Photo of the Week – July 6, 2017

When photographing invertebrates, I can split most critters into two categories: those that hunker down and those that flee.  Those that hunker down are awfully nice because I can set up and photograph them thoughtfully, playing with various angles and compositions for each individual.  The ones that flee are a completely different matter, and I often end up chasing lots of different ones around, hoping to get close enough for any kind of photo and/or find one that is slightly less skittish then most.  Of course, all of this is on a continuum; even insects that end to hunker down can be pushed past their comfort level and eventually hop, drop, or fly away.  Learning where those thresholds are for various invertebrate species has been really helpful over the years.

Katydid nymph on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) earlier this week.  Katydids are usually pretty easy photo subjects.

Katydids and grasshoppers tend to be hunkerers, especially if I catch them in the middle of a meal.  Often, if they’re feeding on a flower, for example, they’ll slide around to the far side of the flower when I get close.  That’s actually nice because it lets me finish my approach while they’re not looking directly at me.  Then – and here’s a little trick you’re welcome to use – I can reach my hand out to the other side of the flower and they’ll slide back toward me to get away from my hand.  Sometimes, of course, they’ll hop off the flower when they see my hand, but usually they seem reluctant to abandon their food.  In most cases, I can repeat the hand trick at least 3 or 4 times before it starts making them nervous.

…and another one on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

Other invertebrates that tend to hunker and allow photographs to be taken include stink bugs, aphids, and caterpillars.  Crab spiders (one of my favorites) fall into this category too, but they can sometimes be a little touchier than katydids and others to the hand trick.  Sometimes, it works well, but some crab spiders can be more difficult to lure onto the side of a flower where I’m at.  If I can approach slowly enough that they don’t move away in the first place, that’s always the best.  Once they hide beneath or behind the flower, it seems like about 50% of them will either drop off the flower or refuse to be baited when they see my hand.

…and another one.

Earlier this week, I spent an hour or so at our family prairie photographing insects because the wind was fairly calm and there were some nice diffuse clouds creating nice lighting conditions.  During that hour, I concentrated on two different subjects; katydids and damselflies.  The katydids, as per usual, were pretty accommodating, and the main challenge was the slightly swaying flowers they were feeding on.  The damselflies were a whole ‘nother story, and I ended up chasing them around quite a bit to get a few decent photos.

A damselfly rests briefly on an ironweed (Vernonia sp.).

Damselflies definitely fit into the category of insects that flee.  The nice thing about damselflies and dragonflies (as opposed to bees, moths and butterflies, for example) is they tend to be territorial.  That means that when they fly, they don’t usually go far.  Sometimes, if I’m patient, they’ll return to the same perch I flush them from.  That said, they can still be really difficult to get close to.  Staying low to the ground (keeping my head below the horizon line) seems to help, especially if I can avoid having my shadow pass over them.  A slow and steady approach usually works best, but it’s far from foolproof.  During the vast majority of attempts, they fly off just as I get in photography range.

The other issue with skittish subjects like damselflies is that when they do land, they often land in places that don’t work for photography.  That can include perches in the middle of a bunch of leaves that partially obscure them from view, or perches with vegetation behind them that overly clutters up the background.  The ideal situation is when they land on a relatively high perch, or at least one with good clear space all around it.  Trying to wait until they land in a favorable location and then watching them fly away just as I get close is an example of why insect photography is not for the impatient.

Eventually, I found a few damselflies that let me get close enough for some fairly intimate portraits.  The end results – nice peaceful looking insects resting on perches – don’t paint an accurate picture of the effort invested, however.  The grass stains on the knees of my pants and the sweat pouring down my face were better indicators of that.

Since I didn’t document the visual aspect of the damselfly photo hunt, here is a quick recap:

Helzer approaches a perched damselfly slowly.  Very slowly.  He creeps through the vegetation, being careful not to even slightly bump any plants because…DANG!  it flew away.  Ok, now he’s spotted another one but it’s not in a good spot.  He’s bypassing that one in favor of another on a higher perch.  He’s getting pretty close this time, but there’s a stray grass stem in the way.  Oh!  It looks like he’s going to try to carefully slide that stem out of the way.  It’s a bold move, but it’s going pretty well and…DANG!  It flew again.  Hmm.  He’s got another one in his sights now, and he’s working his way toward it, staying nice and low, keeping an ironweed plant between him and his subject.  Now he’s leaning around the ironweed…  he looks like he’s in range…. he’s focusing and depressing the shutter…OH NO!!  He lost his balance just a little and as he reached to catch himself the damselfly flew away again.  What a disappointment!

