2022 Oklahoma Insect Collecting Trip iReport

Welcome to the 11th “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering a very short (4 days) trip to northwestern Oklahoma on May 3–7, 2022. My collecting partner for this trip was long-time friend and hymenopterist Mike Arduser. Mike is one of the best natural historians that I know and, like me, has a special love for the often overlooked beauty of western Oklahoma and its fascinating insect fauna. It had been 13 years, however—too long, in my opinion, since our last joint field trip when we sampled the bee (Mike) and beetle (me) fauna at The Nature Conservancy’s Four Canyon Preserve in Ellis Co. Thus, I was happy for the chance to once again spend some time in the field with such a knowledgeable naturalist in an area we that both know and love.

As with all previous “iReports” in this series, this report is illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs (thus the term “iReport”). Previous iReports in this series include:
2013 Oklahoma
2013 Great Basin
2014 Great Plains
2015 Texas
2018 New Mexico/Texas
2018 Arizona
2019 Arkansas/Oklahoma
2019 Arizona/California
2021 West Texas
2021 Texas/New Mexico/Arizona


Day 1 – Gloss Mountain State Park (Major Co.)
It took most of the day to get here—Tulsa threw us a couple of obstacles in the form of a construction-mediated wrong turn and a motorcycle engulfed in flames. I’ve been to Gloss Mountain a number of times, but never this early in the season. Skies were sunny (unlike St. Louis when we left this morning), but temps didn’t get much above 60°F and even dropped down into the upper 50s before we finished up at sunset.

Gloss Mountain State Park – early evening view from atop the mesa.

Surprisingly, despite the earliness of the season and cool temps, beating was quite productive. Working the low areas around the parking lot, I beat a fair number and diversity of beetles and hemipterans—mostly chrysomelids—but only a single Agrilus sp. off of Prosopis glandulosa.

This must be Oenothera macrocarpa (bigfruit evening primrose, Ozark sundrop, Missouri evening primrose), though it looks very different from populations south of St. Louis.

I knew there were other trees, principally Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) and Sapindus drummondii (soapberry), on top of the mesa and wanted to see if anything was on them. Bingo! Even before reaching the top, I beat a few Agrilus (several spp.) from the Celtis, and up on top I beat quite a few more off the same. There were also additional mesquite trees up top, off which I again beat a single Agrilus sp. along with a few other things, notably a series of ceresine treehoppers. The Sapindus was just starting to leaf out, and I found nothing by beating them other than a single ceresine. A notable find was the pile of larval frass of Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer) at the base of a living Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia) tree—a sure sign of active infestation by a beetle I have yet to formally record from this place.

Frass at the base of a small Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia)—evidence of an active larval infestation by Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer).

On the way back down from the top, we hit the sunset perfectly as it “touched” a peak in the foreground! Despite my success here this evening, Mike saw no bees of interest on the few flowers that were found due to the cold temps and chilling winds, so tomorrow we will continue west hoping for warmer conditions on the western edge of Oklahoma.

Dramatic sunset “landing” on a small foreground peak.
The opportunity lasted for only a minute!

Back in town, we searched for an open sit-down restaurant—fruitlessly because of the late hour—and ended up with a mediocre breakfast burrito from a fast food shop I’ve never been to before. The local Buick dealership, however, with its 1950s neon lights shining brightly in the night sky, was a taste of Americana that makes these trips so enjoyable. Life on the road!

Jensen’s Buick, Fairview, Oklahoma.

Day 2 – Black Mesa State Park (Cimmaron Co.)
Welp! We awoke this morning to cold temps (low 60s), thick fog, and low hanging clouds, and the forecast for the area showed essentially no improvement through at least the day. Our plan had been to hit a spot about an hour southwest before heading back north to Beaver Dunes State Park, but the forecast for both those areas also was cold and wet. It was not until we looked at the forecast for Black Mesa—our last planned stop of the trip and a 4½-hour-drive to the west—that the forecast seemed to be in our favor, so we decided to blast on out there. We figured we would get there at about 2:00 pm and could spend the rest of the day there collecting, camp there tonight, and start heading back east tomorrow (assuming the forecast improved for the areas we missed).

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana).

