Hooray for iStock—I finally have an ID for my photo

I was all set to make a “One-Shot Wednesday” post today, but sometimes big news strikes and plans must change. The news today was in the form of a random tweet by Alex Wild:

iStock-caption_Wild-20131120

The link in the tweet led me to the following photo on iStock by Getty:

bedbug has captured worm

I was stunned—the photo depicted a scene almost identical to one that I had photographed back in September while visiting soybean fields in Louisiana. For two months I sat on the photo with no idea what I was looking at, but now thanks to Alex I have my answer! Compare the above photo with mine below, and you’ll see that everything matches perfectly—I had photographed a “bedbug” that had captured a “worm”!

Podisus maculiventris preying on Chrysodeixis includens larva

bedbug captures a worm

I considered myself to be fortunate, because there was not just one but two different subjects in the photo, and both of them matched perfectly with the subjects shown in the iStock photo. Gotta love the internet—nowadays names for even the most hard-to-identify bugs are just a click away if you know where to look!

</snark>

Of course, the aggressor in both photos is not a “bedbug” [sic for “bed bug”] (order Hemiptera, family Cimicidae) but a stink bug (family Pentatomidae), specifically Podisus maculiventris, or “spined soldier bug”—perhaps the most common predatory stink bug in North Amerca and ranging from Mexico and parts of the West Indies north through the U.S. into Canada. It is a well-known predator of crop pests and, as such, has been imported to several other countries as part of classical biological control efforts. As for the “worm,” in my photo it is a late-instar larva of Chrysodeixis includens, or “soybean looper, and while I haven’t been able to identify the exact species in the iStock photo it is definitely a lepidopteran caterpillar that appears to related to if not in the same family as the soybean looper (Noctuidae). Now, I concede that “worm” is sometimes used for lepidopteran larvae, but one must also concede that in it’s broadest sense “worm” can refer to members of several disparate phyla such as Nematoda (roundworms), Platyhelminthes (flatworms), or Annelida (segmented worms).

This case, of course, just screams for application of the Taxonomy Fail Index (TFI), which scales the amount of error in a taxonomic identification in absolute time against the error of misidentifying a human with a chimpanzee—our closest taxonomic relative. For example, when TFI = 1 the error is of the same magnitude as mistaking a human for a chimp, while  TFI > 1 is a more egregious error and TFI < 1 a more forgivable one. In the case shown here, one must go back to the common ancestor that eventually gave rise to all of the worm phyla and noctuid moths (~937.5 mya). In addition, since there are two subjects in the photo, one must also go back to the divergence of the main hemipteran groups that contain bed bugs and stink bugs (mid-Triassic, ~227.5 mya). This results a whopping 1.165 billion total years of divergence between the identifications assigned to the subjects in the iStock photo and their actual identity. Assuming that chimps and humans diverged approximately 7.5 mya, this gives a TFI for the iStock photo of 155! I haven’t searched thoroughly to determine whether this is a record for the highest TFI in a single photo, but surely it is a strong contender!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

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

Lord of the flies!

I happened upon a rather interesting scene last week in a soybean field in northern Argentina (Chaco Province). This assassin bug (family Reduviidae) had captured and was feeding on an adult stink bug of the species Piezodorus guildinii—an important pest of soybean in Argentina and Brazil (where it is known by the common names “chinche de la alfalfa” and “chinche verde pequeño”, respectively). Assassin bug predation is always interesting enough itself, but what made this scene especially fascinating was the large congregation of flies surrounding and even crawling upon the predator and its prey. I had not witnessed something like this before, but it seemed clear to me that the flies were engaging in kleptoparasitism—i.e, stealing food. I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping a full set of extension tubes mounted on the camera with my 100mm macro lens—this not only provides the most useful (for me) range of magnification but also serves as a convenient and easy-to-use field microscope. Through the viewfinder I could see that there were at least two markedly different types of flies involved—more abundant, small, brown flies that I presumed (incorrectly, as it turns out) to be some type of drosophilid (vinegar fly), and a few larger, black flies that were completely unfamiliar to me. The flies were apparently feeding on fluids from the stink bug prey but also crawled all over the assassin bug as it fed. The assassin bug seem unencumbered in its feeding by the presence of the flies, but periodically it would slowly wipe its forelegs over its head to dislodge flies that had settled onto it. Just as quickly as they flew away, however, they crawled back.

