Spring in the Opal Natural Area

I had my first 2015 visit to the Opal Natural Area on Thursday, a favorite area of mine due to the diverse habitats:  jack pine forest with open areas of kinnikinnick and reindeer moss, groves of aspen, a few ponds and black spruce fens. A forest fire swept through the area in 2008 2010, and it has been interesting following the ‘rebirth’ of this area over the last few years.


After the renewing fire, many pine seedlings will compete for nutrients and light.

What I was expecting to find on this morning trip was Prairie Crocus, and I was not disappointed. I could see clusters of still unopened blooms scattered across open areas, among the golden grass and the green leaves of kinnikinnick. Most were still on the shady side of a sandy ridge, ready to open when the sun was higher overhead.


Prairie Crocus about to bloom, surrounded by Kinnickinnick.

Moving to the crest of the ridge, I can look out over the pond to the black spruce fen, just visible in the background of the trees.


Burned-out Jack pine.

As the day warmed up, the first insects I came across were juvenile Speckled Rangeland Grasshoppers (Arphia conspersa) that overwinter in the active stage. I captured two and photographed them on the new ultra-portable MYN rig that I developed over winter. Before, all my white background images were taken in a plain white bowl or tray, however, the MYN style differs by actually lighting the white background from behind, creating a bright white backdrop that eliminates all shadows. I’ll share information on the rig later, as this first field test showed that changes will be needed.


Arphia conspersa, 5th instar, probably male.


Arphia conspersa, also 5th instar.


Immediately after photographing the grasshoppers I noticed a lot of activity along the edge of the trail ahead of me. Many small bees were flying very low to the ground. Occasionally a mating pair would land, and there would be a scuffle of bees in the vicinity as other males scrambled to join in. They were always actively moving, so I had to settle with only photographing the mating pairs.


Probably Colletes inaequalis, Cellophane bees. (ID by John Ascher)

I observed one or two bees entering holes at the path edge, but they would emerge again very quickly. I searched carefully to see if I could find any bees just beginning to emerge for the first time, but to no avail.

Other bugs were also present. A large metallic blue wasp was exploring the trail edge but would not let me get near. Not long after a fresh-looking tiger beetle flew off just as I spotted it, not to be found again. Surprisingly, not a single butterfly was seen. However, in the heat of the day (about +13 C), returning to the car, the sun on the sandy ridge did make the sleepy crocus blooms open, providing a pleasing end to the day.


The Opal Natural Area suffers from the fault of many Alberta ‘protected’ areas, in that damage by ATVs as well as litter and scattered shotgun casings show how limited the protection really.

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Added to this is the nearby mineral extraction plant that drones on throughout the day, but otherwise this area is a still a special place to visit for naturalists living in the Edmonton area.


Posted in Acrididae, Alberta, Canada, Edmonton, Equipment, Habitat, Hymenoptera, Insect, Landscape, Lichen, macro, Mating, Natural Area, Opal Natural Area, Orthoptera, photography, Season, Sphecidae, Spring Tagged |

Clytus ruricola


Clytus ruricola, Olivier 1795


Said to be a wasp mimic, Clytus ruricola, the Round-necked Longhorn (Family Cerambycidae) is a wood-boring beetle whose larva feed mostly on maple. The adult is a pollen feeder and, in this case, is making its way over a Euphorbia bloom. 

Photographed on 13 July, 2014. Edmonton. ID and information from Insects of Alberta.

Posted in Alberta, Canada, Cerambycidae, Coleoptera, Edmonton, Insect, macro, photography, Season, Summer Tagged , , , , , |

Photography Workshops for Spring/Summer 2015

The photography workshop schedule for 2015. Please click the links for more details.

June 13, Getting to know your Canon. Ellis Bird Farm.

July 4, Intermediate Macro Photography. Ellis Bird Farm.

July 7, Garden Photography at MacEwan University. 2 Tuesdays, Jul 7 and 14, 6:30-9 p.m. (classroom) and 1 Saturday, Jul 11, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. (on-location).

August 11, Nature Photography at MacEwan University. 2 Tuesdays, Aug 11 and 18, 6:30-9 p.m. (classroom) and 1 Saturday, Aug 15, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. (on-location).

August 22, Macro Photography in the Garden. Ellis Bird Farm.

Customised small group workshops and individual instruction is also available on request. Please contact me if there are any questions or special needs.


Posted in Alberta, Bugs, Canada, Canon, close-up, Education, Equipment, garden, Links, macro, photography, Season, Summer, Workshop Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Bees and Baptisia

Seems to be wondering, “Just how do I get in here?”

