The June Bugs are Back!

This is going to be short and I’m working on a longer post that I’ll get up tomorrow or Thursday, but I just couldn’t help but share an insect sighting from yesterday!  I was driving past the American beautyberry shrub at work on my way to close the back entrance for the night when I spotted a bunch of loudly buzzing insects flying around the flowers that were just beginning to open.  I assumed they were bumblebees and was about to drive off when I realized they weren’t flying quite right for bees.  So, I took a closer look and saw dozens of these little guys sucking down nectar from the flowers:

Green June Beetle, Cotinis nitida

Green June Beetle, Cotinis nitida

June bugs!  Or at least what most people in North Carolina consider June bugs, the green June beetle, Cotinis nitida.  These beetles send me straight back to happy moments from my childhood and I absolutely love seeing them, so I was thrilled to find a bunch of them out and about.  They tend to have a sort of mass emergence here, so apparently the emergence has begun.  I will expect to see hundreds – thousands! – of them over the next month or so!  I want to get some really good photos of them this year, but I am totally happy just watching them do their thing too.

Just had to share because these beetles are something I really love and they represent summer to me.  I hope you all love your June bugs – whether green, brown, or some other color – wherever you are!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: The Belly of the Beetle

It’s cold enough in North Carolina that there have been very few insects out and about.  So, I’ve set up a little aquatic insect photo studio in my guest room so that I still have something to photograph.  I’m going to share several aquatic insects with you over the next few weeks, but here’s a little preview:

Agabus disintegratus

Disintegrated diving beetle, Agabus disintegratus

That’s the belly of a really spectacular beetle, the disintegrated diving beetle, Agabus disintegratus.  I’ll show you the other side soon, but I kinda love the undersides of predaceous diving beetles.  You can see all the cool adaptations they’ve got going on their legs (you can just barely make out the suction cups on his forelegs) and you can admire the amazing structure of beetles. Plus, in this image, you can also see the air bubble this beetle uses to breathe. This particular beetle is super skittish and buries itself in the rocks at the bottom of my photo tank, so he’s been hard photograph.  I was happy he sat still long enough for me to get this shot of him!  An instant later, he was back under the rocks.

More cool aquatic insects are coming soon!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Friday 5: Recent Bugs

Well, it’s starting to get cold in Raleigh.  Earlier this week, I was the last person in the office when I heard what sounded like freezing rain hitting the window.  As I looked out the window, a few snowflakes started to fall.  I had planned to stay and finish something I was working on, but I know how people in Raleigh get when there’s even a hint of snow (i.e., they freak), so I dashed out to my car to try to beat the traffic the “snow” would cause.  No such luck!  My 20 minute drive home took well over an hour, just because it was dark and everyone was panicking about the “snow.”  But I digress!  Apart from the tiny flurry of snow, the cooler weather also means that the area’s insect population has started to dwindle.  I’ve started to see ladybugs moving into the office again (a sure sign of winter!) and fewer and fewer insects can be seen outside.  But, I still have a good store of insect shots I haven’t shared with you all yet!  Here are a few of my recent insect photos:

Ladybugs

Ladybug boxes

Ladybug boxes

I mentioned last week that we recently opened a play area at the field station where I work as a way to draw in more families with young children and connect the young’uns to nature.  The grand opening was a major affair.  As part of the event, I led a ladybug hunt and took about 25 kids, plus their parents, out into the prairie to collect ladybugs.  They came back with about 70 ladybugs after just 10 minutes of searching!  We were collecting data for the Lost Ladybug Project, so after the hunt I photographed the ladybugs we found.  It took ages!  The ladybugs run all over the place, so you have to chase them around with the camera, panning as they run, and snap a half-dozen photos of every ladybug, hoping that at least one shot is clear enough to see the spot pattern.  It’s a grand photographic adventure!  Much easier to take a shot of half of the ladybugs still in their boxes.  :)

Florida Predatory Stink Bug Eating Cricket

Stink bug eating cricket

Florida predatory stink bug (Euthyrhynchus floridanus) eating cricket

I’ve always wanted to see one of these stink bugs!  I had someone call me over to ask a question one day at work and I happened to catch this bug’s movement out of the corner of my eye as I walked past.  Happily, I had been out to photograph something else and had my camera in hand, so I just climbed right into the bush and snapped a bunch of shots after I answered the question.  What a gorgeous  bug!  I can’t resist a good predatory bug.  Look how the cricket is impaled on the flaming orange mouthparts!  Gruesome, but kinda awesome too.

