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Farewell 2019, hola 2020’s!

I’ll open this post with my usual mantra – have you backed up your files this week? In case you have, pat yourself on the back. If not, stop reading and back up your stuff first. Thank you.
Ah, 2019. What a strange year this was. Just as I thought, the previous year ended on such a high note, that it was difficult to shake off the sense of euphoria that came right after and get back to being productive as a freelancer. It’s funny to think that I wrote 2018’s wrap up way into 2019, so things were already stalling a little for me. Nevertheless, last year was full of surprises and new experiences, as well as meeting new people. Not to imply that all of these happenings went the way I thought they would, there is always good and bad and it’s unavoidable. I am happy to say that most of these were indeed positive experiences, there were no major failures this year (yay) and I definitely learned from the less favorable moments. So all in all this was a good year professionally speaking. On the personal level it could have been better, my attempts at dating were mostly embarrassingly hilarious and sad. But my love life isn’t the topic of this blog haha. If you follow my year-in-review posts, then you already know I no longer do the “best photos of the year” roundup. I gave that format up for “highlights of the year”, but I will spice it up with photos so it isn’t too boring.

Dung beetle (Scarabaeus sp.). Western Negev desert, Israel

Dung beetle (Scarabaeus sp.). Western Negev desert, Israel

Trip to Israel

Perhaps my most anticipated event last year was a trip back home. I actually planned two trips in 2019, but had to cancel my annual trip to Ecuador due to a nation-wide unrest. I haven’t been to Israel since 2015, and it showed. Not only did I miss my family, but I was also craving some of the amazing food my home country has to offer. Alas, this trip was short. Way too short! I am used to being busy when I visit Israel, but this time I barely got to meet any friends. Things have definitely changed in some of the nature sites I used to frequent, some areas are now closed nature reserves (good) and some were wiped clean to make space for development or construction (bad bad bad). Still it is a magnificent country with great finds.

Desert black widow (Latrodectus revivensis) preying on Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). Western Negev Desert, Israel

Desert black widow (Latrodectus revivensis) preying on Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). Western Negev Desert, Israel

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) swarming on a tree branch. Upper Galilee, Israel

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) swarming on a tree branch. Upper Galilee, Israel

Male jumping spider (Cyrba algerina). This was one of the species I was hoping to find during my visit.

Male jumping spider (Cyrba algerina). This was one of the species I was hoping to find during my visit.

Catching up with the past

Much of what I did in 2019 was backstage work, in other words not things that I usually post about here or on social media. Only briefly mentioned on this blog, one of the things I do aside from nature photography and consulting is breeding arthropods professionally for different purposes. Usually it is for public outreach events, but occasionally I supply animals for live displays in museums or to research labs. It is a full-time job on top of all my other projects, but this is something that I also do for my own mental health. I have been doing this since… forever. Being occupied with keeping insects and arachnids calms me down and leaves no time for negative thoughts. Unfortunately, my busy schedule with trips and the ROM’s spider exhibit in 2018 also meant that I neglected some of my breeding projects. Sometimes that’s a good thing because it forces you to reevaluate which species are more important and worth keeping around. In any case, I decided to get back on track with some species, for example beetles. One of the main goals I had for my visit to Israel was to relocate lab supplies to my place in Canada. No sense in keeping it unused in Israel, and I can totally benefit from using it. One of the objects I wanted to bring to my Canadian home was a large industrial bin that I used for making leaf compost as substrate for breeding beetles. I had my doubts about carrying such a weird object on a commercial flight, but it worked out fine.

The rare sapphire flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa cyanochlora) in captive breeding

The rare sapphire flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa cyanochlora) in captive breeding

Another hidden project I started working on last year was clearing up my backlog. I hate to admit it, but since moving to Canada I have not put much effort into managing my digital photography assets, and many file folders on my computer are still unorganized. After a long hiatus, I made the decision to go back to working on my photo collections and clear the backlog. This is a difficult task to accomplish, because while you are working on old photos, you keep adding new ones. I cannot put opportunities on hold just because I have stuff from the past to sort out, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Sadly, I do not know how long it will take to finish the work, but what a great way to pass the dreaded wintertime in Ontario, am I right? Too bad I actually like the winter.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. The winter is a great time to edit some wide angle macro shots from the summer. By the way, if I had to pick the best photo I took in 2019, it would probably be this one. It took 4 hours to get it!

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. The winter is a great time to edit some wide angle macro shots from the summer. By the way, if I had to pick the best photo I took in 2019, it would probably be this one. It took 4 hours to get it!

Public outreach in 2019

In 2019 I continued to take part in public outreach to promote the appreciation of insects and arachnids. I really enjoy acting as an ambassador for these animals and striking up conversations with people I meet at the events. I gave two talks at Nerd Nite Toronto, one about non-spider arachnids and another about Epomis beetles. Quite unbelievable – this was the first time I ever presented my MSc research to the general public, up until now it was only to academic listeners. How come I have waited for so long? The audience loved it!
I also returned for my third time as a medical entomology expert for the Global Health Education Initiative at University of Toronto. And of course, I returned with my whip spiders for the third Guelph Bug Day. This event is becoming an annual thing for me, I really love it, and you can tell that the people organizing it are very passionate about insects and science communication. I plan to continue participating for as long as I can.

Our "Arachnids & Art" table at Guelph Bug Day 2019. Photo by Brian Wolven

Our “Arachnids & Art” table at Guelph Bug Day 2019. Photo by Brian Wolven

Filming “Bug Hunter”

Speaking of education and public outreach, over the summer of 2019 I assisted in the production of an educational series called “Bug Hunter”. The project is a New Zealand-Canada collaboration in which a NZ entomologist (the wonderful Morgane Merien) travels between the two countries and explores different aspects in the life of insects, while comparing species from the Southern Hemisphere to ones found in the Northern Hemisphere.

Morgane Merien in "Bug Hunter"

Morgane Merien in “Bug Hunter”

I must admit that when the producer approached me at first I did not fully grasp the scale of the project. The series is a part of an augmented reality app that will eventually be distributed into the school system. I was initially hired as a consultant and a field expert to the team, but later on I was written into the script. This means that occasionally I appear in the episodes to give some information about insects native to Canada. Kind of like an Non-Player Character that always shows up (if you know Baelin the fisherman, something like that, hopefully not as repetitive). If I had to pick one thing in 2019 as the best highlight, it would be working on this series. The team chosen for this project was stellar, extremely professional but also good people. We all worked hard, had good laughs, and I got to hear some interesting stories about the industry. An amazing learning experience. On top of that, I dragged them to Guelph Bug Day (it coincided with one of the filming dates) and they were able to use it to get some useful footage for the series. The Canada portion is more or less wrapped up, and now a second team is filming the NZ portion with Morgane. I can’t wait to see the final result when it’s completed.

