Spring Fever

A stand of purple crocus flowers.
Spring crocuses at the Budai Arborétum, Budapest, Hungary. March 8, 2015.

I’ve been thinking lately about why nature photography is important to me, and I decided there’s good value in putting together illustrated narratives even if the individual photos aren’t all portfolio-worthy and the writing isn’t elegant. I often find I enjoy other people’s nature-documentary narratives more than I do technically and artistically stunning individual images. Context and story are import, and I’d like to be able to look back in a few years and remember what I saw.

The last few weeks, I’ve managed to take a few study breaks to enjoy spring a little—last Sunday I went to the Budai Arborétum, a botanic garden and arboretum attached to Corvinus University’s horticultural department. I had tried visiting last fall and got rained out, but last weekend the spring weather was lovely, although unfortunately only the lower part of the garden is open on weekends.

As always, I was hoping for some birds other than the great tits which have been the most entertaining common resident bird life all winter, but other than some very uncooperative crows, all I saw were some nearly as uncooperative Common Blackbirds (Turdus merula), a type of thrush not to be confused with North American blackbirds:

A common blackbird perched in a bush

Crocuses and irises were abundantly planted in many areas, and heather was in bloom as well—a very purple effect overall.

A stand of blooming purple irises

Spring is bringing the re-emergence of insects, which makes me very happy! Firebugs (Pyrrhocoris apterus) are one of my favorites—a common but striking species, albeit extremely uncooperative photography subjects. Looking them up just now, I realized that they are also the species used in a famous (in entomological circles) accidental discovery about hormone regulation and insect life cycles.

A red and black firebug insect

Two mating firebugs

There were also a lot of small bugs swarming in the crevices of tree bark, which at first I thought were firebug nymphs, but on a closer look, they’re not similar at all. I saw a few of these last summer, but not in these quantities, and my Google skills are failing me. If anyone knows what these are, please leave a comment and let me know!

Hemiptera

On the way home, I stopped briefly at Feneketlen-tó (Bottomless Lake), a nearby artificial lake which is apparently home to all three introduced North American slider subspecies as well as (somewhat surprisingly) the one native European species of turtles. Alas, the native species is rather shy, and all the turtles taking advantage of the spring sunlight were sliders like this one, which is probably a yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta):

A turtle sunbathing by the edge of a lake

I do feel like my macro photography skills are very rusty after a long break—I need to spend some quality time rebuilding my flash diffuser and get some good practice as it warms up more!

Hungarian Natural History Museum

A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum
A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Budapest, Hungary. January 29, 2014.

Most of my trip to Budapest was (unusually for me) focused on things other than nature and museums, but I did make it to the Hungarian Natural History Museum (Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum), which turned out to be one of the nicest natural history museums I’ve been to.

The museum is located in a historic building near a large park, which was apparently in 2011 under threat of being converted to a military university. I haven’t been able to find anything more about that, so hopefully those plans changed—the building has been extensively renovated for the museum, and it’s a beautiful interior space. ETA March 6, 2014: Per the comment below and some other articles I found, apparently plans are still underway to use at least part of the building as a school, and the museum’s future is uncertain. I haven’t been able to find any really detailed explanations in English of what’s going on, unfortunately.

Of course, all good natural history museums need a giant whale skeleton:

Whale skeleton at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Many of the exhibits are fairly text-heavy, in part because everything is bilingual (Hungarian and English), more than I normally approve of in exhibits, but the exhibits are so beautifully designed from an aesthetic point of view that I felt they could be enjoyed on other levels as well. However, not everything was text-heavy, and there were some interesting aspects to the museums that I felt were counter to recent exhibit-design trends, at least in the U.S.

In fact, my favorite exhibit was the first one we passed through, a realistic coral reef diorama that surrounded you as you passed through the room, with the exhibit under glass floor tiles, extended up pillars and into the walls. A few tanks of live fish completed the experience. I don’t remember seeing any text here: it was just a beautiful, immersive display of biodiversity, the kind of exhibit I would have returned to over and over as a kid to look for new treasures.

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

They also had a temporary traveling exhibit on Argentinian dinosaurs, which was a bit more typical, including some interactive activities for kids.

The remaining exhibits for me nicely balanced informative with a more modern cabinet of curiosities approach, so they could be enjoyed on an aesthetic level or you could read the labels for more information.

Rocks and minerals

Rocks and minerals

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Hungarian Natural History Museum

We finished up the trip with a quick walk through the outdoor Dinosaur Garden in the snow:

Dinosaur Garden

More photos on Flickr.

Iceland 2012, Day 2: Eldhestar Horse Farm and Friðheimar Greenhouse

Tomatoes
Tomatoes at Friðheimar greenhouse, Hveragerði, Iceland. August 13, 2012.

