Scarce Spiders and Ultra-small Springtails

16th October 2012
For the keen insect photographer, particularly one with an interest in solitary bees and wasps, the onset of autumn and winter brings a certain sadness. The "buzz" of insect life in the garden is diminishing and the thought occurs "What am I going to photograph between now and next spring?". But all is not lost. Plenty of insects and other invertebrates remain active during the colder weather (or can be found hibernating). It just takes a little more effort than usual and perhaps a willingness to tackle something out of our "comfort zone".

Sometimes, things just fall in our lap (literally). This spider fell onto me when I was pruning in the garden. It was just asking to be photographed and because of the cool weather, was none too active. In these circumstances, I often try to photograph subjects on a white card. I like the look, they make good "stock" images and can also be used on the website front page. This spider obliged and I did a few shots and then put it back on the bush.

This was a small spider (just a few millimeters) and I assumed it was one of the Araniella Green Orb Spiders (or Cucumber Spiders as they are sometimes known). A. cucurbitina and A. opisthographa are both reasonably common in gardens. It wasn't until I looked at the images on my PC that I could see it didn't look quite "right". The legs were too green and the abdomen didn't have any really dark markings. I posted images on iSpot, Twitter and Flickr and soon had a correct identification. This is Nigma walckenaeri. Interestingly; it is not particularly common and until the 1990s, was only reported in London and the Home Counties (possibly an introduction via Kew Gardens). It seems to have spread further north and west since then, but there have been very few reports here in Warwickshire. A good find!

Others things I've always planned to try to photograph but never got around to, are springtails (Collembola). These are widespread and extremely plentiful, with estimates of up to 100,000 occurring in each cubic metre of topsoil. Soil, leaf-litter and decaying vegetation is where to look for them; the problem is their size. Most are between 1mm and 3mm in length; that's just visible to the naked eye! Some are cylindrical and shape other more rounded (the "globular" springtails). All are wingless and studies suggest that they are more closely related to crustaceans (crabs and shrimps) than to insects.

The globular springtail (image middle left) could be a Dicyrtomina species (thanks to Edward Nurcombe; "Eddie the Bugman" on Flickr for the suggested ID). This was about 1.5mm long and was on the underside of a fallen sycamore leaf. Virtually every leaf I picked up in the garden had some springtails on it (cylindrical or globular). I used my MP-E 65mm macro lens at full magnification (x5) and a TwinLite flash for the image, and did a fair bit of cropping.

Photographing them is somewhat challenging due to their size and the fact that they are extremely active. I screened suitable leaves and surfaces with a hand-lens and then brought the leaves indoors for photography. My plan was to determine the rough position of any suitable subjects with the hand-lens and then try to find them with the macro lens. Sounds easy! The problems started with the fact that without the hand-lens I couldn't actually see the springtail or be really sure of the area of the leaf it was on (the white cylindrical one; image bottom left, was a little easier). Also, the camera setup with the lens fully-extended means that the end is around 12 inches (30cm) from the viewfinder, the focal length around 1 inch (3cms) and the depth of field less than 1mm! I steadied the lens on a beanbag and rested the leaf on a block to raise it above the tabletop and allow a "side" shot.

This is a technique that is going to require a lot more practice, but I plan to continue "springtail hunting" whenever I get the opportunity. I think that the globular springtails are particularly attractive photographic subjects that are well worth the time and trouble!

Update: Many thanks to Edward Nurcombe (Eddie the Bugman) and Adrian_Jones on Flickr for advice on Collembola identification - Dicyrtomina species for the globular springtail and Kalaphorura burmeisteri for the white cylindrical one.

[Click on any image for a larger version]


Photo comment By Emma Sarah Tennant: Spiders can look cute, who knew? These are amazing macro shots. I'm getting an extension tube to convert my 55mm lens to macro shots, while I'm saving for a proper macro lens. Still learning but lots of great tips here, thanks!
Photo comment By Lucy Corrander: So much appreciate such posts!

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