Macro 📷: the smallest wasps on Earth

This blog often complains about the poor understanding in England regarding wasps. I began drafting this post in the midst of what’s known as ‘the silly season’, when Britain’s tabloid newspapers turn their guns on gulls, wasps and spiders, with a seasonal vacuum in news. However, in a global pandemic there is no real vacuum in news, and there is no way I’m going to go looking through those rags for stories I know are rubbish. Perhaps it’s my Scouse heritage.

What I didn’t expect was for YouGov to run a poll on the most hated invertebrates in the UK. I don’t understand how this helps in a time when invert populations – which we depend on for survival – are crashing. You know what they say, don’t trust the polls. Unless it’s the most recent ones in which case please God let it be true.

Moving on.

Yes, you guessed it, this is another post about wasps. This time, it’s some of the smallest wasps in the world. The group I encountered, and which are shown here, could amount to a total of 500,000 species, with about 470,000 of those species unknown to science. Do you need help picking your jaw off the floor?

Reminder: we are just the one species, Homo sapiens.

You have to think sometimes – imagine all the ecological networks and relationships between species which we actually have no idea about. In places of the highest biodiversity, they’re being made extinct by the loss of habitat, before we even know they exist. Jair Bolsonaro has more to answer for than we may yet realise.

The wasp photographed here is now a species I know thanks to iNaturalist – a chalcid wasp in the genus Ormyrus. ‘Chalcid’ comes from the Greek word for ‘copper’ because they have a metallic appearance.

Back in August I visited a nature reserve local to me. The meadows had far more seed heads than flowers and I wasn’t intending to see a huge amount of invertebrate life. I give up on birds around July when they go on their holidays, usually low in a bush somewhere.

In actual fact I found a lot of species, many of them quite happy to be photographed, though of course not yet understanding of what a photograph is. I was drawn to a large area of dead nettle, a family so big there are many plants I just don’t know the names of yet.

Looking at some of the leaves of the plant, I noticed something about 3-5mm in length, resting on the leaf. When I looked through the macro lens and additional extension tube, which magnifies the view further, I could see it was a type of wasp.

This wasp is obviously a great deal bigger than that. That said, I couldn’t see that it had red eyes without some magnification.

Chalcid wasps are parasitic species, as outlined by their Wikipedia entry:

Most of the species are parasitoids of other insects, attacking the egg or larval stage of their host, though many other life cycles are known. These hosts are to be found in at least 12 different insect orders including Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Diptera (true flies), Coleoptera (beetles), Hemiptera (true bugs), and other Hymenoptera, as well as two orders of Arachnida, and even one family of nematodes.

Wikipedia via iNaturalist

I’ve written about parasitic wasps before.

Now I don’t know much about the very small wasps, and one thing I really didn’t know was just how small they get. Some species of wasps are smaller than the width of a human hair, or even smaller than a single-celled organism!

Perhaps they’ll be the ones to get pilloried during 2022’s tabloid silly season. In truth, I doubt it.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro 📷: it’s time to squash our stupidity around wasps

Social media is a dangerous place sometimes. People can end their careers at the click of a button. This blog may end my career as a bee-keeper, which hasn’t started yet.

Last week a video appeared in my Twitter timeline of a bee-keeper filming the swatting of a wasp. “Don’t tell Chris Packham” was the punchline (pun not intended). For any readers outside of the UK, Chris Packham is a wildlife conservationist with a large following and strong presence in the media. The video drew criticism from many established conservationists, Dave Goulson, for example, who has written several books about the importance of a wide range of insects, many of which are found in gardens.

The video was deleted and the bee-keeper evidently realised they had made a mistake and had something to learn (great stuff, now stop killing wasp queens please). But it was the kind of interesting insight that can only sometimes be provided by a mistake. Is the crushing of wasp queens (this person claimed to have killed more than 40) common practice? Is it encouraged by people within the industry, on the quiet? Judging from the bee-keepers I know, I would be absolutely astonished by that. What did astonish, however, was that this individual used to provide a monitoring service for the English government’s department for agriculture!

A German wasp harvesting woodshavings in my garden to build a nest somewhere

In keeping with that, a fellow bee-keeper pointed out that wasps remove a huge number of agricultural pests from the environment, which will ultimately benefit the farming of honey bees. Therefore killing wasp queens was harmful to far more than that squashed insect. Unfortunately this dim-wittedness is all too common in Britain, a micro-version of the continental European hunter’s desire to kill anything with a curved bill and talons, as I once heard someone say about the situation in eastern Europe.

It offers uncomfortable questions around industrial bee-keeping, which is a form of livestock farming, that may need to be fully addressed.

