Best of BitB 2014

Welcome to the 7th Annual “Best of BitB”, where I pick my favorite photographs from the past year. Before I do this, however, let me briefly recap the year 2014. The trend of increasing travel each year continued, with more days spent on the road than in any prior year. Travel for work over the past few years has settled into a familiar routine—touring soybean fields in Argentina in late February and early March, working in my own field trials at (previously three, now four) sites in Illinois and Tennessee from late May through late September, touring more soybean fields at sites across the southeastern U.S. during mid-September, returning to Argentina in October to finalize plans for field trials in the upcoming season, and—finally—attending/presenting at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Meetings (this year in Portland, Oregon). This heavy travel load makes scheduling my own insect collecting trips a bit tricky, but I’m a persistent sort! In late May I traveled to Tennessee and Georgia with fellow buprestophile Joshua Basham and lab mate Nadeer Youseff to collect several rare jewel beetles, then in late June I collected prionids and jewel beetles in Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma with Jeff Huether. In addition to these longer trips, I also managed to take advantage of my work travel to check out interesting natural habitats along the way to and from my field sites. I continue to give the occasional entomology seminar as well, speaking in March at “Day of Insects” in Ames, Iowa and here in St. Louis to the Entomology Natural History Group of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society in April and the Missouri Master Naturalists Confluence Chapter in December. On top of all this, I still managed to vacation with my family in Lake Tahoe during March and in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico during late July.

I say all this to highlight the fact that after all these years I still consider myself an entomologist with a camera rather than a bona fide insect photographer. The reason for this is that the science of entomology itself remains my primary focus—photography is simply one of the tools that I have come to use in my pursuit of the discipline. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t continue to work on my photography style and technique—because I do. But my style and technique are not goals in of themselves; rather, they are means to an end—that end being my entomological studies. With that said, I present my favorite BitB photographs from 2014. As in previous years, my photos are largely hand-held, in situ field shots that are intended to tell a natural history story in a (hopefully) aesthetic manner. 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, 2012 and 2013. Once again, thank you for your readership, and I hope to see you in 2015!

Paraselenis tersa? female guarding her eggs | Cordoba Prov., Argentina

Paraselenis tersa (Boheman, 1854) | Cordoba Prov., Argentina

From Tortoise beetles on the job (posted April 20). This photograph of a tortoise beetle female over her egg mass illustrates maternal guarding behavior—rare in insects. The perfect lateral profile shot and clean, blue sky background also give the photo a pleasing aesthetic quality.

Who likes mole crickets?

Scapteriscus borellii Giglio-Tos, 1894 | Emanuel Co., Georgia

From Who likes mole crickets? (posted June 6). This has to be the most comical expression ever on the face of an insect!

Chrysobothris orono Frost, 1920 | South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee

Chrysobothris orono Frost, 1920 | South Cumberland State Park, Grundy Co., Tennessee

From Chrysobothris orono in Tennessee (posted July 29). I found this rare jewel beetle for the first time this year with the help of Josh Basham and Nadeer Youseff. The beetle itself is beautiful enough, but photographing it on a pine root with a presumed adult emergence hole adds considerable natural history interest to the photo. Rock substrate behind the root adds a pleasingly blurred background.

Buprestis (Stereosa) salisburyensis Herbst, 1801 | South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee.

Buprestis (Stereosa) salisburyensis Herbst, 1801 | South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee.

From The Buprestis tree (posted August 10). This was another of several jewel beetles that I found for the first time after more than three decades of collecting this group. I like the value contrast in this photo from the striking, metallic colors of the beetle against the nicely blurred cinnamon-colored pine bark of the tree on which it is sitting.

A "super moon" watches over a parasitized hornworm caterpillar.

A “super moon” watches over a parasitized hornworm caterpillar.

From A time of reckoning (posted August 13). I fully admit this is a composite photograph. Nevertheless, it is a faithful recreation of a true sight, and I don’t consider the use of composite techniques to overcome equipment shortcomings to be unethical. There is a haunting symmetry between the blood red moon—considered by some as a sign of the second coming—and the sad, parasitized caterpillar waiting for its inevitable demise.

The greatly expanded palps are thought to mimic beetle mandibles or spider pedipalps.

Phyllopalpus pulchellus Uhler, 1864 | Hickman Co., Kentucky

From My, what busy palps you have! (posted September 2). I’ve become quite fond of insect photos with the subject “peering” at me, the photographer”, from some unusual vantage point. The “pupils” in the eyes of this red-headed bush cricket give the insect an almost quizzical look.