Filming "Bug Hunter" in Southern Ontario

Filming “Bug Hunter” in Southern Ontario

Commercial work in 2019

In July I was contracted by Doritos Canada to help promoting the “SpiderManFar From Home” movie. The idea was to design and set up a box with live spiders as a fun challenge for people to get a chance to win an authentic Spider-Man suit. After some discussions with the PR company, we settled on having local wolf spiders and a tarantula inside the box. I had no idea how it was going to turn out, but it was a lot of fun! Being the science communicator that I am, I tried to turn this into an educational opportunity to show people that there is no reason to be afraid of spiders. The activity was covered by several news outlets too. I was debating whether to upload the video, but then I thought why should I be the only one to enjoy it. Hopefully it won’t be taken down.

In October I was involved in another cool project: filming a music video for the Finnish symphonic metal group Apocalyptica. The director wanted to incorporate live arthropods in the final video and asked for my assistance with providing and wrangling the animals. This was not my first music video work, but it was the first one on an international scale. Obviously, this was very different from filming news interviews or the educational show mentioned above. I brought in a handful of different animals, not all of which were used and made it to the final cut. Yet still, when I watch the video it sparks nice memories of some of the critters I keep. Two of my favorite animals, whip spiders and velvet worms, are shown in great detail in the video, and it make me very happy. This is probably the first time a velvet worm is shown in a music video, now that I think about it. And I was also surprised to discover my name mentioned in the end credits!

Social media

Despite toning down my social media activity in the past few years, I still remain somewhat active. In fact, my follower counts increased substantially over the past year (more on that later). Twitter is still my favorite platform for several reasons. Facebook used to be OK, but has deteriorated over the years. And then there is Instagram. I really tried to like Instagram, however after 1.5 years of using it I still find it mediocre for interacting with people. It’s not surprising; Instagram is a phone app, and as such it is designed to be used for killing time while staring at your smartphone screen. I hardly use my cellphone for that purpose, and to be honest I barely use my cellphone at all. I still post there, mainly because I already post in the other platforms, and it’s just a click away. You might recognize my checkered pattern of posting, which I do solely for my Instagram. Not sure how long I can keep this going, but hey at least it looks cool.

Checkered pattern of posting on my Instagram

Checkered pattern of posting on my Instagram

I mentioned follower counts earlier. I never really cared that much about them. Okay, that’s not entirely true: I recently stumbled upon a list I made in my early days on Facebook (2010), listing all 90 friends I’ve made. That’s a little sad… Anyway going back to 2019, I sometimes find myself ticked if I see that my follower count is stuck showing an unbalanced, nearly round value. And I am sure I am not the only person with this problem, right? So every now and then I try to round that number upwards by posting something nice. Usually I follow the excellent advice given to me a while back, but it really depends on what I have available. Now, I have said many times that it is impossible to predict what is going to go viral on social media. But at least one time this year I posted something with the sole intention for it to go viral, and it actually worked. It was this photo of Euglossa hansoni from this blog post:

Male orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

Male orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

That post exploded on Facebook and even more so on Twitter. There was no surprise, it is one of my most stolen photos and that’s why I posted it. And sure enough, I was able to round the follower count up, before it went completely nuts and returned to an unbalanced state, only with a few additional hundreds of new followers. So what I did next was pretty cool. I tweeted this in hopes that as many people as possible will get to see it:

“This tweet has taken off a little, so I am told this is when I am supposed to take advantage of the situation and divert everyone’s attention to me promoting something. But I am not going to do that. Instead I will request something that I believe can be beneficial for everyone: Be kind to each other. Talk to each other. I mean actual talking – not just in texts messages! You’d be surprised how exhilarating it is. Spend time really listening. Respect and support others, especially those who are smaller and weaker than yourself (including smol friends!). I could go on, but I think this is the core of my message to the world. Practice being a good person. Do your best to be the hero in someone else’s story, I cannot stress this enough. Thanks for the love and support.”

This is my message for 2019. Actually scratch that. This is my message for the new decade.

Gilwizen.com in 2019 and what’s next

OK, this one is a bit embarrassing. In 2019, I published a “whopping” record of only three posts. That is a new low. It’s not because I had nothing to write about (I have dozens of stories “sitting”, awaiting their turn) or because I was busy. Writing blog posts is still a huge time and energy investment for me. Unlike some people who write a single four-line paragraph and call it a blog post, I try to make some decent content. I mean, look how long this post has become by now. In addition, every post goes through about 40 revisions before I hit publish, because I get pretty antsy about typos and grammatical errors (they still happen). This year I had very little motivation to sit and write. It’s almost like I need to be in a specific mood for it. I guess the good news is that there were no rant posts this year. But this posting drought needs to end.
I hope to return to regular posting in 2020. I also want to showcase more art that I have been exposed to, and bring back the Little Transformers post series. Following some helpful discussions with friends, I decided to add a media page to the website with some of the interviews and filmed activities that I have done over the years. Maybe I should also add portfolio page? I’ve never liked portfolios, do they really make a difference on a website’s appearance? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Framed tarantula molt (Brachypelma hamorii) for sale

Framed tarantula molt (Brachypelma hamorii) for sale

Selling Ethical Ento-Mounts was a bit slow this year, but I have not made many new pieces. One thing I finally put together is a “deluxe” series: these are frames containing one species or more arranged in a pattern. It involves an insane amount of work, mainly gluing broken beetles and selecting them for size to fit the arrangement. Because the specimens originate from my breeding projects, the “deluxe” items will be extremely limited editions, probably two or three per year, and will be priced higher than my usual work. I think they look nice.

Ethical Ento-Mount "deluxe": a group of flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa jousselini) in flight around a Scarabaeus dung beetle. Sold even before I listed it online.

Ethical Ento-Mount “deluxe”: a group of flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa jousselini) in flight around a Scarabaeus dung beetle. Sold even before I listed it online.

I just updated my shop page with new work, and to celebrate the new year I am offering a 20% discount on all items until the end of January 2020. Please check it out! If you ever thought about getting one of my framed molts, now is the time to do so. There are prints available too!

Final words (getting personal and emotional here)

2019 is also the end of a decade. As someone who was born in 1980, it is impossible for me not to look at the change of decades as an age-transition into a new point in life. This year also marks the end of my 30’s, and that’s kind of a big deal.

