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The Plot Thickens: This caterpillar ain’t big enough for the two of us

Some of my favorite insects to find while out in the field are hawkmoth caterpillars, or hornworms (named after the characteristic “tail”). They are big, squishy sausages that often show off dazzling colors, sometimes with interesting anti-predator adaptations like eyespots and mimicry. All these characters make the hawkmoth caterpillar look like a toy just waiting for you to play with. The sad truth is that being big and flashy in the natural world often comes with a price. There is danger lurking in every corner. Despite the bright colors and adaptations, birds and lizards do not hesitate to snatch the caterpillars from branches, pathogens and spores of entomophagous fungi scattered everywhere increase the chance for passive infections, and parasitoids are always on the lookout for chunky hosts for their offspring. And the reality is that many of the caterpillars we get to encounter outdoors are already infected with something. I learned this the hard way: as a kid I used to rear a lot of butterflies and moths collected as caterpillars in the field, and many times I was devastated to witness my cute pets being reduced into a sticky mess while wiggly worm-like creatures emerge from their bodies. Sometimes I wonder how lepidopterans manage to keep their populations stable with so many enemies around.

On one of my visits to the beautiful town of Mindo Ecuador, I came across a young hornworm. Despite finding it at daytime, the caterpillar remained calm (many hornworms do their best to disappear from plain sight during the day) so I decided to photograph it.

A cute hawkmoth caterpillar. See that black spot on the leaf? It is important to our story.

A cute hawkmoth caterpillar. See that black spot on the leaf? It is important to our story.

After taking a few shots I noticed a black splotch in the photo that I didn’t like, so I decided to change the angle of view. Little did I know this was a wasp that just arrived at the leaf to check out the caterpillar. A few photos later its identity became clear: It was a species of Brachymeria, a tiny wasp that belongs to the large parasitoid family Chalcididae.

The hawkmoth caterpillar being visited by a parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.)

The hawkmoth caterpillar being visited by a parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.)

Chalcidid wasps can be easily recognized by their modified hindlegs that resemble mantids’ raptorial forelegs. The function of these structures is largely unclear. The adult wasps feed on nectar and other liquid foods, and do not use the legs for catching prey. There is a paper describing an interesting behavior in which the females use their legs in fighting over a host’s egg mass. Even more interesting are the last three paragraphs of the paper, with additional examples and hypotheses. It seems like there is no single function for these modified hindlegs and it really depends on the species and its biology. One example really stands out: “The female of Lasiochalcida igiliensis literally jumps into the jaws of antlions and holds the mandibles agape with her hind legs while ovipositing.”

Going back to our little Brachymeria and the hawkmoth caterpillar, at first the wasp just strolled peacefully on the leaf next to the caterpillar, but within a few minutes it hopped, quite literally, on the caterpillar and started walking on it, exploring its body surface while frantically moving its antennae.

The wasp jumped on the caterpillar's proleg and started crawling on its body

The wasp jumped on the caterpillar’s proleg and started crawling on its body

In general, the caterpillar doesn’t enjoy this attention, and often swiftly moves its head backwards in an attempt to drive the parasitoid away. It usually does not work. Once a caterpillar has been spotted and marked by a parasitoid as a host, it will be attacked (here’s a fantastic video showing this behavior, notice that the fly sitting nearby is another parasitoid of hornworms – a tachinid fly!).

A closeup of the parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.) as it was walking on the hawkmoth caterpillar

A closeup of the parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.) as it was walking on the hawkmoth caterpillar

As I was taking photos of the tiny wasp antennating the caterpillar, from the corner of my eye I noticed a bright yellow object flashing in. A second wasp, a golden Conura species, swooshed into the scene and started harassing the busy Brachymeria wasp.

While the Brachymeria was busy exploring the caterpillar, another wasp (Conura sp.) rushed in to fight for it

While the Brachymeria was busy exploring the caterpillar, another wasp (Conura sp.) rushed in to fight for it

For a short while, the Conura striked from above repeatedly, yet the Brachymeria stood her ground. Eventually the Conura got fed up and attempted to grab onto the other wasp and pull her away from the host. After several tries she succeeded, and the two started swirling in the air, before the Brachymeria returned to her business on top of the caterpillar. The golden wasp did not give up and returned for a second attack and then a third.

