Best of BitB 2013

Welcome to the 6th Annual “Best of BitB”, where I pick my favorite photographs from the past year. Like last year, 2013 was another year of heavy travel. For work I did my annual tour of soybean field sites throughout Argentina during late February and early March, then cranked it up for my own field season with frequent travel to sites in Illinois and Tennessee from May to October. In the meantime I spent a week at company meetings in Las Vegas in August, toured field sites across the southeastern U.S. for two weeks in September, visited Argentina again in October to finalize research plans for their upcoming season, and finished off the travel year by attending the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Meetings in Austin, Texas during November. On top of all this, I managed to slip in two of the best insect collecting trips I’ve had in years, with 10 days in northwestern Oklahoma in early June and another 10 days in California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado during late August, and I got to play “visiting scientist” during short trips to Montana State University in late July and the Illinois Natural History Survey in late October! Of course, during my brief interludes at home I wasn’t sitting still, giving entomology seminars to several local nature societies and hosting two ESA webinars on insect photography. Needless to say, come December I was more than ready to spend some quite time at home (well, except for hiking most weekends) and am happy to report that I’ve successfully become reacquainted with my family and office mates. It’s a peripatetic life—and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Okay, let’s get down to business. Here are my favorite BitB photographs from 2013. This year was less about learning new techniques as it was about refining the techniques I’ve found most useful for the style I’ve chosen as a photographer, i.e., hand-held, in situ field shots that (hopefully) excel at both natural history and aesthetic beauty. Links to original posts are provided for each photo selection, and I welcome any comments you may have regarding which (if any) is your favorite and why—such feedback will be helpful for me as I continue to hone my craft. If you’re interested, here are my previous years’ picks for 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Once again, thank you for your readership, and I hope to see you in 2014!

Tremex columba, female ovipositing | Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri

Tremex columba female drilling for oviposition into hardwood trunk | Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri

From Ovipositing Pigeon Horntail (posted 6 Jan). I like this photo for the combination of vibrant, contrasting colors between the wasp and moss-covered wood and the visualization it provides of the remarkable depth to which this wasp will insert its ovipositor into solid wood!

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis | Chaco Province, Argentina

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis flowers | Chaco Province, Argentina

From Giving me the weevil eye! (posted 28 Apr). While a little soft, the color combination is pleasing and the pose taken by the beetle almost comically inquisitive.

Helicoverpa gelotopeon feeding on soybean pod | Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

Helicoverpa gelotopeon feeding on soybean pod | Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

From Bollworms rising! (posted 30 Mar). This is the first photo of an economic pest that has made one of my “Best of BitB” lists. The two holes in the soybean pod, one with the caterpillar and its head still completely inserted, visualizes how the feeding habits of these insects can so dramatically affect yield of the crop.

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

From “Blue-sky” tips and tricks (posted 1 July). Insects with a lot of delicate detail and long, thin appendages are especially difficult to photograph against the sky due to wind movement. See how I dealt with the antennae of this delicate lacewing without resorting to the standard black background typical of full-flash macrophotography.

Cicindela scutellaris lecontei x s. unicolor

Cicindela scutellaris lecontei x s. unicolor intergrade | Holly Ridge Natural Area, Stoddard Co., Missouri

From The Festive Tiger Beetle in Southeast Missouri (posted 25 Oct). I like this photo a lot more now than I did when I first took it. Its shadowy feel and the beetle “peering” from behind a leaf edge give a sense of this beetle’s attempts to hide and then checking to see if the “coast is clear”

Batyle suturalis on paperflower (Psilostrophe villosa) | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

Batyle suturalis on Psilostrophe villosa flowers | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Tips for photographing shiny beetles on yellow flowers (posted 10 Aug). “Bug on a flower” photos are a dime a dozen, but shiny beetles on yellow flowers with natural sky background can be quite difficult to take. All of the techniques for dealing with the problems posed by such a photo came together nicely in this photo.