Acmaeodera immaculata Horn, 1881 | vic. Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado.

Acmaeodera immaculata Horn, 1878 | vic. Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado.

From Sunset beetles (posted September 30). Taking photos of insects at sunset is a challenging and ephemeral experience—one has only a few minutes to take advantage of the unusual and serene colors it offers, while at the same time trying to determine the best camera and flash settings to use in the rapidly fading light. Of the several that I’ve tried, this one is my favorite because of the softly complimentary colors of the beetle, the flower upon which it is sitting, and the dying orange sky behind it. If I had to choose, I would probably pick this one as my favorite of the year because of the unusual and serene colors.

Megacyllene decora (Olivier, 1795) | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Megacyllene decora (Olivier, 1795) | Stoddard Co., Missouri

From Amorpha borer on goldenrod (posted October 5). I featured this very same species in Best of BitB 2012 but can’t resist choosing this second attempt at photographing the spectacularly beautiful adult—this time on goldenrod. As with the previous version this is a true in situ field photograph, hand held and using the left-hand technique to achieve precise composition against a clear blue sky—difficult to do with an insect of this size and using a 100-mm lens, but well worth the effort.

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta Say, 1823 | Woods Co., Oklahoma

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta Say, 1823 | Woods Co., Oklahoma

From A Buprestis hat-trick! (posted October 14). I didn’t take near as many of the classic “frontal portraits” this year, but this one of a jewel beetle that had eluded me for more than 30 years until this past June is perhaps my favorite of them all.

Agrilus concinnus  Horn, 1891 | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Agrilus concinnus Horn, 1891 | Stoddard Co., Missouri

From North America’s Most Beautiful Agrilus Jewel Beetle (posted October 19). There was a time when this beetle was considered one of North America’s rarest species of jewel beetle. Several years worth of hunting by me and others revealed this beetle’s association with mallow and its unusually late adult activity period—the two combining to make this beetle “seem” rare. This year I succeeded in photographing the spectacular adult beetle.

Cacama valvata female ovipositing

Cacama valvata (Uhler, 1888) | Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado

From Scorching plains, screaming cactus (posted December 5). Insect photos are always better when they also show some aspect of the subject’s natural history. I was lucky to find this female cactus dodger cicada in the act of ovipositing into the dry stem of cholla cactus—in a position where I could get a perfect lateral profile with a clean, blue sky background.

Moneilema armatum LeConte, 1853 | Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado

Moneilema armatum LeConte, 1853 | Vogel Canyon, Otero Co., Colorado

From Cactus beetle redux (posted December 20). Cactus beetles can be difficult to photograph, but sometimes they cooperate by nicely posing on a pleasing pink flower bud with a blue sky in the background and the cactus spines forming a nice, fuzzy “halo” around the jet black beetle. There were surprisingly few cactus spines impaled in the control unit of my flash after this photo session.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 2014 version of “Best of BitB” and look forward to seeing everyone in 2015.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2015

My, what busy palps you have!

In mid- to late summer, the swamps of southeast Missouri and adjacent areas along the Mississippi River become awash in color as stands of hairy rose mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpus) put forth their conspicuous, white and pink blooms. I’ve been waiting for the mallows to bloom this year, as there is one particular beetle associated with plants in this genus that I have been keen to photograph since I first picked up a real camera a few years ago, to this point without success. My first attempt this year came in early August as I noted the tell-tale blooms while passing through extreme western Kentucky. I was foiled again (but would succeed the next day—more on this in a future post), but as I tiptoed over the soggy ground searching through the lush foliage, I saw a small, brightly colored cricket with curiously enlarged mouthparts. Even more interesting was the constant, almost frenetic manner in which the insect was moving these mouthparts. My first attempts to detach the leaf on which it was moving spooked it, and it jumped to another leaf, but I persisted and finally succeeded in detaching the leaf with the critter still upon it and maneuvering it up towards the sky for a few photographs.

Phyllopalpus pulchellus (red-headed bush cricket) | Hickman Co., Kentucky

Phyllopalpus pulchellus (red-headed bush cricket or “handsome trig”) | Hickman Co., Kentucky

It didn’t take long to identify the cricket as Phyllopalpus pulchellus, or “red-headed bush cricket” (family Gryllidae). This species, also known as the “handsome trig” on account of its stunning appearance and membership in the subfamily Trigonidiinae, is distinctive among all North American orthopterans by its red head and thorax, pale legs, dark wings, and—as already noted—highly modified maxillary palpi with the greatly expanded and paddle-like terminal segment. According to Capinera et al. (2004), adults appear during mid- to late summer near streams and marshes on vegetation about one meter above the ground—precisely as this individual was found. Surely it represents one of our most photographed cricket species (208 BugGuide photos and counting).

