A time of reckoning

The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

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

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

I’m not normally one to quote Bible passages, but this line from Acts 2:20 seems appropriately ominous for the predicament of this poor hornworm caterpillar. The white objects on its back are the cocoons of tiny parasitic wasps in the family Braconidae who spent their entire lives inside the body of the growing caterpillar slowly eating away the inner tissues of the caterpillar, eventually consuming all but the most essential of its internal organs before exiting the skin and spinning their tiny, silken cocoons. Inside the cocoons the tiny grubs transformed into adult wasps, chewed their way out through the tip of the cocoon, and flew off to mate and find more hornworm caterpillars to parasitize. Its unwelcome guests now gone, this poor caterpillar has nothing to do but to sit and await its inevitable demise (which I suspect the caterpillar will not regard as such a “great and magnificent day”).

I found this caterpillar resting on a vine climbing a tree along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri after setting up an ultraviolet light nearby and noticing the softly glowing cocoons. I was going to photograph it in situ, but I’ve learned that choice of background can have a dramatic effect on insect photographs, and the jumble of weeds and tree bark that would have comprised the background had I photographed the caterpillar where it sat seemed decidedly boring. I looked up and saw the blood red moon (a so called “super moon”) rising above the river in the eastern sky and decided to give it a try. The above photograph is actually a composite of two photographs—one of the caterpillar taken with flash and fairly normal camera settings, and another of the moon itself with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all adjusted for very low light conditions (at least to the extent possible without a tripod). While this may not qualify in some people’s minds as a “real” photograph, it is nevertheless a true representation of what I actually saw, as I also made a number of attempts to capture both the insect and the moon in a single exposure. Since it is impossible to have both the insect (very close) and the moon (very far) in focus at the same time, the resulting photograph has a different, though still striking, effect, as shown in the photograph below:

IMG_6919_enh_1080x720

A more surrealistic version of the above photograph, with both caterpillar and moon captured in a single exposure.

This second photograph is actually much harder to take, as the moon does not appear in the viewfinder as the small, discrete, fuzzy-edged object resulting in the image, but rather as a large, blinding light that is difficult to place within the composition and know exactly where it will end up (at least, without a lot of trial and error). Add to that the fact that my camera image and histogram display panel is, at the moment, not functional, forcing me to “guess” if I had the right settings (in a situation where I’m well outside of my ‘normal’ settings for flash macrophotography). I’m a little surprised that I ended up with any usable photographs at all!

I’ve tried this type of photography with the sun as well—those interested to see how those photographs turned can find them at Sunset for another great collecting trip and Under Blood Red Skies.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Proof that it’s possible to ship large, pinned beetles safely!

Miscellaneous Buprestidae from Dan Heffern

Miscellaneous Buprestidae from Dan Heffern

Those who have followed this blog for awhile know that I’ve been on a bit of a rant during the past few months about the way pinned insect specimens are packed and shipped. This has been prompted primarily by the receipt of several damaged insect shipments, some of the more egregious examples of which are shown here and on Facebook. In all of these cases, damage could have been prevented had the specimens simply been packed and shipped using standard best practices.

I do not wish, however, to give the impression that every insect shipment I receive is damaged. The photo above represents a shipment I just received from Dan Heffern, who is kindly gifting to me some of the excess Buprestidae that he has in his collection in order to make room for his more beloved Cerambycidae. This shipment was especially prone to damage because of the number of large, heavy-bodied specimens it contains. Nevertheless, it arrived safe and sound because of the attention paid by Dan to securing the specimens in place. Note the liberal use of brace pins around each specimen—the larger the specimen, the more brace pins. In addition, the pinning box features a double-foam layer. Double-foam holds specimens much more securely in place than does a single layer, and while I didn’t mention it in my original post it’s a good idea for shipments containing large, heavy-bodied specimens. One drawback of double-foam is that it pushes labels on the pin up close to the specimen, but re-positioning labels on pins is certainly better than having to reattach broken body parts on specimens!

My thanks to Dan for this fine shipment and for paying such great attention to its packing to ensure receipt in the best condition possible!

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

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

The importance of post-processing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

Beetle Collecting 101: How to rear wood-boring beetles

I’ve been collecting wood-boring beetles for more than three decades now, and if I had to make a list of “essential” methods for collecting them I would include “beating,” “blacklighting,” and “rearing.” Beating is relatively straightforward—take a beating sheet (a square piece of cloth measuring 3–5 ft across and suspended beneath wooden, metal, or plastic cross members), position it beneath a branch of a suspected host plant, and tap the branch with a stick or net handle. Many wood-boring beetles tend to hang out on branches of their host plants, especially recently dead ones, and will fall onto the sheet when the branch is tapped. Be quick—some species (especially jewel beetles in the genus Chrysobothris) can zip away in a flash before you have a chance to grab them (especially in the heat of the day). Others (e.g., some Cerambycidae) may remain motionless and are cryptically colored enough to avoid detection among the pieces of bark and debris that also fall onto the sheet with them. Nevertheless, persistence is the key, and with a little practice one can become quite expert at efficiently collecting wood-boring beetles using this method. Blacklighting is even easier—find the right habitat (preferably on a warm, humid, moonless night), set up a blacklight in front of a white sheet, crack open a brew, and wait for the beetles to come!

