Field photographs of insects can be deceiving

My previous post featured several photos of Cicindela formosa generosa (Eastern Big Sand Tiger Beetle). This gorgeous beetle is said to occur in open, dry sand habitats throughout the Great Plains and more sporadically across the north-central and northeastern U.S. Like most other existing photos of this species, they show adults on barren sand with not so much as a sprig of vegetation to be seen. As a result, one might presume that adult beetles prefer the most open and barren areas of the habitats in which they occur.

"You don't see me, but I see  you!"

“You don’t see me, but I see you!”

Consider the above photo—taken the same day as those in the previous post but annoyingly cluttered with vegetation that partially obstructs the view of the beetle. This was actually the first photograph that I took that day, and while the foliage may be considered an aesthetic distraction, it nevertheless provides valuable information about the natural history of the beetle. My impression from the past few years of observation is that adult beetles actually spend more time foraging in the sparsely vegetated areas surrounding these more open areas. I presume they are more likely to encounter prey in areas where some vegetation exists, and also the vegetation provides opportunities for shade, which the adults actively seek out during the hottest parts of the day. Most collectors and photographers do not notice beetles foraging amongst the vegetation, but instead see them only after their approach has caused the beetle to flee out into the more open areas—where they are then collected/photographed.

© Ted C. MacRae 2013

4 thoughts on “Field photographs of insects can be deceiving

  1. I appreciate the expanded perspective you offer here, Ted. I’m sure that most of your readers can identify with the conundrum of having to remove your photo subjects from the “real world” in order to capture a clear, defining photo. It is one thing (particularly for novices) to identify plants or insects from a photo and often quite another to readily identify the same species in the wild.

    I have long noticed this deficiency when attempting to use field guides. Native plant guides in particular usually show great photos, but alas, they are typically only a close-up of a singular, pristine bloom — not really much help identifying the plant when the plant only blooms for a couple of weeks!

    The inclusion of this “minor, ancillary information” is often crucial to those of us budding entomologists still struggling to emerge from our “cocoon of ignorance.”

    • It’s one of the things that has resulted from my gradual shift from collector-only to photographer-also. In the past I was so focused on catching specimens and nothing else that I missed nuances of their behavior such as this. I’m thankful that I have added photography to my repertoire of tools for studying insects and for the greater insight that it has provided me.


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