The greatly expanded palps are thought to mimic beetle mandibles or spider pedipalps.

The greatly expanded palps are said to mimic beetle mandibles or spider pedipalps.

The obvious question to anyone who sees this species is, “Why the curiously enlarged palps?” Both males and females exhibit this character (even as juveniles), so it seems clear that there is no special sexual or hypersensory function. One idea mentioned on BugGuide (perhaps originating from this EOL post by Patrick Coin) suggests that the crickets are Batesian mimics of chemically-defended ground beetles (family Carabidae) such as bombardier beetles (genus Brachinus). This thought is based on their similar coloration, the convex and shiny (and, thus, beetle-like) forewings of the females, and some resemblance of the enlarged palpi to the mandibles of the beetles. I am not completely satisfied with this idea, since bombardier beetles are generally found on the ground rather than foliage. Moreover, males lack the convex, shiny forewings exhibited by females, and resemblance of the palps to beetle mandibles doesn’t explain their curiously constant movement (ground beetles don’t constantly move their mandibles). Another idea suggested by orthopterist (and insect macrophotographer extraordinaire!) Piotr Naskrecki is a mimetic association with another group of arthropods, noting that the busy movements of the palps is very similar to the way jumping spiders (family Salticidae) move their pedipalps. This suggestion also is not completely satisfying, as it leaves one wondering why the crickets are so boldly and conspicuously colored. While some jumping spiders are brightly colored, I’m not aware of any in eastern North America with similar coloration (indeed, many jumping spiders can be considered ‘drab’). Perhaps the crickets have adopted mimetic strategies using multiple models in their efforts to avoid predation?

The brown wings and long, sickle-shaped ovipositor identify this individual as a female.

The brown wings and sickle-shaped ovipositor identify this individual as a female.

The individual in these photos can be identified as a female due to the presence of the sickle-shaped ovipositor and, as mentioned above, the convex, shiny forewings. Males possess more typically cricket-like forewings, perhaps constrained to such shape by the sound producing function they must serve. The males do, however, exhibit an interesting dimorphism of the forewings, with one wing being clear and the other one black. Fellow St. Louisan and singing insect enthusiast James C. Trager notes this dimorphism has been mentioned in the literature but not explained and suggests it may have something to do with the adaptive physics of sound production.

Congratulations to Ben Coulter, who wins Super Crop Challenge #16, which featured a cropped close-up of the enlarged maxillary palpi of this insect. His 12 pts increase his lead in the overall standings for BitB Challenge Session #7 to an almost insurmountable 59 pts. Morgan Jackson and Troy Bartlett round out the podium with 10 and 9 pts, respectively—Troy’s points being enough to move him into 2nd place in the overalls with 23 pts. Third place in the overalls is still up for grabs, since none of the people occupying the 3rd through 6th places has played for awhile—realistically any number of people behind them could jump onto the podium (or even grab 2nd place!) in the next (and probably last) Session #7 challenge.


Capinera, J. L., R. D. Scott & T. J. Walker. 2004. Field Guide To Grasshoppers, Katydids, And Crickets Of The United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 249 pp. [Amazon].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

The importance of post-processing

One of the most frustrating realizations I had when I began photographing insects was the fact that photographs didn’t come out of the camera “ready-to-go”—i.e., they still needed to be processed to some degree to make them look good. Even worse, this required processing is to large degree subjective based on the taste of the individual photographer, and as such a “quick manual” describing the exact process in a way that beginners can understand doesn’t exist. Essentially, I didn’t know that when I decided to become an insect photographer, that I would also have to become proficient at photo processing. This frustrates me a lot less now because I’ve finally worked out a process for doing this that works for me and that I am comfortable with, and having done so I also realize that every photographer has to go through this process for themselves to make their photographs look the way they want them to look. That said, I wish I’d had access to some easy tutorials when I was trying to figure out the process that could have saved me some stumbling time before arriving at a process I liked. With that in mind, I thought I would share a quick overview of how I deal with post-processing in the hopes that somebody else mind find a useful tip or two here as they try to figure out their own process. This is not meant to be an exhaustive description of all the post-processing tools that I might use, but rather the typical adjustments that are needed for almost all of the photographs that I take. To illustrate the process, I use a rather basic shot of a cricket that I photographed last week in northeastern Missouri. You can click on each photo to access a larger and better see the issues discussed and resulting enhancements.

Straight from the camera (JPG converted from original RAW file).

