Archives

Little Transformers: Forcipomyia, the midge that turns into a balloon

It is time to introduce another Little Transformer! I know what you are thinking. Am I ever going to run out material for these blog posts? Maybe. Probably not. As long as there are arthropods around, their life history and morphological diversity guarantees that I will always find examples for interesting deceptions and transformations. Up until now I mostly focused on animals that can change form quickly, assuming the appearance of something else as a defense response against predators and to avoid detection. The case presented in this post is a little different because it does not follow a quick change of form, but rather a slow one, over the course of a life stage. I should be cautious here, because under this definition every insect that goes through complete metamorphosis from larva to adult can be considered a Little Transformer (butterflies, beetles etc’). Even amphibians fall under this loose definition. And to some extent they ARE transformers, because the changes they go through during development are extreme. But this is not the topic for this series of posts. When I talk about a big change happening within a life stage, I mean that the animal starts as one thing, and by the end of the stage its appearance and function has changed into something else completely. And no example is better to show this than the parasitic midges of the genus Forcipomyia.

Biting midge (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a moth caterpillar. Photographed in Belize

Biting midge (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a moth caterpillar. Photographed in Belize

Here is the Forcipomyia midge with the whole caterpillar to give a better sense of scale

Here is the Forcipomyia midge with the whole caterpillar to give a better sense of scale

Forcipomyia is a large genus in the midge family Ceratopogonidae, with a worldwide distribution and diverse habitat preferences. There are now over 1,000 described species of Forcipomyia. The adults of some species are known as important pollinators of cacao and other plants of economic importance in tropical and subtropical areas. However, many species in the genus are blood-feeders, somewhat characteristic to ceratopogonids as the common name to the family suggests (biting midges). These parasites have interesting relationships with different insect hosts, and they can be found feeding on the hemolymph (insect blood) of grasshoppers, katydids, stick insects, butterflies, true bugs, and even skittish dragonflies. In fact, these interactions are so fascinating and overlooked, that only after spending some time in the field one can notice the midges have a preference for certain host species to feed from.

Sometimes the biting midges sneak into the photo without me noticing. I photographed these mating grasshoppers (Cloephoracris festae), but they have an accompanying Forcipomyia. Can you spot it?

Sometimes the biting midges sneak into the photo without me noticing. I photographed these mating grasshoppers (Cloephoracris festae), but they have an accompanying Forcipomyia. Can you spot it?

But let’s go back to the transformation they go through, because in one group of species, subgenus Microhelea, it is truly remarkable. The female Forcipomyia midge begins her adult stage with an active lifestyle. She flies about in the forest, feeding on nectar from small flowers. As days go by, she starts craving for blood and search for insects to bite. When she locates her preferred host, using her serrated mouthparts she proceeds to bite it in an area that has soft tissue: antennae, legs joints, wing veins, or between body segments. Once she found the right spot that will fulfill her dietary needs, the female midge attaches to it firmly, and… doesn’t let go, thanks to specialized claws on her feet. She sucks and gulps the insect’s blood, filtering the nutrients and secreting the excess fluids as clear droplets.

Tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a walking stick

Tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a walking stick

The midge stays attached like this for quite a while, and soon this sessile lifestyle starts taking its toll on the small parasite. She starts to put on weight. Then, she usually losses her wings – she will not need them anymore because the added mass from the developing eggs prevents her from taking off.

Female Forcipomyia swelling while feeding. She lost her wings but can still use her legs to hold firmly onto the host

Female Forcipomyia swelling while feeding. She lost her wings but can still use her legs to hold firmly onto the host

Forcipomyia getting fatter... but not quite there yet

Forcipomyia getting fatter… but not quite there yet

As she continues to swell like a grapefruit, the Forcipomyia midge also losses the ability to use her legs. She does not need to leave anyway, but she is so bloated that she cannot even hold onto the body of the host, and the only thing keeping the two connected are the midge’s mouthparts.

Female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) at the final stage of feeding. Her legs released their grip on the host and at this point the midge has fully transformed into a passive parasite that looks like a balloon.

Female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) at the final stage of feeding. Her legs released their grip on the host and at this point the midge has fully transformed into a passive parasite that looks like a balloon.

Stick insect (Pseudophasma bispinosum) carrying tick flies (Forcipomyia sp.) at different stages of feeding. Photographed in Ecuador

Stick insect (Pseudophasma bispinosum) carrying tick flies (Forcipomyia sp.) at different stages of feeding. Photographed in Ecuador

At this point, the engorged biting midge is no different than a tick, and indeed many refer to these parasitic Forcipomyia as tick-flies. Sometimes I like to imagine these fat dipterans disconnecting from their host and floating upwards like a balloon filled with helium, reaching above the forest canopy and flying into space. In reality, the exact opposite happens. The Forcipomyia female eventually leaves the host and drops to the ground, where she lays her eggs and finishes her role. And the male Forcipomyia? They are mostly unknown. Because males are never found feeding on insect hosts, it is safe to assume that they do not feed on blood, and prefer to keep a vegan diet of sweet nectar.

