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insects

And it’s that time of year – here are my best or perhaps more aptly – my favorite photos from 2012 (in no particular order).

First, a photograph of the once thought extinct Cicindela floridana - taken while I was conducting research in Florida at the end this August. I was quite surprised when this individual allowed my to approach it and snap a series of shots – the majority of the time I can barely get within a foot of these minute beetles.

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Second, this shot of a grey hairstreak (read more here) was possibly my favorite butterfly photo of the year. While the composition is not very notable, it is the colors of the insect itself and the minute details which I find fascinating.

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Third, this image of a bright green inchworm hurrying along a tree trunk stuck in my mind, if for no other reason than for the copious numbers of these inchworms which “took over” my college campus this spring.

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Fourth, the menacing maw of this longhorn beetle (Orthosoma brunneum) was too neat to leave off this list.

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Fifth, the colors and details in this shot of a mantidfly (Zeugomantispa minuta) snagged it a place on this list.

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Sixth, and last for now, this photo of a female Xylocopa darwini Cockerell 1926 (OK, just the posterior end) building a nest was one of my favorite (insect) images from my trip to the Galapagos Islands in January of 2012.

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I will have another six images posted by the beginning of the week so stay tuned!

And here are the remaining six!

An ant tending a small “herd” of aphids:

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An ant grooming:
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I found this small spider tucked in a pocket of its web:

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This small cerambycid (Molorchus bimaculatus) busily removing pollen from its antenna:

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A minute pirate bug peruses a thrips across a dogwood bud.

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And last, two captive first instar Cicindela abdominalis:

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I photographed this grey hairstreak (Strymon melinus) with my Canon 7D and an adapted Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 lens over the past weekend. I used a diffused 580 EX Speedlite to provide fill light.

As expected for a 30+ year old lens, the focus is manual; but this is not an issue for macro work as autofocus is often useless for very small subjects. The other major issue with this lens is the manual aperture; this means I had to stop down the lens before focusing. This resulted in a darker viewfinder while I was focusing which was not too great an problem given a sufficient level of ambient light. Overall, I was very pleased with the sharpness of this lens; this 100% crop gives an idea of the sharpness:

I have been considering buying a focus confirmation chip for this lens – this would aid in focusing with the stopped down aperture – but that’s just a thought at the moment. For now I will continue enjoying this little gem of a lens – any thoughts or experience with this lens?

One last image – this American snout (Libytheana carinenta) was too neat to leave out.

Back at the end April I had a chance to escape from classes and get out into the field for a weekend of collecting and photography. The day was slightly cooler than anticipated but still productive; throughout the day I saw numerous Calosoma wilcoxi scuttling about. While smaller than its larger cousin C. scrutator, this species is still quite vividly colored – a striking combination of green, blue and some red edging.

The sheer number of beetle present was possibly the most surprising; I saw beetles running on the trunks of tress, on the road, and even, in copious amounts, in the leavings from a small mammal. This did make for many great, though at times frustrating, photographic opportunities.

Further information on Calosoma wilcoxi, C. scrutator, or on all of the species from Virginia.

These stunning green-patterned wings are those of Callophrys gryneus gryneus, the “Olive” Juniper Hairstreak. I was experimenting with some old Canon gear, a FD bellows and 35mm bellows lens, hoping to create a composite image of a butterfly’s wing. But, creating a clean series turns out to be impractical as the focus differed too much between shots. I instead focused on the patterns of green, white, black and brown on the wings, examining the melding of and contrast between the different colors.

The minute scales are arranged in such fine, detailed patterns which I always find it quite fascinating. But is not just the arrangement of these scales which catch my eye, rather the green color; it is not merely a smooth, consistent color across the scales, but instead glitters, as light reflecting off a rough surface. Though quite familiar with this iridescent, structure-based coloration in tropical butterflies, for whatever reason I had not quite expected to see it in this species.

Below a 100% crop of the image gives a better idea of the magnification achieved; the green color of the scales is also more evident.

After seeing the rough, glittering quality of the green scales I wanted to get a closer look. Using an old microscope, I focused on a single scale, first illuminating it from below and then from above. The difference was quite remarkable; lit from below the scale lost almost all of its vibrant green color, replaced with a mottled, muddy brown instead. But, lit from above, the startling green color reappeared, now glittering more than ever.

First two photos taken with a Canon 7D, FD to EOS adapter, Canon FD Auto bellows, 35mm macro lens, and 580 EX lens. Third image taken with a Canon 7D, homemade microscope adapter, and 580 EX flash; top image using transmitted light, bottom with reflected light.

This summer I photographed quite a few ants, so here are the best of the bunch:

Photos taken with a Canon 7D , 65mm macro lens, and 580EX flash unit.

