When is an ant not an ant? When it’s a jumping spider, of course!

Peckhamia sp.

This past weekend my good friend and long-time collecting partner Rich and I visited one of our favorite insect collecting spots in all of Missouri – Victoria Glades Conservation Area. Together with an adjacent parcel owned by The Nature Conservancy, these represent one of the finest remaining examples of the glades – more properly called xeric limestone prairies – that once extended in an arc through Jefferson Co. south of St. Louis on south and west facing exposures of dolomitic limestone1.

For a more detailed description of the geology and natural history of these glades, see my post The Glades of Jefferson County.

Spring was late this season, with cool and wet conditions persisting into the early part of May. During the past two weeks, however, it has warmed and dried considerably (too much, almost), and thus the cacophony of life has begun in earnest. Still, despite the heat, we found the abundance of insects rather sparing, which in combination with the suite of wildflowers that were seen in bloom gave a feel of early spring (I mentioned to Rich that it “seemed like May 10th”). There were a few good species to be found though, the first being a single Agrilus fuscipennis, beaten off of its host persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Continued beating of persimmon turned up little else, at which point I turned my attention to the post oak (Quercus stellata) trees lining the margins of the glades. The first couple of branches that I whacked turned up little of interest, but an “ant” that fell on my sheet from the third branch gave me pause – it was a little “too big”, and the manner it which it scampered across the sheet was a little “too urgent” and “too halting”. When I looked at it more closely, I realized that it was, of course, not an ant at all, but a jumping spider (family Salticidae), and more specifically a species in one of several genera within the family that are known for their striking mimicry of ants.

I have long wanted to photograph one of these gems, having seen them once or twice before but thus far not successful in photographing them. In this particular case, I had the advantage of somebody to help me, so I coaxed the spider onto a stick and had Rich hold it while I got my camera ready. Unfortunately, the ant… er, spider just kept running up and down the stick from one end to the other, forcing me to repeatedly grab the stick on alternating ends with one hand after the other (and quickly or it would run onto my hands!) and never really having an opportunity to attempt some shots. After a time of this, I decided to coax it onto a leaf instead to see if the larger, flatter surface might be of some help. It really didn’t, though, as the ant JUST. WOULD. NOT. STOP. RUNNING! Eventually, I resorted to simply trying to track the spider through the lens – holding the camera with my right hand and the leaf with my left, and firing shots whenever I thought the spider might be even close to in focus. I can be patient when photographing insects (and their kin), but this spider certainly tested my limits, and I eventually ended the session not at all confident that I had any usable photos. To my surprise, I managed to get one image (above) that wasn’t half bad and another that was at least serviceable (below – focus a bit too much in “front”).

Peckhamia sp.

As far as I can tell, this individual is a species of the genus Peckhamia, which Cutler (1988) distinguishes from the related genus Synageles by the carapace being more convex in the cephalic area and sharply declivous (downward sloping) behind the third row of eyes. The individual in these photos seems to agree with these characters, if I am interpreting them correctly. He also mentions the habit of species in these two genera to hold their second pair of legs aloft to give the illusion of them being antennae, which we noted for this individual and can attest to its effectiveness!

For more about ant mimics that I have found in Missouri, see my previous posts Flower ants? Check again! and North America’s itsiest bitsiest longhorned beetle.


Cutler, B. 1988. A revision of the American species of the antlike jumping spider genus Synageles (Araneae, Salticidae). Journal of Arachnology 15(3) [1987]:321–348 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2018

Mrs. Monday Jumper

Phidippus princeps female | Howell Co., Missouri

Phidippus princeps female | Howell Co., Missouri

In my previous post, Monday Jumper, I featured a photo of a strikingly colored jumping spider (family Salticidae) that apparently represents an adult male Phidippus princeps. Far too skittish to attempt photographing in the field, I placed him in a vial and photographed him later in the hotel room but still only got one photo that was good enough to post. Shortly after gathering him up, I came across another jumping spider that proved far more cooperative for field shots. This was no doubt due in large part to the fact that she had just captured a fat, juicy caterpillar. I find predaceous insects to be far less skittish when they are involved in the act of consuming prey. This not only makes them easier to approach and photograph, but also adds a desirable natural history element to photos that is sometimes missing in “portrait-only” photographs.

