of English history, this name is quite meaningless. It is based on the tale of King Alfred who was exiled in the Somerset Levels during the Viking invasion of Winchester. Alfred failed to keep an eye on a woman’s loaves of bread that were on the fire and they burned. It is said that she had no idea he was the King, so far removed was his from his throne. Don’t worry, he eventually came back and pushed the Danes away a bit.

In the real world this fungus is said to be a host species for hundreds of invertebrates. It’s also used as a kindling and many people who know of it do so for that reason.

Let’s hope for milder temperatures and less rain and see if some more photogenic fungi pop up!

Thanks for reading.

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