Wrong! When we got there, it was not only cloudy and cold, but dry as a bone! Even if it had been sunny with warmer temps, there still would not have been any insect activity to speak of. The leaves of oaks and hackberries in the area were just barely starting to break bud, and the only flowers we saw at the park were a large willow in full bloom—but not a single insect visiting them. Knowing that there was no other place where conditions were better that we could drive to within the next couple of hours and collect for at least a short time, we instead decided to make it a hiking day and hike the High Point Trail at nearby Black Mesa Nature Preserve.

Black Mesa Nature Preserve (Cimmaron Co.)
When we arrived and looked at the signage, we learned that the hike to the oracle at the official high point would be a more than 8-mile hike! Just reaching the top of the mesa itself would be a more than 3-mile-hike, with the high point another mile on top. Not knowing if we had the appetite for such a distance (or time to do it before sunset) and with the wind cold and biting, we started out anyway and gave ourselves permission to turn around at any point if we felt like it.

View along High Point Trail.
View along High Point Trail.
Berlandiera lyrata (lyreleaf greeneyes).

Nevertheless, we persevered. We checked the cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) along the way hoping to see Coenopoeus palmeri (one of the cactus longhorns, which I’m not sure has been recorded from Oklahoma) or at least one of the more widespread Moneilema species, but none were seen (nor really expected). The trail up the side of the mesa was steep and spectacular, and the trail atop the mesa was surreal—especially given the cold winds and low-hanging clouds. Eventually, we made it to the official high point and enjoyed the fun facts carved into each side of the granite obolisk marking the spot.

View along High Point Trail about halfway up the climb.
Juniperus monosperma (one-seed juniper).
Oklahoma High Point obolisk.
Oklahoma High Point marker.
Mike (right) and me at Oklahoma High Point.

Coming back down was not much easier than going up, the steepness of the trail jamming my toes into the toe box of my new hiking boots (which performed admirably!), but I did find an insect—a largish black weevil torpidly crawling on the trail. Even on the relatively level lower portion of the trail once we got there was difficult, our legs really starting to feel the miles now. As we hiked the last mile back to the car, the temperature continued to plummet as it started to sprinkle, turning to rain soon after we reached the car and then heavy rain as we headed down the highway back to the east. The irony of the situation—rain coming to a parched landscape just when we are ready to leave—did not escape us. We’ll spend the night in Boise City and hope for a better forecast tomorrow!

Descending the upper slope on the High Point Trail.

Day 3 – Beaver Dunes State Park (Beaver Co.)
Temps were down in the mid-40s when we awoke this morning, but skies were sunny and we were heartened by a promising forecast of continued sun and highs in the low to mid-60s. Our first destination—Beaver Dunes—was a relatively short 2-hour drive further east, and when we arrived sunny skies still prevailed. Unfortunately, temps still hovered in the mid-50s with a biting wind that made using the beating sheet difficult to impossible.

Dunes at Beaver Dunes State Park.

That said, I managed to beat a fair series of Agrilus spp. (probably mostly one species) and a few other beetles off living Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) dotting the roadside along the entrance to the Picnic Area. Under the main group of hackberries I noticed new growth of Cucurbita foetedissima (buffalo gourd) along with last year’s dead stems. I’ve never collected Dorcasta cinerea (a longhorn beetle that utilizes buffalo gourd as a larval host), so I began splitting open the old stems to see if I could find unemerged adults. I didn’t, but what I did note inside the stems was evidence of boring by some insects and, eventually, the tiniest little scolytine bark beetles that I’ve ever seen. They were always found right at the node, usually in pairs (perhaps male and female?), and I ended up collecting a series of about a dozen specimens from two different stems.

Tradescantia occidentalis (prairie spiderwort, western spiderwort).

Also in the main group of hackberries, I noticed a dead branch hanging from the tree, which had fallen but gotten snagged on a lower branch to remain off the ground. The branch was obviously infested and showed a few emergence holes indicative of both buprestids and cerambycids, and when I broke into it I found two unemerged adult Agrilus (different species), which caused me to cut and bundle the branch to being back for rearing. At the entrance, I went to examine the stand of yellow flowers that greeted our arrival, determining them to be Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus (smallflower desert-chicory, Texas false dandelion). While I was on the ground photographing the flowers, I noticed a red and black hister beetle that proved to be Margarinotus bipustulatus—aptly named considering the two red maculations on the elytra. I also noticed a couple of tiger beetle larval burrows in the hard-packed sandy soil and found a long, thin plant stem to “fish” the larvae out. I managed to snag the larva in one of the burrows, which I believe is Tetracha carolina (Carolina metallic tiger beetle) by virtue of the thin white margin around the prothorax and the open habitat in which the larval burrow occurred. If this is true, then it is a second instar because it is slightly smaller than a typical Cicindela sp. third-instar larva.

Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus (smallflower desert-chicory, Texas false dandelion).
Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus (smallflower desert-chicory, Texas false dandelion).
Margarinotus bipustulatus (family Histeridae).

Afterwards, I went over to the dunes to see if Mike had found anything, but temps were still too cold to see anything flying. He did, however, show me an interesting stand of Penstemon that he’d found and that we determined to be P. fendleri (Fendler’s penstemon). The plants were all on the north side of the dune in apparently protected spots, and I noted that on iNaturalist our observation was the northernmost record for the species (save one suspicious, disjunct Colorado record).

Penstemon fendleri (Fendler’s penstemon).
Penstemon fendleri (Fendler’s penstemon).

On the way back to the car, I beat a few more beetles off living Celtis reticulata. By now, we’d seen all we needed to see here and decided to head southeast to one of the Brachys barberi locations (that were the reason for this trip in the first place).

5 mi E of Harmon (Ellis Co.)
This

Recently, another coleopterist collected Brachys barberi—more typically a southwestern species—on Quercus harvardii (shinnery oak) at this spot. I’ve not managed to find the species myself yet, and as it was collected on May 3rd last year I hoped the timing would be right. Quercus havardii dominated the landscape at this spot, mostly as thick stands of low-growing shrubs but also as a copse of small trees.

Quercus havardii (shinnery oak, shin oak, Havard oak).

At first, I swept the lowest-growing plants, collecting a variety of mostly chrysomelids and curculionids and even one Agrilus sp., before moving to beating along the sunny edges of the patches of taller shrubs and collecting similar species (but no Agrilus sp.). Just to the north, I noticed a stand of individuals tall enough to be considered trees (presumably a clonal stand) and began beating them. Immediately I began collecting not only the chrysomelids and curculionds that I was collecting before, but also several Agrilus spp. and what must be Agrilaxia texana—a species represented in my cabinet by just two specimens that I collected in northeastern Texas way back in 1984.

I worked nearly the full perimeter of the copse, noticing that most of the beetles were being collected only on the south-facing sunny (and leeward) side. When I was just about ready to call it quits, a much larger black and yellow beetle landed on the sheet. For an instant I thought it was a lycid, but it moved characteristically like a longhorned beetle, and I quickly realized that I had collected Elytroleptus floridanus—a quite rare southeastern U.S. species that I have only seen once before when I reared a single individual from dead oak that I collected in the Missouri bootheel (and representing a new state record). I wasn’t sure the species had ever been recorded from Oklahoma, so I found Gryzmala’s revision of the genus online and saw that it had been previously recorded from the state—but all the way over on the east side near the border of Arkansas. All records from Texas as well are from the eastern side of the state, so today’s capture appears to represent a significant northwestern extension of the species’ known geographic range by about 300 miles!

Sadly, I never saw Brachys barberi, but collecting Elytroleptus floridanus (in Oklahoma!) was a pretty good consolation prize.😊


Day 4 – Prologue (“Good to Go” coffee shop)
We awoke to bright sunny skies, and though a tad chilly it was still warmer than the previous mornings and with a good forecast to boot! It would take about an hour to drive to the day’s collecting spot—the one and only Gloss Mountain State Park (where we visited briefly a few days ago to start the trip), but not until after an unexpected and hilariously bizarre experience at a coffee shop in town called “Good to Go”.

“Good to Go” coffee shop lounge.

Mike was the first to notice the velociraptor in the lounge—saddled up for a ride! Okay, that’s cute. Then he noticed the sign on the outdoor display that read “Stegosaurs roamed the Earth about 5,000 years ago.” At first I thought, okay, they’re a little confused on the timeline, but what they’re trying to say is that dinosaurs lived a long time ago.

“Stegosaurs roamed the Earth about 5,000 years ago.”

Then I noticed a granite plaque in the background that clearly read “The Holy Bible”, and it dawned on me that we had entered a creationist’s den! Had we not already ordered our coffee, I might have surreptitiously tiptoed my long-haired hippy butt out of there before somebody pointed at me and began slowly chanting “Lucifer!”

Apparently this is overwhelming evidence that humans saw living dinosaurs.

