Photo of the Week – May 30, 2014

I made another trip up to Griffith Prairie last week.  It looked pretty much as it had the week before – still lots of ragwort blooming –  but the photographs I returned with were very different.  This time, I came home with a bunch of photos of dumb invertebrates.

(I don’t mean that invertebrates as a group or concept are dumb, rather that the particular individuals I photographed seemed not to be very smart or savvy.  I’ll explain in a minute.)

Since I’d spent quite a bit of time photographing landscapes on my previous visit, I decided to put my macro lens on the camera and look for insects this time.  It was immediately clear that the long winter had dulled my insect photography skills…

First, I had to get my brain refocused on the idea of finding small creatures.  That part actually came back fairly easily.  Second, however, I had to work on my approach once I spotted those small creatures (come in low and slow).  I started by tracking some damselflies that were flitting just ahead of me as I walked.  I’d wait for one to land, then creep slowly toward it.  Unfortunately, just as I’d set my tripod down and lean forward to focus, the damselfly would fly about 2 feet further away and I’d have to repeat the whole process.  That highlighted the third aspect of insect photography I had to recapture… patience.

This was not the first damselfly I tried to photograph...just the one that finally let me get close enough to get a picture of it.

This was not the first damselfly I tried to photograph…just the one that finally let me get close enough to get a picture of it.

I did finally manage to get a photo of a damselfly.  I think it was a matter of following several different ones until I found one that wasn’t as skittery.  Of course, that’s probably a bad sign for the potential survival of that individual damselfly, since skittery is a good tactic to avoid predation.  I often wonder whether the insects I photograph are the ones that are not long for the world…

This returns us to the “dumb insect” topic.  Do you suppose smart insects look different from dumb ones?  I’ll probably never know because the only invertebrates I can photograph are the ones that are too dumb to run, jump, or fly away!

Here is a selection of some of the invertebrates that hung around on ragwort flowers long enough for me to photograph them last week.  I wish them the best, of course, but I’m not optimistic about their long-term survival…

This tiny beetle was on several ragwort plants.  Most of the beetles turned away or jumped to safety when they saw me coming, but this one didn't.

This tiny beetle species was on several ragwort plants. All of the other similar-looking beetles turned away or jumped to safety when they saw me coming, but this one didn’t.  It appeared to be enjoying its pollen dinner too much to bother running away.  It’s probably inside a bird or spider by now.

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Not a very smart little fly...

Not a very smart little fly…

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I must have seen two dozen crab spiders before I got this photo.  All the rest of them crawled beneath the petals when I approached, or dropped to the ground if I kept coming.  This one just sat there.

I must have seen two dozen crab spiders before I got this photo. All the rest of them crawled beneath the petals when I approached, or dropped to the ground if I kept coming. This one just sat there.

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I got several photos of various individuals of this bug species (a true bug - Hemiptera).  Maybe the whole species is not so smart?

I was able to photograph several individuals of this bug species (a true bug – Hemiptera). Maybe the whole species is not so smart?

It was pretty neat to see the diversity of insects and other invertebrates using this one species of wildflower.  There were quite a few more than I’m showing here because most of them didn’t stick around long enough to be photographed (the smart ones).  I’m grateful to those that did.

…and I bet there are some grateful predators out there too.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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12 Responses to Photo of the Week – May 30, 2014

  1. Fortunately there seem to be a lot of insects for other critters to eat, dumb or otherwise. Nice post!

  2. kismet20 says:

    Now that’s just depressing! I’d rather think of them as cooperative bugs — bugs with a scientific bent perhaps. As for myself I’ve just confirmed in a little garden experiment that black swallowtail caterpillars can successfully switch from one food plant to another. I had four on a rue plant that was dying of root rot, so I transferred them to some curly leaf parsley plants and to an Italian fennel that already had several others feeding. Three out of the four I’ve confirmed as switching readily to the different plant, indicating I would suppose that they are not “locked in” to the plant on which their egg hatched. Nothing earthshaking, but it might get me started on learning a great deal more about the very numerous insects in my own garden. Inspired by this I went out and bought four books on insects, discovering only later that one was about caterpillars in Costa Rica. Oh well — at least they’re very attractive caterpillars!