In much better news, there was a watershed moment for wasps in the media in the same week, however. Damian Carrington of The Guardian published this excellent article about the importance of wasps. It has some amazing science in it but also pointers to the economic importance of social wasps. This paragraph stood out:

Overcoming prejudice against wasps will not be easy, the scientists said, because they have long been portrayed as hateful. The ancient Greek polymath Aristotle wrote that “hornets and wasps … have nothing divine about them as the bees have”. In the Bible, God sends hornets as punishment to sinners in three different books.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/29/stinging-wasps-are-precious-not-pointless-say-scientists

Anyone who read this blog last year knows I have been trying to make this point in a more amateur way week after week. Wasps are not just one black-and-yellow species that annoys you at the picnic table every August. In the UK we have thousands of species, something you can’t say about most animals on these isles.

Take this solitary wasp, which I referenced in a previous post. iNaturalist reckons these are in the family Cheloninae, a group of ichneumon wasps. This wasp was absolutely tiny, with about 20 of them gathering on the edges of a shrub. They are one of several thousand species we have in the UK, with their value potentially not understood by science and certainly not economically. For 99.9% of the population that is the case due to their size and the fact that, you know, why would you look unless you blog about this stuff?

A median wasp pollinating raspberries in my garden last year

In recent weeks I’ve watched a wasp queen land in my basin pond to drink, sometimes several times a day from what I can see. She flies in and always picks the same spot. I love to see her. On a sweeter note, I watched another queen (or perhaps the same one?) visiting gooseberry flowers to nectar. In the late summer we’ll pick the fruit she helped to create, and wasps will be welcome here. This offer is unconditional, despite how annoying their workers will be in the summer to come.

Thanks for reading (and not squashing).

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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 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

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Macro Monday: do you really need to destroy that wasp’s nest?

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Macro Monday 27th July 2020

The garden is very dry and the insects are becoming more scarce, but that can help to focus on a species and reach deeper into their ecology and the relationship we have with them. We’ll get to that in good time.

I’m writing this on a rainy day so hopefully summer won’t come to an end prematurely. I have one plant which I’m hoping will flower soon that my invertebrate friends will like.

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I did a lunchtime circuit of my garden on a warmer, sunnier day and found pretty much nothing. I was just heading back into the house when I spotted this zebra-like patterning on a towel that was drying in the sun.

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I realised it was a species of picture-winged fly! I think it’s a species of Urophora.

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I snapped a few pics and luckily they focused in on the eye. Looking at a towel this close shows what we fail to see with the naked human eye in terms of microfibres.

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The fly family were the most visible subjects in the past week. This is a species that seems not far from picture-winged flies. It’s probably Sepsis cynipsea, a scavenger fly. Its wings do this rotating movement as it hops around in the hedge. They’re known for their relationship with cattle dung, and there are farms about 2 miles away so maybe they travel into small towns as well for fun.

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Another black and white fly but much larger than the other species above. I really like these flesh flies, their black and ash-white patterning, and bright red eyes are really attractive. I appreciate that is probably not to everyone’s taste.

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But of course, this blog would not be complete without checking in on those gorgeous greenbottles.

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To The Man on the Street’s acute frustration, wasps are now active. I saw a wasp peeking out from behind a leaf in a hedge one lunchtime and found that it wasn’t moving. I picked it up and saw that it had been predated, with its lower abdomen missing. I think this was probably the work of a bird, as species like great tit are known to eat bumblebees by basically disemboweling them. House sparrows are also in good numbers in my garden and I often see them picking bees, flies and butterflies out of the air. In this case I’m praying that insects don’t feel pain 😦

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Over on the other side of the garden, this wasp was doing its woodcarving work. These woody fibres will be taken away and used to build the stunning nests they make. For anyone who has read this blog series before, you’ll know that I love wasps and am keen to promote their conservation in any way I can. Let’s talk about their nests a bit.

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This probably isn’t a common wasp nest but it’s the best external image I have. It’s a nest in a protected landscape in Czechia, the White Carpathians. I think it’s a social wasp nest, rather than a solitary species because it’s a bit bigger but I could be wrong.

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This was also taken in Czechia but in a different location. This is what it looks like inside a social wasp’s nest. Can you believe that this is built by wasps? It’s absolutely mind-blowing. We were walking along a forest road and it was sitting there on the ground. The best explanation we could come up with was that the nest had been predated by a honey buzzard and dropped in flight. Honey buzzards mainly eat this kind of thing. At least, that is the most spectacular explanation for why we found it.

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So next time you consider needlessly destroying a wasp nest, think about all the craft and insect-skills that went into it. Do you really need to harm it? Can you learn to accept them and keep a safe distance? Can you learn to love them?

Thanks for reading.

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