It’s almost obligatory as a visitor to Iceland to go on the Golden Circle tour, a sort of scenic highlights within a few hours of Reykjavik. The three main stops are Þingvellir National Park, the enormous waterfall Gullfoss, and the geothermal area containing Geysir and Strokkur. Each tourist company has other favorite stops. On my first visit to Iceland in 2006, I did a half-day Golden Circle tour combined with half a day of horseback riding, which I regretted for at least the next 24 hours (I am not much of a rider).

This time around, we did a full day tour, which began with a horse show (interesting and less painful than actually riding) at the horse farm Eldhestar, followed by a stop at a geothermally heated greenhouse in Hveragerði, a town which is home to hundreds of greenhouses growing the majority of Iceland’s produce and garden plants.

I don’t have much to say about the horses, but they’re cute:

Icelandic horse show at Eldhestar horse farm

Iceland is unusual in that a large percentage of its electricity (26%) comes from geothermal energy, as well as 86% of its hot water (most hot water in Iceland is strongly sulfurous, making showers an interesting experience for the visitor). There’s been some controversy over exactly how renewable–and safe–geothermal energy is, but at present it’s ubiquitous, and it makes the existence of towns like Hveragerði possible.

We visited Friðheimar, a greenhouse devoted to intensive tomato production.

Shoe planter at Friðheimar greenhouse

The tomatoes are grown at a specific temperature by geothermal heating at significant expense. Iceland’s climate is not terribly conducive to traditional agriculture, and without greenhouses, the diet would either be much less varied or produce would have to be imported from other countries at even greater expense.

Tomatoes at Friðheimar greenhouse

Tomatoes at Friðheimar greenhouse

Naturally, though, what I was most interested in was this bumblebee, which was so laden down with mites it could barely fly. The greenhouse imports bumblebees (I believe the Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris) to pollinate the tomatoes, which like several other food crops require buzz pollination. These mites appear to be some kind of phoretic mite, perhaps Parasitellus; phoretic mites don’t directly harm the bees, but feed on debris. However, when they hitchhike en masse like this, they can hinder the bee’s ability to fly.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) with phoretic mites (cf. Parasitellus sp.)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) with phoretic mites (cf. Parasitellus sp.)

Fortunately, the other bumblebees seemed to be doing fine. We had some delicious tomato soup and then hopped back on the bus to head to our next stop, Gullfoss.

Wildflowers of Gregory and Long Canyons

Spotted Coralroot
Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), a wild orchid, Gregory and Long Canyons, Boulder, Colorado, USA. May 20, 2012.

Earlier this spring I went on a bird and butterfly survey led by Stephen R. Jones, co-author with Janet Chu of Butterflies of the Colorado Front Range. We ambled through upper Gregory Canyon and Long Canyon, above Boulder in Boulder County Open Space & Mountain Parks. Besides birds and butterflies, we saw assorted other insects, but today’s post is about wildflowers.

I think my favorite plant on the trip was the Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) above. Although I know better, I always associate orchids with the often larger, showier varities of the tropics, and forget the shy North American varieties, which is a shame. Orchids are probably my favorite group of plants–they’re amazingly diverse (one of the two largest families of flowering plants), and have evolved an incredible range of adaptations and relationships with animals, allowing them to occupy almost every available habitat. Coralroot orchids (genus Corallorhiza), for example, have no leaves. Instead they wrap around the roots of trees and obtain nutrients from symbiotic fungi.

I used to be a lot more into plants than I am now, and I probably should do something about that. After all, like insects, plants are everywhere and available to look at in almost all seasons–but unlike insects, they hold still. (They are also more likely to kill you, but that’s primarily a reason not to eat strange plants.)

So to rectify my tragic tendency to ignore plants, and give my insect-phobic friends something safe to look at, have some spring wildflowers of Colorado. They’re not as awesome as the orchid, but they’re still pretty great.

I think this may be Heart-Leaved Arnica (Arnica cordifolia):

Arnica sp.?

Larkspur (Delphinium sp.):

Larkspur (Delphinium sp.)

Creeping Oregon-grape (Mahonia repens):

Creeping Oregon-grape (Mahonia repens)

Lots of Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) in bloom:

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)

Western Wallflower (Erysimum asperum) seemed to be fairly popular with butterflies, although I’m saving that photo for the butterfly post:

Western Wallflower (Erysimum asperum)

This might be Mountain Goldenbean (Themopsis montana):

Mountain Goldenbean (Thermopsis montana)

And I’ll finish with my second-favorite flower, something I’ve always wanted to see, the Pretty Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum). Depth of field on these is a pain.

Pretty Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum)

Name That Bug #1 – Revealed!

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Gregory Canyon, Boulder, Colorado. May 20, 2012.

Okay, I admit that was a little unfair. I’m not sure it would be possible to identify the host plant from that photo. So here’s a better picture of the plant.

a) What are these?