I started my insect journey 30 years ago with rearing butterflies when I was 9 years old. In 2019 I closed the circle by going back to my roots. How can you not fall in love with this black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)? So adorable.

I started my insect journey 30 years ago with rearing butterflies when I was 9 years old. In 2019 I closed the circle by going back to my roots. How can you not fall in love with this black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)? So adorable.

For me, the 2010’s were a decade where everything just went to sh*t. Especially during the second half. If my 20’s were all about getting my education in order and relocating out of Israel, during my 30’s came the hard realization that I’m probably better off outside of academia, that my past few relationships were all abusive, and that knowing what you want to do in life can actually get you stuck instead of moving forward. It is amazing that even though it is already buried in my past, I still refer to mid-2016 as the point in time when my life went downhill. Yet I came back from it stronger, more confident, and a better person overall. So I must show some gratitude to the bad experiences I had, after all they made me who I am today. Also looking back, alongside the bad occurrences there were heaps of positive ones, culminating in 2019. Not only growing professionally and developing a unique style, but also finding an audience; Learning to manage myself as a business; Changing locations and making new friends; Learning not only what is right, but also what feels good, and making more of it. These are all things that I am grateful for as I am stepping into the new era. It is important to remember however that there is still much work ahead. I often find myself arguing with friends that I am not famous. It is very flattering, but there is a problem with that statement that I will try to communicate using one of my favorite quotes, actually from a YouTuber: “I am very pleased that you call me a celebrity, I think of myself as barely having a career.”
But you know what I do have? My face on a greeting card.


Ending 2018 with a bang

Let’s go straight to the punchline: 2018 was a successful year for me. This is important because I am posting this late into 2019, so I had the time to reflect on the passing year’s events.
I was debating if I should write a summary post for 2018 at all. These things get old quickly, especially around the last two weeks of December, when such posts pop up everywhere. Even though I know I am expected to post my favorite photographs from last year, the truth is that I have not been particularly busy taking photos. Instead I have been focusing on other projects, giving invited talks and doing public outreach, as well as adding content to this website. In addition, there were a few notable events this year that helped shaping me as a professional and as a person. So if you want to know what I have been up to in 2018, read on.

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Opinion piece about giving away free photos,
and the rise to fame (not really)

One of the first posts I wrote in 2018 was aimed at people asking for free work. It joined other similar posts (examples are here and here), and to be honest I did not expect to receive any response to it. I merely posted the article so I can go back and refer people to it whenever I am faced with such requests. As many creative freelancers know, being asked to work or provide service for free is far too common. Apparently that post hit close to home because it received echo from fellow photographers and artists, and was later picked up by PetaPixel, one of the biggest photography-related news websites.
The piece featured on PetaPixel spread like wildfire and triggered some interesting discussions. On one hand, not everyone liked what I wrote, and some users even attacked me for it. On the other hand, I found myself discussing important topics like rates and copyrights with other, more experienced professionals. Even though this rant has been years in planning, I admit the post was written in the heat of the moment, and as such it is not a well-worded text. Now that I think about it, it is clear that I could have done a better job. That being said, I have no regrets whatsoever; the post is justified. If anything, having it available on my website serves as a deterrent for anyone who behaves inappropriately and disrespectfully towards creators by asking for free work.

Trip to Colombia

In February I went on a short assignment in Colombia, to photograph a tree. I know, right? It sounds simple and too good to be true, but in reality finding trees that fit what the client had in mind was challenging, not to mention it was not always possible to shoot the tree in the requested high resolution for the project. This trip also gave me a chance to test the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens, and I am happy I did, because it proved to be an outstanding competitor to the renowned Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x macro lens. Laowa is quickly establishing themselves as one of the most interesting lens companies out there, and I am looking forward to see what other innovations they have up their sleeve!

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Tree covered in climbing epiphytes. Is this the perfect tree for the job? Close to perfect, but unfortunately, it was not good enough.

Tree covered in climbing epiphytes. Is this the perfect tree for the job? Close to perfect, but unfortunately, it was not good enough.

Central American tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii). One of the benefits of walking around checking out trees, is finding tree-inhabiting animals.

Central American tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii). One of the benefits of walking around checking out trees, is finding tree-inhabiting animals.

Katydid nymph showing intense pink coloration or erythrism - a rare phenomenon that is occasionally seen in katydids, in which a genetic mutation causes an absence of the normal green pigment and the excessive production of pink pigment.

Katydid nymph showing intense pink coloration or erythrism – a rare phenomenon that is occasionally seen in katydids, in which a genetic mutation causes an absence of the normal green pigment and the excessive production of pink pigment.

Fairy wasp (family Mymaridae) ovipositing in membracid treehopper egg mass. One of the best finds during this trip (watch this space for an upcoming post about it). This tiny wasp is only 0.6mm in length! Photographed using the Laowa 25mm lens.

Fairy wasp (family Mymaridae) ovipositing in membracid treehopper egg mass. One of the best finds during this trip (watch this space for an upcoming post about it). This tiny wasp is only 0.6mm in length! Photographed using the Laowa 25mm lens.

Trip to Ecuador

In May I returned to my beloved site in Ecuador, this time it wasn’t really to get work done but was more of an escape to spend my birthday (ok, who am I kidding, I still worked during that visit…). I often feel miserable around my birthday and during holidays because many times I have no one to spend them with, and it seemed like a good idea to pass this time in a place that I love. More than anything I needed to clear my head before taking the role of a spider wrangler (up next). This trip ended up being very peaceful and relaxing, somewhat lonely, but still satisfying. I was able to finally find one of my target species for the area, the seasonal jewel scarab, Chrysophora chrysochlora.

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Bird eater tarantula (Theraphosa sp.). I was extremely happy to encounter this giant for the first time in the wild, and add it to the species checklist for my site.

Bird eater tarantula (Theraphosa sp.). I was extremely happy to encounter this giant for the first time in the wild, and add it to the species checklist for my site.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) in mid-flight. This photo is not perfect in many ways: it is dark, the composition is not ideal, and it is also slightly cropped. But I achieved something very difficult here - taking a wide angle macro and freezing an orchid bee in flight. Those bees are fast!

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) in mid-flight. This photo is not perfect in many ways: it is dark, the composition is not ideal, and it is also slightly cropped. But I achieved something very difficult here – taking a wide angle macro and freezing an orchid bee in flight. Those bees are fast!