Somber coloration, large abdomen, and small carapace contrast distinctly with the male

Somber coloration, large abdomen, and small carapace contrast distinctly with the male

I say “she” because of the classic female characters exhibited—relatively large and rounded abdomen (males tend to have a smaller and more tapered abdomen), smaller carapace, somber coloration, and absence of a “boxing glove” aspect to the pedipalps. Like the male I had just collected, she was on the foliage of an oak sapling, and as I began taking photographs I noticed in the preview screen the brilliant, metallic blue chelicerae that are a hallmark of the large salticid genus Phidippus. I had also presumed the male I had just collected belonged to this same genus based on gestalt, but I could have never imagined that the two individuals actually represented male and female of the very same species. Such appears to be the case, however, as a thorough perusal of the salticid galleries at BugGuide leads me to believe that the individual featured here is the adult female of Phidippus princeps.

Check out those metallic blue chelicerae!

Check out those metallic blue chelicerae!

These photos still may not approach the technical and aesthetic perfection exhibited by master salticid portraitist Thomas Shahan, but I think they do represent an improvement over my first attempt at photographing a feeding female. The first two photos are fine, but the third suffers from the focus being a little too “deep”, which seems to be my most frequent macrophotography mistake on higher mag shots. If you have any tips on how to overcome this particular problem I am all ears!

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Monday Jumper

Phidippus pinceps, adult male | Howell Co., Missouri (studio shot).

Phidippus princeps, adult male | Howell Co., Missouri (studio shot).

A couple of weeks ago, shortly after my friend Rich and I began hiking a 9-mile stretch of the North Fork Section of the Ozark Trail in the far southern reaches of Missouri, we encountered this colorful jumping spider (family Salticidae) on the foliage of an oak sapling. He was not at all in the mood to be photographed—dashing persistently from one side of the leaf to the other and finally dropping to the ground as I tried to close in for some shots. So active was the little guy, that even had I managed to get him within the camera’s field of view it would have been nearly impossible to get him properly focused, much less achieve a nice composition. Hoping he would be a little easier to work with in the confines of a hotel “studio”, we coaxed him into a vial with a sprig of foliage and then got him out and placed him on a branch of dogwood flowers (Cornus florida) that evening once we were in our room. Yes—he was easier to work with, but only by the fact that being in a hotel room made it more difficult for him to escape! He was just as active as in the field, darting from flower to flower in his persistent efforts to elude the large glass eye that kept trying to look at him. For many subjects, I would have given up rather than spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get photographs that likely would not turn out to be what I wanted. But this spider was just so attractive—red and black and white with flashy blue chelicerae! I persisted in my efforts, got about two dozen shots off before he finally did escape, then promptly deleted all but five immediately after seeing them on the computer. The photo shown here is the only “keeper” that I can actually bring myself to post—the focus is a bit too deep, but not so much that it detracts greatly from what is otherwise a fairly decent composition. The more I shoot jumping spiders, the more I am amazed at the portraits that Thomas Shahan achieves with these delightful little arachnids.

After browsing through the salticid galleries at BugGuide, I am inclined to believe this is the species Phidippus princeps, with the coloration and white-stripes on the pedipalps suggesting it is an adult male. ID correction welcome.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Not quite a one-shot

This little jumping spider (~8 mm in length) was in one of my soybean fields in west-central Illinois last week. She(?) was quite fidgety and kept jumping from the leaf on which I found her as I tried to carry the leaf out of the field to a more open and convenient place  to take photographs. Once I got out to the grassy field border, I managed to get one photograph (not shown but similar to this one) right before she jumped off the leaf yet again. However, I was able to find her and coax her back onto the leaf for this last shot before she jumped off again—never to be found again! I presume this spider belongs to the genus Phidippus based on the cephalic tufts, and within that genus maybe a species in the P. clarus group (corrections welcome!).

