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Ol' blue eyes

Believe it or not, but some people are mortally afraid of butterflies and moths. They suffer from what is known as lepidopterophobia. Many lepidopterophobics, however, are not scared of whites, blues, swallowtails and most other diurnal butterflies. Some even find them rather cute. In English, having butterflies in your stomach means that you feel very nervous. In Dutch, the same expression means that you are in love. Butterflies stand for light, love and
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Straw grass-veneer: the Frank Sinatra or Paul Newman of the grass moth family. Scares the shit out of Nicole Kidman, Australian actress and avowed lepidopterophobic.

lust. But moths? Gloom, grief and grossness! Who can stomach that? Butterflies serenely flutter from flower to flower. Moths restlessly rustle from lamp to lamp. They are associated with bats, vampires and all kinds of other real or imagined night dwelling creatures. They neither bite nor sting, but if I had a penny for every person who insists they do, I'd be a wealthy man. To many people, all nocturnal Lepidoptera are moths. Others reserve the term for smaller, generally rather nondescript species like those belonging to the grass moth family (Crambidae). In Belgium and the Netherlands,
this family comprises about a hundred species. In summer, strolling through the tall grass of our orchard meadow, I always inadvertently startle dozens of these tiny white, grey, beige and brown moths. They fly up and land on a blade or a stalk a few feet away, more often than not with their heads pointing downwards. Many species are so alike that it is hard or even impossible to reliably identify them in the field or from a photograph. That is not true, however, of Agriphila straminella, commonly known as the straw grass-veneer. Its adorable, deep blue eyes are a dead giveaway. Quite the cutie!
Eggs on legs

To an unbiased observer, harvestmen have far less in common with spiders than humans do with donkeys. Nonetheless, harvestmen are undoubtedly far more commonly abhorred by arachnophobics than donkeys are loathed by misanthropes. It all boils down to the number of legs: just like spiders, harvestmen have four on each side of their bodies. In spiders the legs are attached to a cephalothorax that is almost always distinctly separated from the abdomen. Not so in harvestmen. They look more like eggs on legs. One can't make head nor tail of them. Harvestmen also lack both venom and silk glands. They are not venomous and don't build webs. Unlike most
spiders, harvestmen do not have three or four pairs of eyes either. One pair will do nicely, thank you. In sharp contrast to some spider species, they very rarely venture indoors. When one appears to be running along your ceiling, it is more than likely not a harvestman but a long-legged cellar spider or a similar spider species. Worldwide, the order of harvestmen (Opiliones) comprises well over three thousand species, but only thirty or so are native to the Low Countries. Most of them have extremely long, delicate legs, which makes them a macro photographer's nightmare. Take, for
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Common harvestman in the kitchen garden. The seemingly prickly leaf is that of curly endive that was not duly harvested.

instance, the common harvestman, Phalangium opilio. Each summer, adult specimens of this thermophilic species turn up in just about every garden, where they can be observed until well into autumn. You will often find them quietly sunbathing on a leaf or a wall, not moving a muscle. A great portrait opportunity? Not really, for it never yields a truly captivating photograph. Once they spring into action, however, their disproportionately long second pair of legs causes all kinds of problems. As a wildlife photographer, I have often struggled with the antennae of bush-crickets or the legs of craneflies, but this is of an entirely different order. In many cases, the most appropriate solution is to expertly but ruthlessly amputate some or all of your model's limbs. Figuratively, of course. For more information and loads of great pictures of predominantly handicapped native harvestmen, take a look at this page of Jan van Duinen's wonderful site.
Eye-catching zebra

Ever since 2005, the Belgian Arachnological Society ARABEL annually nominates a native spider as Spider of the Year. The first year, this great honour was bestowed on Salticus scenicus, also known as the zebra, the zebra back or the zebra jumping spider. Rightly so, for this small creature is definitely one of the cutest representatives of its long-suffering, generally execrated order. It prefers to hunt on sun-drenched outer walls and can be found just
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Undaunted, the zebra jumping spider looks straight into the lens.

about everywhere, even in the most densely populated cities of the Low Countries. Not much larger than half a centimetre, it will nevertheless almost instantly catch the eye of even the least attentive observer. This is mainly due to the erratic, jerky manner in which it moves, flashing the striking black and white pattern on its abdomen to which it owes all three of its English common names. The zebra does not weave a web, but actively hunts insects and other spiders. It hunts by sight, stalking its prey almost like a cat. As soon as its unsuspecting quarry is within jumping distance, it attaches itself with a silken safety rope to the surface of its hunting ground. Then it pounces, reaching impressive speeds of up to 75 centimetres a second. Even though this amounts to barely 2.7 kilometres per hour, on the scale of a zebra jumping spider it is lightning fast. To accurately assess the distance to its prey, it has excellent depth perception, bolstered by no less than four pairs of eyes. In the
photograph, only two of them are visible, the larger foremost pair standing out like polished black obsidian. Some pretty peepers! Unlike most other wild animals, including the majority of spiders, the zebra jumping spider is anything but camera shy. Quite the contrary: it boldly hops closer, accurately mirroring every camera movement, always looking straight into the lens. It is said that, using tweezers, you can feed it aphids or fruit flies. I am inclined to believe it, but haven't tried it as yet. Now where would my beloved arachnophobic spouse keep her precision eyebrow tweezers?
What numbers do you see?

