The Hairy Eyeball

Bee on threshold Fuzzy Vision

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This worker honeybee was resting on the oak threshold just outside my back door on a cool day.  I got down on my belly and took this shot — the closer one is a crop of the first, to emphasize the compound eye.  I never realized that honeybees have hairs literally growing out of their compound eyes — my best guess is that the hairs help collect extra pollen, plus perhaps keep pollen from adhering to the eye surface and blocking the bee’s vision as she spends the day stuffing her face in flowers.

Meet The Beetles

This is my childhood beetle collection.  Somehow it has managed to survive, more or less intact, for over forty years.  All the beetles, save one (the large rhinoceros beetle, a gift from a kid whose military dad was stationed in Indonesia), were collected by me in or around Billings, Montana, between 1968 and 1972.  Or so.  Give or take.  More or less.  In any case, every specimen is over forty years old.  I pinned them in a See’s Candy box, which despite having a lid is not at all air-tight, and thus, they all have accumulated four-plus decades of infiltrating dust.  Here is how the much-younger me made it:  I lined the bottom of the box with cardboard to give the pins something to stick into, then glued a piece of paper on top of the cardboard for a cleaner appearance.  I typed numbers on a typewriter and cut them out, then Elmer’s-glued them next to each beetle as I added it.  I glued another piece of paper on the box’s lid and wrote “Beetle Collection” and in the lower right my initials “TA” so that, being thereby scientifically christened, no one would accidentally throw it away.  A few of the specimens were pinned with thin, black, insect-mounting pins — but before I discovered the “right” tools in a science-supply catalog, I used whatever pins I could filch from my mother’s quilting.  Pinning beetles is hard, literally — their elytra are tough, and hey, I was a kid, so sometimes the pin didn’t go in straight.  Meaning I’d try again.  And again.  Which explains why several of the beetles have more than one hole in their wing covers.

Some days I can scarcely remember where I set my coffee cup a moment before — but I can tell you where I got every single beetle in this collection.  In some cases, I can tell you with GPS-beating specificity.  A few of the beetles I found already dead, but most I captured alive.  Usually I kept them as “pets” until they keeled over of their own accord, but some I hurried to their demise in a sealed killing jar, in which I used alcohol-soaked cotton balls to euthanize them.  Later (from the wonderful science-supply catalog) I bought a small vial of something called “dispatching fluid,” which killed bugs dead right quick, and which was cheerfully sold to ten year-old boys in the 1960s whether they asked their parents or not, which they didn’t.

I got back into photography over the last couple of years after a long absence.  I was fortunate to be able to attend a macrophotography workshop in Belize in 2013, a few photos from which I posted earlier.  I’ve taken a few shots I really like… but I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do something different, something a bit more personal.  I was sitting in my home office a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed, on a lower shelf, my old beetle collection.  It’s been on the shelf, boxed up, for a long time.

So I opened it.  And took some pictures.

I did not alter the specimens.  I photographed them as objects, impaled and imperfect bits of chitinous memory, not as natural history subjects.  They are dusty and damaged and poorly-mounted.  They are numbered but not labeled.  They are, quite literally, nothing more than a bunch of dead bugs.  But I can hear the wind in the lodgepole pines as I gripped the wooden handle of my butterfly net — taking a break from fly-fishing — and feel the crunching gravel under the thin soles of my sneakers in the hot dusty alley behind my house and smell the alcohol-soaked cotton balls and feel the living insects’ spiky strong legs pushing against my fingers and I can remember watching them alive, in jars big and small, tunneling in dirt or devouring dropped-in earthworms, and I can even conjure the sensation of cool white glue on my fingertips as I placed numbers next to them in the poorly-sealed candy box.  I can remember all of this, thin slices of gloriously-unsupervised childhood.

We value rare things:  works of art, lifelong friendships, vacations with no rain.  I doubt the specimens in this collection are anything beyond mildly out of the ordinary; it is, after all, unlikely that a kid sticking beetles in a box forty-some years ago discovered a new species.  But the collection as a whole?  It’s a singularity.  No one else has one just like it, no one in the whole world.