When I look at insect macrophotographs, I like to do reverse engineering on the lighting to figure out what was the flash/diffuser setup. I have a few different diffusers that I use depending on which lens I’m using and how important the photographs are. In this case, I was taking photographs of soybean insects for work purposes and didn’t bother putting on the larger concave diffuser that I use when I’m really concerned about getting more even lighting. Instead, I was just using my snap-on Sto-Fens+Gary Fong Puffers. The difference between these two diffuser setups and their effect on lighting is minor in many cases, but when photographing very shiny surfaces (such as the eyes of this spider) the differences are much more apparent, and it is obvious from this photo that I was using a twin flash unit with separate diffusers on each flash head.

There is one more feature apparent about the lighting in this photograph—note that the “left” flash head appears much more diffuse than the “right” flash head. This is because the right diffuser had actually fallen off of the flash head without me noticing (also never to be found again!). As a result, the light from only one of the flash heads was diffused, while that from the other hit the subject in all its harsh glory. I don’t really like the twin highlights that are the hallmark of twin macro flash units, and if I had known I was going to be photographing jumping spiders when I was in the soybean field I would have gone ahead and used my concave diffuser. I’ve also learned, however, that great photographs are not something that I can expect to pop off while concentrating on other activities—I need to concentrate fully on the photographs and spend a good amount of time doing it until I feel like I’ve gotten the shots that I want. I never really liked the Sto-Fen+Puffer diffusers, as they were only marginally better than no diffuser (and this photograph shows it), so losing one of them might be a blessing in disguise as now I’ll be motivated to try out some of the many other diffuser ideas I’ve been toying around with but never really taken the time to sit down and try them out.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Adult male Hentzia palmarum jumping spider

Hentzia palmarum, adult male | Scott Co., Missouri

A brief break from photos from Argentina. Last week—just a few days after returning from my 8-week absence—I visited two of the sand prairie preserves in Missouri’s southeastern lowlands to try to photograph individuals from the unique, disjunct population the Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris) found down there. Spring was well underway in the area, but several days of cold and rain seemed to have sent the tigers into their burrows until warmer temperatures returned. I spotted some Hibiscus lasiocarpus plants growing along the edge of a low wet spot adjacent to the prairie, so I started peering into their still unfurling leaves in hopes of finding the jewel beetle Paragrilus tenuis that utilizes the living stems of plants of this genus for larval development, but even they seemed to be awaiting balmier days. As I peered down into the leaves of one plant I notice a flick of movement, and carefully peeling apart the leaves revealed this adult male of the diminutive jumping spider Hentzia palmarum. Something was odd about this spider, and I finally realized the little guy was missing one of his characteristically enlarged and darkened front legs.

Note the elongated chelicerae.

Despite its missing leg, I became determined to photograph this spider. It certainly did not wish to be photographed, and perhaps that is the reason why. I gently snipped the leaf it was sitting on and held it in front of the camera, but every time I turned the leaf towards the camera it cowered and zipped around to the backside. Several times it attempted to flee by jumping off the leaf, but each time I pulled it back up by its thread before it hit the ground and lowered it back down onto the leaf again. Eventually I got a few shots I could live with. Of course, then I found this photo by Thomas Shahan (he describes it as “not a great photo…”) and almost felt embarrassed to show these here. Maybe I’d better stick to photographing tiger beetles!

The enlarged and conspicuously colored front legs of the males almost certainly serve some function in courtship. However, there seems to be no discussion of this in a recent revision of the genus (Richman 1989), and my further search for information about this only turned up one paper by Crocker & Skinner (1984). I really couldn’t understand anything the paper said, so for now I’m left with my presumptions that the legs are used as flags of sort—both to females to signal his availability and willingness as well as other males with more threatening intentions.


