Metamorphosis – March Book Review


MetamorphosisAstonishing Insect Transformations – the subtitle definitely describes the content of this book by Rupert Soskin.

Insects – often overlooked, thought of as bugs or pests, possibly with the exception of butterflies (although the cabbage white butterfly springs to mind) but with around one million species known and named.  Untold numbers are still to be found.  Contrast that with birds – ten thousand; mammals – five thousand; even reptiles and amphibians only manage fifteen thousand between them.  It is no surprise then that there are many things that even the most fervent entomologist can still learn about this diverse class of creatures.

In Metamorphosis the author beautifully illustrates an area that I haven’t yet seen covered in another book – the transformation that insects must undergo to get from an egg (in the majority of cases) to the adults of the species that we are usually most familiar with.  This lack of familiarity is despite the fact that the adult stage is usually the shortest with many living days or weeks but spending years as a larva or nymph.

The book is essentially in two parts – those insects that go through several instars (stages); looking to some degree like miniature versions of the adults, and those that undergo a complete transformation from what is essentially a tube of innards to something completely different (the most obvious example being the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly).











I started off wondering  so much of the book was devoted to the first class of insects; the hemimetabolous insects (the young of which are called nymphs) when the changes they go through are nowhere near as marked as those of the holometabolous examples.  But, as the author explains, the only way that an insect can grow is to shed its skin – and, in some cases (such as some of the shield bugs) I don’t think many people would match juvenile with adult.

What makes this book a joy to read are of course the photographs.  Where many books show the adults in all their glory, Rupert Soskin shows the different stages in the life of the insect, from egg to larva / nymph, to chrysalis and adult. IMG_3989

The photographs are beautiful and I can only begin to wonder at the patience of the author as he waited to get the shots.  Within the different chapters there are of course notes about the insects and their lives – after all, the photos only tell half of the story.  In some cases he has even shown the scale of the insects – a very helpful device.

I was a little disappointed at first when I saw how many of the insects are from outside the UK and therefore something I am never likely to see (no matter how much the climate changes).  But, they were fascinating – I was completely won over by the stick insects and the Peruvian Horsehead Grasshoppers.


All the main orders are included from grasshoppers to mantids, dragonflies to beetles, butterflies, moths, flies bees, wasps to hemiptera.  I began to wonder how he decided what to include and also what didn’t make the final cut.


I thought that the sections on the butterflies and moths were interesting choices, showing the changes in size and coloration of the caterpillars and the resulting adult.  But, my favourite photo of all (other than the horsehead grasshoppers, mantids and stick insects) had to be the female wasp removing water from her nest after the rain – just fantastic, one of the best insect shots I have seen and behaviour I hadn’t heard about.  Just one of the many interesting aspects of insect life that Mr Soskin managed to capture and share.


I have only two real complaints about the book; I would love to have known more about how he took the photos – he has a small section about this but it was very short on actual details and I would have liked it to have been twice the size with more fantastic insects and beautiful photos (this is of course selfish as the book is 250 pages long).

This is a beautiful coffee table book that I could look at again and again, and a starter for anyone interested in insects showcasing some of the less well known stages of their lives.  Whilst it is only a starter, it does include some further reading suggestions that will be making an appearance on my birthday wish list.  Many thanks Mr Soskin for creating such a wonderful book (and to Northampton Library for stocking it so I didn’t have to wait until my birthday to read it).

New for me

Time for a confession.  Before the start of this year I had never heard of a Brown Argus.  I didn’t know that it was a butterfly.  How bad is that.  Moreover, I saw them in the results for the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, and assumed that they were a specialist that I would never see.  I saw pictures on Facebook and then thought nothing much more about them.  In fact I wasn’t sure I would recognise one if I saw it.

Yesterday I took my camera out for a walk – for once the weather was warm and not very breezy.  I saw a lot of gatekeepers, a very lovely small copper – a butterfly that I had never seen in Daventry before.  I also saw some common blues flitting about the field edges.  Lots of photographs were taken as you can probably imagine.

