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

Holy conglobulation, Batman!

It’s a pill bug… no, it’s a roach. It’s a pill roach!

Earlier this month I made a quick trip out to California to see my good friend Chuck Bellamy receive his Honorary Membership in The Coleopterist Society. While I was there, I got a chance to spend some time with Chuck’s labmate Martin Hauser. Although Martin is a specialist of flies, he shares my fascination with unusual arthropods of all types and made available for me to photograph this adult female Perisphaerus sp. (order Blattodea, family Blaberidae), or “pill roach”. Seventeen species from southeast Asia and Australia have been described in this genus (Beccaloni 2007), but which (if any) this individual represents remains unknown.

In contrast to ”normal”-looking males, adult females exhibit a ”wingless, half-ellipsoid” morphology.

The most obvious characteristic of species in this genus is the ability of females to roll up into a ball; i.e., conglobulate.¹ Clearly this is a defensive morphotype, but curiously only females possess this ability—males are winged and exhibit the more flattened morphology typical of many cockroaches. Martin and I were unable to get this particular individual to completely enroll (we must not have been scary enough), but when it does the posterior abdomen fits tightly against the pronotal margin, covering all sensory organs and leaving no soft tissues exposed, gaps to enter or external projections to grab (Bell et al. 2007).

¹ I must thank Brady Richards, who, in his answer to ID Challenge #18, used this word to coin the phrase that would eventually become the title of this post.

Adult females apparently exhibit not only maternal protection but also nutrition.

But why should only females and not males exhibit this defensive morphotype? One would think that both males and females are equally threatened by predators. Apparently this is related to their unusual form of uniparental (maternal) care (Choe & Crespi 1997).  Early-instar nymphs in this genus remain closely associated with their mother and cling to her underside until they reach the third instar. These early-instar nymphs are not only blind, but they also exhibit a narrowed head with specially modified mouthparts that fit precisely into two pairs of orifices located on the female underside between the middle and hind pairs of legs. Whether the nymphs are feeding on glandular secretions or female hemolymph remains unknown, but regardless only a limited number of nymphs can be handled by a female at one time. This represents an unusual level of energetic investment in offspring among insects—especially among cockroaches, and thus the female has an interest in protecting that investment. Sealing them up inside an impenetrable ball is certainly one way to protect the nymphs.

Despite first impressions, six legs and a very ”cockroach-ish” head belie its true identity.

Conglobulation has actually arisen several times amongst arthropods. Obviously pill bugs (a.k.a. roly-poly bugs) are the first group that comes to mind in this regard, but Eisner & Eisner (2002) illustrate nearly identical morphology in two oniscomorph millipedes as well as isopods and Perispharus and also describe strikingly similar behavior by the larva of Leucochrysa pavida  (family Chrysopidae).

Many thanks to those of you who participated in ID Challenge #18. As of now, the comments for that challenge are closed, and I will reveal the comments and award points shortly. My sincere thanks again to Martin Hauser for allowing me to photograph this most interesting insect!

Edit 5/28/12, 12:55 a.m.: For the first time ever, we have a 3-way tie for a BitB Challenge win—Sam Heads, Brady Richards, and Mr. Phidippus all earned 12 points to share the top spot in this challenge. Since these three gentlemen were already the three leaders in BitB Challenge Session #6, there is no change to the leaderboard in the overall standings (44, 42 and 37 points, respectively). However, Dennis Haines (34 points) is hanging close, and Tim Eisele (25 points) still has a shot at the podium. Any number of others following closely behind could also find themselves on the podium if any of the three leaders should falter down the stretch.


 Beccaloni, G. W. 2007. Blattodea Species File Online. Version 1.0/4.1. World Wide Web electronic publication. <; [accessed 27 May 2012].

Bell, W. J., L. M. Roth & C. A. Nalepa. 2007. Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior, and Natural History. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 230 pp.

Choe, J. C. & B. J. Crespi. 1997. The Evolution of Social Behavior in Insects and Arachnids. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 541 pp.