  3. Karen Hamburger says:

    Perhaps the “dumb” critters just wanted their 15 minutes of fame!

  4. Pingback: Photo of the Week – May 30, 2014 | Gaia Gazette

  5. S. Carter says:

    What a fascinating theory! As an amateur photographer, I have always considered anything that would hold still as “polite.” Maybe the damselflies realized after several times of running from you that you were not a threat? This is the sort of question that should have government money thrown at it to study. Oh, and by the way, would you please stop disparaging your macro photography skills? Thank you. :)

    • chris muldoon says:

      Love the photos, especially access to the close-up feature!

      As a docent at an annual butterfly exhibit in a Grand Rapids conservatory, I find that the Blue Morpho is a difficult subject to photograph with its blue wings open. When it lands, its wings are held upright, revealing only the brown underside. My guess is the same as yours, that an insect that allows itself to be approached when it is most vulnerable is approaching death. Occasionally, when a Morpho is found sitting with its blue wings open, it is found dead in the same spot several hours later (there are few predators in the conservatory).

      • anastaciast says:

        If you are ever in Nebraska, you should visit Laura’s Butterfly Pavillion at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo. It is small, but very nice as the butterflies are out and about. There is a small stream, and hanging plants as well as those at ground level. The volunteers provide Gatorade so you can put some on your finger and attract the butterflies. It makes a visit there very personal. They also have a small chrysalis display. They use a sally port and at the exit, they have a mirror so you can check to see that there are no butterflies on your back.

  6. Patrick says:

    Saw lots of butterflies and bees on the locoweed today in the Loess Hills. Tail end of the blooming period for this flower…must be a good nectaring plant because the insects are quite preoccupied and I can get some decent close-ups.

  7. Heh, I just started my adventures in macrophotography this spring, and I immediately learned that I’m unable to achieve anything approaching a focused image unless the subject is very young and relatively immobile, or completely absorbed in eating, or all of the above.

    I have a quick question, if you have a moment. Dan shared my first image sequence from this blog post on Facebook, and he immediately received advice to try stacking stills from video, to enhance the detail. I haven’t used stacking software previously, and I’d anticipate there’s a significant learning curve in mastering that. I was just curious to know if you’ve ever tried that technique yourself, and had any success with it. I’d like to see a crisper focus in my pictures—the reflection off the head capsule of the caterpillar is much softer than ideal. (I’m currently using Dan’s Canon PowerShot S100 on a tabletop tripod, if that info is helpful.)

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Tracy! I don’t think stacking is the answer for that issue, actually. Focus stacking (as I understand it) works best with an immobile subject. Having never done it, though, I don’t really know, and maybe it’s possible to do it from video. More importantly, I think you need to think about depth of field and shutterspeed issues. I can’t tell from the photos whether the softness is because of motion (shutterspeed too slow) or depth-of-field (aperture too wide – aperture number too large), but it’s almost certainly one or both of those issues. To really do it well, a camera with an actual macro lens would help a lot. With the PowerShot, I’m not sure you’ll have enough control of shutterspeed and aperture to deal with the potential problems, but I don’t know that camera well enough to be sure. Feel free to email me for more conversation on this.

      • Thanks, Chris! Your perspective on that makes perfect sense to me. I’ll keep playing with those settings this summer, and I suspect that better equipment will make an appearance on the Christmas wish list later this year. Otherwise, I’ll have to arm wrestle Dan for his Canon EOS 60D and Sigma 105mm macro, and that’s not going to be pretty. ;-)

        • anastaciast says:

          Tracy, I have two recommendations on how to work this macro problem out. One, if you have the time and money, check out your local community college for photography classes. Two, find a professional photography store, such as Rockbrook and go in and ask what they recommend. It can’t hurt and it might help.

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