Agrilus walsinghami | Davis Creek Regional Park, Washoe Co., Nevada

Agrilus walsinghami | Davis Creek Regional Park, Washoe Co., Nevada

From Sunset for another great collecting trip (posted 1 Sep). This photo is not without its problems, with a little blurring of the backlit fuzz on the plant, but the placement of the sun behind the subject’s head and resulting color combination make it my favorite in my first attempts at achieving a “sun-in-the-sky” background with a true insect macrophotograph.

A tiny male mates with the ginormous female.

Pyrota bilineata on Chrysothamnus viscidflorus | San Juan Co., Utah

From Midget male meloid mates with mega mama (posted 8 Nov). Another blue-sky-background photograph with good color contrast, its real selling point is the natural history depicted. with some of the most extreme size dimorphism among mating insects that I’ve ever seen.

Phymata sp.

Phymata sp. on Croton eleagnifolium foliage | Austin, Texas

From ESA Insect Macrophotography Workshop (posted 13 Nov). The oddly sculpted and chiseled body parts of ambush bugs makes them look like they were assembled from robots. Contrasting the body against a blue sky gives a more unconventional view of these odd beasts than the typical top-down-while-sitting-on-a-flower view.

Fourth attempt - holding detached pad up against sky for cleaner background.

Moneilema armata on Opuntia phaecantha | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Q: How do you photograph cactus beetles? (posted 24 Nov). Photographing cactus beetles requires patience, persistence, long forceps, and strong forearms. Natural sky provides a much more pleasing background than a clutter of cactus pads and jutting spines.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 2013 version of “Best of BitB” and look forward to seeing everyone in 2014.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Ovipositing Pigeon Horntail

Tremex columba (pigeon horntail) | Wayne Co., Missouri

Tremex columba (pigeon horntail) | Wayne Co., Missouri

By early July, woodboring beetle activity is at its peak in southern Missouri. Even though many of the smaller species of jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) and longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) have already come and gone, bigger species in genera such as Buprestis, Acanthocinus, Enaphalodes, etc. are ripe for the picking. All one has to do is travel for hours to high-quality forest (upland or lowland—either is fine depending on what you wish to find), hike for additional hours through stifling mid summer heat and humidity, and carefully search the trunks and branches of any declining or recently downed tree (don’t forget to look along the undersides) while dodging deer flies (if ever a creature sprang from the pit of hell!) and slapping mosquitos! Sure, you can cheat and just drive along National Forest roads looking for recent logging operations—it’s a good way to get large series of common, widespread species; however, if you want to get the good stuff you’ve got to seek out the high-quality forests—those not managed for timber—and look for declining trees and natural wind-throws.

Of course, not all wood borers are beetles. Among the more spectacular non-beetle wood borers are the horntails (order Hymenoptera, family Siricidae), represented in this post by one of its more commonly encountered species, Tremex columba (pigeon horntail). That is not to say that they are frequently encountered, at least in my experience, but I do remember the first time I saw one of these as a boy. I knew in my heart that they were harmless—my already tattered copy of The Golden Guide to Insects said so; yet I could not bring myself to actually grab what would become the latest prize specimen in my insect collection with my bare fingers, instead sneaking a jar over it and sliding the lid underneath.  I’ve seen them a few times since, but until recently I had never seen what must be considered their most remarkable feature—the ability to thrust a needle-thin ovipositor several cm into solid wood! While hiking the Shut-Ins Trail at Sam A. Baker State Park last year, I spotted a large, recently wind-thrown tree off the trail and picked my way over to see what woodboring beetles I might find. As I approached the horntail in these photos took flight, but I stood still and watched her settle back onto the trunk and resume searching activities. Using all the stealth I could muster, I made my approach—hoping to get at least one good shot of this spectacular insect. I would have been happy if I had walked away with nothing more than the first photo in the sequence below. What happened next, however, was icing on the cake. As the remaining photo sequence shows, she suddenly arched her abdomen high and began probing the wood with the tip of her ovipositor, then bracing it at a precise 90° angle relative to the lower abdomen, slowly thrust it deep into the wood until her abdomen was completely level above the trunk.

I never cease to be amazed by insects, but sometimes their capabilities just seem incomprehensible. If you disagree, just imagine trying to insert an insect pin deep into solid wood with nothing but your bare hands (or, more precisely, pushing only with your butt) and see if you don’t change your mind!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013