The Return of Friday 5!

I never would have guessed this, but I miss doing Friday 5 posts!  So, I’m bringing them back, but in a slightly different format than before.  From now on, I’m going to bring you my 5 favorite insect encounters of the week.  Most of these will likely be live insects (though not all, especially in the winter), I might have no idea what some of the insects are but include them anyway, and a lot of these bugs will have been photographed with my iPhone because I always have it on me, even when I’m out working on the prairie and have very little stuff with me.  Every now and again, I might include something that isn’t an insect, just because it’s cool (today, for example).  And with that, let’s jump right into this week’s sightings!

1. Palmetto Tortoise Beetle Larva, Hemisphaerota cyanea

Palmetto tortoise beetle larva

Palmetto tortoise beetle larva

I am going to write a whole post about it (maybe 2 or 3…), but I returned to the Bug Shot insect photography workshop for a third time last week.  This year it was on Sapelo Island in Georgia and I got to see some pretty darned amazing things while I was there!  These larva are found on palmetto fronds and you’d never guess they were insects unless you accidentally flipped one over or (like me) you are surrounded by entomologists that know more about the local fauna than I do.  These larvae cover themselves in their own fecal material to form a protective fecal shield.  Many people were calling them poop hats though, which I enjoy more.  So, that’s an upside down larva of Hemisphaerota cyanea lying in its poop hat.  The adult beetles are spectacular, so if you don’t know what they look like, you can check one out from my collection of photos from Bug Shot 2012 in Florida.  They’re beautiful and blue and you’d never guess they start off in life wearing poop hats.

2. Sapho Longwing, Heliconius sapho

Sapho longwing

Sapho longwing

The museum that I work for has a live butterfly exhibit.  I really love it, but I typically only go inside when I am giving tours to friends, family, interns, collaborators, etc.  My second intern for the summer started yesterday, so I took both interns downtown to see the museum and we made the obligatory visit to the Living Conservatory to see the butterflies.  There were more butterflies out than usual, which I was excited about, and there were a few that weren’t on the guide.  I’m pretty sure this is a sapho longwing, though I’d need to ask the people in charge of the Conservatory to be sure.  Still, a gorgeous butterfly – and I was super excited the shot came out as well as it did with just my phone!  Ditto for this:

3. Common Sanddragon, Progomphus obscurus

Common sanddragon

Common sanddragon

I spotted this lovely dragonfly sitting on the sidewalk as the interns and I were headed back to my car.  I couldn’t believe it let me get close enough to get this shot.  I had to touch it before it would move!  It seemed a little out-of-place in this location.  This is a stream species, yet there it was right in downtown Raleigh, rather far from the nearest suitable habitat.  Odd.

4. Margined Leatherwing, Chauliognathus marginatus

Margined leatherwing

Margined leatherwing

The milkweed patch between my office and the nearest bathroom at the field station where I work is SO impressive this year!  There is a ton of it out there and it’s all blooming now.  It smells wonderful, is quite beautiful, and the flowers are covered in bugs.  I especially love watching these beetles.  Common milkweed stores its pollen in structures called pollinia that stick to the feet of things that walk around on the flowers, as these beetles do.  This one had a good dozen pollinia on its feet by the time I lost track of him and he kept stopping to try to pull them off with his mouth.  Interesting behavior to watch, and a very pretty beetle!

5. Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

Red-headed woodpecker

Red-headed woodpecker

And here’s my non-insect!  There’s been a pair of red-headed woodpeckers building a nest in a dead tree at work recently, and I have fallen in love with them.  They sound horrible, but wow are they pretty.  One of the museum’s ornithologists is interested in how they nest (apparently this hasn’t been well-studied for this species) and asked that people take photos of them.  So, I’ve been taking photos.  So far I’ve gotten photos of one going in and out of the nest and dumping sawdust out of the hole, a photo of one sticking its tongue out, and a bunch of shots like the one above that show the whole bird.  I really enjoy watching them.  Photographing them is a nice bonus!

That’s it for this week, but I’m going to try to get back into doing these once a week again.  Hopefully I’ll have another Friday 5 for you all next week.  In the meantime, I’m hoping to get a Swarm Sunday post prepped (it’s that time of year again!) and a summary of my weekend at Bug Shot.  With any luck, you’ll have several things to read here in the next week – a nice change of pace from my perspective!

Have a great weekend everyone!

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

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Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Haven

There is SO much milkweed coming up at work! Just look at that:

common-milkweed
That’s quite the monarch haven out there – and there have been several visitors to it already.
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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Photographing Aquatic Insects

I ended up getting this up a few days later than planned, but better late than never, eh?  Today I’m going to share my current aquatic insect photography setup!

About a year ago, I wrote about the aquatic insect photography setup that I was using at the time.  I liked some things about it (easy, small, relatively portable), but the really thick, cheap (i.e. flawed) glass was a problem and the narrow container made it difficult to keep the glass clean.  After that post, I realized that my container just wasn’t working, so I thought back to the setup used by Steve Maxson, the man who had introduced me to the idea of shooting aquatic insects through glass in the first place (thanks again Steve!).  He uses a little aquarium with very thin glass and gets much better shots than I was.  So, I went out and bought the smallest glass aquarium I could find to improve my technique.  One trip to PetsMart and $15 later, and I had a new setup!

This is what I’m using currently:

Tank setup, side view

My tank setup

As you can see, this is a seriously high tech design!  It’s just my little aquarium, about 1/3 full of water (I use tap and let it sit a couple of days before I put things in it – more on this later) with some natural elements in it.  I usually just use the rocks on the bottom, but sometimes I get fancy and put a plant in too.

