Out with the old (but on a good note)

This past March was the warmest on record here in Missouri and that made for some nice opportunities to get out and photograph. That said, my enthusiasm for macro photography has been somewhat tempered since my camera body is getting old and showing some signs that it might be on its last leg. The mere fact that I am still using a camera from 2004 may be your first indication that I am something less than a macro photography perfectionist and this is a reflection of the equipment that I first used when I began shooting macro. I started with Canon manual equipment in the mid-1990’s because I thought this would be the best way to learn photography. My stint with a used, and malfunctioning, Canon AE-1 was thankfully short. It was stolen as I returned from a photography trip to the Chiricahua Mountains, but I still lament that the thief made off with the spent rolls of film from the trip! The experience with the AE-1 pushed me towards higher quality, more professional equipment that would stand up to field conditions better. Next up was the Canon F1 and then the wonderfully solid Canon F1N followed later with the game-changing addition of a power winder. The latter was great since insects typically didn’t wait around for me to manually wind the film, refocus, and shoot. The real challenge though was getting the lighting right. At fist I often times had the camera on a tripod which resulted in too many missed shots, restricted what I could shoot, and it didn’t meet what I later realized was my overall goal of macro photography. What I wanted was to have the ability to take satisfactory macro images while not loading myself down with equipment that would detract from also being able to conduct research or simply observe/enjoy nature without trying to capture it on film. I still have a graveyard of old flashes, brackets, and bracket parts that I employed in various combinations to get suitable lighting though it is now clear that I was never able to get the perfect balance. That changed in 2001 when Canon introduced the new MT-24EX macro twin flash and I bought a 1V body. After testing the new system a minimal amount, I realized that macro photography was now made easy relative to what I had wrestled with over the years prior. I had the complete package—no bulky brackets, no hand holding flashes, more certainty of exposure, and quick field set-up. The twin flash allowed me to fire off just the minimal amount of light to obtain my desired depth of field and the flash had sufficient battery power at the lower flash output settings to essentially shoot consecutively without having to wait for the flash to power-up.

Well, at least I thought I had the perfect setup until Ted MacRae took up macro photography and soon demonstrated that options for continuous improvement exist even for this system.

In 2004 I sadly shelved the 1V body and went digital. I briefly used the Canon 10D, which seemed inadequate for various reasons, but then jumped on the newly released Canon 1D Mark II during that same year. It was more than I wanted to spend but there weren’t many options and the benefits were too much to pass up. Most notably, I was sick of buying film, scanning slides, and most of all my hand ached from cataloguing so many slides, i.e., writing a unique code on each slide prior to archiving it in plastic. The time savings alone made the 1D Mark II price palatable and I hoped that investing in a top notch, newly released body would help it remain relevant for a while. I never looked back.

That brings me to that warm day this past March when I settled in to photograph a toad bug, Gelastocoris oculatus (Heteroptera: Gelastocoridae), along the margin of an intermittent creek in Perry Co., Missouri.  As I mentioned above I felt like I was limping along with my dated 1D Mark II but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to again photograph an individual of G. oculatus that so superbly blended in with its substrate (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Gelastocoris oculatus, 3.13.2012, Perry Co., MO

Figure 2. Gelastocoris oculatus, 3.13.2012, Perry Co., MO

As I have mentioned before I like to take multiple shots of a subject to help tell a story (yes, including the obligatory head-on close up that Ted always mentions). One important shot in the series can be a photograph from a distance to: 1) better see the subject in its surroundings which can give more insight into its natural history; 2) offer a more artistic view, or, in this case; 3) to show the effectiveness of its cryptic coloration. The actual close-up is great for detail but only gives the viewer an idea that the subject is similarly colored to its background but only a more distant shot really conveys how well the subject melts into the substrate. In this case, Figure 3 was the next progression towards that shot but I was stopped short that day partly due to my middle son falling in the creek and partly due to the apparent malfunctioning of the camera. As you can see, I wasn’t far enough away from the subject to capture what attracted me to the bug in the first place—how well it mimicked its background. In that sense the picture is disappointing because I didn’t finish the story. But on the other hand, the malfunctioning of the camera combined with its age, made it clear that it was now time for a new camera body. So I put on my best frustrated/disappointed face and presented my case to my wife, Jess. It was an easy sell since Jess is… well… at least 95% supportive of my photography. I’ll discuss the new body and the first images soon.