An engorged female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) after dropping from its host

An engorged female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) after dropping from its host

What about the larvae, are they parasites too? The majority of the research on biting midges has focused on the adults, due to their economic and medical significance, as well as their important role in aquatic ecosystems. Larvae of most ceratopogonids are unknown because finding them in their natural habitats can be challenging. They usually inhabit aquatic and semiaquatic habitats, but in the case of Forcipomyia the larvae are terrestrial and prefer to feed on moist detritus and organic matter under bark or in moss. In some species they feed on algae.

This stick insect is staring at me with tired eyes. I wonder if it is aware of the two hitchhikers it is carrying?

This stick insect is staring at me with tired eyes. I wonder if it is aware of the two hitchhikers it is carrying?

With so many aspects of their life history still unknown, and especially due to their ecological and economical importance, you would expect to see more active research on Forcipomyia. The bad news is that there is not enough research going on. A few years ago, I approached Dr. Stephen Marshall, a dipterologist from University of Guelph, and suggested doing a PhD study about Forcipomyia’s biology, phylogenetics, and their relationships with their hosts. I was politely refused, unfortunately. I still believe there is potential for a cool project involving Forcipomyia, maybe someone will pursue it in the future.

Photographing Richardia – a long way to victory

Inside a wooden cabin on the outskirts of the peaceful town Mindo, I am standing on my bed, arms spread sideways. My bright headlamp is on at full output, to overcome the cabin’s dim lights. In a few seconds Javier will step in through the door to pick me up for our night hike in the cloud forest. And he will probably want to know what the hell I am doing.
I am trying to find a 5mm-long fly.
Suddenly, I see it. That tiny spec of an insect. Hanging upside down from one of the ceiling boards. I am reaching out for my pocket to grab a vial. The sound of footsteps climbing up the stairs is getting louder and louder. “Gil, are you there?” Great timing. I must keep my focus or that fly will be gone the moment Javier walks in.
-“Don’t open the door!!!!”

Back in 2015 I contacted Paul Bertner regarding a fly that he photographed in Mindo. It was an antlered fly from the genus Richardia. Ever since I learned about these flies in the introduction course to entomology, I have always wanted to see them in the wild. Males have antler-like projections from their eyes, which are used for pushing an opponent during a combat over territory or a mate. The female Richardia lacks those projections, but is characterized by a telescopic ovipositor at the tip of her abdomen, used for injecting eggs into fruits and other plant tissue. Paul was very kind to share his observations with me, wishing me luck in finding them on my next trip to Ecuador.

This small-antlered fly (Richardia sp.) is feeding on amphibian feces. Many of these flies are attracted to animals' droppings, from which they obtain valuable nutrients.

This small-antlered fly (Richardia sp.) is feeding on amphibian feces. Many of these flies are attracted to animals’ droppings, from which they obtain valuable nutrients.

It took time and determination, but I did manage to find the flies eventually. In the brief window that they were active I took some shots, but I was completely unsatisfied with them. It seems that with Richardia, practice makes perfect. Or should I say, masochism makes perfect. You see, these flies are not only active during a very specific time of the day, on the underside of leaves of specific plants, but they are also extremely skittish. Highly territorial, the antlered males respond to any movement in their surroundings, and that includes a person carrying a big black camera. They take off and vanish almost instantly. And then, in hiding, they wait. What for I am not sure, but only a handful of times the males actually returned to their perch under the leaf. Unfortunately, I had to leave the site before I could take any decent photos. So, the following year I came back to the exact spot again. And there they were in all their splendor! I tried again to photograph the flies in their habitat on the leaves, but since they usually sit on the underside it was tricky. I spent hours with them, only to come up with lousy shots. No, I had to be creative with these Richardia.

Another male Richardia sp. with small antlers

Another male Richardia sp. with small antlers

Richardia flies spend their nights sleeping hidden in folded leaves like this rolled bromeliad leaf. Inside they are protected from many nocturnal predators, such as mantids, ants and spiders.

Richardia flies spend their nights sleeping hidden in folded leaves like this rolled bromeliad leaf. Inside they are protected from many nocturnal predators, such as mantids, ants and spiders.

