Photographing the Limestone Tiger Beetle

Seeing and photographing the beautifully black Prairie Tiger Beetles (Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina) in southwestern Oklahoma was a lot of fun, but by Day 5 I was ready to look for one of my top goals for the trip—Cicindelidia politula (Limestone Tiger Beetle). Occurring primarily in Texas (but also sneaking up into Oklahoma), this would be my first attempt to search for the species. I had gotten a few localities in northern Texas from trusty colleagues, and I knew the beetles occurred on limestone outcroppings in dry to xeric upland habitats (Pearson et al. 2006)—usually starting in late September.  Nevertheless, I always get a little apprehensive when I drive long distances to look for tiger beetles I’ve never seen before. Will I recognize it? What if I find another, similar looking but more common species and assume I’ve found it? Will the season be right? Many species, especially those associated with xeric habitats, depend on timely rains to make their appearance. Will I find the proper microhabitat? There are sometimes seemingly minor details that can make a habitat suitable or not for a particular species.

Cicindelidia politula politula | Montague Co., Texas

As can be seen by the above photo, I did succeed in finding the species. However, it wasn’t easy, and for the better part of Day 5 I wondered if I would even be able to capture a specimen, much less succeed in photographing the species in its native habitat. I actually saw the first individual of this species in Oklahoma—sitting on the very first exposed limestone rock at the very first locality I went to. My rule for photographing tiger beetles that I’ve never seen before is to collect the first individual and keep it alive in a vial. In the event I never see another individual or fail in my attempts to photograph them in the field, the first individual becomes my voucher specimen and studio backup. Fortunately, I rarely have to resort to studio shots, but in this case I muffed my attempt to capture the specimen! I searched the locality for a good hour and never saw another one until I circled back to where I started, and there it was again (it just had to be the same one). Believe it or not, I muffed the capture attempt once again! That was my last chance at the Oklahoma site, so it was a rather dejected 2-hour drive south to Montague Co. in northern Texas—knowing that I’d seen it and had my shot at it (two shots, actually) but still found myself empty-handed.

A serviceable photo, but like most of confined individuals it suffers from lack of ”pizzazz.”

My luck improved in Montague Co., although not right away or that much when it did. I had just about given up at this second locality when I saw one. This time I used the stalk-and-slap technique followed by a quick pounce to seal down the net around its perimeter and prevent escape by the beetle (they are real good at quickly finding the tiniest gap between the net rim and the ground and then zipping away in a flash). This time I succeeded in capturing the beetle and thus had my voucher, but my pounce was a little too rough on the beetle, resulting in an extruded genital capsule. This made it completely unusable for photographs (imagine a big orange blob sticking out of the butt of the beetle—not good, photographically!). Of course, finding a beetle at the site caused me to spend more time searching, but I never saw another beetle there.

The shiny black to blue-black elytra with white markings absent or limited to the apices are characteristic for the species.

At this point I had a decision to make—if I drove to the next locality on my list (2-hour drive), I probably would not arrive with enough time before sunset to find beetles. I decided not to waste the remaining daylight and instead just bushwhack where I was to look for similar roadside habitats and drive on after sunset. I found another good habitat fairly quickly, and within minutes after starting the search I saw one—and missed it! But then I saw another one—and missed it, too! Now my confidence was shaken, as neither of the two techniques I use most commonly for capturing tiger beetles were working. When I used the “stalk-and-slap” method the beetles always found a gap on the rough, rocky ground and got away, and when I used the “tap-and-sweep” method the beetles would hunker down at first and then fly right after the net passed over them. I would miss a total of eight (eight!) beetles before I finally (finally!) caught one, and then I would miss three more beetles afterwards! That single beetle is shown in the above photographs, which were taken after placing the beetle on a large, flat limestone rock that I laid on the bed in my hotel room that night (carrying that huge limestone rock into the hotel room was an experience!).

I really dislike photographing confined insects. Even if one prepares a wholly natural looking set and manages to cajole the subject into standing still, they rarely look quite right. I do like the first photo in the series, just because it’s a well composed face shot, but I’m not so fond of the more ‘classic’ view of the beetle represented by the second photo. Technically it’s an adequate photo that shows the beetle and all of its salient characters; however, it lacks, well… oomph, because the beetle isn’t really doing anything—the photo tells no natural history story. Still, an adequate photo that lacks oomph is better than no photo at all, so I made the best of my opportunity to take studio shots of the one good beetle I had and hoped for better luck the next day.

Exposed limestone road bank in Johnson Co., Texas—perfect habitat for Cicindelidia politula

The next day brought the luck that I was looking for. I was close to the next locality on my list when I saw a road bank with exposed limestone that just seemed to call out, “Search me!” I stopped and began searching, and within a few minutes I saw the first beetle—and missed it! Arghhh, not again! I would actually miss a few more before I finally caught one, so by now my confidence was destroyed. It’s been a long since I’ve had this much trouble catching tiger beetles, and if I was having this much trouble catching them, how on earth could I even contemplate trying to photograph them. However, the nice thing about finding a spot where beetles are out in numbers is the opportunity to try again—practice makes perfect. I decided my previous attempts had all been a little too lackadaisical and started buckling down and really concentrating on my technique. Not surprisingly, I started having success in capturing the elusive beetles (tap-and-sweep worked best), and after a time I felt like I had a good enough feel for the beetle’s behavior to begin trying for field photographs.

