A Day Maker!

I’ve been blogging for going on five years now, and I can honestly say it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my adult life. It has expanded the breadth of my natural history interests, fostered connections with a broad range of entomologists, biologists, naturalists, etc. that I would not have had the pleasure to know otherwise, and indirectly led to my now full-blown interest in insect macrophotography. That is not to say, however, that it has always been easy. Through the years, I’ve persistently committed myself to a consistent new post frequency of once every 2–4 days—not only for the benefit of readers who want to know what to expect, but also for myself to ensure that I reap the long-term benefits of regular engagement. While my cup of ideas always runneth over, there are times when motivation wanes and I question whether anybody is reading or if I’m really making an impact. I draw on discipline (some call it stubbornness) to carry me through these dry periods until—inevitably—my motivation returns and I get on a roll again.

One thing that rekindles my motivation more than anything are the occasional emails that I get from readers who have something nice to say about my blog, or my photography, or how I’ve helped them become fascinated with, or at least more appreciative of, the world of insects. A couple of days ago I received one such email from a reader named Sue that just made my day. Sue has graciously allowed me to share her message here:

Just a note to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. The photos are incredible! You helped me identify the white spotted pine sawyer a while back, and now I have a whole new appreciation of the insect kingdom. Yesterday I noticed a praying mantis on the side of the library. I was able to get really close to it, and when I moved, it tipped its head (and compound eyes) and watched me. Most of your beetles are truly fantastically beautiful. It amazes me that all my life, I never looked closely at them. Thank you.

No, Sue—thank you!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Very wary tigers!

In late July I found a new tiger beetle site in southeastern Missouri—a small sandbar along the Mississippi River near Cape Rock Park on the north side of Cape Girardeau. I originally went to the park to look for Cylindera cursitans (Antlike Tiger Beetle), two specimens of which my friend and colleague Kent Fothergill had found in the collection of a local lepidopterist (MacRae et al. 2012). I thoroughly searched the areas that looked suitable for that species, but to no avail. I did, however, spot the sandbar down by the river and knew immediately that it had good potential for several species typically found in such habitats. Even before hiking down the rocky embankment I figured I would see Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle)—dreadfully common along almost every waterway in the state. What I was really hoping to see, however, were some of the more specialty species found only in wet sand habitats along the big rivers of the state—the Missouri and mighty Mississippi.

”Stilting” and ”sun-facing” by Cicindela hirticollis shelfordi | Cape Girardeau Co., Missouri

Predictably, C. repanda was present and abundant, but it wasn’t long before I spotted some individuals that looked just a little bit different—stockier and with the white markings a little more distinct. A closer look confirmed that these were C. hirticollis shelfordi (Shelford’s Hairy-necked Tiger Beetle). It had been a while since I’d seen this species, and it occurred to me that the only photos I had of it were taken with my point-and-shoot prior to getting my dSLR setup. I then realized also that I didn’t even have good photographs of C. repanda—I’ve been so focused on photographing rare and unusual species over the past few years that I’ve completely neglected photographing our state’s most common resident.

Sand bar habitat along the Mississippi River | Cape Girardeau Co., Missouri.

Over the years, I’ve learned a number of tricks that have allowed me to be fairly successful at approaching tiger beetles closely for photography—working a population to find that one slightly more cooperative individual, and then working that one individual until it becomes accustomed to my presence, perhaps allowing it to “hide” under debris before carefully removing its cover or even “trapping” it in a relatively confined area until it settles down enough to allow photographs. But nothing, not a single thing I tried, worked on this day. As it was through much of July and early August, temperatures were extreme—already well into the 90s despite my mid-morning arrival. Combined with the wide open spaces and a blazing hot sun, the beetles were already extremely active and very wary. The sandbar itself offered little help in corralling the beetles—stark, barren, devoid of any debris or other potential shelters that could be used to my advantage. Stubbornness prevented me from accepting this fact, so I spent the good part of two hours slowly stalking each beetle that looked like it might cooperate, only to have it fly before I could even get down on all fours or, once I did, run incessantly to the point that it was almost impossible to settle it in the frame—much less compose a decent closeup shot. Eventually I decided that the only way I was going to get a beetle standing still in the frame with any degree of closeness was to approach it from the front and try to catch it in one of its intermittent “stilting/sun facing” poses—a thermoregulatory behavior that tiger beetles employ when the sun heats the soil surface to temperatures that would be lethal for many other insects. The first shot in this post is the best of that type that I could manage (although I like its composition very much—I just wish I’d been able to get some closer shots as well).

