Monday, 23 August 2010

The Potter Wasp, the Walk and the Cathedral....

Last Thursday found me in Devon. I had an early start down there to record a Living World programme for Radio 4 on the Potter Wasp, Eumenes coarctatus. Not many people know that in Britain there are over 6,500 species of wasp. We all know the common wasp, the one which pinches our jam and drinks our cider. But those social wasps number but a few species, of which the wonderful Hornet is the biggest in Britain.

However the vast majority of the wasps in Britain are solitary wasps, who species number in their thousands, with probably hundreds more yet to be discovered. It is of this group that the Potter or Mason wasps belong and in Britain we only have one true pot making wasp.

These potter wasps are found only along the southern most counties of England, principally on Lowland Heath, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex. They have a fascinating biology, which at this time of the year sees them producing wonderfully delicate pots. The photograph above is a potter wasp quarry. It doesn't look much, but from here the female potter wasp gathers a tiny amount of wet sandy clay and flies to a site 60 or more meters away to make its pot.

And there it is. I've always loved social wasps for the wonderful work they do in the garden eradicating pests, plus their extraordinary ability to produce fantastic paper nests. But having now made a programme about solitary wasps I'm hooked. Just look at that pot. The sheer effort the female goes into the construction of this pot, in only a few hours, is staggering. Once completed, the wasp fills it with paralysed caterpillars, deposits a single egg and seals the pot. The egg will hatch and the larvae overwinters inside the pot, munching its way through the still paralysed caterpillars. In the spring the wasp emerges and the cycle begins all over again. Nature at this micro level is absolutely fascinating.

Normally only one pot is made in a chosen location, but here we have two joined together, and up to 7 pots have been recorded. The photographs above were taken by me on location. However none of this would have been possible without the dedication of local naturalist John Walters. I urge you to visit his website here.

It has taken John over 4 years to get to the stage where he can find and record the biology of potter wasp pot creation. The 2 photographs below were taken by John earlier this month and well what can I say, is this not just a remarkable sight?

We'll broadcast this programme later in the autumn, and I hope that those of you who listen will be as enthralled as I was with this little solitary wasp on a Devonian gorse bush.

While there, we also went to a common wasp nest in a hole in the ground (there is a wasp in the hole if you use a magnifying glass)....

... which allowed me to record some much needed wasp buzzing sounds as the drones and workers flew in and out doing their daily chores.

Not the most scientifically-technically competent way of recording wildtrack but the wasps flew happily over the microphone and I got what I wanted......

That was Thursday. As I now spend most of my weekends in Wiltshire, unsurprisingly by Friday evening I could be found recumbent in that fair county. Rested, fed and watered on Saturday we arose and after shopping, went for a long walk in very inclement weather across the Marlborough Downs, Rockley to be precise. It is wonderful up there in storm like weather. A few other hardy souls were braving the elements but pretty much we had it to ourselves, and when a rain band came across, we did have it to ourselves, except for the many hardy corvids who were enjoying the wind along the escarpment.

We walked about 6 or 7 miles from Rockley up to Barbury Castle and back along one of the many trackways in this part of Wiltshire. Highlight being a red kite, just as we got back to the car, quartering the hillside. Definitely a walk to blow the cobwebs off, and provided a fitting prelude to a convivial evening in the Wagon and Horses public house at Beckhampton. Which I discovered during the evening was an inspiration for Charles Dickens.

"It was a comfortable-looking place. There was a strong cheerful light in the bar-window,"
Begins Dickens's description of this handsome stone and thatch 16th-century inn on the Marlborough Downs. Its heyday was as a coaching inn between London and Bath, (hence the name), when waggoners would stop to freshen up and horses would get re-shoed at the inn's smithy. Dickens travelled this way in 1835 and featured it in The Bagman's Story in The Pickwick Papers.

All of which, now brings me to Sunday and a visit to Salisbury. Being left to amuse myself for a few hours, I ventured to the Cathedral to play with my new camera. Which I have to say I'm loving. 2 hours spent in there experimenting, followed by a cup of tea and a cheese scone, is my idea of a good Sunday day out. So what did I get up to then?

I photographed the font using the inside setting. Then I photographed the water cascading off the font using the macro and a forced flash.

Then I played around with the exposure metering to photograph the cedar tree in the quadrangle, from within the cloisters.....

...before trying my hand at the "candle light" setting which I thought worked wonderfully well.

Just before leaving, I tried some more of the auto-functions, and this one, for providing grain to a black and white image, I do like. I do like this effect a lot.

There is just something evocative and textural about black and white photography, and with this grain effect, it just excites me. Later in the afternoon I took 50 or so portrait shots of Julie using the same grain function. Just magical, but the attractive subject through the lens of course helped enormously.

Not all of my photographs over the weekend were artistic. Some have provided deep rooted trauma in the beholder.......

There's nothing like a strange shaped root vegetable to get me taking even stranger photographs. I'm not sure which is worse, the shape of the vegetable, or the fact I saw a photo opportunity..........


  1. love the pics of the wasp and the cathedral. like the camera?

  2. Great to read about the potter wasps. I'm definitely going to be on the hunt for them next year. I've had them in my garden (at least 1/2 mile from the heath) I wonder where they are nesting! and of course I always love a strange shaped veggie photo! classic! Jane

  3. Hi Pete, yes so far the camera is doing what I expected. Macro isn't as good as the Canon G9 (actually I have continued using normal mode to good effect) but with a bit more practice it will be ok. I have had a couple of blurred shots from the auto-focus, so will keep an eye out on that, otherwise very happy (for a compact)

  4. Hi Jane, glad you liked the veggie photo - one of my best I think!