The day after the cold weather put paid to my snake hunting exploits I decided to take the dog for a quick run in the afternoon. He had just had a small tumour removed from his back leg and so he had a lampshade on his head to stop him chewing his stitches and consequently this walk was only meant to be a short one, and I wasn’t even going to take my camera. But on the way out the door I decided because it was very sunny and very warm I would take my camera. And I’m glad I did because there was wildlife in abundance.
Peacock butterfly, Inachis io, sunning itself on the path
The air was abuzz with insects including butterflies. I really like photographing butterflies and peacocks are good because they present a medium sized challenge. If you approach with stealth and don’t cast a shadow on them they let you get to within a few feet. The peacock is a species that can be seen at any time through the winter as it can wake in response to warmer weather, but they emerge in spring around the end of March/beginning of April, so the timing for this one was spot on. As I was photographing the peacock a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) flew past at high speed, much too fast to enable a usable photograph, it’s always good to see a bird of prey because I think it suggests the prey species are in good order too.
Long tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse
The field where I found the peacock butterfly has a corner which faces south west and it was sheltered from the wind and bathed in spring sunshine. It was really warm when I arrived there, so I stood still and watched and listened while the dog went off to explore, and the trees around were full of birds including the long tailed tit, above, and a song thrush, below.
Songthrush, Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel
While the birds were capturing my attention in the trees, butterflies weren’t the only insects there. In my corner there were also beeflies buzzing around. I was keen to try to photograph them in flight which is a tad more challenging as they would hover for a few seconds before darting off at very high speed in zig zag lines. But they were making the most of the shelter from any breeze that prevailed in this sheltered spot and I spent a good hour trying to photograph them.
The beefly, as the name suggests is a bee mimic. It has a very prominent proboscis which is used to extract nectar, and the fur is part of the bee disguise. It is a very good pollinator but is detrimental to other pollinators.
It is detrimental because it parasitises other bees and beetles. And the way it achieves that is another of those bizarre evolutionary adaptations that even the most imaginative science fiction writer wouldn’t dream of. It mimics bees in order to get close to their burrows where using its legs the female will flick her eggs into the hole where it hatches and attaches itself to the host. Then the gruesome bit: it lies dormant until the host commences pupation and then becomes an ‘ectoparasite‘ which means it remains on the outside of its host but extracts the body fluids to fuel its own growth. After draining its host dry it reaches the pupal stage which can vary hugely in length and they have been known to overwinter before emerging as an adult the following year.
Beeflies have appeared in several blogs in the last week or so and there are some more very fine images here:
Rosie from ‘leavesnbloom’ has a wonderful collection of images of Bombylius major and Harlan from ‘The Roused Bear’ has also captured one in Iowa in the U.S.:
They can be found across the whole planet except Australasia.
More birds which appeared in the trees around while I was chasing beefly were the common or garden greenfinch and chaffinch:
Greenfinch male pecking at a twig
Chaffinch male just taking it easy
Both greenfinch (Carduelis chloris, Dansk: grønirisk) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke) are common or garden, but are both beautiful birds, and they can be seen here in the U.K. all year round. But a species that isn’t here all year round and returns after its winter migration to north Africa is the chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger):
The chiffchaff, named after its characteristic song, is a warbler and despite being a small bird they are tough. Their migration takes them south across mainland Europe, across the Mediterranean Sea and into north Africa, to retrace their flight four or five months later in the spring. And despite the hardships associated with such a gruelling endeavour, according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), there are around three quarters of a million territories in the UK. They are one of the first migrants to arrive back in the U.K. and can be heard singing as early as late February. But this my first one in Cambridge on the first weekend in April.
Lovely peacock butterfly. I’ve never seen one before. I think I would remember if I had, so I am assuming that I live out of their range.
A very interesting story about the bee fly’s life cycle. There are many bizarre, and to are way of thinking, grotesque practices, within the insect world. but they are a very successful group, and their ways of doing things have for the most part, served them well.
Hello Rick, thanks for your comment. Insects are ubiquitous, bizarre, beautiful, lethal you name it.
Have you ever heard of the bombardier beetle? It defends itself by folding its abdomen underneath to point forward and then fires ‘bullets’ of boiling hydrogen peroxide at the rate of around 10 per second at any assailant. And that’s one of the most awesome pieces of defensive evolutionary adaptation I’ve ever heard of! Makes most things humans can conceive look a tad low-tech.
It’s funny, peacock butterflies and beeflies have been popping everywhere around here too…but getting a good picture is not easy.
Speaking of pictures, I really enjoy discovering your Flickr sets, as much as I enjoy reading each of your blog posts!
Hello Sophie, I’m glad you like the Flickr site. I use it as a repository for images to use for The Naturephile. I’ve been a bit slack about keeping it in order but now I know it’s being browsed it I’ll finish tidying it up!
Will you be posting your beefly and peacock pictures if you get somw good ones?
I have recently discovered your marvellous site/blog, and have already become a regular reader. My thanks and congratulations to you.
Thanks Robert, welcome to the Naturephile.
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Beautiful photos, again…and thank you for the bit on the evolutionary adaptation of the grossly wonderful beefly. 🙂
Gross? Surely not. I’ll give you wonderful though!
You’re welcome, Finn…and ok, not gross…ummm…grotesquely fascinating then!
Finn, my admiration for both your camera skills and narration continues to grow unabated. Stupendous clicks there. I particularly liked the Peacock butterfly. Vivid colours and lets the onlooker take in the finer contours of its beautiful structure.
Your advice on approaching them is welcome. I shall be implementing it in my next outing.
You are one patient gentleman, sire! Nature rewards you for your perseverance.
Just a small suggestion. It would be great if you could find a way to share picture details (f-stop, ISO…), without detracting from the flow. Will be very useful for amateurs photo buffs like me!
Kind words beautifully written my friend! Thankyou.
I’ll include a link to Flickr which you should be able to access by clicking on the images (my Flickr site is called ‘Augustus3164’) where you will be able to view the Exif data for all the images. If you want to ask any questions about specific images or settings please feel free to drop me an email. Good luck with your own photographic exploits.
Amazing pics of the beefly (I’m surprised to say I’ve never even heard of this insect before!) and I really like the chiffchafff. A lovely name for a lovely wee bird.
The chiffchaff is a lovely little bird. Do you see them as far north as your neck of the woods?
Finn, your bird photos are well up to your usual standard, but being able to see your images of catching the bee flies in flight is a special treat. Very well done!
Thanks Gary, it was good fun trying to capture these little furballs in flight. Next time the sun shines I’m going to try again and this time catch them settled too.
All lovely, but that butterfly is extraordinary!
They are beautiful. One of these days I want to get some macro close ups of the wings to show the fine detail – the colours at close range are absolutely stunning.