Red-eyed poop!

I was looking at some of my older files and ran across these photographs taken in early 2011 in Campinas (São Paulo state), Brazil. They’re not my best photos from a compositional and technical perspective, as I was still on the steep part of the learning curve with the Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens. This lens is no doubt powerful and allows amazingly close-up photographs, but it is rather a beast to learn in the field, especially hand-held. I could quibble endlessly about missed focus and suboptimal composition with these shots, and that is probably why they never made it to the front of the line for being posted. Nevertheless, they still depict some interesting natural history by one of nature’s most famous natural history poster children—the treehoppers (order Hemiptera; family Membracidae).

An adult next to a cast nymphal exuvia.

Bolbonota sp. (Hemiptera: Membracidae), upper right | Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil. Note cast exuvia.

The treehoppers shown in these photos were found on a low shrub in a municipal park and are all that I could manage before my clumsy, unpracticed molestations caused the few adults and nymphs present in the aggregation to disperse. The dark coloration of the adult and its globular form, corrugated pronotal surface, and lack of any horns identify the species as a member of the genus Bolbonota in the New World tribe Membracini (another similar genus, Bolbonotoides, occurs as a single species in Mexico). Species identification, however, is much more difficult, as there are at least a dozen species recorded from Brazil and perhaps many more awaiting description. We have a similar though slightly more elongate species here in eastern North America, Tylopelta americana. I don’t know if this is a specific character or not, but I don’t recall seeing any members of this genus with smoldering red eyes—it gives them an almost devilish appearance, especially the blackish adults (see last photo)!

Bolbonota sp. late-instar nymphs clustered together.

Bolbonota and similar genera are often cited by evolutionists as examples of insects that mimic seeds. I can see such a resemblance if I force myself, but honestly I don’t really buy it. To me they seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to the chlamisine leaf beetles which are thought to mimic caterpillar frass. As with the beetles they resemble, frass-mimicry seems to make much more sense than seed-mimicry, especially given their preference for positioning themselves along the stems of the plants on which they feed (when was the last time you saw seeds of a plant randomly distributed along its stems?). Another thought I’ve had is that this is not an example of mimicry at all, but merely an accidental consequence of the heavy, corrugated body form they have adopted, which likely also affords them a reasonable amount of protection from predation. Confounding both of these theories, however, are the radically different appearance and form of the adults versus the nymphs, and indeed even between the different nymphal instars (see early- and late-instar nymphs in photo below). The later instars seem perfectly colored for mimicking unopened leaf buds, but why they would start out dark in early instars before turning mottled/streaked-white as they mature, only to revert back to dark when reaching adulthood, is a mystery to me. If my thoughts are anywhere close to the truth, it would be a remarkable case of different life stages mimicking the products of two different taxonomic kingdoms (plant parts as nymphs, animal poop as adults)!

Bolbonota sp. nymphs tended by Camponotus sp. | Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil.

An ant (presumably Camponotus sp.) tends a first-instar nymph alongside a later instar.

Of course, if either/both of these lines of defense fail then there are the ant associates that often protect treehoppers and other sap-sucking, aggregating insect species in exchange for the sweet, sugary honeydew that such insects exude as a result of their sap-feeding habits. I presume this ant belongs to the genus Camponotus, perhaps C. rufipes or C. crassus which are both commonly encountered treehopper associates in southern Brazil. I have written previously about ant-treehopper mutualism in the stunningly-marked nymphs of another treehopper, Guayaquila xiphias, and its ant-associate C. crassus in Brazil Bugs #15 – Formiga-membracídeos mutualismo (a post that has become one of this blog’s most popular all-time). Maybe this post will never match that one in popularity, but I do find the third photo shown here remarkable in that is shows no less than five elements of this treehopper’s natural history (early-instar nymph, late-instar nymph, cast nymphal exuvia, partial adult, and an ant-associate) within a single frame (shot by a person still on the steep portion of the MP-E 65mm learning curve!).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