Male orchid bees (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from a moss patch

Male orchid bees (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from a moss patch

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Spiders exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum

And then, immediately after returning from Ecuador, I was recruited to the Royal Ontario Museum to work on their “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibit. This is something I knew I wanted to do ever since I heard about this exhibit in December 2016. It was a long wait but I was finally in! I worked full-time as the spider wrangler for seven months at the museum, along with the awesome Mateus Peppineli. The role involved mainly taking care of spiders displayed in the gallery and in the live room, but also delivering presentations to the museum visitors. These presentations were open for whatever came in mind, so I could include information about different arachnids, not just spiders (as can be seen in the photo opening this post). A key component of the presentations was performing live venom milking from spiders and scorpions in front of an audience (you can watch a venom milking presentation in this video). This is something that requires some explanation – the idea was to extract venom from live animals that were sedated, and do it in a way that would not harm the animals and allow for future extraction of venom later on.

Milking venom from a fishing spider at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from TFO video

Milking venom from a fishing spider at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from TFO video

This is something I got trained for about a decade ago in Israel, I felt so lucky to be able to not only do this again, but also to present it to other people. In this regard I believe this ROM exhibit was one of a kind. Sure, the original exhibit coming from Australia also had a venom milking component, but I think the exhibit is really as good as the person running the show. I don’t know if there is any other place that has the unusual combination of someone passionate about arachnids, has over 20 years worth of expertise keeping and designing public displays for them, AND is also trained in venom extraction. And this is exactly why this exhibit made it well; people hoarded to see it, many coming back several times for more. Not only it gave me enormous satisfaction to see that people are interested in spiders, but also it showed me that without doubt there is a desire to see a similar permanent exhibit in Toronto, maybe on a larger scale. And I needed that affirmation.

Presenting spiders to an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from Curiosity in Focus video

Presenting spiders to an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from Curiosity in Focus video

I met and talked with thousands of people. Many of them came to me wishing to learn more about spiders they saw in their own house or backyard. Children found in me someone who is on their side, because I could understand and relate to their passion for insects and spiders. Some people confessed that I changed their point of view and helped them conquering their fear of spiders. Young visitors told me that watching me working has inspired them to pursue higher education and a career in science. And sure, it was nice being in the spotlight for a little while.

Some screenshots from TV appearances, representing the ROM's "Spiders: Fear & Fascination" exhibit

Some screenshots from TV appearances, representing the ROM’s “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibit

I enjoyed being the ambassador for arachnids on TV and social media. People started recognizing me on the street. Suddenly, I had fans. I got hugs. So many hugs. Some visitors stayed in touch and became close friends. I want to thank everyone who helped making this exhibit into a reality, and all the visitors who gave it a chance and came to see it. Now that the dust has settled I can honestly say that working at the spiders exhibit was one of the best experiences of my life. How do I fill the void that is left, that is the question that bothers me the most right now.

I will never forget this "finger fencing" moment. Screenshot from CP24 Live at Breakfast

I will never forget this “finger fencing” moment. Screenshot from CP24 Live at Breakfast

Social media (Instagram)

As a part of my role at the museum, I decided to join the social media platform Instagram. I did it as an experiment, to see how well I can perform there. If you know me, then you know that I find Instagram useless and crippled compared to the other social media streams, because of the inability to post clickable links or share posts from other users. My initial thought was to share behind-the-scenes moments from my work at the museum, and indeed the very first posts were exactly that. However, I quickly learned that this does not always work well, I did not always have the time to post while working, and if I have to be completely honest, my phone camera is total garbage. Nevertheless, I persisted, posting the same stuff that I post on my other accounts, and people started following. So maybe it is not so bad… I am still a shy noob on Instagram and don’t interact much, but if you remember my post from 2016, I said the exact same thing about Twitter, and today it has become my preferred social media platform. So who knows. I’m ready for an adventure!

Collaborating with Daniel Kwan (Curiosity in Focus)

During my time as the Royal Ontario Museum’s spider wrangler I was fortunate to meet Daniel Kwan, a talented individual who was responsible for running educational programs at the museum as well as producing video content about the different museum exhibits and collections. Since the opening of the spiders exhibit we collaborated many times, producing videos showing live arthropods and their behaviour, as well as activities performed in the venom lab.

Daniel also has several side projects that he runs. Many of them are related to his big passion – games, but he also hosts a couple of podcasts. One of them, Curiosity in Focus, shines a spotlight on people with interesting professional lifestyles and backgrounds, and covers many different fields like science, history, archeology, design, and fiction. Ever since the day we met he has been trying to get me on the podcast, until we finally found the time to sit down one evening and record an episode. So if you like to know about more about me, feel free to check it out here. We chatted about my role as the spider wrangler at the ROM, my military service in Israel, and shared some stories from entomology-related fieldwork. This was so much fun. I am definitely looking forward to future collaborations with Daniel.
Regardless of this episode, I have nothing but good things to say about this podcast. This is Daniel’s own brainchild, he is very passionate about it, and it shows. He always finds amazing people and interesting topics to talk about. One of my personal favorite episodes is a chat with Kevin Rawlings, Canada’s northernmost resident. Check it out if you have a moment. You won’t regret it.

Gilwizen.com in 2018

Due to my trips and later employment at the museum, my posting routine on the blog was inconsistent. I posted only 14 stories on the blog this year, a huge drop compared to 30 posts in the previous year. I am happy with the posts I got to share, but I would like to write more. Even more surprising was to see old posts resurfacing on social media and attracting new readers, notably this one, this one, this one, and… this one? Hmm. Some of these are very old and there is no doubt my writing style has changed over the years. I am tempted to go back and rewrite some of them to make it easier and more interesting to read, but I know that something would be lost if I do so.

One of the framed tarantula molts I made this year. It was already sold before I got to finish it.

One of the framed tarantula molts I made this year. It was already sold before I got to finish it.

One thing that has definitely picked up pace is my shop page. I initially started that page in 2017 to see if there is any interest in my framed “Ethical Molts” (term coined by my dear friend Peggy Muddles, who also made the video below), and since then it has exploded. I have sold and shipped over 30 framed specimens, some went to distant locations overseas. Many times when I upload a new batch of frames it is sold within a few days. I cannot complain.