Crocker, R. L. & R. B. Skinner. 1984. Boolean model of the courtship and agonistic behavior of Hentzia palmarum (Araneae: Salticidae). The Florida Entomologist 67(1):97–106.

Richman, D. B. 1989. A revision of the genus Hentzia (Araneae: Salticidae). Journal of Arachnology 17:285–344.

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

BitB Top 10 of 2010

Welcome to the 3rd Annual BitB Top 10, where I pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year.  My goal for 2010 was to continue the progress that I began the previous year in my quest to become a bona fide insect macrophotographer.  I’m not in the big leagues yet, but I have gotten more comfortable with using my equipment for in situ field photographs and am gaining a better understanding of lighting and the use of flash.  I also began experimenting with different lighting techniques (e.g. white box) and diffusers and am putting more effort into post-processing techniques to enhance the final appearance of my photographs.  I invite you to judge for yourself how successful I’ve been toward those goals by comparing the following selections with those from 2009 and 2008 – constructive feedback is always welcome:

Best Tiger Beetle

Cicindela denverensis - green claybank tiger beetle

From ID Challenge #1 (posted December 23).  With numerous species photographed during the year and several of these dramatic “face on” shots, this was a hard choice.  I chose this one because of the metallic colors, good focus throughout the face, and evenly blurred “halo” of hair in a relatively uncluttered background.

Best Jewel Beetle

Buprestis rufipes - red-legged buprestis

From Special Delivery (posted July 13).  I didn’t have that many jewel beetles photos to choose from, but this one would have risen to the top no matter how many others I had.  The use of a white box shows off the brilliant (and difficult-to-photograph) metallic colors well, and I like the animated look of the slightly cocked head.

Best Longhorned Beetle

Desmocerus palliatus - elderberry borer

From Desmocerus palliatus – elderberry borer (posted November 18).  I like the mix of colors in this photograph, and even though it’s a straight dorsal view from the top, the partial dark background adds depth to the photo to prevent it from looking “flat.”

Best “Other” Beetle

Enoclerus ichneumoneus - orange-banded checkered beetle

From Orange-banded checkered beetle (posted April 22).  The even gray background compliments the colors of the beetle and highlights its fuzziness.  It was achieved entirely by accident – the trunk of the large, downed hickory tree on which I found this beetle happened to be a couple of feet behind the twig on which it was resting.

Best Non-Beetle Insect

Euhagenia nebraskae - a clearwing moth

From Euhagena nebraskae… again (posted October 21).  I photographed this species once before, but those photos failed to capture the boldness of color and detail of the scales that can be seen in this photo.

Best “Posed” Insect

Lucanus elaphus - giant stag beetle

From North America’s largest stag beetle (posted December 30).  I’ve just started experimenting with photographing posed, preserved specimens, and in fact this male giant stag beetle represents only my second attempt.  It’s hard to imagine, however, a more perfect subject than this impressively stunning species.

Best Non-Insect Arthropod

Scolopendra heros - giant desert centipede

From North America’s largest centipede (posted September 7).  Centipedes are notoriously difficult to photograph due to their elongate, narrow form and highly active manner.  The use of a glass bowl and white box allowed me to capture this nicely composed image of North America’s most spectacular centipede species.

Best Wildflower

Hamamelis vernalis - Ozark witch hazel

From Friday Flower – Ozark Witch Hazel (posted March 26).  The bizarre form and striking contrast of colors with the dark background make this my favorite wildflower photograph for the year.

Best Non-Arthropod

Terrapene carolina triunguis - three-toed box turtle

From Eye of the Turtle (posted December 10).  I had a hard time deciding on this category, but the striking red eye in an otherwise elegantly simple photograph won me over.  It was also one of two BitB posts featured this past year on Freshly Pressed.

