Insects in White Boxes

My grand plans for finishing a blog post about giant water bugs this weekend were thwarted by a migraine.   So, today’s post is going to be quick and easy instead!  I’ll prep the water bug post for next week.

I have always admired photos of insects and other animals taken in white boxes.  There’s something about putting animals in front of a white background that I just love.  There is no competition for the subject, so your eye is drawn immediately to the part of the photo the photographer wishes to highlight.  And, they’re really fun photos to take!  I’ve taken white box photos for over a year now, but when I attended BugShot 2011, I learned how to use my flashes to brighten my white box subjects much more effectively than I had done in the past.  Since then, I’ve had a lot of fun with the technique and have spent a fair amount of time practicing.  Today I’ll give you a few examples.

My favorite white box subjects are palo verde beetles.  There’s a huge adrenaline rush associated with bringing a very large, heavily armored, angry insect indoors, stuffing it into a white box, and then flashing the hell out of it.  This was taken last summer, a few months before BugShot:

Palo verde beetle

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

This mantispid (aka, mantisfly – you can probably tell how this insect got its common name!) was taken at BugShot:


Green mantisfly (Zeugomantispa minuta)

The green on this insect was stunning, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive taken in nature as it blended nicely into the environment.  The white box brings out the bright green colors so perfectly.

This photo from BugShot features a dobsonfly (or fishfly, depending on who you ask – I call them all dobsonflies) as it spread its wings to fly:


Dobsonfly (Chauliodes sp.)

I know it’s not a perfect photo, but I really love it for some reason.  It’s my favorite of all the photos I took at BugShot actually.  Figures I would pick the big, scary looking aquatic insect as my favorite!

The next few photos were taken about a month ago after collecting giant water bugs for my research.  This caterpillar was crawling up the leg of my friend’s husband as he drove us home:


Hualapai buckmoth caterpillar (Hemileuca hualapai)

All those little spikes are stinging hairs, or, as we entomologists like to call them, urticating spines.  My friend wisely decided to scoop the caterpillar off her husband’s leg with a plastic bag leftover from my lunch rather than pulling it off with her hands, so she didn’t get stung.  It was an absolutely stunning caterpillar though, so into the white box it went!  These were also present in abundance at the same site:

Cicada molt

Cicada molt (Tibicen cultriformis)

I came home with the shells of several cicadas (shown here) and an adult that I found dead in a stream.  These are BIG cicadas!  That shell is over an inch long.  I might eventually do a post about this cicada with the sound clip that I recorded while we were collecting that day.  The song builds as hundreds or thousands of cicadas each make a brief call after they hear their neighbors calling, creating a sort of wave of sound that builds up, washes over you, and then recedes into the distance.  Imagine people doing the wave at a baseball game, then imagine the sound equivalent – that’s what it’s like.  It’s amazing!

Even though it’s not exactly the same technique, I like taking photos of aquatic insects using a sort of pseudo-white box technique.  Put a live aquatic insect into a white bowl, shine some lights into the water, and shoot!  You can only get photos from the top this way, but they give me the same lovely, bright white background as the white box photos I love so much.  An example is this creeping water bug photo:

creeping water bug

Creeping water bug (Ambrysus sp.)

White box photos are so fun!  I love the way the colors of the insects pop and how you’re instantly sucked into looking at the fine details of the insects.  There is a downside though: while pretty, these photos show virtually nothing about the environment in which the insects live or the behaviors they exhibit.  Take the creeping water bug.  If you didn’t know it was aquatic, would you be able to tell that it was from the photo?  I think not.  The caterpillar didn’t do anything except wander around the white box, so it was wholly uninteresting behaviorally, even if I did get several nice shots of it.  Still, I can’t help but love the aesthetic of white box photos, so I keep taking them.  You just need to know where and when to use them most effectively.