Today I decided to upload them and sort out the fuzzy from the sharp as well as those that might not be the best, but could be useful for ID purposes.  After I had sorted and tagged them it occurred to me that I had assumed that the small brown butterflies were common blue females (which have wings that vary from blue through to brown) because they had frequently been disturbed by blue males.  But, for some reason I thought I would see what the difference was between a brown argus and a female common blue.

A brown argus has no blue on the upper side of its wings, whereas there may be some blue scales on the female common blue.  It also has more orangey spots along the edge and often a dark brown spot in the middle of its brown wings.  Not much help because my photos were all of the underside of the wings.  So, for the undersides the description was related to two spots with that form a figure of eight on the hindwing and the absence of a spot on the forewing for the Brown Argus.  This didn’t seem to be much help either – I was a bit non-plussed until I saw what they were talking about in pictures on the UK Butterflies website.  Suddenly I knew what to look for and guess what?  Yes, one of the butterflies I photographed was in fact my very first Brown Argus – colour me happy!

brown argus

I’m not sure if this is a viable population as my Northamptonshire butterfly book states that their range has contracted a lot in the county and that their traditional food plant is rock rose and, where this is not available, they have moved onto crane’s bill.  Unfortunately the only things I could see around the field edge were ragwort and a chamomile, along with lots of grass.  I will have to have a look around there to see if I can find the requisite flowers!


Gardening for Wildlife (and photography)

We have a small front and back garden which have completely different conditions and uses. Whilst the back is an extension to the house, the front is in full public view.  With this in mind the back was designed by James to be tranquil and shady, with quite a few trees, and, although there are some flowers, this is not the focus.  The back also has a pond, and is designed with both wildlife and us in mind.  The front is another story!

The front garden is south facing and is blasted by the sun for much of the day.  It is also not at all sheltered and can have the wind whipping across it.  It has been designated as a place for flowers, and, hopefully insects.  I am therefore packing in as many flowers, colours and as much  movement in as possible.  The hope is that I will be able to take photos of both the flowers and the insects that they attract, but also have something vivid that will eventually work through all the seasons.

I started the garden a year ago, and have a few plants that have really worked well.  One of these is verbena bonariensis.  I have tried growing this for a few years from seed, but never got any to germinate.  I was therefore over the moon when my mother-in-law gave me three small plants that had seeded in her garden.  Last year they attracted the white butterflies, as well as the occasional tortoiseshell.  This year?  Well, it is a good year for Painted Ladies, and the good news is that they have found my garden.  Saturday was the first sunny day in a while and we had three Painted Ladies in the garden, all on the Verbena.

As I was hoping it would attract insects I planted it next to the path, this makes photography easier.  I took a few photos yesterday, but the wind made it a little difficult at times, but the Summer is hopefully young and I will get some good shots at some point.  Here is one of my better shots – have you seen one of these this year?

Painted Lady on Verbena
Painted Lady on Verbena


I spent a short amount of time in the garden today trying to photograph bees.  I have found that looking through a macro lens makes one study insects much more closely and reveals a fantastic level of detail.  So much so that I can be distracted from pressing the shutter button.

Bombus lapidarius on a cornflower
Bombus lapidarius on a cornflower

I was particularly interested in a bee with an orange behind, which, I am assuming was a red tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius) and wanted to get a shot of it on a cornflower due to the contrasting colours.  I took some shots and then it flew off.  I then noticed it on some yellow flowers, time for another shot.

Bombus lapidarius on yellow flower
Bombus lapidarius on yellow flower

It was whilst I was sitting watching the bee and waiting for it to emerge from the midst of the flowers that I noticed another bee on the cornflower.  Whilst observing both of these bees, it became apparent that one preferred the orange and yellow flowers, whilst the other was only interested in the cornflowers.  Is it the case that individual bees prefer certain colours or types of flowers, or had, for example, cornflower bee already visited all of the yellow flowers and so was avoiding them?  Should I be growing as many different types and colours of flowers as I can?