The two chalcidid wasps (Brachymeria sp. and Conura sp.) fighting over the host. This was taken moments before the Conura grabbed the other wasp's head and dislodged it from the caterpillar.

The two chalcidid wasps (Brachymeria sp. and Conura sp.) fighting over the host. This was taken moments before the Conura grabbed the other wasp’s head and dislodged it from the caterpillar.

This was very exciting to watch, but to be honest I was waiting eagerly to see if the wasps would use their modified hindlegs during the fight. Unfortunately, I was not able to detect any special maneuvers that involved grabbing with those legs.

Why did this happen? There are several possible explanations. The simplest one is that there is a shortage of caterpillar hosts and the two wasps are competing for the same source of food for their larvae. However, an alternative explanation suggests that the caterpillar has already been infected with a parasitoid before the first wasp found it. Many chalcidid wasps are hyperparasitoids – they do not feed on the big hosts (the caterpillar) directly, but instead attack larvae of other parasitoids already feeding inside the host. In other words they are parasitoids of parasitoids.
Parasitoidception.
Watch this excellent video explaining the complex relationship between several wasp species living on a tobacco hornworm:

This can explain the intense antennation performed by the Brachymeria wasp on the caterpillar for a long period of time. Maybe the wasp was trying to determine if there are parasitoid larvae already present in there. One of the most common sights when it comes to infected hawkmoths is a caterpillar with a cluster of white silk cocoons dangling from its body. Those cocoons belong to braconid wasps, and there is a good chance that the Bracymeria wasp was after their larvae, as some species of in the genus are parasitoids of Braconidae. The golden Conura wasp could then compete for access to those parasitoid larvae or even go after the Brachymeria larvae. It can get pretty complicated with chalcidid wasps.

Hawkmoth caterpillar with cocoons of a braconid parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar is still alive, and can move its head to deter predators like ants and other parasitoids from approaching the developing wasps.

Hawkmoth caterpillar with cocoons of a braconid parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar is still alive, and can move its head to deter predators like ants and other parasitoids from approaching the developing wasps.

So who won in the end? The wasp that was more persistent. At the end of the fight the black Brachymeria wasp was nowhere to be seen, and the golden Conura wasp took over the caterpillar and started antennating it.

The winning chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) with its hawkmoth caterpillar prize

The winning chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) with its hawkmoth caterpillar prize

The interesting thing here is that members of genus Conura are usually associated with butterfly and moth’s pupae, yet the wasp here decided to chase off a competitor and take over a caterpillar.

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa. This innocent face hides a dark secret.

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa. This innocent face hides a dark secret.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the scene to catch a bus so I could not continue following this interaction. Without further observations, it is difficult to say with certainty what exactly was going on between the two wasps and the hawkmoth caterpillar. Parasitoids are so diverse, and many species have such complex biology. Even though several chalcidid wasp species are being studied closely as potential biological control agents, there are far more species out there about which we simply don’t know enough!

 

The Plot Thickens: Staring into the eyes of a dying Cephalotes

If you are an entomologist or an insect enthusiast, it is highly probable that you like ants. It is hard not to be impressed with their diversity, abundance, complex social structure and behaviors, as well as their interactions with other organisms. Ants are everywhere and do almost anything you can think of. To most people however, ants could not be any less exciting. They are often seen as a generic insect, with a relatively uniform appearance. They always show up when unwanted, find their way into our homes, take refuge in dark and hard to reach corners, and steal our food.
I like ants. I think they are fascinating creatures. But every now and then I find myself talking people into looking beyond “that boring-looking ant”, to try and catch a glimpse of their busy life. It is not always easy to communicate ants to the public (which is why I praise myrmecologists – people who study ants for a living), however I find that it is quite easy in the case of one ant genus in particular: Cephalotes.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Cephalotes is a large genus of arboreal ants found in the neotropics. There are over 130 species, all inhabit tree hollows or utilize cavities in other plant tissues. Looking like they were designed by someone with overflowing imagination, they easily come off as cute. Their flattened head and armored body, often decorated with long sharp spines for protection, their thick legs and perfectly round abdomen, along with their matte color finish, give them the appearance of a plastic toy. In addition, Cephalotes ants move relatively slowly and cannot bite or sting, making them user-friendly. Can you ask for a more perfect ant?

