Little Pretenders: Hoverflies

This year I’d like to make my garden a bit more wildlife-friendly. (You can see my previous posts about gardening for bees – Bees’ Needs: Flowers! and Blue (and Violet and Purple) for Bees – by clicking on the links.)

Bees are not the only pollinators that I’d like to encourage in the garden. Hoverflies are important for pollination and their larvae have a valuable role as predators of aphids and other garden pests. (There are always plenty of greenfly around here, so there should be plenty to keep any hoverfly babies munching!)

It can be easy to confuse hoverflies with bees or wasps. (They don’t sting but they mimic stinging insects so that birds are less likely to try eating them.) If you look at the photo of the honeybee below, you can see that there are differences between the common ‘marmalade hoverfly’ and the bee.

Bee on tithonia 2587
Not a hoverfly! This one is a honeybee (on a tithonia flower).

The bee here is generally a bit more furry-looking. (You can just see that there is a hairy patch on the front of the bee’s head and that its thorax is also hairy. Compare that to the thorax of the hoverfly, which is shiny and looks almost metallic in the sun.) The hoverfly has much shorter antennae and has just two wings, whereas the bee has four wings. (It’s hard to see that in the photo. You might just about be able to spot the separation at the back edge of the two wings on the nearest side of the bee.)

However, there are many other types of hoverfly (over 270 in the UK) and some look much more like bees than these. There is a difference that will help you tell which is which. Hoverflies have large eyes which cover the front and side (i.e.most) of their faces. A bee has eyes on the side of its face and they are much smaller and an oval shape.

It’s likely that some of the different ‘bees’ I thought I’d spotted in the garden were really hoverflies. Maybe I’ll learn to identify some of them… if I can move quick enough to photograph them!

Hoverfly on giant scabious
Hoverfly on Cephalaria gigantea (giant scabious).

It’s very worthwhile to grow flowers that will attract these useful little beasties. They have shorter tongues than bees, so aren’t attracted to some of the deeper, bell-shaped flowers (e.g. foxgloves and penstemons) that bees like. Instead they prefer more open flowers where the nectar and pollen is easy to get at. They really like the daisy types like the aster below and umbellifers such as the fennel and wild carrot that grow in the garden here. One of the flowers that I often find them on is the scabious – as you can see from the photos.

I like watching hoverflies dart around amongst the flowers. They are fast and very agile (even flying backwards) and they add to the feeling of life and energy in the garden. I hope to see lots more of them this year – and maybe a few new ones – even if they do fool me into thinking that they may be bees or wasps!

Hoverfly on aster 2468
Hoverflies like daisy flowers, like this aster.

Indoor Photography: Flowers with Studio Flash

During the winter I’m glad to be able to photograph plants indoors. It feels good to be able to stay warm and dry! And life is much easier when there’s no need to worry about the flower you’re trying to photograph waving around in the wind.

More importantly, taking photos indoors means that there is plenty of light available to me. I have a very small studio space set up in the house, complete with flash lighting, which allows me to be busy taking photographs at any time of day.

Cyclamen-4197
I wanted the light to catch all the little crinkles and curled edges on the petals of the flower.

The photographs here were taken with a very simple setup. The white background is created using a small ‘light table’, which is basically a piece of translucent white plastic which is curved into an ‘L’ shape on a metal support. This gives a base and background that is lit with flash strobes both from behind and from below. These are adjusted to give an evenly lit bright white background to the photo.

The flower itself is lit with a flash fired through a white translucent brolly and a reflector at the side to provide a little bit of light to soften shadows. I like using this particular arrangement because it gives a slightly ‘harder’ light than the softbox that I’ve used for previous photos on this blog. This helps to bring out the shapes within the flower and gives a feeling of depth.

Cyclamen-4155
The shadows help to give a sense of the shape of this cyclamen.

Having the flash pretty much to one side of the flower means that shadows can form in the ripples on the petals. If you look at the photograph below, you can see that there is a slight shine to the area at the centre of the flower, on the left side. This shows where the light is coming from. (More or less at a 45 degree angle, slightly higher than the flower and only just in front of it.)

If there wasn’t a reflector (a silver-coloured disc) at the right side, that side would be in shadow. The reflector is just enough to lighten heavy shadows without removing the shadows entirely, so you’re able to see the flowing shapes of the petals.

Digital photography has made using studio lighting far easier than it was with film cameras. (For years I used film, and I tended to stick with safe setups that I new would work.) Experimenting is easy when you can see the results straight away and you can soon find what happens when you move the lights around.