The assassin bug, on the other hand, I recognized as very likely a species of Apiomerus—a large, exclusively New World genus known in North America as “bee killers” for their habit of sitting on flowers and ambushing visiting bees for prey. The prey selection behaviors of these insects, however, are more generalist than the name implies, as can be seen by these photographs. To verify my generic ID and possibly obtain a species ID, I sent some of these photos to Dimitri Forero at the Heteropteran Systematics Lab at University of California-Riverside. Dimitri is revising portions of Apiomerus (e.g., Berniker et al. 2011) and working on a general phylogenetic hypotheses for the genus. In the past he has been quite helpful in fielding questions from me about these bugs, and within a few hours Dimitri replied to inform me that the assassin bug was, indeed, a member of the genus Apiomerus, likely representing the common, widespread species A. lanipes (ranging from Panama to Argentina), based on its coloration, locality, and relative size. Update 12 March, 3:07 pm—After seeing the last photo in this post (which I did not send to him initially), Dimitri wrote to say the ventral abdominal pattern was not characteristic of A. lanipes. He asked about its size, to which I replied that it was about the same length but maybe a little less robust than A. crassipes (eastern North America). He later added, “I now think that this is A. flavipennis Herrich-Schaeffer, 1848. It is very similar to A. lanipes, but a lot smaller (lanipes is really robust), and with the abdomen with black and white patches, whereas in lanipes the abdomen is always black. I checked some series of specimens that I have here and, I am pretty sure now of the ID. I have material from Argentina as well. In some specimens that coloration of the corium varies, but the original description says it is yellow with a “hairy” pronotum, which fits very nicely your photos.” Apiomerus flavipennis is known from Argentina and Southern Brazil only.

Quite unexpectedly, Dimitri also noted that at least some of the flies could belong to the family Milichiidae. He first became aware of these flies after seeing a photograph of Apiomerus showing something similar and suggested Milichiidae online as a possible source for more information. This remarkably informative  website by milichiid expert Irina Blake, who dubs species in the family as “freeloader flies”, is a model for how websites dealing with obscure insect taxa should be organized and populated (and features on the home page a great photo of ant-mugging flies taken by our favorite myrmecophile). At any rate, I forwarded my photos to Irina and within minutes received her response that the bigger black flies most probably represent the cosmopolitan Milichiella lacteipennis and the smaller flies a species of the family Chloropidae (of “dog pecker gnat” fame) in the subfamily Oscinellinae, noting that she has seen similar (or the same?) chloropids in other photos as well engaging in kleptoparasitism.

Not long after receiving the first reply from Dimitri, I got another message from him with a link to a very interesting paper by Eisner and colleagues (1991), who recorded freeloader flies in Florida preferentially attracted to stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs (family Coreidae) being preyed upon by the orb-weaving spider Nephila clavipes. Olfactory stimuli were already suspected to be involved in attraction of milichiids and also chloropids (Sivinski 1985); however, Eisner et al. (1991) experimentally demonstrated that milichiid attraction was tied to specific components of defensive sprays in several pentatomid and coreid species (including P. guildenii, the prey species in this series of photographs). The defensive sprays of the bugs were generally ineffective at preventing predation by the spiders (and apparently this is the case for A. lanipes and other reduviids as well), thus serving as a signal to milichiids and chloropids not only of the presence of a food source but perhaps also assisting search for mates in a density dependent fashion (Sivinsky 1985). Milichiid attraction to hymenopteran prey, richly endowed with integumental glands themselves, has also been documented; the Eisner study raises the question whether these types of prey are also detected from chemical cues.

REFERENCES:

Berniker, L., S. Szerlip, D. Forero and C. Weirauch. 2011. Revision of the crassipes and pictipes species groups of Apiomerus Hahn (Hemiptera: Reduviidae: Harpactorinae). Zootaxa 2949:1–113.

Eisner, T., M. Eisner & M. Deyrup. 1991. Chemical attraction of kleptoparasitic flies to heteropteran insects caught by orb-weaving spiders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 88:8194–8197.

Sivinski, J. 1985. Mating by kleptoparasitic flies (Diptera: Chloropidae) on a spider host. Florida Entomologist 68(1):216–222.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Best of BitB 2011

Welcome to the 4th Annual BitB Top 10, where I get to pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year. As an insect macrophotographer I still feel like a relative newcomer, although with three seasons under my belt fewer and fewer people seem to be buying it anymore. Granted I’ve learned a lot during that time, but the learning curve is still looking rather steep. I don’t mind—that’s the fun part! With that said, I present a baker’s dozen of my favorite photographs featured here during 2011. I hope they reflect the learnings I’ve had the past year and maybe show some progress over previous years (2009, 2008 and 2010).