The main reason I liked the itty bitty aquaria I was using before was because there was only an inch of space between the two panes of glass.  A 2.5 gallon aquarium, while small, still gives the insects a LOT of space to move around. You don’t want to chase insects around, but also I’ve found that the more water you shoot through, the less crisp the final image. Happily, my aquarium came with the world’s worst lid, a sheet of glass with a little plastic handle.  I stuck the whole thing inside my aquarium as a barrier:

Tank setup, top view

My tank, from the top

With this extra sheet of glass, I can keep everything close to the front of the aquarium.  I hold the whole thing in place by jamming a pair of feather forceps between the handle of the lid and the lip of the tip of the aquarium, because I’m fancy that way.  I tend to keep all of my decorative/substrate elements near the front, though you can add plants and larger rocks behind the barrier or prop a printed blurry image of greenery behind the aquarium to give it a more natural look.  I alternate between using a printed background, using a plain sheet of paper (gives the resulting image a bit more of a white box feel), and opening my curtains and letting diffused light backlight my little tank.

As for my camera and flashes, because you definitely need flashes to make this work, I’ve been keeping things really simple!  In the past, I was using my Nikon with my wireless twin flashes blasting diffused light through the water from either side of the tank.  Recently, I have been using my Canon 7D and MP-E 65 lens.  Because I don’t have a good way to mount my diffused Canon twin flashes to the sides of the tank (they’re not wireless like the Nikon flashes), I just mount them right onto the lens like I would if I were shooting terrestrial insects.  I hand hold my camera, then try to shoot straight through the glass.  If you angle the camera more than a little from head on, you not only get flash glare on the glass, but you start to get some crazy glass aberrations.

I feel like I’ve been getting some good results from this setup.  Here’s a freshly hatched giant water bug nymph:

Giant water bug nymph, Belostoma flumineum

Giant water bug nymph, Belostoma flumineum

… and a damselfly:

Damselfly nymph

Damselfly nymph

This highlights the wingpads on a Tramea dragonfly nymph:

dragonfly nymph wingpads

Dragonfly nymph’s wingpads. Notice that you can see all of the veins of the wings developing inside!

Here’s a water scorpion head:

Water scorpion head, Ranatra nigra

Water scorpion head, Ranatra nigra

And this is a water strider with a deformed wing, sitting on top of the water:

Water strider

Water strider

I also tried shooting with my little Canon Powershot G15 camera with this setup and got some interesting shots! I’m feeling good about this one.

There are some things to keep in mind with this technique.  You’ve got to keep the glass as clean as you can.  Don’t touch the front of the glass and try not to scratch it.  You also have to keep the water as clean as you can, so avoid adding a lot of algae covered items and other stuff that will muck up the water. Air bubbles are a HUGE problem if you don’t let the water sit for a while.  Don’t try to shoot the same day you put water in the tank or you’ll get a thousand little air bubbles that will show in your images.  If you let the water sit, not only will the chlorine vaporize, but the air bubbles will largely dissipate. You can get rid of any lingering bubbles by giving the side of the tank a good tap and shaking the water a bit.  However, you also don’t want to let the water sit TOO long.  Once the water evaporates, you’ll get buildup above the water line if you’ve got any impurities in your water and those will show up as streaks through your images. I dump all the water and clean out my tank periodically to get rid of the buildup. I scrub the entire interior of my tank with a nylon dish scrubber and a mixture of equal parts Dawn dish soap and vinegar.  It smells absolutely terrible, but I end up with sparkling clean glass!  Just be sure you rinse really well, and then use a microfiber cloth to dry the outside of the tank so you don’t get too much lint.  I usually fill my tank as soon as I clean it so I don’t have to bother drying the interior.

So that’s my current setup and I know it will be easy for lots of you to duplicate! I am sure I’ll change things up again at some point, but this is working for me now and I’ll likely stick with it for a while.  Please feel free to try this for yourself. If any of you end up using this technique – or have others you’d like to share – I hope you’ll share the results with everyone in the comments! It would be fun to see what other people are coming up with!

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

What Time is it in Nature: Insects on Holly

Hello everyone! It’s been ages since I’ve been able to get a post up on my blog, but this isn’t the only place I blog these days either. I also blog for the museum where I work, and I have been hard at work creating posts there. My museum posts feature wildlife at the museum’s field station and citizen science, so the topics I cover are a bit more diverse than what you see here, but please feel free to visit me over at the museum blog any time if you’re interested!

The holly tree that I fell in love with last year is blooming again, so I wrote a post today about the insects that you can find on the holly. I thought you all might be interested in it, so I’m reblogging it here. And, I hope to be able to bring you a new DW-exclusive post here very soon, as in tomorrow or Saturday. Check back soon!!

NC Museum of Natural Sciences Blogs

Now is a great time of year for insects at Prairie Ridge!  While you can find hundreds of insect species (probably thousands!) throughout the grounds, you can see a great diversity of insects almost anywhere if you take a moment to look.  For example, one of our holly trees is blooming, the one just inside the entrance, and it is currently covered in tiny nectar-laden flowers:

Blooming holly tree

The flowers may be small, but there are a lot of them and they attract a spectacular variety of insects year after year.  Some things that you’re likely to see on this tree during the bloom are the things you might expect to see, such as bees:

Bees feeding on holly nectar

The Honey Bee pictured on the left is not native to the US, but they are important pollinators in our country nonetheless.  You’ll often find dozens buzzing around the holly during the bloom, flitting from flower to…

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