So when the weather’s turned miserable, I’m quite happy to be indoors, so long as I can find something to photograph…

Cyclamen-4259
The petals seem to swirl around this little flower, almost as if they’re floating.

A Bright New Year

When everything outside is looking wintry and dreary, the mahonia bush right at the back of our garden boldly flaunts its gleaming yellow flowers. Give it a bit of sunshine, and those flowers are reminiscent of a yellow highlighter pen – practically fluorescent!

The mahonia provides a touch of brilliance and an attention-grabbing focal point to the garden at a time when it’s really needed. The little flowers are like a patch of concentrated sunshine. (I think it must be mahonia x media ‘Charity’.)

So I shall use these cheerful winter flowers to wish you a very bright and joyful New Year. May 2020 bring you health and happiness!

Mahonia flowers
A close-up of the tiny flowers of mahonia.

Natural Sparkle

Because it’s almost Christmas, I thought I’d post some slightly sparkly frost photographs. They go to show that nature can be festive when she likes!

Last Christmas, I woke up to a frosty morning and was able to get outside and spend a bit of time taking photographs of a softly shimmering world.

This year we had a cold period much earlier in the month and I took these photographs then. I don’t think I’ll be outside taking photos this year because the forecast is not promising any frost or snow. (I’ll have a lazy morning inside!)

Frosted Fennel Head-3917
Fennel seed head

Seed heads are among the most promising of garden subjects to photograph when they are decorated with ice crystals. For this reason, I don’t cut plants back at the end of autumn. (And, more importantly, really, it gives a better habitat for wildlife and a supply of seeds as food for birds.)

There are several seed heads that I particularly want to stay intact until the frost arrives – agapanthus, fennel, allium and daucus (wild carrot) – because they have the most interesting structures and look at their best when frosted.

Allium-Seed-Head-4028
Allium seed head

The arrival of frost is one of the times I most enjoy garden photography. With luck, there will be a moment when the sun comes out. Then the frost will glitter and shine, making the garden come alive with exciting new images to photograph. Plants that may have looked quite ordinary before (like the hydrangea below) suddenly acquire a radiance  that makes them irresistible to me and my camera.

I wish you a joyful Christmas, full of fun and sparkle!

Frosted hydrangea-3965
Climbing hydrangea

Dianthus ‘Rainbow Loveliness’

Sometimes things don’t go to plan with my flower photography. This year I wanted to photograph the range of different colours (including white, pink and lilac) of the Dianthus ‘Rainbow Loveliness’ given to me by a friend.

However, rain and the fact that the plants were grown from seed this year, so not yet large enough to have a lot of flowers, made it difficult.

By the time the young plants were ready to flower, the drought of summer had passed and it had become rather wet and windy. This meant that the delicately fringed flowers were easily damaged. I would walk past them and think, ‘Must take some photos’, but by the time I came back to them, the rain would have got to the flowers and would have left the petals trailing limply.

In the end, I managed to take photographs of just the one bicoloured flower. For close-up photography like this, the flowers really need to be in excellent condition. Sadly, my timing wasn’t good enough to catch the others when they were fresh and undamaged.

Not to worry! Next year the plants will be bigger and able to flower more profusely. They should also be able to flower earlier in the summer, when the weather is likely to be drier and kinder to fragile flowers. Then I should have a chance of of photographing more of these strange but pretty dianthus (‘pinks’), whose petals look like swirling strands of seaweed floating in an invisible sea.

Frost-Magic

The frost has been back again, giving us some chilly but sparkling mornings. I’ve been grateful to see it because we’ve reached the stage of the year when there are few flowers or plants left to photograph.

Stalking around the garden, camera in hand, I’m usually on the lookout for images that are only made possible because of the frost: veins on a leaf picked out in white, petal edges encrusted as if they’ve been dipped in sugar, or tiny crystals of ice building up on frozen plant surfaces.

Frosted winter jasmine-3959
Tiny, frozen winter jasmine flowers with ice crystals building up on them.

The shady areas of the garden retain the most frost, and that shade can give a slightly blue tint to the white, which creates an even colder appearance. The lack of light makes it hard to get much depth of field in the photographs, even at fairly high ISO values. (I could use my tripod, but it’s much too cold to stand around for long and my feet feel warmer if I keep moving around.)

As the sunlight gradually starts to seep into the garden, I look for places where the frost has begun to sparkle in the sun. There won’t be much time before the frost begins to disappear as it warms up. This means I have to work quickly to capture the images that have attracted my eye.

Frosted Hydrangea-3967
This climbing hydrangea is in one of the coldest parts of the garden, shaded by the fence and a tree.