And so after some thinking I came up with the idea of working at night. The flies are diurnal, in other words they will be less active when it is dark. Or at least that’s what I thought. It was still a very exhausting experience to photograph them (it reminded me of the time I was trying to photograph Sabethes mosquitoes). As I mentioned, Richardia are very responsive and will keep moving and exploring unless they stop to clean themselves up. Every time I had the fly framed and in focus, it would travel to the other side of the leaf. Several times it would escape and I would have to go look for it in the cabin. If you think locating a small flying insect in a messy wooden cabin is easy, think again. I found myself crawling on the furniture and slowly sliding my face against the walls and floors, and when I found the fly eventually I was shocked that I was able to see it at all. I nearly lost my mind trying to photograph it. Will I be defeated by a tiny fly?

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male Richardia fly with impressive antlers

After most of the evening time was lost due to the insect’s aforementioned escapes, I decided to come up with another method to control it during the shoot. It required another pair of hands, so I asked my friend Javier Aznar, who I just met in person a couple of days before, to assist. In fact, without Javier’s help I would probably not get any usable shots. I thank him for putting up with me and for keeping my sanity during those difficult hours. “Nothing is impossible”, he told me. He probably thought I was crazy for spending so much time photographing a single fly. Well, it is somewhat true, if you consider the fact that I came back to Mindo just for that purpose. This time, I am very happy with the photos. There will probably be other chances to photograph Richardia flies, but I got precisely what I came for. And it felt like a small victory.

The antlers are thin projections coming out from below the fly's eyes.

The antlers are thin projections coming out from below the fly’s eyes.

The head of a male antlered fly (Richardia sp.) in all its glory. This is the shot I had in mind!

The head of a male antlered fly (Richardia sp.) in all its glory. This is the shot I had in mind!

Not all Richardia species have antlered males, by the way. Some species have no such ornamentation/weaponry at all, yet I still think they are stunning flies with their colorful eyes, decorated wings and shiny bodies.

Mating richardid flies. This species is antler-less, but nevertheless they are very beautiful.

Mating richardid flies. This species is antler-less, but nevertheless they are very beautiful.

Another group of species have had the head morphology evolving in a completely different direction. Instead of having antler-like projections coming from below their eyes, males evolved wide heads. These flies are sometimes called hammerheads, due to their striking resemblance to hammerhead sharks. They are also often mistaken for stalk-eyes flies, however the latter belong to a separate family of flies (Diopsidae, not Richardidae) distributed mainly in tropical regions of Asia and Africa. The hammerhead Richardia can sometimes be seen on the underside of broad leaves such as those of banana and heliconia plants. Males engage in head-pushing tournaments while a single female usually stands by watching and waiting for the winner to approach. He will then display a short dance, running in circles and waving his decorated wings, before mating with her.

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). This one was scouting out a female on a nearby leaf.

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). This one was scouting out a female on a nearby leaf.

Hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.) with “demonic” eyes

The female hammerhead Richardia has a less pronounced head

The female hammerhead Richardia has a less pronounced head

If you remember my previous post, Richardia flies are not immune to infections, and they are occasionally found “glued” to the underside of leaves after being killed by an entomophagic parasitic fungus (Ophiocordyceps).

An unlucky Richardia fly infected with Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus. Mindo, Ecuador

An unlucky Richardia fly infected with Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus. Mindo, Ecuador

I should mention another fly species, an extreme case of a hammerhead fly. Unlike Richardia, this one belongs to another family, Ulidiidae. Plagiocephalus latifrons is probably the closest neotropical equivalent to the old-world stalk-eyed flies, with a head so wide and so disproportional to the rest of the body that it looks more like someone’s prank than a real living animal.

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), dorsal view. One of the most amazing fly species out there in my opinion!

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), dorsal view. One of the most amazing fly species out there in my opinion!

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), frontal view. I cannot imagine this head being very aerodynamic, but you'd be surprised to hear that they are excellent fliers

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), frontal view. I cannot imagine this head being very aerodynamic, but you’d be surprised to hear that they are excellent fliers

The eyes are so wide apart on the tips of the head, that it makes me wonder what these flies see. I am also curious as to how these flies look like at the exact moment when they emerge as adults from their puparium. Surely this whole elongated head cannot fit inside the compact oval puparium within the last larval skin, so it must get pumped up and expanded right after the fly’s eclosion (the BBC has a nice video showing this in a stalk-eyed fly). I would love to see this process in person one day – there is still so much to discover!

Ornidia – an orchid bee mimic

In my previous post I mentioned that one of the most common questions I got was whether orchid bees are some sort of fly. Indeed there are many flies that have metallic colors, but the resemblance usually stops there. The best example are bottle flies, members of family Calliphoridae, which occupy a niche different from that of orchid bees and do not share any similar behaviors with them. It does not mean, however, that Euglossinae-mimicking flies do not exist. In the tropics, some hoverflies (family Syrphidae) have evolved to look like orchid bees. Several species of the genus Copestylum resemble Euglossa species and they are often found foraging near active orchid bees. Even more interesting is Genus Ornidia, which bears a strong visual resemblance to some Euglossa species, and even copies some of the bees behavior.