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar Pupating

Black swallowtail caterpillar pupating

Black swallowtail caterpillar pupating

One of my coworkers is the official educator for the field station where we work and occasionally catches caterpillars to show the kids she teaches.  This black swallowtail caterpillar was only in the cage one day, but it was ready to pupate.  I took this shot right when it had started to form the silk pad that would anchor it to the wall.  It’s hard to move them once they’ve started pupating, so I suspect it will remain in the box until spring.  Maybe I’ll be able to get a few shots of it emerging too!

Green Darner on Big Leaf Magnolia

Darner on big leaf magnolia

Darner on big leaf magnolia

I was walking down a trail when this dragonfly swooped right in front of my face and landed on a tree just a few feet away to roost for the night.  What luck!  I took advantage of the cool weather to get in close with my point and shoot and snap a few shots.  I was able to get within inches of this dragonfly and probably took 50 shots without it moving a bit.  So exciting!

Swallowtail Chrysalis

Swallowtail chrysalis

Swallowtail chrysalis

I went on a work trip to the Smokies a few weeks ago, and one of my favorite parts was a lichen citizen science activity we did with a couple of the education rangers at Great Smokies National Park.  I really love lichens, so I was thrilled to have an excuse to take a really close look at lichens on a tree.  However, the best part of the activity for me was not the lichens themselves, much to my surprise. Instead, the lichen activity had caused people to take a good, close look at the trees, which meant that suddenly they were seeing all sorts of tiny things they never would have noticed otherwise.   I was called over shortly before we discussed our lichen monitoring results because one of the other groups had found a really cool spider lurking in their lichens and wondered if I knew what it was. I didn’t, but we snapped some photos and oohed and awwed over the it until another group called me over to look an insect they’d found, a caterpillar that had been severely parasitized.  Snapped a few photos of that and was about to walk back to my group when someone found the chrysalis in the photo.  Suddenly everyone started seeing insects!  We found a rainbow-colored stink bug nymph, some more chrysalids, cool flies, more spiders.  It was awesome!  The trip leaders had to sort of drag everyone away after we were done or we probably would have spent the next hour looking at cool, tiny things on trees.

So those are a few of my recent insects, but I suspect their numbers will dwindle even to almost nothing in the next few weeks.  Sigh…  Anyone else out there still getting to see insects?  Would love to live vicariously through your insect encounters, so tell me about them!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Friday 5 (on Saturday): A Web of Spiders

One of the great things about working at a field station run by a natural history museum is that you’re surrounded by people who share your interests.  This is no small thing when you’re an entomologist!  Sure, we get along famously with other entomologists, but once we leave the comfort of our own kind, we’re exposed to a lot of squeamishness and people who really don’t get  how we could possibly be interested in insects for any purpose other than figuring out how to kill them as quickly as possible.  It’s GREAT to be around other people who appreciate nature when you love nature, and it’s part of the reason why I love my job.

Case in point: yesterday morning, a museum retiree stopped by our lovely construction trailer/office to chat for a few minutes.  He’s a great guy and incredibly knowledgeable, so we discussed a few of the trees in the arboretum he’s built in the lowland area of the field station over the last few years and a few other things before he headed out.  He wasn’t gone long though!  He came back in about 20 seconds later saying, “You all have GOT to come see this!!” and rushed back out the door.  I was thinking he’d seen the sort of thing that most people at Prairie Ridge get excited about, a large bird, snake, or mammal, but instead he’d found a stick mantid egg case on the underside of the handrail for the stairs to the other entrance to the trailer.  Woo!  Stick mantids are cool, so I was excited.  We had admired the egg case for a few moments when the arborist looked up and pointed at this with a big grin on his face:

scarab in spider web

Scarab in spider web

A scarab beetle was dangling from a large spider web!  Clearly it had gotten tangled in the web and had been trapped.  But neither the web nor the beetle were what excited our arborist.  It was this little dew drop spider:

Dew Drop spider

Dew drop spider

That spider was about 1/4 inch long and was EATING THE BEETLE!  The arborist was practically bouncing up and down as he watched the little spider eating the beetle.  These spiders are cleptoparasites, animals that steal food that other animals have captured.  In this case, our little spider was feeding on a large beetle that had been trapped in the web of a much larger orb weaver spider.  The orb weaver was hidden inside the handrail or the day, so the little dew drop spider was helping herself to some food.  The arborist started looking at the web, saying that it was likely that a much smaller male was hanging around too.  Sure enough, there he was, a couple of inches away!

male dew drop spider

Male dew drop spider

At this point, we had a complicated food web going, with a small cleptoparasitic dew drop spider stealing food from a larger predatory orb weaver spider that had captured it, all while a male dew drop spider looked on.

