The Best of Myrmecos 2011

With the imminent demise of 2011, I’ve been reviewing my photographic efforts from the year. Excluding photos from our recent Australian adventures- I’m still crunching those- I created 609 saleable images processed from over 15000 exposures. Of those, here are ones I see as the best:

Just a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) on a stick, but I didn't expect the light and the colors to emerge with quite this much ZING.
Eciton burchellii army ants march through a cloud forest in Ecuador. This photo might not look like much at 550 pixel-width, but viewed large it's an action-packed panorama that well exceeded my expectations.
This capture of Hyalophora cecropia silk moths is among the first of my photographs I'd actually consider as art rather than simply natural history documentation.
Fed by a sister, a young drone honey bee drinks honey to acquire the energy to emerge from his natal cell. This capture is not the most aesthetically pleasing, but I find it unusually intimate for an insect picture.
Some images work for no other reason than an eye-catching subject. This friendly insect is an Ecuadorian grasshopper in the tropical family Proscopiidae.
I never thought I'd include a shot from my little Panasonic digicam in with my top photos, but I can't resist this portrait of a young mantis in her habitat. The subject and background lined up to produce an image better than either alone.
I shouldn't have to explain why I picked this one.
Where does the predator end and the prey begin? This shot of an Ecuadorian spider mimicking its ant prey is both aesthetically sound and biologically informative. I hope to do more of this sort of thing.
I can't photograph ants all the time. Sometimes, to mix it up, I shoot researchers who work with ants- like Benoit Guenard (left) and Eli Sarnat.
Hello Phidippus!

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…)

Pollinators in action

grass flowers: prettier than you'd think

This shot may look like it came from an exotic location, but in fact I snapped it not three hours ago in our prairie garden. The sideoats grama is flowering, and its tiny blossoms are positively buzzing with miniature halictid bees, each barely half a centimenter long.

photo details:
Canon EOS 7D camera with a Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens
ISO 500, f5.6, 1/200 sec
diffuse overhead flash, handheld

May Berenbaum on Bed Bugs

May Berenbaum, entomologist extraordinaire, considers the modern bed bug resurgence in today’s NY Times:

I had been a professor of entomology for 15 years before I saw my first live bedbug. It crawled out of a plastic film canister that had been mailed to me by a distraught student in the Boston area who had no idea what it was. I was so thrilled to see a live bedbug, I showed it off to every graduate student I ran into that day: Cimex lectularius — a small, flat, wingless, brown ectoparasite that hides in cracks and crevices in human dwellings and emerges under cover of darkness to feast on human blood.

That was in 1995, and none of my students had laid eyes on Cimex lectularius either.

Read the whole thing.

Grooming your insects for that glamour bug look

In the comments, Ted observes astutely:

Okay, I have to ask – do you give your subjects a “bath” prior to photographing them? I’m thinking in particular of the caterpillar hunter – there’s not a speck of anything on him. I think I just figured out one of the keys to your superb photos.

I noticed a while back that insects shot in the home studio were a good deal dirtier than insects shot out in the field. How could this be?

Most insects are meticulously clean animals, constantly stopping to groom themselves and remove bits of crud from their bodies. In the wild I don’t as often encounter dust-encrusted insects unless grubbiness is a regular part of their natural history. And regardless, I feel a loyalty in those circumstances to capturing scenes as I see them rather than grooming them down to a cleaner abstraction.

The trouble comes when transporting insects to the studio. I use a vial or old plastic food container, usually with a bit of moist paper to keep the humidity at a healthy level. Confined to such a small space the animals have a harder time keeping up their standards of hygiene. Dust sticks to everything. Vials roll and tumble in transport. Paper fibers cling to body hairs. And the poor insects emerge from their trip looking rather more disheveled than when they started.

So yes. I almost always clean animals before the indoor shots. It’s a simple process. By holding a leg between my fingers I can keep an insect still long enough to give it a few puffs with the same air blower I use to remove dust from camera lenses. Or I just co-opt my aspirator by operating it in reverse. A couple seconds later the insect is clean and ready to shoot.

What do trap-jaw ant nests look like?

Ants are accomplished architects, but most people would never know it. That’s because ant nests are often underground and impossible to observe directly, with the consequence that we don’t know as much about ant-built structures as we do about those of the more open-nesting bees and wasps.

Nest casts of Odontomachus brunneus

Enter Walter Tschinkel. Walt and his students have perfected the art of pouring casting materials into ant nests, waiting for the slurry to harden, and digging up the resulting structures. The various chambers and passageways are transformed into sculpture, and what was invisible is cast openly in three dimensions. It’s a great trick, and the Tschinkel lab has churned out a string of papers on ant nest engineering.

The latest paper, a survey of nest shapes in the trap-jaw ant Odontomachus brunneus, was led by Lina Cerquera and came out last month in the Journal of Insect Science.

Odontomachus brunneus

Odontomachus is a predatory ant with small colonies, so one might not expect their nests to be overly complex. And it turns out that’s the case. These trap-jaw ants construct a single vertical shaft with chambers dug out to the side, and the overall volume of the nest is proportional to the number of ants in the colony. From the paper (emphasis mine):

No matter what their size, the nests of O. brunneus can be recognized by their characteristic appearance; that is, the size-free shape does not change much with nest size… [This] means that workers need only follow simple, local iterative rules to produce a nest of similar shape but any size.

This finding is in line with previous work on insect architecture, where complex structures emerge through the aggregate action of many individuals following a small set of behavioral rules. Nothing surprising, but isn’t it a luxury just to have the means to see underground?

Source: Cerquera LM, Tschinkel WR. 2010. The nest architecture of the ant Odontomachus brunneus. Journal of Insect Science 10:64.

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