Tiny other lives – photographic insights into insect worlds

What I love about macro photography is that it allows you to enter the world of the insect; at least for an instance. It gives us a glimpse of lives lived on a different scale from our own; smaller, shorter and faster existences. We can look at the face of a beetle, and wonder for a moment what the world might look like from their perspective?

Woodland dor beetle (Anoplotrupes stercorosus) Galicia, Spain

The sort of photography I do is not very sophisticated. I just home in on an insect, often a butterfly, and follow it with my camera; trying to get myself closer and also into a position where I will get the best picture. Most often, the insect will fly away before I have achieved a good shot. I have learnt to be very phlegmatic about such lost opportunities. There is also a lot of luck involved and you will get some and lose some. That’s the name of the game. Sometimes you can take dozens of pictures, but only one is any good; sometimes none are any good! A 150mm macro lens allows you to stand back a little from the organism, but there is no way that it does not notice you; especially butterflies, with their excellent eye sight. It is almost impossible to be an invisible witness of this hidden world. Your presence – a large, lumbering primate – will almost certainly influence the behaviour of the animal. Yes invertebrates are animals! Sometimes, insects which are deeply engaged with something, like sipping the nectar from a flower, will ignore you. Some, like butterflies with their tongues uncurled, are vulnerable and cannot move instantly. Others, depending on their health, temperament and vigour, will tolerate you for a while. Others become habituated to your presence. I like to think that butterflies that I chase, eventually give up trying to escape my attentions and just say: ” sod it, take your photograph then!” Some species are much more flighty and difficult to photograph than others. I like photographs which capture the insect in it’s habitat or environment. Like this beautifully camouflaged satyrid butterfly from Thailand (below).

Great Evening Brown (Melanitis zitenius) wet season form on dry leaf. Thailand

I love the insights that macro photography provides. The following two shots (below), of a Lulworth skipper, were taken in quick succession. I was following the butterfly as it was nectaring, moving from flower to flower. In the first shot it has landed on a thistle flower; there is no sign of the proboscis;. In the second shot, taken a fraction of a second later, the proboscis has been unfurled and it is probing the flower. I have no idea of the time between shots; the camera registered both as taken at 17:30 on 13/06/19. Perhaps only a second or two apart. What is reveals however, is how quickly and deftly, the butterfly unfurls its proboscis. Not an earth-shattering discovery; just a tiny glimpse into the highly focused, nectar-driven world of this little creature,

Lulworth skipper (Thymelicus acteon) having just landed on on a thistle flower
Lulworth skipper (Thymelicus acteon) on thistle flower with uncurled proboscis

What I love about this modern technology – and it does not have to be expensive – is that it is such a great learning tool. One can take repeated shots (younger readers will have no idea how limiting physical film was!) at virtually no additional expense, and review them instantly, or a bit later. No processing costs; a mobile phone will do. Taking pictures, and developing your skill at it, will reveal all sorts of fascinating insect behaviour. Naturalists of old relied on their wonderful observational skills (and a good hand lens!), but surely they would have been blown away by the tools we now have in our hands.

In some instances, one is drawn into the tiny world, like Alice going down the rabbit hole! In this case, my eye was drawn to the lovely patterns of dew drops, sparkling in the sunshine, caught on the strands of a spider’s web (below).

Dew drops in a spider’s web

Such a pretty scene; but look closer and a drama starts to unfold! A spider, whose web it is, is inching up on a poor grasshopper nymph (below), caught in the net! Oh no! This tiny little nymph is not going to make it to adulthood. How tragic is that?! A lesson about nature: it eats it’s own. It’s not designed by some benign God. Creatures get gobbled up by other creatures. Somehow it all seems to fit together though. That is until we mess it up.

Grasshopper nymph caught in a spider’s web

One of the greatest pleasures of entering the world of the ‘smaller majority’ as Piotr Naskrecki – a great macro photographer – refers to invertebrates, is the unexpected! In the following photographs (see below) of a pair of robberflies – Dysmachus trigonus, the fan-bristled robberfly, perhaps – it turned out that the one at the top had something in her grasp! Surely a nuptial gift? In many different sorts of flies – and other insects – the male gives the female a prey item as a gift, prior to copulation. It functions to facilitate copulation and acts as a contribution to the protein requirements of egg laying by the female. In some instances, it also protects the male from being attacked, and even eaten, by aggressive females, e.g. in some spiders. In other species, such as the scorpionfly, Hylobittacus apicalis, and perhaps in these flies as well (?), the female feeds on the nuptial gift throughout copulation. If the gift is too small, she may decline to copulate at all, and fly off after sampling it. Too small!! Find me another one!

Mating robberflies. Galicia, Spain. 7/06/19
Mating robberfly with nuptial gift in the form of a planthopper
Toft, S., & Albo, M. J. (2016). The shield effect: nuptial gifts protect males against pre-copulatory sexual cannibalism. Biology letters12(5), 20151082.


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