Once we were outside the shop, our coffee secured and the need for hushed tones no longer muffling our reactions, we took a quick walk with the dinosaurs to admire their seeming scientific accuracy. I was impressed with the T. rex in particular, it’s body axis realistically horizontal with the tail straight and strong—not the lumbering, upright, tail-dragging version that I learned about as a kid. At least they were accepting some of the current body of scientific evidence on dinosaurs and ignoring only that dealing with their age—or so I thought…

A remarkably scientifically accurate rendition of T. rex with the more recently advocated horizontal posture.

The stegosaur as well appeared to be fairly accurately rendered, its tail also straight and strong and a youngster trailing closely behind, until I noticed something atop the adult—an angel riding it! ‘God’s creatures big and small’, I guess.

Note the angel riding the stegosaur!

The coup de grace was the information plaque behind the stegosaur. Rather than providing information on dinosaurs, I was instead treated to a barrage of hilariously unsupported claims advocating the idea that humans and dinosaurs once lived together. Each “factoid” on the plaque was more bizarre and quotable than the one before. Did you know that the adult stegosaur probably died 4,000 years ago in the Great Flood, but that the baby—happily—likely survived by getting a ride on the Ark with Noah! And all that scientific evidence that pinpoints the Cretaceous extinction to 65 million years ago? Apparently it has merely been fabricated as part of a global conspiracy because scientists just don’t want to agree with the Bible. I just about lost it, however, when I reached “It is uncertain if humans ever rode Dinosaurs, but there is overwhelming evidence that humans saw living dinosaurs.” I mean—What?!

I don’t even know where to begin!

Our unplanned morning entertainment now done, we hit the road for our next—and final—collecting spot for the trip.

Gloss Mountain State Park (Major Co.)
We arrived at about 10 am with a plan to spend the rest of the day there—whether the collecting was good or bad, this would be our final stand. We hiked up to the mesa, stopping at an accessible spot about halfway up to work the trees (me) or set out pan traps (Mike). Beating the Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) yielded a similar assortment of beetles as last time—a couple of Agrilus spp. along with the occasional chrysomelid or curculionoid and a few other beetles, and the same was true with Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite), with the exception that I did not find any Agrilus this time.

Gloss Mountain State Park – view west from atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.

Atop the mesa, I decided to do an entire perimeter hike—something I’ve always wanted to do but never actually accomplished. The idea was to beat all of the C. reticulata, P. glandulosa, and Sapindus drummondii (soapberry) that I could find in an effort to “leave no stone unturned” in my quest for beetles. Soon after starting out, I saw a nice Pasimachus elongatus ground beetle running across the mesa top and “forced” it to cooperate for photos by pinning a hind tarsus to the ground with my finger tip (barely visible in the upper left side of the photo). I collected it, as well as another that I saw a short distance away, and then proceeded with the beatings! Beating the C. reticulata was quite productive, with perhaps three Agrilus spp. and numerous other beetles being collected off of nearly every tree that I beat. Beating P. glandulosa also was productive for various beetles, though again no Agrilus were encountered. The biggest surprise came when I started beating S. drummondii, most of which were still in the earliest stages of leafing out. I got nothing from most of the trees (the majority of which were clustered in a small copse near the front of the mesa), but in the back part of the cluster were a couple of trees with noticeably more foliage—beating them yielded perhaps a dozen Agrilus limpiae, a soapberry specialist that I haven’t seen in numbers since 1986 when I collected a series on soapberry in south-central Kansas.

Gloss Mountain State Park – view west from atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Pasimachus elongatus (family Carabidae) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.

I rarely get anything beating Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia), but I beat most of the trees that I saw anyway and collected one cryptocephaline chrysomelid and two curculionoids. A single Eleodes hispilabris (apparently on its last leg) was seen near the north end of the mesa, which I photographed and collected, and on the way back I encountered a small patch of Sphaeralcea coccinea (scarlet globemallow) in bloom, from the flowers of which I collected a few small melyrid-type beetles and a small halictid bee for Mike. Also on the north part of the mesa I saw a young eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), who posed just long enough for me to get off a shot before blasting away from my approaching lens.

Eleodes hispilabris (family Tenebrioindae) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Sphaeralcea coccinea (scarlet globemallow) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Crotaphytus collaris (eastern collared lizard) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.