Unexpected finds at Brandon Marsh.

I went for a trip to Brandon Marsh this weekend (I know it is a 40 mile round trip, but I did combine it with a trip to Ryton Organic Gardens which is about 2 miles up the road) with the main aim of seeing and, hopefully, photographing some damselflies.  I usually visit the reserve with birdwatching in mind, but, at this time of year it can be pretty hit and miss.

There were a few damselflies and some pretty chunky lilac coloured dragonflies about (no idea what type at all, sorry, I am new to entymology).  The dragonflies seemed to be mainly blue-tailed and common blue, but, incredibly hard to get a decent photo of as most were by the side of the lakes.  However, there was one particularly co-operative blue-tailed dragonfly which allowed me time to get a few decent shots and some not so good ones.  This is her eating lunch:

Damselfly eating greenfly
Damselfly eating greenfly

This is her after she moved to a better position so I could get a better shot:

Female Blue Tailed Damselfly
Female Blue Tailed Damselfly

It was whilst I was sitting in a hide staring at some common blue damselflies that were cavorting around the edge of the lake that I happened to look down and saw this:

Grass Snake
Grass Snake

OK, maybe not the most exciting thing to most people, but, if you have never seen one before and find yourself about 3 feet above it staring it in the eye – and it is staring back…then it there is reason to be excited.  (As was hearing my first cuckoo in 16 years!)

Further experiments with my new lens.

There was a bit of blue in the sky, I was not at work today and I have a new telephoto lens; no more excuse needed for a trip to the Country Park.

I was interested to see how well the lens would perform with a bit more light than is available in our north facing garden, particularly after I dropped it on some concrete slabs! (It still appears to function, and, if anything, the image stabiliser and autofocus seem to be somewhat quieter!) I have also hankered after getting some shots of the goosanders that arrive each Winter.

The Country Park seemed to be busier in terms of people rather than birds, and I did notice a few female goosanders in one of the more sheltered areas where I hadn’t seen them in the past (and where I could not get a decent shot due to the number of trees growing at the edge of the water).

When we made it to the dam I was a little disappointed to find that the usual group of males and females was not there this time, my opportunity for wildlife photographer of the year had vanished! However, further along the reservoir I did spot a lone female and managed to get a few shots, one of which was not too bad for an early attempt (not great either, but I was pleased to get a shot).

Female Goosander

I’ve got a new lens.

Just a quick post because I am excited by my new present, a telephoto lens.  I bought the lens primarily because I wanted to take some shots for this blog, and so I finally bit the bullet and spent some money.  As I finished early for Christmas today, I thought I would try it out, although the light is apalling and there were no birds in the garden (whenever I get a camera out they all do a bunk).

Imagine my surprise when, camera in hand, a jay flew into the garden (I had the camera, not the jay).  I feel doubly lucky because I have never seen a jay in the garden before.  The pictures aren’t great (a bit blurred), but, I was hand holding the camera and for some reason, I hadn’t turned the image stabiliser on!


I then had the opportunity to photograph a greenfinch (it looks a bit stripy so I think it may be one of this year’s).  The results are shown below, OK, not perfect, but as you can see, it was quite dark, and I had to zoom in quite a bit. (This time the image stabiliser was turned on.)

Greenfinch    Greenfinch close up

There is a long way to go, but I am quite pleased with my new lens (although it is a little noisy – no chance of sneaking up on any unsuspecting birds with this lens), I am just hoping for some better light over the Christmas period.

Winding Down

After a bit of a hectic week (if only by my standards) I decided that Friday would be a day for doing the things in life that make me happy. This inevitably means photography or birdwatching and definitely a good walk. So, once more, I combined the two into one trip and spent an hour at Ryton Organic Gardens looking for a good photo opportunity and some inspiration for my flower garden, followed by an hour at Brandon Marsh.

