Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mexican Free-tailed Bats

The other night we took a friend to see the Mexican Free-tailed Bats at the Congress Street Bridge here in Austin, Texas. This is the largest urban bat colony in the world. It had been a while since I had seen it and reminded me of the great photo opportunities I've had with this species.

Mexican Free-tail Bat
The Mexican Free-tailed or sometimes called Brazillian Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) is a wide-ranging bat found throughout North, Central and South America. They get their name because of their long, prominent tail.

They can roost in a number of different places from buildings to trees, but they are probably best known for the large colonies they form in caves. The photo above was taken at the Eckert James River Bat cave owned by the Nature Conservancy. It is one of the largest bat nursuries in North America and his home to around 4 million bats throughout the summer. The emergences from this cave are quite impressive.

Bracken Cave

Bracken Cave
The two photos above were taken at Bracken Cave owned by Bat Conservation International. It is home to the largest bat colony in the world and is home to some 20 million Mexican Free-tailed bats that emerge every night throughout the summer. It is truly a spectacular phenomenon and I encourage anyone  who has the opportunity to watch an emergence. They are so numerous when coming out of the cave that as they fly in a cyclone like pattern up and out of the entrance, some bats get pushed to the outside and are actually impaled on prickly pear cactus spines!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spring has Sprung

This has been a very dry spring in Texas, but the insect activity is picking up quickly. Here are some of the neat things now flying in the Austin area, specifically at Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve.

This is a snakefly (Agulla sp.); so named because of its cobra like head and appearance. A neat group of insects generally placed in their own order (Raphidioptera), but sometimes placed in the Neuroptera (lacewings, ant lions and owlflies). They are predators and found only in the west within the U.S. Austin, Texas is at the very eastern edge of their range. This is a female with a its long ovipositor that she uses to lay eggs in the crevices of bark and rotting wood.

Robber Fly
This is a robber fly in the genus Efferia, most likely E. snowi. Like the snakefly above, this is a predator and a female with a stout ovipositor. Efferia species can be commonly seen perching on rocks and vegetation while waiting for potential prey items to pounce on.

Long Horn Beetle
This is a small long horn beetle (Typocerus sinuatus). These can be seen commonly on flowers at Wild Basin right now. They will readily fly from one flower to another looking for mates and taking in nectar.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Dark of Night

Blacklighting, or the use of an ultraviolet light to attract insects at night is a favorite past time of almost every entomologist. This technique can bring in amazing numbers of insects. The most productive time to blacklight is usually on a calm, balmy night with a new moon and no competing artificial light sources. It is fun to take the time to photograph insects coming into these lights. Because they are nocturnal, many of these are seldom seen.

This is a composite of many moths, beetles, true bugs, caddisflies, and true flies that came to a light I had setup throughout the night.

This Armyworm moth visited the light frequently one night. The larvae can be very destructive on a variety of crops and considered serious pests.

This is not a mosquito, but rather a non-biting midge in the family Chironomidae. They are really neat when seen up close. Like mosquitoes, their larvae are aquatic, but as their name implies, they cannot bite and are harmless.

This is the adult of a net-spinning caddisfly in the family Hydropsychidae. This group of insects have aquatic larvae. The adults look like moths, but they have hairs on their wings rather than scales and they lack the coiled proboscis found in moths and butterflies.

This caddisfly belongs in the family Leptoceridae. They are called Long-horned caddisflies because they have very long antennae.

This is one of my favorite insects, the dobsonfly. The larvae are aquatic, called helgramites, and are often used for fish bait. The adults are short-lived, secretive and thus rarely seen by the casual observer. Males (left) in this group have very long sickle-shaped mandibles that they use to grab a hold of the female (right) with during mating. They are large and really cool looking!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dragons Underwater

Most people are familiar with dragonflies and damselflies as adults, but few are familiar with the much longer-lived and equally (if not more so) interesting larval stage. They live in the water in a variety of habitats and take on a tremendous variety of shapes and forms. Below are representatives of four different dragonfly families and one damselfly family.

Common Sanddragon
Common Sanddragon (Progomphus obscurus)
Gray Petaltail
Gray Petaltail (Tachopteryx thoreyi)
Painted Skimmer
Yellow-sided Skimmer (Libellula flavida)
New Texas Spiketail
Undescribed Spiketail (Cordulegaster sp.)
Ebony Jewelwing
Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blueberries in the Sky

Early every spring, a group of leaf-cutter or mason bees in the family Megachilidae are actively flying about much of North America. They belong in the genus Osmia and go by a number of names. The species O. ribifloris is called the blueberry bee which is appropriate given its size and color! Females in this genus like to nest in narrow holes or tubes. Most commonly this means hollow twigs, but they will use a variety of things with the appropriate sized hole, including empty snail shells and old dirt dauber nests like you can see below. They don't excavate their own nest, but rather find pre-existing nesting holes. A female might inspect several potential nests before settling in.

Blueberry Bee

Blueberry females then visit flowers like redbuds to gather pollen and nectar. They make many trips to complete a pollen/nectar provision mass for their larva.

Blueberry Bee

Once a provision mass is complete, she will back into the hole and lays an egg on top of the pollen. She then creates a partition of "mud", which also serves as the back of the next cell. 

Blueberry Bee

This process continues until she has filled the cavity. Female-destined eggs are laid in the back of the nest, and male eggs towards the front. 

Blueberry Bee

Once she finishes with the nest, she plugs the entrance to the tube.  

Blueberry Bee

They may end up with several completed nest holes before they are done.

Blueberry Bee

A group of wasps in the family Sapygidae (no official common name, but sometimes referred to as Club-horned Wasps) are also actively flying at this time looking to parasitize the blueberry bees.

Blueberry Bee

By the summer, the blueberry bee larva (if unparasitized) has consumed all of its provisions and pupates. The adult matures in the fall inside its cocoon and doesn't emerge until the following spring when the whole process starts over.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Urban Coyote

There is a small pack of coyotes running around at the field station where I work in downtown Austin, Texas. They are occasionally taking down a lone deer and move around the entire 82 acre facility. I setup some cameras in areas where I could tell they were actively moving about and have been successful in getting a few images. They are beautiful animals who have really adapted to live among humans. In addition to coyotes, I've gotten numerous raccoons, armadillos, opossums, red fox, white-tailed deer and even a porcupine!





Monday, March 28, 2011

BugShot 2011: Improve your insect photography with John Abbott, Thomas Shahan, and Alex Wild

I am pleased to announce BugShot, a first-of-a-kind weekend workshop for arthropod photography. The event is a photography course and weekend retreat scheduled for Labor Day Weekend 2011 (September 2-5) at the Shaw Nature Reserve outside of St. Louis, Missouri. We have chosen a long weekend and a central location to make the event as accessible as possible and have limited enrollment to 35 to keep the participant/instructor ratio manageable.
Depending on how the event unfolds, we may make BugShot an annual event similar to the famous Ant & Bee Courses, with rotating instructors and locations.

Who should attend?

  • Entomologists who aspire to improve their photographic skills for work or pleasure
  • Photographers who wish to learn arthropod- specific techniques
  • Naturalists & gardeners who enjoy the little things outdoors
  • Bug bloggers & bugguide.netters who’d like to spice up their online imagery
  • Anyone looking for an excuse to hang out at the beautiful Shaw Nature Reserve for a long weekend
Attendees are assumed to have an understanding of simple camera functions, including shutter speed & aperture, and should be able to operate the basic functions of their equipment. The course is geared towards SLR equipment, but most topics will also be applicable to digicams that offer manual control of important functions.
We are offering up to three registration fee waivers to current students, please email (alwild [at] for details.

Who are the instructors?

We have arranged an instructor list that spans a diversity of photographic styles.
  • John Abbott, of Texas, loves to photograph insects, especially in action
  • Thomas Shahan, of Oklahoma, is a master of close-up arthropod portraiture
  • Alex Wild, of Illinois, is an ant photographer extraordinaire

What will you learn at BugShot?

  • Macro-& microphotography equipment
  • Digital asset management & workflow
  • Composition
  • Lighting & flash
  • Working with live insects
  • Special techniques: focus-stacking, time-lapse & video
  • Field sessions in prairie, woodland & aquatic habitats
  • Evening photo-sharing presentations
  • and more!

click to register for BugShot 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

New Texas Spiketail Dragonfly

I just described a new species of dragonfly in the genus Cordulegaster. The common name for this family of dragonflies is Spiketails because the females typically have long ovipositors making it look like they have a spiked tail. The formal description of the species should be in print in a couple of months, but here are some pictures. It seems to have a strong association with Pitcher Plant bogs and is now known in five counties in Texas and just over the border in western Louisiana. I will be describing the larva soon. This species probably remained undiscovered because of its very early flight season (March-April) and restricted habitat of pitcher plant bogs. I'm hoping to learn more about its natural history this spring.

New Texas Spiketail
Male perched on a dead pitcher plant.

New Texas Spiketail

New Texas Spiketail
New Texas Spiketail

New Texas Spiketail
Exuviae or shed skin.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bugs in the House

I had the opportunity today to visit an apartment complex here in Austin that is infested with bed bugs. These are very difficult to get rid of and this is a very heavy infestation. Your mom really meant it when she said, "Don't let the bed bugs bite!"

Bed Bugs
There were many simply crawling on the walls.

Bed Bugs
Others were of course hiding out in the folds of the mattress.

Bed Bugs
The dark stains in the two images above  are dried blood and fecal material from the bugs. You can seem some in the fold of this mattress (same ones photographed above).

Bed Bugs
They like to get in tight spaces. Above you can see where they get between the slats of this bed. Below are closeups of the activity. Notice the dried fecal pellets and all the eggs (elongated white structures).

Bed Bugs

Bed Bugs

About Me

My photo
John is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin. Kendra is a Professor at St. Edwards University in Austin. John has focused on dragonflies and damselflies in his career. He has two books Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-central United States and The Damselflies of Texas. He is currently working on the Dragonflies of Texas. John and Kendra are also currently both working on revising the Peterson Field Guide to Insects of North America. We have had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world where we enjoy taking photos of pretty much anything that will allow us to capture its image. We are lucky enough to be able to teach students about the amazing biodiversity we see and to travel and photograph together.