Too cool, part one

Welcome to the first of a new topic, one I’ve been meaning to get to for a while. So far, I have two others in the queue which will show up before too long, so keep watching. This is my way of illustrating one of the reasons I got into nature photography in the first place.

The other day The Girlfriend and I checked out the local botanical garden while they were having a sculpture show. I can get vaguely interested in exotic plants, but usually spend my time chasing insects and lizards, and this was no exception. After a couple of hours, I’d packed away the camera equipment and we were heading out when I glanced down and noticed a little bit of chaff on my shirt. But it looked familiar, and as I watched, it confirmed my suspicions by creeping along my sleeve. I plucked it off and handed it to The Girlfriend, then dug the equipment back out.

tinybugger1As odd as this might look, most of what you see isn’t really part of the insect at all. This is the larva of a green lacewing fly. At this stage they’re predatory, meaning they eat other insects, mostly aphids. The cluster of junk on its back is molted exoskeletons of other insects – what kind, I haven’t been able to identify. Perhaps aphids, perhaps other lacewing larvae, spiders, or even preying mantis. It serves as camouflage, making a tasty insect (I’m assuming, anyway – something must find it palatable) into a dry bit of chaff. And, it serves an additional purpose, in that anything that does recognize it as food stands a much better chance of getting a mouthful of detachable skin (no Goldmember jokes now) instead of the juicy, nutritious insect.

My attempts at getting a good shot of it on The Girlfriend’s hand were cut short when it began biting her, so I popped it into the extension tubes – the only enclosed thing I had, since I was shooting with the digital and had no film cans handy. Don’t try telling me you’ve never done this. Back home, I used a branch as a set and started taking dozens of shots to try and capture the detail. Not only was the little thing so small that focus was difficult, and not only did it remain hidden under its trashheap, but it decided holding still was not the way it rolled. When your range of effective focus is measured in not more than three millimeters, this makes for a fun evening.

Yet, I still managed to get some interesting detail, like the long lashes on either side. These are appendages of the body that are there to support the debris. Once it pupates into the flying adult these vanish, and to the best of my knowledge they serve no purpose other than to support external camouflage while in this stage. Stripes and patterns to try and blend in? How plebeian! These guys grow a scaffold and construct a hunting blind on it, using only the very best of recycled materials. Considering the minuscule size of the insect’s brain, I have to imagine that a large portion of it is taken up with this instinct to build the structure it carries around. And apparently it works – just not against inquisitive photographers.

tinybugger2In case you wanted a better idea of the scale, here it is again, held by the chaff between my thumb and forefinger. And yes, just so you feel better about me sacrificing The Girlfriend in the name of bug pictures, it got its own chance to gnaw on me too. Lucky for it I hadn’t found it earlier when I was looking for some insects to feed a shy lizard.