You get the idea…

One of the best parts of owning our own prairie is that I can do this kind of insect photography and not have to worry about anyone watching me.  The only thing I can think of that might make me look more foolish to passers by is when I’m chasing fruitlessly after a flying bee or butterfly with a net, swiping wildly at it while weaving back and forth in its path.  At least when I’m crawling around on the ground with my camera I’m a little more difficult to see from a distance.

Invertebrate photography can be frustrating, especially when I’m chasing insects in the “flee” category, but it’s awfully rewarding when I actually get a few good photos as a result.  Unfortunately, most viewers of my insect photos don’t give me any extra credit for the degree of difficulty of some photos over others.  The katydid shots in this post, for example, were a cakewalk compared to the damselflies, but unless I’d told you, you wouldn’t have known or cared, would you?  But I know, and I feel a little extra pride in these close-up damselfly portraits.

I’m just glad no one documented the process…

Antlion Timelapse

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post on antlions, fantastic little creatures that live along the base of my house (and elsewhere in the world, I’m sure).  I moved to a new house last year, and was happy to find antlion larvae living along its foundation too.  I dug a few up the other day and brought them indoors for our family to watch (we have a praying mantis nymph in the house at the moment too).  I’ll put them back outside soon.

An antlion larva, a compact and efficient killer, with a muscular
An antlion larva, a compact and efficient killer, with venomous mandibles for subduing prey and a muscular “neck” for tossing sand (and insect carcasses) out of its pit.

It’s been fun to feed ants and other small insects to the larvae, and we’ve been able to watch them construct their cone-shaped hunting pits, but the construction is slow enough that it’s hard to see much progress over the course of a few minutes.  To help us get a better feel for how that construction process works, I set up my camera…

My Nikon D300s camera can be set to take a photo at regular intervals and make timelapse videos.  I set mine for a one minute frequency and let it run for about three and half hours.  During that time, the three antlion larvae moved around the bowl a lot more than I’d expected.  You can see for yourself in this 17 second video…

In the video, you can see that one larva constructs a pit near the bottom left corner of the frame. Another larva makes a larger pit near the center.  Near the bottom of the frame, a third antlion seems to start a pit, give up, wander over (and maybe through?) the smaller pit and then strike off toward the top of the frame and beyond.  The larva in the small pit then begins repairs.  I checked in on these larvae now and then while the camera was running, but never would have guessed there was that much action going on because it happened so gradually.  Compressing time with the timelapse process was invaluable.  It was also interesting how sporadically the action happened – as opposed to a fairly continuous excavation process.

Timelapse is a fairly simple, but very powerful, way to see the world.  You can see some earlier timelapse posts here:

Bison in a blowout

The formation of a cattle trail

A wetland “breathing” through evapotranspiration

A Hole New Mystery to Consider

On my last trip to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I photographed the bark of wildfire-killed pine trees in warm late day light.  I liked both the patterns and the color and was just trying to make some visually-interesting images.  As I was taking the photos, I saw numerous small holes in the trees but didn’t think much about them.  Holes in dead trees are not really unusual, after all.  Upon looking at the photos later, however, I noticed something intriguing – many of the holes seemed to have a funnel shape, or beveled edge, at the surface of the tree.

Tiny holes in the bark of a standing dead ponderosa pine tree killed by a 2012 wildfire.  The two near the center of the image have a funnel-shaped or beveled edge to them.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

I couldn’t come up with a good explanation for that beveling, so I did what I usually do when I can’t identify something – I sent the photos to people with more expertise and begged for help.  Ted MacRae was kind enough to respond that except for the flared ends, the perfectly round holes might have been created by adult pine sawyers (Monochamus spp.).  James Trager liked my speculation that perhaps something like a woodpecker might have chipped away at the holes, looking for an invertebrate meal, and added nuthatches and chickadees as other options.  But none of us have a good answer.

After hearing back from Ted and James, I looked more closely at other photos from that evening and noticed something else that might or might not be a useful clue.  Not only had the edges of some of the holes been chipped (?) away, but there were similar marks elsewhere on the bark.  I’m not sure if those are related to what happened around the margins of the holes or not.  In the photo below, look at the “pitting” – especially in the top left quarter of the image.

More holes in trees.
More holes in trees, along with tiny chipped or pitted marks, both around the insect(?) holes and elsewhere.

Is some creature (bird?  insect?  microbe?)  chipping away at the tree?  If so, why?  And is that creature chipping away at the edges of holes made by beetles too?  And if so, WHY?  Or, are the beveled edges of the round holes a separate phenomenon from the pitted surface of the bark elsewhere?

I guess it’s good for my brain’s health to ponder mysteries like this, and it’s fun to think through all the possibilities.  On the other hand, it would also be fun to KNOW WHAT THE HECK IS HAPPENING HERE, so if you have good theories – or even better, actual answers – please let me know!

