Killer Wasps!

Mischocyttarus wasp, Napo, Ecuador

I’m on my way out the door to attend the fabulous Insect Fear Film Festival, so this will be short.

This year’s festival theme is Killer Wasps, featuring two truly atrocious hymenopterous thrillers, Monster from Green Hell (1958) and Swarmed(2005). To counter any lingering anti-wasp paranoia, here are shots of some rather gentle Mischocyttarus paper wasps I photographed recently in Ecuador. These large brown insects let me stick my lens and flash right up in their nest and didn’t even raise a wing in protest.

Mischocyttarus are social animals, living on small nests made from processed wood pulp. Colonies typically comprise an egg-laying queen and several workers who do most of the foraging and brood care.

Evolutionary biologists find Mischocyttarus and other paper wasps fascinating. Although these insects are social in a similar way to the well-studied honey bees and ants, their societies are small, with only a few individuals, and the queens and workers are morphologically identical. Indeed, workers are capable of assuming a queen’s role. It is a society threaded together by the interactions among only a few wasps, not just altruistic cooperation but internal power struggles. It’s an entomological soap opera, one whose resolution holds clues to how the big insect societies first emerged.

Anyway. I’m off to watch the much less interesting spectacle of mutant Hollywood death wasps, or whatever.

2011 Insect Fear Film Festival: Killer Wasps

If you are within travel distance of central Illinois next weekend, you DO NOT want to miss the famous Insect Fear Film Festival, now in its 28th year.

The festival is great fun. You’ll play with giant grasshoppers, watch live bumblebee colonies, see BugScope probe insects at insane magnification, and get your face painted in entomological detail.

Most of all, you’ll watch two of the worst movies ever made. This year’s theme is “Killer Wasps”. Here’s tasty preview of the so-bad-they’re-hilarious selections:

Caligo, the Owl Butterfly

An owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) rests among the Papyrus, slowly flexing her wings.

Midway through my recent Ecuador trip an ant photographer’s nightmare came to pass.

My trusty MP-E 1-5x macro, the lens responsible for 95% of my images since 2003, died. The electronics failed with the iris stuck full open, rendering it incapable of providing any depth of field. It became a doorstop, essentially, and there was no easy way to replace such a rare and specialized lens while traveling through a country too small to host a single Canon dealer.

I can’t describe the frustration. (more…)

Answer to the Monday Night Mystery

After plenty of head-scratching and squinting at what wasn’t a very clear image, the commentariat mostly converged on the idea that the mystery interloper in the army ant columns was a diapriid wasp.

Do you see it now? (100% crop of original photo)

And they were right.

Ten points go to Josh King, who got there first, and 5 more to Terry Nunn for taking it down to subfamily. And two consolation points to Matt Y, for linking us to Diapriid keys.

Answer to the Monday Night Mystery

Apioscelis sp. - a jumping stick insect

Even after a couple months’ respite, you folks are still as sharp as a set of gryllotalpid fore tibiae. This week’s mystery- a positively hilarious Ecuadorian grasshopper in the family Proscopiidae– was guessed in a matter of minutes.

So. 10 points to Morgan Jackson for getting there first. 5 points to Ted MacRae for going the extra mile to pick the species. And, 2 consolation points to Kojun, who missed by mere seconds.

Here’s a shot of the much larger female:

Sunday Night Movie: Triggering a Locust Swarm

From the National Geographic Channel:

It’s a shame the Nat Geo Channel stoops to such low-grade sensationalist narration. Phil DeVries is a great presenter, the cinematography is decent, and the subject matter is inherently fascinating. It’s not like they don’t have the raw materials to achieve greatness. But no. Nature must be an Evil Horde that swarms in a minor key.

An inflatable head

The amazing ptilinum of the common house fly

I recently had the opportunity to photograph one of the odder spectacles among insects: a common house fly emerging from its puparium using a giant inflatable head. What’s deal with this strange behavior?

Many millions of years ago, some flies figured out an ingenious way to protect their delicate developing pupae. Instead of shedding their last larval skin and discarding it, as do most insects, these flies (the Cyclorrhapha) retain it as a sort of armor- the puparium– and metamorphose inside. It’s a great example of evolution re-purposing an existing structure for a novel function.


Emerging as an adult inside an unbroken suit of armor has its own difficulties, however. What makes it hard for predators to get in also makes it hard for flies to get out. So they pump their heads full of hemolymph, inflating a balloon-like structure called the ptilinum, and burst their way to freedom using hydrostatic pressure.

breaking free!

Once the fly has emerged the ptilinum deflates back into the head, leaving a characteristic upside-down U-shaped suture.

photo details:
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D camera
f/13, 1/250 sec, ISO 100
(top) background flash; (mid, bottom) diffused foreground flash