Cicada killer on the fly

An eastern cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus) searches for her burrow | Jacksonville, Illinois.

I don’t normally spend much time trying to photograph insects in flight. To really do it right requires some rather specialized equipment, including very high-speed flash, and a bucketload of patience and skill. John Abbott exemplifies those whose great talent has produced stunning photographs of insects in mid-flight. That’s not to say that it can’t be done “on the fly,” so to speak, and even a hack like me can get lucky every now and then.

Earlier today I found a rather large number of eastern cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus) in a ball field in Jacksonville, Illinois. These impressive wasps are the largest wasp in eastern North America and have the rather gruesome habit of paralyzing cicadas with their sting, and then dragging them down into their burrows to be eaten alive by their grubs. I’ve recently become interested in solitary wasps (for reasons to be discussed later) and decided to see if I could get some decent photographs. I got a few I like (more on this later), but my favorite is this total luck-out shot of a wasp face-on in mid-flight. As I watched them, I noticed that each wasp spent a fair amount of time trying to identify its burrow amongst the dozen or more that were clustered along one side of the field. Occasionally they would land and search about a bit on foot, then take wing again to continue their search. I decided the best way to get a shot of one on the wing would be to watch for a wasp to arrive and begin its search. When I spotted one I would slowly close distance so I could be ready to get down on my elbows as soon as it landed (closing distance without spooking the wasp was not easy). I had just my center focal point set and autofocus turned on (normally I don’t use autofocus) and had already worked out a good flash exposure compensation setting. As soon as I got on my elbows, I would quickly frame the wasp and repeatedly trigger the autofocus as I got even closer, and when the wasp took flight I took the shot. This was still a crap shoot—I ended up with lots of out-of-focus and out-of-frame photos. Nevertheless, a few turned out fairly decent, one of which was this single, perfectly head-on and well-focused photo (though admittedly somewhat cropped).

Too bad I didn’t collect any of the wasps—at $49 each I could’ve made enough cash to buy that flash bracket I’ve been eyeing!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

One-Shot Wednesday: two-striped grasshopper nymph

Melanoplus bivittatus (Two-striped Grasshopper) nymph | Jerseyville, Illinois

As the heat of summer solidifies its chokehold over the middle and southern latitudes of North America, grasshopper nymphs will begin to ramp up their development. I see grasshoppers commonly in my soybean field trials, where their feeding presents more of an annoyance to me than an actual threat to yields.

I photographed this particular individual on almost this same date last year in one of my Illinois soybean trials, not knowing for sure which species it represented. There was no particular reason for only taking this one single photograph, other than it was perched nicely when I saw it and that I did not feel like taking the time to chase it into another good pose after my first shot disturbed it.

Later in the season I saw numerous adults representing Melanoplus differentialis (differential grasshopper), a common species in this area, and assumed this was its nymph. However, a closer look at the photo suggests it represents the closely related M. bivittatus (two-striped grasshopper). While adults of these two species are easily distinguished based on coloration, the nymphs can look very similar (especially in their earlier instars) and are distinguished on the basis of the black femoral marking—more or less solid in M. bivittatus and broken into chevrons that create a “herringbone” pattern in M. differentialis.

Wing pad size and relative body proportions suggest this is a fourth-instar nymph.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Peek-A-Boo!

Dissosteira carolina (Carolina grasshopper) | Jersey Co., Illinois

Despite the geographic specificity of its scientific and common names, the Carolina grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina) can be found in every state of the contiguous United States and adjacent provinces of Canada. Its large size, cryptic coloration with yellow hind wings, tendency of males to crepitate during flight (a snapping or crackling sound made by rubbing the under surface of the forewings against the veins of the hind wings), and distinctively chunky nymphs would normally be enough to attract a lot of attention were it not also among the most overwhelmingly ubiquitous of grasshoppers throughout much of its range. I could give all sorts of information about its food habits, migration and dispersal behavior, daily activities, etc., but this would be redundant given the excellent Species Fact Sheet that has been generated for it by the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station (Pfidt 1996).

This individual was found in a soybean field in Jersey Co., Illinois. They are extremely wary and perhaps the most difficult-to-approach grasshopper I’ve encountered yet. Considering my particular fascination with oedipodine grasshoppers, I felt compelled to take some photographs—but, my God, there are already a godzillion photos of this species on the web.  I decided to limit myself to this one rather unusual perspective and leave it at that!

REFERENCE:

Pfidt, R. E.  1996. Carolina Grasshopper Dissosteira carolina (Linnaeus). Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 912, Species Fact Sheet, 4 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network

For those of you who plan to be in the Chicago area on Saturday, March 7th, perhaps you’ll be interested in attending the 2009 Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network Annual Indoor Workshop. I’ll be giving a talk entitled, “From Hilltops to Swamps: Insects in Missouri’s Rarest Prairies,” in which I’ll focus on the natural history and some associated insects in two of Missouri’s most critically imperiled natural communities – the loess hilltop prairies in the northwestern corner of the state, and the sand prairies of the southeastern lowlands. How a beetle guy ended up being invited to talk to a butterfly group is still a little confusing to me, but apparently IBMN Director, Doug Taron (author of Gossamer Tapestry) put in a good word for me.

The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network (IBMN) is a citizen scientist program monitoring the health of butterfly populations throughout northeastern and central Illinois.

The IBMN was initiated in 1987 by The Nature Conservancy to explore the effects of habitat management on invertebrates. From 7 sites in the Chicagoland area in its first year, the program has expanded greatly and is now monitoring more than 100 sites throughout Illinois.  Butterflies are ideal “indicator organisms” with which to monitor the effects of prescribed burning and other management techniques, since many species are restricted to intact prairie and savanna remnants by narrow habitat requirements.  The fact that they are relatively easy to identify allows them to be monitored in a cost effective manner with the help of dedicated amateurs.  Much the same can be said for tiger beetles (which will – surprise! – be featured prominently my talk).

The workshop will be held Saturday, March 7, 2009, 9:30 AM until 3:00 PM at the Gail Borden Public Library, 270 North Grove Avenue, Elgin (directions).  Registration is required, contact Mel Manner at (847) 464-4426 or by email.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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