ESA Insect Macrophotography Workshop

Today is the last day of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, and it has been an action packed week for me. Annual meetings such as this serve several purposes. In addition to seeing talks on a variety of subjects—in my case covering subjects ranging from insect resistance management to scientific outreach to beetle systematics—they also offer the chance to establish new connections with other entomologists that share common interests and reinforce existing ones. Of course, a major part of my interest in entomology revolves around insect macrophotography, and in recent years ESA has begun to cater to the entomological photographer contingent within the society. Last year’s meetings featured a macrophotography symposium titled, “Entomologists Beyond Borders” (for which I was one of the invited speakers), and this year featured an Insect Macrophotography Workshop led by Austin-based entomologist/photographer Ian Wright. Having done this for a few years now I figured a lot of the workshop might be review for me, but I still have much to learn and am willing to accept new ideas from any source. Besides, the workshop involved a field trip to a local habitat to try out our insect photography skills, and for a field junkie like me time in the field at an otherwise all-indoor event spanning close to a week is always welcome. The location of the meetings in Austin this year made this possible, as even in mid-November there still remain insects out and about that can be photographed if the weather cooperates (and it did).

This will be a somewhat different post than what I usually post here. Rather than featuring photos of a certain species and using them as a backdrop for a more detailed look at their taxonomy or natural history, I’m just going to post all the photos that I ended up keeping from the field trip portion of the workshop with just a comment or two about each. We went to the city’s nearby waste-water treatment facility, the grounds of which are wild and woolly enough to provide habitat for insects, and spent about an hour and a half seeing what we could find. For myself, it was a chance to photograph some insects I’ve not normally tried to photograph (i.e., dragonflies, ambush bugs) and get more practice on my blue sky technique. I did appreciate the chance to spend some time talking to Ian during while we traveled to the site and back, and I also ended up helping other participants with their camera equipment questions and technique suggestions. With that, here are the photos I took—I’ll be curious to see what readers think of this post format versus my more typical style.

Micrutalis calva

Micrutalis calva (Hemiptera: Membracidae) on silverleaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium).

Micrutalis calva

This species of treehopper is restricted to herbaceous plant hosts.

Anax junius

Anax junius (Odonata: Aeshnidae), one of the darner species of dragonfly.

Anax junius

This adult was perched on a dead twig tip and seemed to be “asleep.”

Anax junius

I clipped the perch and held it up for these “in-your-face” shots – it then awoke with a start and flew off.

Phymata sp.

Phymata sp. (Hemiptera: Reduviidae), one of the so-called “jagged ambush bugs.”

Phymata sp.

Formerly a separate family, ambush bugs are now combined with assassin bugs (family Reduviidae).

Acmaeodera flavomarginata

Acmaeodera flavomarginata (Coleoptera: Buprestidae).

Acmaeodera flavomarginata

This is one of a few species of jewel beetle in the southcentral US that are active during the fall.

Mecaphesa sp.

Mecaphesa sp. (Araneae: Thomisidae), one of the crab spiders

Mecaphesa sp.

Cryptic coloration allows the spider to lurk unseen by potential insect prey visiting the flower.

Gratiana pallidula

Gratiana pallidula (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae) on silverleaf nightshade (Solanum eleagnifolium).

Gratiana pallidula

A type of tortoise beetle, adults “clamp” down against the leaf as a defense against predators.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Traffic Jam Treehoppers

Sometimes photo opportunities come at the unlikeliest of times. A few weeks ago while traveling back to Corrientes, Argentina from neighboring Chaco Province, I came upon traffic at a standstill just a few kilometers from the towering Gral. Belgrano bridge that spans the massive Rio Paraná to link Chaco and Corrientes Provinces. People were already getting out of their cars and walking around, suggesting a wreck closer to (or on) the bridge had completely shut down the highway for the time being. Somebody said they heard it might be another 45 minutes before it could be opened. What to do now? It was the end of my last day after a week of insect collecting/photographing in the area, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend the evening sitting on a divided highway with nowhere to go and nothing remotely interesting to look at…