Orchid bee-mimicking hoverfly (Ornidia obesa) feeding, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Orchid bee-mimicking hoverfly (Ornidia obesa) feeding, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

The genus Ornidia contains five species, all have shiny metallic colors and body structure that resemble those of orchid bees. Their legs in particular are thick and robust to look more like bee-legs than the typical skinny legs of hoverflies. Ornidia are distributed mainly in the tropical regions of Latin America, however one species, Ornidia obesa, reaches the southern United States and has also spread into the Afrotropical, Oriental regions and Oceania, probably due to human activity. Ornidia flies are quite common and they are frequently found close to human habitations.

Despite having hairs covering their body, Ornidia flies are extremely shiny, almost like small mirrors.

Despite having hairs covering their body, Ornidia flies are extremely shiny, almost like small mirrors.

These beautiful flies can be observed safely even from a close distance. They are not very skittish, and usually when disturbed they quickly take off, hover in the area for a few seconds, and return to the same perch. It is especially rewarding to watch them warming up during the morning hours, when they hover in a single spot for a while, trying to catch some sun rays penetrating through the canopy. The loud buzzing sound produced by their wings during flight is very similar to that of Euglossa species. During flight, the fly also displays a behavior that appears to mimic orchid bee behavior: it crosses its legs several times, similarly to a male Euglossa transferring fragrant compounds to the hind tibiae, or alternatively to a female Euglossa transferring resin to the hind legs.

Closeup on the head of Ornidia obesa. The clypeus area (front of head) is exceptionally beautiful and mimics Euglossa's clypeus quite faithfully.

Closeup on the head of Ornidia obesa. The clypeus area (front of head) is exceptionally beautiful and mimics Euglossa’s clypeus quite faithfully.

The adult flies feed mainly on liquid food such as nectar and animal feces, but can also take small-sized particles like pollen and fragments of decomposing organic matter. Ornidia larvae are generalist feeders and seem to exploit various food sources to complete their development. Firstly, they can be found in rotting fruits, leaf litter and compost piles. Several interesting papers report the larvae to feed even on vertebrate corpses, suggesting the potential use of these maggots for forensic work. Lastly, Ornidia larvae were also found to cause intestinal myiasis in humans, after being ingested with infested food. Nevertheless, these flies pose no threat to us; Myiasis caused by Ornidia larvae is rare relatively to other fly species, the flies have plenty of abundant food in their habitat and there are no records of Ornidia flies completing their development inside a human host.

Copestylum viridis is a small species of hoverfly that, like Ornidia obesa, mimics Euglossa bees. This species is often seen feeding near active orchid bees. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Copestylum viridis is a small species of hoverfly that, like Ornidia obesa, mimics Euglossa bees. This species is often seen feeding near active orchid bees. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

How would a fly benefit from looking like an orchid bee? As I mentioned in my post about Euglossinae, these bees are not very aggressive due to their solitary lifestyle. However, the flies may still benefit from this mimicry because the bees are dominant in the rainforest habitat. The female orchid bees have a stinger and can deliver a painful sting, this alone can deter a predator. In addition, the highly territorial male orchid bees are usually left alone by other flying insects. The mimicking flies take advantage of the fact that orchid bees are common and recognized by other animals, including predators.

2014 in review: traveling, wide-angle macro and great finds!

As the clock counting towards the end of 2014, it is time for another year-in-review post. This was a good year. What a refreshing change from 2013. The main element this year seems to be traveling – I did lots of it. I think I broke my own record for traveling by air, sometimes squeezing multiple destinations into the same month, all thanks to the leave of absence I took from the university. It does not necessarily mean I visited new places; there is still a ton I want to see. The surprising thing is that I do not feel like I photographed enough this year. Many of these trips relied heavily on research, and very occasionally I found myself in a conflict between collecting data and photographing.

Here are my best of 2014. I tried to keep the same categories as last year.

 

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

 

Well, botfly again in this category, just like last year. I actually had a human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) in my own body last year as well as this year (there is a scientific publication about it on the way – a topic for a future blog post!). Although I have to say this year’s cute parasite was not at all unpleasant, on the contrary! For this reason I decided to go all the way through and have it complete its larval development inside my body, and now I am eagerly waiting for it to emerge as an adult fly.

