Bug hunting

I thought I’d post some random tips and thoughts on finding insects  — something that can be challenging and is the reason why entomologists trap them, put them in a killing jar, and photograph their corpses. Photographers don't need to do that and the little weevil on left wants you to know that you'll get a much nicer photo if you photograph him alive and where you find him -- and then leave him in peace.  You'll also avoid the guilt involved in murdering a harmless insect merely to obtain a photograph. 

Pollinators. Look on sunny days since that’s when they are most active. Try and find flowering plants that are partly shaded so you have plenty of filtered light (direct sunlight is going to produce all manner of nasty reflections from tiny hairs, scales, and their exoskeleton — it will ruin your photos.)  Look along the “edges” where field meets the forest. It also helps to know your plant species and keep a mental record of which ones are favored. Here are the common names of some of the plant species favored by pollinators in the eastern United States: Goldenrod, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, any species of milkweed, brown-eyed Suzy, autumn clematis, and all species in the aster family.

Beetles. Look for “ground” beetles in mature woods and old forests. In particular, look for them on dead or dying trees and on rotten logs. If you get down on your hands and knees in a forest it is amazing how much life there is among the leaf litter! Look for borers on living and dead trees. You can often find various longhorn beetles, ladybugs, flower beetles, and more in stands of wildflowers such as milkweed, goldenrod, and aster. You will find many more beetles if you search at night.

Flies. Flies are fickle and entrancing subjects; there are many, many species and they have a varied diet. Robber flies, for example, are predatory and perch on the tips of branches or grasses watching for the smaller insects on which they prey. They will often return to the same spot to hunt. If you find one and spook him it can be worth waiting a few minutes to see if he returns. Long-legged flies are extremely difficult to photograph since they tend to fly off when your camera sends out a “pre-flash” burst of light — it is much easier to observe and photograph them at night. 

Caterpillars. Caterpillars are wonderful subjects since they move slowly.  However,  finding unusual ones can be tricky since many 'pillars are only found on specific host plants. In addition, many species tend to be seasonal and appear at specific times of the year when they will have the food they need and time to pupate before winter. Monarch caterpillars, for example, can usually only be found on milkweed (unless they have left the milkweed and are looking for a nearby plant on which to pupate.) 

Slug caterpillars. These are challenging to find since they are extraordinarily well camouflaged and tend to be scattered. In Virginia, the best months to find them are April through August and I look on the underside of leaves in woods. Some are only likely to be found on specific species of tree or shrub such as beech, oak, or witch hazel. They are worth the effort since they are among the most beautiful of all caterpillars.

Ants. Easy to find, impossible to photograph! But ants do rest periodically in my experience and if you see one sitting still on a tree or rock it may be worth trying to line up on him and grab a shot.

And, as a bonus, here's some info on locating frogs and salamanders:

Frogs. Obviously, one can look for frogs near a pond. But many species of frog (especially in tropical areas where many frogs are arboreal) only visit wet areas to breed. In North America, for example, wood frogs spend the entire year in the woods and show up at ponds for four or five days in early spring. The water will be shockingly cold at that time of year and the frogs will be shockingly busy. The rest of the year they tend to lounge about in leaf litter and damp areas in wooded areas. 

Salamanders. Smithsonian says there are over 70 total salamander species in the Appalachian range where I live -- I've seen about eight species which speaks to the difficulty in finding them (I don't flip logs or rocks -- it seems rude.)  Their habits vary greatly with some being nocturnal, some being aquatic, and some spending almost their entire lives in a "fossorial" state where they basically live under a log or rock and wait for prey to walk by with an annual trip to the mating grounds.  Some species have been observed in only a few counties and may be endangered.  

The spotted salamander is common where I live and only goes to water (small ponds) to breed. They return to the pond where they hatched on a wet night in early spring. Think March when snow may still be on the ground. They waddle from their hiding places to the pond, mate and go home as soon as possible.  Look for them in and near old and relatively undisturbed ponds that are surrounded by forest or woodland.

I don’t share exact locations for fear of exposing vulnerable creatures to human stupidity, but it is not uncommon to find dozens of spotted salamanders “on the move” during their breeding season. The same applies to some of our other Virginia salamanders. If you know where to look, it's possible to find dozens of eastern red-backed salamanders, (Plethodon cinereus), southern two-lined salamanders, (Eurycea cirrigera), and some northern two-lined salamanders, (Eurycea bislineata,) in the Shenandoah National Forest. 

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