Over the last two years, thanks to Zoom conferencing, we have welcomed and enjoyed a selection of fascinating speakers from places too far distant to visit us in person. But sometimes you don’t need to look so far afield for your expert speaker. On Wednesday 9 February we were entertained by our very own John Curd, the self-confessed “odonata obsessive” (ie, dragonfly and damselfly nut), as he revealed his new obsession – bees and wasps.

Through the various lockdowns of 2021, John “maintained a modicum of sanity” by learning about and photographing “solitary” bees and wasps at and around a natural sandbank in Rushmere.

In the UK there are around 270 bee species and thousands of wasp species.  Plenty to look for.  But, unlike most colony-dwelling bumblebees and honeybees, solitary bees are usually very small (less than a centimeter long) and they nest in the ground.

A bee bank is simply the habitat of many such ground-nesting insects.  Natural bee banks are banks of sandy soil that the insects burrow into, either horizontally or vertically.  But similar bee banks can be created artificially, with added extras such as bee hotels made with bundles of hollow plant stems.

John’s bee bank is a four feet high, southeast-facing, a mound of sandy soil in Rushmere only a few hundred yards from his home.  He had passed it many times over many years without noticing anything.  But one day he noticed that the bank was peppered with little holes, with little scree slopes under them, and began to see all the bee and wasp activity.

Through 2021 and 2022 he has visited regularly with his trusty monopod and camera to see what bees and wasps he can find.  Passers-by who cannot see what he is looking at frequently ask him what he is up to!

John had images of over twenty species of bee and wasp to show us.  He told us that identifying the different species is very much a matter of detail and, as with dragonflies and damselflies, some of the differences between species can be very hard to detect.

Indeed, it’s not always easy to tell a bee from a wasp.  Bees are usually robust and hairy while wasps are generally slender and not as hairy.  But there are exceptions.  In particular, some parasitic bees (called cuckoo bees or kleptoparasites) are nearly hairless and resemble wasps.  Bees, though, are just specialised wasps who gather pollen.  They always have at least a few microscopic bifurcated hairs somewhere on their bodies that trap the pollen grains.  Wasps don’t have any bifurcated hairs.

But John has some helpful books, chiefly “A Comprehensive Guide to Insects of Britain and Ireland” by Paul D Brock, and of course the internet.

The bee and wasp species John showed us were

  • Heather mining bee
  • Yellow-legged mining bee
  • Ashy mining bee
  • Leafcutter bee
  • Green-eyed flower bee
  • Pantaloon bee
  • Lathbury’s nomad bee
  • Yellow-horned nomad bee
  • Blood bee
  • Black-banded spider wasp
  • Red-legged spider wasp
  • Red-banded sand wasp
  • Astata boops
  • Ruby-tailed wasp
  • Ornate-tailed digger wasp
  • Common spiny digger wasp
  • Variegated cuckoo bee
  • Plasterer bee
  • Field digger wasp
  • European hornet
  • Beewolf

John told us when, where, and how to go about getting worthwhile images of these small insects.  He shoots with an Olympus EM-1 Mark II (a Four Thirds mirrorless camera), usually used with an Olympus 300mm f4 Pro (equivalent to 600mm on a full-frame camera).  And he uses a monopod for stability.

His starting point for camera settings, depending on conditions, is aperture priority, f8, ISO 400-800, and a single (central) focus point on continuous focus.  These can then be adjusted as required.  He is generally looking for a shutter speed of 1/1000s-1/2000s.  Although his Olympus can do in-camera focus stacking, these subjects are not static for long enough.

John’s excellent and informative presentation was richly illustrated with a selection of his own striking static and flight shots.  As ever, they were all superb images.  They demonstrate to the rest of us what can be achieved with a fair bit of patience, a decent amount of effort, and a modicum of sanity!