 

The best landscape shots

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

 

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

 

I’m afraid I did not take too many landscape photographs this year. I was more concentrated in other methods (see below) that I completely neglected this photography sytle. In fact, I have just sold my trustworthy Tokina AT-X Pro 17mm lens, because I found that I am not using it anymore. I did have a chance to visit some breathtaking places this year, and chose two shots from Belize as my favorite landscapes for 2014.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

 

This photo is not exactly “perfectly timed” in the sense that I had to wait in order to capture the right moment. As I was walking to my cabin in the Ecuadorian Amazon I saw this pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) resting on a wall that was painted to show a scene from the rainforest. To my amazement the spider picked the “correct” spot in the painting to rest on, a palm leaf, just as it would be in the real vegetation. The cutesy ants painted marching nearby add a nice twist to this photo.

 

Best behavior shot

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

 

This molting amblypygid (Euphrynichus bacillifer) takes this category. I like how it looks like a version of Alien’s Facehugger from this angle.

 

The best non-animal photo

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

 

I regard this as one of my best super-macro shots. I have already written a short post about how this unique inflorescence sent me 20 years back in time for a trip down memory lane. What I love about this photo is that I managed to produce exactly what I envisioned.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in "threat posture". Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in “threat posture”. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

You can read more about my scary encounter with the huge Phoneutria spider here. I admit that my hands were shaking as I was getting closer and closer to take a photo. These spiders are fast. And usually quite aggressive too. In the end this female turned out to be very docile, and she also kindly warned me when I was getting too close.

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

 

Never in my wildest dreams I imagined I would be photographing a coral snake from a close distance, not to mention doing it alone with no assistance. These snakes have extremely potent venom and should be left alone when encountered. However, in my case an opportunity presented itself and I could not pass on the chance to photograph this beautiful creature. It was carefully released back to the rainforest immediately after the shoot.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

 

There is almost nothing I can say about Sabethes that I haven’t already said in this post. This mosquito is nothing short of amazing, and for some insect photographers it is a distant dream to photograph one in action. Too bad they are tiny, super-fast, and oh yes – transmit tropical diseases that can kill you. So I guess it fits the previous category as well.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

 

I have seen army ants in the past but this year I was happy to walk upon a bivouac (a temporary camp in which they spend the night). It is such an impressive sight. It is also quite painful if you are standing a bit too close. Taking close ups of the bivouac’s “ant wall” was an unpleasant process, to say the least.
I also love this scene where a small roach watches by while the ants form their crawling “rivers”.

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

 

I rarely take deep focus stacks. The reason is that I like to photograph live animals and this method requires an almost perfectly still subject. This stack of nine images shows one of the most impressive jumping spiders I had the fortune of finding. You can tell I went all “Thomas Shahan-y” here.

 

The best wide-angle macro

If there is one style I was obsessive about this year, it is wide-angle macro. I decided to dive in, and experimented with different setups and compositions. I have now gathered enough experience and information to write a long post (most likely split in two) about this method. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here are my favorites from this year.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

The next photo comes with its own story: On the way to the 700-Feet Waterfalls in Belize for an Epiphytes survey, Ella Baron (manager of Caves Branch Botanical Gardens), Alex Wild and I joked that it would be cool to take a wide-angle macro shot of a frog against the background of the waterfalls, and to use this “postcard shot” to promote future BugShot Belize workshops. 15 minutes after that, I had the shot on my memory card… This is probably my favorite photo from 2014.

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at the beautiful 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

 

The best Meet Your Neighbours photos

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

 

Along with wide-angle macro photography, I also photographed intensively against a white background, as a contributor for Meet Your Neighbours project. This technique is easy and produces stunning results that it is difficult to choose favorites. I think I like best the photos that still incorporate some part of the habitat, such as the ones below.

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Memes

Shooting for Meet Your Neighbours not only gives a chance to appreciate organisms out of the context of their surroundings, but also makes it super easy to use the images in creative ways. I do not consider myself a competent meme creator, but there are times that I have no better way for expressing myself.

I slept too much

One of those mornings.

 

Kung Fu weevil

Sometimes I feel like…

And the most exciting subject…

Ah, where to start? There were so many great finds this year: timber flies, fringed tree frogs, velvet worms, freshly molted whip spiders, eyelid geckos, tadpole shrimps and more. I cannot simply pick one favorite subject. They were all my favorites, so I decided not to end this post with a trail of random photos. I cannot wait to see what I will encounter next year. Have a good 2015!

Dirty dancing

I don’t dance.
It has cost me much time and good friendships trying to explain why, so I will not go into details here about it. Let’s just say that I tried many times, and it always felt too unnatural to me. However, not so long ago it occurred to me that there are a few creatures in this world that can make me dance. Surprisingly, these creatures are not human. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them in my last visit to Ecuador. It was a hot, humid afternoon, and I was busy photographing a cooperative jumping spider for Meet Your Neighbours project. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw something that looked like a biplane passing above my head. At first I ignored it, thinking maybe the intense heat took its toll and I was hallucinating, nevertheless that thing passed again, this time drawing the curious attention of my eight-legged subject. I looked up and saw nothing at first. Then I saw the strangest mosquito hovering right in front of my nose.

