Insects Under the Lens
By Chet Gottfried
HUMAN EYES ARE REMARKABLE inventions but fall short when it comes to the tiny. What may look like a speck can be a wonderfully complex and beautiful insect.
To see and enjoy the “tiny” means venturing into the world of macrophotography, or macros, in which the smallest facets of life are revealed in colorful detail. These tiny creatures may be enjoyed either through the macros of others and/or taking your own photos. If you own a smartphone or camera, the opportunity is in your hands. (I discuss equipment toward the end of this piece because choices among the different camera types depend on preference, skill, and money.)
Another reason to take macros is the opportunity it affords for being outdoors in the countryside or in a park. Macros involve the “small,” and to notice the small means not running or jogging but strolling. Strolling requires stopping from time to time, standing still, and taking in everything and anything seen. A glint of sunlight may imply a spider web or an insect wing, among all the other hints of animal life.
A sunny day from May to September is generally best for spotting as many insects as possible. August and the first two-thirds of September (depending on when autumn steps into the picture) are my favorite times of year for insect macros. Insects have an open circulatory system (that is, they’re cold-blooded), so sunlight inspires them to go out and do their thing. Also, sunlight allows one to take a clearer photo.
The following sections progress from easy subjects to more challenging ones.
Bees and wasps
For anyone starting to take macros, bees are a wonderful introduction and your friends. Bees have a range of colors (including green), and whether bumblebees, honeybees, or other species, bees concentrate on business. They gather pollen from flowers and don’t care one way or another if a person is pointing a lens at them.
[Left. Bumblebees are an easy first choice for macros. Odds are that you’ll hear them before you see one.]
There is another advantage of bee macros. The resulting photo will have not only marvelous bee detail but also an incredible flower closeup. Flowers have intricate structures that a macro can bring out in full. Of course, if you’re concentrating on a bee, most of the flower (unless the blossom is very small) will be left to the imagination. For anyone truly interested in flowers, a photographer can step back and capture all the flower in a single picture.
How does a person find bees? Look for flowers. Anywhere flowers are seen, bees will be present (and if not, nature is seriously out of whack in the area). Gardens, arboretums, parks, and fields are suitable choices. Honey bees can thrive in natural or domesticated environments, though they prefer to live in gardens, woodlands, orchards, meadows, and other areas where flowering plants are abundant.
Hint: Beginning in the late summer and continuing through autumn, goldenrod clumps or fields are a magnet for bees as well as the other insects I mention.
[Left. Honeybees are somewhat smaller than bumblebees and so present a further challenge: getting closer.]
Wasps are related to bees, and a few species of bees and wasps are similar to one another (such as green sweat bees and cuckoo wasps). Wasps come in all sizes, shapes, and attitudes. Many will go about their business (gathering pollen or hunting), but a few have a nasty temperament. My rule of thumb is that if a wasp ignores me, it is safe to photograph.
[Right. Wasps come in every size, shape, and demeanor.]
Butterflies and moths
After bees, butterflies are an excellent subject for macros. Photographing butterflies may result in even greater satisfaction for the photographer.
The larger butterflies, such as swallowtails and monarchs, are straightforward subjects. In addition, a telephoto lens can occasionally be an advantage, although nothing brings out as much detail as a macro does.
Butterflies present a challenge to the macrophotographer. They are aware of anything approaching them and will flutter away to taste a different flower in peace.
On first encountering a butterfly, I take my first photos from a distance. Doing so acclimates the butterfly to my presence. After taking a few photos, I move a step or two closer and then take a few more. Sometimes the butterfly will depart instantly; other times it will hang around, resulting in excellent macros.
There is another consideration for the macrophotographer which is especially true for smaller butterflies (that is, skippers) but is also true for most other insect photos. A good photo of something tiny means you must be within a foot to several inches of the subject. Couple that with the fact that people are tall. On average people are among the larger animals on Earth, and the typical person will be holding a camera from three to five feet from the ground, whereas many insects are close to the ground.
[Left. The solution is to crouch. I photographed this white admiral while kneeling on the ground.]
The same principle applied to shoveling snow comes into play here: bend at the knees, not at the waist. For snow, it is a question of strength and efficiency. For photography, balance is the key. Most digital cameras compensate for “shake” these days, but even with that, there’s no substitute for being steady. For low-level photos, I tend to kneel and place one or both knees on the ground. Yes, my jeans end up with permanent stains, but what does that matter if I can get a better photo?
Consequently, if your butterfly is on the ground, so are you.
It is too easy to think of moths as being bland, because most moths encountered indoors or at night are gray-brown. However, many moths are not only active during the daytime outside but also brilliantly colored.
Among my favorite moths are the clearwings (or hummingbird moths), an example of evolutionary convergence with hummingbirds. Both clearwings and hummingbirds have the same lifestyle: hovering over blossoms and sipping nectar. Central Pennsylvania has two types of clearwing: hummingbird clearwing and snowberry clearwing. The snowberry clearwing has a body length about the size of an elongated bumblebee. The hummingbird clearwing is half-again as large as a snowberry. Both clearwing species are continually hovering and a true photographic challenge.