And yes, I did just go for the awful pun…

For me there was no rest after final exams were over; it was right off to southern Utah to begin work on a summer research project on the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle, Cicindela albissima.

I’ll write more on the research itself over on my cicindela blog, but for now a bit on photographing the beetles.  This was my third trip out to the dunes and as ever I could not wait to get some shots of the beetles, now with an improved set of equipment, including a shiny new Canon 7D. It was not until the end of the first week of my stay that I found time to take a morning off to focus on photography.

As with most tiger beetles the adults are quite flighty and the best time to get close enough to this species for a good photo is mid morning when they are just emerging for the burrows which they spent the night in.  My first tries were less the successful; there was the usual slow chase as I followed the uncooperative beetle about and then at last take a few shots.  Unfortunately I had set the flash, a Canon 580 Ex speedlite with a Micro Apollo softbox, too far away from the subject and as a result the lighting was just a little too harsh.

Annoyed by this rather poor first attempt I switched focus to capturing some video of these intriguing beetles. This was done taken with my new Canon 7D SLR which is capable of  recoding  HD video, a feature which I was interested to explore. The video set up was bare bones with only the harsh sunlight for illumination, a tripod, and a borrowed Canon 180mm macro. This solid lens allowed me to get fairly close-up shots while remaining a fair distance away, ideal for minimally obtrusive video work. I hope to soon edit together a short video from the footage I shot and will have that up in the coming weeks but here is a neat clip.

My second attempt at getting a photo of the adults was similarly lackluster. I had set up an old Nikon Ais 55mm 1:2 macro lens with an adapter on an extension tube and the flash was now moved closer to the subjects. With this setup the distance between the camera and subject was quite short requiring a good deal more care in getting near the subject. It was during mid evening and the adults were still very active when I found a mating pair and got right up to them. As best I could I focused while the manual aperture was set at f/11, darkening the viewfinder. When I thought the focus was about right I snapped a few shots and, not surprisingly, spooked off the beetles.  Unfortunately the focus was a several millimeters off and only the tarsi of one beetle was actually in focus. The solution to this problem was very simple – something modern cameras do automatically – open up the lens and let as much light as possible in, then stop down the lens to the desired f-stop (it does take a bit of guessing/counting the clicks of the aperture ring to get it right).

My third try went far better; it was after the day after the first rain in over a month and with the temperature lower than usual the adults were slightly sluggish, by far easier to approach. I used the Nikon 55mm macro,  extension tube, and 580 Ex with diffuser as before; this time my first attempt was successful.

In this shot the spectacular colors of the beetle can be fully seen and there is no harsh/obtrusive shadow present. Any comments on the lighting or questions on the setup? I will have more details on photographing these beetles – particularly close-up shots – and some notes on photographing the larvae in later posts so stay tuned!

From a month-long stay at Coral Pink Sand Dunes state park where I was doing research on Cicindela albissima, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle.

Will have more posts soon and hopefully some videos about equipment and the like – stay tuned!

otherwise known as the Polyphemus Moth. These stunning insects are named for the cyclops Polyphemus from Homer’s Odyssey for the startling eyespots on their hindwings.

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This was my second time experimenting with my Epson scanner, now with a recently collected specimen. I think that this attempt came out better than the first – mainly because the specimen was free of dust and the antennae were better posed. Here is a 100% crop. Any comments?

After a very long wait, the Eastern Hercules Beetles (Dynastes tityus) that I’ve been rearing since August of 2006 have finally emerged. There are six adults, two females and four males – here’s one of the males…

This species is a member of the family Erotylidae, also known as the Pleasing Fungus Beetles. It spends most of the daylight hours in a sheltered spot on or near its food source, fungi, and at night ventures out to feed. This individual was collected under the bark of a rotting log.

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For more information, see the BugGuide page, this guide, and this side by side comparison of the two Nearctic species

So you’re an aspiring photographer interested in taking pictures of insects? Don’t want to break the bank? Wondering what cameras fit the bill?

Most of us out there are familiar with point and shoot cameras – these are you everyday digital cameras, used for everything from shots of the kids to casual vacation photos. Unfortunately, your average point and shoot cameras are often jacks of all trades, but master of none – they can take decent shots of large wildlife, OK underwater pictures, and acceptable landscape shots. They rarely match even the consumer grade DSLR cameras in either quality or versatility.

For the amateur insect photographer or collector just interested casually recording their finds, a higher end point and shoot camera is a reasonable choice. They can also be paired with an accessory close up lens for increased magnification.

Shutter lag, the delay between the time the shutter triggered and the time camera actually records the image, can be an issue. This can cause you to miss shots of skittish or fast moving insects, such as dragonflies.