I recognized it immediately as a member of the genus Sabethes. There is no other mosquito in the world that has such an elegant appearance: its body is quite large, covered with blue and green iridescent scales. The legs are exceptionally long, each bearing a wide flattened brush of hairs, like a paddle. During flight the legs are extended forward and backwards, partially curved, giving the hovering mosquito a unique “aircraft” appearance. Members of the genus are found only in northern Latin America, and the females are important vectors of several tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and dangue fever. The function of the paddles found on the legs of males and females is poorly understood. A scientific study showed that males court and mate normally even when the paddles are removed, whereas paddle-less females are rarely approached by males. It is widely accepted among evolutionary scientists that elaborate ornaments on females take part in reversal of the sex roles, where females compete among themselves for the attention of and mating with the males. This may be a possible explanation for the extensive ornamentation on Sabethes females. Like many tropical mosquito species, Sabethes reproduce in small tree holes or bromelliads, where accumulating rainwater serves as medium for their aquatic larvae.

Sabethes sp., female with intense ornamentation on the legs

Sabethes sp., female with intense ornamentation on the legs

 

I had to be quick. These mosquitoes are not very common and I knew years could pass before I encounter them again. Upon careful inspection, I realized there were two Sabethes mosquitoes flying in my wooden cabin. The big one, with impressive ornamentation on the legs, earned the name ‘mothership’, while I named the smaller female ‘maid’, for lacking brushes on the forelimbs. I started following the mosquitoes in the room, counting steps as I was walking towards them, like a slow dance. Or maybe it was vice versa, and the hovering blood-sucking females were actually following my every move? It was so hot that I did not give it much thought. It is funny to think of Sabethes as a mosquito you want to get bitten by, just to get a closer look at this wonder of nature. At some point I was so frustrated with my attempts to approach the mosquitoes, that I shouted: “Come here and take my blood!”

I hate to admit, but the bite of Sabethes sp. is rather painful.

I hate to admit, but the bite of Sabethes sp. is rather painful.

 

In general, mosquitoes are attracted to dark objects, but they also respond to chemical compounds found in human sweat. I was sweating like crazy because of the heat and the constant movement. This was my own version of the film “Dirty Dancing”. Sad to admit it, but many times, the females were more interested in the big black object in front of them and landed on my camera. Then we had to start our dance all over.
After some time the ‘maid’ lost interest and escaped through the chicken mesh stretched over the window. I was left with the ‘mothership’. And so we were, dancing slowly around the shaded cabin. Me, moving about in small steps, arms extended forward, hoping for some contact, and her, elegantly following my every move, but avoiding me altogether. It was quite enchanting. From time to time, she embraced my hand and gave me a tiny kiss. And like an obsessed stalker, I relentlessly tried to document it. Some take me for a non-romantic person. I can definitely see why.

But then an idea came to my mind – what if I can make the mosquito come to me for a photograph, against my preferred background? And would it be possible to take a MYN photo of this skittish insect? This took some careful planning, and after hours of failed attempts I finally came up with a working method for it.

Sabethes sp. I never grew tired of looking at this beauty.

Sabethes sp. I never grew tired of looking at this beauty.

 

The ‘mothership’ remained patient enough to allow me to photograph quite a few interesting shots before leaving me all alone in the jungle’s darkness. However, this experience will surely remain a good memory for years to come, perhaps my most captivating dancing partner – the world’s most beautiful mosquito.

2013 in review: Good riddance!

In response to Alex Wild’s call in Scientific American, here is my list of “2013 photographic achievements”.

I thought about how I should start this. I want to say that 2013 was a crazy year. But if you read many of these “year-in-review” posts you will soon find out that they are very repetitive, usually starting with “this was a _______ year for me” (insert your favorite adjective: crazy, busy, intensive, productive). I would like to try something a bit different:

2013 was the worst year I have had. Ever. Here is a partial list of my mishaps – got a warning from my university department for trespassing overseas, got my face broken while doing research and went through a reconstruction surgery, had my luggage searched extensively by airport customs officials on my way out of NZ, got a warning for having 300ml 70% ethanol for research in my one of my bags prior to flight, was mistakenly charged the $1000 excess fee upon returning a rented vehicle (twice!) and got my credit card locked, had my PhD research terminated and lost my main source of income, dealt with overseas bureaucracy, broke my main flash unit a few days before a photography workshop, got the return flight cancelled a day before I left the country for the workshop, served as a host for six internal parasites, and the list goes on. I saved you from the gross bits.