Figure 3. Gelastocoris oculatus, 3.13.2012, Perry Co., MO

Below are more of the variable faces of G. oculatus that I have come across over the years (Figs. 4 – 8). Gelastocoris oculatus is one of two species of Gelastocoris that we have in North America (Arnett 2000). Gelastocoris oculatus can be found continent-wide however G. rotundatus ranges only in the southwest. I love the origin of the family name which the online Merriam-Webster dictionary mentions is from the Greek “gelastos”+ “koris” which translates to “laughable bug”, no doubt due to its odd appearance. Both species are predators that live along the margins of water. Their predaceous nature is made clear by the appearance of their powerful forlegs clearly specialized for catching and securing prey. As you can see, I do not have a picture of their forlegs so I’ve got a great reason to again get down on their level with the new camera.

Figure 4. Gelastocoris oculatus, 5.23.2010, Perry Co., MO


Arnett, R.H. 2000. American Insects: A Handbook for the Insects of America North of Mexico. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Copyright © Christopher R. Brown 2012

Traffic Jam Treehoppers

Sometimes photo opportunities come at the unlikeliest of times. A few weeks ago while traveling back to Corrientes, Argentina from neighboring Chaco Province, I came upon traffic at a standstill just a few kilometers from the towering Gral. Belgrano bridge that spans the massive Rio Paraná to link Chaco and Corrientes Provinces. People were already getting out of their cars and walking around, suggesting a wreck closer to (or on) the bridge had completely shut down the highway for the time being. Somebody said they heard it might be another 45 minutes before it could be opened. What to do now? It was the end of my last day after a week of insect collecting/photographing in the area, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend the evening sitting on a divided highway with nowhere to go and nothing remotely interesting to look at…

Enchenopa gracilis (Germar, 1821) | Chaco Province, Argentina

…or so I thought. While scanning the highway right-of-way to see if there might be anything possibly interesting to look at, I spotted a small clump of woody shrubs down the embankment and across the erosion gully before the fenceline. I looked around—everybody was out of their cars with the engines shut off, so I grabbed my camera (not really sure why) and started walking towards the shrubs while looking ahead every now and then for any sign that people were getting back in their cars and moving again. I reached the shrubs and saw they represented something in the mallow family (Malvaceae) due to their small, orange, über-staminate flowers. Immediately I spotted the familiar thorn-like shape of treehoppers in the tribe Membracini, probably a species of Enchenopa or related genus. I had been hoping to see more of these after photographing another species further south in Buenos Aires last year, but I hadn’t seen a single treehopper during the entire week. Fortunately I had my 65mm lens already on the camera, so I quickly snapped a few shots and collected a couple of specimens. Just as quickly as I had done that, I heard somebody yelling to me from the road above that people were getting back into their cars ahead. These few shots and specimens would have to do. (And, disappointingly, after spending the next hour creeping towards the bridge there wasn’t even a wreck to look at!)

As I did with those previous photos, I sent these to Andy Hamilton (Canadian National Collection, Ottawa), who forwarded them on to Dr. Albino Sakakibara (Universidad Federal de Parana, Brazil) and then reported back to me that:

My Brazilian colleagues…have been able to identify your “beautiful photos” as representing Enchenopa gracilis, a species that has been illustrated only once (in 1904), and certainly not by a photograph!

Another individual, this one with no trace of green colorationi and less distinctly marked wings.

