“Picudo negro” (black weevil) on soybean in Argentina

During my recent tour of soybean fields in Argentina, I traveled north to Tucumán Province and met with entomologists at the Estación Experimental Agroindustrial Obispo Columbre (“Obispo Columbre Agricultural Experiment Station”). This provincial station, established more than 100 years ago (1909), conducts research on agricultural and production technology for the Tucumán agricultural region. Focus crops include sugarcane, citrus, and grain—primarily soybean, corn, wheat, and dry beans, with research activities ranging from basic biological studies on emerging pests (such as Rhyssomatus subtilis, featured here) and Helicoverpa armigera (recently discovered in Brazil and now in northern Argentina) to resistance monitoring for transgenic crop target pests such as Spodoptera frugiperda, Helicoverpa zea, and Diatraea saccharalis.

Rhysommatus subtilis is a significant regional pest of soybean in Tucumán Province.

Figure 1. Rhysommatus subtilis is a significant regional pest of soybean in Tucumán Province.

In recent years the laboratory has had a dedicated effort to characterize the biology and economic impact of R. subtilis on soybean (Fig. 1). Although practically limited to soybean growing regions in Tucumán Province, this insect has increased greatly in importance within that area in recent years along with two other weevils: Sternechus subsignatus (picudo grande, or “big weevil”) and Promecops carinicollis (picudo chico, or “little weevil”) (Casmús et al. 2010). Of the three species, S. subsignatus is perhaps the most serious because of its stem boring habit that can result in stand loss, while P. carinicollis is the least because its feeding is largely limited to leaves. Rhyssomatus subtilis is intermediate in importance, primarily due to larval feeding within developing pods.

Adults feed by clipping leaf petioles. The impact is minor, but it is a characteristic sign of adult presence.

Figure 2. Adults feed by clipping leaf petioles. The impact is minor but signals adult presence.

I have not yet seen S. subsignatus in soybean fields in the area, but I saw P. carinicollis during last year’s tour (see this post) and encountered R. subtilis at several locations during this year’s tour. Rhyssomatus subtilis presence in soybean can be detected even before the adults are noticed by the occurrence of clipped leaflets (Fig. 2), which is caused by adults feeding on leaf petioles.

Adult females chew a small hole into the wall of the developing pod, not to feed but for oviposition

Figure 3. Adult females chew small holes into developing pods, not to feed but for oviposition.

Leaf feeding has little if any impact on the crop; however, as the crop enters pod development stages of growth adult females begin chewing small holes in the pod walls (Fig. 3), not for feeding but for oviposition. Eggs are laid singly in the pod (Fig. 4), with larvae (Fig. 5) feeding on the developing seeds within.

Eggs are laid singly inside the pod.

Figure 4. Eggs are laid singly inside the pod.

This manner of feeding by the larva not only directly impacts yield but also hampers efforts to control active infestations by preventing contact with foliar-applied insecticides. Eventually the larvae mature, exit the pod, and drop to the soil where they burrow, pupate, and emerge as adults during the next cropping season while plants are still in early to mid-vegetative stages of growth.

This neonate larva has just hatched and will feed within the pod on developing seeds.

Figure 5. This neonate larva has just hatched and will feed within the pod on developing seeds.

Management techniques include rotation with grass crops to reduce populations (the weevil is oligophagous on soybean and dry beans), use of insecticide seed treatments to control adults during early vegetative stages of growth, and subsequent use of foliar insecticide applications if adults remain after the effect of seed treatments begins to diminish.