Eventually I’m either too cold to stay out any longer or the frost has started to melt and drip off the wet plants. So it’s time to head indoors, first wrapping my camera in a large plastic bag to protect it from getting covered in condensation in the warmer air. (Outside, it’s all to easy to let the viewfinder get steamed up by my own breath – a frustrating interruption to taking the photographs!)

Once indoors, it’s time for a well-earned mug of coffee and a chance to get warm again while looking to see what new photographs I have. Frosty mornings can be productive and very satisfying!

Frosted Fig Leaf-3827
The frost on this fig leaf will soon be gone, now that the sun has reached it.

Leaf-Fall and some Autumn Colour

It doesn’t get very cold in this part of Suffolk in Autumn, so the leaves tend to get blown away before they have a chance to develop much colour. (Yet a few miles away, where it gets chillier, there have been great clouds of yellow leaves.)

However, in the last couple of weeks, the night-time temperature has got cold enough to encourage a bit of colour here and there. You have to look quite hard for it, but it can be found.

Frosted leaves-3780
Blackberry leaves become a mix of heat and frost.

Our recent frost helped to make the last of the leaves more interesting to photograph, providing a crisp, icy contrast to the warm tones of the leaves. It was a good time to be out early to take some pictures.

While I was wandering around with my camera, I noticed soft noises that at first sounded as if there were birds hopping around nearby.

But when I looked up, I realised that I was hearing the leaves falling in the neighbours’ garden. It gets the sun before ours does, and as the frost melted, the leaf-stalks were losing their last grip on the trees and shrubs and dropping softly to the ground. Somehow, the tiny sounds made the morning feel even more hushed and peaceful.

Red Leaves-2-up
The frost has melted, but being wet makes these geranium and cotoneaster leaves all the more red.

The leaves will soon be gone and everything will seem bare and wintry. But, just for this last little while, these few are rich and glowing with beautiful warm tones – a sight to seek out and enjoy.

By the time you read this, we will have had another frosty morning here. More of the leaves will have fallen and I will have been out taking more photographs.

Frosted Weigela Leaf-3719-B
Autumn has slightly lightened and warmed the tones of these weigela leaves.

Frozen Flowers

On Monday we had the first frost of the year. Up until then, the weather had been mild and wet, so it felt as if it had come suddenly. There were still a few flowers in the garden, lasting much later than you might expect. And, of course, they were caught by the frost.

As you may imagine, this meant that I had a busy morning padding about the frozen garden with camera in hand.

Now that the plants are beginning to die back for winter, there’s not much left to photograph, so the intricate effects of frost give an opportunity that’s too good to miss. I took as many photographs as I could before the sun melted it all away. (And there will be more in later posts…)

Frosted passionflower bud-3769
A passionflower bud, caught by the frost.

The echinacea flower (PowWow White) was frozen through, and this has enhanced the green tinge to the ends of the petals. The emerging flowers start off pale green, with a vivid green cone, gradually maturing to a white flower with a golden-yellow cone.

This colour-change makes for more photographic potential. The plant is a new addition to the garden and I’m looking forward to following its progress with my camera during the next year.

Frosted-penstemon-3723
Frosted penstemon ‘Raven’ – hope it can cope with the cold!

The passionflower is ‘Constance Elliot’, which I wrote about here. It was planted just last year and has flowered well during the late summer. The bud seems to have escaped any serious damage from the frost and the plant’s leaves are still firm and healthy-looking, so I reckon it hasn’t come to any harm. Even so, as it gets colder, I’ll protect the base of the plant with either mulch or frost-fleece.

If the winter gets really cold, I may also put fleece around the penstemons. I’ve lost a few of these in cold winters, but some varieties have gone on for years – especially ‘Garnet’, which seems to be hardier than most. (Pictured is ‘Raven’, which came through last year’s fairly mild winter easily. I hope it turns out to be thoroughly hardy too.)

The rose below is a tough old girl who doesn’t let anything bother her…’Zephirine Drouhin’, a rose that is both delightfully scented and thornless. This is probably my favourite plant in the whole garden. I’m glad that she doesn’t mind the frost!

Frosted roses-3755
Rose ‘Zepherine Drouhin’, covered in frost now, but her flowers will perfume the air again next summer.

Armchair Gardening: Planning a New Border

The weather in the past week has been rainy, so not much good for gardening. But it has been ideal for a bit of ‘armchair gardening’. I’ve been thinking about the planting for a new area and imagining which plants might look good there.

Elsewhere in the garden there are a lot of deep or bright colours. I’d like to keep this new patch a bit softer and fairly informal. (Having lighter colours towards the back of the garden can give an effect of receding distance, making the garden look slightly bigger.)

White rose
This white rose has just the softest blush of pink.

Recently, I bought a white-flowered hibiscus, called ‘Red Heart’ because it has a bold red marking at the centre of its flowers. This was originally meant to go in the border alongside the new pond but, as I’ve been planting that area up, I’ve realised that there won’t be space for it.

Instead, I’m going to dig out a new border behind our main sitting-out area. (This is a tiny paved space with a wrought-iron arbour which is smothered by a grape vine at one end, and a more open seating place at the other.)

Left: Astrantia 'Florence' Right: Erigeron karvinskianus
Left: Astrantia ‘Florence’ Right: Erigeron karvinskianus

Because it’s an area for sitting around and taking it easy, I’d like to keep the planting looking relaxed and soothing. Somewhere that will help you to let all the stresses of the day ebb away. Whites, to pick up on the white hibiscus, and pale pinks are the most likely choices at the moment.

We already have a white-barked birch tree nearby, and I’m planning to move some pale pink Japanese anemones to another border behind the new area. (The anemones are beautiful thugs, so they’re getting a border of their own where they can run riot.)

Acanthus
This acanthus has delicately marked veins, but it looks rather spiky.

Sidalcea, astrantia and erigeron (Mexican fleabane) grow in the garden here, so it should be easy to introduce them to the new area too. And we have lots of dark red scabious – a few of those would help to emphasise the similarly-coloured red markings on the hibiscus.

Among the plants waiting to be found homes in the garden here are several white and pink rock roses (Cistus) and they would be likely to enjoy the sun in this border. So the planned area is beginning to look very pink and white, especially if I also add a pale rose like the one in the photo. (Don’t know its name.)

And maybe there should be some acanthus too – it has similar vein-markings to the astrantia and the ‘architectural’ form of the plant would be very striking. But that spiky look might not be so relaxing to look at! (Acanthus is a plant you need to be very sure about wanting, because it’s very hard to get rid of and can grow from little pieces of left-over root.)

Anthemis 'EC Buxton'
The sunny little daisies of Anthemis ‘EC Buxton’

The plan for this new area may be getting a little too pink, so some other pale colours could be added. I love the happy little daisies of the anthemis above. They’re like a sprawling splash of sunshine in the border and have a very informal look. Nigella also has that relaxed feel about it and would be delightful to see close-up. (The area behind the seating is a little higher, with a low retaining-wall because our garden is on a slight slope.)

Fantasy-gardening and planning new planting is a very pleasant way to spend wet days. But maybe the best thing about it is that it gets the enthusiasm going for starting the work. The rain is over for now and the forecast for the next week is mostly dry, so it looks like I have some digging to do…

Nigella damascena
Nigella is an easy filler in a border.

Late Colour: Early November

November has brought chilly winds and the threat of frost. It’s not quite winter yet but the garden flowers are disappearing fast. Soon the main colour will be the yellow of the autumn leaves.

But for a few days yet, there is a little bit of colour here and there. Just enough to enjoy while I finish planting the spring bulbs.

Some plants have flowered for a surprisingly long period. The gaura (above) has been in flower for months, as has the pink-flowered salvia below.

LC-salvia-fuchsia-2-up
Salvia and fuchsia flowers brighten the garden until the end of autumn.

The deep purple penstemon ‘Raven’ is another plant that has fully earned its place in the garden by flowering for a long time. A weeping crab apple called ‘Royal Beauty’ grows nearby, and the rich red of its tiny fruits picks up on the slight touch of red at the mouth of the penstemon flowers.

The fuchsia is one of several plants that are in pots at the front of our house. I think this one is ‘Army Nurse’, but I can’t be sure because we have several that are very similar to each other. It’s one of the hardy fuchsias and I’m planning to plant it (and some others) out in a border in the back garden. They’ll be visible from the house and give a splash of glowing colour right through the autumn.

LC-2-up-1
Left: Malus ‘Royal Beauty’ (crab apple)    Right: Penstemon ‘Raven’

My last flower is the autumn crocus. The bulbs are growing in small clay pots sitting in a wrought-iron holder on the wall. (This keeps them well out of the way of my cats – autumn crocuses are very toxic plants so I didn’t want to take any risks with them.) These flowers should have been over by now but I planted them late, so here they are at last!

Now I must remember that I still have to finish planting some spring bulbs…then I’ll be hoping to find something more to photograph. Maybe some of the late colour will hang around for long enough to get frosted. Not very kind to the plant but makes a great picture!

Autumn-Crocus-3697
Crocus speciosus (autumn crocus) opening in the sun.