The photo above is basically how the shot came out of the camera. These days I shoot only in RAW format, as this allows the maximum amount of data to be retained regardless of how many times the file is accessed. The image above is a JPG converted directly from the unaltered RAW file, and you can see that it looks rather flat and could benefit from levels and color adjustments as well as sharpening and some general “cleaning up” of sensor dust artifacts and debris on the subject. Since I use a Canon body, I have the Digital Photo Professional software that came with the camera, and I also have Photoshop Elements. For my purposes, I’ve found it most convenient to do certain enhancements directly to the RAW file in DPP, generate a TIFF format version of the file from the edited RAW file, and then do the final enhancements to the TIFF file. Since TIFF is also a “loss-less” format, I can then use the enhanced TIFF to generate JPGs of whatever size and resolution on an as-needed basis without worrying about data loss in the full-sized, fully enhanced version of the photo. I think this is preferable to shooting JPGs directly or generating them directly from the RAW file because JPGs are not loss-less files, and as a result every time a JPG is accessed or modified there is a loss of data. Sure, you can go back to the original RAW file and generate a new JPG, but any enhancements made after the first conversion will have to be repeated. Another advantage to making adjustments in DPP is that they are reversable—the original, unaltered RAW file can always be recovered without the need to create multiple backups representing different stages of enhancement.

After initial processing (JPG converted from edited RAW file).

So, what enhancements do I do in DPP? First I open the tool palette and adjust the white balance—in this case it was a full flash photo, so I select “Flash” from the drop-down menu. Then I select the RGB tab and adjust the upper and lower levels on the histogram. The general approach is to cut off data-lacking areas at either extreme, but there is also a lot of subjectivity in deciding what “looks right”. I then open the Stamp Tool (I find cloning adjustments easier and more effective in DPP than in PS) and clone out dust marks in the background (I know, I need to clean my sensor) and debris on the subject. On that last point, there are purists who will argue that this is an “unnatural” alteration. I take a much less conservative position on such alterations, since in my opinion the entire photograph itself is the result of interpretation—not just of the photographer, but of the equipment used and settings chosen. If debris on the subject is an important aspect of the subject’s natural history, then it should remain. However, in most cases, dirt flecks on the subject are not an important part of the story and provide an unnecessary detraction from the aesthetic appearance of the photo. If any cropping is necessary I prefer to do this also in DPP since this is reversible should I change my mind at some point in the future. The second photo above shows what the image looks like after this initial round of post-processing in DPP. At this point, the RAW file is ready to be converted to TIFF format for final post-processing in PS.

After additional processing in Photoshop (jpg converted from edited TIFF).

After additional processing in Photoshop (jpg converted from edited TIFF).

Because I’ve done much of the levels adjustment and cloned out any flaws in DPP, the original TIFF needs only minor adjustments. I generally like to start with “Autocorrect” and see what it does, as this function usually does a good job of toning down highlights and shadows and especially giving a more natural color to blue sky backgrounds such as in this photo. If I don’t like the result from Autocorrect, I hit Ctrl+Z and adjust levels and color manually until I like the result. I find that most photos still benefit from a little bit of brightening and increased contrast (usually ~10% each), and this often also serves to add a little color saturation that is generally sufficient but can sometimes be too much. If the latter occurs, it’s an easy matter to adjust the saturation back down a little bit. After the levels and color are fully adjusted the only thing left to do is apply unsharp mask to sharpen up the photo and bring out the detail—remember to zoom the image to 100% to get the best view of how the settings affect the appearance of the photo, as the settings that you will need depend greatly on the size of the image. Once these adjustments are made, I save a new version of the file (I like to append the file name with “_enh”). The third photo above represents the final enhanced version, and it is this file that I will use to generate JPGs of whatever size I need on an as-needed basis. The original TIFF can be retained if desired, but since an identical version can always be generated anew from the enhanced RAW file this is not essential.

The head slightly narrower than the pronotum and early spring occurrence of this large nymph make me think this is the northern woods cricket (Gryllus vernalis).

The head slightly narrower than the pronotum and early spring occurrence of this large nymph in northeastern Missouri make me think this is the northern wood cricket (Gryllus vernalis).

I hope you’ve found one or tips of use in this little tutorial, which I end with the above frontal portrait of the subject shown in the previous photos. Based on its all black color, the head slight narrower than the pronotum, and its early spring occurrence as a late-instar nymph in northern Missouri, I take this to be a northern wood cricket, Gryllus vernalis, but of course I am open to being corrected by somebody more knowledgeable about crickets than I.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014