Hoverflies

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I’ve always been interested in tiny creatures.  Well, perhaps ‘interested’ isn’t the right word.  Perhaps I should say ‘fascinated’.  I blame my father1.

For most of my life, it’s all been a bit random, so I’d see something with more legs than I have and quite a lot smaller than me, and I’d want to get a closer look and watch it for a while.  Thanks to Dad, I grew up knowing roughly what most of the common ones were and I could name them by their common family names at least: that’s a woodlouse, this is a centipede, there’s a beetle, etc.  As I grew older, I found that I knew a little bit more than most people.  I found myself saying things like ‘that’s not a beetle, it’s a bug’, or ‘no, it’s not a centipede, it’s a millipede’ and getting mildly annoyed when people didn’t care and still got it wrong.  And as time went on, the little creatures I could identify accurately increased, so that instead of saying ‘I found a beetle!’ I could say ‘here’s a Cockchafer’, or whatever.  I was fairly indiscriminate, but during the last few years my fascination has focussed sharply on hoverflies.

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Hoverflies are fascinating little creatures.  You know those little stripey flying things that hover silently over flowers in the summer?  A lot of people think they’re bees or wasps because they’re stripey, but they’re not, they are flies. They have no sting and they don’t bite.  And – here’s the important bit – they are not all stripey.  There are nearly three hundred different species of hoverfly in the UK, and they range from tiny black things to large furry bumblebee mimics that can sometimes even fool entomologists for a moment or two2.  There are wasp and hornet mimics, as well.

Everyone knows that bees are important to us because they are pollinators3, but not everyone knows that hoverflies are, too.  They visit flowers, they pick up pollen, they visit other flowers and drop some.   And there are a lot of them.   You might be used to seeing them only in high summer, but that’s because you’re not looking for them.  This cool, windy, wet spring has meant that there are fewer hoverflies here than usual, but I’m still seeing them on all but the worst days.  By the time Joe Public notices them, they are out in their thousands – and Mr Public will notice only a handful of species4.

So after a year or so of teaching myself to photograph them – which is surprisingly difficult, since like all flies they have excellent, wide-ranging, motion-detecting eyes, and can move like greased lightning if they feel threatened – I decided to join the Facebook group UK Hoverflies and began to submit records for my area.  It’s run by entomologists who are experts in hoverflies and they are all lovely people who are endlessly patient with amateurs like me who just want to know.  And so my interest was encouraged, and grew, and when I saw that a hoverfly identification workshop was being held in Shrewsbury in May I signed up for it5.

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It was great!  I learned so much more about hoverflies, and picked up some skills which will help me to identify them more effectively.  Of course, to do it properlyI’d need to kill them, and look at them under a binocular microscope with a camera and screen6, which would set me back several thousand pounds, but at least I now know which features to look at and the best camera angles to try for and will be better able to identify the easier ones7.

I’m not into killing them.  I can see why it’s necessary for it to be done by bona fide entomologists who are making what they call a ‘voucher collection’ and by bona fide entomological students who are seeking to become the next generation of experts, but it’s not for me.  So there will always be some hoverflies I cannot identify properly8, and that’s OK.

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We should all be concerned about helping pollinator numbers stay strong.  Not everyone will be willing to go as far as me and have silage lagoons in the garden for hoverfly breeding, but we can all plant the right sort of flowers, can’t we?  And – more importantly – stop using all those damned chemicals.

 

1 My father was an well-known entomologist, who studied beetles and took us kids on field trips.  Unfortunately, he didn’t think it a subject fit for girls so although he told me the names of things when I asked, he didn’t encourage my interest.

2 Without pollinators, a lot of our food crops would not be possible.

3 If they catch them out of the corner of their eye while they are feeding on a flower in company with bees.  Me, I’m not an expert, but I have to tell you that when I saw my first Volucella zonaria I honestly thought it was a hornet until I got the photos home and onto the computer screen where I saw that it was a hoverfly.