So you can understand why I am eager to wave this year bye bye. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of good things happened too – I met new interesting people, I learned and experienced new things and I finally attended BugShot macrophotography workshop in Belize – an event that will surely remain as a good memory for years to come.

And now without further due, here are my best-of-2013:

 

The photo that got me into the most trouble

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

 

This is definitely not one of my best photos. I do not like the light, the composition could be a lot better, and I could have improved the focus. However, it is an important behavior shot.
This photo was taken during my PhD research trip in New Zealand, in which I was recording the mating behavior of ground weta. The male, under the female, has finished depositing the sperm ampulae on the female’s genitalia (white blobs) and is preparing for depositing a nutritious nuptial gift close to her secondary copulatory organ. Unfortunately, this series of photos caused a dispute regarding image use and copyright and had cost me great pain. [Stay tuned for “My NZ ordeal (part 2)”]

 

The most unpleasant subject

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

 

I have always been interested in the fuzzy botflies and their biology as internal parasites of mammals, and I have been waiting for an opportunity to photograph a larva. This year, I got my chance when a former student collected one from a rabbit. I think this creature is amazing, but I could not bring myself to accept that this larva was burrowing into the flesh of a live rabbit just a few days earlier. Little did I know that I would become a host of several such larvae just a couple of months later…

 

The best landscape shots

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

 

This photo was a real game changer for me. My photography has changed substantially through experimentation during the trip to New Zealand. I decided to make a quick rest stop from a long drive at the waterfalls, and took only my camera and a fisheye lens with me. This is ended up being one of the best photos I have ever taken. Not only it is completely hand-held with no help of filters, I also managed to squeeze in a sun-star in between the top trees. After this I realized how much I know about photography and that I am already at a good level (before this I always thought I was not good enough).

 

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

 

Slope Point is known as the southernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand. Because of its close proximity to the South Pole, extremely intense and uninterrupted winds from Antarctica blow and smash into the trees here, severely disturbing their growth and forcing them into twisted shapes.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

The break of dawn over Allan's Beach. Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

The break of dawn over Allan’s Beach, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

 

I did not plan taking any photos that morning – it was pretty rainy with a thick overcast. I was walking a friends’ dog up a hill when I suddenly saw the sunrays breaking through the clouds. I ran back to the house and grabbed my camera. The only lens that was effective to record the scene was my Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, so I panned and took 42 shots and stitched them together later to get a high quality super-image.

 

Best behavior shot

Paper wasp tending plant hoppers (Guayaquila sp.), Belize

Paper wasp tending plant hoppers (Guayaquila sp.), Belize

 

One of my main goals in documenting ants’ mutualistic relationships was to photograph an ant collecting a drop of honeydew from a tended homopteran (aphid, scale insect, plant hopper etc’). I have tried to do it many times, but was too slow to “catch” the drop. You can imagine my enthusiasm when an opportunity to photograph a tending wasp presented itself!

 

The best non-animal photo

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

 

I hate to admit it, but I am biased about my photo subjects. When photographing, most times I will prefer a small animal subject to a plant or scenery. I lost many good photographic opportunities in the past this way. But every once in a while I come across something so different, so unique, that it blows my mind. This species of filmy fern from New Zealand is such a plant.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

 

This male scorpion was so tame while being photographed that it was tempting to try and handle it. Only afterwards I found out that this species possesses quite a potent venom, and is even responsible for several death cases in Central America.

 

Portrait of horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes), Northern Negev Desert, Israel

Portrait of horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes), Northern Negev Desert, Israel

 

One of my “most wanted” for 2013, and I almost gave up after looking for it unsuccessfully for several nights during my visit in Israel. Luckily, just when I was about to leave the dunes, I found this beautiful male snake a few steps away from my car. It did a defensive display upon noticing me but later calmed down and stayed still, allowing me to frame a nice close-up portrait.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

 

This photo could be a deserving candidate for “the photo that got me into the most trouble” category, however the troubles found me not as a result of taking the photo, but more because I was hiking in the geckos’ highly protected habitat looking for them. All in all, I am very glad I got a chance to see these gorgeous reptiles, and hope they live long and prosper.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

 

There were two recent outbreaks of desert locusts in Israel (originating in Africa): in November 2004, and March 2013. Unfortunately for me, I missed both. However, two months after the swarms were exterminated billions of locust eggs started hatching and feeding on any green plant, causing damage to several crops in their way. I was extremely lucky to be in Israel during this time, and I managed to photograph and record the juvenile locusts before the order to exterminate them took effect.

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Trapdoor spider, Belize

Trapdoor spider, Belize

 

I have been manually stacking images for some time now to get deeper depth of field in macro photographs, but had mixed results. This trapdoor spider came out very nice, revealing good detail in hairs and claws.