Enchenopa gracilis (Germar, 1821) | Chaco Province, Argentina

…or so I thought. While scanning the highway right-of-way to see if there might be anything possibly interesting to look at, I spotted a small clump of woody shrubs down the embankment and across the erosion gully before the fenceline. I looked around—everybody was out of their cars with the engines shut off, so I grabbed my camera (not really sure why) and started walking towards the shrubs while looking ahead every now and then for any sign that people were getting back in their cars and moving again. I reached the shrubs and saw they represented something in the mallow family (Malvaceae) due to their small, orange, über-staminate flowers. Immediately I spotted the familiar thorn-like shape of treehoppers in the tribe Membracini, probably a species of Enchenopa or related genus. I had been hoping to see more of these after photographing another species further south in Buenos Aires last year, but I hadn’t seen a single treehopper during the entire week. Fortunately I had my 65mm lens already on the camera, so I quickly snapped a few shots and collected a couple of specimens. Just as quickly as I had done that, I heard somebody yelling to me from the road above that people were getting back into their cars ahead. These few shots and specimens would have to do. (And, disappointingly, after spending the next hour creeping towards the bridge there wasn’t even a wreck to look at!)

As I did with those previous photos, I sent these to Andy Hamilton (Canadian National Collection, Ottawa), who forwarded them on to Dr. Albino Sakakibara (Universidad Federal de Parana, Brazil) and then reported back to me that:

My Brazilian colleagues…have been able to identify your “beautiful photos” as representing Enchenopa gracilis, a species that has been illustrated only once (in 1904), and certainly not by a photograph!

Another individual, this one with no trace of green colorationi and less distinctly marked wings.

The illustration referenced by Andy comes from Kellogg (1905—p. 169, fig. 239), and as he notes at BugGuide the problem with old illustrations is that many of them are either inaccurate or use obsolete names. Enchenopa gracilis does not occur in North America, thus the drawing in Kellogg (1905) probably does not actually represent this species. Nevertheless, a recent dissertation on the insect fauna associated with pigeon pea in Brazil (Azevedo 2006) shows several photographs of adults that agree nicely with these photos. Enchenopa gracilis actually seems to be a bit of a pest on that crop, and it has also been reported in association with a variety of other plants across several different families (Lopes 1995, Alves de Albuquerque et al. 2002). Interestingly, I could not find any species of the family Malvaceae recorded as a host for E. gracilis.

REFERENCES:

Azevedo, R. L. 2006. Entomofauna associada ao feijão guandu [Canjanus cajan (L.) Millspaugh] no recôncavo baiano. Ph.D. dissertation, Centro de Ciências Agrarias e Ambientais, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Cruz das Almas, 54 pp.

Alves de Albuquerque, F., F. C. Pattaro, L. M. Borges, R. S. Lima & A. V. Zabini. 2002. Insetos associados à cultura da aceroleira (Malpighia glabra L.) na região de Maringá, Estado do Paraná. Maringá 24(5):1245-1249.

Kellogg, V. L. 1905. American Insects. Henry Holt & Co., New York, 674 pp.

Lopes, B. C. 1995. Treehoppers (Homoptera, Membracidae) in southeastern Brazil: use of host plants. Revista Brasileira de Zoologia 1213:595-608.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Best of BitB 2011

Welcome to the 4th Annual BitB Top 10, where I get to pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year. As an insect macrophotographer I still feel like a relative newcomer, although with three seasons under my belt fewer and fewer people seem to be buying it anymore. Granted I’ve learned a lot during that time, but the learning curve is still looking rather steep. I don’t mind—that’s the fun part! With that said, I present a baker’s dozen of my favorite photographs featured here during 2011. I hope they reflect the learnings I’ve had the past year and maybe show some progress over previous years (2009, 2008 and 2010).

One more thing—I’m including a special bonus for the first time in this year’s edition. Each of the photos shown below is linked to a 1680×1120 version that may be freely downloaded for use as wallpaper, printing in calendars, or any other use (as long as it’s personal and non-profit). It’s my way of saying thanks for your readership and support.


