Today it’s Roddy’s turn to take over the blog, and he’s written about something completely different, but read on and I hope you enjoy it!
It all started with a spider two summers ago.
Gigi came in from the garden with her hand over a plastic glass and said brightly,”Daddy, I’ve found a tiny spider outside and it’s very beautiful!”
It was indeed, a tiny dot of a dark creature with three gold spots on its back, so small I couldn’t even see it in the glass at first. The joy of being young, I thought, as I finally located the creature and got out a magnifying glass. An hour later, I was puzzled. None of the varied books on my shelves showed it in their pages, and a 30-minute trawl through the internet revealed nothing similar save for an exotic cousin of a spider from India. I took a photograph of the one we had on the little Canon and sent it to a friend on FaceBook who I knew was keen on dragonflies. He could’t help, but knew someone who could, and so I waited, intrigued.
The answer came back the next day, from a man on a Facebook group called ‘Insects of Britain and Northern Europe’. I was amazed to see the group had 13,000 members, and even more amazed to see Gigi’s spider identified and commented on with some excitement. It had turned out to be the exotically named Theridula gonygaster, a spider from the far south of Europe, and a species never recorded as far north in France as our little garden, the previous record being 400kms to the south in the foothills of the Pyrenees For two days Gigi basked in glory as comments and messages from various groups and organisations reached us, and along the way I began to appreciate the interest the little creature was creating. I learnt a little too, not just about global warming, but how insect migration is heavily affected by humans, and how a spider from the toe of Italy could be in a garden centre in suburban England 48 hours later. The fuss over the little spider died down and time passed, life returning to normal.
Then, 10 days later, the children came in to say they’d seen the most amazing caterpillar outside in the hibiscus hedge. It took me just two minutes to become smitten with its glory, and even though I had not have a clue what the creature was going to turn into, I at least now knew some people who did; two hours later I was on the slippery slope to insect addiction as people by their dozens liked the first photo I ever posted on the same Facebook group.
(in case you were wondering, this crazy caterpillar turns into Europe’s biggest flying insect, the Peacock moth)
So that first summer I found an alternative universe as I developed my interest in both the macro fauna in our garden, and in the countryside about us. Each night I would go through the pictures I took with the little Canon, trawl the internet for information, and discuss the tiny beasts I was encountering with other people on-line who were similarly intrigued, impassioned, or technically involved with the same fauna that was fascinating me. I exchanged messages with amateurs and experts across the world, shared photos on message boards and found myself inexplicably drawn further into the insect kingdom – and along the way I surprised myself by also becoming more passionate and informed about our surrounding ecosystem, and the role that all these insects played in it.
Then finally there came a day when I realised, or perhaps fully understood, that there is a whole intricate relationship between insects, plants, geography and ultimately, climate. For the truth is that without humans the planet would flourish, but without insects it will shrivel, die and become a barren desert.
It was also at this point that the family realised I was losing the plot, as I started to rescue insects from the swimming-pool and – with a €50 Raynox macro filter attached to an old Canon SX40 bridge camera – started to take even more intimate portraits of even smaller insects, such as the tiny 3mm long blue carpenter bee below, a microscopic little blue mote that floats about European gardens in large numbers at a crucial time of the year; it’s a terribly important, seldom recognised and un-noticed pollinator.
Part of my discovery also involved a lesson, one in which I learnt that our insect numbers, especially here in Europe, are disappearing at an alarming rate; the decline is suspected to lie at the hand of humans, and the pesticides and fertilisers which we spray with abandon about our landscapes. An amateur group of entomologists in Germany really made the scientific world sit up and notice last year, when they put out a bulletin that noted a dramatic 80% decline in species and numbers at over 100 sampling sites since 1989. There’s a link to their story at the bottom of this post.
But all of this is something you can find out more about yourselves. There are books to read that make good sense and fine reading, and I’ll mention them later, too. Even if you have just half a yard of lawn or flowerbed, it’s a story worth investigating – you’ll certainly never buy weed-killer with such abandon again, for sure, and hopefully like me, you’ll start throwing tiny lifejackets at drowning insects in your pool or pond.
Hand in hand with the discovery of the insects in our garden and my investigation into them came a development that I had not anticipated, which was a return to the passion I once had many years ago for photography. In a different lifetime I once owned some fancy gear and made half a living selling photographs to the boating and fishing world, but when Susan and I started to have a family, the Nikons were sold and our photographs became a blur of snapshots of family life taken by a series of small Canons. Creativity still reared its head, but the cameras were smaller, less intrusive and easily pocketable. However, when we moved back to France three years ago I found my little Canon Ixus 900ti had been broken in transit, and so I replaced it with a newer Canon Powershot – a small s120 – little knowing that this was a tool with a great ‘macro’ capability that would even surprise the experts, and it slotted most conveniently into my new-found hobby.
With the little camera in hand, I learnt a great deal about the bees and other aculeates in our garden, finding out along the way that there are over 950 species of bees alone in France, from the German wasp (above), to the mighty Carpenter bee (below)
There was so much to find out, so much knowledge to absorb, that I developed a second life, slinking through the undergrowth after hoverflies with the little camera as Susan toiled in the flowerbeds in bemusement, rightly glowering with disdain at my refusal to help with the wheelbarrow.
After dark I took to loitering with intent between the chicken shed and the compost bin, the camera in one hand and a torch in the other to illuminate the nocturnal spiders that lurked unseen by day.