Throughout the hike atop the mesa I kept my eye out for “new-to-me” plants (of which there are many), finding for the first time Toxicodendron rydbergii (western poison ivy) and blooming individuals of Chaetopappa ericoides (rose heath). Physaria gordonii (Gordon’s bladderpod)—a relative of the federally threatened P. filiformis (Missouri bladderpod)—was blooming abundantly atop the mesa. At this point, Mike and I rejoined and relayed to each other our more notable findings. For Mike’s part, he had seen a couple of cacti that I had missed—Escobaria missouriensis (Missouri foxtail cactus) and Echinocereus reichenbachii perbellus (black lace cactus)—and took me to the spots where he had seen them. While retracing our steps, we also found Gaillardia suavis (pincushion daisy, perfumeballs) and the strikingly beautiful Penstemon cobaea (cobaea beardtongue, prairie beardtongue, foxglove penstemon).

Toxicodendron rydbergii (western poison ivy) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Chaetopappa ericoides (rose heath) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Physaria gordonii (Gordon’s bladderpod) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Escobaria missouriensis (Missouri foxtail cactus) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Escobaria missouriensis (Missouri foxtail cactus) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Echinocereus reichenbachii perbellus (black lace cactus) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Echinocereus reichenbachii perbellus (black lace cactus) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Gaillardia suavis (pincushion daisy, perfumeballs) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Penstemon cobaea (cobaea beardtongue, prairie beardtongue, foxglove penstemon) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Penstemon cobaea (cobaea beardtongue, prairie beardtongue, foxglove penstemon) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.

By this time, I had been on the mesa top for five hours, and even though temperatures were mild (mid-70s) I desperately needed food and water. Mike, for his part, had also had a wildly successful day with bees, capturing many at the flowers and many more in the various pan traps (both in top and halfway up the slope). I descended the steep slope with its mixture of metal steps, cut rock, and wooden planks and enjoyed a quick feast of sardines and Triscuits (a decades-long bug-collecting-trip staple) washed down with Gatorade before getting back to work on the mesquite around the parking lot. I was committed to trying to find Agrilus on the plants—a single individual of which I’d beaten from the plants three days earlier, and after beating several plants and seeing none (but collecting a great number of clytrine and cryptocephaline chrysomelids along with other insects) I finally found one! I continued to work the trees and collect primarily chrysomelids, but no more Agrilus were seen. I am hopeful that it will be a southwestern species not currently known from Oklahoma—a situation I have found with several other Prosopis-associated beetles in this part of northwestern Oklahoma.

Gloss Mountain State Park – view north from atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Gloss Mountain State Park – history of the name.

I hadn’t intended to work any additional Prosopis beyond the road into the parking lot, but there were a few particularly large trees along the front of the park next to the highway rest stop. The first one I beat yielded a very large cryptocephaline that I had not seen on any of the other Prosopis, so I continued beating them and collected a nice series along with a few other clytrines, pachybrachines, and curculionoids. At the furthest point west, I recalled having seen during a previous visit a western diamondback rattlesnake a bit further to the west, so I continued to the spot hoping to see another. No such luck, so I tiptoed through the tall grass back to safety and made my way back to the car to wrap up seven and a half hours of collecting on a spectacular day—sadly, the last of the trip!


Epilogue
This trip was just a warm-up. In just over one week, I will head out again—this time to western Texas and southern Arizona for sure, and maybe elsewhere depending on how things go. At three weeks, it will be the longest collecting trip I’ve done since I went to South Africa in 1999 and Ecuador 10 years before that. I’m also looking forward to meeting up with a number of other coleopterists at various points during the trip—Jason Hansen, Joshua Basham, and Tyler Hedlund in Texas, and Norm Woodley and Steve Lingafelter in Arizona. If there is time, I may stop off at a place or two in northeastern New Mexico and at Black Mesa on the way back. Look for an iReport on that trip sometime in early-mid June!

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

Brazilian Bike Adventure

Atlantic Forest

Atlantic Forest in Serra do Mar.

