Special Delivery

Entomology is, of course, a wide and varied discipline that touches any number of human endeavors – from the practical (agriculture, food production, public health) to the esoteric (genetics, ecology, cultural symbolism).  Despite this far-reach, however, entomologists themselves are not all that common, and the number of people who know a fair amount about insects without actually being an entomologist is rather small.  Compare this to ornithology, where the number of people who know a good deal about birds exceeds by great measure the number of actual ornithologists.  This is merely an observation and not a criticism – insects are just simply too small and too diverse for most lay people to even attempt identification.  That’s good for me, as those who have an interest in insects but not the expertise to identify them often turn to me for help.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been “the bug guy” at social gatherings, often leading to questions such as, “I’ve got this green bug on my bushes – what is it?”  Sometimes the insect or its situation are described well enough that I can offer a guess (just a guess!), more often I can only say, “I’d have to see it to know for sure.”  Despite not always being able to answer the question, I really do enjoy serving as this very direct link between the science of entomology and the general public, as it gives me a chance to present insects and their study in a favorable light and with a sense of passion.

The level of this interaction has increased greatly during the past two years since launching Beetles in the Bush.  Now, my “clients” include not just family, friends, their friends, etc., but an unrestricted internet audience.  I am regularly contacted by those who stumble upon this blog during a Google search in their attempt to identify some insect they’ve encountered.  Again, I’m not always able to answer their queries, but I do try to offer my best guess.  Such was the case recently when I was contacted by a resident of southwestern Missouri, who had this to say:

While messing around here in the yard this morning I came upon a beetle I thought interesting. First time I have seen one like this. I Have a Simon and Schusters Guide to insects guide and attempted to look up the beetle. Closest thing I could find was a flat-headed borer (BUPRESTIS GIBBSI) from the Pacific Northwest. Emerald green with yellow slash or stripe along the side of the head. four matching yellow spots on the wing covers, first pair closest to the front of the covers elongated. Second set smaller, third set smaller yet and then tiny sopts on the wing cover tips. Yellow center pattern along the bottom from head to tail. Bettle length almost 2.5 cm. I am not much of a insect man but when I get something stuck in my head I need to know what I have. Can you help me and if you do not have one in your collection do you want this one?

This is perhaps the best, most detailed description of an insect I’ve ever received from a non-specialist wanting an identification, but the reference to it resembling Buprestis gibbsii was enough to immediately bring to mind an eastern U.S. relative – B. rufipes.  I responded that it was likely the latter, and since they had offered to send it to me I would be happy to receive it and confirm its identity.  I instructed them to wrap the beetle loosely in a square of toilet paper, put that in a film canister or other small, sturdy box, and slip that inside a padded envelope and mail it to me.  A few days later a small padded envelope arrived at my office, and inside was a film canister.  I popped the lid to find it stuffed full with tissue paper, but I noted that the tissue seemed all chewed up.  I pulled out the tissue and unfolded it, and there was no beetle – oh no, was it alive, and did it chew it’s way out?  I looked inside the canister, almost expecting to see a hole chewed though it, and there at the bottom sat a most stunning example of B. rufipes (literally meaning red-legged buprestis).  I hadn’t expected the specimen to be sent alive when I gave my mailing instructions (but I did not, after all, specify that it should be otherwise), and I felt a little sorry for the beast when I saw it drinking eagerly after I put it in a terrarium with wood chips and a stick and misted it with water.  Once it was rehydrated, I was glad to have this unexpected opportunity to photograph a living individual of this beautiful species.

Buprestis rufipes is not a rare species, but it is certainly not very commonly encountered either.  For many years the only specimens in my collectioni were two dead adults that I found in Japanese beetle traps that I monitored during my early days with the Department of Agriculture.  I finally cued into this species when I chopped some big buprestid larvae out of the trunk sapwood of a very large, standing dead slippery elm (Ulmus rubra).  They resembled the larvae of Chrysobothris but were larger and not so flattened, so I retrieved my chain saw from the truck and extricated the lower 6ft of the 6-8″ diameter trunk from the swamp in which it was growing.  My efforts were rewarded with a nice series of this species, and I have since reared it from even larger trunk sections of Acer saccharum and Quercus palustris. In each case, the wood was in early stages of decay with the bark partly sloughed and the outer wood layer slightly softened (MacRae and Nelson 2003, MacRae 2006). Knull (1925) recorded this species breeding in a variety of other hardwoods, thus, it would seem that the size and condition of the wood are more important than the species.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec), Canon 100mm macro lens, Canon MT-24EX flash (1/4 power).
Photos 1-2: f/13, indirect flash in white box.
Photo 3: f/16, double diffused flash.
Typical post-processing (minor cropping, levels and unsharp mask).


Knull, J. N. 1925. The Buprestidae of Pennsylvania (Coleoptera). Ohio State University Studies 2(2):1–71.