REFERENCE:

Casmús, A., M. G. Socías, L. Cazado, G. Gastaminza, C. Prado, E. Escobar, A. Rovati, E. Willink, M. Devani & R. Avila. 2010. El picudo negro de la vaina de soja en el NOA. Estación Experimental Agroindustrial Obispo Columbre, Tucumán, Argentina, 8 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

Best of BitB 2013

Welcome to the 6th Annual “Best of BitB”, where I pick my favorite photographs from the past year. Like last year, 2013 was another year of heavy travel. For work I did my annual tour of soybean field sites throughout Argentina during late February and early March, then cranked it up for my own field season with frequent travel to sites in Illinois and Tennessee from May to October. In the meantime I spent a week at company meetings in Las Vegas in August, toured field sites across the southeastern U.S. for two weeks in September, visited Argentina again in October to finalize research plans for their upcoming season, and finished off the travel year by attending the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Meetings in Austin, Texas during November. On top of all this, I managed to slip in two of the best insect collecting trips I’ve had in years, with 10 days in northwestern Oklahoma in early June and another 10 days in California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado during late August, and I got to play “visiting scientist” during short trips to Montana State University in late July and the Illinois Natural History Survey in late October! Of course, during my brief interludes at home I wasn’t sitting still, giving entomology seminars to several local nature societies and hosting two ESA webinars on insect photography. Needless to say, come December I was more than ready to spend some quite time at home (well, except for hiking most weekends) and am happy to report that I’ve successfully become reacquainted with my family and office mates. It’s a peripatetic life—and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Okay, let’s get down to business. Here are my favorite BitB photographs from 2013. This year was less about learning new techniques as it was about refining the techniques I’ve found most useful for the style I’ve chosen as a photographer, i.e., hand-held, in situ field shots that (hopefully) excel at both natural history and aesthetic beauty. Links to original posts are provided for each photo selection, and I welcome any comments you may have regarding which (if any) is your favorite and why—such feedback will be helpful for me as I continue to hone my craft. If you’re interested, here are my previous years’ picks for 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Once again, thank you for your readership, and I hope to see you in 2014!


Tremex columba, female ovipositing | Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri

Tremex columba female drilling for oviposition into hardwood trunk | Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri

From Ovipositing Pigeon Horntail (posted 6 Jan). I like this photo for the combination of vibrant, contrasting colors between the wasp and moss-covered wood and the visualization it provides of the remarkable depth to which this wasp will insert its ovipositor into solid wood!


Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis | Chaco Province, Argentina

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis flowers | Chaco Province, Argentina

From Giving me the weevil eye! (posted 28 Apr). While a little soft, the color combination is pleasing and the pose taken by the beetle almost comically inquisitive.


Helicoverpa gelotopeon feeding on soybean pod | Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

Helicoverpa gelotopeon feeding on soybean pod | Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

From Bollworms rising! (posted 30 Mar). This is the first photo of an economic pest that has made one of my “Best of BitB” lists. The two holes in the soybean pod, one with the caterpillar and its head still completely inserted, visualizes how the feeding habits of these insects can so dramatically affect yield of the crop.


cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

From “Blue-sky” tips and tricks (posted 1 July). Insects with a lot of delicate detail and long, thin appendages are especially difficult to photograph against the sky due to wind movement. See how I dealt with the antennae of this delicate lacewing without resorting to the standard black background typical of full-flash macrophotography.


Cicindela scutellaris lecontei x s. unicolor

Cicindela scutellaris lecontei x s. unicolor intergrade | Holly Ridge Natural Area, Stoddard Co., Missouri

From The Festive Tiger Beetle in Southeast Missouri (posted 25 Oct). I like this photo a lot more now than I did when I first took it. Its shadowy feel and the beetle “peering” from behind a leaf edge give a sense of this beetle’s attempts to hide and then checking to see if the “coast is clear”


Batyle suturalis on paperflower (Psilostrophe villosa) | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

Batyle suturalis on Psilostrophe villosa flowers | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Tips for photographing shiny beetles on yellow flowers (posted 10 Aug). “Bug on a flower” photos are a dime a dozen, but shiny beetles on yellow flowers with natural sky background can be quite difficult to take. All of the techniques for dealing with the problems posed by such a photo came together nicely in this photo.


