Frustrations, part four

So this afternoon, noticing the massive activity at a yellowjacket’s burrow in my yard, I decided to try and get some nice close shots of their work. That would be called, “foreshadowing,” in English Lit classes, wouldn’t it? Ah, not in the way that you’re thinking…
Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons) are generally ground-nesting wasps, known to be the most aggressive in the area. Disturbing the nest, which is usually an unobtrusive hole in the ground, can cause them to swarm, and most especially so if you kill one of their number, which releases a scent that alerts the others. I have run afoul of this before, being stung over a dozen distinctive times in a frenetic couple of minutes. The advice is, “Don’t slap them,” but this is a bit hard to follow as they’re stinging you. Unlike honeybees, yellowjackets do not lose the embedded stinger on the first sting, but can nail you repeatedly. As I discovered then, spit on and clean off the spot where you smooshed one before it attracts more to the exact same spot. The stings can start itching madly at odd times for several days after the attack, by the way…

So what was I doing trying to get closeup photos of a nest that was seeing roughly 40 ingresses and egresses a minute? Well, not irritating them, for one. I used an extension tube on a 75-300mm lens to stay about a meter from the opening, and tried to time my shots for insects just leaving the ground. This is far harder than it sounds – yellowjackets appear at the mouth of the opening and are airborne in a flash, taking less than a tenth of a second to cut across the entire photo frame (which was far larger than shown in these tightly cropped images.) I’ve had plenty of practice, but I have an awful lot of empty frames.

When doing this, the air around was sometimes filled with their buzzing, and I had several land on me momentarily. I was sitting still, however, and made no aggressive moves, so as far as they were concerned I was nothing more than the branches near the nest that they occasionally lit upon. With lots of tries, and running the batteries almost dead in the strobe unit, I managed to get a few frames of merit, including the one below. Just before takeoff, a worker appears in the mouth of the opening with a dirt clod to carry away, clearly busy expanding the underground warren. This explained at least some of the frenzied activity I was seeing, and the dropping temperatures may be contributing, since they do not handle freezing conditions well and were likely trying to dig deeper before these occurred, where the earth would retain more heat as the surface cooled.

Should I have really wanted lots of detail shots of an insect in flight, this is the wrong way to go about it – the depth-of-field is way too short and the area for the wasps to be in too large. To control this, some insect photographers set up a rig where two infrared or laser beams cross at a particular point. These beams are linked to light sensors and into a device to trip the camera shutter – both beams have to be broken to fire the camera, so the insect has to be in a precise location. Since this is still unimaginably hard to achieve in three-dimensional space, another factor is occasionally added: a tube that empties out right near the crossed beams, just outside of the camera’s view. Insects are introduced into this tube and gently blown along it to exit by the crossed beams, so that they stand a much greater chance of passing through the key focus point. This is how the studies of insects in flight are often done. When time is money, you do whatever you can to increase the odds. As I’ve shown at top, you can indeed catch insects in flight without special rigs, but you’ll notice the shadow behind the wasp – it was barely airborne at this point, and I shot 86 frames trying for this, with only a handful of sharp images.

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