Most importantly, many point and shoot cameras have very poor manual controls – this alone is reason enough for the serious amateur photographer to avoid these cameras.

One other major drawback of point and shoot cameras is their limited compatibility with external flash units – only some cameras have the hot shoe needed to attach the flash unit. However, there are good third party ring flashes and LED lights out there which do not need a hot shoe.

Pros:
Light, compact – easy to use
Cost $100’s to $1,000’s less than DSLRs
Good depth of field due to smaller sensor
Cheap close up lens – can be combined for higher magnifications
Flip out LCD – good for shots at ground level or in tight spaces
Some higher end P&S cameras have hot shoes, so a proper macro flash can be attached.

Cons:
Poor manual controls, including manual focusing
Virtually useless built in flash – good third party LED or traditional lights/flashes available
Shutter lag sometimes an issue
Lower optical quality – more likely to suffer from image distortion and chromatic aberrations
Lower image quality – getting better all the time, though

In summary, point and shoot cameras are generally good for live insects ranging from, say large butterflies down to maybe 1-2 cm with a quality close up lens  – not the way to go for serious insect photographers, however.

Stay tuned for Part 2, DSLR cameras!

… in fits and starts mostly. Over the past two weeks the weather has gone from downright balmy to a gentle but persistent rain and then to clear and cool. Annoyingly, over the past several days the temperature  has been hovering in the low to high 50′s during the days, to near freezing at nights; consequently, the insect activity is markedly lower than at the same time last year. Fortunately, on Sunday, it was just warm enough for some decent insect activity.

Walking under our ornamental cherry tree, I could hear that familiar low buzz from the bees and then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a flash near the top of the branches. It turned out to be a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), only the second that I’ve seen. Turns out there were two – the second had some significant damage to the left wings.

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 After a little while, a Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) flitted by (not to be confused with the Eastern Comma):

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As for beetles, they were rather sparse – I only came across one on the flowers; I’ve forgotten the species, but they usually are fairly common.

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The shots of the butterflies were taken with a Canon 30D with a 100-400mm lens – unfortunately they aren’t terribly good as far as resolution goes since the subjects were fairly high up.

This story first came to my attention early last year, while attending a meeting of the Entomological Society of Washington.

In 1979 a lawyer, Robert Heggestad, purchased a rosewood cabinet at an antiques shop in Arlington, Virginia. The cabinet contained 26 glass-topped drawers, labeled A to Z which, in turn, held a wide array of preserved flora and fauna, principally 1,500 plus insects and, in addition, botanical specimens, shells and, if memory serves, a hummingbird (Some images here).

After a brief attempt at tracing the origins of this collection, Heggestad’s interest dwindled and the cabinet and its contents became a mere curiosity. Only in 2007, while looking to sell the collection, did Heggestad begin to investigate its history.

The antiques dealer who sold him the cabinet had claimed it had belonged to 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913), the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection. At that time Wallace had sunk into relative obscurity, only familiar to those in world of science, so Heggestad was unaware of the potential gravity of the find.

It was only recently, with the resurgence of popular interest in Wallace, that Heggestad came to realize the potential of his collection. He began compiling binders filled with samples of handwriting from the labels which accompanied many of the specimens and proceeded to compare them with letters and other writings from Wallace and to the labels from only Wallace’s known collection, now in the British Museum. To his eye, the writing was a match.

He then hired graphologist and forensic document examiner, Beverly East, who compared the handwriting from the labels in Heggestad’s collection to the ones in the British Museum’s collection. Her conclusion? The handwriting was a match.

However, there are several problems with the notion that the collection was compiled by Wallace. George Beccaloni raises the fact that, to the best of his knowledge, the specimens in Heggestad’s collection do not bear a distinctive circular label, common to Wallace’s specimens in the British Museum. It is possible that the collection was put together before 1848, the date of the oldest specimens collected by Wallace, that do bear these labels. However, this presents a problem – how could Wallace, who was often in financially uncertain straits, procure the undoubtedly expensive cabinet?

Heggestad was able to trace the cabinet’s history back to Philadelphia, where, in 1964, it was bought by an antiques dealer and was again sold, at auction, in 1973. How the cabinet could have turned up in the States is still unknown.

The drawers do match the design that Wallace advocated and he often sold specimens he collected during his travels through an agent, Samuel Stevens, in order to support himself. He did visit America on a ten month lecture tour in 1886 – 1887 during which he visited several major cities, including Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., though he had sold most of his collections by the 1870’s.

The collection is now for sale – both the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History have expressed interest in acquiring it.

The Washington Post last month ran a front page article about the cabinet and its discovery, as well as some photographs. Additionally, there are articles on the story here and here. For more information about Wallace, see here and here.

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