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

They are commonly known as turtle ants, but also got the name gliding ants, thanks to their incredible ability to parachute from high in the canopy and land back on the trunk of their home tree. Their unique body structure and flattened legs allow them to slow down and change their course while falling (some spiders can do the same, by the way). In some species the soldier cast evolved a large head to function as a living door, plugging the entrance to the nest.

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

In regards to interspecific interactions, Cephalotes ants are often seen tending sap-sucking hemipterans such as membracids and small fulgorids to gain access to sugary secretions from those insects. They also act as the model in a mimicry complex, where crab spiders masquerade as the ants in order to sneak up and prey on them.

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Did I mention they are cute? I have written before that you should never become too attached to insects you encounter in the field. And as much as I love the adorable Cephalotes ants, it is important to remember that there are many dangers lurking for them in the forest. During my recent trip in Colombia, I stumbled upon a Cephalotes nest in a tree outside my room. The ants were very active and did not present good photographic opportunities.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

One of them however, stood out among the rest. There was something different about its behavior. This worker moved franticly in what appeared to be an aimless run. It did not follow the other workers, and seemed more interested in reaching a higher spot on the tree. I collected the ant for a closer look, and once I inspected her carefully I believe I found the culprit for her unusual behavior. This ant had a reddish abdomen, as opposed to the black abdomen of her sisters. The red color, coupled with erratic behavior suggests this worker has been infected with a parasite, a nematode worm.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

The parasitic worm lives and breeds inside the body of birds, which spread the worm’s eggs in their droppings. The ants collect nutrients from the bird droppings (along with the eggs) and feed them to their larvae, where the worm matures. In order to complete its life cycle the parasite needs to return into a bird’s body, so it changes the host ant’s appearance to look like a ripe red fruit, and causes it to climb higher on the tree to become more accessible to hungry birds. As much unique character this worker ant might have had, the sad truth is that it was destined to die prematurely. And there was nothing I could do about it. There is a great lesson here – sometimes, the raw essence of nature is difficult to take in. We would like to see it as a peaceful place where all the animals and plants live together in harmony. But the reality is that nature is harsh. It is full of conflict, violence, disease, and death. And we must accept it as an integral part of the world we live in.

Cephalotes ants offer a great opportunity to peek into the life of a small insect and learn about its survival (as well as failure) in various habitats. Before I end this post, there is one thing I would like clarified – going back to their name, why did Cephalotes get the name turtle ant, whereas some leaf beetles were named tortoise beetles? Is there any justification for the turtle designation when it comes to the ants? After all, both insects are terrestrial. If there is an etymologist in the audience, maybe you can help the entomologist?

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Orchid Bees

Whenever I visit Latin America I make sure to leave some time for observing orchid bees in activity. This means my morning routine is usually very brief: a quick breakfast, some reorganization of gear from the previous night hike, and heading out. The bees are usually active between 7:30-11am, so it is a race against the clock to locate them in the rainforest.

A month ago I posted a photo on my social media accounts showing a group of Euglossa bees collecting fungus threads from tree bark in Costa Rica. Since then, this photo has become very popular and has been shared and retweeted thousands of times (unfortunately, a big chunk of these shares is by people who uploaded the photo to their pages without my permission). This is currently my most shared photo to date. Even as of writing this post, one month after posting the photo, it still generates new likes, shares, and comments. In fact, the title of this post, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Orchid Bees”, is taken directly from the comments, as some people noted the photo reminded them of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark, Limón Province, Costa Rica

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark, Limón Province, Costa Rica

While I will argue that in order to truly appreciate the beauty of orchid bees one must observe them from a close distance, this photo does represent well their diversity (showing three distinct Euglossa species) and variation (the “red” and “orange” bees belong to the same species). Soon after the photo spread through the internet I was flooded with questions about orchid bees, so I thought it would make a nice opportunity to write a post about them and address some of the inquiries.