Another reliable plant in our front garden is the perennial Blue False Indigo, Baptisia australis, a member of the family Fabaceae (legumes) that contains other garden plants such as beans, sweet peas, lupines and the shrubby caraganas. Blue False Indigo grows best in gritty well-drained soil, but it also does well our clay-based Edmonton earth. It can be slow to establish, but is long-lived and will eventually grow to about 90 to 120 cm tall (3 to 4 feet) and wide. The stems begin branching half-way up and have grey-green foliage with trifoliate leaves. The flower spikes are tipped with upright terminal racemes with the pale blue to deep violet pea-like, bisexual flowers about 2.5 cm (1 inch) long. It thrives in full sun and is tolerant of dry conditions.

At the doorway, but how to open it?

B. australis flowers in early summer for about two weeks. The sexual parts of the flowers are enclosed by the two lower petals (called a keel), with the pollen-bearing anthers in close contact with the stigma,  so it can be self-pollinating. However, the flower design still allows for insect pollination in a very selective way.

Ghostly anthers within the keel.

Ghostly anthers within the keel.


Baptisia flower petal arrangement

The petals of the Blue False Indigo flower are arranged in a classic pea-flower shape. There is a large upper petal called the banner (sometimes called the standard) with a petal called the wing on either side. The two lower petals that form the keel are fused on the bottom edge and contain the stamens and pistil. The nectar lies at the base of the stamens, which are unreachable by most insects. Most, but not all–bees of a certain weight and/or persistence can find a way to get at the riches of nectar and pollen that are hidden deep within the flower.

Bombus nevadensis feeding at False Blue Indigo, Baptisia australis.

Big bee, no problem. This queen Bombus nevadensis uses her mid-legs to hold the wing petals and reveal an opening at the base of the flower to reach the nectar. The keel has opened to reveal the stamens which brush under her abdomen.


The smaller leafcutter bees (Megachilidae) don’t have the weight, so they resort to a more forceful entry method…

...using its mega-jaws as a  brace,

Using its mega-jaws as a brace…


…and pushing down on the wing petals, raises the anthers and the stigma to brush pollen under the bee’s belly. Note the wear-and-tear on the wing petals–this flower has been visited a few times before.


Here’s another view, with a newer blossom and the bee pushing down the keel with the hind legs, exposing the green stigma and the yellow pollen-coated anthers. Did it reach the nectar?

And another view on an older flower. Enthsiastic waving of the abdome clearly show the pollen-gathering site on Megachile species is under the length of the abdomen and called the ‘scopa‘. The anthers, stigma and style are also clearly visible.

And another view of a Megachile on an older flower. Enthusiastic waving of the abdomen clearly shows the pollen-gathering scopa under the abdomen. The anthers, stigma and style are also clearly visible.

Another view, with the legs at work inside the keel. It appears that the legs are brushing pollen up to the scopa.

Another view, with the legs at work inside the keel. It appears that the legs are brushing pollen up to the scopa.

(All images taken in our front garden in Edmonton, Alberta between June 24 and July 3, 2014)

Posted in Alberta, Canada, Documentary, Edmonton, Education, garden, Hymenoptera, Insect, macro, Megachilidae, photography, Pollination, Season, Summer Tagged , , , , , , , |


One of the more successful plants in our garden are the white Martagon lilies we bought many years ago. They appreciate light shade and do well as a woodland plant. They will self-seed when happy with the conditions. Not a native, but they hold their place in our garden because they do draw bees and flies occasionally, and they look elegant and natural, unlike many of the cultivated lilies with large blooms.


Crab spider Misumena vatia with a syrphid fly.

(Photos from July 2014, Edmonton, Alberta)

Posted in Alberta, Canada, Diptera, Edmonton, garden, Insect, macro, Predator, Season, Summer, Syrphidae, Thomisidae Tagged , , , |

Nature will have its say

I guess this is a food blog’s equivalent to posting an image of moldy bread…

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Bombus rufocinctus worker.


Instead of discarding this moldy specimen, I decided to give it some recognition. The hyphae of the fungus was very cobwebby, enough to provide some resistance when I pulled the pinned specimen from the tray. The pale-yellow dots look like sporangia, which means it may have already infected the other specimens. This bee will stay out of the tray, and I’ve added a canister of silica gel in the hope that lowering the humidity will stop the spread of the mold.

This is a focus stacked image made with 41 photographs, assembled with Zerene Stacker.

Posted in Alberta, Apidae, Apinae, Canada, Collection, Hymenoptera, Insect, macro, photography, Spring Tagged , , , , |