Bullies?

All I wanted to do was to take extreme close ups of flowers. Unfortunately, winter is the time when all the bees and butterflies throng to flowers and refuse to give you a clear shot. As I took the featured photo I saw two bees which seemed to be nuzzling. By the size and colour they were the common dwarf honey bees (Apis florea). I played back the photo. Not nuzzling. What were they doing? Were they pushing about another insect?

I took a second shot. OMG! The horrors seem to be bullying a smaller insect. Should I report them to the mother? But they are known to be aggressive and territorial. Mother probably would probably laugh me out of the brood chamber. Before I could make up my mind the two had flown away with a smug and satisfied air. I looked back at the flower for the poor insect they had been nudging about, and I found that I couldn’t remember which of the many flowers I’d seen the bullies on. At least I got photographic evidence of their aggression.

Deep dive

The dwarf honeybee (Apis florea) that you see in the featured photo caught my attention because of waggling bottom. I’ve heard about their language of dance, so I’d imagined they would be supple, but this was quite amazing. It wagged its whole body to work its way deeper into the flower in order to reach its cache of nectar. Never having seen such a diligent bee, I took a photo. The flower was spectacular too.

A compound flower. The photo on the left focuses on the disk flowers, the other on the ray flowers.

I’ve written posts on compound flowers before, explaining the failure of Fibonacci numbers in accounting for the number of petals. This is a wonderful example, although I don’t know what the flower is called. A large flower like this has a central disk, where bees find nectar, and large petals on the outside. If you look closely, the center is full of tiny fully formed flowers, which are called ray flowers. The “petals” around it are each a separate flower, which are called disk flowers. Here you see that the disk flowers are actually each also a complete flower. You can tell that they have no separate chamber for nectar, because no pollinator comes to them. It’s a fantastic missing link between simple and compound flowers.

Gardens

My plan to take a walk in the garden this weekend came to nothing. We had a scare; a work contact tested positive for COVID. On Saturday we took an appointment for a test, and began to isolate. On Sunday night we found we were negative. Relief and frustration were the theme of the weekend. Relief at escaping the infection once again, and frustration about my plans for flower photography. So I had to search my hard disk for old images.

The featured image and the one above were taken in 2013 in Shillong’s Lady Hydari Park at the very end of October. The flowers are beginning to dry up. Photography made me begin to look closer at nature, and these photos marked a turning point for me. After looking at these flowers I found myself reading more about the structure of flowers. Each of these things, which I had taken to be a single flower should be properly called a pseudanthium, or a compound flower. Each is a collection of many flowers. It turns out that the lovely red and pink “petals” are each a complete flower. They are called ray flowers. Each of the central yellow flowers is also a complete flower and is called a disk flower. Single flowers only ever have three, four, five or six petals. Anything else is a compound flower.

I skip forty years

Lewis Carroll

I can hardly hope to match Carroll’s nonsense, but I skip four years to the next photo. It was taken on a rainy day early in October on the Kaas plateau. The plateau is full of plants which can’t be found anywhere else, and most of them flower in a week or two at the end of the monsoon. What I makes this image special to me is neither the flower, nor the whorls of hairy leaves which protect it, but the way the hairs prevented the rain water from wetting the plant . On this plateau, which is dry for nine months of the year, you can be sure that this is an adaptation which has survival value.

The next one is not a particularly beautiful flower, but three things give it a value to me. First, that it was the first flower I photographed after emerging from last year’s hard lockdown. Simple pleasures like walking in a garden seemed so unusual! I had only my mobile phone with me. But these phone cameras can now capture the delicacy of the light. That’s the second special thing about this photo: that the lovely mild colours were taken with a phone camera. And third, this is another kind of a not-so-simple flower. The large “petals” are modified leaves, and the real flower is the small five-petalled yellow thing.

This set of three images of the same flower come from the new camera I bought last year. It’s a great tool for flower identification. As I began to learn more about flowers I realized that identifying wild flowers is much easier when you pay attention to the whole plant. That’s why a wider view like the first is useful. But when you go close, those details require focus stacking; the image on the left is a composite with several different focal lengths. It also needed a digital equivalent of an ND filter to even out the light across the photo. The middle is a crop with one of the exposures, chosen to keep the focus on the yellow pollen sacs. The final photo is a closer crop of another exposure, which emphasizes the soft texture of the petals, and the way they repel the rain.

I wish I’d been able to walk out into a garden this weekend, but dipping into these old photos, especially viewing them in the different ways suggested by multiple challenges, was also quite a treat for me. It’s also a nice way to say thanks to people who have been trying to create communities from bloggers.

