Category: Insects

Painted Hills

This weekend, I traveled to the John Day Fossil Beds in central Oregon. As the name suggests, this National Monument is a paleontological treasure, with fossil assemblages spanning forty million years of Cenozoic paleohistory. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at the monument’s Sheep Rock unit is absolutely excellent, with beautiful fossils, an active research lab and up-to-date exhibits.

But, I admit I wasn’t here for the fossils so much as I was for the exceptional landscapes of the Monument’s Painted Hills Unit.

Painted Hills
Painted Hills

The Painted Hills are made up of ancient soils, and their changing hues record the area’s transition from an ancient forest to a grassland environment.

Walking through the park is almost like traveling to a new world — Red Hill looks like a part of Mars dropped into the middle of Oregon; the purple rhyolite clays of Painted Cove feel like something from a fantasy novel.

Red Hill
Red Hill
Painted Cove
Painted Cove

Unlike Mars, though, the Painted Hills are far from lifeless. They emerge from a beautiful mixed sagebrush and juniper woodland, which is home to a large variety of insect life, including dragonflies like this Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum) who was obelisking on my car antenna.

Variegated Meadowhawk
Variegated Meadowhawk
Sagebrush Steppe surrounding the Painted Hills
Sagebrush Steppe surrounding the Painted Hills

The Painted Hills are beautiful at all times of day, and lend themselves to abstract landscape photography with a long lens to capture colors and patterns. At sunset, however, the hills truly shine, mixing dramatic light and shadow with the red and gold of the formations.

Painted Hills
Painted Hills
Painted Hills Sunset
Painted Hills Sunset

This is a remarkable location, and I’m looking forward to coming back.

Empty House

Hornet's Nest
Hornet’s Nest

My parents are remodeling their house, which is one of those processes that will, invariably lead to all kinds of surprises. This is a close up of a very large hornet’s nest that they found inside of one of the south walls — I’ve keyed it out as Vespa.

It’s always shocking to me that insects that people think of as dangerous and aggressive, like these hornets, can establish themselves next to humans and remain unnoticed for years before evidence of their existence is even discovered.

2012

So, 2012 has been pretty crazy. I started the year in Europe, where I had the opportunity to take a geometric morphometrics course and collect data for my master’s thesis. I applied to, and was accepted to a Ph.D. program in Lincoln, Nebraska … and, at the end of the year, I’ve decided to quit the program in order to take time off and focus on myself, because I’m really not sure that grad school is what I want to do with my life.

Oh, and I managed to take some photos during that time. Here are a few of my favorites from the year. I think that I’ve learned and improved a lot over the last twelve months.

Owl Butterfly
Owl Butterfly
Great Plains Rat Snake
Great Plains Rat Snake
Jumping Spider
Jumping Spider
Fiery Skipper
Fiery Skipper
Ringneck Snake
Ringneck Snake

Next year promises to be even more exciting, as I’m going to Australia. I’ve wanted to visit for as long as I remember, and I’m really excited to go. I’m going to be living in western Queensland for at least a few months , working and taking pictures of the local fauna. Afterwards, I hope to spend some time up north, for rainforests and crocodiles, and then spend some time in Sydney and the south of the country in the Spring and Summer. I’m looking forward to discovering a whole new continent of reptiles and arthropods. :)

Gas Station Finds

I love gas stations. This is partly because I drive an SUV with terrible mileage (I know! I am a bad person! But it was an affordable vehicle on my grad student budget.), but also because gas stations have wonderful, bright lights and ready resources of sugary garbage. The net effect of this is that I often find quite good insects at gas stations, especially late at night.

Most gas station attendants are a little weirded out if you just go at it with a bug net, but I try not to let the little things stop me.

So, for example, when I was driving home from Omaha late on Sunday night, I had to stop for gas. The gas station that I stopped at was pretty well deserted (mostly because it was about one in the morning), and the lights were full of little buzzing insects … and one very large, flying insect.

I at first assumed that this insect was a hunting dragonfly that had, for some reason, stayed out past its bedtime … but something wasn’t quite right about its flight pattern. When the insect came in to land, I managed to capture it, and this is what I found.

Mediterranean Mantis
Mediterranean Mantis

This is a beautiful adult male Mediterranean Mantis (Iris oratoria). At first, I wasn’t quite sure what he was, since I didn’t realize that this species got to this size … but while I was capturing, I managed to annoy him enough that he gave me a beautiful threat display, which pretty much cinched my species identification.

Iris oratoria

(This lovely photo is not mine — It was taken by Isidro Martínez, who graciously CC licensed it for the Encylopedia of Life collection — but I figured that you all needed a photo of just how cool this display really is.)

Since Mediterranean mantises are invasive, I didn’t feel a particular need to let him go back into the wild — so he’s currently in a Critter Keeper on my desk at home, voraciously devouring an offering of crickets. I’ve decided to name him Sheldon.

I also went herping today, and actually found stuff, in spite of the awful weather we’ve been having in Nebraska — I’ll post those photos for you all tomorrow.

Black and White

So, I was playing around with backgrounds in my whitebox today, and I think that this one is … interesting.

Blue Dasher
Blue Dasher

I’m not entirely sure it’s successful, mind you.

Male Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis.

Best. Day. Ever.

So, I was at the pond yesterday. At the pond, I collected a very large wolf spider, a very small frog, and a very average-sized grasshopper. I also did a couple of sweeps with my net, which did not, at the time, seem to turn up anything interesting.