I didn’t measure the holes, so I hesitate to give estimates of their size, but they were really small.  Maybe 3-4 mm across?  I didn’t give that info to Ted (but I should have), and I’m wondering now whether the holes were actually too small for pine sawyer beetles.


Photo of the Week – September 4, 2014

It’s not often the wind is calm enough to get a good sharp photo of a spider in its web, but everything came together nicely late last week as I walked around one of our restored wetlands.  There were a number of long-jawed orbweaver spiders (Tetragnathidae) in their webs, but this one was the most accomodating…

A long-jawed orbweaver in early morning light.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A long-jawed orbweaver in early morning light. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Of course, I missed a great shot of a nearby spider that had caught a mosquito.  The light was great, the composition was going to be fantastic, but my tripod leg bumped the grass stem holding the web and the spider hightailed it to safety.  Oh well.  I still got to see and enjoy it – I just can’t share it with you.


What’s Bugging Milkweed?

As I walked a small prairie here in Aurora, Nebraska a few weeks ago, several species of milkweed were flowering abundantly, including butterfly milkweed (Ascelepias tuberosa), showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  As always, the milkweed plants were hosting a number of specialist insects that feed on them.  During my walk, the most plentiful of those insects was the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus).

The large milkweed bug on butterfly milkweed - Lincoln Creek Prairies, Aurora, Nebraska.
The large milkweed bug on butterfly milkweed – Lincoln Creek Prairies, Aurora, Nebraska.


Another view
A view of the bug from the top.  The large milkweed bug somewhat resembles a boxelder bug, but is considerably larger and has more orange color on its back.  It is also larger (obviously) than the small milkweed bug, which looks somewhat similar but has two small white dots on its folded wings, as well as a different pattern of black and orange.


Like all Hemipterans (true bugs), the large milkweed bug feeds through a long piercing mouthpart called a rostrum.  From the information I can find, the milkweed bug feeds on the seeds of milkweed, but will also feed on sap from the leaves and stems.  Interestingly, I didn’t find any information about it feeding on the nectar of milkweeds, though that is certainly what it appeared many of the milkweed bugs I saws were doing.  I watched several of them insert their rostrum into a flower and jiggle it up and down as if it were sucking the dregs of a milkshake through a straw.  The photo below shows one with its rostrum inside the flower of a common milkweed.  I’m guessing many entomologists have seen the behavior, but I didn’t find a reference to it.

Butterfly milkweed wasn't the only milkweed species with the bugs on board that day.  This one is on common milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Butterfly milkweed wasn’t the only milkweed species with the bugs on board that day. This one is on a common milkweed flower and appeared to be feeding on nectar.


About a year ago, I wrote a post about the arduous and complicated process of milkweed pollination, in which clusters of pollen called pollinia have to become attached to the leg of a visiting insect and then later detached in exactly the right place on a different flower.  If you missed that post, it’s worth a read just to appreciate what seems like a nearly impossible process – though one that has obviously worked out just fine for many milkweed species.  Several of the milkweed bugs I saw at the prairie a few weeks ago had multiple pollinia stuck to their legs, so apparently the bugs can be helpful to milkweed plants – in addition to being seed predators, nectar thieves, and sap suckers!


In this photo, you can see pollinia (sticky clumps of pollen) stuck to two legs of this large milkweed bug.
In this photo, you can see pollinia (sticky masses of pollen) stuck to two legs of this large milkweed bug.


I visited this same prairie again about two weeks later with my son Daniel.  Since he’s interested in insects, I figured he’d enjoy seeing all the milkweed bugs.  The butterfly milkweed plants were still blooming profusely, but not a single milkweed bug could be found…  Where did they go??  I guess it’s a good thing I took photos when I had the chance.

Photo of the Week – June 27, 2013

The wind finally let up enough to do some close-up photography last weekend, so I went to a small prairie here in town and wandered a bit.  Among numerous curiosities was the abundance of a tiny iridescent fly.  I had to try quite a few times to get a decent photo of one.  (They kept flying away!)

A tiny fly on milkweed – Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Not long after I got the above photo, I was ready to call it a day, and started walking back to the truck. I was hot and tired, but was drawn to a particular patch of milkweed.  As I closed in, a small movement caught my eye.  It was another of the shiny little flies.  But in a bit of beautiful symmetry, it was being eaten by a shiny little spider!

A tiny jumping spider with a tiny fly.

Photo of the Week – September 13, 2012

Antlion!  One of the most nightmarish creatures most people have never seen…

When dislodged from its trap, an antlion might sit still just long enough for a photo before backing down into the loose soil again.  You can click on the photo to see a sharper image.