Yesterday I joined my Brazilian colleagues on a bicycling tour from the outskirts of São Paulo to the beaches of the Atlantic Coast. To say that the tour was an ‘adventure’ is an understatement—it was epic! For those not familiar with São Paulo, its 20 million inhabitants make it not only the largest city in Brazil, but also one of the five largest cities in the world. Yet, despite the explosive growth it has seen during the past century, it remains isolated from the Atlantic Coast of southeastern Brazil by the Serra do Mar, a 40-kilometer wide swath of rugged, mountainous terrain and part of the Great Escarpment that runs along much of the eastern coast of Brazil. It is here where some of the last tracts of Atlantic Forest, the second largest forest ecotype in South America after the Amazon, remain. Atlantic Forest once stretched along much of Brazil’s Atlantic coast, turning inland in its southern reaches to Paraguay and the northern tip of Argentina. However, much of the forest, especially in populous southeastern Brazil, has fallen victim to the axe. Only the ruggedness of the Serra do Mar has allowed the Atlantic Forest to survive in such close proximity to one of the world’s most populous cities. Understandably, travel between São Paulo and the coast has been difficult. In former years, vehicles had to snake their way through the mountains along a treacherous 2-lane highway with steep grades and hairpin turns. That highway has since been circumvented by an elevated, double, 4-lane highway of alternating spans and tunnels, and the old highway, now closed to vehicles, is instead used by maintenance crews for the new highway and cyclists who yearn to experience the Atlantic Forest up close and personal.

Our van dropped us off in the outskirts of São Paulo, from where we rode along the main highway a short bit before accessing the old highway. Dropping into the Atlantic Forest was like being magically transported into virgin wilderness. The pavement was so encroached by the forest, steep and slippery in places, that it was hard to imagine it ever served as a link between Brazil’s largest city and its largest port. Heavy rains the previous night made the forest moist and gave it an earthy aroma, and moisture-laden air hung heavy with fog and intermittent drizzle. For a time it seemed we would have an uninterrupted, 40-km downhill freeride; however, just a few kilometers into the ride we encountered the first of what would be many landslides blocking the route. I can honestly say that I’ve never portaged a bike through as rough and tumble a pile of trees, rocks, and mud as I did on this day. Still, perhaps encouraged by the fresh bike tracks that lay before us, we soldiered on. After picking our way through a half-dozen such landslides we came upon a work crew who said there were another 30–40 landslides further down along the route. We were at a tunnel that connected with the main highway, so we decided to play it safe and take the main highway the rest of the way down. That, too, was an adventure, made feasible only by the fact that traffic was crawling at a snail’s pace due to the popularity of the Atlantic beaches with the citizenry of São Paulo. It was enjoyable to swish past the cars as they idled their engines, but we had to navigate about seven kilometers worth of shoulderless tunnels. That would have been impossible in normal traffic, but the congestion made finding room to squeeze by large trucks and buses the biggest problem (and I guess breathing exhaust!). Eventually we made it down into Santos, the largest port city in Brazil, and after picking our way through the center of the city, took a ferry to the beach city of Guarujá. Rain, landslides and traffic had thrown everything they had at us, but we persevered the 53-km trek and watched the sun break through while enjoying our just rewards in a beachside restaurant.

Following are a few more of my favorite photos from the day, and you can see all of them in my Facebook album Brazilian Bike Adventure.

Descending into the forest.

Descending into the forest.

Magical vistas such as this were around every turn of the road.

Magical vistas such as this awaited us around every turn of the road.

Manacá da Serra (Tibouchina mutabilis) was abundant in the forest.

Manacá da Serra (Tibouchina mutabilis) flowered in abundance in the forest.

Elevated roadways bypass the beauty of the forest below them.

Why did the ‘hellgramite’ (order Megaloptera, family Corydalidae) cross the road? (Thanks to dragonflywoman for the ID.)

The first of many landslides that blocked our path.

The first of many landslides that blocked our path.

The new elevated highway snakes through the Serra do Mar. This portion was closed due to landslides.

The new elevated highway snakes through the Serra do Mar. This portion was closed due to landslides.

Outside of the cicada killer, this digger wasp (family Crabronidae) on the  beach at Guarujá is the largest that I have ever seen.

A large digger wasp (family Crabronidae) greets us on the beach at Guarujá.

My Brazilian colleagues and I enjoy some well-deserved refreshments after our 53-km trek!

My Brazilian colleagues and I enjoy some well-deserved refreshments after our 53-km trek!

I may have looked like a nerd still in my cycling clothes, but the wave experience was unforgettable.

I may have looked like a nerd still in my cycling clothes, but the wave experience was unforgettable.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

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

Black is beautiful!

As much love as I give to tiger beetles, I tend to be just as indifferent to the non-cicindeline ground beetles. Why this is I don’t know; ground beetles sensu lato are super diverse taxonomically, morphologically, and ecologically, and the colors of some rival even the gaudiest of beetles. Still, whenever I see a Harpalus pensylvanicus or Bembidion affine crawling on the ground, my brain just yawns and I look elsewhere. I suspect my tiger beetle inclinations have more to do with their extreme habitat specificity and attendant behavioral adaptations, in which areas the other ground beetles are clearly somewhat lacking. There are also those tiger beetles jaws!