The illustration referenced by Andy comes from Kellogg (1905—p. 169, fig. 239), and as he notes at BugGuide the problem with old illustrations is that many of them are either inaccurate or use obsolete names. Enchenopa gracilis does not occur in North America, thus the drawing in Kellogg (1905) probably does not actually represent this species. Nevertheless, a recent dissertation on the insect fauna associated with pigeon pea in Brazil (Azevedo 2006) shows several photographs of adults that agree nicely with these photos. Enchenopa gracilis actually seems to be a bit of a pest on that crop, and it has also been reported in association with a variety of other plants across several different families (Lopes 1995, Alves de Albuquerque et al. 2002). Interestingly, I could not find any species of the family Malvaceae recorded as a host for E. gracilis.


Azevedo, R. L. 2006. Entomofauna associada ao feijão guandu [Canjanus cajan (L.) Millspaugh] no recôncavo baiano. Ph.D. dissertation, Centro de Ciências Agrarias e Ambientais, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Cruz das Almas, 54 pp.

Alves de Albuquerque, F., F. C. Pattaro, L. M. Borges, R. S. Lima & A. V. Zabini. 2002. Insetos associados à cultura da aceroleira (Malpighia glabra L.) na região de Maringá, Estado do Paraná. Maringá 24(5):1245-1249.

Kellogg, V. L. 1905. American Insects. Henry Holt & Co., New York, 674 pp.

Lopes, B. C. 1995. Treehoppers (Homoptera, Membracidae) in southeastern Brazil: use of host plants. Revista Brasileira de Zoologia 1213:595-608.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

“Cochinilla australiana” in Argentina

Icerya purchasi (''cochinilla australiana'') on citrus twig | western Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

After traveling through the northern provinces during late March and early April, I returned to my home base in western Buenos Aires Province for the last two weeks of my stay in Argentina. As soon as I could, I returned to the small grove of planted citrus trees on the station grounds where I had found a rather large, beautifully cryptic fulgorid nymph (see ““). Lois O’Brien had mentioned in her response to my query about the identity of the nymph that some species of Fulgoridae tend to live on the same tree for years and years—if I could go back to the tree on which I found the nymph perhaps I could find the adult. Sadly, no adults or additional nymphs were found, either on the original tree or any in its vicinity. What I did find, however, was this strange, cocoon-like structure on one of the branches of the tree. I had no idea what it was, having never seen anything quite like it, but I figured something—pupa, eggs, parasitoid, etc.—must be inside. I cut the piece of branch with the structure and tucked it inside a vial for later.

Egg case opened to reveal eggs and newly hatched nymphs

A little bit of searching online would have quickly told me what I was dealing with, but for some reason I felt the need to go ahead and start dissecting to see what was inside. It became obvious I was dealing with an egg mass when I peeled back the outer layers to reveal the cluster of red eggs inside, and very quickly I noticed that a few of the eggs had already hatched. The red nymphs had a decidedly “homopterous” look to them, and not much effort was required to figure out that I was looking at my very first “cottony cushion scale” insect.

Closer view of eggs - newly hatched nymph can be seen at bottom.

Icerya purchasi (Hemiptera: Monophlebidae) originally hails from Australia, but its preference for citrus and the realities of global commerce have resulted in its inevitable spread across the globe wherever citrus is grown (maybe I can be forgiven for having never before seen such a widespread insect—living most of my life in Missouri and northern California, I’ve not had much opportunity to visit citrus groves). The English common name clearly references the appearance the adult female, recognizable by the white, fluted egg sac shown here, while in Argentina it is called “cochinilla australiana”—literally meaning “Australian scale insect.”

Newly hatched nymphs are bright red with dark antennae and thin brown legs.

As I dissected the egg sac, a few of the newly hatched nymphs crawled out of the sac an onto the branch. Nymphs of this stage are referred to as “crawlers” because they are the dispersal stage. It’s a good name for these tiny little bugs, as the several that I tried to photograph never stopped moving. With the lens fully extended to 5X, it was difficult enough to just find them in the viewfinder, much less compose and focus with all the movement. It became a numbers game and test of patience—how many shots could I get fired off in the amount of time that I was willing to persist? Shown here are the few shots that I was the least displeased with.