The antlion digs a cone-shaped hole in the soil and then buries itself beneath the point of the cone with only its fearsome mandibles showing.  When an unwary creature ventures too near the edge of the pit, it slips in the loose soil and falls down the slope toward the antlion.  The antlion gives the poor creature a paralyzing bite and then sucks the juices out of it.  If the antlion misses with its first bite or the creature manages to stop its slide down the slope, the antlion throws soil at it and knocks it back down toward its doom. 

Fortunately for us, antlions (actually the larvae of antlions) are only 1/2 inch long, and eat small invertebrates.  They tend to make their pits in loose dry soil – often around foundations of houses or other buildings these days.  Antlion adults look very different from their larvae, and resemble damselflies with clubbed antennae.


Antlion pits around the base of our house.


My son, Daniel, and I saw an adult antlion on our window screen the other day, so we decided to go hunting for the larvae.  It didn’t take long to find some pits along the foundation of our house, safely positioned in the dry rain shadow of the eaves.  We dropped a cucumber beetle into one and watched as it slid down to the bottom of the slop and then jerked violently as the antlion grabbed it. 

Later, we dug the antlion out of the ground and brought it inside so we could watch it more carefully for a few days.  (My wife doesn’t like to admit this, but she’s mellowed considerably over the years about keeping temporary “pets” in the house…)  We filled a bucket with loose dirt and put the antlion in to see if it would make itself at home.  By the next morning, there was a nice conical pit along the edge of the bucket.  So far, the antlion has eaten a pillbug (roly poly) and a millipede, though it took several tries before it was able to catch the millipede.


Here’s a clearer look at the antlion – photographed in my homemade photo studio.


It’s not hard to find information on anlions online, but one of the most comprehensive sites is Mark Swanson’s “The Antlion Pit“.  You can learn all about antlions, why they’re also called doodlebugs, and watch videos of many different behaviors.

Photo of the Week – May 17, 2012

It’s amazing what you can find when you’re crawling around on the ground…

A wolf spider stares at me as I take its (her?) photo. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  The leg span of this spider was only about 1.5 inches.  Certainly not the biggest I’ve seen, but plenty big to intimidate people who are already squeamish about arachnids!

As I was on my knees counting plants inside a square meter plot frame last week, this little (big?) wolf spider came crawling out of the litter.  I managed to corral it into the handy little ziplock bag I carry for just such emergencies, and a half hour later when I returned to my truck, I let it back out to see if it would pose for photos.  Not having my wheelbarrow photo studio handy, I had to make do with just blocking its repeated escape attempts with my hand until it got fed up and decided to sit still and consider its next move.  It gave me about 30 seconds to squeeze off a few shots. 

Then it dashed off again, and I let it go.  I had plants to count, and the spider had a meal to find.

Photo of the Week – May 3, 2012

This little jumping spider was hanging out on an almost-blooming shell leaf penstemon plant this afternoon.  I happened to spot it as I was walking by, and stopped to see if it would sit for a portrait.

Jumping spider on shell leaf penstemon. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The above photo was actually taken after several minutes of watching the little spider and trying to get the breeze, light, and spider to coordinate with each other so I could snap the shutter.  The below photo shows the spider as I initially spotted it – with its lunch.

Jumping spider with prey.

Very shortly after I took the above photo, the spider disappeared beneath the flower.  When it reappeared later, it didn’t have its prey anymore.  I imagine it dropped it so it could make a fast getaway if it needed to.  I hope he/she was done eating…

Trying to figure out if that annoying photographer is still there…

I know not everyone thinks spiders are cute, but you’ve got to admit, this one has a certain charm…

Crab Spider and Poppy Mallow

I have a hard time walking past purple poppy mallow when I’ve got my camera in hand.  I have plenty of photos of the flower already, and I’m not sure there are many angles I haven’t explored (see last week’s post).  But it’s so darn attractive!

This week I began noticing how many of the flowers had crab spiders lurking around on them.  Although some crab spider species can change colors from white to yellow and back, that ability doesn’t do much to help spiders sitting on bright magenta flowers…  Regardless, there they were – maybe one per 10 flowers I looked at. 

Crab spider on purple poppy mallow. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The day I photographed this one, the light was a nice bright overcast (light diffuse clouds), but the spider kept moving to the opposite side of the flower every time I got the tripod set up.  (Fortunately, no one besides the bald eagle across the creek was around to watch me.)  Finally, I got the shot by waving my hand around the other side of the flower so the spider would scoot away from my hand (and into the frame of the photo).  I only got a shot or two squeezed off before it figured out my ruse and went INSIDE the flower where I didn’t have any chance of photographing it…

If you’re interested, you can read more about crab spiders in my NEBRASKAland magazine article here: CrabSpider-July2009 and about spiders in general in another article here:Spiders-AugSept2010.