September 18, 2013 | 1
Since I photograph insects for a living, people frequently ask how often I get stung. The answer is, probably not as much as you’d think. Most arthropods are harmless or even beneficial towards our species. Plus, a perk of being an entomologist is learning the skills to recognize and avoid trouble from dangerous insects.
Still, I’ve been doing this for over a decade. Through a combination of incidental encounters and planned sessions I’ve accumulated enough bite and sting photos to share this set.
So. Here I am, in high magnification, getting zinged:
Intentional sting: Australia’s jack-jumper and bulldog ants (Myrmecia spp.) are known for their large size and impressive sting. How could I not want a photo of the great southern continent’s signature microwildlife performing its signature act?
Here, the difference between a bite (a mechanical grab with the mandibles) and a sting (venom injection from a specialized organ, usually at rear of the animal) is clear. I did wuss out on this photo a bit, though. I reduced the amount of venom by having the jack jumper sting harmlessly into the sole of my shoe before letting her on my arm.
Intentional sting: I wasn’t satisfied with just the jack-jumper- who knows why- so on a subsequent visit to Australia I lined up a similar shot of a larger bull ant. The sting itself is out of focus at the back- those impressive mandibles are just for gripping. This one hurt.
Intentional bite: Aedes albopictus- the Asian tiger mosquito- spreads the virus behind Dengue Fever. This laboratory-reared insect posed no disease threat, however, and the photo op was planned.
Intentional bite: Ochlerotatus triseriatus is a native North American mosquito and a vector for La Crosse encephalitis. As this animal was lab-reared, I was in no danger of receiving the virus.
Unintentional bite: Azteca ants are guardians of extensive treetop territories throughout the new world tropics. Getting bitten is a certainty for those who disturb Azteca nests. The good news is that individual bites are irritating rather than painful; the bad news is that colonies are large and you’ll rarely receive fewer than a couple dozen nips. I once had swarms of these ants biting my eyelids, my most unpleasant experience as an insect photographer. This photo of a Brazilian species wasn’t planned, but since the ants were there and biting, I took the opportunity for the photograph.
Unintentional bite: Some species of snipe flies (Rhagionidae) are blood-feeders. This female alighted on my finger one afternoon in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and gave a surprisingly sharp bite. I took this photo before shooing her away.
Intentional bite: Australian meat ants, Iridomyrmex purpureus, are an omnipresent species in mesic landscapes on the great southern continent. These large, active ants defend their nests with all the fury of yellowjackets facing a lawnmower, and catching this photo was just a matter of sticking my finger on the nest to draw out the riled up guards. The bite is forceful and annoying, but it’s just a bite. No venom, no lasting pain. Plus, the meat ant is one of the prettiest insects that’s bitten me.
Unintentional bite: Iridomyrmex anceps-group ant. Most of the congeners of the preceding meat ants are equally feisty, if not as large. Here, a worker lets me have it for disturbing her nest.
Unintentional sting: I had long planned a trip to photograph Central America’s Acacia shrubs and the ferocious ants that defend them. But wow. I was not prepared for how painful the plant-associated Pseudomyrmex could be. I avoided stings as best as I could during several photo sessions, but I did manage to aim the camera at this ant that slipped past my defenses.
Unintentional bite: Oecophylla weaver ant. These large tree-dwelling ants are found nearly everywhere in the humid lowland tropics of Africa, Asia, and Australia. Weaver ants don’t hesitate to bite, either. This South African ant didn’t like me getting too near her tree, and followed this bite with a smear of formic acid from her abdomen.
Intentional simultaneous bite and sting: Solenopsis invicta fire ant showing how the insect gains leverage for planting a sting by biting with her mouthparts. As the fire ants’ most famous behavior is stinging, I had planned this image in advance. I made a mini-studio to hold an off-camera flash, a green background, and my hand. Which still has a small scar, by the way.
Intentional simultaneous bite and sting: A more elaborate version of what the preceding fire ant’s grip-and-sting technique, but Eciton army ant mandibles are designed for hooking deep into the skin, like a fishhook, so that the stinging insect cannot be dislodged. The good news, I suppose, is that army ant’s sting is milder than the fire ant’s.
Intentional simultaneous bite and sting: Just like the previous army ant, but with a more painful sting.
Intentional bite: One of our most aggressive carpenter ants, the Florida carpenter ant (Camponotus floridanus) doesn’t hold back when defending the nest. This ant does not sting, but the bite is strong- these ants chew through wood, of course- and they have a habit of spaying formic acid in the bite wound. I planned this image just to capture what this species does best.
Intentional bite: A common bed bug, Cimex lectularius. The most useful photographs of any animal species are those showing its most publicized behavior, so I simply had to have images of bed bugs biting. Here, we can see the protective sheath folded back to reveal the piercing stylet.
Intentional sting: Honey bees are such familiar insects that the force of their sting is perhaps surprising. For whatever pain we feel, however, the bee makes the bigger sacrifice as the act of stinging kills her. I planned this photograph, so I did indirectly kill the bee to get this shot. Incidentally, we discuss the ethics of insect death and photography in an earlier post.
Unintentional bite: This Anopheles female issued my first mosquito bite of the 2012 season, and rather than squish her I managed to contort myself around to photograph her feeding near my elbow. Early season mosquitoes are less likely to carry diseases.