One more thing—I’m including a special bonus for the first time in this year’s edition. Each of the photos shown below is linked to a 1680×1120 version that may be freely downloaded for use as wallpaper, printing in calendars, or any other use (as long as it’s personal and non-profit). It’s my way of saying thanks for your readership and support.


From  (posted 8 Jan). I’ve done limited photography with prepared rather than live specimens. However, the recreated aggressive-defensive posture of this greater arid-land katydid (Neobarrettia spinosa)—or “red-eyed devil”—was too striking to pass up. A clean background allows every spine and tooth to be seen with terrifying clarity.


From  (posted 6 Feb). I had never seen a cactus fly until I encountered this Nerius sp. I’m especially fond of the bizzarely-shaped head and un-fly-like spines on the front legs.


From  (posted 17 Feb). This photo of a fungus weevil, Phaenithon semigriseus, is one of the first where I nailed the focus right on the eye at such a magnitude of closeup (~3X) and also got the composition I was looking for. I didn’t notice at the time, but the beetle seems to be “smiling.”


From  (posted 28 Mar). One of the field techniques I’ve been practicing this year is actually holding the plant with the subject in one hand, resting the camera on my wrist and controlling it with the other hand, and manipulating the position of the plant to achieve a desired composition. It’s a difficult technique to master, but the results are worth it. The jumping spider, Euophrys sutrix, represents one of my earliest successful attempts with this technique.


From  (posted 30 Mar). This South American tree fruit weevil looks like it is sitting quite calmly on a branch. In reality, it never stopped crawling while I attempted to photograph it. Crawling subjects are not only difficult to focus on but also almost always have a “bum” leg. I achieved this photo by tracking the beetle through the lens and firing shots as soon as the center focus point flashed, playing a numbers game to ensure that I got at least one with all the legs nicely positioned. I’d have been even happier with this photo if I had not clipped the antennal tip.


From  (posted 4 May). Face shots of predatory insects are hard to resist, and in this one of the fiery searcher beetle, Calosoma scrutator, the angle of the subject to the lighting was perfect for showing off every ridge and tooth in its impressive mandibles.


From  (posted 10 May). I’ve taken plenty of lateral profile shots of tiger beetles, but I like this slightly panned out one especially because of the sense of scale and landscape created by the inclusion of the plantlets and the view over the small rise.


From  (posted 18 May). 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.


From  (posted 15 July). 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 nymphal lichen grasshopper, Trimerotropis saxatilis, is almost invisible when sitting on the lichens that cover the sandstone exposures in its preferred glade habitat. 


From  (posted 23 Aug). I know this is the second beetle face shot I’ve included in the final selections, but it was while photographing this rare Florida metallic tiger beetle, Tetracha floridana, in the middle of the night that I discovered the use of extension tubes to improve the quality of flash lighting (decreased lens to subject distance results in greater apparent light size). This is perhaps one of the best illuminated direct flash photographs that I’ve taken, and I also like the symmetry of the composition.


From  (posted 17 Sep). The three-cornered alfalfa hopper (Spissistilus festinus) is a common pest of alfalfa and soybean in the U.S. However, despite its abundance, I’ve never noticed the bizarre zig-zag pattern of the eyes until I took this photo. Even though both the insect and the background are green, there is sufficient value contrast to create a pleasing composition. Bumping up the ISO and a lower FEC setting prevented overblowing the light greens—easy to do with full flash macrophotography.


From  (posted 4 Oct). This longhorned beetle had settled in for the night on its Ericamera nauseosa host plant, allowing me to use higher ISO and lower shutter speed settings with a hand-held camera to achieve this very pleasing blue sky background, while retaining the sharpness of detail of the subject that comes from full-flash illumination. The blue sky background provides a more pleasing contrast with the colors of this particular beetle and flowers than the black background that is more typically seen with full-flash macrophotography.


From  (19 Dec). An uncommon underside view of these purple tree fungus (Trichaptum biforme) caps and use of flash illumination allows the colors to literally glow against the bright green lichens also growing on the tree. Keeping aperture at a moderate setting allows blurring of the caps further back, adding three-dimensionality to the photo and preventing it from looking ‘flat.’


