A time of reckoning

The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

A "super moon" watches over a parasitized hornworm caterpillar.

A “super moon” watches over a parasitized hornworm caterpillar.

I’m not normally one to quote Bible passages, but this line from Acts 2:20 seems appropriately ominous for the predicament of this poor hornworm caterpillar. The white objects on its back are the cocoons of tiny parasitic wasps in the family Braconidae who spent their entire lives inside the body of the growing caterpillar slowly eating away the inner tissues of the caterpillar, eventually consuming all but the most essential of its internal organs before exiting the skin and spinning their tiny, silken cocoons. Inside the cocoons the tiny grubs transformed into adult wasps, chewed their way out through the tip of the cocoon, and flew off to mate and find more hornworm caterpillars to parasitize. Its unwelcome guests now gone, this poor caterpillar has nothing to do but to sit and await its inevitable demise (which I suspect the caterpillar will not regard as such a “great and magnificent day”).

I found this caterpillar resting on a vine climbing a tree along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri after setting up an ultraviolet light nearby and noticing the softly glowing cocoons. I was going to photograph it in situ, but I’ve learned that choice of background can have a dramatic effect on insect photographs, and the jumble of weeds and tree bark that would have comprised the background had I photographed the caterpillar where it sat seemed decidedly boring. I looked up and saw the blood red moon (a so called “super moon”) rising above the river in the eastern sky and decided to give it a try. The above photograph is actually a composite of two photographs—one of the caterpillar taken with flash and fairly normal camera settings, and another of the moon itself with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all adjusted for very low light conditions (at least to the extent possible without a tripod). While this may not qualify in some people’s minds as a “real” photograph, it is nevertheless a true representation of what I actually saw, as I also made a number of attempts to capture both the insect and the moon in a single exposure. Since it is impossible to have both the insect (very close) and the moon (very far) in focus at the same time, the resulting photograph has a different, though still striking, effect, as shown in the photograph below:

IMG_6919_enh_1080x720

A more surrealistic version of the above photograph, with both caterpillar and moon captured in a single exposure.

This second photograph is actually much harder to take, as the moon does not appear in the viewfinder as the small, discrete, fuzzy-edged object resulting in the image, but rather as a large, blinding light that is difficult to place within the composition and know exactly where it will end up (at least, without a lot of trial and error). Add to that the fact that my camera image and histogram display panel is, at the moment, not functional, forcing me to “guess” if I had the right settings (in a situation where I’m well outside of my ‘normal’ settings for flash macrophotography). I’m a little surprised that I ended up with any usable photographs at all!

I’ve tried this type of photography with the sun as well—those interested to see how those photographs turned can find them at Sunset for another great collecting trip and Under Blood Red Skies.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

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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.
This entry was posted in Braconidae, Hymenoptera, Lepidoptera, Sphingidae and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A time of reckoning

  1. Mike Powell says:

    Cool shot. Initially when I looked at the first image, I wondered how you got such an amazing depth of field. It was so well done, I didn’t even consider the possibility that it was a composite image, though it made sense when you explained what you had done.

  2. Wow! Not only interesting to learn all of this, but just amazing photos as well. I’m a fan of the one with the moon and caterpillar in focus.

    Also, I find it incredible that a caterpillar can survive being eaten from the inside and still be alive when they exit the cocoons. How much time has passed?

    Great post…truly interesting.

  3. theladyhum says:

    Oh wow! Love the quote combined with the photo – very haunting, beautiful and creepy all at once :-). Very interesting to see how you shot it too.

  4. cshooter says:

    Great picture! My Darwinian Evolution lecturer at university always sited these wasps as proof that there was no god. He said no sentient being would devise such a messed up life cycle, not to mention the cousins of these wasps, who lay their eggs *inside* the eggs of other wasps, all inside the same hapless caterpillar!

    • Thanks. I must confess that I regard university professors who “preach” about the absence of God just as bad as those who use the classroom as a forum for theistic views. Any good scientist knows that one cannot prove a negative hypothesis, and to cite examples such as this as “proof” that there is no God is as flawed an argument as those used by creationists (e.g., vertebrate eyes, bird wings, etc.) as proof of creation. Atheism is supposed to be the absence of theism, not anti-theism. The latter is as much a belief system as theism—both take a position that is not based on evidence or what it says/does not say.

  5. Marti says:

    Beautiful shot. I must admit, I prefer happy endings – symbiotic relationships are happy and longer lasting.

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