The ”C”-shaped humeral lunule identifies this individual as Cicindela repanda.

As suggested above, C. repanda and C. hirticollis are quite similar in appearance, and at least in Missouri the latter is always found in association with the former, though only in wet sand habitats along the big rivers and not nearly in the same numbers as C. repanda. Until one develops a feeling based on “gestalt” it can be difficult to pick out individuals of C. hirticollis amongst the commoner C. repanda. I’ve already mentioned their slightly huskier build and somewhat bolder white markings, and C. hirticollis also tends to exhibit a slightly more coppery cast to the body. The surest character to use, however, is the “G”-shaped humeral lunule, which is the white marking on the “shoulders” of the elytra just behind the pronotum. The posterior portion of this marking is nearly transverse and usually angles sharply anteriorly on its inner edge. By contrast, in C. repanda this marking is always “C”-shaped and never curls forward on its inner edge. These characters can be compared in the lateral profile photos of the two species above and below (though not as closely as I would like).

The ”G”-shaped humeral lunule identifies this individual as Cicindela hirticollis.

I should mention that there was one other big river specialty species present on the sandbar—Ellipsoptera cuprascens (Coppery Tiger Beetle). I saw only a few individuals of this species and couldn’t get close enough to one of them to even fire off a single shot. For this species, however, I still had one more trick up my sleeve that allowed me to photograph it to my heart’s content (no, not capturing one and confining it in a terrarium!)…

REFERENCE:

MacRae, T. C., C. R. Brown and K. Fothergill. 2011. Distribution, seasonal occurrence and conservation status of Cylindera (s. str.) cursitans (LeConte) (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) in Missouri.  CICINDELA 43(3):59–74.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

A non-black background is better… often!

In my previous post, A black background is better… sometimes, I came to the defense of the oft-maligned pitch black background. Some macrophotographers studiously avoid black backgrounds (BBs), claiming that they look ‘unnatural’. However, as I discussed in my previous post, there are situations—primarily with light-colored or translucent subjects or those that are seen only at night—where BB can be aesthetically pleasing or more consistent with the subject’s natural history (or both, as in the case of the subject of my last post). On  the other hand I do agree that BBs are overused, showing up in many photos where a non-black background would have been a better choice. The reason for this is simple—BBs are easy! All one must do is ensure that the area behind the subject is clear of light-reflecting objects. While this is certainly preferable over cluttered backgrounds with random leaves, branches, grass stems, etc. that distract from the subject, a BB may nevertheless not be the most aesthetically pleasing  choice for the photo (I am guilty of this myself). Non-black backgrounds, on the other hand, require more forethought, not only about what color to use and how to achieve it, but also regarding camera and flash settings which can be a bit trickier due to the fact that both background and subject must be properly exposed.

Argiope argentata (silvery argiope) | Santa Fe Province, Argentina

Choice of background to a large degree reflects the style of the photographer. Some may choose a particular color based purely on aesthetics, but as an in situ macrophotographer I prefer backgrounds that are consistent with the natural history of the subject—diffuse green for subjects typically seen on foliage, gray or brown for those typically found crawling on trunks and branches, and sky blue for those found out in the open (e.g., perched atop flowers). Each of these backgrounds requires different technique, and this large orb weaver, Argiope argentata (silvery argiope), which I encountered in a corn field near Villa Cañas (Santa Fe Province, Argentina) back in April, is an example of the latter. In contrast to the strictly nocturnal orb weaver (Eriophora ravilla) in my previous post, this species and its congeners are commonly seen suspended on their webs in broad daylight. BB worked well with E. ravilla, but it would not be a good choice for A. argentata due to the large amount of dark coloring on the subject. More importantly, it contradicts this spider’s diurnal nature. I could have used natural light, but the sun was shining on the other side of the spider. However, this actually made it easier to achieve the blue sky background while illuminating the subject with flash. The large size of the spider (the body alone measured ~35 mm in length) put a lot of distance between the subject and the lens, which allowed the use of a larger aperture (f/10) with still acceptable depth-of-field. With a bright sky and the sun nearly behind the spider, I was able to keep a low sensitivity setting (ISO 100) to prevent graininess and a fast shutter speed (1/250 sec) to prevent motion blur. The slightly larger aperture was all that was needed to achieve a natural blue sky color in the background. More difficult was actually clearing the background between the spider and the sky, as the web was slung low amongst the tall corn plants. The series of photos below (click to enlarge) shows the results of my earlier attempts to photograph the spider; at first not thinking about the distracting corn plants, and then trying to avoid them by angling myself lower relative to the spider, which ultimately resulted in a bad angle on the spider:

I finally decided to just break over the offending corn plants (above the ears!) to clear the background and give me the angle that I preferred. After that I was able to snap away to my heart’s content. Here is a closer view of the spider:

Lastly, I show the following series of photos to demonstrate the dramatic effect that aperture can have on a blue sky background. If you have a bright sky and don’t need a lot of DOF (e.g., you have a large subject-to-lens distance or a small subject lying within a narrow plane), adjusting the aperture up or down is a great way to achieve the precise color of blue desired. Larger apertures (lower f values) will result in a paler blue color, while smaller apertures (higher f values) create a deeper blue. In the photos below (click to enlarge), flash and camera settings are the same as those mentioned above except aperture: f/10 (left), f/13 (center) and f/16 (right).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

A black background is better… sometimes

Eriophora ravilla (a tropical orb weaver) | Pinellas Co., Florida

If there is one subject that causes more disagreement among macrophotographers, it is the pitch black background. Granted, black backgrounds are common—almost ubiquitous in macrophotography, since they are easily created by using full flash illumination and ensuring that nothing lies behind the subject close enough to reflect the light from the flash. Detractors, however, claim that it gives subjects an ‘unnatural’ look, as they are rarely seen this way in nature. This may be true, but I still believe that for some subjects the black background simply cannot be beat for its aesthetics, even if the subject is not normally seen in this manner. Take, for example, the Great Plains ladies’-tresses orchid—nothing but a pitch black background could better showcase the delicate, white blossom and its almost crystalline lower lip!

That said, however, there are some subjects for which a pitch black background actually can be considered a ‘normal’ background. This tropical orb weaver spider (Eriophora ravilla) is one example. Unlike many other members of the family Araneidae (orb weavers), species in this genus are strictly nocturnal and not seen hanging on a web during daylight hours. Hiding in a curled leaf during the day, they emerge at night and build a large web (up to 1 meter wide), only to consume it by morning and return to their hiding place until the next evening. My nephew Jack and daughter Madison and I first saw this spider during our nighttime foray into the intertidal mangrove marsh behind my sister-in-law’s condominium in Seminole, Florida last month while discovering rare, endemic beetles and their larvae. Knowing that it would likely build its web in the same place on subsequent evenings, I went out a few nights later with my camera and took a few shots.

Some claim that black backgrounds are undesirable for even nocturnal subjects; that there is nothing ‘natural’ about an artificial, narrow beam of light illuminating a single subject at night since no animal other than a person with a flashlight would see something like this. This contention seems a little strained, as one could take such a stance on illumination of any kind. Technically speaking even colors don’t actually exist, so the rendering of subject images on camera film/sensor, whether by natural or artificial illumination,  is itself biased towards human sensibilities. Regardless, the sight of an eerily glowing spider hanging in the blackness strikes a familiar chord with anyone who has wandered the bush by night. A black background not only recreates that human experience, but also emphasizes the subject’s (in this case strictly) nocturnal nature with stark elegance.

At first I took this spider to represent the very common barn spider, Neosona crucifera—widespread across North America. However, after noting the dark femora and yellow “shoulders” of the abdomen I began to rethink that ID. Fortunately, I took one photo of the ventral side (not shown) that shows well the color pattern diagnostic for the circum-Caribbean species E. ravilla.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae

And the winner is…

Okay, time to fess up on which of my photos was selected for the 2013 ESA World of Insects Calendar, but before I do let me say that getting readers’ comments on which one they thought was selected proved to be a very interesting exercise. The final tally is as follows (I gave ½ a vote for mentions of a photo as a second choice):

1. Trimerotropis saxatilis nymph – 4½ votes
2. Crossidius coralinus fulgidus – 3½ votes
3. Tetracha floridana – 3 votes
4. Buprestis rufipes – 2 votes
4. Edessa meditabunda eggs – 2 votes
6. Megaphasma denticrus – 1 vote

My personal favorites were Buprestis rufipes, Crossidius coralinus fulgidus and Tetracha floridana, with the second having what I thought was the best “calendar appeal.” I also thought the Trimerotropis saxatilis was strong for its natural history back story. It thus comes as no surprise that these were the top four vote-getters among those who commented.

