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Photographing Uncooperative Insects: The Nest Entrance Trick

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Earlier, I mentioned that chilling active insects to more easily photograph them can give unnatural results. How is the intrepid photographer to work with animals that do not sit still?

Hypotrigona stingless bees, Uganda.

A strategy that works well with species that build nests- especially, bees, wasps, and ants- is to find and stake out their nest entrances. The effort in locating a nest is often returned several-fold in time saved capturing a composed, properly focused photograph. Even the most frenetic wasp will pass through the predictable focal plane of her nest entryway. Not only are the points of action repeatable, many insects pause briefly as they emerge from the nest, waving their antennae for a few extra photogenic moments as if to survey the path ahead.

A soil-nesting Lasioglossum sweat bee, Illinois.

The nest entrance trick has two additional benefits. First, composition and lighting are simplified compared to when tracking a moving subject. You will be able to experiment with angle, lighting, and placement of elements in the shot so that you are ready when the subject appears. Second, your photographs will show real behaviors, with greater natural history value and more interest for the viewer.

Myrmecocystus honeypot ants, California.

The best way to locate a nest will depend on the species. Ants are straightforwardly earthbound. Just give foragers a bit of cookie small enough to carry but large enough to see, and follow her home.

Cephalotes turtle ant, Florida Keys.

Flying insects are more difficult. I have found it easier to look for nests in the appropriate habitats and wait for incoming insects to point the way. Many solitary bees and wasps nest in abandoned beetle burrows in dead wood. You’d be surprised at what you might find living in old telephone poles, stumps, trees, and wooden fenceposts.

Tetragonisca stingless bees, Paraná, Brazil.

The drawback of the nest entrance trick, of course, is that most insect species don’t nest. If you are after flies, or beetles, or any other active subject that does not provision its young, you will need to rely on some other method. I’ll be covering a couple of those later this week.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sonorasam 11:30 am 03/11/2014

    A trick I use for flies and other non-nesters is to take a mixture of salmon oil, honey and smear it on an old fence or near the compost. Insects love it and they are fairly oblivious of you as long as you do not make sudden movements. Also I have found insects seem to be very aware of sudden changes in light. Sudden shadows over them will spook them a bit so keeping the sun in front of your target if you can works well. “Natural” behavior can be observed.

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  2. 2. 1064nm 3:36 pm 03/11/2014

    I’ve taken excellent macro shots of dragonflies due to this submitted observation. Quite often, when a dragonfly is disturbed, either intentionally by the photographer, or, as a natural course of action, they quite often return to the very same spot within a minute or less, and, amazingly even face the same direction! Presetting a shot due to this interesting quirk often results in very detailed images without gross focusing. I would dearly love an explanation for this unusual behavior!

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