A Gallery of Pollinators


It probably shouldn’t have taken ten years, but I’ve finally corralled a few of my better pollination photographs into a coherent gallery. Check it out at the link:

A Gallery of Pollinators and Pollination

The astute observer will notice I’ve put flies at the top. This is no accident. Flies are important pollinators, but as Morgan Jackson recently pointed out, they are unjustifiably neglected in favor of the more popular bees.

Announcing Insects Unlocked

A while back I wrote a feature for Ars Technica on the dysfunctional online copyright landscape. The piece was personal. My photographs average around $50 each to make, mostly in time, equipment, and travel costs. These costs have traditionally been covered by commercial users who buy permissions, as copyright law requires.

Yet fewer than 10% of the online commercial users of my work have even asked permission, much less paid. Such low rates were not sustainable. What was remarkable about my situation, also, was precisely nothing. A great many professional photographers see similar exploitation. That is how it is, it is frustrating, and if we knew an easy solution, we would be doing it already.

Among the varied reactions to the Ars piece was a persistent suggestion that maybe I ought try a different approach, one that asks the community to pay the costs up front in exchange for open images. Like it or not, science and nature photographs online are most often treated as a public resource, not as a tradeable commodity, and perhaps their production should reflect that reality.

I can see the logic. Science images are informative about the world around us, they are data as well as art. Perhaps, with a shift in perspective, the photo-using community might be convinced to share the costs of a public resource, as we do with other public services. NASA and USGS, for example, already make fantastic public domain images from taxpayer support. Could crowdfunding similarly serve as a copyright-free foundation for science imagery?

I don’t see why not. Neither does my new employer, the University of Texas at Austin, which has generously thrown their support behind our new, crowdfunded public domain initiative called Insects Unlocked. Here’s the pitch:

Insects Unlocked

We’ll be supporting a team of UT students as they produce thousands of public domain images, both of live animal behavior in the field and of detailed microscopic structures in preserved specimens. We hope you consider helping us as we create a stream of open science images, free for anyone to use.

[Video expertly shot by Ian Wright and adeptly edited by Adrian Smith]

The Yellow Crazy Ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes

Anoplolepis gracilipes
A yellow crazy ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes, from an infestation in Cairns, Australia.

I’ve been increasingly self-conscious about not having photographed the yellow crazy ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes. This species is one of the world’s most damaging invasive insects, wiping out entire faunas as it spreads like a formic acid carpet across the south pacific. The famous Christmas Island crabs, for example, are in danger of extinction from the ant menace. For a professional ant photographer to be without photos of this little terror is to be a bookstore without Harry Potter, or a coffee shop without scones.

Thanks to ant researcher Lori Lach, though, I was able to remedy this oversight. Lori took me to one of the infested sites near Cairns earlier this month. It was like a horror movie:

Lori Lach in an invaded riparian forest, with media commentary.

Well, not *exactly* like a horror movie. But still. I had never seen anything like it.

A trail of yellow crazy ants covers a tree trunk.

The ants are big. Most invasive ant species have large colonies of rather small ants, but Anoplolepis has large colonies of large ants. Viscerally, that makes a difference. Especially since they are also fast. Much more of the ground and foliage seems to be moving. Even for an ant guy, the effect is unnerving.

Anoplolepis gracilipes
A worker collects honeydew from a sugarcane whitefly.
Anoplolepis gracilipes
Grass aphids were another source of honeydew.

I was told not to be impressed, though, because that particular site had been treated recently and the infestation was “light”. It didn’t look light to me. I saw hardly any other ants and very few insects apart from the honeydew-producing bugs the ants were guarding. A heavy infestation must be… crazy.

Anoplolepis gracilipes

Anyway. Check out the new photographs:

Yellow Crazy Ant Photos

And, if you’d like a yellow crazy ant explainer Minute Earth has a short video.

The Spring Print Sale!

An Australian weevil. I’d order this one as a 12×18″ print on lustre paper with the 3/4″ standout mounting.

Spring is here, the insects are waking up, and in honor of the season I’m having a sale. If you’re looking for a gift for your graduating entomologist, this is for you! Click on the link to visit the gallery:

Insect Print Sale!

Thirty images, including fifteen chosen by readers, are now available as high-quality art prints at up to 60% off my regular prices, starting at $3.99 for a 5×7″. The sale started yesterday-we’ve already sold 20(!)- and will run until April 30th. International orders are accepted.


Now, some details.

I have partnered with Bay Photo Lab in California for printing. Bay’s color reproduction and paper quality is consistently excellent, better than I have been able to manage myself. In fact, I’m giddy every time prints arrive in the mail!

Bay’s options for mounting and framing are simple but good quality. I especially recommend the 3/4″ standout mount for the 8×12″ and larger prints. The mount has the effect of turning a photo into a museum-quality piece, and if you order a number of prints you’ve got your own gallery.

Paper choices are lustre and metallic. Lustre is standard, high-grade photo paper. Metallic is contrasty and luminous with more “zing”, and they are… well, metallic. Whites come out as silvery, for example. Personally, I find the effect a bit too much for most photos. The metallic papers perform better for a subset, such as the metallic beetle and the ants on black.

I am happy to sign prints for an added $25 (potentially more for international orders). Allow an extra week for delivery, as the print must be shipped here before I send it out. To order a signed print, just send me an email and I’ll put your order in.

Do let me know if you have any questions.

The poor man’s macro kit: extension tubes

Dedicated insect photographers normally employ specialized macro lenses to focus on their tiny subjects. These can be pricey. My MP-E lens cost $900, for example, and my 100mm f/2.8 is $500.

But macro does not have to be expensive. Consider the effect of a single extension tube mated to a regular 35mm lens:

The Canon EF 35mm f/2 lens can focus this close, but no further.
The same lens on a 12mm extension tube allows for a macro shot approaching 1:1.5.

What is an extension tube? (more…)

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…)

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

All the better to see you with…

Harpegnathos venator

A perk of being at a major university is photographic access to the wild and wonderful diversity of insect research subjects studied by various biologists in the department. This week Andy Suarez returned from Ant Course/Borneo bearing live ant colonies. They were exported under research permits for studies of genome size and for the biomechanics of ant mandibles.

But the ants were also available for a leisurely photo shoot before being shipped down the science pipeline, so I spent Tuesday afternoon with my camera gear up in the lab pretending like I was exploring the jungles of southeast Asia. I even stole tropical leaves from the plant biology greenhouse to serve as rainforest backdrops. It was a reasonable facsimile, except for the air conditioning, internet access, and coffee shop up the road, of course. Sometimes I prefer my jungles to be civilized.

Anyway. The next few days I’ll be posting shots from the session. Borneo has some freaky amazing ants. Like this big-eyed hunting ant Harpegnathos venator.

Harpegnathos venator

Some day I’ll get to Borneo myself. My interest is certainly piqued now.

-more Harpegnathos photos here

*updateok, maybe not venator. Anybody need a taxonomic research project?

The Importance of Sunsets

If you’ve spent time looking at my photo galleries, you’ll know most of my macro images are lit with an off-camera flash. While I’d like to claim that flash is my personal style, the reality is that flash is more convenient. Flash provides the control to take a consistently well-exposed photo in any place at any time of day. Images look exactly like I want them to, whether shot in the harsh glare of midday or the black of midnight.

Sunlight by itself, though, does marvelous things twice a day. At sunset and sunrise light goes sideways, leaving long gentle shadows. The quality of natural light at these times is superb for flash-free photography, and yesterday evening I went to Meadowbrook park with my 100mm f2.8 macro lens to capture the prairie as the sun went down.