[Below right. A snowberry clearwing is sipping from a butterfly bush in my backyard.]
In terms of convenience, backyard macrophotography is the height of luxury. The flowers make everything look so pretty, and butterflies, bees, wasps, and moths will come to have their photos taken.
Dragonflies and damselflies
Dragonflies are welcome subjects, inasmuch as they’re relatively large, although the size does vary enormously, including the easy-to-miss eastern amberwing.
The point with dragonflies is that they’re extremely alert to everything happening around them. Dragonfly alertness can work to a person’s advantage, inasmuch as they exhibit curiosity. Time and again, a dragonfly finds me before I find it. And suddenly, there I am with a dragonfly staring at me. Sometimes the dragonfly is close; other times it may be, say, twelve feet away. If the dragonfly is distant, I practice the same technique as with butterflies. Take a few photos, take a step forward, take a few more, and so on.
Another technique comes into play here. A dragonfly may become uneasy on being approached, and it will take off. Remain still! The flight is often a loop, and the dragonfly will land in the same spot or close to it. Those exhibiting such behavior make my day.
Unfortunately, one cannot depend on this dragonfly curiosity. A few keep their distance, and then it’s time for the slow approach, although admittedly I have mixed luck with dragonflies. Having that long telephoto lens can be an advantage in these cases.
[Right. The female green darner demonstrates the range of colors possible in a dragonfly.]
I first noticed damselflies while living on Long Island and close to a pond. The very fact that anything like damselflies actually existing led me into macro photography. The body of a damselfly (appearing like a miniature dragonfly) is about the length and width of an ordinary pin having two pairs of wings.
Finding damselflies is very much like those logic drawings in which, depending how you view the picture, you see one of two images, or perhaps two different perspectives. In the course of ordinary walking about, a damselfly is easy to miss. I find it necessary to stand still and concentrate on the view within three or four feet of me. If damselflies are present, I’ll see one or two and then, suddenly, I’m aware of a dozen or more damselflies flittering about. They’re all around ... except they can seem invisible unless a person pays attention.
[Left. Most damselflies ignore me, but the odd ones will stare.]
Damselflies are difficult to identify properly, and generally I’m content to divide them into two groups: pond damselflies and spreadwing damselflies. The difference is in the name. Pond damselflies generally keep their wings along the length of the body (unless flying of course), whereas spreadwing damselflies keep their wings perpendicular to their body at all times. Also, spreadwing damselflies tend to be much longer than the pond variety, although both are thin.
The sexual habits of damselflies (and to some extent the same is true of dragonflies) are interesting inasmuch as the twined bodies form a heart shape. Someone told me that the actual act is much rougher than that, but all the same, I like to think the thought counts, and so what could be better for Valentine’s Day than a pair of damselflies making love.
[Right. A sexual encounter between two damselflies resembles a heart.]
Spiders and daddy longlegs
Spiders fall into two basic groups: those that spin webs (the orb weavers) to catch food, and those that chase their prey. Incidentally, the spiders that spin webs are generally female.
The easiest way to find a spider is to see the glint of a web reflecting sunlight.
The orb weavers are truly diverse, and you will come across hairy spiders, short-legged spiders, long-legged spiders, and so forth. The variations seem limitless, and spider coloration is impressive.
Even more impressive than seeing a spider home on the web is finding one on the move, which comes about by chance and by studying vegetation. Whereas blossoms are beacons for finding wasps, bees, butterflies, and moths, a spider may be anywhere. Take nothing for granted, including those insects crawling on you.
On that point, I’ve a clothing preference: light and solid colors, which makes it straightforward to note ticks or any other free travelers encountered on a day outside. Ticks carry Lyme disease, and both ticks and Lyme disease are rapidly spreading throughout the Northeast. The easiest way to avoid Lyme disease is to remove a tick from your clothing before it has a chance to scurry underneath. (Give thanks to opossums in your area: Opossums eat ticks.)
Here’s a fact: daddy longlegs are not spiders, but they both are arachnids. To quote (from of all places) Wikipedia, “Arachnids are a class (Arachnida) of joint-legged invertebrate animals (arthropods), in the subphylum Chelicerata.” Spiders are in their own order (Araneae), and daddy longlegs are in a separate order (Opiliones).
The good news here is that whereas spiders are poisonous to a greater or lesser extent, daddy longlegs are harmless to people. Also, I believe that daddy longlegs are cute, something I wouldn’t say too often about a spider.
Seen up close, a daddy longlegs reminds me of a tank (on extension legs). They’re rather shy, and as soon as one notices me noticing it, the daddy longlegs will usually duck under cover. So, should you have a clear view of a daddy longlegs, make good use of the opportunity.
[Below right. A stately daddy longlegs marching across a blossom.]
In the preceding sections, I presented the most common insects I photograph; however, the types of insects overall are too numerous to count, in terms of variability, variety, and number. Following are brief descriptions of other insects I have photographed.