Speaking of using white box photos, Alex Wild at Compound Eye recently posted about a conservation group that is trying to raise awareness of plants and animals by photographing them in front of white backgrounds.  It’s not exactly a white box, but the group has created a system that several different photographers take out into the field with them to shoot with similar results.  The images are gorgeous, so I highly recommend that you read Alex’s post and visit their website, Meet Your Neighbours.  It’s like walking into a visual candy shop for me!

Does anyone else shoot white box photos of insects?  I would love to see some of your work if you care to provide some links in the comments section!  And look for that giant water bug post next Monday.  I’m excited about posting it, so I hope you will all enjoy it.


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Swarm Sunday – 10/23/2011 – 10/29/2011

dragonfly swarm banner

No swarms to report this week, so it looks like the swarming season is officially over!  I’m taking a break next weekend and then I’ll start the year-end report the following Sunday.  It’s been an exciting year, so I hope you’ll check back in  a few weeks!


Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!


Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!


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Friday 5: My Insect Art Collection

We all know that I love insects.  We also all know that I take my work home with me in a BIG way.  I’ve got bugs everywhere – some real, some not.  I buy a lot of insect stuff and display it around my home.  (You know you’re an entomologist when someone says they weren’t sure they were at the right house until they looked down and saw the insect door mat!)  I love to support insect artists.  Today I’m going to share 5 pieces of insect art I have displayed in my home.

Dung Beetles, artist(s) unknown

ding beetle sculpture

My dad has always been obsessed with minerals.  I practically grew up in a hole in the ground digging for smoky quartz.   When I was young, we went to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show religiously and I was thrilled to be able to go again when I moved back for grad school.  The first year, I planned my purchases (I need to have a plan or I’m overwhelmed by choices) and was ready to find the perfect sulfur specimen to add to my collection.  Instead, I walked away with the dung beetle sculpture pictured here.  I found it hidden in a booth of carved stone from Zimbabwe, back behind sculptures of mothers and children and quartz elephants.  I was beyond thrilled!  It’s metal (I LOVE metal sculptures!), came in two pieces (beetle + dung ball), and it was only $25.  The dealer was surprised that someone actually wanted it and said that Americans don’t appreciate dung beetles like Africans do.  He told me that they would be buried in elephant dung without their dung beetles, so the sculpture was an homage to a very important part of their lives.  My dung beetle is still my favorite sculpture – and now I have two!  Had to go back to the mineral show every year for 6 years to get it, but it was totally worth it.

Mayfly, William Wessel

mayfly sculpture

For several years, my art loving aunt from upstate New York spent a month in Scottsdale each January.  Every year we’d spend a long weekend in the Phoenix area going to art galleries, shopping, and eating really good food.  We have similar tastes in art and we fell in love with one particular gallery in Old Town Scottsdale.  It was full of brightly colored art of many different types: sculpture, painting, fiber, jewelry.  While my aunt debated whether to buy a $700 fiber piece, I perused the metal sculptures by William Wessel.  The gallery had a really great one, a three-foot high piece with two damselflies flying among cattails.  I coveted it, but it was $350, more than half what I was paid each month at the time.  I wandered the store pondering the fact that I was too poor to buy it when I came across three of Wessel’s little sculptures.  I was SO happy!  They were only $35, a much more reasonable price for someone with my tiny budget.  I had to choose between a mosquito, a damselfly, and a mayfly and walked away with the mayfly.  Really, how many people sculpt mayflies?  It makes my little sculpture so unique!

Coleoptera, Foster Beigler

beetle print

I featured this one on my Friday 5 about insect artists that I love, but I just have to show it again.  This is my favorite insect art piece I own!  It’s one of a kind, brightly colored, and it’s a linoleum block print, my favorite medium.  This was more expensive than most of the art pieces that I own and a huge pain to get home because I bought it at an Entomological Society of America meeting and couldn’t take it home on the plane.  When I worked out the details for having it shipped to me by the artist, she told me that she would put my name on it right then it so she didn’t accidentally sell it to someone else (as she had done more than once in the past), so I worried that it wouldn’t ever arrive at my house.  It eventually did, and then I spent $250 to have it framed.  It was all completely worth it in the end though!  It has the place of honor in my living room, the only thing on a big white wall that you see right when you walk in the front door.  Love it, love it, love it!

