Another look at North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle

My love affair with the bumelia borer, Plinthocoelium suaveolens, has been well-chronicled on this blog. The combination of its large size, striking iridescent green elytra, brilliant coppery head and pronotum, and marvelously elongate antennae and legs – both black but the latter with contrasting orange femora – even led me to declare it as “North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle“. For all its charisma, however, I never did succeed in getting field photographs that I felt did justice to the beauty of this wary and difficult-to-approach species. Yes, I did photograph a live adult in a white box, a technique that is especially useful for such colorful subjects. However, I still desired that ‘perfect’ photo of a live adult, unconfined in the field on its host plant.

Plinthocoelium suaveolens suaveolens

Plinthocoelium suaveolens – photographed 29 July 2017 on foliage of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin Co., Missouri.

Some years would pass before I gave photographing this species another try. In 2015 and 2016, I discovered healthy populations of the species at two locations surprisingly close to my home while conducting fermenting bait trap surveys – one at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri (just 14 miles from my home), and the other at Victoria Glades Natural Area near Hillsboro, Missouri (slightly further away – only 40 miles from my home). During these surveys, I not only caught the beetles in my traps, but I was able to find them on their host plant, Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia), and learn their habits and behavior – important to know when trying to photograph living, unconfined insects. Still, it wasn’t easy! On 29 July 2017, I and several other nature photographers went to Shaw Nature Reserve to find and photograph this species, and through our collective efforts we found only a single individual – at first resting high up on the foliage of a living tree but later flying down to a branch that was (just barely) within reach of our lenses. I used my 100-mm macro, and the photograph above is the only one that I was satisfied with – yes, the tips of the elytra and left hind leg are somewhat obscured, but exposure is good, the focus spot on, and the background a pleasing blur of green that contrasts nicely with the sharply iridescent beetle (achieved with settings that allowed a combination of ambient light and flash illumination of the subject).

Plinthocoelium suaveolens suaveolens

Plinthocoelium suaveolens – photographed 29 July 2017 on a dead branch of Sideroxylon lanuginosum at Victoria Glades Natural Area, Jefferson Co., Missouri.

My luck turned later that day when I went down to Victoria Glades to check my fermenting bait traps – and found an adult on the trunk of one of the trees in which a trap was hanging! In this case, I was able to use my “beetle whisperer” skills to coax the beetle onto a dead branch of the tree and positioned it with the sky in the background. As the beetle roamed back and forth on the branch (rarely stopping!), I used the “left hand technique” to keep it in the frame and fired a shot after shot, hoping against hope that I would get at least one in which all of the required elements – exposure, lighting, focus, and most importantly composition – were what I wanted. And that is exactly what I got – one photograph (out of about 75 shots) in which all of those elements worked (second photo above)!

Some may snicker at my spending a whole day just to get two photographs of a single species, but I relish the challenge and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that these photographs represent field photographs of live, unconfined beetles. Could I do better? Sure, and I will probably try again sometime. But for now, these will do.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

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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 Cerambycidae, Coleoptera and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Another look at North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle

  1. gcsnelling says:

    Lovely, definitely one of those I would love to find.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Love your sky in the background shots Ted. Just took up macrophotography about 3 mos ago and have bee reviewing your field logs for pointers and techniques. So far, I stink at the “left hand” technique and my lighting never seems as sharp. Great articles in story form as always. Makes one feel like they are “in the field” experiencing it too.

    • brad says:

      sorry, didn’t post my name. This is Brad

    • Thanks, Brad. Field macrophotography is a steep learning curve, so just keep at it and read all you can. Lighting is everything, and the more you can learn and understand the impact that different conditions – both ambient and from flash – have the better off you’ll be. Composition also will be key – try to simplify the backgrounds as much as possible, and don’t get so enamored with the ability to get up close that you routinely clip parts of the antennae and feet (take it from me!).

  3. Robert Wrigley says:

    Congratulations Ted. Wonderful photos of a spectacular long-horned species. I remember how excited I was to collect it in Florida and Texas. They shone like multicoloured jewels in the sun. Later, I caught a specimen on a flowering shrub along the Texas coast and learned later that it was a Plinthocoelium schwarzi; it had black femora.

  4. Allen Sundholm says:

    Many kind thanks Ted! Excellent pics, well done, nice blog!

    Cheers

    Allen Sundholm

  5. Looking at this beetle, I’m reminded of the time when a longhorn beetle got into my younger sister’s room. She screamed and screamed and told me to get something to kill it. With all the agitation, the beetle flew somewhere under her bed, and guess what, she turned everything upside down in her room just to find it, but didn’t. That night, she slept in my room. The next day, our close neighbors asked her about the noise of the previous night and she said she had seen a strange creature on her bed. Later on, she saw another dead beetle somewhere in the garden and asked me if it was the same one that had been in her room and I said yes just so she would go back to her room. Good memories! Incredible photography, thanks for sharing.
    Elna

  6. Clint R King says:

    Another great article Ted! I managed to get about two-score of these using your bait method this past summer…they really love sangria! But I agree nothing beats one in situ in full sunlight. I usually just observe those & let ‘em go. Going to south TX this spring for my bucket-list schwartzi & C. rimosa (North America’s 2nd most beautiful longhorned beetle) Happy bugging
    C

    • Nice job – those numbers match what I was able to collect in each of three straight years of bait trapping. I didn’t trap last year, but I may start up again this year because I found a single Sphenostethus taslei in my last season.

      Good luck with Plinthocoelium schwartzi and Callona rimosa – I’ve not seen either and would dearly love to.

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  8. I would aspire to do exactly the same thing. Only I would consider myself lucky to do so well. What a beautiful insect!

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