That alone would have been pretty cool, but things got more exciting when we startled the little dew drop spider and she dropped onto the stairs below.  She stayed completely still for several minutes as we all watched to see what she would do.  She eventually made her way over to the handrail, her swollen abdomen flopping from side to side.  We were watching her crawl up the handrail support and debating whether she was full of eggs or not when the arborist exclaimed, “Wow!!!  Did you see that??!!”  He pointed at this:

Jumping spider eating dew drop spider

Jumping spider eating dew drop spider

A little jumping spider, likely a juvenile of one of our larger jumper species, had dashed out of the space between two of the handrail supports and snagged the dew drop spider!  So, now we had a predator eating a cleptoparasite who was stealing food from a predator while the male dew drop spider looked on.  Quite the complicated little food web was developed!

We watched for a few minutes as the jumping spider carried the dew drop spider’s limp body before the arborist wandered back to his car and the rest of us headed back inside.  I looked over the photos I’d taken and realized that I hadn’t gotten any decent shots of the male spider, so I went back out to snap a few more shots.  As I walked past the handrail, I looked to see how far the jumping spider had gotten in devouring the dew drop spider.  Right at that moment, another jumping spider entered the mess, attempting to grab the first jumper!  The attacker missed and the jumper with the dew drop spider scurried away.  I followed the second jumper around with my camera for a few minutes, and it eventually crammed itself down into a little gap between the handrail and the support and looked out at me:

jumper in gap

Jumper in gap

If the second jumper had succeeded, it’s hard to say how the food web would have been impacted.  If it had eaten the other jumper, that would have been a predator eating a predator that was eating a cleptoparasite that was stealing food from another predator while the male dew drop spider looked on.  If, however, the second jumper had snatched the dew drop spider away from the first jumper, it would have been a cleptoparasite eating food captured by a predator who had caught a cleptoparasite that was eating food captured by a predator as the male drop spider looked on!  Regardless, there were 5 different players in this little drama, and that was on a single spider web on a single handrail on an ugly construction trailer where my office is located.

This all illustrates a point: nature is complex if you take the time to look.  If you have a few people who are willing to watch a crazy complicated little spider-focused food web develop with you, well… That makes the experience even better!  I consider myself lucky to work with people who will gladly spend 15 minutes watching little spiders on a handrail.  Here’s to many more similar adventures in the future!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Aquatic Insect Photography Setup

Over the past few years I’ve had several people ask me how I photograph aquatic insects.  I think it’s time I share my method!  Hope this will help some of you take some amazing aquatic insect shots – and I hope you’ll also share links to your own aquatic insect photos/photo setups so we can all learn from one another.  I’m sure my method isn’t the best out there, so I would love to hear about alternatives!

For the first few years I had my blog, most of the aquatic insect photos I took were either taken with a camera mounted on a microscope or in a white bowl full of water.  Either method works okay, but there are major problems with each, especially with the equipment I had to work with.  I got a few decent shots with both, but I never got the kind of jaw-dropping, awesome shot that I was hoping to get.  I was beginning to despair.

Then I went to Bug Shot in 2011.  There I had a conversation with Stephen Maxson.  He showed me some of his amazing aquatic insect photos and how he set up his equipment to take the shots.  It looked easy, so I was eager to try it out when I got home.  It was revolutionary!  Suddenly I was getting a lot closer to getting the kinds of shots I wanted of insects in water.  So, thank you Stephen Maxson for teaching me your method!  And if you reading this ever have a chance to see any of his photos (he posts them on bird forums, not a blog or a personal website, and I am having a bear of a time tracking one down to share…) I know you’ll enjoy them.

So, here’s my setup, which has only very minor variations from what Stephen showed me:

My aquatic insect photography setup

My aquatic insect photography setup

It’s really simple!  Just a small aquarium, a couple of diffused flashes set on either side of the aquarium, and something to prop up a background with.  I use a small photo album for the latter, and use either a piece of fabric or paper as the background.  You can also print indistinct, blurry images of pond plants or other natural scenes to use as a background for a more natural look (what John Abbott does for his awesome aquatic insect shots!), but I personally like using solid colors.  Totally up to you and your personal tastes!

The aquarium is the most important part.  In my experience, you want to keep the insect as close to your lens as you possibly can, so minimizing the space in which the insect can move is a plus.  You can either use a piece of glass or Plexiglas to push the insects toward you in a purchased aquarium or make your own.  I used the custom aquarium you see in the photo for some research I did in Arizona and found that it worked marvelously for photographing insects in water.  I built a similar one as soon as I moved to North Carolina so that I could continue photographing my aquatics.  Building a custom aquarium is simple: just buy some glass, have someone cut it to the size you want, and assemble the pieces with aquarium sealant.  Easy!  My only piece of advice is that you use thinner glass than I did (1/4 inch).  The glass isn’t perfectly clear, so between that and the water, there are always distortions in the photos I take with my custom aquaria, both the ones I left behind in Arizona and the one I built here.  Thinner glass is more fragile, but should result in sharper images.