Final words

As you can see, I have been busy this year. Looking back, 2017 and most of 2016 were painful and unproductive years for me. 2018 marked a much-needed shift in the right direction. It is especially interesting to compare the summary posts from the two previous years to this one. Going back to my closing statement for 2017, a friend and I were discussing life goals and what counts as success. For many people, including my friend, financial prosperity counts as success. For me, success is not about getting rich. It is first about reaching stability (not necessarily financial), and then leaving something behind, making a positive impact on others. And in 2018, I felt I did exactly that. Thank you everyone for being a part of it. I am forever grateful for your support, and my life is so much richer because you are in it.

Me with a giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia) in Ecuador

Me with a giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia) in Ecuador

Little Transformers: Bolitotherus cornutus – the first dinobeetle?

Little Transformers are back with another coleopteran representative. I usually use this platform to present insect adaptations from the tropics, however this time I am focusing on a local species with a wide distribution in central and eastern North America: the forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus). It is one of the most iconic North American beetle species, and I remember that flipping through pages of insect books as a kid, there was always an image of a forked fungus beetle under the darkling beetles section. In fact, as soon as I arrived to Canada this was the first species I sought after. And as much as I hate to admit, I looked for it in all the wrong places. I thought it was associated with wood (it is, but in a more indirect way), and cracked open fallen logs in search for adults. Of course I found nothing. Eventually the first fungus beetles I found were under a huge woody bracket mushroom in a conservation area near Price Edward, Ontario. Today this makes me laugh because back then we drove so far, and a year later I found out that I can find the beetles within just a mere 5 mins bus ride from my house.

I must say I am puzzled why this beetle is shown as an example for darkling beetles in books. Family Tenebrionidae is big and diverse, but there are some common characteristics that stay uniform across different genera. Bolitotherus cornutus, however, is not exactly a “typical” darkling beetle. And even though this beetle is widespread and common, it is often hard to find. When I presented this beetle in a talk to a group of local naturalists and asked how many people have seen it in the wild, only one hand was raised, surprisingly or not it came from a mushroom expert.

A pair of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus), dorsal view

A pair of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus), dorsal view

At first glance, forked fungus beetles look like they were designed by a drunk military engineer. Like most members of tribe Bolitophagini, they are built like small tanks, and to some extent they also look like ones. A compact and rugged body, sealed to the outside thanks to the tight elytra forming a protective shell. The body surface is heavily granulated to provide further shock protection in case of falling to the ground, as well as camouflage against tree bark and dried bracket mushrooms that the beetles feed on. Male beetles have two sets of horns, each with a different function.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

The curved thoracic horns are hairy and used for pushing an opponent off the surface while fighting for territory and mates. The length of these horns is variable depending on various conditions (both genetic and environmental), with two extreme male morphs: major with long arching horns, and minor with short stout horns.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), frontal view. The thoracic horns can be long!

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), frontal view. The thoracic horns can be long!

The other set of horns are found on the beetle’s head. These are called cephalic horns and they are sometimes missing. Their function is very peculiar: males use them as a pitchfork to scrape, lift, and throw off minor individuals that cling tightly to females. By the way, other members of Bolitophagini have horns as well, for example genus Byrsax has impressive horns that make it look like a perfect samurai helmet!

Another frontal view of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), showing its orange pom-poms.

Another frontal view of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), showing its orange pom-poms.

Ok, but what does Bolitotherus cornutus have to do with Little Transformers? Sure, touch the beetle and it folds its legs tightly close to its body, creating an impenetrable structure. We have seen similar defense behavior in other beetle transformers, like the Ceratocanthinae pill scarab and the shiny leaf beetle. In addition, the fungus beetles also secrete a smelly mixture of chemicals when disturbed. But the reason I am mentioning it here as a transformer is because of its horns. You see, many phylogenetically distant species share similar morphological adaptations. Studying these cases of convergent evolution can teach us something about the processes these adaptations go through, as well as their function. To be more specific, how is this…

Portrait of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Portrait of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

…any different from this?

Portrait of Machairoceratops cronusi. Art by Andrey Atuchin, used with permission.

Portrait of Machairoceratops cronusi. Art by Andrey Atuchin, used with permission.

This fabulous artwork by Andrey Atuchin shows Machairoceratops cronusi, a recently described member of the rhino-like dinosaurs, and a relative of the famous triceratops. Yes, Bolitotherus cornutus is basically a miniature six-legged dinosaur in disguise. Now I know what you are thinking. The beetle’s horns are hairy, and the dinosaur’s aren’t. That is probably true. The Machairoceratops dinosaur might have had hairy horns. We don’t know for sure (ask yourself why). But regardless, you have to agree that there is some uncanny resemblance between the two animals’ head structure. A set of flat horns arching over the head, another pair of spiky horns pointing upwards from the head, a granular neck shield… Of course, we don’t know how the dinosaurs used their horns, but we can speculate. Maybe observing the forked fungus beetles fighting can help us understand a behavior in an animal that no longer exists. The relationship between form and function in animal horns is a fascinating topic for discussion and hopefully I will write about it in more depth in the future. But I cannot help it, the more illustrations of Machairoceratops cronusi I look at, the more I see forked fungus beetles in them. It is almost as if someone placed an enormous beetle on top of the dinosaur’s skull.

Bracket mushrooms (Fomitopsis betulina) growing on birch. Bolitotherus cornutus beetles prefer to feed on old mushrooms (dark-colored, coated with moss and algae in the photo) rather than fresh ones.

Bracket mushrooms (Fomitopsis betulina) growing on birch. Bolitotherus cornutus beetles prefer to feed on old mushrooms (dark-colored, coated with moss and algae in the photo) rather than fresh ones.

The diet of forked fungus beetles is unique and restricted to bracket mushrooms (such as Fomitopsis, Ganoderma, Ischnoderma) growing on weak standing trees as well as fallen logs (by the way, they are not the only darkling beetles feeding on mushrooms). They prefer old, hardened bracket mushrooms.

Major male forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) fighting on top of a bracket mushroom. Notice that their granular body surface often attracts mites and tiny springtails.

Major male forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) fighting on top of a bracket mushroom. Notice that their granular body surface often attracts mites and tiny springtails.

On spring and summer nights males gather on the mushroom surface, where they engage in fighting tournaments to win territories (=food for the them and their offspring) and matings with the females waiting nearby. What is even more interesting is that while major males with impressive horns are distracted fighting and showing off their capabilities, the minor males sneak up on them and mate with some of the females.

A minor male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) guarding a female after mating

A minor male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) guarding a female after mating

The courtship process is long and elaborate, and includes climbing over the female and stridulating (acoustic communication). Males also tend to stay and guard the female to prevent other males from mating with her. After mating, females lay their eggs separately on the mushroom surface, and cover each egg with frass. This protects the eggs from desiccation as well as from predators and parasitoids.