At first glance, one might look at these and wonder if they’re eggs. But they’re not separate from the leaf, but an outgrowth of it (difficult as that may be to tell from the original photo).

These are plant galls. A gall is just an abnormal growth of plant tissues, which can be caused by fungi, bacteria, insects, mites, and even parasitic plants.

b) Which plant are they on?

This is a chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), a widespread shrub in North America. It produces abundant very astringent berries which are an important food for animals (and with lots of sugar, make very tasty jelly for humans).

We’re two-thirds of the way there now. Many gall-producing arthropods are very host-plant specific, and we now know that these are a) galls and b) very likely specific to chokecherries and perhaps related plants.

c) Who made them?

A search for “chokecherry gall” brings up the Chokecherry Gall Midge (Contarinia virginianae ). Sounds promising, but it looks like this tiny fly’s larve induce galls on the fruit. But these galls are on the leaves, and look very different. So adding “leaf” to the search term, we get…

The Chokecherry Finger Gall Mite (Eriophyes emarginatae), which creates finger-shaped galls on the leaves of various plums and cherries, including chokecherries! Looks right to me:

Image of mysterious little white things on leaves
Chokecherry Finger Gall Mites (Eriophyes emarginatae) on Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) leaves, Gregory Canyon, Boulder, Colorado, USA. May 20, 2012.
A mite is a tiny arachnid related to ticks. Gall mites of the family Eriophyidae are microscopic plant parasites. Some are major crop pests, while others can be used as biocontrol for weeds and invasive plant species.

So, what’s the take-home message here?

If you’re interested in identifying insects and other arthropods, a working knowledge of botany can be invaluable. Many groups–from gall mites to butterfly and moth caterpillars–are adapted to use only specific plants, and if you can identify the plant they’re living on or eating, it can vastly narrow your options. There are about 3,600 known species of gall mites–and there may be 10 times that number in reality–but identifying the plant as a chokecherry helped me to an identification pretty quickly.

And if you’re planning to collect and raise caterpillars at home, knowing how to identify their appropriate food plants is the difference between successful rearing and a dead caterpillar.

In the future, I’ll be writing a few more posts about different aspects of arthropod (mostly insect) identification from the point of view of a non-specialist who’s relatively new to this. It’s great to be able to use field guides–when they exist–or complicated taxonomic keys, but those can be pretty overwhelming initially, and I hope my less technical methods will be helpful to someone. My methods won’t work with all groups–species in some groups of insects can only be identified by close examination in hand, dissection of genitals, or other fiddly techniques that are out of reach to many people. But they have provided enough to keep me pretty busy, and they’re a start.

Name That Bug #1

Image of mysterious little white things on leaves
What are these? Gregory Canyon, Boulder, Colorado, USA. May 20, 2012.

I’m about to head up to Wyoming to camp for the weekend, but before I go, here’s a little entomological mystery for the approximately two people who might be reading this. I took this photo this spring up the in foothills around Boulder.

a) What are these?
b) Which plant are they on?
c) Who made them?

Hint: if you get what and which, you’re two-thirds of the way to who (which is how I was able to identify them). I’m using “bug” in the broad, non-scientific sense here, so they may or may not be created by insects. You can click on the photo for a larger image.

I’ll be back Sunday with the answers!

See Like A Bee: Ultraviolet Flower Photography

European Honeybee (Apis mellifera)
A European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) at Sawhill Ponds in Boulder, Colorado, USA. April 22, 2012.

PLEASE NOTE that I am NOT the photographer, and you should contact him directly through his website (linked below) if you are interested in using these images. According to his website, most uses will require a negotiable fee.

Some flowers and pollens fluoresce in interesting and sometimes surprising patterns under ultraviolet light. Alas, while pollinating insects can see these patterns perfectly to find the nectar and pollen, the human eye cannot without some help. Fortunately, professional photographer Bjørn Rørslett has photographed many of these flowers, revealing their UV and infrared patterns so we can “see” the flowers as bees do (more or less–the colors in UV photography are arbitrary).

Some of my favorites:

+Potentilla anserina L.
+Coreopsis sp.
+Crepis biennis
+Rudbeckia hirta
+Taraxacum vulgare
+Jasione montana
+Oenothera biennis
+Ranunculus ficaria
+Potentilla erecta
+Angelica sylvestris

Want to photograph your own UV flowers with a digital SLR camera? It’s complicated and not for the faint of heart or light of wallet, but Rørslett has kindly provided a tutorial if you decide to give it a try.

A version of this post was originally published on May 4, 2006. Somewhat bafflingly, this was by far the most popular post on my old blog, so I’m republishing it. Again, I am not the photographer of the linked images of flowers and I cannot provide permission to use them.