Ladybugs (or ladybirds or lady beetles) are all over the place, although the most common ones have been imported from Asia. According to Wikipedia, Coccinellidae is a widespread family of small beetles ranging from 0.8 to 18 mm. They are commonly yellow, orange, or red with small black spots on their wing covers, with black legs, heads and antennae. However such color patterns vary greatly.
Asian ladybugs are easy to recognize, as they have the capital letter “W” on their face. Native ladybugs are out and about, but it takes close observation to find them. In addition, while most ladybugs have black spots, they’re not all red. Some are gray and others are pink. Most ladybugs eat aphids, and so they’re doing fine work whatever their origin.
[Right. An Asian ladybug (or ladybird) always has the letter “W” on its head.]
Assassin bugs, one may say, are the meat and potatoes of traditional science fiction. They actively hunt and kill their victims, and use their proboscis to suck the life juices from their prey. I haven’t come across that many, but seeing one is an interesting experience.
[Below right. Assassin bugs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) nymph will lose the “red” as it ages.]
Finding a praying mantis is truly a case of discovering elegance, although I can’t say that any mantis ever appreciated being a model. They have better things to do. All the same, an annoyed praying mantis will assume a number of different positions. There’s opportunity in that.
In terms of equipment, almost any camera will do. Electronic cameras have advanced quite far. The beauty of electronic photography is that you know what you have almost as soon as you take the picture. Nor do you have to worry about the price of processing. Photography has never been better.
Starting from the bottom of the scale, there’s the smartphone. The lens of a smartphone is a “super-wide-angle.” It allows everyone to take an in-focus photo with minimal effort.
The drawback of the smartphone for macros is that, because the lens is so wide, the phone must be within an inch or so of the insect. That calls for good bug-approaching technique, and it can be done. I’ve seen impressive macros taken with smartphones.
[Right. A praying mantis is an elegant hunter and able to blend into its surroundings.]
The next class of electronic cameras is the point-and-shoot. A particular camera may have a special macro setting. Such a setting may not be necessary, because the ordinary close focus of a camera may work for macros. Point-and-shoots have advanced over the years and take excellent macros. Some twelve years ago, I used what would be today considered a very old-fashioned Sony F707 and had satisfactory macros from it. Today, many point-and-shoots are far better.
And then there is the traditional (for about fifty or sixty years) 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. The greatest advantage of an SLR camera is the ability to change lenses, which vary from extreme wide angle to telephoto and to specialty lenses. Macro lenses are designed with two qualities: minimal distortion and maximum sharpness for a close subject.
Electronic SLRs fall into two major types: full frame and APS-C. The former is newer and matches what would be a traditional 35mm photo. The latter was the first on the market and has a somewhat smaller sensor, but what that means, in effect, is that it adds a multiplier factor to any lens in use. For example, a full-frame SLR with a 100mm lens would take and show everything a film 35mm camera would show. An APS-C SLR with a 100mm lens acts as if the lens was 150mm.
Consequently, if a full-frame camera and an APS-C camera have the same number of megapixels, the APS-C camera would have a higher resolution.
In that given situation, APS-C is better for telephotos and macros. The reverse is true for taking wide-angle photos, but the interest here is with macros.
Over the years (and I began with film photography and Pentax 35mm cameras), I’ve collected a number of macro lens, including a 200mm macro and a 125mm macro. Presently, I use the 200mm macro, because it is an all-purpose lens and long enough for me to take the odd telephoto for anything interesting in the distance. Of course it is also marvelous for taking detailed photos of insects.
After taking a photo of almost anything, you may ask yourself: What have I photographed?
Actually, not everyone asks that question. I’ve been on various photography sites in which the photographer refers to a pretty butterfly or whatever, and that is that. For me, the fun is in identifying which type of butterfly I’ve photographed, but I have my limits. A macro is an excellent starting point for ID since it shows the details of any butterfly or other insect that is invisible to the naked eye.
I’m good on butterflies and somewhat less so on dragonflies. The remainder are hit-and-miss, but there are ways of finding out.
For butterfly ID, I rely on the book “Butterflies through Binoculars: The East,” by Jeffrey Glassberg. The photos and descriptions are excellent.
An excellent online site for butterfly ID is Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA). One has to join the group, but the ID services are worth it. If you have one or two photos of the butterfly or moth in question, an expert will ID it for you.
I have yet to find any field guide on dragonflies and/or damselflies that I could recommend wholeheartedly. The best I have on hand is very good in terms of detailed information, but I would prefer larger photos: “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East,” by Dennis Paulson.
A one-stop alternative for IDing every type of bug possible is the site BugGuide.Net, which covers everything, and I mean everything, along with an excellent collection of photos. The amount of detail can overwhelm at times, but if anyone is intent on identifying a particular bug, that is the place to go.
Chet Gottfried is an active member of SFWA. ReAnimus Press has recently published three of his novels. His stories have appeared in “Space and Time Magazine,” “Jim Baen’s Universe,” and elsewhere. He is a frequent contributor to “Perihelion.”