Diffusing the light is important as well so you don’t have a harsh, bright glare glinting off your bugs.  I use Alex Wild-style diffusers, little sheets of frosted white mylar.  I connect them to my Nikon R1 flash system flashes with nylon ponytail holders and then set them on their stands on either side of the aquarium.  That way, you have light shining on the insect from both sides and can eliminate as many of the shadows as possible.  My flashes are tiny, so I have to bump the intensity up, but they’re conveniently wireless.  If you have a Canon or other camera, you may need a remote flash trigger to make this work.

Then it’s just a matter of propping a background up behind the aquarium, filling your container with water (I used filtered whenever possible to keep the water as clear as I can), dropping the insect in, and snapping some photos!  You can add other pondy things to the water to make it look more natural – larger rocks, algae, floating vegetation, cattails/reeds, etc – or you can leave the water clear.  The more stuff you have inside, the less light is likely to hit your subject, so I tend to leave the water clear.  But then I also don’t like to have the clutter of other things in my shots.  Again, go with whatever works for you!

And that’s it!  A little glass container, a couple of flashes, a piece of paper, and a camera and you’re set!  With my setup, because I have such thick glass in my aquarium, I can’t get perfectly clear, crisp shots, but it’s a huge improvement over what I was able to do in the past.  For example, compare this shot of a predaceous diving beetle taken through my microscope…

Predaceous diving beetle under microscope

Predaceous diving beetle under microscope

to this shot taken with the setup above…

Thermonectus nigrofasciatus

Predaceous diving beetle, Thermonectus nigrofasciatus.

There’s really no comparison.  Likewise, here’s a caddisfly I shot in a white bowl…

Caddisfly

Caddisfly in white bowl

… and here’s one shot as described above:

Phylliocus aeneus

The caddisfly Phylliocus aeneus wandering around the rocks.

The insects look SO much better in the aquarium, shot through the side with soft, diffused light, than I could ever manage with my microscope or bowls.  I am still no Jan Hamrsky and there’s always room for improvement, but I think at this point I’m going to focus on improving the glass in my aquarium rather than adopting a new setup because I like this one.  It’s easy to use, relatively portable, and produces nice images – it works well for me and my style.

If you have your own setup for aquatic insects, I’d love to hear about it!  Just leave a comment below and tell me about your setup.  And if you haven’t ever tried photographing insects, give it a shot!  I think it’s a ton of fun, so see what you think.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Aquatic Microhabitats

Hello everyone!  It’s my first real blog post in a while, so I hope it proves to be worth the wait.  I feel that it’s time to talk about a subject that I find fascinating: microhabitats in aquatic environments!

A stream might look like a fairly monotonous environment, with water traveling inexorably downstream.  However, if you really take the time to look, you’ll notice that there are lots of little pockets of space in a body of water that have slightly different sets of conditions compared to the little pockets of space around them.  These are microhabitats, small areas that have a particular set of conditions unique to that area, and insects are incredibly good at exploiting them.

Take, for example, the stream in this photo:

Prairie Ridge stream

Prairie Ridge stream

That’s the stream at Prairie Ridge Ecostation, where I work.  I think it’s a fascinating stream largely because it has very few insects in it, much lower diversity than one might expect for a reasonably clean stream in this part of the world.  I’ve got a group of high schoolers who are investigating the reasons why there are so few insects in the stream, but the few insects we find are found only in very specific places.  I draw your attention to the location I’ve indicated with the arrow:

Deep pool

Deep pool

That is a pool, an area of deeper water with lower flow.  Pools like that tend to have a lower oxygen concentration than adjacent areas of the stream because the water is deep (remember that oxygen moves very slowly in water and the deeper the water, the longer it takes for oxygen to reach the bottom) and comparatively still (lower flow often = lower oxygen).  In that particular area of the stream you would normally find swimmers, things like the predaceous diving beetles and backswimmers, things that like deep, calm water so they don’t have to fight the current to swim when they go to the surface to breathe.  Curiously, that is one group of insects that is conspicuously missing from this stream and I’m trying to figure out why.  But that’s a subject for another time!  Let’s contrast that deep pool with this area right here:

Stream rooty pool

At first glance, it might look like those two areas are very similar, and in some ways they are.  You’ll find relatively low flow and low oxygen levels in both areas, but the area indicated here is deeper, has a small sandbar that protects a little pocket of water behind it, and contains a lot of roots and other substrates on the steep bank that are absent in the adjacent pool.  This area is well out-of-the-way of the main flow, so swimming insects that rely on surface oxygen could easily live in this spot if this stream had them (e.g., it would be a good place to find whirligig beetles or those diving beetle, if we could find them anywhere in the stream).  However, you do find one thing clinging to the roots on the banks: jewelwing damselfly nymphs from the family Calopterygidae.  You find lots of them there!  Damselflies rely on oxygen dissolved in the water to breathe, have gills, and are rather inefficient swimmers.  The flow is so low in this area that they are at a low risk of being washed downstream if they become dislodged, but the oxygen levels are also rather low.  Thankfully, the roots give the damselflies something to hold onto if they need to move closer to the surface to get more oxygen, and you will almost always find them clinging to those roots.

This stream is so shallow and the flow is so low that the riffles, the areas where rocks and other objects introduce turbulence into the system, are pretty wimpy and the turbulence they generate is mild.  However, this little riffle is where you find most of the caddisflies in this section of the stream:

riffle

Riffle

They are mostly caddisflies in the family Glossosomatidae and you’ll find them clinging to the underside of rocks where they build cases out of rocks.  Like the damselflies, the caddisfly larvae have gills and rely on dissolved oxygen to breathe.  Riffle areas are often the areas of highest oxygen in a stream because the rocks break up the flow and stir up the water, bringing oxygen rich water to the bottom of the stream far more quickly than oxygen could move there on its own.  However, there’s a trade-off: living in the area of highest oxygen often means that you’re out in the strongest flow in the stream.  Insects that live in this part of the stream typically sport a variety of adaptations that help them stay in place.  In the case of the caddisflies in this stream, they have both a set of hooks at the end of their abdomens and build themselves little harnesses of silk and rocks that keep them pressed firmly against the surface of the rock.  They might be right out in the middle with water constantly slamming into them as it flows downstream, but if you’ve ever had a chance to try to pry one of these insects off a rock you know that they are really well attached.  They’re not going anywhere!

Moving just a few inches downstream can mean a big change in the local conditions.  Take this log, for example:

log in stream

Log in stream

On the upstream side, there’s a small pool where the flow is relatively slow, the water is a little deeper, and the oxygen is a little low.  Just on the other side of the log is an area of turbulence and higher flow.  There’s a more oxygen there, but also more flow.  On the upstream side of the log you’d expect to find swimmers (except not in this stream) and downstream you’d expect to find the kinds of things that cling to rocks.  They are literally five inches apart, but the habitat is completely different!  Another foot downstream  is the start of a very deep pool that contains a lot of fish, but virtually no insects.  Considering the number of these microhabitats that are present in this one little stream (and I have only shown you 10 feet of the total length of the stream), you can see how aquatic insect diversity might go up as the stream becomes more complex and contains a greater variety of microhabitats.

When I go collecting with people who haven’t ever done it before, they typically comment on how I find all sorts of different things when they are finding the same thing over and over again.  It’s not that I’m better at catching things, that my technique is better, because it’s not.  It’s because I know that the odd little pool under the undercut bank has different insects than the rocks out in the middle of the stream and both have different insects than those lurking in the leaves that the pooled area downstream.  It takes a little practice, but with time anyone will start to see the huge variety of microhabitats.  It’s just a matter of looking, of not assuming you’ve collected everything in a stream or a pond because you’ve collected in one place.  Nature is far too clever and complex for that!  Keep looking and poke around in the places you might not expect to find things.  You might be very glad you did!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Something in My Shirt

Ever find yourself sitting at your desk, chipping away at e mail responses after everyone else has left for the day, only to feel something moving on your back?  It happened to me a few weeks ago.  I sort of swatted at my back with my hand and the movement stopped, so I assumed I’d squashed whatever it was.  A few minutes later, however, there it was again, a little movement of something up my back.  I swatted again, it stopped again, I once again hoped I’d gotten whatever it was.  Nope!  Soon enough, whatever it was was crawling up my spine, which I have to say is a deeply disturbing feeling.  So, I pulled the whole shirt off.  Inside, I found this:

inchworm

Inchworm!

An inch-long inchworm!  I was a little shocked it was so large, but apparently you can get large caterpillars down your shirt when you crawl into bushy trees at work.  After putting the shirt back on, I took the inchworm outside and snapped a few photos with my iPhone before going back to blissfully inchworm-free work.

On a completely unrelated note, I think I will be able to get back to my regular blogging schedule soon!  Woo!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth