Nectar and pollen and all that jazz

possibly silver-spotted skipper Epargyreus clarus showing proboscis
With the heavy rains a few days back, the flowers in the NC Botanical Garden were producing more than adequate nectar, and when the Inscrutable Mr Bugg and I visited on Thursday, the pollinators were having a field day, as they say. I mean, not the pollinators – they tend to be closed-mouthed, or really no-mouthed-at-all – but, you know, the they they. Which is to say, someone other than us, possibly wholly imaginary. And pollinators almost always have a field day, since that’s where their food is, where they reproduce, and all that. We’re not getting anywhere with this paragraph, are we? And by that I mean the royal we, which basically means I bear sole responsibility for making this horrendous mess.

Anyway, we got a lot of photos during the outing, and one collection of which is going to serve to illustrate a new macro photography post – but that is not this one. This one is simply showing off several different species doing the same damn thing. Lotta proboscises… probosci… mouth siphons to be seen here. Above, an unidentified skipper provided a lot of detail but an over-exposed flower, I suspect because Bugg’s flash went off at the same time that I tripped my own shutter, but I can’t vouch for that. I also can’t vouch for the species, but this is not through lack of trying; has 373 pages of photos for just the grass skipper subfamily, and I’m not even sure that I was right in selecting that one. I’d gotten past 150 pages before I said, “Screw it,” and continued with this post; I could always submit what I have for identification, but I don’t have detailed fullbody shots and anyway I’m not gonna.

[Okay, so, I put “skipper” into the tag field and WordPress popped up previous instances of the tag from my own blog, among them being “silver-spotted skipper,” so I checked the post where that appeared, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like a match. And that species isn’t a grass skipper (subfamily Hesperiinae,) but a dicot skipper instead (subfamily Eudaminae,) so you know this means I should have checked my own posts first. Geezzz. Anyway, this is likely a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus.) That was better than 45 minutes for one photo – this is not promising to be a fast post to produce.]

unidentified carpenter bee on unidentified flower
Having learned my lesson (which was not to try and learn what anything is,) I present only the aesthetics of this image and not the details. It’s a buzzy thing on a plant. Deal with it.

But if you’ve ever tried it, you know that most carpenter bees, especially with flowers this small, are not holding still very long at all, moving quickly from blossom to blossom, to say nothing of the swaying of the stalks in the breeze and the swaying of the unsteady photographer for no reason at all. Combined with the very short depth-of-field of the typical macro magnification, this makes such images fairly hit-or-miss; timing can play an important role, as can taking a lot of images hoping to nail one in sharpest focus, but I’m not showing you that whole collection of misses. I’m showing you this successful one so you can marvel at my precision and amazing skills. If you look close, you can see that the focus on the wings, the legs, and the sides of the body and head are all sharp, largely because they were all in the same plane, with a couple of blossoms coming in there too. Other blossoms show how short the focus range really is – had the bee been facing diagonally from the camera, the effect might not have been as distinctive.

There were several patches of phlox (what I believe to be Phlox paniculata, which goes by so many common names it’s ludicrous,) and these were a huge favorite of the sphinx moths, the hummingbird mimics. To all appearances, I captured at least two different species, but it actually takes close examination of the resulting photos to tell – they’re far too hyperactive to be able to distinguish on the fly.

hummingbird clearwing moth Hemaris thysbe feeding from Phlox paniculata
The pale forelegs and the red underside of the abdomen likely peg this as a hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe,) and you can see that the hind legs aren’t in contact with the flower at all – the moth is hovering, only braced by the forelegs, and maintained this position for two seconds or less. Believe me, I have plenty of photos that I missed; it’s more a matter, upon returning and unloading the memory card, of seeing if I managed to get any clear shots. Overall body length might have been 30mm – slightly smaller than the ruby-throated hummingbird that the moth mimics, but apparently not so much that any predators could tell the difference.

A couple more to illustrate.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis feeding from Phlox paniculata, full frame
This is the full frame, showing what I captured as a different species, a snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) provided a nice profile shot (instead of the typical dorsal view, when they actually came into the clear in the first place.) But now we’re going to go in close for the detail.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis at Phlox paniculata, in detail
I am not going to dismiss the role that luck plays in getting images like this, but I will at least aver that it is not all luck, demonstrated very simply by the plain fact that I shoot subjects like this alongside other photographers fairly frequently, and almost always get more keepers than they do. In cases like this one, it was also a matter of finding the key parts to focus upon (such as the proboscis here) and being able to trip the shutter right as they came up the sharpest. I wasn’t trying to adjust the focus ring and sure as hell wasn’t going with autofocus (and couldn’t anyway, since this was the strictly-manual Mamiya 80mm macro lens,) so this meant adjusting focus with the camera’s position instead, leaning in or out as needed. It takes practice, but it can be worth it.

By the way, I’m fairly certain this was an aperture of f4, since I was shooting by natural light without a flash unit, which shortens depth-of-field even more. Notice that the abdomen is already going out of focus, and the flower petal under the tip of the proboscis is very soft. It’s easy to believe the blur of the wings is from their movement, until you notice how distinct the wing veins are; they’re not moving much at all in the brief shutter speed – 1/2000 second – so the softness is primarily from short focus depth. I’m pleased with it.

Even more telling – of what I don’t know – is that, after quite a bit of searching, I eventually spotted a tiny crab spider on one of the blossoms. This was a vindication of sorts, since I know crab spiders like those flowers as ambush grounds, yet wasn’t finding them even though I was looking hard. However, the spider was perfectly motionless, on a blossom that wasn’t driven much by the wind, and not one of eight frames is anywhere near sharp enough to use. Yes, I really do wonder how the hell I managed to screw that up. But you know I’ll take the sphinx moths over the crab spiders any day.

And one last one, as the same moth left that particular cluster of flowers.

snowberry clearwing moth Hemaris diffinis leaving Phlox paniculata after feeding
Not quite as sharp as the last, but not bad, and I like how the proboscis is already curling up into travel position (or, you know, whatever you want to call it – I’m sure entomologists have some technical term that applies.) This is cropped, but not quite as much as the previous; I was in the exact same position after all. Also, there’s enough detail captured here to see the differentiating details of the species, in this case dark legs and a black underside to the abdomen. The dark background fooled my exposure meter towards overexposing the shot a little, but there was no way I was going to play with compensation in the mere seconds that I had, and the backgrounds were widely varied as the moths flitted about haphazardly.

Oh, and I’ll mention again: you can pick a particular cluster of blossoms to ‘stake out’ and lock focus onto, waiting for the pollinators to come into your composition and feed from those flowers, but it typically doesn’t work. As a species, we tend to be meticulous and methodical, but pollinators (and even hummingbirds themselves) work almost at random, or at least driven by factors that are not immediately apparent to us, and remaining locked-in on any given spot usually means you’ll miss a decent shot only centimeters away. It’d be nice if it worked, but in years of doing this I’ve had it happen maybe three times. Just follow their progress and hope for decent compositions and focus.