Bolitotherus cornutus eggs appear as dark bumps on the surface of a bracket mushroom (there are 4 eggs in this photo)

Bolitotherus cornutus eggs appear as dark bumps on the surface of a bracket mushroom (there are 4 eggs in this photo)

Within 1-2 weeks the larvae hatch and immediately burrow into the mushroom. They are not the typical darkling wireworms, but instead look like hairy, soft-bodied grubs.

Young Bolitotherus cornutus larvae

Young Bolitotherus cornutus larvae

They spend their entire life inside their feeding substrate. The mushroom fruit body protects them from the elements, so they also use this space for pupation. Surprisingly, some larvae grow faster than others, and complete their metamorphosis before winter. This means that the beetles can overwinter inside the mushroom as larvae, pupae or fresh adults.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) emerging from a bracket mushroom

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) emerging from a bracket mushroom

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) burrowing into decomposing wood

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) burrowing into decomposing wood

If you live in North America within the distribution range of this species I encourage you to get out there and look for these magnificent creatures. First of all, it is fun, and you might find other cool stuff while searching. And second, these beetles are really cool, and they can teach us a lot. They are also embarrassingly easy to keep, all they need is some pieces of the mushrooms they were collected on, the slightest humidity, and that’s it. They live for a few years as adults and readily breed in captivity, displaying all the behaviors mentioned above and more!

An active captive colony of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus)

An active captive colony of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Adult forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) aggregating on the mushroom underside

A closeup on adult forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) aggregating on the mushroom underside

Hello, Hedwig (snowy owl)

Birds, on this blog?? I must be out of my mind. Posts covering birds are almost unheard of on this website. It’s not that I do not find birds fascinating. There are just so many bird-dedicated websites out there that I do not feel I can contribute anything unique, and if I want to be completely honest – I am not exactly the best bird photographer out there. I will always prefer looking at insects and other ground-dwelling creatures. This is something that I need to change: I need to make a habit to switch from arthropod-seeking to bird watching once winter hits Canada and it gets too cold for insect activity. I decided to force myself out and go searching for snowy owls in my area. Living in Mississauga on the shore of Lake Ontario, I always knew I have a good chance of finding snowy owls, but it takes dedication to look for birds in below-zero temperatures, even more so in my case because I am fine-tuned for searching smaller animals.

A resting snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is like a sitting duck. On a dock.

A resting snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is like a sitting duck. On a dock.

Snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) are truly stunning animals. It is one of the largest and heaviest owl species, and easily recognized thanks to its unmistakable appearance: a hefty white bird, with a black beak and bright yellow eyes. Female snowy owls are bigger and heavier than males, and their feathers are mottled in black. The smaller males are entirely white.

Who left this pile of snow on the dock? hehe

Who left this pile of snow on the dock? hehe

It's transforming!

It’s transforming!

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Try not to get hypnotized by these eyes.

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Try not to get hypnotized by these eyes.

Despite being big and showy, snowy owls made it to the mainstream only in the late 90’s thanks to the Harry Potter book series. In the story, Harry has a pet snowy owl named Hedwig, used for delivering messages to other wizards, but also serving as a companion to Harry. The popularity of snowy owls has increased also thanks to a famous meme, perhaps one of the oldest internet memes in existence, focusing on their somewhat goofy facial expressions.

These owls are native to and breed in the Arctic tundra. Every year a part of the population migrates south to winter in the North American prairies, whereas the others remain in the Arctic year-round. The migration is triggered by seasonal population fluctuations of their prey – small mammals, mainly rodents. When hungry they will go after birds as well.

Snowy owls probably hunt small rodents like this meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

Snowy owls probably hunt small rodents like this meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

Snowy owls are very unique among owls for nesting in shallow mounds that they build on the ground. Even outside of the breeding season they stay active close to the ground level. Because they prefer open habitats, they are often found in areas disturbed by human activity. They utilize boat docks, airstrips, and arable land, which probably host their prey. Here in Southern Ontario I bet they hunt voles because, let’s face it, those are quite common in semi-urban areas, and judging by my experience they are extremely easy to catch.

O RLY?

O RLY?

The nice thing about snowy owls is that they do not seem to care too much about humans. Ok, I should clarify this – they will not care *only* if you respect their privacy and keep your distance. I want to prevent a situation where people harass these beauties. It is also important to mention that this species is currently classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. When undisturbed, the owl will keep its position, and even display some natural behavior like cleaning, scratching, and… grinning. However, once the observer gets too close and is spotted by the owl, it ends right there. A snowy owl will not hesitate to take flight if it feels threatened. If you decide to go and look for these birds please be respectful, and you will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience that will stay with you forever.

Little Transformers: Myrmarachne formicaria

Little Transformers is back! And this time our star is a small jumping spider that goes out of its way to masquerade as an ant.

I am often accused for not writing about topics related to Canada on this blog. While this is not entirely true, I could have without doubt posted more about local critters. It is a great time to do so now, as I will be taking the opportunity to address several events.
Firstly, it is now October, and we are getting closer and closer to Halloween (Oct 31st). Nine years ago, the Arachtober initiative was born: why wait till the end of the month to celebrate spiders? Let’s celebrate them and other arachnids throughout the entire month of October! And so, during the month of October we give arachnids more exposure in hopes to educate the general public about these magnificent and important creatures.
Secondly, a new initiative is slowly forming, International Jumping Spider Day, on October 10th. The idea is to use the easily adored jumping spiders as the gateway arachnid for changing the often-negative public perception of spiders. I wholeheartedly support this idea and hope to see it catching on.
Lastly, a shameless plug: You may have noticed that this blog is nominated for the 2017 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online. It is a huge honor to be included with other excellent science blogs and sites on the same list. If you like the content and stories that I post, you can show your appreciation by voting following this link. I wish to thank those who already voted in support of this blog. While this nomination has nothing to do with spiders, I thought it is a great opportunity to write a blog post about an arthropod found in Canada.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) wants your attention

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) wants your attention

After this short introduction, it is time to present our first local Little Transformer, the ant-mimicking jumping spider Myrmarachne formicaria. It is one of the nicest looking spiders here in Ontario, and it is surprisingly abundant in its habitat. Alas, there is a small catch here. While this jumping spider is local, it is not native to Canada. This species was first detected in North America in 2001, and later established in Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto in 2015. It originates in the Palearctic region, more specifically Europe and Asia. Despite this, these spiders feel right at home in Toronto, as it seems that they are spreading away from the park containing the main population. This year, Sean McCann recorded Myrmarachne in Scarborough (east Toronto), and I found them in Mississauga (west of Toronto).

