Picture of the week: 22/02/21

NICK Bell’s never been one to shy away from a challenge.

His participation in no fewer than 18 London marathons can testify to his energy and a more recent fascination with modern jive dancing has seen him strutting his stuff in national competitions at the famous Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that taking up a new retirement hobby a couple of years ago would see him throwing himself with just as much enthusiasm into the world of wildlife photography.

FROZEN IN FLIGHT: a southern hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

His output has been prolific, encompassing such a broad range of subjects that it needs a three-part series to do justice to his new-found passion, starting with a selection of photographs this week focusing on the smallest details of insect life.

“I took early retirement at the age of 61 two years ago,” says Nick. “With the start of the first lockdown, I took up wildlife photography and bought myself a 600mm lens, which I now couldn’t be without.”

That lens has allowed him to capture some extraordinary sights – none more dramatic than our picture choice this week of a southern hawker dragonfly in flight, captured at Stonor Park.

Nick recalls: “There were two or three of them flying over the ponds. They just wouldn’t keep still, so it was really difficult to photograph them. That photo was the best one from thirty minutes of attempting to photograph them. The great light that day helped, too. It was bright enough for me to us a very fast shutter speed – 1/4000th second.”

The large inquisitive dragonflies differ in colour between the male – dark with blue and green markings and the female, which is brown with green markings.

Common across the Chilterns, hawkers prefer non-acidic water and may breed in garden ponds but hunts well away from water, often hawking woodland rides well into the evening.

POLLEN COUNT: fine detail captured on a visiting bee PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other attention-grabbing shots range from flies, beetles and bees to a startling close-up of a wasp spider dangling by a thread.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

For the technically minded, Nick explains that the lens which helped to transform his photos is a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens.

READY TO DROP: a bee captured over a poppy PICTURE: Nick Bell

“I also use a Tamron 18-400mm lens for close-up photography. I haven’t really got into macro photography, but it’s something that I want to do,” says Nick.

His studies capture a glorious range of colours and fine detail, as in his portrait of a banded demoiselle damselfly, a large fluttering insect with butterfly-like wings and spectacular metallic colouring.

METALLIC GLINT: a banded demoiselle damselfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other insects to catch Nick’s eye include the common darter, one of the most common dragonflies in Europe, but not always as obliging about posing for photographs as this one.

PERFECT POSE: a common darter dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

The pictures are taken in a variety of locations near Nick’s home patch in Maidenhead, with the surrounding fields and woods sometimes taking centre stage too, providing a gorgeous backcloth to the fine detail of the insect, bird and animal studies.

SHADOWLANDS: local woodland provides an atmospheric backdrop PICTURE: Nick Bell

Dramatic colour contrasts range from tiny green aphids exploring a yellow rose to the distinctive body colouring of the wasp spider, a recent arrival in the UK from the continent which has slowly spread over the south of England.

TINY TERRORS: aphids on a rose PICTURE: Nick Bell

It builds large orb webs in grassland and heathland, looking just like a common wasp to keep it safe from predators, even though it is not dangerous itself.

That clever disguise may work with predators but it’s no defence for male spiders coming into close contact with their much larger female counterparts, who are prone to eat the males during mating!

CLEVER MIMIC: a wasp spider keeps predators at bay PICTURE: Nick Bell

Some of the fastest-moving insects and birds pose the biggest tests of both camera and photographer. But then that just adds a bit of spice to the chase for someone who has risen to the different disciplines of marathon running and jive dancing.

“I love taking challenging photos – like fast-moving dragonflies and birds,” says Nick. “In my retirement, I run, dance and take photos – not a bad life!”

Next week: Nick’s focus switches to local birdlife

Why are we so scared of spiders?

SPIDERS are the stuff of our nightmares, it seems.

From the giant spiders Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions encounter in Mirkwood on their quest in The Hobbit to the enormous, sentient Aragog in Harry Potter, fiction writers have been only too eager to play on our fears.

Bilbo Baggins faces a giant spider

But why are we SO scared of spiders when the vast majority are harmless to humans and most are actively beneficial, gobbling up household pests?

Their silken webs are things of beauty on a dewy morning, as Roy Battell captures in startling images from his Moorhens website (below). And yet fear of spiders is just about the most common phobia in the world.

If that’s the case, you’d expect it to be because we have suffered some sort of trauma involving spiders.

But although spiders could bite if they feel threatened or endangered and most are venomous, in the UK we have little to actively worry about, even if there are literally hundreds of different species living here…and more than 35,000 known species worldwide.

But unlike the Americans, we don’t have to worry about the black widow or brown recluse, never mind the Sydney funnel-web spider, the most dangerous spider to humans in the world, which is native to Australia.

In fact very few of us have undergone any real spider trauma – so why is arachnophobia so prevalent, with children identifying fear of spiders as their biggest terror?

Back in 2015, spider expert Chris Buddle explained in The Independent some of the potential causes, although maybe it’s their sheer ‘legginess’ which gives us the shudders, coupled with cultural beliefs about the nature of spiders.

But if it was an evolutionary fear of animals which posed a threat to ancient humans, why do we not worry more about tigers or crocodiles?

Autumn is a good time to appreciate spiders, when they reach full maturity, and early morning walkers find their webs fascinating, gloriously backlit by the early morning sun.

Numerous online articles provide pictures of the most common types, with UK Safari highlighting 65 species, starting with the 16 about which they receive most queries.

You can also take your pick from guides published in Countryfile, local wildlife trust or even The Sun to get a better idea of the exact species you are looking at.

For those intrigued by the delicate webs, there’s much more to discover, though. All spiders have two claws on their feet, but web-spinning spiders have three. They are used not only to pull the silk but also to grip and release the web’s threads and provide traction as they move around it.

Spiders spin two kinds of silk: sticky strands used to capture prey which make up the spiralling threads of the web and non-sticky or “dragline” silk used to provide structural support, and which spiders walk on to avoid getting caught in their own webs.

Female spiders build the webs and there are three main types: orb webs, funnel or sheet webs, and the irregular webs of common house spiders.

But not all spiders make webs: flower crab spiders alter their colour like chameleons to ambush their prey, the wolf spider leaps out on its prey like its namesake, the wasp spider disguises itself as a wasp to keep it safe from predators, the raft spider can walk on water, and the water spider even lives under water, building a bell-shaped tent between plant stems.

The nursery web spider rather cutely does not spin a web to catch food, but builds a silk sheet in the vegetation to act as a tent for her young, sheltering them until they are old enough to leave on their own.

On heathlands the gorse bushes can often be seen enveloped in huge gossamer webs. These webs are made by  tiny animals known as  gorse spider mites – bright red mites which live in large colonies and are used in countries like New Zealand to control the spread of gorse, which is regarded there as an invasive weed.