Agrilus walsinghami | Davis Creek Regional Park, Washoe Co., Nevada

Agrilus walsinghami | Davis Creek Regional Park, Washoe Co., Nevada

From Sunset for another great collecting trip (posted 1 Sep). This photo is not without its problems, with a little blurring of the backlit fuzz on the plant, but the placement of the sun behind the subject’s head and resulting color combination make it my favorite in my first attempts at achieving a “sun-in-the-sky” background with a true insect macrophotograph.


A tiny male mates with the ginormous female.

Pyrota bilineata on Chrysothamnus viscidflorus | San Juan Co., Utah

From Midget male meloid mates with mega mama (posted 8 Nov). Another blue-sky-background photograph with good color contrast, its real selling point is the natural history depicted. with some of the most extreme size dimorphism among mating insects that I’ve ever seen.


Phymata sp.

Phymata sp. on Croton eleagnifolium foliage | Austin, Texas

From ESA Insect Macrophotography Workshop (posted 13 Nov). The oddly sculpted and chiseled body parts of ambush bugs makes them look like they were assembled from robots. Contrasting the body against a blue sky gives a more unconventional view of these odd beasts than the typical top-down-while-sitting-on-a-flower view.


Fourth attempt - holding detached pad up against sky for cleaner background.

Moneilema armata on Opuntia phaecantha | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Q: How do you photograph cactus beetles? (posted 24 Nov). Photographing cactus beetles requires patience, persistence, long forceps, and strong forearms. Natural sky provides a much more pleasing background than a clutter of cactus pads and jutting spines.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this 2013 version of “Best of BitB” and look forward to seeing everyone in 2014.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

The “Dagger Butt Weevil”

In April 2012 I spent some time in northern Argentina collecting insects, and while collecting was not that great (late in the season after a protracted drought) I saw enough of interest to make it a worthwhile effort. Among the insects that I saw were two species of weevil (family Curculionidae)—one being Eurhinus c.f. adonis () and the other this one, also kindly identified by Charles O’Brien as Erodiscus obidensis (Monte 1944). Both of them were found on flowers of Solidago chilensis growing along the roadside near La Escondida in Chaco Province; however, the two weevils are almost complete opposites in terms of coloration and body form—E. adonis brilliant metallic green and robust chunky, and E. obidensis chestnut-colored and elongate slender.

Erodiscus obidensis (Monte) | Chaco Province, Argentina | Apr 2012

Erodiscus obidensis (Monte) | Chaco Province, Argentina | Apr 2012

An obvious feature of E. obidensis are its two stout spines located at the apices of the elytra. I presume that these serve a defensive purpose to protect them against potential avian or reptilian predators. However, if elytral spines are all that is needed for such then why are these structures not found widely across the order Coleoptera—certainly the potential is there, as many beetles exhibit very small spines at the elytral apices. With enough selection pressure one can easily imagine that larger spines would be selected for. Either the spines also/instead serve some other purpose, or development of spines is more energetically expensive than I am imagining.

What purpose those daggers?

What purpose those daggers?

Compared to most of the insects that I have featured on this blog, I wasn’t able to find much information on this species. It was originally described as Atenistes attenuatus var. obidensis from Óbidos in the Brazilian state of Pará (Monte 1944) and is listed as such in the Blackwelder (1947) catalogue. However, my weevil literature is sparse compared to the other beetle groups with which I am more familiar, and I found nothing else in searches on the web as well. It apparently is already known from Argentina, as it is listed at the website Curculionidae de Argentina (but without any photos). As far as I could tell, these are the first photos of the species to be posted to the web, at least with the associated name. Since so little seems to be known about this weevil, I take it upon myself to give it a common name, and I can’t think of a more amusing and fun-to-say name than the “dagger butt weevil” in reference to its distinctive apical spines.

REFERENCES:

Blackwelder, R. E. 1947. Checklist of the coleopterous insects of Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and South America. Part 5. Bulletin of the U. S. National Museum 185:765–925 [pdf].

Monte, O. 1944. Sobre coleópteros Otidocephalinae. Revista Entomologia, Rio de Janeiro 15(3):318–320 [abstract].

