Missouri’s largest planthopper

Although I have long dedicated myself to beetles, I must confess that my first love was the so-called “Homoptera”—that now defunct order containing some really cool bugs (cicadas and hoppers—i.e., leafhoppers, treehoppers, planthoppers, froghoppers, armadillohoppers, etc.) and some not-so-cool bugs (aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs, and their kin)¹. Perhaps you already sense that it was only the cicadas and hoppers that I really liked, the other mentioned groups being… well… boring from my perspective as a collector (overwhelming numbers of tiny, soft-bodied, sessile insects that required preservation in alcohol or on slides²). Even within the “cool” homopterans, however, some groups interested me more than others. Leafhoppers were okay, but my interest in them derived mostly from the fact that they were the subject of my thesis work. Treehoppers, on the other hand, were my favorite because they were just so adorably bizarre, and cicadas also fascinated me due to their size and behavioral charisma.

¹The homopterans have since been subsumed within the larger order Hemiptera (true bugs)—an irritating but necessary consequence of molecular studies that have shown rather conclusively that hoppers and cicadas are more closely related to the other true bugs than they are to the group containing aphids, whiteflies and mealybugs.

²So, not only are they boring to curate, but they directly caused the first order of insects in which I became interested to be completely dismantled!

Poblicia fuliginosa on Silphium terebinthinaceum (prairie dock)| Barry Co., Missouri.

Poblicia fuliginosa on Silphium terebinthinaceum | Barry Co., Missouri.

The planthoppers also interested me, although many of the various families contained within the group seemed not much different to me than leafhoppers. One family, however, stood out—the Fulgoridae. Much larger than the other planthoppers, they seemed like a cross between a planthopper and a small cicada (okay, a very small cicada)—combining the hopping capabilities of the former with the size (almost) of the latter. I only rarely encountered these bugs in Missouri; actually it was only a single species that I ever found—Poblicia fuliginosa, one of only two species in the family known to occur as far north as Missouri (Bartlett 2014). Moreover, when I did find them, they were extraordinarily wary and difficult to approach and collect. Vernon Brou, in a comment at this species’ BugGuide page, describes their capture-avoidance capabilities perfectly:

These are nearly impossible to capture by hand netting, they are rocket propelled. A most [frustratingexercise in futility.—Vernon Antoine Brou, Jr., pers. comm. to Mike Quinn, 2012.

The abdomen is brightly colored red (barely visible in this photo).

The abdomen is brightly colored red (barely visible in this photo).

This past fall, while on a collecting trip in the White River Hills of extreme southwestern Missouri, I chanced upon a few individuals perching on the stems of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) in a dolomite glade. Remembering how wary they were in my previous encounters, I figured I had little chance of successfully photographing any of them. I love a challenge, however, and with the help of field mate Stephen Penn I managed to get the shots shown here. Getting within the range of focus generally caused the insects to dart around to the backside of the stem. I took advantage of this behavior by getting myself set and focusing the camera on the bug (even though it was behind the stem) and then having Stephen move his insect net slowly toward the bug from the side to get it to dart back around the stem away from the net… right into my field of view! The first individual we tried to photograph took off rather quickly (rocket-propelled!), but fortunately we found another individual in the same clump of stems and succeeded in getting some shots.

In the second photo the bright red abdomen is barely visible on the underside of the insect. The entire abdomen is, in fact, bright red in obvious contrast to the otherwise dark and somber coloration of the insect. I’ve searched the literature but can find no mention of the function of the red abdomen, but I presume it serves a flash coloration function similar to the bright green abdomen of some jewel beetles to confuse potential predators by its visibility in flight and then sudden disappearance when the insect lands and folds its wings over the abdomen. I suppose an aposematic function is also possible given the red coloration, but I’m not aware that any hoppers are known to be chemically protected, and the fact that the red abdomen is seen only during flight also suggests a non-chemically based function.

REFERENCES:

Bartlett, C. R. 2014 (and updates). Planthoppers of North America. Available at: http://canr.udel.edu/planthoppers (accessed 12 November 2014).

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Best of BitB 2012

Welcome to the 5th Annual “Best of BitB”, where I pick my favorite photographs from the past year. 2012 was one of the most intensive travel years I’ve ever had—I spent 8 weeks in Argentina from February through April, made separate trips to Puerto Rico and Arkansas in May (bracketing a personal week in California), traveled almost weekly to Illinois and Tennessee from June to September (interrupted by a personal week in Florida in July), toured the southeastern U.S. (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia—great food!) in early September, chased tiger beetles in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas in late September, went back to Argentina for a week in October, and capped off the travel year by attending the Entomological Society of America Annual Meetings in Knoxville, Tennessee (for the first time in more than 10 years!)—whew! While many would cringe at such a travel load, I am among the lucky few who actually get paid for doing something that is also my hobby—entomology! This gives me ample opportunity to further hone my photography skills (nine of the 13 photos I’ve selected below were actually taken while I was on business travel), resulting in two key accomplishments this year—my first ever photography talk at the ESA’s insect photography symposium and my first commercial sales (look for the BitB commercial site to go online in 2013).

Enough blather! Here are my favorite BitB photographs from 2012. Click the link in the text below the photo to see the original post. I would greatly appreciate knowing if you have a favorite (and why)—your feedback will be enormously helpful to me as I continue to learn and develop as a photographer.  For those interested, here are my previous year picks for 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. And, as always, thank you for your readership!


Spintherophyta (?) sp. in flower of Abutilon pauciflorum | Buenos Aires, Argentina

From  (posted 2 Feb). One of my 2012 learnings was that sometimes a photograph that is not so close is more effective than one that is as close as possible. In one of my earlier attempts at “not-so-close” macrophotgraphy, the soft colors of the flower compliment the brash shininess of the tiny leaf beetle that has been feeding on its pollen. Pink lines lead the eye directly to the subject and create a pleasing composition, and pollen grains stuck to the beetle—a distraction in some situations—add to the miniature natural history story of the photo.