MacRae, T. C., and G. H. Nelson. 2003. Distributional and biological notes on Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North and Central America and the West Indies, with validation of one species. The Coleopterists Bulletin57(1):57–70.

MacRae, T. C. 2006. Distributional and biological notes on North American Buprestidae (Coleoptera), with comments on variation in Anthaxia (Haplanthaxiaviridicornis (Say) and A. (H.) viridfrons Gory. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist 82(2):166–199.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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34 thoughts on “Special Delivery

  1. Fantastic story and photos, Ted! I get those “what is this” emails from time to time to, but never have I received the living specimen to go with it! Getting one of these in the mail would have felt like Christmas morning!

    • I’ve received a few specimens over the years – usually a tiny thing packaged in a flimsy envelope and crushed. This was certainly one of the coolest submissions I’ve ever received.

  2. Very nice! I’ve only seen this species once, in Mt. Airy Forest in Cincinnati, Ohio. I don’t have the specimen to prove it, either! It was on a dead, standing beech, and was very alert, of course. Buprestids have largely managed to avoid my camera, too! I’ll work on that….

    • Thanks, Eric. Bups are very hard to photograph – I’ve gotten a few decent ones from the field, but their numbers are far lower than those I have actually seen and wanted photograph.

  3. Those are some really nice pics Ted! I tried taking some photos of Chrysobothris shawnee in the field the past week and they didn’t turn as well as I hoped. I then collected several specimens to take home and photograph and had ok results. Could you send me more details/pics for your white box that you are using?

    • Thanks, Joshua. The white box is pretty simple – a large cardboard box (~12-18″ all dimensions) with white tissue paper (I use laboratory wipers) lining the inside surface. I point the flash heads directly up into the box and let the light reflect off the tissue to illuminate the beetle rather than illuminating it directly with the flash. The 3rd photo above was directly illuminated and without the white box – you can see that even though the flash was double-diffused, the lighting is still harsher and the specular highlights stronger than in the two white box photos.

      The white box is, of course, not very practical for field use.

  4. Have to join the choir on this one Ted,

    Your posts are always well written, and you photography is always great. But this has go to best one I’ve read. Such a stunning beetle, and such wonderful photographs (and well done to your correspondent too!)

    • High praise, indeed – thank you! It is (somewhat) easier to take good photographs when the subject is as stunning as this one.

      I agree, my correspondent gets a lot of credit for setting this one up!

    • Yea, well when the bug is almost an inch long and sports these kinds of colors, it’s almost a no-lose situation. If you want to shoot anything smaller, save up for that MP-E 65mm 1-5X!

  5. Wow! Stunning photos, Ted. What a devilishly handsome beetle. Yeah, and it’s the second one that looks like it was cooperating with the photo shoot.

    • Thanks, Jason. Despite the appearance of cooperation, I had a heck of a time shooting this thing. It would not sit still at all, so getting if properly framed and focused while moving was difficult enough, and most of the shots that I did get had one or two legs awkwardly extended out in some direction. You can see in the first photo the hind leg is just beginning to lift up as well – the 2nd photo is the only one of the couple dozen shots I took where everything worked!

  6. Ted, can you make a blog post about wood collection? What to look for, boxes, chainsaws, deadfall, tying, what you can get, etc.

  7. I second/third/fourth the emotions: a stunning beetle and beautifully shot.

    Wanted to comment on your other thoughts, too. It’s a lot easier to get to know a couple of hundred birds than the thousands — no, tens of thousands — of local insects, but as you know there’s a great interest out there amongst us non-specialists.

  8. Hi Ted! I’ve been away for awhile and glad to be catching up. I am so excited that your fellow Missourian sent you a live beetle! I believe you’ve said that the colors sometimes fade when the beetle is dead…so now we all get to see this great beetle in all of its glory. It’s beautiful. I would have had a fit if I had found such a pretty beetle…I’m still poking around in the dirt, leaf litter and fallen tree limbs for a beetle that I can both find AND photograph.

    Great pics! The more I attempt insect photography with my “kit” lens (18mm-55mm, f3.5-5.6), the more I long for that 105mm for my Nikon. Some day..!

  9. TO: Ted C. MacRae

    Uhm, hi, I had this beetle almost similar to the beetle in the picture, Except for the other differences which I will enumerate.

    1.) Back is luster green without the bright yellow spots like in your photo.
    2.) Legs are metallic green not red unlike your photo.
    3.) Underside is hard and metallic gold and green mix.
    4.) I found it along the road in Manila.

    I just want to know species it is. I’ll send you some photo if I can manage to take a shot correctly. So far my photos are all blurry. I still have it in a bottle keeping it alive. I may decide to preserve it later, but for now Im keeping it alive.

    Thank in advance.


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