However, when I went to go put my net away today, I noticed that there was something moving around in there. So I turned my net inside-out to investigate. This is what I found.

Bombardier Beetle
Bombardier Beetle

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the best animal on the planet.

I know I say that a lot. If people ask me to describe crocodiles or toads or liver flukes or ichneumon wasps, I will probably tell you, at some point, that these are the best animals on the planet. And while all of those are excellent animals, they are not the actual best animals on the planet, because, like Highlander, there can be only one, and it is the bombardier beetle. (If you made me pick a particular species of bombardier beetle, admittedly, it would probably be Stenaptinus insignis and not a Brachinus, but dwelling on that would miss the point of this post, and also I might end up picking Metrius contractus instead, because I’m a contrarian.)

First of all, they are ground beetles, and carabids are my absolute favorite insects. They’re a beautiful, diverse group of (mostly!) predators that contains some of the coolest insects on the planet. Bombardiers are also a particularly beautiful group of carabids; instead of the black color that’s common across so many ground beetles, they go for flashier colors, like this lovely orange-and-blue Brachinus (they also come in lovely spotted patterns). And, of course, the defining feature of these beetles is their ability to eject boiling-hot chemicals from their butts. Crocodiles, what do you have on that? (Yeah, I said it.)

Okay, so, yes, creationists and ID people have co-opted them as symbols of irreducible complexity. This is an annoyingly stupid perspective to have on these beetles, and smarter people than me have dismantled these claims. It doesn’t for a second, demolish the pure awesome of these animals, or my delight at finding one.

Here, have a video of Stenaptinus in action.

Okay. That’s enough carabid linkspam for one day.

How to appease wasps (long enough to take a picture)

Working with wasps can be a little tricky, since they’re very active animals that can fly, sting and bite, and they don’t take direction well. So, I’ve tried a number of approaches while working with them in the studio. The most common advice that I’ve seen online is to chill insects in the fridge for a few minutes. While it’s true that this will make them lethargic, they’ll also often adopt very unnatural-looking poses, with splayed limbs and crooked antennae … and as soon as they warm up, you’re back to square one. Similarly, some insects will freeze when startled (as will snakes, frogs and some lizards — if you’re taking herp photos), but I am pretty sure that startling wasps is not a great idea.

Instead, I use two main techniques — the first is just to place the insect under a drinking glass and let them get out all of their energy.  Eventually, the bug I’m trying to work with will stop running and flying around erratically, and will sit still long enough or me to get a photo or two in. (In the case of dragonflies, I do basically the same thing by setting up a perch in a closed white box, then giving them a few minutes to bumble around before landing — they’ll usually end up right where I wanted them.) Sometimes, however, this technique fails, at which point I move on to my second method — bribery.

Black and Yellow Mud Dauber
Black and Yellow Mud Dauber

Insects are pretty good at sitting still while they eat, and they’ll often pause while approaching potential food, which gives me the opportunity to get in some shots, while their little minds are elsewhere.

Photo Details
Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro Lens on a Canon T1i Rebel
ISO 100 at f/18, 1/100 sec
Diffuse flash in whitebox
Image editing in Adobe Photoshop CS5

Soldier Fly

Soldier Fly
Soldier Fly

Here’s a little soldier fly that I found while out on a walk today. He was really a very, very handsome fellow, with those huge red eyes, and a bright green butt. He was also an extremely cooperative photo subject — I think I accidentally hit him with my camera three or four times before he very lazily flew away … only to land about three inches from where he was originally sitting.

Photo Details
Konica Minolta Pro Automatic 35mm F2.8 Lens reverse-mounted on a Canon T1i Rebel
ISO 100 at f/16, 1/100 sec
Diffuse flash
Image editing in Adobe Photoshop CS5

Hey, look at that, I actually changed the aperture on that lens. This is a historic occasion. And probably calls for beer.

Greenbottle Fly

So, if you were to look through the memory cards on my camera, you would probably be shocked at how many really terrible out of focus photos there are on that card. And after that, you would probably be appalled by the sheer number of pictures that I have taken of flies. This is because flies are everywhere, and I generally have no problem sneaking up on them to take their picture. I just never really do anything with these photos, because they all look pretty much the same to me (please do not hate me, dipteran people!) and I cannot really be bothered. (Oh god, fly people are going to CRUCIFY me.)

But, on days when I have nothing better to post, I have PLENTY of fly pictures to go around.

Blow Fly
Blow Fly

Okay, they are kind-of cute.

Photo Details
Konica Minolta Pro Automatic 35mm F2.8 Lens reverse-mounted on a Canon T1i Rebel
ISO 100 at f/22, 1/100 sec
Diffuse flash
Image editing in Adobe Photoshop CS5

It’s Finally Happened…

… there is now a large, annoyed wasp loose in my apartment. I probably need to catch her before the kitten does, since the kitten (a) does not know about wasp stings and (b) probably won’t be gentle with my photo subject.

Paper Wasp
Paper Wasp

I think that this is Polistes metricus, although it could be P. fuscatus. I don’t know. It’s a big damn red wasp. That my kitten wants to eat.

Photo Details

Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro Lens on a Canon T1i Rebel
ISO 100 at f/14, 1/125 sec
Diffuse flash in whitebox
Image editing in Adobe Photoshop CS5