Apiomerus flavipennis with stink bug prey and kleptoparasitic flies | Chaco Province, Argentina

From  (posted 11 Mar). I selected this photo solely for the complex natural history story drama it shows—stink bug (Piezodorus guildenii) feeding on soybean becomes prey of an assassin bug (Apiomerus flavipennis), with volatiles from the chemicals it emitted in a vain attempt to defend itself serving as cues to kleptoparasitic flies (families Milichiidae and Chloropidae) that benefit from the assassin bug’s labors.


Planthopper nymph | Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

From  (posted 26 Mar). Another learning that I began putting into practice in 2012 was the use of low perspective for compositional impact. The cryptic coloration of this planthopper nymph (family Fulgoridae) made it almost invisible on the branch on which it was sitting when viewed from a normal “top-down” human perspective. Getting “down under” it, however, brought the nymph to life and emphasized its unusual form.


Megabaris quadriguttatus | Corrientes Province, Argentina

From  (posted 12 Apr). I spent much of 2012 working on the “blue sky background” technique, with these weevils from northern Argentina representing one of my better attempts. Macrophotography of insects with a blue sky background involves setting exposure, ISO, and aperture to achieve two separate exposures—full flash illumination of the subject for maximum depth-of-field, and ambient light from the sky to create a clean, uncluttered, natural-looking background. In this shot I managed to achieve an almost ideal shade of blue to compliment the wild black, white and red colors of the beetles. (My one criticism of the photo is having clipped one of the beetle’s feet.)


Bombylius sp. cf. mexicanus | Scott Co., Missouri

From  (posted 16 May). This photo is unusual if nothing else. Focus, lighting, depth-of-field, and composition are all better than can be hoped for in a single shot, but the subject—perfectly alive—is in a most unusual position. Read the original post to find out how this happened.


Perisphaerus sp. (a pill roach) | Vietnam (captive individual)

From  (posted 27 May). White-box photography is an excellent technique for clean, uncluttered photographs of insects, but it also isolates them from their natural surroundings and limits their natural history appeal. The best white-box photos are those that highlight a key feature or behavior of the subject—in this case a pill roach’s comically conglobulating defensive posture.


Micronaspis floridana (Florida intertidal firefly) larva | Pinellas Co., Florida

From  (posted 31 July). Here is another photo whose back story played a big part in its selection. This firefly larva not only represents a rare Florida-endemic species but was also first seen by my then 12-year old nephew, who willingly accompanied me through a dark, spooky salt marsh in the middle of a humid Florida night to see what he could learn. The lesson here for budding natural historians (and old-timers like me) cannot be overstated!


Arctosa littoralis (beach wolf spider) | Lewis Co., Missouri

From  (posted 23 Aug—prelude to  posted 28 Aug). Those who follow this blog know of my obsession with close-up portraits, and while tiger beetles are the subjects I most commonly photograph in this manner, I am always on the lookout for good subjects in other taxa. This wolf spider “face” almost looks human, with “two” eyes, two “nostrils” and a shiny upper lip above huge (albeit hairy) buck teeth! It’s enough fill-the-frame spidery goodness to melt (or explode) the heart of even the most ardent arachnophobe!


Anticarsia gemmatalis (velvetbean caterpillar) egg on soybean leaf

From Life at 8X—Guide to lepidopteran eggs on soybean (posted 3 Sep). “Life at 8X” was a new series I introduced this year, featuring insects photographed at magnifications testing the upper limit of my equipment and photographic skills. Diffraction is the chief difficulty with magnifications as high as this and is the primary flaw in the above photograph. Nevertheless, such view of a moth egg on the underside of a soybean leaf provides a spectacular view of the otherwise unseen micro-world that lives right beneath our noses.


Megacyllene decora (amorpha borer) on snakeroot flowers | Mississippi Co., Missouri

From  (posted 12 Sep). This second example of “blue sky background” was taken later in the year and was considerably more difficult to capture than the first because of the larger size of the subject and resulting need for a longer focal length macro lens. Getting a well-lit, focused, and composed image with a desirable shade of blue in the background depended not only on finding the proper camera settings, but also secure body and camera bracing techniques for this completely hand-held shot.


Cicindelidia politula politula (Limestone Tiger Beetle) | Montague Co., Texas

From  (posted 28 Sep). I will go ahead and say it—this is my favorite photograph of 2012. As discussed under the first entry, panning back from the subject can allow for some very interesting compositions. This photo combines charismatic pose by a wary subject with panning back and low perspective to create an image that scores high in both natural history and aesthetic appeal.


Calosoma sayi (black caterpillar hunter) | New Madrid Co., Missouri

From Black is beautiful! (posted 7 Nov). Of course, close-as-possible can also be used to create striking photos, especially if the subject exhibits features that are best seen up close. Anything with jaws fits the bill in my book, and highlighting the mandibular sculpturing of this caterpillar hunter (a type of ground beetle) required precise angling of the flash heads for maximum effect.


Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle) | St. Louis Co., Missouri

From  (12 Nov). This final selection is not a rare species, but it is as close as I have come to what I consider the “perfect” tiger beetle macrophotograph—a close, low angle, lateral profile of an adult in full-stilt posture (a thermoregulatory behavior), well lit, perfectly focused, and with a dynamic but pleasingly blurred background. It’s a perfect storm of a photo that took the better part of two hours to achieve—rarely do all of these elements come together in a hand-held photograph of an unconfined tiger beetle in its native habitat.


Well, there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed my selections, and again please do let me know if you have a personal favorite. See you in 2013!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012