From  (posted 8 Jan). I’ve done limited photography with prepared rather than live specimens. However, the recreated aggressive-defensive posture of this greater arid-land katydid (Neobarrettia spinosa)—or “red-eyed devil”—was too striking to pass up. A clean background allows every spine and tooth to be seen with terrifying clarity.


From  (posted 6 Feb). I had never seen a cactus fly until I encountered this Nerius sp. I’m especially fond of the bizzarely-shaped head and un-fly-like spines on the front legs.


From  (posted 17 Feb). This photo of a fungus weevil, Phaenithon semigriseus, is one of the first where I nailed the focus right on the eye at such a magnitude of closeup (~3X) and also got the composition I was looking for. I didn’t notice at the time, but the beetle seems to be “smiling.”


From  (posted 28 Mar). One of the field techniques I’ve been practicing this year is actually holding the plant with the subject in one hand, resting the camera on my wrist and controlling it with the other hand, and manipulating the position of the plant to achieve a desired composition. It’s a difficult technique to master, but the results are worth it. The jumping spider, Euophrys sutrix, represents one of my earliest successful attempts with this technique.


From  (posted 30 Mar). This South American tree fruit weevil looks like it is sitting quite calmly on a branch. In reality, it never stopped crawling while I attempted to photograph it. Crawling subjects are not only difficult to focus on but also almost always have a “bum” leg. I achieved this photo by tracking the beetle through the lens and firing shots as soon as the center focus point flashed, playing a numbers game to ensure that I got at least one with all the legs nicely positioned. I’d have been even happier with this photo if I had not clipped the antennal tip.


From  (posted 4 May). Face shots of predatory insects are hard to resist, and in this one of the fiery searcher beetle, Calosoma scrutator, the angle of the subject to the lighting was perfect for showing off every ridge and tooth in its impressive mandibles.


From  (posted 10 May). I’ve taken plenty of lateral profile shots of tiger beetles, but I like this slightly panned out one especially because of the sense of scale and landscape created by the inclusion of the plantlets and the view over the small rise.


From  (posted 18 May). I found these Edessa meditabunda stink bug eggs on the underside of a soybean leaf in Argentina almost ready to hatch. The developing eye spots in each egg gives the photo a “cute” factor rarely seen in such super close-ups.


From  (posted 15 July). Some of my favorite insect photos are not only those that show the bug in all its glory, but also tell a story about its natural history. This nymphal lichen grasshopper, Trimerotropis saxatilis, is almost invisible when sitting on the lichens that cover the sandstone exposures in its preferred glade habitat. 


From  (posted 23 Aug). I know this is the second beetle face shot I’ve included in the final selections, but it was while photographing this rare Florida metallic tiger beetle, Tetracha floridana, in the middle of the night that I discovered the use of extension tubes to improve the quality of flash lighting (decreased lens to subject distance results in greater apparent light size). This is perhaps one of the best illuminated direct flash photographs that I’ve taken, and I also like the symmetry of the composition.


From  (posted 17 Sep). The three-cornered alfalfa hopper (Spissistilus festinus) is a common pest of alfalfa and soybean in the U.S. However, despite its abundance, I’ve never noticed the bizarre zig-zag pattern of the eyes until I took this photo. Even though both the insect and the background are green, there is sufficient value contrast to create a pleasing composition. Bumping up the ISO and a lower FEC setting prevented overblowing the light greens—easy to do with full flash macrophotography.


From  (posted 4 Oct). This longhorned beetle had settled in for the night on its Ericamera nauseosa host plant, allowing me to use higher ISO and lower shutter speed settings with a hand-held camera to achieve this very pleasing blue sky background, while retaining the sharpness of detail of the subject that comes from full-flash illumination. The blue sky background provides a more pleasing contrast with the colors of this particular beetle and flowers than the black background that is more typically seen with full-flash macrophotography.


