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Recipe For A Photograph #4: The Emerging Mosquito

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A female Aedes aegypti yellow fever mosquito ecloses from her underwater pupa. Laboratory culture at Rockefeller University.

Here is a powerful method to photograph the world’s most dangerous animal in an unusual moment of vulnerability.

But first, a digression into mosquito biology.

Mosquitoes lead a starkly different existence between their early days and their adult lives, spending their youth in the water and their adulthood in the air. The transition occurs when the maturing insect sheds its last immature casing in the water and exits upwards through a small opening to the atmosphere, literally leaving its old skin beneath the surface. The process is not only fascinating to watch, but it occurs in the unusually photogenic microenvironment of the air/water boundary. With its watery reflections and its simplicity, the scene is a photographer’s delight.


Several mosquito pupae ready to emerge; the more the better
1 low, flat dish
1 taller dish filled with water to the point of overflowing
2 strobes on stands with wireless or remote triggering
2 softbox flash diffusers
1 sheet of colored paper
1 set of forceps
1 glass of water for re-topping
1 dSLR with macro lens

Set the taller dish into the shorter one so as to contain the inevitable spills from your watery set. Fill the inner dish to the brim. The water should emerge above the top, nearly overflowing, so that a side view of the mosquito is unobstructed by the container.

Set the strobes to the sides of the stage, facing inward, and place a colored backdrop behind. The distance will determine the relative brightness of the background.

Set the flash power and lens aperture to the desired brightness and depth of field, and when ready, add the mature pupae to the dish. You may need to devote several hours to waiting for emergence to begin. Patience is a virtue! The more pupae you have available, the shorter your wait will be.

When emergence starts, use the forceps to arrange the animal in the dish so that the subject mosquito is clear of the other pupae. For best results, you will want to lower yourself to just above the water level. You will want to be looking *up* at the mosquito as it towers above the surface. If in doubt, you are probably not low enough.

I recently used this recipe to create a set of images in Leslie Vosshall’s neurobiology lab at Rockefeller University. We employed a couple hundred mosquito pupae and an extremely patient graduate student, Emily Dennis, who kept an eye on the maturing pupae over the course of a day.


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. bernardpalmer 3:51 pm 05/20/2014

    Amazing photography. Well done.

    What an interesting creature they are.

    So it is the surface tension of the water that allows them to emerge. I wonder what happens if the tension were less.

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  2. 2. BarbaraM 5:56 pm 05/20/2014

    Amazing photograph. I have a Nikon d5100, what macro lans should I use for this type of close up?
    I just learned how to use the white box, well, still working on it.
    Also, I created nice garden where on the back I feed birds, 5 feet away I have a home style little water pond about 3 feet by 4 feet, with gold fish. I have a hawk that comes once a while to feeds on the birds. He leaves blood behind. Mosquitos feed on that. Fish eat the mosquitos. I think birds eat the mosquitos also. I never have mosquitos leave that corner of my yard. I think I created nice neutral balance. Anyway, I’m not a scientist just home owner, but I love what you do and admire the work you do. Thank you. Barbara

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  3. 3. g0lg0r10 10:22 pm 05/20/2014

    Buenas tomas. bernardpalmer a menor tensión no puede emerger, se utilizan substancias para producir ese efecto en el agua como control de larvas.

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  4. 4. 4:11 pm 05/28/2014

    Holy cow, Alex. What an incredible suite of pics!

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  5. 5. lizzardliz 2:35 pm 05/29/2014

    Yes, that IS correct !

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  6. 6. mike_midwest 6:49 pm 06/1/2014

    When I was a kid I saw these little things swiggling about in some puddles. I went home, got jar and collected them. I couple of days later I found out what they were – the hard way!

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