Best “Super Macro”

Phidippus apacheanus - a jumping spider

From Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those multilayered retinae? (posted October 5).  I’m not anywhere close to Thomas Shahan (yet!), but this super close-up of the diminutive and delightfully colored Phidippus apacheanus is my best jumping spider attempt to date.  A new diffuser system and increasing comfort with using the MP-E lens in the field at higher magnification levels should allow even better photos this coming season.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those multilayered retinae?

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to get a chance to blast down to the White River Hills in extreme southwestern Missouri.  Cicindela obsoleta vulturina (prairie tiger beetle) was my quarry – I had made arrangements to meet up with fellow cicindelophile Steve Spomer (principal author of Tiger Beetles of South Dakota & Nebraska, Spomer et al. 2008) and show him a few of the better sites I had found for this species.  We would have good success due to gorgeous fall weather and perfect timing, and the next day I would be fortunate to extend its known distribution further north and east.  Still, the beetles are not early risers, and I found myself that second morning with some time on my hands while waiting for these sleepy-heads to arise from their slumber and begin their foraging activities.  As I trolled the thinly soiled dolomite exposures of a new site I had identified the previous day, a spot of red jerking erratically through the sparse vegetation caught my eye, and looking closer I was delighted to see this small but brilliantly colored jumping spider (family Salticidae) trying to evade my gaze.

Jumping spiders are perhaps the most diverse of all spider families, but it is their extraordinary visual capabilities and complex predatory and courtship behaviors that they are best known for.  Popular as research subjects, to the rest of us they are simply endearing little animals.  Some of the largest and most colorful jumping spiders belong to the genus Phidippus, which is also one of the most diverse genera in the family and boasts some 60 species in the continental United States (Edwards 2004).  The genus is characterized by details of the eye placement and carapace shape (Richman 1978) but can often be recognized by their relatively large size, numerous erect hairs, and conspicuous iridescent chelicerae just below the front eyes.  The species can be quite difficult to identify, especially the females, but I feel reasonably confident that this individual is a male of the widespread species P. apacheanus.

I wasn’t always so confident – browsing images on BugGuide left me confused after finding images of P. apacheanus and P. cardinalis males that looked almost identical. However, further digging reveals P. apacheanus is characteristically a more intense red, while P. cardinalis is more orangey with lighter bristles which may appear silvery.  Also, P. cardinalis often displays makings on the abdomen – generally a light line running around the anterior part of the abdomen and sometimes tiny light spots on the dorsum – that are absent in P. apacheanus.  (This begs the question as to whether some of the BugGuide photos may be misidentified?)  Another Phidippus species that might be confused with P. apacheanus is P. clarus; however, that species has a black cephalothorax and bright abdominal markings.  According to Herschel RaneyP. apacheanus is most often seen in fall.

This was a very difficult subject to photograph.  He refused to come out in the open, preferring to duck and peek from behind whatever vegetation he could find.  Realizing that my desire to photograph him without any manipulation would be a lesson in futility, I used my finger to prod him towards and onto a small, flat, lichen-encrusted rock, where he would look at me with ever-increasing alarm and try to flee at the approach of the camera.  Lots of failed shots were discarded in the field before I finally got a few I thought I could live with (which, I think, are a decided improvement over my first jumping spider photos).  As I zoomed in for the closeups, I saw for the first time the shimmering of his multilayered retinae moving in the depths of his primary medial eyes.  The retina is the darkest part of the eye, thus, when the eye is at its darkest the spider is looking straight at you!

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13), Canon MT-24EX flash (1/8 ratio) w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).


Edwards, G. B.  2004. Revision of the jumping spiders of the genus Phidippus (Araneae: Salticidae). Occasional Papers of the Florida State Collection of Arthropods 11:i-viii, 1-156, 350 figs.

Richman, D. B.  1978. Key to the jumping spider (salticid) genera of North America.  Peckhamia 1(5):77–81.

Spomer, S. M., M. L. Brust, D. C. Backlund and S. Weins.  2008. Tiger Beetles of South Dakota & Nebraska. University of Nebraska, Department of Entomology, Lincoln, 60 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010