While scientific or binomial names are always extremely useful, they are hardly ever pretty. More often than not, they have all the hallmarks of a next to unpronounceable tongue twister. This is not due to a lack of inspiration or imagination in taxonomists – often thought of as biology's janitors and bookkeepers – but to the truly stupendous number of species which all require an absolutely unique scientific name. This is true even of species that went
extinct millions of years ago, so it's hardly surprising that one eventually ends up with monstrosities like Lagosuchus talampayensis or Australopithecus bahrelghazali. If the same strict guidelines applied to human individuals, I'd probably be known as Pavo gabrielispocolocopus or something like that. An exception to the rule is the red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, a binomial name that rings like a bell and sounds almost as beautiful as its owner looks. With a name like that, you're going places! Small wonder that, in Dutch and many other languages, this gorgeous migrant butterfly is now commonly addressed by its scientific first name. Of course, every now and again, some barbarian will still call it the admiraalvlinder or admiral butterfly, but to every right-minded Dutch speaking lepidopterist any link between the elegant atalanta and a bellicose seafaring lout is repugnant. Nevertheless, as a child, way back in the 1960s, I knew the red admiral under an entirely different name. We called it a nummervlinder or number butterfly.
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Not my best photograph of a red admiral. But it does illustrate why, in Dutch and several other languages, the species is also commonly known as the number butterfly.

Take a close look at the photograph, and you'll probably discover how the red admiral came by this rather prosaic common name. Do you see the 8? Can you detect the 3? How about the 98 or 18? As a child, I could spot these numbers effortlessly, but now I really have to look for them. Is it my fading eyesight or my waning imagination? Both, I'm afraid. In Greek mythology, by the way, Atalanta was a dazzling princess, disowned by her father and suckled by a she-bear, perfectly capable of holding her own. My kind of girl!
Not tonight dear, I have a headache…

Macro photographers are an invasive, rapidly expanding species that takes full advantage of the digital revolution. Just a couple of years ago, I became one of them. In the wild, we tend to spend a lot of time laying flat on our bellies. Not exactly the most comfortable position, certainly not on a rough and rock-hard surface. Whether it concerns a male or female specimen of our species, there's always an inconvenient primary or secondary sex characteristic unpleasantly getting in the way. We usually lean on our elbows, but when taking aim at really small,
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Common darters in copula. With the tip of her abdomen, the female transfers a sperm package from the secondary sex organ of her partner.

ground-dwelling game, there's often nothing to it but to let our cameras rest securely on the ground. On the upside, this allows for longer shutter times and larger depths of field. On the downside, it makes looking through the viewfinder, composing the picture and focussing on the subject rather awkward, if not impossible. Well-equipped shutterbugs solve this problem by using an angle finder or a state-of-the-art camera with an articulating live view screen. Sadly, I have neither. Consequently, capturing this common darter's mating wheel on the rough tiles of the patio by the
garden pond came at the cost of a slightly damaged nose. Yes, us macro photographers really go above and beyond! After all, it's not every day one gets to shoot this alluring scene at such close range and with such a large depth of field. For minutes on end, the dragonflies hardly moved at all. Then, suddenly, they took off in tandem, skimming the surface of the pond. By the way, if madam darter would have boasted a nice drooping moustache, she would not have been a common but a moustached darter. At 37 Heuvelstraat, both barely distinguishable species are well represented and happily reproduce in the garden pond.
The tamer the thicker

To know what's good for them, wild animals require neither scientists, doctors nor dieticians. Domesticated animals are not that smart. In just about every municipal park, dozens of obscenely fat dogs can be observed, more often than not wheezily trailing an almost equally obese owner. Conversely, you'd be hard pressed to find even a single overweight wolf roaming the tundra. When wild animals bred in captivity are selected for docility, their brains tend to shrink as their tameness increases. You can teach dogs tricks, but wolves have relatively larger brains and are considerably cleverer than their tame, degenerate descendants. The tamer the thicker. In mammals, this rule of thumb has been confirmed time and again. It would come as no surprise to me, however, if it turned out to apply to all other species boasting a fairly well-developed brain, such as octopuses and birds. Chop off a chicken's head, and its IQ only marginally drops. In all likelihood, the fact that intelligence is inversely proportional to tameness is the result of cost-effective energy management. Since the brain is a major power hog, having a larger one than is
necessary for survival and reproduction is just asking for trouble. Wild animals are left entirely to their own resources and really can do with a bit of brain power. Domesticated animals, on the other hand, delegate: They hand over part of the tasks of their wild ancestor's brain to that of their owner, so they get by on less. Hunting? Mommy takes care of that in the supermarket. Thirsty? Just engage in some heavy panting or plaintive meowing, and Daddy comes running with a tray of fresh water or a saucer of milk. Horny? Simply moo a little louder, and along comes a farmer with a handsome bull or – you can't
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The larvae of Sepedon sphegea feed on freshwater snails and their eggs. Adults are strictly vegetarian.

have it all! – a newly thawed sperm straw. On the face of it, in spite of their limited mental capacities, pets and other domesticated animals seem to have everything well under control. But that's only an illusion. When they are not being fattened to end up as bacon or roast beef, they are because their owner doesn't have a clue as to what's good for them. Small wonder, for he or she is also a domesticated animal that can barely take care of itself and wouldn't stand a chance in hell in the wild. Without scientists, doctors and dieticians, Homo sapiens would be beyond redemption and pets would be in dire straits. So Mommy starts jogging, Daddy gets a gastric band, and Baby is put on appallingly expensive diet food. The larvae of Sepedon sphegea, not by any means the brainiest bloke on the block, clearly do know what's best for them: freshwater snails and their eggs. They don't need to be told. Adult specimens of this snail-killing fly feed on nectar and plant juices, which is exactly what they need. In Belgium and the Netherlands, nearly sixty species of snail-killing flies occur. To date, however, the only other species that I've observed in the garden is Tetanocera elata. The larvae of this fly are not aquatic and feed only on slugs. Needless to say, they are a gardener's best friend.
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Geraardsbergen, 27 February 2012.
Latest revision: 27 February 2012.