Rearing, on the other hand, takes true dedication. One must not only learn potential host plants, but also how to recognize wood with the greatest potential for harboring larvae, retrieve it from the field, cut it up, place it in rearing containers, and monitor the containers for up to several months or even years before hitting pay dirt (maybe!). Despite the considerable amount of effort this can take, the results are well worth it in terms of obtaining a diversity of species (usually in good series), some of which may be difficult to encounter in the field, and identifying unequivocal larval host associations. I have even discovered two new species through rearing (Bellamy 2002, MacRae 2003)! Moreover, checking rearing containers can be a lot of fun—in one afternoon you can collect dozens or even hundreds of specimens from places far and wide, depending on how far you are willing to travel to collect the wood. Because of the effort involved, however, the more you can do to ensure that effort isn’t wasted on uninfested wood and that suitable conditions are provided to encourage continued larval development and adult emergence from infested wood the better. It is with this in mind that I offer these tips for those who might be interested in using rearing as a technique for collecting these beetles.

I should first clarify what I mean by “wood-boring” beetles. In the broadest sense this can include beetles from any number of families in which the larvae are “xylophagous,” i.e., they feed within dead wood. However, I am most interested in jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) and longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae), and as a result most of the advice that I offer below is tailored to species in these two families. That is not to say that I’ll turn down any checkered beetles (Cleridae), powderpost beetles (Bostrichidae), bark beetles (family Scolytidae), or even flat bark beetles sensu lato (Cucujoidea) that I also happen to encounter in my rearing containers, with the first two groups in particular having appeared in quite good numbers and diversity in my containers over the years. Nevertheless, I can’t claim that my methods have been optimized specifically for collecting species in these other families.

First, you have to find the wood. In my experience, the best time to collect wood for rearing is late winter through early spring. A majority of species across much of North America tend to emerge as adults during mid- to late spring, and collecting wood just before anticipated adult emergence allows the beetles to experience natural thermoperiods and moisture regimes for nearly the duration of their larval and pupal development periods. Evidence of larval infestation is also easier to spot once they’ve had time to develop. That said, there is no “bad” time to collect wood, and almost every time I go into the field I am on the lookout for infested wood regardless of the time of year. The tricky part is knowing where to put your efforts—not all species of trees are equally likely to host wood-boring beetles. In general, oaks (Quercus), hickories (Carya), and hackberries (Celtis) in the eastern U.S. host a good diversity of species, while trees such as maples (Acer), elms (Ulmus), locust (Gleditsia and Robinia), and others host a more limited but still interesting fauna. In the southwestern U.S. mesquite (Prosopis) and acacia (Acacia) are highly favored host plants, while in the mountains oaks are again favored. Everywhere, conifers (PinusAbies, JuniperusTsuga, etc.) harbor a tremendous diversity of wood-boring beetles. To become good at rearing wood-boring beetles, you have to become a good botanist and learn not only how to identify trees, but dead wood from them based on characters other than their leaves! Study one of the many good references available (e.g., Lingafelter 2007, Nelson et al. 2008) to see what the range of preferred host plants are and then start looking.

I wish it were as simple as finding the desired types of trees and picking up whatever dead wood you can findm but it’s not. You still need to determine whether the wood is actually infested. Any habitat supporting populations of wood-boring beetles is likely to have a lot of dead wood. However, most of the wood you find will not have any beetles in it because it is already “too old.” This is especially true in the desert southwest, where dead wood can persist for very long periods of time due to low moisture availability. Wood-boring beetles begin their lives as eggs laid on the bark of freshly killed or declining wood and spend much of their lives as small larvae that are difficult to detect and leave no obvious outward signs of their presence within or under the bark. By the time external signs of infestation (e.g., exit holes, sloughed bark exposing larval galleries, etc.) become obvious it is often too late—everything has already emerged. Instead, look for branches that are freshly dead that show few or no outward signs of infestation. You can slice into the bark with a knife to look for evidence of larval tunnels—in general those of longhorned beetles will be clean, while those of jewel beetles will be filled with fine sawdust-like frass that the larva packs behind it as it tunnels through the wood. Oftentimes the tunnels and larvae will be just under the bark, but in other cases they may be deeper in the wood. Broken branches hanging from live trees or old, declining trees exhibiting branch dieback seem to be especially attractive to wood-boring beetles, while dead branches laying on the ground underneath a tree are not always productive (unless they have been recently cut).