First instar nymphs are the primary dispersal stage.

Crawlers disperse not only by crawling, but also by wind. One can imagine that such tiny insects could easily be picked up by the wind and carried long distances. However, I couldn’t help but notice the very long setae on the body and outer antennal segments (visible to greater or lesser degree in these photos) and think that perhaps they have some function in aiding wind dispersal. At the very least, aerial dispersal must be as important as crawling (if not more so) for colonization by this species—only adult males have wings (but they are rare), while egg-laying females (actually hermaphrodites) are completely sessile.

Do the long setae on the body and antennae of the nymph aid in wind dispersal?

The adult female and egg case may have confused me initially, but a ton of readers had no problem figuring out what it was. A record 24 people participated in this challenge, with all but five correctly guessing the species. Winning this challenge came down to bonus points for speed and uniqueness of additional information, and Christopher Taylor did this best to earn 17 pts and the win. Three others—Brady Richards, Mr. Phidippus and bicyclebug—each finished just 1 pt back of the win, but Sam Heads’ 15 pts keeps the overall lead in his possession. BitB Challenge Session #6 is young, but already a lot of people have a lot of points in the bank. It will be interesting to see how this session develops.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

ID Challenge #17

My response to “Can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?”

The Bug Geek is becoming the champion of challenges! Last week she illustrated in clever graphical form the emotions she had encountered during the manuscript writing process, and this week she tops it with a challenge to see how well we can talk to 10-year-olds about science. I played along with the first one just for fun (see The Ups and Downs of Bug Collecting—I also earned the tag “easily-entertained professional research entomologist with too much time on his hands” for my efforts!), but the second challenge hit closer to home. You see, like the Geek I believe strongly that the responsibility for recruiting the next generation of scientists rests squarely on the shoulders of today’s scientists. Who else but us will excite them about science and show them not only the importance that science plays in our daily lives, but how cool and fun it is!

I’ve been a professional entomologist for three decades now, and for most of that time I’ve also been involved in giving presentations to children about insects and the science of entomology. I also happen to be an avocational entomologist—insects are not just my livelihood, but also my hobby! I live, breath, and eat insects (okay, maybe not so much the latter), and wherever I have lived my name has quickly made it to the local schools as someone who can keep the kids occupied for an hour or two. I have done dozens, perhaps even hundreds of “kid outreach” sessions during the past 30 years—how could I not take up the Geeks’s challenge?! The only question was which “entomologist” I should take the challenge as—the professional one who conducts insect research on biotech crops, or the avocational one who travels the country and beyond looking for new and rare beetles. Ultimately I decided to try both (you knew that was coming!), so here I present my 250-word (precisely) attempts to convince a 10-year-old in written form that science, and specifically entomology, is fun, cool, and incredibly important for the future of our planet.


I work for a company that helps farmers grow crops that don’t need to be sprayed with insecticides. These “insect-protected crops” are grown by farmers all across the world and help the environment by reducing the need for insecticides to grow our food. We create these plants by adding a small piece of DNA in the laboratory so that the plants produce a protein inside their leaves that only insects don’t like. Not all of the plants produce the protein, so we have to test the plants to make sure insects can’t feed on them. I do this by growing plants in the greenhouse, and when they are big enough I put insects that we grow in our laboratory on the plants to see if they can eat the leaves. If the plants don’t get eaten, I collect the seeds and grow them outside like a farmer would do. If the plants don’t get eaten by insects outside either, then other people in my company test the plants to make sure they grow normally and produce as much food as plants without the protein. Insects might become immune to the proteins, so I also test new proteins to find new ones we can use in case the old ones stop working. I mix the protein with a special insect diet to see how much protein is needed to make the insect stop eating. I love my job because I get to study bugs while helping to improve the environment.