Well, there you have it, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my selections. Please do tell me if you have a favorite among theses (and if there were other photos posted during 2011 that you think deserved making the final selections).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Stink Bugs on Soybean in Argentina

Despite the natural history and taxonomic focus on beetles and other insects I have adopted for this blog, I am by day an agricultural research entomologist.  For the past 15 years soybean entomology has been my focus, and there is no better nexus for soybeans and entomology than South America.  Cultivated hectares have increased dramatically in Argentina and Brazil over the past several decades, now totaling nearly 80 million acres in those two countries alone (roughly the same area as in the US, by far the world’s largest producer of soybean).  Unlike the US, however, where insect pressure is minor outside of a small number of acres in the southeast, significant pressure occurs in nearly 100% of South America’s soybean acres.  Lepidopterans, primarily species in the family Noctuidae such as velvetbean caterpillar (Anticarsia gemmatalis) and soybean looper (Pseudoplusia includens), are the most important pests, followed closely by stink bugs.  This latter group is especially problematic for growers to deal with.  Stink bugs feed on the developing seeds, causing direct yield impacts through reductions in weight and quality, and because they are a guild of insects rather than a single species, differences in product efficacy against the different species can lead to ineffective or inconsistent control.  I’m involved in trying to do something about this, and while I hate to be deliberately coy, suffice it to say that there is an awful lot of insecticide being sprayed on an awful lot of acres and that the world really would be better off if this weren’t the case.

During my recent visit to Argentina this past March, I took advantage of the opportunity while touring soybeanland to photograph a number of these stink bug species.  Proper identification of stink bugs in a crop is the first step towards controlling them, thus I present here my own photographic guide to some of the more important stink bug species found on soybean in Argentina.

Nezara viridula (chinche verde), adult | Pergamino, Argentina

Nezara viridula, 5th instar nymph | San Pedro, Argentina

Nezara viridula, 1st instar nymphs on egg mass | Oliveros, Argentina

Piezodorus guildinii (chinche de las leguminosas), adult | Pergamino, Argentina

Piezodorus guildinii, 1st instar nymphs on egg mass | Acevedo, Argentina

Edessa meditabunda (alquiche chico), adult | Acevedo, Argentina

Edessa meditabunda, 1st instar nymphs on egg mass | San Pedro, Argentina

Edessa meditabunda, eggs nearing eclosion (note eye spots) | Oliveros, Argentina

Euschistus heros (chinche marrón), adult | Oliveros, Argentina

Dichelops furcatus (chinche de los cuernos - note two ''horns'' in front), adult | Inés Indart, Argentina

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Brazil Bugs #16 – Outro Percevejo

Proxys sp. | Barão Geraldo, Campinas, Brazil

Another stink bug (family Pentatomidae) from my recent travels to South America, but this one from southeastern Brazil rather than Argentina.  Although the white spot at the apex of the scutellum is a common theme across the family, the jet black coloration and strongly acute clypeus (“nose”) immediately reminded me of Proxys punctulatus from eastern North America. Although that species does also occur south through Mexico and Central America into northern South America, the lack of distinctively black femoral apices (“knees”) on this individual suggest it is likely a different species.  I’ve not found much information on other species in this genus, as my old standby Flickr repeatedly proffers images of P. punctulatus in its Pentatomidae pages but not other species in the genus.  Grazla and Campos (2010) list P. hastator from “Cayenna” (likely French Guiana) and P. victor from “Brésil,” and an illustration of the latter in the monumental Biologia Centrali-Americana (Distant 1880-1893) agrees reasonably well (but not completely) with this individual.  For now, this will have to stand as Proxys sp.

REFERENCES:

Distant, W. L.  1880-1893.  Biologica Centrali-Americana. Insecta. Rhynchota. Hemiptera-Heteroptera. Volume I.  London: published for the editors by R. H. Porter, 462 pp.

Grazia, J. and L. A. Campos. 2010. Neotropical Pentatomidae (Insecta: Hemiptera: Heteroptera) of the collection of Massimiliano Spinola preserved in the “Museo Regionale de Scienze Naturali”, Turin, Italy. ZOOLOGIA 27(3):413–424.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Bichos Argentinos #4 – Balancing Act

Nezara viridula (southern green stink bug) | Pergamino, Pcia. Buenos Aires, Argentina

I encountered this adult Nezara viridula (southern green stink bug) (Hemiptera: Pentatomidae) in a soybean field in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina.  I liked the way it balanced itself on the leaf on which it was sitting to keep its body level.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011