Eisner, T. & M. Eisner. 2002. Coiling into a sphere: defensive behavior of a trash-carrying chrysopid larva Leucochrysa (Nodita) pavida (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Entomological News 113:6–10.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

The “New” Gromphadorina portentosa

I don’t pretend to be a photography guru – I’m learning, and though I still have much to learn I’m happy with my progress so far.  The photographs I posted earlier this week of Gromphadorina portentosa, the Madagascan hissing cockroach, were the results of my first attempt at photographing insects in a white box, and I was reasonably happy with the results.  However, a commentor suggested the photographs could benefit from increased contrast – and he was right!  I admit that I haven’t focused much on post-processing so far, as I’m still in a rather steep part of the whole insect macrophotography learning curve thing. I have played around with the different enhancement tools in Photoshop Elements, but for some reason I don’t find them all that intuitive, and just playing around with them hasn’t helped me understand how they work or the best way to use them.  The Photoshop online help site wasn’t much help either – in fact, it was all gibberish to me!  I started to wonder if maybe I just lacked some basic talent when it came to understanding post-processing.

Fortunately, the commentor provided a link to an excellent article at EarthBound Light called The 1-2-3 of Photoshop Levels.  That article opened up for me a whole new world of understanding!  It explained that Levels is a better alternative for optimizing photos that Brightness and Contrast, and it did it in plain English!  I actually understood it!  Well, my appetite whetted, I started browsing other articles at the site and found the object of my desire: a clear explanation of the seemingly misnomored “Unsharp Mask” in an article called Behind the Unsharp Mask: The Secret World of Sharpening.  I read it excitedly, just waiting for it to become unintelligibly technical, but it was as clearly written as the previous, and for the first time ever I actually felt like I understood the basics of how to use Unsharp Mask.  Well, I couldn’t wait to take my newfound knowledge and apply it to my photos of the already spectacular Gromphadorina portentosa to see if I could make them really pop. The following comparison shows the original photo of the male (size reduced to 1200×800) and the optimized photo adjusted for levels, color, and sharpness (also slightly cropped). What do you think?

Original photo

Optimized photo

Here are paired comparisons of the other photos I included in the original post with their optimized versions (click to see enlarged versions). I would be most interested in hearing any specific comments you might have about these optimizations.









Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Gromphadorina portentosa

I found myself with a few spare moments this weekend, so I decided to finally put together a white box and see what I could do with it.  And what better subject for a white box maiden voyage than Gromphadorina portentosa, the Madagascan hissing cockroach.  Grotesquely beautiful, it also presents a challenging subject for flash-based macrophotography because of its hard, shiny exoskeleton that produces strong specular highlights with all but the most highly diffuse of light sources.  It was also the only live subject I had on hand at the moment, other than a few larval noctuids – not nearly as impressive as these behemoths!  There were some early glitches – the enormous size of these insects made for long working distances, with the result that my box was almost too small!  However, placing the subjects at the back of the box allowed the camera lens and flash units to sneak just inside the front drape, and the closer shots went more smoothly.  I’m quite happy with the results – at least as a first attempt, and I think the method shows even more promise for some preserved specimen photographs that I am planning.

The males, of course, have “horns” on the pronotum, but one thing I had never noticed before is the well-developed lip at its anterior edge.  This is certainly an adaptation to the “shoving” matches that males engage in with each other frequently.  This face-on shot shows him for the formidible opponent that he is!

Sexual dimorphism is fairly evident in this species, as least compared to your average cockroach.  Like most insects, females tend to be a little larger, especially when they are gravid as the one below appears to be.  In my colony I note that they also tend to be more uniformly dark in color than the males, although that is not quite so evident with this particular female.

The big difference is, of course, the weakly developed pronotal protuberances.  Females don’t engage in the shoving matches that males do, so there is no need for the heavily armed pronotum.  Nevertheless, small pronotal humps are still found in the adult females.  Note also the lack of a well-developed lip on the anterior edge of the female pronotum.

Photo Details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon 50D, ISO 100, 1/200 sec, f/8-11, indirect MT-24EX flash in white box.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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