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) masquerading as an ant

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) masquerading as an ant

Myrmarachne formicaria is an elongated jumping spider that takes the appearance of a small ant, and here in Ontario it is associated with the European fire ant, Myrmica rubra, also an introduced species. Isn’t it interesting how these two non-native species managed to find each other on unfamiliar land? The spider has long and slender legs just like those of an ant, and the banded forelegs are slightly thicker to resemble antennae. The cephalothorax has a depression to echo the segmentation in ants separating head from thorax. The abdomen is long with a narrow connection to the cephalothorax, reminiscent of an ant’s petiole. Surprisingly, in this species the pedipalps (normally a distinguishing character between males and females) are swollen in females, a trait usually seen only in males. Males on the other hand have enormous toothed chelicerae that stick right out of their faces. I suspected this is a sexually selected trait used in fights for females, and this was later confirmed by Sean McCann (check out his amazing shots here).

Female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne formicaria) have swollen pedipalps

Female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne formicaria) have swollen pedipalps

Male duck-mimicking jumping spide... um, excuse me ANT-mimicking jumping spider. Quack quack.

Male duck-mimicking jumping spide… um, excuse me ANT-mimicking jumping spider. Quack quack.

This begs the question, why do Myrmarachne spiders look like ants? Do the spiders use their appearance to fool the ants into thinking they are members of their own colony in order to sneak up on them and prey on ant workers or larvae? Not really. For starters, the ant species approached by Myrmarachne formicaria are usually not visual creatures. They rely more on their chemical communication, using volatile pheromones, for navigation and recognition. Moreover, the spiders seem to deliberately avoid any contact with the ant workers. They may walk among the ants, but they always keep their distance from them. In fact, when I experimented and isolated a few spiders within a group of ants, the spiders chose to stay still, and only when the path was clear they made a run for it. I also noticed that the ants display an aggressive response when encountering a spider. So the ants are not the target of this mimicry. Who is? Us. Or more precisely, predators. You see, the spider not only looks like an ant and spend its time close to the ants, it also moves like an ant.

Myrmarachne formicaria always keep a safe distance from Myrmica rubra workers

Myrmarachne formicaria always keep a safe distance from Myrmica rubra workers

A recent study looked into the locomotion of Myrmarachne formicaria jumping spiders and found that they do not move like their peers. First of all, instead of jumping like most salticid spiders, they move forward in a series of short sprints. But they also move in a pattern that resembles the movement of ants following a pheromone trail, back and forth in a winding wave motion, instead of random strolling and stopping often we see in other spiders. If it looks like an ant and moves like an ant… it might be good enough to fool predators that it is an ant. And I can attest to this – it is extremely difficult to keep track of a Myrmarachne spider moving about in an area with ant activity. Look away, and you will need all the luck in the world to find it again. The spiders also benefit from being close to a colony of highly defensive ants. Myrmica rubra is easily alarmed and has its reputation when it comes to stinging intruders.

Some Myrmarachne formicaria feature a two-colored cephalothorax, to emphasize the part that mimics the ant's head

Some Myrmarachne formicaria feature a two-colored cephalothorax, to emphasize the part that mimics the ant’s head

If they do not hunt the ants, what do these spiders feed on? They seem to go after soft-bodied insects, and they are especially fond of dipterans: small flies, mosquitoes, midges etc’.

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) feeding on a chironomid midge

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) feeding on a chironomid midge

A closer look at the feeding Myrmarachne male reveals the weaponized chelicerae, used in fighting other males

A closer look at the feeding Myrmarachne male reveals the weaponized chelicerae, used in fighting other males

At this point you might ask yourself why I included this jumping spider in my Little Transformers series. Sure, it mimics an ant, but that’s it. Or is it? In order to qualify as a Little Transformer the arthropod needs to change something in its appearance to transform into something different. So far we have seen that these spiders move in an atypical fashion to jumping spiders. But there is one more thing they do to conceal their salticid identity. What is the one, fail-safe characteristic of jumping spiders? Those huge front eyes! If only the spider could hide them, it would look like the perfect ant. And they do exactly that.

I look at this spider and I see an ant staring back at me.

I look at this spider and I see an ant staring back at me.

Myrmarachne often wave their forelegs in the air to mimic the ants’ antennae, but the legs also hide their most recognizable feature, the bulging front eyes. Females seem to do a better job at this than males, transforming into ants right before our eyes.

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria). Even on a side-view I still see a weird duck...

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria). Even on a side-view I still see a weird duck…

What is most intriguing here is that the rear pair of eyes evolved to be very large, bearing a striking resemblance in their size and position to ant eyes.

Ant-mimicry is quite common among arthropds, and many species of jumping spiders deploy this strategy as an anti-predator defense or to assist in foraging. While some do not consider Myrmarachne formicaria as a case of perfect mimicry, it is a gorgeous spider with intriguing behavior. Besides, mimicry does not have to be perfect to satisfy our aesthetic desires. It only has to be good enough to benefit the spider’s survival.

Two horned darkling beetle – Neomida bicornis

Last week I met with Catherine Scott and Sean McCann, two talented naturalists and spider-enthusiasts (Catherine studies the mating behavior of black widows, and if you haven’t already, I recommend following her live tweets from experiments). It was great to go hiking together in the snow-covered woods, looking for arthropods hidden inside fallen logs. Before we went on the hike, they brought me a few entomological presents, one of them were lovely beetles that they found during a trip a week earlier.

A pair of two-horned darkling beetles (Neomida bicornis). Ontario, Canada

A pair of two-horned darkling beetles (Neomida bicornis). Ontario, Canada

These magnificent beetles are Neomida bicornis, a species of fungus-feeding darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae). They are tiny, measuring only a couple of millimeters in length. To the untrained eye they do not even look like darkling beetles, these beetles are like jewels! Their body is very shiny, metallic green in color. The elytra have a bluish tint. Populations of Neomida bicornis in southern North America have an orange pronotum (a true feast of colors, for a darkling beetle at least). The males are characterized by four horns, two of which prominent between the eyes, and two smaller ones on the clypeus (=lip area) above the mouth. The females have no horns. I admit, I have a soft spot for horned insects. What a fabulous gift, thanks again you guys!

These beetle are tiny! That’s the tip of a regular ruler with a millimeters scale.

