Readers’ wildlife photos: insects

January 31, 2014 • 5:40 am

Reader Pete Moulton, responding to my call for photos of animals without feathers, has given us some nice insect shots. His captions are indented; click photos to enlarge.

You can see more of Pete’s wonderful photos, including those of mammals and b*rds, at his ipernity site.

In answer to your plea for some nonavian wildlife photographs for your website, I’ll offer these. Photographing birds is my hobby; bugs (yes, I know) are serious business.

Hesperagrion heterodoxum is the Painted Damsel, a common enough damselfly in Arizona, but restricted in range to the desert Southwest. This one’s a male, photographed along the Hassayampa River near Wickenburg, Arizona. My favorite insect.

Hesperagrion heterodoxum

Erpetogomphus lampropeltis is a male Serpent Ringtail, a clubtail dragonfly (Gomphidae). Another southwesterner, but more widespread than the Painted Damsel. Coastal populations have gray thoraxes, while our inland version has green. This handsome guy was at a small stream northeast of Carefree, Arizona.

Erpetogomphus lampropeltis_Seven Springs 8-9-08_5779

Ammophila aberti is a female thread-waisted wasp at her burrow. Once the burrow is finished, she’ll stock it with a small caterpillar, lay her eggs on it, and seal up the entrance. The larval wasps will then subsist on the body of the paralyzed, but still living, caterpillar until they pupate and emerge as adults. This little girl is around 20mm long, but her life history is very similar to that of the better known Tarantula Hawks, just on a much smaller scale.

Ammophila aberti_Granite Reef 6-14-08_5055

Last, but not least, is a female Thistledown Velvet Ant Dasymutilla gloriosa, which is in the process of digging up the burrows dug by the thread-waisted and local sand wasps. Very fast and difficult to photograph, unless you can find them at this business, which localizes them enough that you might get some shots. A ferocious stinger, by all accounts, so I treat them with plenty of respect. This and the thread-waisted were both along the Rîo Salado northeast of Mesa, Arizona.

I remembered that “velvet ants” weren’t really ants, but couldn’t remember the group, and Pete gave me the answer:

A lot of Dasymutilla spp. do resemble ants, though D. gloriosa doesn’t look like anything so much as a windblown creosotebush seed. They’re wasps of the family Mutillidae. Only the males have wings and can fly; the females are wingless.

Dasymutilla gloriosa_5-30-11_Granite Reef_8112

I’ve since learned that velvet “ants”, comprising over 3,000 species of wasps in the family Mutillidae, are so called because of their combination of wingless females and their covering of bristles, often brightly colored). Those bright colors are “aposematic”—or “warning” coloration—telling predators to avoid these creatures. Velvet ants have painful stings and tough exoskeletons that make them hard to nom, and the coloration has presumably evolved to save the insect from being tasted by a predator who has already learned to avoid its pattern. (Presumably the bright coloration is easier for predators to learn. In some cases it may have evolved through “kin selection”—the first colorful mutant insect is actually more likely to be eaten, as it sticks out like a sore thumb; but a learning predator can then avoid its brothers and sisters who also carry the genes for that coloration. There are other scenarios for the evolution of aposematic coloration involving individual rather than kin selection.)

Wikipedia says this about velvet ants:

The exoskeleton of all velvet ants is unusually tough (to the point that some entomologists have reported difficulty piercing them with steel pins when attempting to mount them for display in cabinets). This characteristic allows them to successfully invade the nests of their prey and also helps them retain moisture. Like related families in the Vespoidea, males have wings but females uniformly are wingless. They exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism; the males and females are so different, it is almost impossible to associate the two sexes of a species unless they are captured while mating. In a few species, the male is so much larger than the female, he carries her aloft while mating, which is also seen in the related family Tiphiidae.

If you want to see a bunch of fearsome-looking velvet ants enrobed in red (and one in striking royal blue), click the Google image search here.

Biology lesson:  Learn what aposematic coloration is. Patterns can be aposematic, too, as in the prominent striping of wasps, coral snakes—and skunks. So can behavior: think of the mock “threat displays” of snakes and other animals who aren’t toxic or dangerous, but mimic the displays of species that are.


35 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos: insects

  1. WOW Pete, those are really beautiful!

    My kids love taking shots like this of insects, lizards, frogs and other small critters. They’ll stack up 1000 shots on my little digital point & shoot in no time at all. It has a pretty decent macro mode for such a camera, but they (the kids) are going to be envious when they see these pics! They’ve been bugging me for a “real” camera for a while now, and you aren’t helping me out here at all!

    1. They’ll soon want a nice macro lens & some lovely ring flashes. 🙂 You’d better get a second job!

      1. Exactly!

        This is the kind of interest I like to fuel as best I can too. But, a couple grand for a new camera is going to have to wait for either a long time or an unusually fortuitous windfall.

        1. You could do it for less, darrelle. The ‘tweener’ cameras, like the Canon SX-50, do a great job on close-ups for around $500. They also have major zoom capabilities, and work great for birds.

  2. Those are great! I always find that dragon flies are so pretty but when you look at their backs, their wings seem like they were messily glued on.

    With skunks having aposematic colouration, I wonder why stupid humans find it just makes them cute & they don’t flee as they should.