4 The stripey ones.

5 Rather rashly, as it happens.  I hate driving long distances, and while I’m aware that a journey of two and a half hours is peanuts to some people, to me it is a Long Trip and I nearly chickened out.  And because various things happened on the day I was due to leave, it was a nightmare journey which took nearly twice as long.  But I got there!  I was also terrified that looking down microscopes all day would give me a migraine (which incapacitates me and would have meant getting someone to take me back to my hotel, which would have been a tad difficult, since the type of migraine I get means I’d have trouble remembering the name of the hotel, let alone my room number), but thankfully that didn’t happen.

6 The camera and screen would avoid all neck strain and allow me to get on with the job without risking a migraine.  I coveted it, but for an amateur like me, it’s an unjustifiable expense, which would be equivalent to a couple of weeks in Italy at a really nice hotel.  I do have a hand-held digital microscope to which I could add lighting, a stand, screen, etc to at a relatively low cost (we’re talking hundreds rather than thousands), but as it is, it gives me a migraine.

7 Some need to be dead.  You need to be able to move heads and wings and legs to see the hidden bits and sometimes you need to dissect them.  I could get interested in that, but I don’t want to kill them, so I’d have to simply find them lying around with their legs in the air.

8 Yes. Quite often the stripey ones.

So many things …

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You know how it is. There are so many things to do, so many places to go, and so many blog posts you mean to write. The last is particularly true, and I’ve made a lot of notes, and then .. the ‘so many things to do’ and the ‘so many places to go’ went and got in the way.

I really want to start blogging properly again, but it seems I don’t have much time to craft the sort of posts I used to do, so for now, I’m going to be putting up brief snippets of this and that, starting with something I usually get into at this time of year; macro photography of wildlife.

The little creature up at the top is a tiny bee, less than a centimetre in length, which at first I thought was a wasp on account of its tiny waist. It’s called Hylaeus communis, which I’d never have known if it weren’t for the freely offered expertise of a Swedish guy called Göran Holmström, who belongs to the same ‘bee and wasp’ group as I do. Facebook can be a wonderful thing, when used wisely.

This next picture is one of our commonest hoverflies, and one of the most frequently photographed. I adore hoverflies, but these little guys annoy the hell out of me because when I’m trying to get a picture, they hover motionless about half a metre in front of me, poking their tongues out and taunting me, then when I slowly raise the camera to their level, they dart out of sight – only to return seconds later in a slightly different spot!

Episyrphus balteatus (also known as the Marmalade Fly) meet your public.

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While I was out photographing bees and hoverflies a week or so ago, I noticed this day-flying moth on a daisy. It’s called ‘Mother Shipton’ because it has a little witch’s face on each wing.

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Now, you all love ladybirds, right? Can’t get enough of them, I bet. Even people who hate ‘bugs’ and ‘creepy-crawlies’ like ladybirds – I mean, they’re not really beetles are they?1

How about this then?

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That’s the larva of a Seven-Spot Ladybird, in the process of pupating. Only its mother could love it. Well, it’s mother and me, and lots of other insect fans, actually.

Okay, let’s finish with something cute. Here is a Mullein moth caterpillar eating my buddleia. Considering the number of them, and the size of them, it’s amazing there isn’t more damage, but in fact I can hardly see where they’ve been!

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You don’t think that’s cute? Oh, well. Can’t please you all .. but try this.

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That’s the Seven Spot Ladybird that the weird-looking larva you saw up there will one day turn into. Well, one like it, anyway!

If you’re interested in insects, no matter if you know very little, try joining one of the Facebook groups. The people there are lovely and willingly identify things for anyone who asks. I am a member of UK Hoverflies, Insects of Britain and Northern Europe, and UK Bees, Wasps and Ants.

1 Actually, yes. Yes, they are. They are absolutely 100% beetles.

Photo Blogging Challenge – ‘Two’

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I’m knocking on the door of too late here, but I think I’ll squeeze in. The prompt for A Li’l HooHaa‘s photo blogging challenge for March is ‘Two’ and it must be done by today, or we’re into April and a new theme.