The female two-horned darkling beetle (Neomida bicornis) is hornless

The female two-horned darkling beetle (Neomida bicornis) is hornless

This species is not rare, but its way of life makes it hard to find: the adults and larvae feed on bracket fungi (polypores) and burrow into this tough substrate, creating inner galleries. According to Sean, these beetles were active inside the mushroom despite the somewhat low ambient temperatures. From what I learned about eastern North American fungus-feeding tenebrionids, they have overlapping generations. In other words, both adult beetles and their larvae can overwinter inside the mushrooms. I will probably try to confirm this at some point but first I need to find out how the larvae look like. They are not the only arthropods taking advantage of a polypore-type shelter from the cold weather.

Male two-horned darkling beetle (Neomida bicornis) inside a polypore mushroom

Male two-horned darkling beetle (Neomida bicornis) inside a polypore mushroom

Nailing that Megarhyssa shot – it’s all about flexibility

It is intriguing that I do not post much about North American insects. In fact, ever since I moved to Canada I became more and more obsessed with animals found in my home country (Israel). Some might say this is a common case of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, but this does not mean that North American insects are not exciting or interesting. On the contrary, there are many insect species I hope to see in person. One of these insects rewarded us with its presence during a day trip to Hilton Falls Conservation Area in Ontario. I thought I should write about it and share a little bit of the process of photographing it.

Giant ichneumon wasps (genus Megarhyssa) are some of the biggest North American wasps thanks to the females’ long (10cm) ovipositor, which is longer than the wasp’s own body. These wasps might look fierce but they are actually shy and harmless insects. They are parasitoids: their larvae develop as parasites living inside the body of other insects. The female’s ovipositor is therefore not a stinger, but an organ used to inject eggs into the larva’s host.

During our trip we came across an egg-laying female of Megarhyssa macrurus. I only had a couple of small lenses with me and no dedicated macro equipment, but still, I did not want to miss an opportunity to photograph a Megarhyssa during oviposition. I tried to go for a simple wide-angle macro style first:

Wide-angle photo of a female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) during oviposition.

Wide-angle photo of a female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) during oviposition.

Very quickly I ran across one of the problems I mentioned in this post. The wasp is so thin and delicate and easily gets “lost” in the background, even when it is slightly out-of-focus. To get a better result, I started to cut broad leaves and placed them like tiles in the background. This photo was taken with the same, non-macro lens as above. Surprising result!

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) drilling in wood to lay eggs

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) drilling in wood to lay eggs

Megarhyssa wasps attack the larvae of another wasp, Pigeon horntail (Tremex columba), which bore into dead wood. The female can detect tiny vibrations coming from inside the wood by the feeding horntail larvae. She then proceeds to egg-laying: she bends her abdomen, exposing her ovipositor from its flexible sheath, and starts drilling. When she reaches a horntail larva, she sends an egg all the way down the ovipositor and injects it to the host. The parasitoid wasp larva feeds on the host and kills it, and then pupates inside the wood. The new generation of Megarhyssa wasps will emerge as adults in the following summer.

Back to the process of photographing – The next thing I wanted was to test the flexibility of the lens (I always recommend doing this), so I took a few more “creative” shots at different angles. What I like about this photo is that you can also see some of the previous holes this female drilled using her ovipositor.

Giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) injecting eggs into horntail wasp larvae found inside dead wood

Giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) injecting eggs into horntail wasp larvae found inside dead wood

The last goal was to get a dreamy background, showing some of the light entering through the canopy. This was a bit tricky, because the wasp was facing down towards the ground. Since I do not have special equipment (such as an angle-viewfinder or a tilt-screen), I had to be creative and improvise. Unknowingly, I had my photo taken while trying to compose the shot. I was completely unaware of my pose because I was too focused on photographing, and I guess some of the poses I tried might have been embarrassing for my trip partners… To tell the truth, I had no idea my body was even capable of getting into these positions. If you look closely, you can even see the wasp in this photo, it is very big!

Flexibility is important while photographing insects!

Flexibility is important while photographing insects! Photo by Mio Konfedrat.

After much bending and neck-twisting I managed to get the shot that I wanted:

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) in egg-laying

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) in egg-laying

Nice to cross this incredible species off my “wanted” list.

Salamander Day: 2014

Every year when the right time comes (depending on my location), I make an effort to go out and search for salamanders and newts. What started as an attempt to photograph the elusive fire salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata) in Israel has become almost an annual celebration to appreciate the local amphibian fauna.

Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

 

Why salamanders of all things? Very early in my days as a naturalist I was under the impression that salamanders in Israel are super-rare. But at some point I realized that while they were uncommonly seen, it is not necessarily because they were rare. Salamanders have very localized populations, and the adult salamanders are active on the ground surface only a few days per year during the breeding season. You need to know exactly when and where to look for them, and then you can actually observe quite many individuals.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) from Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately I did not find them this year.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) from Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately I did not find them this year.

 

There are rare species of salamanders for sure, don’t get me wrong. And this is where knowing your local amphibian fauna plays an important role.
Salamanders, and amphibians in general, are not only super cute (see in the below photo) but they are also very important bioindicators. They breathe and absorb water through their moist skin, and they at a high risk of absorbing various chemical compounds found in their surroundings. As a result they are some of the first organisms to suffer from pollution or habitat disturbance (as well as many other factors). Surveying and monitoring the local amphibian populations can assist substantially in understanding their condition and the health of the whole ecosystem.

Portrait of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Portrait of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

 

In the past few years I have been “celebrating” Salamander Day in southern Ontario Canada, where I regularly find four species of salamanders right after the snow melts: the common redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale), and the rarer Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), all showing stable populations. I am sure there are more species to be found; for example, I have been trying to locate a population of Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) but was unsuccessful. This year I was a bit too late in the season to search for salamanders because of a research trip to Israel. My intention was to photograph them for Meet Your Neighbours biodiversity project (a topic for a separate post) against a white background using a potable field studio. Unfortunately, I only found two species out of the four I usually find, but they were very cooperative during the quick photoshoot.

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

 

Portrait of Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Portrait of Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

 

The setup I used for photographing the salamanders against a white background, for Meet Your Neighbours project

The setup I used for photographing the salamanders against a white background, for Meet Your Neighbours project

 

I encourage everyone to go out and look for amphibians in activity. And when you find them – be happy about it. It is a good sign that natural processes are functioning properly in your area (unless you are located in a part of the world where the only amphibians you can find are invasive species. Sigh… that is not a good sign).

Female Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) from last year's Salamander Day

Female Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) from last year’s Salamander Day