That orange bee (Euglossa hansoni) from the group photo above? This is what it looks like when viewed from up close. Words cannot describe this beauty.

That orange bee (Euglossa hansoni) from the group photo above? This is what it looks like when viewed from up close. Words cannot describe this beauty.

Are you sure these are not flies? Despite bearing a strong resemblance to bottle flies, these insects are indeed bees: orchid bees are members of tribe Euglossini which contains five genera: Euglossa, Eulaema, Eufriesea, Exaerete and Aglae. They are somewhat closely related to the eusocial honey bees and bumblebees, however most orchid bees lead a solitary lifestyle. The genera Exaerete and Aglae are cleptoparasites, developing in the nests of other orchid bees. There are about 200 species of orchid bees, distributed only in the Americas, mostly in Central and South America. Only one species occurs in the United States. Like many other bees, orchid bees collect nectar, pollen and resin from plants. They can be distinguished from other bees by their shiny metallic coloration and their extremely long tongues, which can be twice the length of the body. Most of the time the tongue is folded underneath the body and extends behind the abdomen.

Orchid bees can be easily found near fragrant orchids. This male was spotted hovering near a vanilla flower. Photographed in Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

Orchid bees can be easily found near fragrant orchids. This male was spotted hovering near a vanilla flower. Photographed in Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting resin from tree bark. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting resin from tree bark. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Are they dangerous? Can they sting? Orchid bees are far less dangerous than honey bees. Being solitary (excluding a few species that are communal), orchid bees have no colony or a queen to defend. That being said, female orchid bees do possess a stinger, which they will not hesitate to use when threatened. Interestingly, the females are very rarely encountered. I have encountered them only near stream banks, collecting clay mud for construction of their nest. Most of the bees observed in the rainforest are males. Although their folded tongue sticking behind the abdomen may look like a stinger, males have no stinger and pose no danger to anyone.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) in mid-flight, showing its long tonguefolded underneath the body. This is not a stinger! Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) in mid-flight, showing its long tonguefolded underneath the body. This is not a stinger! Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Why are they called orchid bees? Male orchid bees exhibit an interesting and unique behavior – fragrance collection. They collect and store different volatile compounds, some of which are found in orchid flowers. To get the right mixture of chemicals, they sometimes travel long distances in flight. Being able to detect the tiniest amount of a desired compound in the air, the bees home-in on the scent column and navigate to it with impressive accuracy. Once landed at the site, the males scrape the odorous compounds using modified brushes on their forelegs, and then while in mid-air transfer and press them into special storage chambers in their hind legs. The process is repeated until the bee has collected enough of the chemical. The purpose of collecting the fragrant compounds is not entirely clear, but it is strongly believed that they play an important role in mate choice by the females, just as perfume is used to attract a mate in humans.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. Note the long hairs on the forelegs that assist in scraping the chemicals. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. Note the long hairs on the forelegs that assist in scraping the chemicals. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. The chemicals are stored in special chambers located in hind tibia. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. The chemicals are stored in special chambers located in hind tibia. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

To collect a variety of scents, the bees visit primarily orchids flowers, but also other flowers, tree wounds, fungi and even corpses. One species was even recorded collecting the insecticide DDT without suffering any damage from the chemical.
The fragrance collection behavior allows the attraction of males using different baits containing essential oils, and can be useful for biologists to learn about their seasonal abundance and diversity.

A carefully selected site for bating orchid bees can attract a few dozens of males, as seen here. Photographed in Cayo District, Belize

A carefully selected site for bating orchid bees can attract a few dozens of males, as seen here. Photographed in Cayo District, Belize

Some fragrant orchids have evolved different adaptations to take advantage of this perfume-seeking behavior, which involve the male bees pushing or crawling into the flowers, triggering a mechanism that glues a pair of pollen packets (called pollinia or pollinaria, depending on the type of plant tissue involved) on the bee’s head or thorax. These pollen packets will travel with the male bee to the next flower to complete the pollination process.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa cyanura) pollinating the orchid Gongora maculata. Note the pollen packets glued on the bee's back. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa cyanura) pollinating the orchid Gongora maculata. Note the pollen packets glued on the bee’s back. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Why are orchid bees so colorful? This question is a hard one to answer. The metallic color does not seem to have a clear function. However, it is important to note that not all orchid bees are colorful. While members of genera Euglossa, Exaerete and Aglae are flashy with colors ranging from gold, red and green to blue and violet, members of Eulaema and Eufriesea are less showy and sport dark colors and a thick coat of hairs, which make them look like fuzzy bumblebees.