The two photos that did not receive any votes are interesting—Spissistilus festinus, because the post containing that photo is one of the Top 5 posts on this blog (based on page views); and Cicindela formosa generosa, because that was the photo selected by ESA for their 2013 Calendar! I went back and forth on whether to include the photo in the final selections, but it won out over some others I was considering because of its composition—not many tiger beetle closeups contain as much scale and depth. I guess that’s what ESA like about it as well, but whatever the reason it seems I need to develop a better sense of what photo judges are looking for.

Since nobody guessed the correct photo, I’m going to give all who commented 5 “participation” points, and those of you who used italics with scientific names will get an additional 2 bonus points. Brady Richards maintains his spot atop the overalls in BitB Challenge Session #6 with 66 points, but Mr. Phidippus‘ 58 points moves him into second place over Sam Heads with 54 points.

For those who did not vote for this photo (or, everybody!), maybe access to this 1680×1120 version of the photo (click to enlarge) will help change your minds.

Cicindela formosa generosa (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Cicindelinae) – eastern big sand tiger beetle

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

2013 ESA World of Insects Calendar Selection

Today I received word from Richard Levine at the Entomological Society of America that one of my photos had been selected for the 2013 version of their famed World of Insects Calendar!

Excuse me for a moment please… (pumps fist, stirs the pot, does a very bad moon walk…)

Okay, I’m back. Honestly, this is an honor that I did not expect—at least not yet. Historically dominated by such giants in the world of insect macrophotography as Piotr Naskrecki,  Thomas Myers, and others, competition for ESA’s World of Insects Calendar is fierce. Last year more than 500 photographs were submitted for 13 slots (12 months and an introductory page) by 98 photographers from around the world. I was one of those photographers, though not selected (no surprise as I was a first-time submitter). However, I took great pleasure in seeing fellow bug blogger Adrian Thysse nab two of the 2012 slots, and I increased my resolve to try again for next year with a selection of eight mostly newer photographs.

At the suggestion of Dave Stone, I present each of those photos below along with a short description of why I submitted it. However, I’m not going to tell you which photo ultimately was selected—I thought it might be fun to see which photo you think was selected and why. As added incentive for guessing, I’m going to award 10 BitB Challenge points to each person who correctly picks the selected photograph. BitB Challenge Session #6 is coming down to the wire, so this could have a big impact on the overall standings.

The 2013 Calendar will become available for sale later this year (probably October) at the ESA website—last year’s version cost only $12 (discounted to $8 for ESA members, and free for those attending the annual meeting [which I will be attending this year]).


Megaphasma denticrus (Phasmida: Diapheromeridae) – giant walkingstick

From North America’s longest insect (21 Aug 2009).  This is one of my earlier super-closeup attempts. I liked the combination of blue and brown colors on the black background.


Buprestis rufipes (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) – redbellied Buprestis

From Special Delivery (13 July 2010).  The use of a white box shows off the brilliant (and difficult-to-photograph) metallic colors well, and I like the animated look of the slightly cocked head.


Edessa meditabunda (Hemiptera: Pentatomidae) – alquiche chico

From  (18 May 2011). I found these Edessa meditabunda stink bug eggs on the underside of a soybean leaf in Argentina almost ready to hatch. The developing eye spots in each egg gives the photo a “cute” factor rarely seen in such super close-ups.


Cicindela formosa generosa (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Cicindelinae) – eastern big sand tiger beetle

From  (10 May 2011). I like this slightly panned out view because of the sense of scale and landscape created by the inclusion of the plantlets and the view over the small rise.


Trimerotropis saxatilis (Orthoptera: Acrididae) – lichen grasshopper

From  (15 July 2011). Some of my favorite insect photos are not only those that show the bug in all its glory, but also tell a story about its natural history. This nymph is almost invisible when sitting on the lichens that cover the sandstone exposures in its preferred glade habitat. 


Tetracha floridana (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Cicindelinae) – Florida metallic tiger beetle

From  (23 August 2011). I used extension tubes to improve the quality of flash lighting (decreased lens to subject distance results in greater apparent light size), and I like the symmetry of the composition.


Spissistilus festinus (Hemiptera: Membracidae) – threecornered alfalfa hopper

From  (17 September 2011). Even though both the insect and the background are green, there is sufficient value contrast to create a pleasing composition, punctuated by the bizarre zig-zag pattern of the eyes.


Crossidius coralinus fulgidus (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae) – a rabbitbrush longhorned beetle

From  (4 October 2011). The blue sky background provides a pleasing contrast with the colors of this particular beetle and flowers.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012