 

The best wide-angle macro

I had my eyes on this technique since 2005, but I never got myself to actually try it. Inspired by Piotr Naskrecki’s books and blog I decided to look more into it:

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

 

One of my first attempts to shoot wide-angle macro using a fisheye lens and a fill-flash. Now I know I was doing it “wrong” (or differently from my inspiration), but even so, the photo came out quite nice and received a lot of attention. The only things I wish the photo would also deliver are the strong wind and the loud cicadas singing in the background.

 

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

 

This is one of Israel’s largest katydid species (only Saga ephippigera is bigger). I always wanted to have a wide-angle macro shot of Saga, showing its large head and spines. However, in the end I decided not to move too close to the katydid, giving the impression that it is about to step out of the photo.

 

Male orchid bees (Euglossinae) collect fragrances from tree, Belize

Male orchid bees (Euglossinae) collect fragrances from tree, Belize

 

This photo would not have been possible without the help of Joseph Moisan-De Serres who gave me informative advice about orchid bees, and Piotr Naskrecki, who encouraged me to attempt a wide-angle shot of them. It took a lot of time and patience to get the “right” shot; I suspect this was also the time when I got infected with the human botfly.

 

The most exciting subject

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

 

To me, there is nothing more fun and rewarding than discovering something new. This is one of three potential new species of whipspider (genus Charinus), found in Israel this year and currently being described. Whipspiders (Amblypygi) have become one of my favorite groups of arthropods in the last years and I hope to learn more about them!

So in conclusion, out of these, which is my most favorite best photo of 2013?
The answer is none.

There is another photo that I like better than all of these, one in which I experimented in a technique I know absolutely nothing about and got a lovely result. However, I will leave that photo for my summary of BugShot Belize, which hopefully will be posted before the next BugShot event!

 

 

NZ Forest critters – first impressions

The insects I am currently after in NZ are nocturnal (meaning they are active at night) – this ensures me some interesting encounters with animals that are usually shy and cryptic. I thought I would start by describing to you my few readers (most likely my friends, family, and if I am lucky maybe one or two of my former students) what my night activities are like at the moment.
So what kind of animals you can find while taking a night walk in the forest?
Surprisingly for me, the most common animal to encounter in the NZ forest during the night is not a cricket or spider, but representatives of a genus of cockroach. These relatively small cockroaches (15mm) belong to the genus Celatoblatta of which 16 species are known. Very similar in appearance to the northern hemisphere German cockroach, they occupy the leaf litter and low forest plants. I mainly found them on ferns, and although I cannot tell them apart, I am certain that I saw more than one species.

Forest cockroach (Celatoblatta sp.)

Forest cockroach (Celatoblatta sp.)

 

Another common insect active in the dark forest is the crane fly. Here too, several species are seen, but I am talking about a particular species. One that is so massive, especially during flight with its thick leathery wings, that often I was not really sure what I was looking at. Unfortunately I have no idea about the species name.

Crane fly (unidentified)

Crane fly (unidentified)

 

Slugs are also seen frequently, usually climbing on tree trunks, on logs and sometimes on leaves (lower left). The slugs I have seen so far are very different from the ones I know, and I will dedicate a separate post for them. Ground weta (genus Hemiadnrus, lower right) are common on tree trunks and low plants. A very interesting insect group and the core of my current study – they will receive more attention in future posts.

Leaf-veined slug (Athoracophorus antipodarum)

Leaf-veined slug (Athoracophorus antipodarum)

Ground weta (Hemiandrus "onokis") nymph

Ground weta (Hemiandrus “onokis”) nymph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will end this post with two creatures that are not as common as the ones above, but can be easily found with a little patience.

Antlions (order Neuroptera) are sometimes seen on the vegetation. This pair was sitting on a branch and were probably communicating using their antennae. It is a relatively large species, so at first I thought they belong to the family Myrmeleontidae. However, looking at their antennae, I see that they are simple and not curved as in Myrmeleontid antlions. Therefore I am guessing that these are big lacewings, but I am still not sure regarding the family or genus.

A pair of antlions (unidentified)

A pair of antlions (unidentified)

 

If you are lucky, you might stumble upon cicada larvae as they emerge from the soil and climb nearby objects to molt for the last time into adult cicadas. I was fortunate enough to see this beautiful individual drying its wings after molting. It belongs to the highly diverse genus Kikihia, with about 30 species. Unfortunately, further identification is very difficult because there is no identification key available to the species level. This is one of the most beautiful insects I have seen. Vivid green in color with red “socks”, and rows of golden hairs on the abdomen.

A newly emerged cicada, Kikihia sp., with the moon shining in the background

A newly emerged cicada, Kikihia sp., with the moon shining in the background