Representatives of three Euglossini genera, left to right: Eulaema seabrai, Euglossa intersecta and Exaerete smaragdina.

Representatives of three Euglossini genera, left to right: Eulaema seabrai, Euglossa intersecta and Exaerete smaragdina.

Orchid bees are fascinating insects that can be observed safely without the need for special equipment or prior preparation. I would like to share with you something I like to do when I find a group of male bees in activity: I approach slowly and place my head close to their gathering spot. The bees are so busy closing in on the scent cone that they are not bothered by my presence. Then I close my eyes. The loud buzzing sounds piercing through the air make me feel like I am standing right in the middle of an insectopian highway. It is quite a unique sensation. Try it. You won’t regret.

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.

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!

BugShot Belize: Treat yourself to something good

I have been meaning to write about BugShot Belize straight after my return, while I was still excited about it, but upcoming deadlines and a small entomological ordeal took most of the attention.
But don’t get me wrong – whenever I think about this trip to Belize I get a huge grin on my face. It was THAT good.

If you have some interest in macrophotography, you probably heard about the BugShot workshop series – a get-together of photography and arthropods enthusiasts, over the course of several days, led by some of the best macrophotographers out there.
The notice about an upcoming workshop in Belize caught me while I was conducting my research fieldwork in New Zealand. I was thrilled to hear there would be four instructors instead of three: Alex Wild, Thomas Shahan, John Abbott, and, joining them for the first time, Piotr Naskrecki. I knew I had to secure my place in that workshop.

By the way, do not mistake this for an in-depth review of BugShot. This post is not going to be a list of what we did during the workshop. If you search online, you will find several such reports. I believe that if you consider going to one of these workshops, you should stop reading about them online and start working on getting there yourself. I will, however, highlight a few things that made the whole experience worthwhile for me.

I came to BugShot Belize with three main goals: to improve in taking photos in high magnification, to learn more about wide-angle photography, and to hear about high-speed photography.

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying a leaf as food source for mushrooms cultivated inside their nest. These ants almost never stand still, and require some concentration to photograph. In addition, some backlighting helps to make the leaf "pop out".

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying a leaf as food source for mushrooms cultivated inside their nest. These ants almost never stand still, and require some concentration to photograph. In addition, some backlighting helps to make the leaf “pop out”.

 

We stayed at Caves Branch, a beautiful Lodge set in the middle of the Belizean jungle. The owner attended one of the earlier BugShots, so we were lucky to have the best host one can ask for. Although being acquainted with only one other person before the workshop, I immediately felt connected to everyone else.

One of the questions I was repeatedly asked during the workshop was “is any of this new to you?”, and I have to say I found it a bit odd at first. I am not known as a photographer and at that time I had only a handful of photos uploaded to this website. But then it hit me – I do have some experience in photography (I started the photography hobby when I was 14, so I must have learned a thing or two since then), and I do have background in Entomology. Nevertheless many things were new to me – every person brings his own approach to photography and for being out in nature. It was interesting to listen to both the instructors and the people attending the workshop. In fact, here I feel I need to apologize before my fellow BugShotees (and anyone else I might meet in the future) – Most of the time I am quiet and I do not strike as being a very talkative person. But once I “break-in” I do not cease talking, and unfortunately I can get a little annoying then. So I apologize if I never interacted with some of the people, or was simply impossible to shut up when talking with others.

We had a small light trap to attract flying insects at night, which proved quite promising in the first night when we had no clue what to expect. One of the moths that arrived was so adorable that it led to a collaborative post with Nash Turely, who recorded a hilarious video of the moth settling into its resting pose.