Now, I knew about this one from the start of March because of having joined in with February’s challenge, so I’ve been keeping an eye open for pictures which fit the bill. We’re supposed to avoid posting pictures from the archives, because the whole idea is to encourage us to go out there and work a little on our photography – and that’s what I’ve done. All of these pictures were taken during this month with this challenge in mind.1

As soon as I saw my son and one of his small daughters on the bouncy bike and sidecar, I thought of the old music hall song ‘Daisy, Daisy’.2 DS No 2 (ha! Another ‘two’) is a Stay At Home Dad, so he has a very strong rapport with the twins. Can you tell?3

Here are both girls together. Yep, two of them – identical twins, who happen to be nearly two years old. Very handy, that.

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I think Son No 2 is really very lucky to have this opportunity to be with his young daughters so much.

So then I started to get into the swing of the challenge and thought about some more unusual ‘twos’. Taken on the same day, here’s a picture of the grandparents… or rather, our shadows on the grass as we watch the young family at play. This one took a little post-processing because it wasn’t shot in black & white. It also needed a random bit of stick taken out and the shadows deepening for better contrast.

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The bright spot in the top right was part of the original composition, though.

The next one was the product of a deliberate trawl through my kitchen to find pairs of things to photograph. Believe it or not, this shot was not set up. The lovely glass oil and vinegar bottles were right there, just as they appear, next to the two jugs on the dresser shelf. I have a bit of a thing about jugs!

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This one was shot using the ‘candlelight’ setting on the camera, then converted to black & white. I also made a new layer of the larger jug and added a filter to bring it out a little more. It’s always hard to balance shadows and highlights on a mix of porcelain and glass, but I liked the way the wood back of the dresser came out. Sharpened up the grain nicely, didn’t it?

Lastly … hmm … which of the others shall I use? Let me see …

How about this one? I just loved these stamps when I found them on a piece of wrapping paper in a pile of papers I was sorting. Loved the colours, the 1940s style, and the crumpled perforations and texture of the paper etc. Best of all, it’s SOC!4

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Thanks to A Li’l HooHaa for hosting this photo challenge. I’m looking forward to finding out what April’s theme will be.

1 See? I can stick to the rules if I have to. Aren’t I good?

2 For you youngsters out there, it goes like this:
‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’ll look sweet,
Upon the seat,
Of a bicycle made for two!’

3 Naturally, they’re also really, really keen on Mum when she comes into work. Here she is with the other twin. Consider it a bonus: ‘It takes two, baby’!

4 Which means, just in case there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know, that it is Straight Out of the Camera, with no processing whatsoever. Well, apart from cropping.

Cee’s Photo Challenge

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Cee’s Photo Challenge for this week is ‘Weathered Wood’. It so happens that I love weathered wood, so there are a ton of suitable photos in my archives!

The one up at the top was taken not far from here, deep in the fens, at an abandoned farmhouse. It’s detail from one of the old gateposts .. the gate is long gone, but the posts remain. I don’t know what type of wood they were made from, but it certainly has lasting quality!

This next one is driftwood on a river bank near Squamish, Canada.

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There was so much of it that I was spoiled for choice. I wondered if it was the result of logging, but I don’t know .. maybe it’s just that the river floods – and it’s a big river – and just kind of washes out the roots over time. There were certainly roots on display in some places, but these are not quite whole trees.

Another type of driftwood, this time on a beach in Italy. You don’t see so much driftwood in Tuscany, but I’m very fond of this picture. Not only does it remind me of a great holiday, but each time I see it I think ‘Sea Snake’, which amuses me (I’m very easily amused).

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And here’s one of my favourite weathered wood photos – I took it while driving through Molise, in Italy. It’s a fairly poor area, and there is a lot of crumbling architecture and decay, which can result in some spectacularly interesting photography, but I don’t know .. this looks deliberate, doesn’t it?