One way to target specific beetles species is to selectively cut targeted plant species during late winter, allow the cut branches to remain in situ for a full season, and then retrieve them the following winter or early spring. These almost always produce well. Doing this will also give you a chance to learn how to recognize young, infested wood at a time that is perfect for retrieval, which you can then use in searching for wood from other tree species in the area that you may not have had a chance to cut. I have cut and collected branches ranging from small twigs only ¼” diameter to tree trunks 16″ in diameter. Different species prefer different sizes and parts of the plant, but in general I’ve had the best luck with branches measuring 1–3″ diameter.

Once you retrieve the wood, you will need to cut it into lengths that fit into the container of your choice (a small chain saw makes this much easier and quicker). In the field I bundle the wood with twine and use pink flagging tape to record the locality/date identification code using a permanent marker. I then stack the bundles in my vehicle for transport back home. Choice of container is important, because moisture management is the biggest obstacle to rearing from dead wood—too much moisture results in mold, while too little can lead to desiccation. Both conditions can result in mortality of the larvae or unemerged adults. In my rearing setup, I use fiber drums ranging from 10-G to 50-G in size (I accumulated them from the dumpster where I work—mostly fiber drums used as shipping containers for bulk powders). Fiber drums are ideal because they not only breath moisture but are sturdy and may be conveniently stacked. Cardboard boxes also work as long as they are sturdy enough and care is taken to seal over cracks with duct tape. Avoid using plastic containers such as 5-G pickle buckets unless you are willing to cut ventilation holes and hot-glue fine mesh over them. While breathable containers usually mitigate problems with too much moisture, desiccation can still be a problem. To manage this, remove wood from containers sometime later in the summer (after most emergence has subsided), lay it out on a flat surface such as a driveway, and hose it down real good. Once the wood has dried sufficiently it can be placed back in the container; however, make sure the wood is completely dry or this will result in a flush of mold. I generally also wet down wood again in late winter or early spring, since I tend to hold wood batches through two full seasons.

I like to check containers every 7–15 days during spring and summer. Some people cut a hole in the side of the container that leads into a clear jar or vial—the idea being that daylight will attract newly emerged adults and facilitate their collection. I’ve tried this and was disappointed in the results—some of the beetles ended up in the vial, but many also never found their way to the vial and ended up dying in the container, only to be found later when I eventually opened it up. This is especially true for cerambycids, many of which are nocturnal and thus probably not attracted to daylight to begin with. My preference is to open up the container each time so that I can check the condition of the wood and look for evidence of larval activity (freshly ejected frass on the branches and floor of the container). I like to give the container a ‘rap’ on the floor to dislodge adults from the branches on which they are sitting, then dump the container contents onto an elevated surface where I can search over the branches and through the debris carefully so as not to miss any small or dead specimens. I use racks of 4-dram vials with tissue packed inside each and a paper label stuck on top of its polypropylene-lined cap as miniature killing jars. Specimens from a single container are placed in a vial with a few drops of ethyl acetate, and I write the container number and emergence date range on the cap label. Specimens will keep in this manner until they are ready to be mounted weeks or months (or even years) later. If the vial dries out, a few drops of ethyl acetate and a few drops of water followed by sitting overnight is usually enough to relax the specimens fully (the water relaxes the specimens, and the ethyl acetate prevents mold if they need to sit for a while longer).

I store my containers in an unheated garage that is exposed to average outdoor temperatures but probably does not experience the extreme high and low temperatures that are experienced outdoors. In the past I wondered if I needed more heat for wood collected in the desert southwest, but I never came up with a method of exposing the containers to the sun without also having to protect them from the rain. Metal or plastic containers might have eliminated this problem, but then breathability would again become an issue. I would also be concerned about having direct sun shining on the containers and causing excessive heat buildup inside the bucket that could kill the beetles within them. Now, however, considering the success that I’ve had in rearing beetles from wood collected across the desert southwest—from Brownsville, Texas to Jacumba, California, this seems not to be a big issue.

If anybody else has tips for rearing wood-boring beetles that they can offer, I would love to hear from you.

REFERENCES:

Bellamy, C. L. 2002. The Mastogenius Solier, 1849 of North America (Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Polycestinae: Haplostethini). Zootaxa 110:1–12 [abstract].

Lingafelter, S. W. 2007. Illustrated Key to the Longhorned Woodboring Beetles of the Eastern United States. Special Publication No. 3. The Coleopterists Society, North Potomac, Maryland, 206 pp. [description].

MacRae, T. C. 2003. Agrilus (s. str.) betulanigrae MacRae (Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Agrilini), a new species from North America, with comments on subgeneric placement and a key to the otiosus species-group in North America. Zootaxa 380:1–9 [pdf].

