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.

The Digital Age

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When I was very young, my father had a camera. It was a fixed-lens model, and when you opened it a bellows popped out, which moved in and out to focus the lens, but it folded up small so it nearly always came with us on outings and holidays. That’s it on the left in the picture. Dad would carefully sort the resulting photos, and stick the best into post-bound albums1 that he’d made himself, and he’d paint little designs on the pages. Sometimes there’d be a caption and date and sometimes not, but those albums – which I still have – are a record of our family from the beginning of WW1 to some time in the sixties. I don’t know why he stopped, but it was shortly after we moved out of London and he took a management position at a local printing press, so maybe he was simply too busy.

I so wanted a camera of my own, and when I was about sixteen years old I bought one with the miniscule wages2 from my first job. It was a Kodak Instamatic. I took pictures of our cats and our house and the family, and places I’d been and where I worked … and at some point I won a ‘young people’s’ photo competition, which did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

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When I met OH, I got my hands on a half-decent camera – a Praktica SLR. We met on a residential course, and something clicked between us. He lent me this camera, which had a removable lens and looked horribly complicated, but he showed me how to use it and I got some surprisingly good results. When we went home at the end of the week, he took the rolls of film I’d used and developed and printed them for me, sending them to me in a fat envelope. Looking back, he must have been besotted, because he wasn’t very well-off either, though certainly more solvent than I.

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I’ve been through several cameras since then. After we were married, OH bought a Contax 127 Quartz, which I used more than he did. In no particular order3, we’ve since had, between us, a Contax Aria, a Bronica ETRS, and an ETRSi, a Minolta twin lens reflex, a Canon Powershot, and about four Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoots. Apart from the current point & shoots, we now have a Canon DSLR, and a Lumix bridge camera. And I’m looking to upgrade.

Every time I go on holiday I take a camera, and sometimes two. I love taking photographs – I suppose you could say that it’s one of my hobbies. I take photos of my family, of family events, of things I’ve made, and places I’ve been. I can’t wait for spring, because the insects will suddenly be everywhere and I’ll have a thousand new subjects to try to capture in all their miniature and startling detail.

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My trouble is that I very seldom do anything with the photographs I take, apart from when I use them on my blog. I have thousands upon thousands of photographs sitting quietly on hard disks and CDs and in my own personal storage galleries online, but that’s about it. Oh, I have made a few note-cards and so on. I’ve printed off the odd tee-shirt and had the odd mug made. I might even have a photobook made of some of the nicest, but that’s quite daunting (I did one once with over a hundred pages for a gift, and I nearly turned grey overnight4). Anyhow, very few of them end up in albums like this one:

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But now I’ve disovered Picfair, which seems to be quite interesting. It’s an online image market to which anyone can contribute. I keep the copyright on all my photos, and I can upload what I like, when I like, and I can delete them if I like. The fun part is that I can set a price, which can be a nominal £1 if I so choose, or I can be ambitious and ask £50. I can change that price when I like, too. Picfair make their money by charging the buyer of the license a small percentage. And I’m finding that this is addictive. I’m going through my digital albums and finding pictures I’d forgotten about, and putting them out there to see if they can help me justify the cost of a new camera5. The next step will be to scan in some of my film photos, though some I might need to get them reprinted first. They fade, in time, you know.

If you would like to see some of my favourite images, go take a look. Click here to be taken to my home page on Picfair. I’d welcome your opinion. Tell me which your favourites are, and why!

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And if you feel generous, do click on any that you particularly like and view the full sized version, because that will help my ratings and maybe one day I’ll sell – or rather licence – one or two.

It’s amazing, but that picture of a hoverfly on my finger was taken one-handed with a Lumix bridge camera. Perhaps Dad, being a keen entomologist, would have kept up the photography if he’d had a modern camera with a macro feature that could do that, but sadly, they simply didn’t exist in those days.

1 Post bound means that the covers are simply two separate covered boards, and both they and the pages are punched. You buy special bolts, otherwise known as Chicago screws, or post screws, and when you want to add or remove pages, you simply unscrew them and take off the cover/s.

2 Six pounds and sixpence, if you must know! I could barely afford my bus fare into work and suitable clothing. I was officially ‘poor’ and could get free glasses and dental treatment and everything. So the Instamatic – a very cheap camera – was bought on the ‘never-never’ – that’s hire purchase for those non-Brits who don’t know the term.

3 Because I’ve forgotten.

4 Well, I would have done, if I weren’t grey already. And in fact I should have said ‘over several weeks’ because that’s how long it took me to try to upload my photos in the correct order, and in the correct size, with the correct backgrounds and captions where required.

5 So far, the answer is no, but I live in hope.