The children got involved too, and over three years they have brought many things to my attention that my blundering efforts have failed to discover. The little s120 meanwhile has proved itself to be a very capable camera, even with the small sensor it has, and people have been amazed (as have I) with its competent ability to capture fast moving insects in flight, especially the various bees, moths and butterflies it has encountered along the way, from the gloriously named Hairy-footed Flower bee, below,
to the dizzyingly quick Humming-bird moth
The highlight of my budding macro career happened last year, when I discovered a small house-fly sized bee buzzing me as I inspected the Russian sage. At first I thought the little creatures were hoverflies, but after 20 minutes in the hot sun I finally managed to get a photo of one and set off indoors to see what it was. Within five minutes I had narrowed it down to an Anthophora species, and then I was stumped. It didn’t appear to be anything I could find out about at all.
I turned to the contacts I’d built up over the past 24 months, and was soon sending photos to important bee-people worldwide. A week later, I had my answer from an American professor who works in Europe every year. The little thing was called Anthophora pubescens, a wee beast never before recorded so far west or north in Europe, and only known before from a tiny corner of Provence. Quite apart from being happy with my find, I was again reminded how how little we really know about the smallest of the animal kingdoms, and how much we are detrimentally changing their world. What was it doing in our garden? How had it got there? Was there another more insidious reason for its visit?
It appeared from the photographs I took that there is a colony of the bees nearby, so I await next month’s flowering of the sage with great excitement to see if they have successfully left a generation deep underground through the cold winter, ready to emerge this summer; if they have then they will have gained a foothold far north of their normal range. Excitingly, there are several people who want to visit with cameras if the bees are still in residence – and I have to say I’ve become quite paternal to them!
It is perhaps the spiders and bees that I have encountered most of, and learnt the most about. I’ve always found spiders fascinating, and when I discovered that France has over 2000 species it set me off on a trail of arachnophilic delight. Big ones, small ones, tiny ones, they all appeal, not least because I think I understand the place that they occupy in the ecosystem. While I have learnt that the bees and flies are some of the most important insects the world has, pollinating a vast percentage of our crops and flowers, and thus ensuring the success of their growth (which ties in nicely to CO2 and climatology, of course), the spiders remain an order unto themselves – killers of pests, removal henchmen, bailiffs, cleaners, janitors – and in some cases, show amazing bursts of character and intelligence. As far as I am concerned, they deserve a place in every household, solely for the insects they keep out.
Of course, when one starts to keep an eye out for small creatures, it is not long before one runs into some real characters in the insect world, one group of which is the jumping spiders – small bouncy creatures who fix you with huge eyes and a glare of such intelligence that it seems foolhardy to even argue with them. Typically found in sunny spots waiting for insects to land near them, they are a great pest-control team and will eat their way through as many mosquitos, silverfish and baby cockroaches as you can throw at them.
Along with the bees (some of whom became old friends and stopped flying away when I appeared with a camera),
there were other insects, too. Some were shy, like the ant-lion below,
and others were charismatic and wanted to appear in films like the Lion King
And of course, everywhere one looked there was not just life and death, but also sex, and plenty of it. There is antenna-ed passion everywhere, of many sorts, all of which ensures the survival of the natural world as long as humans don’t muck it up too much
You push her, I’ll pull
Hurry, I think someone’s coming!
Bloody paparazzi – why can’t they keep away?
As one Harlequin ladybird said to the other – “The joke’s on me!” ……… (note the aphid on the right, making good its escape)
Above all else though, I feel a much more attuned person, both to what happens in the garden, and to what’s going on in the countryside. I still have much to learn, but I’m very happy with the knowledge I have accrued to date, to the point that if I see a tree or a flower, I can delight in some knowledge of which insect’s world revolves around the existence of that particular plant, some understanding of the plant’s pollinators and their predators, and to the parasites that are dependent on everything. Consider this; a plant may be pollinated by a bee, but the bee will have a parasite that will either lay it eggs in the eggs of the bee, or alongside them. That parasite will have its own parasite too, and there may be additional creatures that breed and live in the detritus of the nest. There may also be parasites feeding on the droppings of those parasites feeding on the detritus. It is such a complex world, a house of cards that bristles with antennas, wing-cases and hooked feet, where the slightest wrong move can lead to death and where the demise of just one of those species may bring about the downfall of the whole edifice, host plant included.
It is also a world full of characters and peace, one where European and Asian hornets may feed on a fig tree side by side with a human collecting the same fruit, and where a nocturnal visitor might devote a minute of trust to a camera-wielding stranger one dark summer’s night
I’m happy to say that the children have become awarealong the way too, with that greed for knowledge that only the young can have. Hetty and Gigi both hunt insects with their cameras now, too, and I believe that even Susan has started to display a little interest. Did I see a dragon-fly in last week’s blog? I think nothing peeks a gardener’s interest more in her insects perhaps than when the clod with the spade knows better than her what is being dug up and fed to the chickens!
Above all, I find it hard to not be fascinated by the tiny world that surrounds us, not just in the understanding of the importance it has in our lives, but for the beautiful moments it presents. Can anything beat a small spider, with a John McEnroe headband and green Raybans, sheltering from a summer shower?
I hope you have enjoyed my hijacking of the blog today as much as I have enjoyed sharing my world of insects with you.
- All the images in this post are mine, achieved with nothing more than a compact Canon s120, or a Powershot SX40 with a Raynox filter. No $500+ camera gear is required if you want to try the same! If you have a camera and want to take photos of your insects, I’ll help with advice very happily. It’s part of the education and almost all of the fun!
- Recommended reading; “A Sting in the Tail” and “A Buzz in the Meadow”, both by David Coulson and both available on Amazon. Stunning, entertaining and sometimes hilarious, there are books that will open your eyes up to what really happens in the countryside. They’re good enough to be read by the pool or on a plane-ride – they are not some dry, factual scientific journals. There are many reviews of them on-line and I highly recommend them. I think they should be required reading in school, as far as I am concerned.
- This is the link to the German amateur entomologists’ story. It is a quick, 2 minute read.