From  (19 Dec). An uncommon underside view of these purple tree fungus (Trichaptum biforme) caps and use of flash illumination allows the colors to literally glow against the bright green lichens also growing on the tree. Keeping aperture at a moderate setting allows blurring of the caps further back, adding three-dimensionality to the photo and preventing it from looking ‘flat.’


Well, there you have it, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my selections. Please do tell me if you have a favorite among theses (and if there were other photos posted during 2011 that you think deserved making the final selections).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Crazy Eyes

Spissistilus festinus | Stoneville, Mississippi

Spissistilus festinus (three-cornered alfalfa hopper) is one of the few truly economic pests in the otherwise bizarre and innocuous family Membracidae (treehoppers).  Its common name alludes to one of the crops it affects, but my encounters with this species are most often in soybean (I am, after all, a soybean entomologist).  Damage in this crop is caused by both adults and nymphs, whose piercing/sucking mouthparts cause girdling and breakage of the stem—often just a few inches above the soil.  This individual was seen during my travels last week in a soybean field in Stoneville, Mississippi, where numbers throughout the season were especially high this year.  Although I have seen innumerable S. festinus adults, I have never noticed their crazy, zig-zag patterned red and white eyes until I managed this closeup face shot (click on photo for best view).

This slightly cropped photo was taken with a 100mm macro lens and full extension tube set, resulting in slightly more than 2X magnification.  One of the lessons I took from was the need to pay more attention to background and value contrast.  By placing the subject a few inches in front of the dark green soybean foliage I was able to achieve a much more pleasing background than the typical black background one gets with full flash photos at high magnification.  Although both the subject and the background are green, there is still sufficient difference in shade to create contrast between them.  Light-green is one of the more difficult colors to work with when full flash is used with high shutter speeds and small apertures to maximize crispness and detail (in this case, 1/250 sec and f/16).  However, increasing ISO to 400 and lowering flash exposure compensation to -2/3 can reduce the amount of flash needed to illuminate the subject with such settings, making it easier to achieve a properly exposed and true-colored subject.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

BugShot 2011 – Lesson 2

Most of my insect photography is done up close using fast shutter speeds (to prevent motion blur) and small apertures (to maximize depth of field).  This necessitates the use of full flash – the amount of light reaching the camera sensor at f/16 and 1/250 sec is not enough to show any image at all, much less one properly exposed.  Full flash photography has its own set of challenges, but for the most part it can be used to produce excellent closeup photographs of insects, even very small ones.  One thing that has always bothered me about full flash photography, however, is the “black background” effect when photographing an insect sitting up on a plant without something else in the immediate background to reflect light.  Not that I don’t like black backgrounds—they can be used to stunning effect with the right subject.  I just don’t want it to be my only option for insects that I photograph up off the ground. Of course, it is rather a simple matter to place something in the background that is close enough to reflect light but far enough away to remain out of focus, but what I really want to be able to do sometimes is have a blue sky.  I always thought this meant natural light, with its low f stops, slow shutter speeds, and the resulting motion blur and loss of depth of field. 

Of the many things I learned today, how to include a blue sky background in a closeup photograph at f/16 was my favorite.  This is accomplished by bumping up the ISO to 400 (to make the camera sensor more receptive to light) and decreasing the shutter speed to 1/60 sec.  Keeping the f stop high maintains the depth of field, but the increased ISO and decreased shutter speed allows sufficient light from a sky background to register on the sensor.  By themselves, however, these setting will still result in an underexposed subject, which is illuminated instead by fill flash.  Despite the slower shutter speed, there is no motion blur because the “effective” shutter speed for the subject is the duration of the flash pulse rather than the camera shutter speed—it’s like combining two exposure speeds in a single photograph, one for the background and another for the subject.