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) aka bunny moth. Cute furry legs!

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) aka bunny moth. Cute furry legs!

 

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) employs a defense posture when camouflage fails, revealing aposematic colors to scare off predators.

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) employs a defense posture when camouflage fails, revealing aposematic colors to scare off predators.

 

But the main highlight for me was not waiting for the insects to come, but being able to go on night walks in a tropical jungle and actively search for whatever I could find. Man, how I missed doing this! If you like nature but have never done it, I highly recommend! Just be aware of all the possible dangers lying ahead and care for you own safety. And DO NOT do this alone, especially at night (speaking from personal experience, you can easily get lost).

A juvenile whipspider (possibly Phrynus parvulus) feeding on a caterpillar, found during a night walk.

A juvenile whipspider (possibly Phrynus parvulus) feeding on a caterpillar, found during a night walk.

 

Let’s get back to my goals though. Unfortunately, I did not give myself too many opportunities to photograph in high magnification. There were so many things to see and photograph in the jungle, that very often I found myself making the mistake of sticking with one lens throughout most of the day just for the sake of not missing a subject. In addition, the intense humidity made it very annoying to switch lenses because they would fog up very quickly.

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

 

Scales on hindwing of an owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) - it reminded me of a tiger!

Scales on hindwing of an owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) – it reminded me of a tiger!

 

One of the techniques I was eager to know more about was wide-angle macrophotography, and you can image my excitement when I realized I could learn it from one of the best. Good thing I was not lazy and decided to bring my tripod.

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

 

This was my first attempt to shoot wide-angle macro in BugShot:

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

 

It is OK, but could be better. Apparently I was doing a few things incorrectly, which led to a poor composition and lighting in the photos.
And below is the photograph I took while learning from the master, Piotr Naskrecki. Some people might actually prefer the previous photo. I like this one much better.

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

 

Of course, in these techniques, practice makes perfect. There is still plenty of room to improve. But I am slowly getting there.

Apart from some interesting arachnids that we found, the best find in my opinion was a tiny scarab beetle (Ceratocanthinae, identified as Ceratocanthus sp. by Dr. Alberto Ballerio) that can roll into a ball. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo while the beetle was open and moving about. If anything, this is a good reason to go back to Belize, I think this animal is incredible. I have known rolling isopods, pill millipedes, pill roaches, even some flies and wasps evolved to roll up into the shape of a sphere for protection from enemies, but this animal was something that was completely new to me. This beetle is so tightly packed when rolled-up, every leg is inserted into a dedicated slot, that it almost looks like a transformer.

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

 

But my all-time favorite photo from the workshop was not of an insect (well, not entirely). One of the people who attended the workshop was Roy Dunn, an acclaimed photographer specializing in high-speed photography (and an avid arachnophile). I enjoyed listening to his and John Abbott’s comments about this technique, and we were lucky to have the opportunity to get a hand-on experience with it. While I was impressed with Cognisys demonstration, I was more interested in controlling the light using few accessories as possible while taking high-speed photos. When we visited a nearby butterfly farm we could not take our eyes off the stunning hummingbirds coming to feed on sugar water. Many people tried to photograph them from up close using a flash (to whom Roy remarked: “That’s not how you do it!”). Although macro shots of hummingbirds can be amazing, the flash created a harsh light. So I tried to photograph in ambient light using my telephoto lens (Canon 500mm) with no flash, playing with the settings in the camera. Carefully framing to get the light reflected behind the birds, I ended up with some impressive shots, one of them is clearly my favorite of all my BugShot portfolio. Actually, I consider it to be my best photo from 2013. And it even has an insect in it.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) and a paper wasp passing by

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) and a paper wasp passing by

 

So my tip to you: if you have any interest in small creatures (they do not have to be insects!), and you like to photograph, go to one of these workshops. It does not matter if you are an amateur or a professional. Even if you think you have enough photography experience I still recommend attending – just being around people who share similar interests might spark you to try something new. There is already a new BugShot Belize workshop planned with similar content and instructors. If you read this far, you probably want to be there.

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!