Nelson, G. H., G. C. Walters, Jr., R. D. Haines, & C. L. Bellamy.  2008.  A Catalogue and Bibliography of the Buprestoidea of American North of Mexico.  Special Publication No. 4. The Coleopterists Society, North Potomac, Maryland, 274 pp. [description].

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

Receiving a shipment of insects for identification…

…is like Christmas all over again!

Unopened shipping box

Unopened shipping box

The sight of a newly delivered box sitting outside my office brings on a rush of excitement. The sight of an enormous box is even more exciting. I know what’s inside is gonna be good, but I don’t know how good. Will there be rare species I haven’t seen before? Will there be specimens representing new (and, thus, publishable) state records or host associations? By the same token, the bigger the box, the more nervous I get. Shipping pinned insect specimens can be risky, and the potential for damage to the specimens increases as the size of the shipment increases—it all depends on how well they were packed (and a little bit of luck!). The prominent “Fragile” labeling, detailed description of the contents, and up arrow indicators are all good first signs.

Opened shipping box w/ paperwork

Opened shipping box w/ paperwork

I remain optimistic as I open the shipping box and see foam peanuts filling the box almost, but not completely, to the brim to allow a little bit of shuffle for shock absorption. The specimen boxes are also completely hidden under the top layer of foam peanuts, suggesting there is enough vertical clearance inside. Lastly, paperwork placed inside the shipping box and on top of the cushioning ensures that the shipment can be delivered even if the outer shipping label is damaged or lost.

Inner shipping boxes

Inner shipping boxes

Below the top layer of foam I find two inner shipping boxes. I am a little concerned by the lack of clearance between the inner shipping boxes and the sides of the outer shipping box—ideally there should be a foam-filled gap of at least a couple of inches to allow some lateral shock absorption. I am also concerned that the two inner shipping boxes are not also bound to prevent bumping against each other, although the lack of space between them and the outer shipping box probably makes this point moot.

Opened inner shipping boxes

Opened inner shipping boxes

Inside the inner shipping boxes are very nicely wrapped specimen boxes. I’m not sure the inner wrapping to cushion the specimen boxes from each other accomplishes all that much other than to increase the size of the inner shipping boxes, which in turn decreases the clearance between the inner and outer shipping boxes. I would have rather seen the specimen boxes bound tightly together into a small unit to have additional space between them and the outer shipping box.

Unopened specimen boxes

Unopened specimen boxes

Seven classic insect specimen shipping boxes—the excitement (and nervousness) mounts as I prepare to open them and get my first look at the enclosed specimens.

Opened specimen boxes

Opened specimen boxes

A fine selection of gorgeous jewel beetles—mostly from Colorado but with a good number of specimens collected from countries around the world. But uh-oh, no inner false lids! A false lid rests directly on top of the pins of the specimens inside and is held in place by cushioning between the false and true lids. False lids are essential in shipments of any size to keep the pinned specimens, especially heavy-bodied ones, from working their way loose from the foam and bouncing around inside the specimen box during shipment. Fortunately, all of the specimens stayed put in most of the specimen boxes, …

Shipping damage

Shipping damage

…but one or two of the really heavy-bodied specimens did work their way loose in a couple of the boxes. As a result, there was some minor damage in the form of broken tarsi and antennae. The damage, however, is not great, and with fine-tipped forceps and a little bit of clear finger nail polish I should be able to effect decent (if not perfect) repairs. To the shipper’s credit, they made extensive use of brace pins on each side of heavier-bodied specimens in all of the boxes—this probably served to keep the damage as minimal as it was.

Although I salivate looking at the specimens—nearly 800 in all, I must set aside my desire to dive right into them and turn my attentions back to a previously received shipment (also numbering in the several hundreds). As soon as I finish that shipment, I’ll start working on this one, but I suspect that while I’m working on it I will receive another shipment that, like this one, competes newly for my attentions.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

How to be an “iPhone nature photographer”

My passion for insect macro-photography is well known, so it may come as a surprise to learn that I have, during the past year or so, also become an avid “iPhone photographer”—i.e., I actually use my iPhone for “real” photography and not just selfies or quick snapshots. This is not to say that an iPhone can do everything that a digital SLR camera can do, especially when one considers the resolution of and wealth of lens options available for the latter. Nevertheless, as the world’s best selling smart phone, the iPhone has, by way of its camera function, also become the world’s best selling camera, and even though it cannot match the power of a dSLR, there are certain situations and types of photos for which the iPhone is perfectly adapted. Having gained some level of proficiency in learning what the iPhone can and cannot do when it comes to photography, I thought I would offer this photo set of a hike I did today along the Courtois Section of the Ozark Trail as a primer for the types of photos at which iPhones excel, along with some tips and tricks I’ve learned to get the most of the iPhone’s capabilities.