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Giving me the weevil eye!

The order Coleoptera (beetles) is, of course, the largest single group of animals on earth, and by most accounts the Curculionidae (weevils) and their close relatives are the largest family-level group within the order. At 60,000 species and counting, weevils account for approximately one out of every 20 described life forms, and as a result their diversity of forms, colors and life histories are as staggering as their numbers. Among the small slice of the group that I have seen, Megabaris quadriguttatus is without question the most colorful, but species in the related genus Eurhinus (both genera belong to the curculionid subfamily Bardinae, which I point out here for reasons discussed below) must rank as among the shiniest of all weevils. Twenty-three species, all colored brilliant metallic green, blue, purple or red, are known from this exclusively Neotropical genus (Vaurie 1982), one of which has also recently established in southern Florida (Ulmer et al. 2007). The individual featured in this post was seen April 2012 in northern Argentina near La Escondida (Chaco Province) and compares well with Eurhinus adonis (ID courtesy Charles O’Brien, Green Valley, AZ). Vaurie (1982) records that species from southern Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina (although only from Missiones Province in the latter) and says that nothing is known of its biology.

Giving me the weevil eye!

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis | Chaco Province, Argentina

This is certainly among the most challenging insects that I’ve ever photographed. Overblown specular highlights are a constant challenge in flash macrophotography of bright, shiny, metallic beetles, and yellow flowers are prone to blown highlights as well. Add on top of that my desire for a blue sky rather than the typical black background and the usual difficulties of hand-held, field photography of an actively moving subject, and you’ve got a quadruple challenge. Adequate diffusion of the flash is critical, and although the diffusers I was using at the time weren’t perfect, they were enough in combination with intentional underexposure of the photograph to further minimize the chance of blown highlights (underexposed photographs can be relatively easily “fixed” during post-processing, as all of the information is still there, while overexposed photographs can rarely be fixed because the information is gone). Bumping up the ISO (in this case 400) also helps—higher sensitivity to light by the sensor not only allows light from the sky to register and create a blue background, but also further reduces flash duration and the risk of blown highlights. No amount of camera settings, however, can address the final challenge—getting the subject well composed and in focus within the frame. For that, the three “P”s (patience, practice, and persistence) are the only advice I can offer.

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis flowers | Chaco Province, Argentina.

What’s in a name? That which we call a Eurhinus by any other name would be as shiny!

This genus of weevils was involved in one of the more interesting nomenclatural problems that I’ve encountered. The genus was originally given the name Eurhin by Illiger in 1807, but Schönherr in 1824 changed it to Eurhinus—believing (incorrectly) that Eurhin was not a properly formed name. Unfortunately, the name Eurhinus had already been used by Kirby in 1819 for a different genus of weevils in the subfamily Apioninae. The rules of zoological nomenclature, of course, prohibit the same name being used for two different genera, and several attempts were made during the following years to provide a replacement name for Schönherr’s Eurhinus. None gained acceptance, however, and eventually Schönherr in 1833—still considering justified his correction of Eurhin to Eurhinus—proposed the name Eurhynchus for Kirby’s Eurhinus. Remarkably, the name Eurhynchus also had been used previously (for a genus of birds). Nevertheless, the change gained acceptance, and both of Schönherr’s names remained in use for the next century and a half—Eurhinus in the subfamily Baridinae and Eurhynchus in the subfamily Apioninae, with both credited to Schönherr. Strict application of the rules of nomenclature would require that the name Eurhinus be transferred back to the apionine genus and credited to Kirby and the name Eurhin resurrected for the baridine genus and credited to Illiger. However, as pointed out by Zimmerman & Thompson (1983) this would not only destroy more than a century’s worth of nomenclatural stability but also complicate the formation of family-group names such as tribes—since the two original names each have the same root (Eurhin-), tribal names based on them would be identical (Eurhinini). To resolve these issues, a formal application was submitted to the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) to preserve  Schönherr’s long accepted usage of Eurhinus and Eurhynchus. To do this, the ICZN would not only have to declare Schönherr’s correction of Eurhin to Eurhinus justified, but also suppress the original use of the name Eurhynchus (as a genus of birds) in order to allow Schönherr’s subsequent use for the apionine genus to stand. Fortunately, suppressing the first use of Eurhynchus had no impact on stability, since an older name was already in use for the genus of birds and the younger name had not been used since its original description. The authors of the application also noted the support of several contemporary weevil specialists (including Charles O’Brien) and that Patricia Vaurie, in her revision of the genus one year earlier (Vaurie 1982), had used the original name Eurhin with reluctance on the then-correct advice of her contemporaries. It was a classic case of priority versus stability, and while the ICZN typically is rather conservative in favoring priority, they were clearly swayed in this case by the interests of stability and impact on formation of family-group names.

REFERENCES:

Ulmer, B. J., R. E. Duncan, J. Prena & J. E. Peña. 2007. A weevil, Eurhinus magnificus Gyllenhal (Insecta: Coleoptera: Curculionidae). University of Florida, IFAS Publication #EENY-417/IN751, 6 pp.

Vaurie, P. 1982. Revision of Neotropical Eurhin (Coleoptera, Curculionidae, Baridinae). American Museum Novitates 2753:1–44.

Zimmerman, E.C. & R. T. Thompson. 1983. On family group names based upon Eurhin, Eurhinus and Eurhynchus (Coleoptera). Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 40:45–52.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Best of BitB 2012

Welcome to the 5th Annual “Best of BitB”, where I pick my favorite photographs from the past year. 2012 was one of the most intensive travel years I’ve ever had—I spent 8 weeks in Argentina from February through April, made separate trips to Puerto Rico and Arkansas in May (bracketing a personal week in California), traveled almost weekly to Illinois and Tennessee from June to September (interrupted by a personal week in Florida in July), toured the southeastern U.S. (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia—great food!) in early September, chased tiger beetles in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas in late September, went back to Argentina for a week in October, and capped off the travel year by attending the Entomological Society of America Annual Meetings in Knoxville, Tennessee (for the first time in more than 10 years!)—whew! While many would cringe at such a travel load, I am among the lucky few who actually get paid for doing something that is also my hobby—entomology! This gives me ample opportunity to further hone my photography skills (nine of the 13 photos I’ve selected below were actually taken while I was on business travel), resulting in two key accomplishments this year—my first ever photography talk at the ESA’s insect photography symposium and my first commercial sales (look for the BitB commercial site to go online in 2013).

Enough blather! Here are my favorite BitB photographs from 2012. Click the link in the text below the photo to see the original post. I would greatly appreciate knowing if you have a favorite (and why)—your feedback will be enormously helpful to me as I continue to learn and develop as a photographer.  For those interested, here are my previous year picks for 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. And, as always, thank you for your readership!


Spintherophyta (?) sp. in flower of Abutilon pauciflorum | Buenos Aires, Argentina

From  (posted 2 Feb). One of my 2012 learnings was that sometimes a photograph that is not so close is more effective than one that is as close as possible. In one of my earlier attempts at “not-so-close” macrophotgraphy, the soft colors of the flower compliment the brash shininess of the tiny leaf beetle that has been feeding on its pollen. Pink lines lead the eye directly to the subject and create a pleasing composition, and pollen grains stuck to the beetle—a distraction in some situations—add to the miniature natural history story of the photo.


Apiomerus flavipennis with stink bug prey and kleptoparasitic flies | Chaco Province, Argentina

From  (posted 11 Mar). I selected this photo solely for the complex natural history story drama it shows—stink bug (Piezodorus guildenii) feeding on soybean becomes prey of an assassin bug (Apiomerus flavipennis), with volatiles from the chemicals it emitted in a vain attempt to defend itself serving as cues to kleptoparasitic flies (families Milichiidae and Chloropidae) that benefit from the assassin bug’s labors.


Planthopper nymph | Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

From  (posted 26 Mar). Another learning that I began putting into practice in 2012 was the use of low perspective for compositional impact. The cryptic coloration of this planthopper nymph (family Fulgoridae) made it almost invisible on the branch on which it was sitting when viewed from a normal “top-down” human perspective. Getting “down under” it, however, brought the nymph to life and emphasized its unusual form.


Megabaris quadriguttatus | Corrientes Province, Argentina

From  (posted 12 Apr). I spent much of 2012 working on the “blue sky background” technique, with these weevils from northern Argentina representing one of my better attempts. Macrophotography of insects with a blue sky background involves setting exposure, ISO, and aperture to achieve two separate exposures—full flash illumination of the subject for maximum depth-of-field, and ambient light from the sky to create a clean, uncluttered, natural-looking background. In this shot I managed to achieve an almost ideal shade of blue to compliment the wild black, white and red colors of the beetles. (My one criticism of the photo is having clipped one of the beetle’s feet.)


Bombylius sp. cf. mexicanus | Scott Co., Missouri

From  (posted 16 May). This photo is unusual if nothing else. Focus, lighting, depth-of-field, and composition are all better than can be hoped for in a single shot, but the subject—perfectly alive—is in a most unusual position. Read the original post to find out how this happened.


Perisphaerus sp. (a pill roach) | Vietnam (captive individual)

From  (posted 27 May). White-box photography is an excellent technique for clean, uncluttered photographs of insects, but it also isolates them from their natural surroundings and limits their natural history appeal. The best white-box photos are those that highlight a key feature or behavior of the subject—in this case a pill roach’s comically conglobulating defensive posture.


Micronaspis floridana (Florida intertidal firefly) larva | Pinellas Co., Florida

From  (posted 31 July). Here is another photo whose back story played a big part in its selection. This firefly larva not only represents a rare Florida-endemic species but was also first seen by my then 12-year old nephew, who willingly accompanied me through a dark, spooky salt marsh in the middle of a humid Florida night to see what he could learn. The lesson here for budding natural historians (and old-timers like me) cannot be overstated!


Arctosa littoralis (beach wolf spider) | Lewis Co., Missouri

From  (posted 23 Aug—prelude to  posted 28 Aug). Those who follow this blog know of my obsession with close-up portraits, and while tiger beetles are the subjects I most commonly photograph in this manner, I am always on the lookout for good subjects in other taxa. This wolf spider “face” almost looks human, with “two” eyes, two “nostrils” and a shiny upper lip above huge (albeit hairy) buck teeth! It’s enough fill-the-frame spidery goodness to melt (or explode) the heart of even the most ardent arachnophobe!


Anticarsia gemmatalis (velvetbean caterpillar) egg on soybean leaf

From Life at 8X—Guide to lepidopteran eggs on soybean (posted 3 Sep). “Life at 8X” was a new series I introduced this year, featuring insects photographed at magnifications testing the upper limit of my equipment and photographic skills. Diffraction is the chief difficulty with magnifications as high as this and is the primary flaw in the above photograph. Nevertheless, such view of a moth egg on the underside of a soybean leaf provides a spectacular view of the otherwise unseen micro-world that lives right beneath our noses.


Megacyllene decora (amorpha borer) on snakeroot flowers | Mississippi Co., Missouri

From  (posted 12 Sep). This second example of “blue sky background” was taken later in the year and was considerably more difficult to capture than the first because of the larger size of the subject and resulting need for a longer focal length macro lens. Getting a well-lit, focused, and composed image with a desirable shade of blue in the background depended not only on finding the proper camera settings, but also secure body and camera bracing techniques for this completely hand-held shot.


Cicindelidia politula politula (Limestone Tiger Beetle) | Montague Co., Texas

From  (posted 28 Sep). I will go ahead and say it—this is my favorite photograph of 2012. As discussed under the first entry, panning back from the subject can allow for some very interesting compositions. This photo combines charismatic pose by a wary subject with panning back and low perspective to create an image that scores high in both natural history and aesthetic appeal.