I have the best hobby in the world—I travel across the US and other countries looking for beetles! There are more kinds of beetles in the world than any other kind of animal, and most of them are unknown to science. When I find a new beetle, I get to give it whatever name I want. Even many of the ones that we know about we don’t know where they live or what they eat. The heaviest insect in the world is a beetle (the Goliath Beetle from Africa) – it weighs more than a mouse! Some of the tiniest insects of all are beetles also – it would take a quarter million feather-winged beetles to weigh as much as one Goliath Beetle! There are beetles in the Amazon rain forest that play “King of the Log.” Males find a rotten log and sit on it, and when another male comes along he knocks him off with his horns. He does this to save the log for a female beetle so she can lay her eggs in it. The baby beetles eat the rotten wood. I especially like tiger beetles – they have stripes and bright, metallic colors that glitter in the sun. They use their long legs, big eyes, and huge sickle-shaped jaws to run down and catch other insects and eat them. Many kinds of tiger beetles can live in only one place on earth – we must do everything we can to protect their habitats so they don’t go extinct.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Inaugural “One-Shot Wednesday”

On many occasions I have considered making my own contributions to the “Wordless Wednesday” meme. Unfortunately, I find it impossible to post photos of insects and not be allowed to say anything about them. I suppose I could follow Dragonfly Woman‘s “Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday” example, but that seems like horning in on somebody’s trademark. At last it finally occurred to me a meme that I could use for Wednesday’s that gets around these issues—”One-Shot Wednesday”! Ever photograph an insect and only get off a single shot? Not just one keeper from a series of photos, but only one single photo of the insect, like it or lump it! That’s what I’m talking about here. The subtext, of course, is that there was only that one chance to get everything right—exposure, focus, composition, lighting, etc. Obviously, it’s not my plan to show crappy photos as part of this meme, but rather that occasional instance where I only got off a single shot, and for the most part everything worked pretty well to produce a decent photograph. I would, of course, be more than happy to see this meme take off and spread throughout the insect blogging community, but if it doesn’t and it remains a BitB exclusive then that’s fine also.

Leptoglossus sp. | nr. Corrientes, Argentina

Here is contribution #1 in the meme: a leaf-footed bug (family Coreidae) feeding on flowers of Solidago chilensis  that I photographed a couple of weeks ago near Corrientes, Argentina. According to coreid-specialist Harry Brailovsky (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), the expanded hind tibiae place it in the large, mostly New World genus Leptoglossus. Which one, however, is a good question—according to Coreoidea Species File Online, ten species in the genus have been recorded in Argentina, but browsing through available images didn’t immediately turn up a good match for the individual shown in this photo.

I’ve often wondered about the purpose of the leaf-like expansions of the hind tibiae of coreids—which reach truly gargantuan proportions in some tropical species—and their adaptive significance. One can imagine they might serve as a “false target” for potential avian predators, and supporting this idea is the fact that the hind legs seem to break off rather easily when handled. It’s not rare to find individuals in the field missing one or even both hind legs.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Fly got eye!

While walking the grounds of my company’s experiment station in Fontezuela, Argentina, I encountered a massive European elm (Ulmus laevis)—its trunk enveloped by an unidentified woody vine with large, ball-clusters of small, green flowers. Despite their inconspicuous appearance, the flowers were highly attractive to insects, primarily honey bees and smallish, black and yellow vespid wasps. One of the wasps caught my attention—it was not quite as narrow as the others, and it flew a little differently. Closer inspection, of course, revealed that it was not a wasp after all, but rather a fly. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was extremely flighty and wouldn’t allow me to get close enough even to attempt looking at it through the viewfinder—much less going for a composed shot. Now, if it were a tiger beetle I’d probably spend the next 2 hours “working” it to get that in situ shot. But, hey, it’s just a fly (with apologies to my dipterist friends)! I trapped it in a vial and collected some flowers and foliage from the vine with hopes of giving it a day or so to settle down enough to allow a few photographs in a more controlled environment.

