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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Life-friendly Gardening – Photographing Butterflies and Other Pollinators

Western Tiger Swallowtail feeding on Purple sage (Salvia leucophylla)

National Pollinator Week (the 3rd week in June) celebrates the importance of pollinators for all life. To learn more about their key role see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/06/life-friendly-gardening-planning-for.html.

Some pollinators are well-known and well-studied.  But surprisingly little is known about many insect pollinators.   The number of entomologists (people who study insects) is limited; and the estimated number of insect species (at least 2 million world-wide) is staggering.   So it’s understandable that many insect species haven’t even been discovered, much less extensively studied.

Many locally important pollinators are not currently well-characterized.  In fact, one aim of National Pollinator Week is to increase interest and basic research on native pollinators.  You can do your part, either by contributing money (http://www.pollinator.org/) or by actively observing and reporting on pollinators.

Fortunately, insects can be studied in your own backyard or in the wild.  If your garden provides habitat, the pollinators will come.  You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment – just curiosity, patience and a few basic tools.   You may even discover a new species – or something about an insect’s behavior that was previously unknown. And you can do this without wasting precious gas and time traveling to some exotic locale!

One important tool for observing insects is a camera. Many insects are active; it’s difficult/impossible to see details like color, wing venation, antenna shape, etc. while they are in motion.   Photographs allow you to study insects at your leisure.  And they provide a whole new world of information on what insects look like and how they behave.  We can’t recommend photographing insects enough!

The camera doesn’t have to be fancy; in fact, many cell phones take excellent insect photographs.  Insects are small, active creatures and they may be frightened by humans.  We find that a camera with a telephoto lens (or zoom capabilities) is essential for photographing many insects.  If you’re interested in insect behavior, a camera with video capabilities can be an invaluable tool.

Here are a few suggestions for photographing insects:

·        Observe your garden to see what plants attract insects.  You’ll want to focus your attention on these plants;

·        If possible, place a chair or seat 2-6 feet away from the pollinator plant (or within good photography range for your camera). You may even want to provide permanent seating near your best plants.  Let the insects get used to the seat before you try photographing them (anything new can be disturbing to wild animals);

·        Choose a warm, sunny, calm (non-windy) day – pollinator insects are most active then.  Many pollinators are most active from April to October in S. California;

·        Wear neutral-colored clothing; browns, blues, etc.

·        Assemble your photographic equipment (be sure that your batteries are charged).

·        We find photographing insects with a tripod to be challenging.  If you need to steady your camera, consider using a monopod (single leg) which provides better maneuverability.  Alternatively, steady your camera with arms resting on your knees; or rest the camera on the back/arm of your chair.

·        Approach the site slowly. Many insects will move off, even if you approach slowly (let’s face it: you’re a big, scary creature!).   Sit quietly until the insects return.

·        Observe the insects you plan to photograph.  What is their feeding behavior (do they hover or crawl)?  How long do they visit a flower before moving to the next?   Can you predict where they will move?   The more you know about an insect’s behavior the better your photographs will be.

·        If you have a digital camera/cell phone, take lots of pictures.  You can easily delete the poor ones; and the more pictures you take, the greater likelihood of capturing some truly great shots.

·        Because insects are active, we prefer using the autofocus option for most insect photographs.  The exceptions are larger, more stationary insects which allow the time needed to manually focus.   If manually focusing, use a higher f-stop (16 or higher, if you have the option); this will increase the areas of the picture that are in focus (increases depth of field).

·        Some situations are conducive to close-up photography.  Cool mornings (insects move more slowly) and some larger, slower-moving insects allow you to move in very close for a picture.  If your camera has a ‘close-up’ or ‘macro’ function (or a macro lens) you can sometimes take stunning close-up images.   You’ll need to be calm and patient.  And do respect the insects ‘space’; back off if an insect appears agitated, particularly if s/he has a stinger!

·        Review your photographs soon after taking them. We often need several photo sessions to get good pictures of a species.  Many insects are seasonal, so get out again soon if you need additional pictures of a species.

·        Look critically at your photos to see what worked and what didn’t.  Learn from your mistakes. 

·        Try to put a name with the insects you photograph. To get started, a good introduction to California insects is California Insects (California Natural History Guides) by Jerry Powell & Charles Hogue (ISBN-13: 978-0520037823 ISBN-10: 0520037820).  Similar guides are available for many parts of the world.  If you live in Southern California, a great on-line resource is Dr. Peter J. Bryant’s  Natural History of Orange County and Nearby Places : http://nathistoc.bio.uci.edu/Arthropods.htm .  

·        If you’re having trouble identifying an insect, consider sending a photograph to your local natural history museum or uploading pictures (N. American species) to BugGuide (http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740)

Sphex ichneumoneus-6-24-12


We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about photographing insects or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

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