Buggin' out

Kimberly Alters
The Week

Next time, you might want to look before you squish

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While you're ruthlessly swatting bugs away at backyard picnics, biologist Sam Droege is gently collecting the little critters he finds outside his Maryland home. Why? It's his job, as part of a team of researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, but he's also just plain fascinated.

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"As biologists, this is why we got into the business, not for the money but simply because we are attracted to nature," Droege said in an email. "Now we finally have the ability to share that through these pictures."

Photographing creepy-crawlers is no small task. For the past 18 months, Droege and his team at the Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab have implemented a detailed imaging process for each specimen. First, the bug is placed in hand sanitizer, which allows it to be positioned without the use of pins. Then a camera outfitted with high-quality quartz crystal glass takes anywhere from 20 to 300 photos from various distances. Finally, the images are compiled using specialized software to create one up-close, in-focus photo.

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"Any one of those pictures is a composition of about four hours of work," said Droege.

Below, a selection of some of our favorite bug portraits, accompanied by Droege's commentary.

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"The ubiquitous ant ... simple, functional ... design elements in harmonious proportions that speak to the no-nonsense design of the colonies' sterile workers. The ant in this photo blundered into a trap at Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming."

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"Bees need pollen and nectar to feed their young. Flowers need bees to move their pollen to other flowers. Here, a small halictus ligatus was caught in the act of completing that equation, and the effectiveness of bees as tiny pollen mops is easy to see."

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"Less than an inch long when fully grown, this grasshopper's M.O. is to look like dirt, hidden in plain sight by its disguise and leaping away when you come near."

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"Up close, the tiny (length of your thumbnail) caterpillar of the equally tiny — and endangered — Karner blue butterfly is filled with hidden detail. The black head of this caterpillar is the business end, with cutting mandibles (appendages)."

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"Complete eye candy, this Indian hemp leaf beetle does not hide, but flaunts its glorious iridescent self. By doing so, this common beetle indicates that it is filled with the poisonous latex and cardenolides it gathered from its host plant. Those who eat it will pay a heavy price."

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"Even the most brown of moths have geometric arrays of scales that please our sense of order. This very small dimorphic tosale moth is one that was caught coming to a back porch light."

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"Jumping spiders are visual hunters, and their large forward-projecting eyes attract our attention. This unidentified specimen from the Dominican Republic has the additional feature of iridescent scale-like hairs."

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"Armored, compound eyes split, fire-red and orange, as splendid as any Incan glyph, this minute leaf beetle was found on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba."

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"One of the many tiny ground spiders we walk over in our lawns, this one is Sergiolus capulatus, who hunts in the jungles of our cut grass looking for equally tiny prey."

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"Its common name 'tarantula hawk' says it all. This is a large wasp with glowing fluorescent antennae and a midnight metallic blue body that hunts tarantulas or other large spiders in the high elevations of the Dominican Republic. Reportedly, this creature has one of the most painful stings in the insect world."

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"Instead of single straight antennae, this little wedge-shaped beetle has antennae with many long branches, giving it an Andy Rooney-esque look."

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"Weevils are usually dismissed as small brown pests, something that troubles the farmer and infests our food. However, when viewed up close, the patterns of brown, auburn, and white scale-like hairs and the heart-shaped eyes of this currently unidentified sumo-like specimen from Maryland are attractive as well as exotic."

All images are in the public domain and available courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab on Flickr.

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