I took a few photos that I quite liked, but I am not sure that I obtained much inspiration. Many of the flowers were still looking good, but I am not sure how much will be there in a couple of months time. There was also a fair amount of clearing being done, preparing the vegetable beds for Winter. The apple trees look as though the harvest will be a good one, ready for their Apple Day on 5th October, but, unfortunately I don’t have room for an orchard.

Brandon Marsh always seems to be an all or nothing place, and this week was closer to nothing. I didn’t have my ‘scope with me and was reliant on a small pair of binoculars, which meant that I probably missed quite a bit of what was on offer. However, no matter what the state of the bird population there it is always a relaxing place to walk around. The trees are starting to change colour and the Viburnum Opulus (Guelder Rose) were full of berries.

There were lots of lapwings and gulls about, and a red kite had been seen earlier (maybe that was responsible for the expensive glassware on show in the Carlton hide?), but there was a bit of a dearth of birdsong in the woods. I shall have to have a wander to the Country Park to check on the state of things there (any excuse for a walk!).

A warm day at Ryton

I am lucky enough to live close to Ryton Organic Gardens and this weekend I decided to brave the heat to spend some time at what is one of my favourite gardens. (I had been lamenting the continuous wind and rain in the past few months so could not really pass up a day of full sun with not even a whisper of a breeze.) My main aim was to indulge my favourite pastime, botanical photography, but, in the past it has provided inspiration from a produce point of view.

Although it is a big place they have divided it up into a number of smaller areas including a cook’s garden, a garden planted to encourage bees and one for birds as well as allotment areas and experimental areas. Their soft fruit garden was the reason behind my purchase of an evergreen oregon thornless blackberry which we are currently training to hide the bins.

Whilst I did take a few pictures that I was reasonably pleased with (see my Flickr page) I also got a few ideas for the front garden which I am in the process of planting up. The main constituents of the front are herbs (which we planted some time ago) and some grasses which we did not want in the back garden anymore. These will be augmented by lots of bulbs, annuals and perennials, the main criteria being low cost and photogenic appearance.

I was very much taken by a white flower bed that they had planted. The centre was a huge mass of white cosmos (a favourite of mine) with two different plants at each corner of the rectangular patch. In one corner I was particularly taken by some stunning white Nigella which was in front of a fluffy headed grass. 

In the diagonally opposite corner there was another plant that I was thinking of buying, Echinacea ‘White Swan’. In truth I was a little underwhelmed, expecting something much whiter where this seemed cream coloured at best, possibly heading towards a lemony yellow.

So it is a thumbs up to the Nigella, a maybe to the Echinacea.

What do you think?

Spring flower surprises

In my last post I mentioned that I had been out and about looking for a cowslip to take a picture of and had failed miserably. This may seem a bit of a strange problem given that I had been expounding on the fact that there was a multitude of the little harbingers of spring about. Well, there are, just not within a short walk of my house. I started on the industrial estate where I had seen some on my way home. The problem is that I could only find one, it was looking a bit sorry for itself and I couldn’t get a picture without an incredibly unphotogenic industrial unit in the background.
Never fear I thought, I will find some in the grassy area near the reservoir and posh houses, or on the verges on the main road. Ha! All I found were dandelions and daisies, pretty, but not what I was after. Where was I going wrong? According to Wikipedia (I have just checked this in case I was being a muppet and was looking in the wrong place) as well as somehow apparently being used for the treatment of headaches, whooping cough and tremors Primula Veris (cowslip) is ‘a low growing herbaceous perennial plant…found…[in] open fields, meadows’. Not such a muppet.

In case you are thinking why didn’t she just go back to where she found them in the first place, the clouds were grey and threatening rain (and delivering hail) and I only wanted to take a quick snapshot, I thought it would be easy!

Still, all was not lost, I took the photograph of the celandine shown in the previous post, found some grape hyacinth growing photogenically at the base of a tree (shown below left, but must go back and take a better picture with my other camera) and discovered a host of wood anemones (below right) growing in a spot I discovered a few months back that was covered in winter aconites. All in all, not a bad afternoon’s work.