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

Well, there is one group of carabids that does excite me almost (almost!) as much as tiger beetles, and that is the nominate subfamily Carabinae with genera such as Calosoma, Callisthenes, Scaphinotus, and Cychrus—the so-called “caterpillar hunters” and “snail hunters.” These are the giants of the family, with most species measuring at least 15 mm in length and many measuring up to 25 mm in length or more. And then there are those jaws! Perhaps my feelings for this group are no coincidence, given the close relationship between these beetles and tiger beetles (in fact, most molecular data suggest that tiger beetles are firmly nested within the Carabinae).

Baby got jaw!

I came across several individuals representing Calosoma sayi (black caterpillar hunter), including the two individuals shown in the above photographs, back in late August under street lamps in the southeastern Missouri city of Portageville. Though it lacks the metallic colors possessed by many other species in the group, it does have those delightful, sculptured jaws. While I don’t normally like to photograph beetles on pavement, that’s where the beetles were and I’ve had poor luck in trying to move active beetles to an alternative substrate and then get them to settle down and resume natural-looking positions. In this case, it turned out not to be necessary to move the beetles, as the color and texture of the pavement provides a very nice background for these all black beetles. Also, did I mention those jaws?!

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

Feasting on the bounty

Brood XIX periodical cicadas were not the only insects appearing en masse last week at Sam A. Baker State Park in Missouri’s southeastern Ozark Highlands.  As I walked the upland trail, I thought I felt ‘raindrops’ for awhile before realizing that it was frass.  Little pieces of fresh young leaves littered the trail around me, and I realized that an outbreak of caterpillars was hammering the oak trees in this forest.  Unlike the cicadas, which were encountered primarily in the bottomland forest along Big Creek, the rain of poop was restricted to the uplands.  Not surprisingly, I saw caterpillar hunters, Calosoma spp. (family Carabidae—the real Carabidae, not the tiger beetle Carabidae that I’ve begrudgingly had to accept) about as abundantly as I’ve ever seen them.  At first I didn’t notice them until I would scare one up, then spend several frustrating minutes trying to photograph a beetle that just would not stop running.  I tried a few and gave up—after all, they’re just ground beetles (i.e., real ground beetles).  Eventually, I realized that if I noticed them before they noticed me, I could sneak up on them and have my way with them (photographically speaking, that is).  I even found that I could preen nearby leaves and sticks for composition if I did it carefully enough.  Here are a couple of my favorite shots on the day.

I would presume these to represent the fiery searcher, Calosoma scrutator, but apparently C. wilcoxi is similar in appearance.  According to comments by several BugGuide users, C. scrutator is larger (25mm or more in length), has more elongated mandibles and head, and the color of the central purple area of the pronotum is more intense.  Based on those comments, I would say the two individuals in these photographs are C. scrutator.  However, they also note some differences in temporal occurrence that don’t seem to support that.  Moreover, the many individuals I saw that day ranged in size from these larger individuals to some notably smaller ones.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Tyrant ground beetles

I return to my Afrikaans theme with a distinctive group of ground beetles (family Carabidae) called tyrant ground beetles or spotted ground beetles (tribe Anthiini). I think I prefer the former. This tribe is largely restricted to Africa and is especially diverse and abundant in the arid, sandy Karoo and Kalahari regions of southern Africa (Scholtz & Holm 1985). These beetles are large, powerful predators that rely on speed and agility for capturing prey, and since they are also flightless these characteristics come in handy for avoiding becoming prey themselves. Failing that, they employ chemical defense in the form of secretions from a pygidial gland located in the area of the ninth abdominal segment. The chemical cocktail within these secretions contains concentrated organic acids or quinone that can be squirted at potential predators in a strong jet. This is an effective deterrent to small mammalian and avian predators, and I suppose a careless beetle collector might also regret handling these beetles without due respect. These defensive spray capabilities give rise to another common name for the group, “oogpister” – an Afrikaner word that literally translates to (ahem) “eye pisser.”