    1. I’ve always been fascinated by dragon flies and as a child found it interesting that helicopter wings also had the messy glued on appearance.

      Humans seem to have the deleterious stupid gene which allows them to ignore aposematic colouration. That doesn’t seem to have been enough to compensate for the big brain attribute that allows them to overpopulate while ruining the planet’s life sustaining environment.

  3. Really, Diana? I’ve always thought their wing joints look mechanical, like little robots.

    I think you answered your question in the asking: “stupid humans.” Yup. LOL

  4. Gorgeous bug photos!

    Note 1: The blue velvet ant is a re-colored image of a red one.
    Note 2 : While many vespoid females are wingless, most, other than mutillids and some tiphiids are not. Think yellow jacket hornets, as one example. (Some will challenge this statement by mentioning ants, but these have recently been shown to be in Sphecoidea, not Vespoidea.)

    A fun fact about Dasymutilla gloriosa is that the female in motion seems to mimic not only the appearance, but also the movement of the wind-dispersed fruit ( ) as it is driven by wind across the desert floor. Her gait is stop-and-start and meandering, and her whitish fuzz leans with the breeze, adding to the illusion.

    1. Thank you, James! The resemblance to a windblown creosotebush seed is so strong, that I only happened to notice this one because it was moving against the breeze.

  5. Terrific photos. I too aspire to up my game in taking pictures of insects. Right now I just have a $100 camera, 3 kids heading for college, one looking at braces, and other realities.

    1. Macrophotography is actually one of those areas where you can get superlative results with cheap, almost throwaway equipment. Specifically, the cheapest (functioning) DSLR you can find, even used and beat to shit, is plenty of camera for the job. Next, extension tubes (cheap hollow rings that mount between the camera and the lens) will let any lens focus closer. Another popular option is to “reverse” a lens; that is, to turn it around so the front element is facing towards the camera, not away from it. Again, either cheap adapters or do-it-yourself rigs are all you need. Finally, you’ll likely need light…but, again, the cheapest off-camera flash you can find will work great, provided you improvise a diffuser with a sheet of paper and some tape.

      You can also, of course, spend lots and lots of money on lenses and other equipment that’ll make life much easier for you, but that’s only for those with more money than time.



      1. Right, as usual, Ben. An option you didn’t mention is the use of screw-on dioptric “close-up” lenses. These just screw into the lens’ filter thread like any other filter, but they reduce the focusing distance without costing you much light. Three of these four images were made in just that way, with a Canon 500D screwed onto my 100-400mm walking around lens. Only the Painted Damsel was made with an actual macro lens.

        1. That certainly works too — but with a caveat.

          When you’re putting glass in front of glass like that, you need good glass to get good results. The 100-400 is a superlative lens, and the 500D is as good as those types of filters get. However, most such combinations are of mediocre lenses and el-cheapo filters, with decidedly unsatisfactory results.

          The advantage of extension tubes is that there’s no glass to degrade the image, so the lens is as good a macro lens as it is a regular lens. And the advantage of reversing lenses is that there’re some really, really cheap lenses with superlative optics that work damned well when reversed.

          If you’ve got the money, that 500D on a near-legendary L lens is a wonderful way to go. But, if you’re on a budget, you can, with a bit of creativity and patience, put together a rig that’ll produce great results for a fraction of the price.

          (But, I gotta say, if you’ve got the money, the gear is absolutely worth every penny!)



          1. …new to all of this. Want to try the extension tubes. I find that when I photograph dragonflys they do not appear to be afraid and will let you photograph them for 3 or 4 minutes.

            1. Another way to go is to use a long lens. It’s a different outcome than macro but easier to do and the results are very nice.

              I really need to start using my macro lens again but winter needs to end so I can go pester insects. I need to start thinking more seriously about how to do such captures; I’ve got a nice tripod that bends nice and low but I need to get some decent light on the subjects, otherwise I end up shooting with such a narrow field of view, if I breath slightly wrong or there is a minuscule breeze, the whole shot gets knocked out of focus. Macro lenses really teach you about photography – it’s how I learned.

              1. Winter needs to end for more reasons than that!! 😉

                Ironically, our unusually cold winter will apparently have the beneficial effect of killing off some invasive insect species like Emerald Ash Borer. So don’t get your hopes up for photographing one of those guys!

            2. Oh, that’s nothing.

              If your lens has a short enough minimum focus distance, the ideal perch for photographing a dragonfly is the tip of your own finger. That way, you can position them at whatever angle you like, get the lighting just right, and so on. And, you get to spend some quality time with a dragonfly to boot!

              Just gently position your finger from the front and underneath and you should be able to get the dragonfly to walk up on your finger.


  6. How does one send in a photo of a weird animal, for example, to find out what it is? I see people do that a lot here, or am I wrong?

  7. A common name for some velvet ant species is “cow killer”, and anyone who has been stung by one (I speak from experience) has no doubt how they came by that name! It is easily the most painful insect sting I ever received here in the midwestern U.S.

  8. I recently had the pleasure of seeing Pete’s photos on a calibrated professional grade monitor – they are almost like looking through a window at the real thing. Not just gorgeous, but technically proficient.

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