Hoplitimyia sp. poss. mutabilis | Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

That proved more difficult than expected, and a few photographs was all I could get. Even after a day in the vial it was extremely flighty, and every time I released it onto the flowers in the white box I had setup it immediately tried to take flight. I decided it must at least be hungry, so I whipped up some sugar solution and painted a small amount onto one of the leaves, then placed the open end of the vial over the leaf to let the fly find the sugar. That worked—briefly! The fly paused just long enough to allow me to fire off a half-dozen shots or so while it drank and preened before once again attempting to take flight. No amount of coaxing back to the sugar could interest the fly—she’d had enough, and so had I. I thought the fly had a soldier fly-ish look to it (family Stratiomyidae), and this was confirmed by dipterist Martin Hauser who wrote:

It is a female Hoplitimyia, maybe mutabilis…but the species are a mess. There are at least two species in the US, and more in South America. They have aquatic larvae…

Fly got eye!

Among flies, tabanids and syrphids seem to get all the attention from insect photographers because of their contrastingly colored eyes, but this fly had every bit as much eye as those better known families! Considering how broadly across the order Diptera that one finds these stunningly patterned eyes—72 species out of 23 families according to Lunau & Knüttel (1995), an obvious question is what is their purpose. Considering that the patterns and coloration are often sexually dimorphic, it’s tempting to think it has something to do with mate selection, especially with their large size and resulting prominence. However, Horváth et al. (2008) presented evidence that the ventral eye surface of many tabanids are stimulated by horizontally polarized light. Such capabilities are common in aquatic insects, suggesting some function in locating water for finding hosts, mates and suitable sites for laying eggs. This still doesn’t explain why the patterns are often sexual dimorphic, although one can imagine that males and females experience different selective pressures for specific visual cues that could have an effect on the resulting color pattern. Comments from any dipterists that happen by this blog and have greater insight into this question would be greatly appreciated.


Horváth, G., J. Majer, L. Horváth, I. Szivák & G. Kriska. 2008. Ventral polarization vision in tabanids: horseflies and deerflies (Diptera: Tabanidae) are attracted to horizontally polarized light. Naturwissenschaften 95:1093–1100, DOI 10.1007/s00114-008-0425-5.

Lunau, K. & H. Knüttel. 1995. Vision through colored eyes. Naturwissenschaften 82(9):432-434, DOI: 10.1007/BF01133678.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

I fear no weevil…

Megabaris quadriguttatus (Klug, 1829) | Corrientes Province, Argentina

…especially when they are as colorful as these! I found this mating pair ~60 km south of Corrientes, Argentina feeding on flowers of what I presume to be the goldenrod species Solidago chilensis (family Asteraceae). Here, as in North America, goldenrod blooms in profusion along the roadsides during late summer and fall wherever moisture is to be found, and also as in North America goldenrod here is an insect magnet. During my week exploring Corrientes and Chaco Provinces, I learned to stop whenever I spotted a stand of the distinctive yellow blossoms. I found several stands and was treated to a variety of beetles, flies, and other insects that I’ll show over the coming days, with these being among the most striking that I found.

Weevils themselves may not be anything to be afraid of; however, their taxonomy is downright terrifying (and this coming from a beetle man!). With more than 40,000 described species worldwide (and who knows how many still awaiting description), the family Curculionidae (“true” weevils) may be the largest in the animal kingdom. I don’t know why, given the distinctive and striking coloration of these individuals, but I punted early and asked my friend Henry Hespenheide (a buprestid man, but knows a thing or two about weevils) if he knew what these were. Henry must have also been scared, because he went straight to the top and forwarded the photos to weevil heavy-hitters Charles O’Brien and Jens Prena, both of whom quickly replied back with an ID of Megadaris quadriguttatus (Klug, 1829). The state of weevil bionomics seems to be as incomplete as their taxonomy, as I was unable to find even the most basic information about the distribution and biology of this species (keep in mind I’m in Argentina right now with no access to libraries). As far as I can tell this is a strictly Neotropical genus.

Of course, had I checked Curculionidae de Argentina I might have noticed the photo of this species right there on the front page. Fear does strange things to one’s confidence.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012