Mantid, Alex Yellich

mantid photo

Very few of you will likely ever hear of this artist.  Alex is one of my colleagues, a researcher at the University of Arizona.  He’s obsessed with insects and photography and spends nearly all his free time outdoors collecting or photographing bugs.  He’s my local photography expert, the person I go to when I have questions because he’s one of the few insect photographers I know that shoots Nikon.  And I love his photographs!  He had a little mini art show in the Department of Entomology office a few years back, and I bought the mantid photo shown here from him at the end of the show.  It’s displayed in a corner of my house with several other insect photos and it makes me smile every time I see it.  I’ve since bought a second photo (a stunning image of a dead tree in the Salton Sea – it’s so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes!) and I hope to buy some more in the future.  I wish Alex would at share his photos online (or, even better, sell them!) because he’s so good – and hardly anyone knows it.

Tawny Emperor, Melissa Buschow

tawny emperor print

Discovering the website Etsy was a bad, bad thing for me.  I like supporting artists and I like to buy insect art, and there are a whole lot of both on Etsy!  I spend way too much on Etsy…  This was one of the first things I bought, a woodcut print featuring a person holding a butterfly.  I can’t even explain why I like it so much, but there’s something about it that just works for me.  Maybe it’s the way the butterfly is being held, gently enough that you know that it’s still alive and will remain alive after it is released.  The print was a mere $18, but it’s always going to have a place on my walls.

Having bug art me so happy!  Insects are so beautiful and I want to share that beauty with others.  Supporting artists is a good thing too.  And buying insect art directly from the person who created it, so you can get the story behind the piece and learn all about the process, is a pure joy.  I highly recommend it!

Do any of the rest of you have insect art in your homes?  If so, I’d love to hear about what you have.  There’s even a handy-dandy comment section below to describe your awesome insect art.  I look forward to hearing what you’ve got!


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Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: All Souls Procession

Tucson has one of the most wonderful events I’ve ever experienced: the All Souls Procession.  At its most basic, it is simply a parade celebrating the Day of the Dead, but it always ends up feeling like so much more.  Participants (and anyone can participate) dress up in all manner of costume, create bicycle or human-powered floats, or spend months building massive skeleton puppets that they carry on their shoulders or on carts.  Everyone sort of dances along in time with the various musicians scattered throughout the two mile long procession and the whole thing ends up feeling like you stumbled into this huge, disorderly group of surprisingly cheery people honoring the dead while looking somewhat dead themselves.  Because both Halloween and the Day of the Dead are coming up soon, this week I give you my Dragonfly Woman costume that I wore in the All Soul’s Procession in 2004:

Dragonfly Woman

Dragonfly Woman. Photo by Heather Dominick.

I loved this costume, but those wings sticking out on the sides really were a bitch to maneuver through a crowd of 15,000 people!


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Morning in the Sonoran Desert

It was an exciting weekend for Tucson and its natural wonders.  Each year, National Geographic and the U.S. Park Service choose a park in which to hold a BioBlitz, a 24-hour frenzy of biological documentation, collection, and mayhem.  The event has several goals, but it gets a giant hoard of non-scientists involved in performing a massive biological survey (it’s a citizen science project!), brings positive attention to the national parks and the services they provide, and creates a list of species that are found in the parks where the BioBlitzes take place.    This year, Tucson’s own Saguaro National Park was chosen for this event!  Over the past 12 months or so, scientists have been volunteering to lead non-scientists out into Saguaro to collect and/or document the life forms that they are most familiar with.  More recently, citizen scientists could look through a very long list of surveying activities and sign up to participate in as many as they wished.  Last Friday and Saturday, the two groups came together and several thousand people went out into the desert to work!

My sister is a park ranger, currently at the Grand Canyon, so the BioBlitz in Arizona was a really big deal to the people she works with.  Some of her friends and co-workers came down to Tucson to work at the event this weekend, but she was not one of them.  She decided to come down anyway, however, and participate as a citizen scientist.  I let her choose an event for us and, much to my pleasure, she settled on a bee survey.  So, Saturday morning found us getting up way too early in the morning, picking up some breakfast at a local deli, and driving out to Saguaro West to survey bees.