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

From Black is beautiful! (posted 7 Nov). Of course, close-as-possible can also be used to create striking photos, especially if the subject exhibits features that are best seen up close. Anything with jaws fits the bill in my book, and highlighting the mandibular sculpturing of this caterpillar hunter (a type of ground beetle) required precise angling of the flash heads for maximum effect.


Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle) | St. Louis Co., Missouri

From  (12 Nov). This final selection is not a rare species, but it is as close as I have come to what I consider the “perfect” tiger beetle macrophotograph—a close, low angle, lateral profile of an adult in full-stilt posture (a thermoregulatory behavior), well lit, perfectly focused, and with a dynamic but pleasingly blurred background. It’s a perfect storm of a photo that took the better part of two hours to achieve—rarely do all of these elements come together in a hand-held photograph of an unconfined tiger beetle in its native habitat.


Well, there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed my selections, and again please do let me know if you have a personal favorite. See you in 2013!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Shooting 8X hand-held in the field

Just to prove it can be done, here is an uncropped photograph of the seed weevil Althaeus hibisci (or the closely related A. folkertsi) (order Coleoptera, family Chrysomelidae, subfamily Bruchinae). Adults of these species measure only 1.5–2.5 mm in length (Kingsolver 2004), yet this individual almost completely fills the frame:

Althaeus hibisci/folkertsi on Hibiscus moscheutos lasiocarpus | Route 66 State Park, St. Louis Co., Missouri

I achieved 8X magnification by stacking 68 mm of extension tubes under my Canon MP-E 65mm 1–5X macro lens and extending the bellows of the lens out to its maximum. Shooting 8X is not for the timid—the small subject to lens distance complicates lighting (full flash required), and even finding the subject in the viewfinder can be next to impossible. However, doing it hand-held in the field requires more than just courage and patience—good bracing techniques to minimize movement by and between the camera and the subject are essential. Here is how I do it:

  • I sit down, prop my knees up, and rest the camera in the crotch between my knees (the camera quickly becomes very heavy since it’s being held by only one hand—see next bullet) while positioning it near my face. If possible, I lean back against something as well to provide even more stability, although this is often not possible depending on field conditions.
  • I hold the leaf or flower supporting the subject in my left hand. Subjects this small are rarely going anywhere (or if they are skittish then I use the same slow, deliberate techniques that I use with larger skittish insects), so it is possible to hold the leaf or flower and position the subject right in front of the lens. Hand holding the subject’s support also affords the ability to micro-adjust the position and angle of the subject for optimum composition or to adjust for movement by the subject (easier than trying to track it by moving the lens). In this case of the photo featured here, I detached the leaf with the beetle from the plant (use small scissors to snip the leaf petiole, as this avoids the “jolt” that happens if you try to pick the leaf and which usually results in the subject fleeing). In other cases, I leave the leaf attached and carefully “pull” it towards me to hold it steady.
  • I look through the viewfinder and brace my left wrist (yes, the same hand that is holding the subject) on the underside of the lens, then slowly move the subject towards the lens with my fingers until I see movement and can micro-adjust for proper focus. Bracing your wrist against the lens is key—it is nearly impossible to hold the subject steady in front of the lens without bracing your wrist against it. In effect, this “fixes” the subject to the lens. Also, before I begin looking for the subject through the viewfinder I study its position on the leaf and look for “landmarks” that I can recognize when looking through the viewfinder to minimize the time needed to find the subject (the more time you spend looking for the subject, the greater the chance it will move or flee). Again, the subject to lens distance is very small, but with practice you’ll get a feel for precisely how far from the lens you need to place the subject.
  • I hold my breath and micro-adjust the subject position to nail the focus (usually on the eye) and then fire a shot. If it takes too long to get the focus I exhale and try again, as body shake will only get worse once it starts. Important: After taking the first shot, do not move the hand holding the subject as you look at the image preview and/or histogram—the first shot rarely has the settings precisely where you need them, and keeping the subject in place prevents a lot of re-searching after making the needed setting adjustments with the right hand.