Anthia (s. str.) thoracicaDuring my time in Africa, Chuck Bellamy and I were primarily focused on collecting buprestids. However, we still couldn’t resist hanging an ultraviolet light in front of a sheet and searching the ground with flashlights at night to see what diversity of other African insects we might encounter. Truth be told, one of the non-buprestid groups that I’d really hoped to encounter was a near relative of these beetles – the so-called “monster tiger beetles” of the genus Manticora (family Cicindelidae1). We never did see any monsters, but we did encounter several species of anthiine ground beetles around our encampment at Geelhoutbos farm near the Waterberg Range in Limpopo Provice. Anthia (s. str.) thoracica, the giant African ground beetle (above), was the most impressive of these. Click on the photo to see a larger version – only then will it begin to convey how truly appropriate such a common name is for this species. It is certainly the largest ground beetle that I have ever seen – a full 50 mm in length! That’s 2 inches, folks! This species is easily recognized by the depressed lateral expansions of the pronotum covered with dense white/yellow pubescence, and the slightly smaller male that I caught exhibits more elongated mandibles (though not so incredibly as in Manticora) and marvelous lobes extending backward from the pronotum.

1 Increasingly placed within the Carabidae as subfamily Cicindelinae on the basis of molecular phylogenetic analysis, along with Paussinae and Rhysodinae (e.g., Beutel et al. 2008).

Anthia (Termophilum) omoplataIn addition to true Anthia, we saw two species of the subgenus Anthia (Termophilum)2. The species shown right is A. (T.) omoplata3, with the common name “two-spotted ground beetle” (Picker et al. 2002). It was almost as large as its giant brother above, measuring 47 mm in length. Of this species, I only saw this one individual, but I did also find two individuals of a related species, T. fornasinii. Unfortunately I was unable to photograph the latter species, which is equally large but with the elytral white markings limited to a thin marginal band and the surface of the elytra bearing strong longitudinal intervals – a handsome beast, indeed! Picker et al. (2002) mention T. homoplatum being a diurnal hunter, but we found all of our anthiines active nocturnally.

2 Treated variously in the literature as either a full genus or as a subgenus of Anthia. I follow Carabidae of the World, in which it is given subgeneric status. The name is often cited as “Thermophilum” in the literature, but this is an incorrect subsequent spelling according to Alexandre Anischenko (in litt.), coordinator/editor of Carabidae of the World.

3 Usually cited as “homoplatum” or “homoplata” in the literature, but this is an incorrect subsequent spelling (Anischenko in litt.).

cypholoba-alveolataA second genus in the tribe is Cypholoba, represented here by C. alveolata. As far as I can tell it lacks a common name, which is not surprising since it is somewhat smaller than the Anthia species mentioned above. Still, my two specimens measure 38 and 35 mm in length – not puny by any standard. There can be no doubt as to the origin of the specific epithet of this species’ scientific name, with its marvelously alveolate elytra. I don’t think I’ve seen such an extraordinary example of this type of surface sculpturing on a beetle of this size, making the species every bit as spectacular as the larger anthiines.

A truly fascinating aspect of Africa’s tyrant ground beetles is their role as models in Batesian mimicry systems. That these beetles should serve as models is not at all surprising due to their chemical defensive capabilities and obviously aposematic coloration. What is surprising is the mimic – juveniles of the lizard species, Eremias lugubris, in what is believed to be the first reported case of a terrestrial vertebrate mimicking an invertebrate (Huey & Pianka 1977). The juveniles not only copy (roughly) the black and white coloration of anthiine beetles but also mimic their rapid, skitty movements – foraging actively with “jerky” motions and arched backs. Their tails remain somber colored, however, allowing them to blend into the sand. These adaptations combine to give the harmless little lizard the size, color, profile, and gait of the beetles. As the lizards reach adulthood (and their greater size makes them less prone to predation), they take on a more typical cryptic coloration and move in a slower, more deliberately lizard-like manner. This mimicry association effectively reduces predation of the juveniles by potential predators, who quickly learn to avoid the noxious, and more frequently encountered, anthiine models.

REFERENCES:

Beutela, R. G., I. Riberab and O. R. P. Bininda-Emonds. 2008. A genus-level supertree of Adephaga (Coleoptera). Organisms, Diversity & Evolution, 7:255–269.

Huey, R. B. and B. R. Pianka. 1977. Natural selection for juvenile lizards mimicking noxious beetles. Science, 195 (4274):201-203.

Picker, M., C. Griffiths and A. Weaving. 2002. Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, 444 pp.

Scholtz, C. H. and E. Holm (eds.). 1985. Insects of Southern Africa. Butterworths, Durbin, 502 pp.