Flytrap detail

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An end-on view of a Venus flytrap.  The spiky things in the center aren’t the trap’s teeth — they are tiny trigger-hairs within the trap, thinner than a human hair.  For the trap to close, at least two of these hairs must be touched in succession.  I took this shot with a reversed 28 mm lens, which is a relatively inexpensive technique for shooting up close.  A 28mm is a wide-angle lens, which many people already own.  For about 17 bucks, I bought a reversing ring, which screws onto the front of the lens like a filter, and then allows the lens to be mounted on the camera backward.  Doing this means you lose all electronic control over the lens, but since autofocus is of limited value with macro shooting, it’s not a big handicap.  Plus, the level of magnification is really impressive.

Listen Up

Katydid Listening

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Q:  Why don’t katydids wear long-sleeve shirts?  A:  Because their ears are on their arms.

Inverted Invertebrate

mantid lightbox 4mantid lightbox 1mantid lightbox 2mantid lightbox 3crop

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Found another mantis today — I guess a few are still hanging on.  She was missing one of her prey-catching forelegs — maybe in an encounter with a bird, maybe in a romantic bout with a male? — but was otherwise undamaged.  I had just built a light box out of foam-core to take some pictures in a controlled setting, so she was my first subject.  I tried to place in her the center of the floor of the box, but she wouldn’t stay put — then I hit on the idea of giving her something to cling to.  I let her climb onto a ruler that happened to be out on the table, stuck it in a glass, and she settled down immediately and started grooming herself while hanging upside-down.  Even a big insect like a mantis is barely bothered by gravity.  I could have flipped the photos in post, but since her angle of repose didn’t bother her, it didn’t bother me.

I learned to use a light box at “Bugshot,” the macro photography workshop I attended in September in Belize.  If you can get critters to hold still, it’s a great way to control lighting and get some really nice shots using bounced light from multiple off-camera flashes.  By the way, another tidbit I learned at the workshop is that the dark spots in some insects’ compound eyes, that seem to follow you no matter where you move, are “pseudopupils.”  They’re the manifestation of an optical effect, not actual eye pupils.  The best explanation I heard was that if you imagine the compound eye as a whole bunch of hollow tubes packed together, the pseudopupil appears whenever you’re looking directly into a cluster of tubes — in essence, you’re looking down straight into the depths of the tubes, where light is absorbed, whereas other parts of the eye are off-axis and light reflects back out.  You can see a pretty clear example of it in the last photo, which I cropped to emphasize the compound eye.

Last Mantid Standing

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I was surprised to see this female mantis on our front porch today.  (The large size and blue “lip” indicate it’s a Bordered mantis, Stagmomantis limbata.)  They’re one-season insects, so she’s pretty elderly at this point.  I put her in the garden so she wouldn’t be so conspicuous to hunting birds.  Usually these insects are either green or brown, but they can change color when they molt, and sometimes add yellow or pink or even orange-y hues.  I think this old gal has great fashion sense — the cream and pink colors give off a real 1950s vibe, especially when set off by her turquoise-blue lipstick.  Very mid-century.


fungusant fungusmoth

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In celebration of Halloween, two photos from my recent trip to Belize.  Both are of insects which were parasitized by a Cordyceps fungus. (In the case of the ant, I am reliably informed that the fungus is an almost-certainly-undescribed species of Ophiocordyceps.)  The fungus attacks the insect, keeping it alive long enough to actually cause a change in its behavior — zombie-fying the hapless victim not to seek human brains (thankfully), but to crawl to a particular exposed spot with appropriate conditions of humidity and temperature (for the fungus, not the insect), where the insect then latches on, dies, and becomes the distribution point for the fungus’s spores.  The sphinx moth was, to me, particularly dramatic.  Now, if I had seen, say, a goat that had met a similar fate… but no.   I’m sure this fungus doesn’t attack vertebrates.  But why do I suddenly have an urge to climb onto my roof?  And why is my skin so itchy…?