The weird beauty of the tiny

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Max Planck

When I decided to get a new toy, a small camera which is perfectly suitable for taking good macros in all weather, I did not realize that it would change what I saw. Quite by accident I saw that it takes sharp photos of things which are so small that I cannot see them clearly without a magnifying glass. As a result, I’ve taken to pointing it at things which I can barely see. The results are weird and wonderful. Here are some flowers which I would not have seen without this new tool. The four tiny pink petals of the flowers bursting out of their pod that you see in the featured photo is one such.

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.

Werner Heisenberg

The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine—it is queerer than we can imagine.

J. B. S. Haldane

When I pointed the camera at these tiny white flowers on a bush, I hadn’t planned on getting anything but a clear photo. All I could see with the naked eye was a pentagon. The photo shows a compound flower, and each of the florets is so tiny that even my little tool is unable to see the petals. Is the universe nudging me to get a better camera? I will resist for a year at least.

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.

Neils Bohr

A mat of vegetation covered the edge of the land around the lake behind the dam on Jawai. Bera is not quite a desert because of this river, but it is still dry enough that the mat did not clear my shoes. I bent to get a photo of these buds. Hairy, aren’t they? But these aren’t hair. At this scale our normal language fails. You can resort to the technical term, trichome, or give up on using language with precision. I will go with the metaphoric hairy. Merriam-Webster reminds me that hairy can also mean difficult to comprehend. This tiny world is certainly that.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars- mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them too. But do I see less or more?

Richard Feynman

With my naked eye I could not really see these beautiful white flowers: the five petals surrounding a yellow center. A variation of colour in a flower is often a signpost to the nectar meant for pollinators. In this bare land what could possibly pollinate such a tiny flower? A bee would break the stem. An ant could crawl up, but would it find such a tiny bead of nectar worth its effort? My camera found a pollinator, just barely, stuck to the web a spider had woven. In this miniature landscape the savage logic of the savannah was repeated: plant, herbivore, predator. How beautiful!

Man has a fundamental urge to comprehend the world about him.

Hans Bethe

Several small plants were entangled in a patch of the ground hugging mat I was looking at. I should have done the tedious thing I’ve learnt: tease aside the strands and follow them by separating the leaves of different shapes. But being lazy, I took a simpler route. I pointed my camera at the different flowers that I saw and took photos. I can see three different plants. There may have been more, because some of the plants may not have had flowers that day. Still, I wanted some idea of the variety that there was, not an exact count. Another day, with another tool, I will spend more time on the task.

Bohr was inconsistent, unclear, willfully obscure and right. Einstein was consistent, clear, down-to-earth and wrong.

John Bell

Cornflower blue is not really a common colour in nature. So these flowers caught my eye while I was photographing the bush with white pentagonal flowers that you saw in one of the photos before. When I bent down further to look at them, I found another set of pentagons. Again, the flowers are a little too small for my camera to capture a sharper photo. Do I need a better lens or a larger sensor. Or should I invest in a good gorilla pod before jumping to conclusions? When you are looking at something so small, the tiniest movement of your hands can cause a blur.

Never underestimate the joy people derive from hearing something they already know.

Enrico Fermi

Enough of the tiny. Let me end with something easier to see: the false daisy (Eclipta prostrata). At almost a centimeter across, these white flowers are a giant compared to the ones I’ve shown you before. What you see here are a flower in bloom, and another which has gone to seed. Like its enormous cousin, the sunflower, this is a compound flower, many flowers joined together to seem like one. The wiry white petals of the ray flower look quite different from the darker polleny-yellow tubes of the disk flowers. So nice to be able to name at least one of the flowers that I photographed in our last morning in Bera.

Raindrops

Out with a water-resistant camera in the rain, I was bent over ankle-high plants, trying to photograph the monsoon up close. Some parts of the Khandala plateau are good for this.

There are flowers so small that my camera cannot see them clearly. I wonder how they are pollinated. Luckily the raindrops around them are visible.

I tried hard to get a closer look at such a flower. Instead I saw the water drop act as a lens, imaging the grass below. Serendipity!

Hairy leaves! These may serve the same purpose as anti-pigeon spikes on buildings. One reason they could be there is to prevent leaf-damaging insects from getting at them.

I usually cannot decide whether the colour photo works better than monochrome. But for spider webs I’m pretty sure the monochrome works well.

More spider webs. The continuous pinging of water drops on the web may be as tiring to spiders as sitting in a noisy bar is to people.

I think monochrome works better with this image too: the texture and shadows come out better. I’m not sure this arrangement of hair can deter insects.

Droplets hang in the air, drowning the flowers behind these spathes. These plants grow everywhere in the plateau. They must use the drops in some clever way. I wish I knew.

Another flower which is too small to figure in field guides! If you get a lens like this, be prepared to find flowers (and plants) which will be very hard to identify.

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