Adapting the iPhone for Insect Photography

[the following is a repost from the Scienceblogs network]

Polistes dominula, the European Paper Wasp, captured with an iPhone

As an insect guy, the first question I ask about any camera is: Can I shoot bugs with it?

To my great disappointment, the answer for most cell phones is no. Cell phone cameras are normally fixed to focus at distances useful for party pictures and street shots. Fixed-focus simplifies the mechanics of the onboard camera, but it also makes close-ups of small subjects impossible. Even Apple’s iPhone 3GS- which has variable focus- doesn’t focus quite closely enough do anything but the largest insects. So when an aphid plague unexpectedly hits town, to name one real-life example, I have to go home and haul out my camera bag. No easy snaps.

An unmodified Apple iPhone 3G depicts the same wasp shown at the top of the post like this:

As you can see, the plane of focus falls behind this barely-visible insect. That’s no good.

There’s a simple solution. A magnifying lens placed over the onboard lens will move the focus point close to the camera. With an insect sitting nearly on top of a small lens, the resulting image is magnified to impressive size. The home-made rig looks like this:

I used a $20 lens and some masking tape, but any hand-lens should do. This arrangement allows the iPhone to cozy right up for some intimate bug portraits. I’ve posted a sampling below: (more…)


I don’t get Twitter. Really, I don’t. It seems like yet another technology-driven vehicle for wasting time, perhaps momentarily useful for journalists in the early stages of breaking news, but mostly a vortex of time-suck.

Such curmudgeonly instincts didn’t stop me from signing up for an account the other day, though:

Follow me if you like, but I make no promises about the quality or quantity of tweets.

The Decline of Taxonomy

Covered by the Globe & Mail:

The morphological taxonomist, engrossed in a single group and identifying its members by visual inspection, is increasingly an emeritus professor or someone near retirement. Younger scientists are drawn to molecular taxonomy, where powerful new techniques in the study of DNA have revealed interspecies connections never before suspected.

Such advances, including the Canadian-pioneered use of DNA barcodes to identify species, while undeniably useful, are “not a replacement for the [traditional] taxonomist,” says Gary Saunders, who holds a chair in Molecular Systematics and Biodiversity at the University of New Brunswick.

“At times, the DNA-generated answer is wrong,” Prof. Saunders says. “A trained taxonomist can look at a molecular result and know that there is cause to question the outcome.”

Like much coverage of the death of taxonomy, the article skirts around the source of the problem. It isn’t that nobody wants to look at morphology now that we’ve got sexy new DNA. It’s that there are no jobs for people trained in morphological taxonomy.

The annoying thing is, morphologists are still plenty useful. All sorts of people- from pest control operators to forensic entomologists- use taxonomic knowledge regularly.

Rather, the reality is that taxonomy finds itself mired in a classic tragedy of the commons. Everyone uses the knowledge as a shared reference but no one wants to bear the cost. Other biologists- who are perfectly happy to fork over cash for lab equipment, staff salary, and DNA sequencing- somehow run into trouble budgeting the identification of their study organisms. Museums and Universities know that taxonomists don’t bring in the big grant dollars that medical and genomic sciences do. As those institutions become increasingly focused on their bottom line they cut their taxonomists and replace them with scientists more likely to serve as cash cows.

So taxonomy languishes.

Magnificent Insect Eggs

If you haven’t seen the amazing SEMs of insect eggs in this month’s Nat Geo, or read the accompanying text by ant guy Rob Dunn, you’re missing out…

Bear in mind that some of the beauty- the color bits- are added later. Scanning Electron Microscopy cannot record color, so the striking hues are interpretations of the artist.

Monday Night Mystery: Crown of Thorns

I’ve been easy on you guys recently. In honor of Labor Day, then, I’m going to make you Labor for tonight’s challenge.

Here are two similarly spiny ants:

Ant A

Ant B

Myrmecos Points will be awarded as follows:

4 points for guessing the genus of Ant A
4 points for guessing the genus of Ant B
2 points for the telling me whether the spines are evolutionarily convergent or synapomorphic (=shared from a common spiny ancestor).

Correct guesses must be supported by character information (for the IDs) or references (for the evolution question).

As usual, the cumulative points winner for the month of September will win their choice of 1) any 8×10-sized print from my photo galleries, or 2) a guest post here at Myrmecos on a safe-for-work topic of their choosing.

Friday Beetle Blogging: Shining Flower Beetles (Olibrus)

What are all the black specks in this thistle head?

The prairie is covered this week in shining flower beetles (Olibrus, in the family Phalacridae). They are aggregating in nearly every composite flower head, with a fair number just floating about among the grasses. The adults feed on pollen, and their sheer numbers make me wonder if there will be enough pollen left over to perform the plants’ reproductive functions. Here are some shots from Meadowbrook park.

Scaling the stamens
Getting busy.
Olibrus, up close

photo details
Canon EOS 7d camera
(top 2) Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens
ISO 800 f/5.6-f/10 1/160 sec
(bottom 2) Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens
ISO 100 f/13 1/250 sec

Reflections on the First Ant Genomes

[correction: When the genome paper first emerged I stated that the genomes would not be made public. This impression- due to a lag time between online publication and data release- was erroneous, and I hope the authors accept my apology.]

Camponotus floridanus

A few days have passed since the publication by Bonasio et al of the first ant genomes, those of the Florida Carpenter ant Camponotus floridanus and the Indian jumping ant Harpegnathos saltator. After reading over the paper and the supplemental information, here are my thoughts. (more…)