Cicindelidia politula politula | Johnson Co., Texas

Not surprisingly, given how difficult they were to catch, this also proved to be one of the most difficult species of tiger beetle that I’ve ever tried to photograph. Like many other tiger beetles that live in hot, xeric, open habitats they were extremely wary and difficult to approach, a behavior that was exacerbated by the now midday sun. Their escape flights were not very far, but far enough that if I’d already gotten into a prone position I had to get up and start all over again. The task was made even more difficult by the hard, jagged, rough-edge rocks on which I had to lay and crawl—ouch! Several individuals are represented in the field photographs shown here, each of which I had to “work” for some amount of time before I was able to finally get close enough to start taking photos (and representing only a few of the many individuals that I actually spent time “working”). Usually, the first photos of an individual are never very good but start the process of getting the beetle accustomed to my presence and the periodic flash of light. Eventually, if I’m lucky, it settles down and resumes normal searching and thermoregulatory behaviors, and I can then get as close as I want and really work the angles for a variety of compositions. I no longer try to approach beetles from the ‘proper’ angle; they turn so much while moving about that it’s easier to just wait for them to assume desired angles as they move about and be ready to shoot when it happens. Field photography of unconfined tiger beetles in their native habitat is hard and time consuming, but the results are well worth the effort. Compare the staged photos of the Montague Co. individual with the field photos from Johnson Co. What marvelous displays of active beetles engaged in natural behaviors in their native habitat the latter represent!

By midday the adults start ”sun-facing” to minimize thermal exposure in their hot, xeric habitats.

After getting several good photos of the beetle in its habitat, I decided it was time to try for some really close photos and added a full set of extension tubes to the camera. A set of tubes with a 100mm macro lens provides close to 2X magnification, but it also reduces the available working distance—a real challenge with wary tiger beetles under a midday sun! I spent quite a bit of time trying to get close enough to take advantage of the additional magnification, but I wasn’t successful until I encountered the individual in the photos below shade-seeking at the base of a yucca plant. Shade-seeking beetles tend to stay put and not move as much (although they still rarely just sit there).

Shade-seeking is another strategy to avoid the midday heat.

I worked this beetle for several minutes and managed to get a number of shots, each closer than the previous and culminating in the nice portrait below.

The ”pièce de résistance”—Cicindelidia politula politula at 2X life size!

My photographic appetite now completely satiated, I spent the rest of the day searching for (and finding) additional localities for the species in the area. I found them more often associated with older, level exposures that had at least a small amount of vegetation. In contrast, newer or steeply sloped exposures or those completely devoid of vegetation rarely had beetles associated with them. I had now spent two days working on C. politula, but the results—both as a collector and as a photographer—made it time well spent. I felt like I “understood” the beetle. However, with only two days left in the trip, it was time to start working my way back towards Missouri and focusing on the few additional goals I still had for the trip.

REFERENCE:

Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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9 Responses to Photographing the Limestone Tiger Beetle

  1. Great composition on the ‘sun-facing’ shot, I like the elegance of its ‘tippy-toe’ stance and the space it is looking into…very appealing.

    Bug photography can be a lot of hard work, but definitely worth the effort!

    • Thank you Adrian. The sun-facing shots are my favorites as well – in fact, I think I like the slightly more distant one with the plant best for its sense of landscape.

      People are amazed when I tell them how long I have to work these beetles sometimes to get the shots I’m looking for. You gotta really want it!

  2. Ben Coulter says:

    Just out of curiosity, what color is your net bag? Is it dark green?

    • Yep – dark green. My string of failures starting out was a result of not yet understanding how the beetle would react to my capture attempts. Once I got a line on that my tap-and-swing success rate shot up to ~80%.

      • Ben Coulter says:

        Ted, I had very similar experiences with C. marginipennis this year. When slapping the net rim over the beetles, I found that they invariably would run under the net rim, and then fly away. I had limited success capturing them by using the swinging technique. On a subsequent collecting trip, my friend Jerry had much better luck slapping the net over the beetles, and they would often fly up into the bag probably >50% of the time. The only significant difference I could some up with was that his net bag was white. I wonder if perhaps the beetles have an instinctive reaction to fly upwards only if it is sufficiently bright above them, and my darker green bag caused them to run until they got out from under the net.

        • That’s a very interesting thought – I’ll have to give it a try. Of course, conventional thinking is that white bags are more visible from afar, causing the insect to be alarmed earlier. However, I can’t say I’ve really noticed a difference in that regard. I think they actually cue more off of height – for photography I have more success getting close if I get down and crawl towards them on my elbows and knees rather than walking towards them on my feet, no matter how slowly I do the latter. For netting, my 6′ handle gives me more than enough reach so that I can remain standing (albeit somewhat stooped), but I keep the rim horizontal and close to the ground with the bag underneath as I move it towards the beetle, then flip it 180° as I slap or turn it 90° and tap depending on the technique I’m using.

  3. tcornelisse says:

    Reblogged this on Conservation of Biodiversity and commented:
    Ted MacRae does a great job describing how difficult it can be to find and photograph tiger beetles! He ends up with beautiful shots!

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