An iPhone is basically a fully automated, wide-angle camera (although the user can control exposure to some extent by touching the screen at the desired point). As such, it excels at landscape and general nature photos, and its small-diameter lens also allows some use for “wide-angle macro.” iPhones do not do well in low light situations or take true macro photographs (although one can use a variety of “clip-on” lenses to achieve fairly decent macro-photographs of larger insects—I have not tried this myself). As a result, I tend to use the iPhone mostly in good light situations and break out the big camera when the lighting is more challenging or if I want to take “real” macrophotographs. As with all digital photographs, good post-processing is necessary for making iPhone photos look their best, and in general a more aggressive approach than is typical for dSLR photographs will be required. The photos that follow are intended not only to give a flavor of the day’s hike, but also demonstrate my photographic approach and provide tips on composition, exposure, and post-processing. If you have gained experience in iPhone photography and have additional tips and tricks that you would like to share, I would greatly appreciate hearing about them in the comments.

Courtois Creek - immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.

Courtois Creek – immediately at the start we had to make a decision whether we could ford the creek. It was obviously too deep in most places, and we almost turned back, but then saw a path that looked like it might be passable. With air temps of 22F, we stripped off our pants, boots, and socks, packed them in our backpacks, and waded through frigid water that reached just below our hips before reaching the other side. Rich brought a towel, so we were able to dry off before getting dressed again. The whole process took almost a full half-hour.

This photo was taken into the sun, which can easily result in a washed out sky. To avoid this, I minimized the amount of sky in the photo (which also allowed the ripples in the foreground to be included for a sense of motion) and then touched the screen on the sky to set the exposure. This resulted in a dark photo, but it preserved the rich colors which could then be brought out with aggressive brightening and increasing the contrast in Photoshop. A standard set of commands that I generally use for all iPhone photos (slightly increased saturation, sharpening, and de-speckling) produced the finished version.

Bluffs along Courtois Creek - massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallend boulders the size of dump trucks.

Bluffs along Courtois Creek – massive bluffs along the other side of the creek sported fallen boulders the size of dump trucks.

Another photo taken in the direction of the sun, causing the shadowed side of the rock to turn out very dark. Again I touched the screen on the sky to preserve the blue color and then aggressively lightened in Photoshop. Aggressive brightening generally requires a more aggressive increase in contrast, followed by the standard command set mentioned for the first photo.

We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.

We were feeling good about our decision to ford the creek as we hiked below spectacular bluffs.

This photo required fairly minimal post-processing since it was shot away from the sun and, thus, had decent native exposure. The bluff face was a little dark and needed minor brightening, but as always I set the exposure in the brightest area of the photo and then post-corrected the dark areas (this is much easier than the opposite, i.e., darkening areas that are too bright, as such areas are often blown and cannot be fixed).

Ozark Trail blaze.

Ozark Trail blaze.

A very close-up shot of a trail blaze. The main watch out with such photos is to ensure the plane of the camera matches the subject precisely, otherwise distortion will cause elongation of one side (making the blaze a trapezoid rather than a rectangle). In post-processing I set the white point in levels by greatly magnifying the image and clicking on a very white part of the blaze to get a more natural looking white rather than the dirty gray that often results when shooting largely white subjects.

Blufftop view of Courtois Creek - from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the treefall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.

Blufftop view of Courtois Creek – from a vantage point several hundred feet above the creek we could look down on our crossing point. I have a fear of heights but nevertheless hung onto the tree fall in front of me to inch out for a clear view.

This was another photo taken fairly towards the sun. I wanted just a thin band of sky to add a sense of scale to the downward-looking view, but with little sky the camera automatically wanted to expose for the darker foreground, thus blowing the sky. To prevent this, I tilted the camera up slightly to get more sky, touched the screen on the sky to set exposure, then tilted back down to the composition I wanted and took the shot. Post-processing involved aggressive brightening as described for the first two photos above.

Sapsucker damage on an old tree.

Sapsucker damage on an old tree.

I approached this tree from an angle facing the sun, so I simply waited until we passed it and could turn to place the sun behind me while shooting this tree. The trick is to get the right distance for a composition that doesn’t include too much wasted space at the foot of the tree or in its canopy, so this requires some walking back and forth until the right composition is achieved (I do not use the zoom function on the camera unless I have to because of the loss of resolution).

Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years

Close-up view of sapsucker damage. Obviously they have been using this tree for many years

A closer view of the sapsucker damage—again this is mostly a compositional challenge, which I met by getting close enough to have this interesting “looking up” perspective but still far enough away to include the lowest ring of damage at the bottom of the photo and the highest at the top. Little post-processing other than the standard set was required for this sun-behind-me photograph.

Crystallifolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves

Crystallofolia forms when water drawn from the soil by certain plants oozes out of the stem and contacts frigid air. Additional water pushes out the ice, then freezes itself, resulting in long, thin ribbons of ice that curl around themselves

For photographing crystallofolia and other small, ground-dwelling features, I like to turn the iPhone so that the lens is on the bottom edge to achieve a true ground-level perspective. The macro capabilities of the iPhone are limited, so in this case I used the zoom function (maybe about 1/3 to full zoom), centered the feature in the photo to get the best exposure and focus, and then did a little more cropping post-processing at the bottom of the photo to minimize the amount of blurred foreground. Again, a mostly white subject such as this tends to come out dull in the native photograph, so I enlarged the image greatly in Photoshop, opened Levels, clicked on set white point, and then clicked on the whitest portion of the subject that I could find to achieve a more ‘naturally’ white subject. It can take a few tries to find a spot in the image that doesn’t result in unnatural over-whitening of the subject—one must play around a bit to find it.

Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the "Narrows" - a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.

Crustose lichens abound on the dolomite bedrock exposures along the “Narrows” – a long, narrow ridge between the Courtois and Huzzah Creek Valleys.

Again, I like to use a low perspective for ground features such as these lichen-encrusted rocks strewn across the forest floor. If you let the iPhone focus naturally, it tends to focus on subjects closer to the middle of the photo, so be sure to touch the screen on the foremost subject to set the focus in the foreground. Photos with contrasting colors such as the greens, browns, and blues in this one generally benefit from a little more aggressive increase in saturation (maybe 15-20%) than I normally use for iPhone photos (usually 5-10%).

Close-up view of crustose lichens.

Close-up view of crustose lichens.

A semi- wide-angle macro photograph that combines a lichen encrusted rock in the foreground with forest and sky in the background. The camera will automatically focus on the background, so touch the screen at the top of the foreground object to set focus. It also helps to pan back a little bit to include more in the frame than is desired, then crop a little in Photoshop as the lower part of the foreground object will tend to be out of focus unless it is a perfectly vertical surface (rare). In this photo I cropped out about 1/5 from the bottom and a corresponding amount on each side to maintain original aspect ratio.

More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.

More dolomite exposures with crustose lichens.

Highly dimensional foreground objects add depth and perspective to low-angle shots. Again, it is better to get a little more in the photo than desired and the crop slightly afterwards than to get too close and not be able to do anything about it. Taking the native shot a little further back also ensures that the entire foreground object is in focus.

Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.

Fruticose lichens and moss intermingle in particularly moist spots.

Like the close-up photo of the lichen-encrusted rock above, this photo of intermingled moss and fruticose lichens benefits from a low perspective with a high color contrast immediate background (fallen leaves) and blurred deep background (forest/sky) to add perspective. While the latter is not completely blurred, but it’s enough that it doesn’t detract from the main subject. The latter has maximal focus by backing up slightly for the shot and then cropping off the bottom out-of-focus portion in Photoshop. Again, I increased saturation a little more than usual to emphasize the value contrast.

Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.

Friend and Ozark Trail co-conspirator Rich Thoma looks out over the Huzzah Creek Valley.

The main challenge with this photo was the shadow cast over Rich by the trees behind him. Setting the exposure on him resulted in a washed out sky, which I really wanted to preserve because of the textured clouds. I also wanted to include a good portion of the sky to give the sense of looking out over a far-below valley, so I set the exposure for the sky. The resulting photo had a good sky, but Rich was hidden in a darkly shadowed area. I used lighten shadows in Photoshop to brighten Rich and the shadowed area where he is standing, and I used aggressively increased saturation to make the many different shades of brown in the rest of the photo pop out.

An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.

An ancient red-cedar snag hugs the bluff tops overlooking the Huzzah Creek Valley.

This photo had largely the same challenges and was dealt with in the same manner as the previous. The ancient red-cedar snag is an interesting and unusual subject, and I first tried a portrait orientation, but I decided I liked this landscape orientation better because of the ability to include living red-cedar to add a sense of time contrast.

Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.

Icicles form on an undercut below the bluff top.

Whenever I find icicles hanging from a rock overhang, I like to provide a more unusual perspective by getting behind the icicles and looking out onto the landscape. It can be hard to get the camera to focus on the icicles rather than the distant landscape—just keep touching them on the screen until it works. I used shadow lightening in Photoshop to brighten the dark rock surfaces in the foreground.

A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.

A cap of resistant dolomite lines the top of the Huzzah Creek Valley.

This was a difficult photograph—sun on the pines/cedars on the left overexposed them, while shadows on the naturally dark rock bluff surfaces left them underexposed. This photo was made fairly acceptable by using both “darken highlights” and “lighten shadows” (careful—too aggressive with these features results in unnatural-looking photos), followed by brightening and increasing the contrast, and finally by increasing the saturation. It’s still not a great photo, but sometimes you get what you get.