The following three photographs illustrate this principle—again, they are not technically perfect photos, but rather the result of quick experimentation to understand the principles involved.  Photo 1 is from yesterday’s post and illustrates what my typical settings have always been: ISO 160, f/16, and 1/250 sec.  It’s a decent photo of the treehopper, Acutalis tartarea; however, black is perhaps the least appropriate background to choose for this black species. Until now, it would have been my only option unless I tried arranging foliage in its background.  Photos 2 and 3 are of another individual of this species that I found today (fortunately in similar orientation to the individual photographed yesterday).  In both photos I kept the flash unit set to ETTL (adjusting FEC as appropriate for the shots).  In Photo 2 I bumped up the ISO to 400 but kept the shutter speed fast (1/200 sec)—you can see some effect in that the background is not truly black, having received some light from the blue sky.  It’s not enough, however, because the shutter speed was still too fast.  In Photo 3 the ISO remained at 400 but the shutter speed was also decreased to 1/60 sec.  The shutter staying open that long allows enough light from the sky to register on the sensor and, Voila!, we have a blue sky background that creates nice value contrast with the black subject.  The subject these photos is not terribly sharp, but that is just lack of focus—not motion blur from a slow shutter (sorry, I was just practicing settings rather than going for a perfect shot). All three photos were shot with the Canon 100mm macro lens + 68 mm of extension tube (total magnification ~2X).

''Typical'' insect macro settings: ISO 160, 1/250 sec, f/16

ISO increased to 400 (1/200 sec, f/16)

Shutter speed decreased to 1/60 (ISO 400, f/16)


Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

BugShot 2011 – Lesson 1

I’m a lucky guy! First, I’m one of the fortunate attending this weekend’s BugShot insect photography workshop. Second, this first-of-a-kind event is being held only 13 miles from my home at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri. Third, I was “adopted” by the BugShot instructors to assist in the event. Who are the instructors? None other than John Abbott from Austin, Texas—an expert on dragonfly biology and insect action photography, Thomas Shahan from Norman, Oklahoma—master of close-up arthropod (especially jumping spider) portraiture, and Alex Wild from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois—ant photographer extraordinaire and author of the most popular insect blog on the net.  In 2009 I picked up a digital SLR camera for the first time ever—in 2011 I am rubbing shoulders, discussing exposure and lighting, and enjoying social time with three of the country’s most accomplished insect macrophotographers (and some other very cool people as well).

I have come a long way, but I still have much to learn.  Intimate understanding of lighting, exposure, and the creative use of flash still eludes me—I can do a few things well, but there is much more I can’t do at all.  Today was my first time experimenting with the effect of lighting direction, i.e. taking the flash heads off their fixed position on the front of the lens and hand-holding them in different positions.  This simple technique can have dramatic effects on the look of a photograph, as illustrated by the following two photographs.  In the first, both flash heads of my Canon MT-24EX twin flash are attached to the front of the lens (as they have been for every single flash photograph I’ve ever taken up to this point).  In the second, only the right flash head remains attached to the lens, while the left head has been detached and is being hand-held directly above the subject (in this case, the treehopper Acutalis tartarea on Solidago sp.).  Technically they are not very good photographs, but they illustrate well the dramatic differences that can be achieved by varying the position of the flash heads.  Among other things, this is a technique that I will be exploring much over the coming weeks.

Both flash heads attached to front of lens.

Right flash head attached to front of lens; left flash head held directly above subject.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Bichos Argentinos #9 – Membracido

Enchenopa? sp. | Buenos Aires, Argentina

This treehopper that I photographed at La Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur strongly resembles our North American species of Campylenchia due to the brown elytra and lack of any yellow markings on the pronotal crest.  However, the rounded lower margin of the frons (more apparent in the full-sized version of this photo) eliminates this genus as a possibility and suggests instead the closely related Enchenopa

I sent this and another photo to Andy Hamilton (Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes) for his opinion.  Andy claims to be a hack when it comes to Neotropical Membracidae (focusing more on world Cercopidae and Holarctic Cicadellidae), but he is a much better hack than I!  In his reply, he mentions that a lot of work is still needed on tropical species and genera, and in fact none of our North American species of Enchenopa actually resemble the type-species from Brazil (Membracis monoceros).  Most of what we now consider Enchenopa will likely be referable back to the genus Membracis (type genus of the family), but where the species in the above photo will eventually fall remains anyone’s guess.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011