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Anyway, there we were, merrily driving along, and came across these wonderfully warped doors on an outbuilding in a very, very small community whose name I am afraid I’ve forgotten. Naturally, I made OH stop so I could take pictures. It’s a feature of our holidays; me constantly yelling ‘stop, stop – I want to take a picture’ and him saying ‘I can’t stop here!’ or ‘Oh, alright, but you’ll have to be quick!’ Or if I’m really lucky, we find a proper pull-in and we’re not in a particular hurry, and I can take my time. This was an ‘Oh, alright, but you’ll have to be quick’ moment.

And now for some fun. If I have any choice in the matter, when I’m taking insect pictures, or fallen leaves, or bits and pieces of this and that, I’ll use a natural background: stone, tile, pebbles, sand, or wood. So I’m lucky that this Small Tortoiseshell butterfly happened to land on some outdoor garden furniture which had been outdoors in the garden for quite some time.

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Lastly, a couple of .. I’m not sure what you’d call them. Skeletons of flowers, maybe? They had fallen from the loggia on which was growing a grapevine and a couple of other climbing plants, all intertwined. I’m not sure what they are, but I loved the juxtaposition of nature and finished wood, both in a state of decay.

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Cee’s Photo Challenge – Farm Animals

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Now that I’ve decided to do more in the way of photo challenges to help with learning my way around my new camera, I’m finding myself searching through existing folders rather than using the darn thing.

You see, this week, Cee’s Fun Photo Challenge is ‘Farm Animals’ and I’m blowed if I know where to go to look for them. I suppose I could get in the car and drive around the villages, but firstly I haven’t got that kind of energy or time, and secondly, I’ve done quite a bit of driving around lately one way and another and I can’t remember actually seeing any farm animals in the fields for quite some distance around, which is actually rather disturbing, because it suggests to me that they are in indoors somewhere1.

Now I do live in an arable region, so mostly it’s crops of grain, oilseed rape, vegetables or sugar beet, but I’m sure there used to be more animals around. The local manor farm has recently been sold, the parents having passed away and the son (or sons) not being interested in the business. When the farm was a going concern, there were often cattle in the fields with calves running among them, which was nice to see. Just like in this field, which I spotted on the way over west to meet up with some friends last August.

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There used to be bullocks in the fields right opposite us, but apparently it became uneconomical to buy them in as calves and raise them for meat. There have been none for years, now. Just the odd horse on the open triangle of field at the end.

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There also used to be sheep up on the edge of the next village, but I haven’t heard them lately. There may be some sheep over at Hills & Hollows, but that’s a bit hit and miss because they only graze them there for grassland management2 and most of the time there aren’t any.

So here you are. A selection of animals from the past. The Gypsy Vanners are often staked out on odd patches of grassland around here, as Travellers pass through on their way to the fenland market produce farms for seasonal work. Beautiful horses, aren’t they?

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And searching through my files from last year, I found a folder of pictures from a visit to Hamerton Zoo, where Son No 2 and the lovely B took the twins for a picnic one day and invited us along.

Son No 2 does not like goats. Their eyes give him the shivers, and he won’t even drink goat milk. B used to like them, but she picked up a tummy bug shortly after the visit to Hamerton and blamed the goats, now she doesn’t like them either!

Doesn’t look as if he could do anyone any harm, does he? Or does he … ?

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Why not join in this week? Cee’s Photo Challenge is open to all! Or you could just wander over and take a look at the other entries.

1 I can only hope that they are only indoors for the winter and will be out soon. Factory farming is why I now choose to buy free range meat whenever possible.

2 It’s a nature reserve in an old limestone quarry. It is very old, and there are some quite rare species there, like the Pasque Flower and various grassland orchids. Apparently, sheep do a great job of eating the grass and leaving the flowers, and crop it to exactly the right height, so they are run over the reserve in temporary paddocks once a year, and then they are gone.