More icicles.

More icicles.

This larger set of icicles was nicely positioned in front of an interestingly sloped landscape with the sun coming from the left. Again, I got behind them, kept touching the screen on the icicles until the iPhone focused on them, and then adjusted the white point setting in Levels in Photoshop to really make them pop against the rich browns of the landscape behind.

Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.

Icicles were especially abundant in this section of the bluff tops.

A fairly easy shot due to the direction of the sun that required no more than the usual amount of post-processing. Note the perspective, which was to have the rock feature begin right at the bottom left corner of the photograph with some sky above it.

Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.

Despite subfreezing air temperatures, sunlight causes water to drip from overhanging icicles, causing ice stalagmites on the ground beneath.

This photo had some dark areas in the foreground that were cropped out, and to emphasize the ice I was more aggressive post-processing with brightening and increasing the contrast. Again, as with most photos with a lot of white in the subject, I adjusted the white point in Photoshop Levels to reduce the “dinginess” that seems natural for ambient light iPhone photos.

Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.

Icicles glisten in the frigid sunlight.

In this case, the sun glistening on the icicles and a deep recess behind them provided a natural contrast that I further emphasized in post-processing, along with brightening and setting white point. The icicles suffer from distortion due to my low angle (I’m not that tall!), which I tried to fix with Photoshop’s distort feature but wasn’t satisfied with the result.

Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.

Close-up of ice stalagmites, revealing the twigs and petioles around which they have formed.

The approach with this photo was very much like that used for the close-ups of the lichen-encrusted rocks and intermingled lichens/moss photos—i.e., I backed up a bit to include more foreground than I wanted (which will be blurred at the bottom after setting the focus point on one of the stalagmites) and then cropped it out in post-processing. White subject = setting white point and using more aggressive brightening and contrast.

 Ted MacRae Yesterday ·  Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops


Rock, ice, and sunlight converge along the bluff tops

Again, the formation starts at the lower corner, and in this case the foreground (the right side) also contains an interesting clump of icicles. With the sun behind me, little was required to assure proper exposure, and only normal post-processing was required.

Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.

Moss with fruiting structures on a fallen log.

This moss on a fallen log was actually one of the more difficult photographs I took. I took the photo at an angle so that the background fruiting structures would form a solid, blurred red horizon to add depth, but in doing this the iPhone didn’t know where I wanted to focus and kept choosing the background. To force it to “choose” the foreground fruiting structures, I tilted the camera down so that only the foreground was in the frame, touched the screen on the fruiting structures in the back part of the screen to set focus where I wanted, then tilted the screen back again to include the background fruiting structures distant blurred background for perspective. One must shoot quickly when doing this or the iPhone will automatically readjust its focus to the background. I’ve tried shots such as this with the sky in the background, but in my experience the iPhone cannot focus on very thin foreground objects with the sky in the background, and the difference in brightness between the background and foreground is especially difficult to correct. Like the other semi- wide-angle macro shots above, I used the zoom feature (slightly), included a little more in the photo than I wanted, and then cropped out the overly blurred bottom portion of the photo.

Mushrooms on a fallen log.

Mushrooms on a fallen log.

Here is a typical photograph that someone might take of these large, saucer-sized mushrooms on a fallen log. In addition to being a pedestrian view of such a subject, it seems that iPhones sometimes have difficulty registering the correct color for photos taken straight down to the ground. This photo required quite a bit of color correction, and I’m still not overly satisfied with the result.

"Bug's eye" view of mushrooms on a fallen log.

“Bug’s eye” view of mushrooms on a fallen log.

As an alternative, I suggest getting low to photograph subjects such as this. The iPhone, with its lens against one edge and screen view, is well-adapted to take such low-angle photos, resulting in a much more interesting photo than the typical “looking down” perspective exemplified above. Inclusion of a little bit of sky in the background also provided some nice color contrast, made easier by shooting away from the sun, which was further emphasized in post-processing by increasing the saturation. As with the other semi- wide-angle macro photographs, a little bit of cropping along the bottom (but do keep the original aspect ratio) also benefited the photograph.

Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.

Moss covering the rock exposures in a delightful valley leading up from the Huzzah Creek Valley indicate an abundance of moisture.

Last, but not least, this photograph of shaded, heavily moss-laden rock outcroppings bordering a small waterfall needed to be shot very dark in order to avoid “blowing” the sky in the background. Simply pointing and shooting into the shade will cause the iPhone to correctly expose the rocks, but the sky will be blown rather than retaining its blue color. Like the first two photos, I composed the image, then touched the screen on the sky to reduce the exposure. Again, this resulted in a photo that was very dark in the foreground, but this was easily corrected by aggressive brightening, adding contrast, and increasing the saturation post-processing to achieve a nice mix of browns and greens while preserving the blue sky background. In forest shots such as this with a lot of vertical objects, pay attention to distortion while composing the photo to avoid having trees at the edge of the photo “bowing” inwards at their tops. Sometimes this can be avoided by minor adjustments to the tilt of the iPhone while taking the shot, but if your position in the landscape is such that camera tilt alone is not enough to prevent this without losing the desired composition then go ahead and shoot the desired composition and use the “distortion” tool in Photoshop to correct the distortion this works best if bowing is minor).

