We spoke to British Wildlife Photography Awards' photographer, Ed Phillips, about bees, springtails and getting up close with your local environment.
Can you tell us the story behind your photo in this exhibition?
We are fortunate in having very sandy soils in our garden. This attracts several species of mining-bees every year. I undertake to record and photograph all the bee species that visit or nest in the garden and have a particular interest in the solitary bee species.
Many bees have particular cuckoo-bees that parasitise their nests. Some of the mining-bee species’ nests are attacked by Nomada cuckoo-bees like the one in the photograph. They enter the nest hole when the host bee is away and then lay their own eggs in the provisioned brood cells there. They don’t need to prepare their own nest burrows or to collect pollen and nectar to provision them.
Female mining-bees often “roost” in their holes during the night or when the weather is unsuitable for flying. Cuckoo-bees don’t have a home of their own and can sometimes be found roosting on plants. Often they hang-on with their mandibles; as in the photo. I’m always on the lookout for this, but have only seen it a few times. The males of various solitary bee species can also be seen doing this sometimes.
How did you go about getting that shot?
I do most of my invertebrate photography in our Staffordshire garden. I suspect that's because I'm lazy, but I say it's to know my patch (taken to the ultimate degree!). I have an interest in the solitary bee species and one of the garden shots shows some of the bees I've photographed there. This summer, I also found a Stelis phaeoptera cuckoo-bee in the garden. First county record since 1948!, Ed Phillips
I get up fairly early and invariably have a tour around the garden looking for insects and other invertebrates. It’s a good time to find potential photographic subjects that haven’t warmed-up yet. They are generally more sluggish and less inclined to fly away or scamper off when they are cold! I found this cuckoo-bee in our front garden handing from a Stachys leaf.
Because the bee was inactive, I didn’t (like often happens), have to rush the shot. I was able to position my camera/flash assembly on a bean-bag, lie down on the garden and get a good side-on shot.
How long did you have to wait for this shot?
It’s been about five years since I last saw this; so quite a wait! Interestingly though, this was one of three separate individuals that I found hanging from the same Stachys plant that week. All different Nomada species too.
Did you use any particular equipment or software?
Virtually all my photography involves macro work of some sort. I used a Canon DSLR and invariably, my favourite macro lens is attached. This is a specialist lens; the Canon MP-E 65mm F/2.8 Macro. It extends from 1:1 to 5:1 magnification.
It had no focussing mechanism, so focus is achieved by moving the whole camera assembly forwards and backwards. I prefer this method though, even for other macro lenses that have auto-focussing. I have a specialist twin-light flash too, that attaches to the front of the lens.
I run all my images through Adobe Lightroom initially. This allows me to make adjustments to the colour balance, overall lighting and exposure. I will then have made final changes in Photoshop Elements. This will just have involved cropping and the removal of sensor dust spots. Within the rules of the BWPA competition, other editing is not allowed.
What are your favourite scenes, species or motivations behind your photographs?
Initially, I just wanted to record and photograph invertebrates that I encountered in the garden. I was a late starter to this type of photography (not until my mid-60s) and decided to concentrate initially on solitary bees and wasps. I’m still not very adventurous when it comes to finding new locations. Much of my photography is within a few miles of home. That does help you to know your patch though!
When the solitary bees and wasps are no longer active, I have another interest (my wife would call it an obsession); photographing springtails. These present a further challenge because of their small size. The ones I’m particularly interested in - the globular springtails - are generally less than 1mm long. It’s hard photographing subjects that you cannot see with the naked eye.
What are the difficulties of wildlife and nature photography that you face?
Well, there are the usual difficulties associated with invertebrates. They’re generally small, active and challenging to find. It’s not possible to identify the majority of our invertebrates from photographs. With some of the commoner species though this is possible and I always like to get a name for my subjects!
Because of invertebrate diversity, I enjoy just having a few insect types to concentrate on. This enables me to better understand their particular habitats and behaviours and to develop the required field-craft. I just wish I’d started all this a little earlier in life!
What would you like people to think about when they see your work?
I love introducing people to types and species that they didn’t know existed before. It’s given me so much satisfaction and it’s lovely to see other people intrigued by the “hidden” wildlife around us all. Lots of people are surprised to know that we have around 270 species of bee in the UK and that there can be thousands of springtails per square metre of soil and leaf-litter.
How long have you been a photographer and how did you get started?
I’ve had a camera since my late teens, but most of what I did was (like most people) holiday and family snaps. I did have a major career change in my 50s when I set-up a small photography business to supplement my main income. As I got nearer to retirement, I reduced activity in my main job and did more photography. I do little commercial photography now; preferring to do my wildlife stuff.
That all really started when I saw a mason bee sealing its nest hole with chewed leaves. The hole was in the wall of our previous house. I didn’t know what it was and that led me into searches though insect books and online. Fortunately, I then got introduced to Steven Falk who lived close to me. He has since produced (together with illustrator Richard Lewington) the wonderful Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. The guide was long overdue. The previous concise UK bee guide was written in the 1890s! Steven has been a mentor and an inspiration to me.
What would you advise someone wanting to start taking photos of wildlife or nature in their local environment?
Well first of all, get to know your local environment. Whether you’re photographing, out with binoculars or just walking, there will be lots to see. The more you look the more you find. I think that what really motivated me initially was finding a group of insects (the solitary bees) that really fascinated me. But there’s so much really; trees and wild flowers, fungi, birds. Look at other people’s work for inspiration.
What projects are you working on now or have coming up?
The autumn and winter is sorted; springtails. Because so few people look for them (although there is considerable work being undertaken in neighbouring Shropshire to complete a county springtail atlas), there are always interesting things turning up.
Last month, I managed to find a previously-undescribed species in the garden of a local stately home. At the same location, I found a species that hadn’t been recorded in the county for 100 years!
I’ll be on the lookout for images for the 2018 BWPA too!