The survey team, walking between traps

The BioBlitz headquarters, and many of the events, were located at Saguaro West on the west side of the Tucson Mountains.  Due to the lack of parking there, participants had to park at Old Tucson Studios and ride a shuttle to the park.  My sister and I parked at 7:30 AM, leaving what we thought would be plenty of time to get to our bee survey before 8 AM.  Not so much!  By the time we signed in (and there was a whopping one person in front of us – and 3 volunteers behind the table), signed our liability waivers, and climbed onto a big yellow school bus for the ride over to the park, it was 7:50.  It was 8 AM by the time we got to the park.  We asked where we needed to go and were directed to the wrong place.  By the time we finally figured out where we were really supposed to go, it was already 8:15 and we were sure we had missed it.  It was crazy how long everything took!  Thankfully, our group was just heading out when we arrived, so we joined in and marched out into the desert to collect bees from traps that had been laid out overnight.

sample cups

The plastic cups that were used as bee traps

The traps ended up being very simple, though our group leader, a pollination biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Flagstaff AZ, has used them for many years for his work with great success.  Each stop had two 2 ounce disposable plastic condiment cups, one blue and one yellow.  The colors apparently mimic the colors of flowers and lure the bees in from the surrounding area.  The cups were filled with a mixture of soapy water and propylene glycol.  The soap in the water decreases the surface tension so that, when the bees try to sip the “nectar” from the “flowers,”  they tend to slip into the cups.  The propylene glycol acts as a killing agent and preservative so that the bees can’t get back out once they fall in.

our route

The desert along the route we took, from the science building to the base of the mountains and back, about 2 miles altogether.

Our job was to check each trap at about 30 stops ranging over a mile of desert.  At each stop, we would pour the contents through a strainer to separate the insects, transfer the insects from the strainer to a sample bag, and then refill the cups for the afternoon group that would be doing the whole thing all over again.  As we went, our very amiable scientist told all sorts of amusing stories about sampling and citizen science projects he’s run/participated in, and the crazy people he sometimes encounters in the process.  The morning was a reasonable temperature, the people in the group were very excited about getting involved, and the walk was lovely, so it was a surprisingly pleasant way to spend the morning.


Processing samples. The bees were removed from the sample container before being washed and dried for pinning.

Once we got back to the base camp, we watched as our guide washed and dried the bees we had collected before he showed us an example of bees he’d pinned from the samples other surveyors had collected the day before.  And then, just like that, our 2 hour bee survey was over and we left our guide with the much more difficult task of pinning, identifying, and labeling all the specimens we’d collected – all before the end of the event later that day.

Apart from the obvious organizational difficulties that resulted in our being late to our event (one of my sister’s ranger friends who worked at the event – a woman who is a very soft-spoken and proper lady – described the event as “one huge clusterf***), I was really impressed by the BioBlitz!  There were a ton of activities to choose from, ranging from quick and easy projects like the one I participated in to much more rigorous projects that involved miles of hard-core hiking in mountainous terrain.  The day was beautiful.  We got swag – good swag!  And I got to spend a morning with my fabulous little sister, an entomologist (granted, I do that all the time), and 3 very nice strangers doing science in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  It was a wonderful experience, and one I highly recommend if you happen to be lucky enough to live near a national park that is home to a BioBlitz in the future.


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Swarm Sunday – 10/16/2011 – 10/22/2011

dragonfly swarm banner

Yep, the swarming season is basically over.  Look!  Only two swarms reported the whole week:


Knoxville, TN
Pigeon Forge, TN

I’m starting to get maps together for the year-end report, but it’s a big task.  I nearly doubled the number of reports I got last year, so there is a ton of data to wade through!  I’m hoping to start posting reports in November though, which means I should probably get back to those maps…


Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!


Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!


