Life Amongst the Leaf Litter

21st October 2012
As the year progresses and autumn takes hold, for the committed insect macro photographer, life becomes more difficult when it comes to finding suitable subjects. When your primary interest is solitary bees and wasps; things can look somewhat bleak!

Thinking what might occupy me photographically until next spring, I was reminded once again of the sensational images of springtails that Edward Nurcombe (Eddie the Bugman), Andy Murray (andybadger), Adrian Jones (Adrian_Jones); and others, regularly post on Flickr. I decided to have a try myself and reported some initial attempts in my previous Blog post. My first ever springtail image (left), shows a 1mm individual.

Now, one thing that is in plentiful supply in the garden at the moment, is leaves. I've usually regarded them (and the regular need to sweep them up) and one of the least interesting aspects of gardening. After some limited success with my first foray into springtail photography, I thought that I'd have another go. I started by just wandering around the garden and the local area; picking up fallen leaves and examining them with a 10x hand-lens. A good proportion of leaves had something on, mostly small snails and slugs! Some had low numbers of globular and cylindrical springtails (ranging from around 1-3mm in size). There were also some odd-looking flies and other smaller springtail-like insects. A promising situation.

I've seen images of very bristly springtails and I think that the image (left) could be one. This (like many of their kind), was very active but did stop from time-to-time for a "breather". It was too, something of a luxury, being 3mm long or perhaps more! This allowed me to experiment and to take several images and combine the focused portions into a single image. When using the Canon MP-E 65mm lens extended to it's fullest length (x5), it's thought advisable to reduce the aperture (below my usual F11 or F13) to minimise aberration. This reduces depth-of-field; hence the usefulness of "stacking" or combining images to show the maximum level of detail. I posted the image on Flickr but haven't had any ID suggestions yet. I rather like the "Lone Ranger" black mask marking on the head.

I mentioned seeing reasonable numbers of small (1-2mm) springtail-like organisms on leaf-litter too. These looked like a cross between springtails and aphids. Left, is one my first images. I also posted the image on iSpot and was advised that it was a Psocid. These are also known as barklice or barkflies and to be honest, I hadn't heard of them before. Barkfly is the name given to species in this insect order (Psocoptera) which occur out-of-doors. Indoor species are often referred to booklice. Adults range from 1.5 - 7mm and are usually greyish in colour. Some can be more colourful. There are winged and wingless forms. Winged barkflies usually hold their wings in a tent-wise fashion over their abdomens and resemble miniature lacewings (information from the National Barkfly Recording Scheme website). I'm not sure if this is a wingless variety or a nymph of a winged form.

Spurred on by this new information, I went looking for some of the larger winged forms I had seen. I soon found one I hadn't seen before; this rather interesting yellow species. It was around 4mm long and could well be Valenzuela flavidus, one of the more common UK species. Note the characteristic wind venation (two triangular cells at each wing tip). This and the smaller wingless individual, also both show the typical long antennae and domed postclypeus (the area on the front of the head above the mouthparts). I'm looking forward to searching out more species.

Surprisingly (and rather rewarding), my final search through the leaves and leaf-litter provided me with a tiny solitary wasp. I managed to grab a couple of shots before it flew off. It was just 2-3mm long; black with a bluish iridescence and a pointed abdomen. Again, I posted this image on iSpot, but haven't had any suggeted IDs yet. These wasps are typically parasitic on other insects, so perhaps leaf-litter insects provide it with its hosts. It was good to also find a member of the hymenoptera in this environment!

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