I hope you have enjoyed this iPhone nature photography tutorial. If you have additional ideas or suggestions please let me know, and also I would be glad to hear of any related subjects you would like me to cover.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

A polypipin’ we will go!

A polypipin’ we will go, a polypipin’ we will go
Heigh ho, the dairy-o, a polypipin’ we will go
A polypipin’ we will go, a polypipin’ we will go
We’ll catch a tiger beetle and put him in a vial
And then we’ll let him go (not!)

Okay, maybe my adaptation of the popular children’s song A Hunting We Will Go isn’t the best, but if you want to collect tiger beetles in the genus Tetracha then you’ve got to try the method that my friend Kent Fothergill has dubbed “polypipin’.”

The author polypipin’ in a soybean field in Starkville, Mississippi, September 2013. Photo by Lisa G. Ruschke.

What exactly is polypipin’? Well, it’s when you look for stuff under polypipe—a big plastic tube with holes in it that some farmers use to irrigate their crops. The tube is laid across one end of their field, and when water is pumped into it the water leaks out of the holes along the length of the tube and runs down the furrows between the rows. This is a popular method of irrigation in the Mississippi Delta because the terrain is flat and the equipment costs are much lower than center pivot irrigation systems. Of course, the tube also provides excellent cover for insects and other small critters that live in and around agricultural fields, and these include tiger beetles in the genus Tetracha.

Tetracha carolina under polypipe in a soybean field in Starkville, Mississippi

Tetracha carolina under polypipe in a soybean field in Starkville, Mississippi

I wish I could take the credit, but it was Kent who had the great idea to use polypipin’ as a way to survey for T. carolina (Carolina metallic tiger beetle) in the Mississippi Lowlands (“bootheel”) in southeast Missouri. This is a common species across the southern tier of the United States, but prior to this survey the occurrence of this species in Missouri was not well understood. While a number of specimens had been collected in the bootheel over the years prior to the survey, some regarded Missouri records of the species to be a result of vagrants migrating into the state rather than residents (Pearson et al. 2006). Tiger beetles in the genus Tetracha are nocturnal and take refuge during the day, so they are not often encountered unless one goes at at night with a flashlight. Kent was interested in determining the status of this species in Missouri and had noticed their tendency to take refuge under polypipe—where they could be easily found during the day by simply lifting up the pipe. Rather than give up on sleep, Kent and colleagues surveyed agricultural fields throughout the bootheel by looking under polypipe and demonstrated not only that T. carolina is well established in and a resident of the bootheel, but that it is actually quite abundant and may reside even further north in Missouri than just the bootheel (Fothergill et al. 2011).

Adults are amazingly calm if the polypipe is lifted carefully so as not to disturb them.

Adults are amazingly calm if the polypipe is lifted carefully so as not to disturb them.

I don’t know what it is, but there is just something really fun about polypipin’. Being an agricultural entomologist by day, I have ample opportunity to do a little polypipin’ of my own as I travel across the southern U.S. looking at soybean fields, including this past September when I found myself in fields with polypipe in Arkansas and Mississippi. These photos were taken in Starkville, Mississippi near the Mississippi State University campus, and as has happened in every other case where I’ve looked, I found adults of T. carolina quite abundant underneath the polypipe. Some were found simply resting on the soil surface beneath the pipe, but a great many were observed to have dug burrows under the pipe for added shelter.

Adults often construct burrows underneath the polypipe for additional refuge.

Adults often construct burrows underneath the polypipe for additional refuge.

Polypipin’ works as a survey tool for T. carolina because of that species’ propensity for agricultural fields and other moist, treeless habitats. I’ve not yet found T. virginica (Virginia metallic tiger beetle) under polypipe, but that species is more fond of forested rather than treeless habitats. Perhaps an agricultural field next to forest with polypipe laid on the side adjacent to the forest might produce this species. At any rate, polypipin’ might offer a tool to better define the entire northern distributional limit of T. carolina—all one has to do is look.

REFERENCE:

Fothergill, K., C. B. Cross, K. V. Tindall, T. C. MacRae and C. R. Brown. 2011.Tetracha carolina L. (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) associated with polypipe irrigation systems in southeastern Missouri agricultural lands. CICINDELA 43(3):45–58 [pdf].

Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley & C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp. [Oxford description].

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013