Other than lighting, nailing the focus is the most difficult aspect of shooting hand-held at such high magnifications. The more relaxed and stable you can keep the rest of your body, the less hand movement you’ll experience while holding the subject and the greater chance you have of hitting the focus. Again, a fully extended MP-E lens on 68 mm of extension tubes becomes very heavy very quickly when held in one hand (even when resting on your knees), so expect your forearm muscles to give out quickly until you have a chance to strengthen them through practice.

I use these same techniques to some degree at lower magnifications as well—certainly for anything above 2X. I’m interested in doing a lot more 8X photography, however, because there is a whole world of tiny insects that are not being photographed due to their very small size. These insects are no less fascinating and beautiful than their larger, more oft photographed brethren.

Finally, you might be asking why I don’t just carry a tripod or collect subjects and bring them back to the studio for more controlled conditions. There are many photographers who advocate the use of tripods, but I’m not one of them. I am first and foremost an entomologist, and when I’m in the field I’m generally already carrying at least a net and other equipment for collecting insects. There are opportunity costs involved if I also try to lug a heavy tripod with me. What’s that? I could leave it in the car and then go get it when I need it? Honestly, I would pass on a lot of shots if I had to go back to the car to get something for it. The same goes for studio photography—there are many shots I would simply pass on if getting them meant that I needed to collect subjects, keep them in good condition for the duration of the trip (which might be days or more), and then setup in a studio. Moreover, there are many shots—specifically regarding behavior—that would be impossible with collected subjects. But really, it has mostly to do with what I want to be and portray as an insect photographer, and that is somebody who has the ability to photograph unconfined subjects exhibiting natural behaviors in their native habitats. Having the ability to shoot 8X hand-held in the field if I want to gives me more options and makes me a better photographer.

Do you have any special bracing or stabilizing techniques that you use for high-mag hand-held macrophotography? If so I’d love to hear about them.

REFERENCE:

Kingsolver, J. M. 2004. Handbook of the Bruchidae of the United States and Canada. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Technical Bulletin 1912, 2 volumes, 536 pp.
 
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

I fear no weevil…

Megabaris quadriguttatus (Klug, 1829) | Corrientes Province, Argentina

…especially when they are as colorful as these! I found this mating pair ~60 km south of Corrientes, Argentina feeding on flowers of what I presume to be the goldenrod species Solidago chilensis (family Asteraceae). Here, as in North America, goldenrod blooms in profusion along the roadsides during late summer and fall wherever moisture is to be found, and also as in North America goldenrod here is an insect magnet. During my week exploring Corrientes and Chaco Provinces, I learned to stop whenever I spotted a stand of the distinctive yellow blossoms. I found several stands and was treated to a variety of beetles, flies, and other insects that I’ll show over the coming days, with these being among the most striking that I found.

Weevils themselves may not be anything to be afraid of; however, their taxonomy is downright terrifying (and this coming from a beetle man!). With more than 40,000 described species worldwide (and who knows how many still awaiting description), the family Curculionidae (“true” weevils) may be the largest in the animal kingdom. I don’t know why, given the distinctive and striking coloration of these individuals, but I punted early and asked my friend Henry Hespenheide (a buprestid man, but knows a thing or two about weevils) if he knew what these were. Henry must have also been scared, because he went straight to the top and forwarded the photos to weevil heavy-hitters Charles O’Brien and Jens Prena, both of whom quickly replied back with an ID of Megadaris quadriguttatus (Klug, 1829). The state of weevil bionomics seems to be as incomplete as their taxonomy, as I was unable to find even the most basic information about the distribution and biology of this species (keep in mind I’m in Argentina right now with no access to libraries). As far as I can tell this is a strictly Neotropical genus.

Of course, had I checked Curculionidae de Argentina I might have noticed the photo of this species right there on the front page. Fear does strange things to one’s confidence.

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