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Friday 5: Buggy Fiction

I feel like I haven’t written about insect books recently, so it’s time for another Friday 5 insect book list!  This week, I bring you fictional books that feature insects and other arthropods, because they’re just so darned fun!  I read a really huge range of things, especially when it comes to fiction, so I’ve got  little of everything on this week’s list:

Contemporary Fiction: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

I absolutely love Barbara Kingsolver’s books!  Her prose is astoundingly well crafted and the stories hold my interest well.  Prodigal Summer is my favorite of her books.  The story revolves around the lives of three women in Appalachia, a wildlife biologist who studies a group of coyotes that have just returned to the area after a long absence, an organic farmer at war with her farmer neighbor who thinks her farming practices are ruining his livelihood, and a young, big city entomologist who unexpectedly becomes the head of a farm when her farmer husband dies.  (Guess which story I like the best!)  The relationships these women form are interesting and beautiful and the book contains some of the most elegant writing about nature I’ve ever read.  And did I mention that there’s an entomologist in the book?  I just love it!  I recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in nature.  It’s that good!

Classic Fiction: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

You didn’t think you’d get through this list without hearing about this one, did you?  THE classic entomological tale of a man who wakes up one morning to discover he’s been transformed into a giant insect, only to become an object of derision to everyone around him.  There are, of course, all sorts of other things you can say about the book, about how becoming an insect is symbolic of the alienation that young men often feel, etc, etc.  But really, what’s cooler than a whole book about a giant man-bug?  Nothing, that’s what!  :)

Historical Fiction: Confessing a Murder by Nicholas Drayson

I have to admit: I only read this book because I was browsing a bargain book rack at Barnes and Noble and saw the beetle on the cover.  It sounded pretty good and it cost $4, so I went for it!  Set in Victorian times, at the dawning of the theory of evolution and in time when naturalists were superstars, Drayson’s story follows an entomologist/naturalist who is marooned on an island in the South Pacific.  The man recounts his childhood with Charles Darwin, describing their shared love of beetles, how they developed the descriptions of natural selection that made Charles Darwin famous together, and how his search for an elusive gold beetle has left him to die on a volcanic island that’s about to explosively erupt.  The book is a little bizarre at times, but it’s also a lot of fun to read.  And, as the title suggests, there just might be a murder…

Sci-fi: Bug Park by James P. Hogan

I adore sci-fi movies, but I don’t read a lot of sci-fi books.  However, my husband grew up reading pulp sci-fi novels and has a large collection of classics.  This is one of them.  In Bug Park, a scientist develops a direct connection between the brain and tiny insect-sized robots (mecs), allowing people to experience a bug’s eye view of the world.  However, his scheming wife wants to steal the technology and sell it to a rival company.  Meanwhile, the scientist’s son and his girlfriend become expert mec users, creating Bug Park so they can explore and battle the insect world.  When they uncover the plot to sell the technology, they decided to find the evidence to take the scheming wife/stepmother down – but things don’t go exactly according to plan (of course).  Mec battles, giant insects, and viewing the world through a bug’s perspective are all part of the fun in Bug Park!

Fantasy: Ananzi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors and he writes gloriously dark, beautifully written short stories, novels, and graphic novels.  I am working my way through all of his books and I’ve read Good Omens, which he co-authored with Terry Pratchett, at least 20 times.  Good Omens will always be my favorite Gaiman book, but Ananzi Boys is my favorite of the books he’s written on his own.  In it, Fat Charlie Nancy decides to invite his estranged father to his wedding only to discover that his father has recently died.  When he returns home for the funeral, he learns that his father wasn’t just any man, but the African trickster god Ananzi.  He also learns he has a brother, Spider, that he never knew about.  Spider becomes a part of his life and all hell breaks loose!  All of Neil Gaiman’s books are strange and at times outright confusing, but this story is a really good one – and it would be good even if it didn’t feature so much entomological imagery.

Anyone else have bug fiction books they want to recommend?  I’m always on the lookout for new ones, so I welcome any suggestions!


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