Bugs before birds

Harvestman drinking. Many insects can often be found with drops of liquid hanging from their mouthparts. Though they appear to be drinking there is an alternative suggestion that they may also regurgitate this liquid in order to clean their mouthparts. This is seems to be especially prevalent amongst flies which appear to be ‘blowing bubbles’. Taken during a night hike in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Canon 5D mark II, MPE-65mm, MT-24EX twin flash.

Wow, so for a so-called photographer there has been a dearth of photos and for a blogger a lack of actual writing a.k.a. a blog. Fortunately the few followers I have seem to have the patience of Job when it comes to their expectations (good don’t change that!) or perhaps more cynically they have no expectations at all (also good). Whatever the case may be a story must be told, and hopefully one’s appetite has been whetted after months of anticipation between blog entries. Though I can’t promise not to disappoint, I do come bearing photos this time!

Nb. The previous blog entry “Heart of the swarm” has been updated with photos and captions. There will also be a full length article exclusively on army ants coming in the future (check under articles).


Costa Rica is known as a bird paradise with over 840 species and a reputation for both endemic and resident birds as well as transitory migrants passing from North to South America. It was partly this diversity and abundance which  prompted me to bring along my 300mm f/2.8 lens despite my misgivings due to the weight. I was also reticent to switch from macro to what I label as “all that other kind of photography”. Nevertheless I pulled out the lens and spent the morning attempting to photograph birds. Note the operative attempting. There were majestic soaring white ones, and little cheeky yellow ones and daring red ones…okay, so I’m not a bird person and my descriptions could use a little work. You will quickly notice that there are still no bird photos on this blog. All I can say is that my success was…limited. I briefly wondered at the dedication and skill of birders able to capture intimate behaviours as well as stunning in-flight shots. This wonderment persisted all the while I dismantled my tripod, and refitted my camera with macro lens and flash. I could already feel my confidence returning after its brief flight and crash. Much better I decided as I headed up the steep mountain slope leading to the “Valle del Silencio”. As the trail narrowed and the ferns and plants patted me on the back in welcome return, I felt much more at home than the open spaces frequented by birders.

Macro photography for me is a leisurely pursuit, one in which I take my time, scan the foliage, twigs, branches and leaf litter. It is not uncommon for me to travel no more than 2 or 3km in the space of 7 or 8 hours of photography and even less at night. Due to the minuscule size of most subjects going any faster would risk overlooking some of the most interesting specimens, especially those whose entire anatomy is a carefully constructed evolution to confound and bewilder the senses. It is not uncommon for travellers to despair and perceive the jungle as a rich and opulent wasteland. Home only to a few starkly visible species of which they quickly tire and legions of mosquitoes. They trudge through a layer of dead leaves, a lament on their lips.

A disappointing pile of leaves is all that some travellers encounter in the jungle. Hitoy-Cerrere reserve, Costa Rica. Photo details: Canon 100mm f/2.8 L, 580 EXII.

I urge you to look a little closer and perhaps you’ll rediscover that sense of wonder that you have travelled so far to find.

Camouflaged leaf moth nearly indistinguishable from the dead leaves around it. Look closer still and you will find a tiny red mite buried between the right fore and hindwing. Found during a day hike in Hitoy-Cerrere reserve, Costa Rica. Photo details: Canon 100mm f/2.8 L, 580 EXII.

Having said that, it is not uncommon for me to spend hours walking without spotting more than the most common rainforest residents. My light and eager steps of the morning weighted down by hours of thankless, unproductive searching. However, I take solace in my failure to find a suitable subject of interest. I take it to mean that they are so cunningly camouflaged that if and when I finally do spot them they will be truly remarkable and worthy of the hours of effort.

Sometimes it is nothing but a small rustle, or an imagined movement in one’s peripheral vision. But one quickly learns to trust such signs. I’ll scan the dried and withered leaves trying to pick out the one form desperately trying to remain unseen. My eyes pass over a dead leaf with a spot of fungus. There’s no reason to examine it more closely, though I find myself bending down and peering at it intently. There’s a slight movement. A flutter of wind? Perhaps not. And I thank whatever subconscious impulse compelled me to look closer.

Assassin bug (family Reduviidae)                                                                                                                                                                        In the jungle, fungi rapidly cover and degrade dead material, whether it be plant or animal. Since most animals avoid such unpalatable fare, naturally some insects have come to exploit this to their advantage. Here this juvenile assassin bug is masquerading as a dead fungus covered corpse. A deception which is only reinforced as it lies motionless on the forest floor. This camouflage is most likely the result of many wax producing cells, each of which extrudes a fine filament which together forms a fungus-like layer. Moreover the hydrophobic wax would serve to keep it dry. Its camouflage serves the dual purpose of avoiding detection by potential predators as well as to ambush passing prey. This strategy is augmented by its ambush tactics in which it will sit motionless for hours waiting for prey to pass by before cautiously moving from one hunting site to another. Whether the adult retains this camouflage is unknown since juveniles of many species often rely on crypsis (camouflage) or mimicry at their most vulnerable stages before graduating to aposematism or other strategies of defence in adulthood. Camouflage and deception are common strategies within the Reduviid family, as highlighted by the South East Asian species Acanthaspsis petax. Acanthaspsis exudes a glue from its abdomen with which it coats its back and attaches the dead bodies of its prey. This morbid behaviour is thought to camouflage both its form as well as its scent from the mostly chemo-sensitive ants which form the bulk of its diet. Found during a day hike in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Photo details: Canon mpe-65mm, MT-24EX twin flash.
Assassin bug (family Reduviidae)                                                                                                                                                                  Found during a day hike in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Photo details: Canon mpe-65mm, MT-24EX twin flash.

I continue up the trail for about 5hrs, a relentless uphill in the midday heat. It isn’t long before I’ve run out of water. Not to mention that my 1.5 month post-surgical hip isn’t making things any easier on me. My profuse sweating has attracted the attention of some sweat bees that begin to descend on me en masse. Despite their yellow and black aposematic markings they are stingless and so I relent and let them cover my arms, neck, and any other exposed morsel of flesh their tongues can reach. Though in truth I have little choice in the matter as they are so numerous and I am tired enough that they would surely overwhelm any efforts to dispel them.

Sweat bees attracted to my post-exercise, sweat soaked and prostrate body. Photo taken on “Valle del Silencio” trail, La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Photo details: Panasonic Lumix LX3.

Eventually I muster the energy to turn back and limp to camp, stopping along the way to take in the majesty of an ethereal landscape. A place of shadow and fog where substance melts to immaterial and swirling mists swallow ones steps. Too theatrical? Perhaps. In reality I was cursing the increased humidity which forced me to wipe  the condensation from the lens between every shot.

Fog wending its way through the primary forest in Altamira ranger station, La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Photo taken with the Panasonic lumix LX3.

Along the painfully slow march back to camp I spot a few more creatures demanding my attention.

Caterpillar (Opsiphanes sp.)
Found during a day hike in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Photo details: Canon mpe-65mm, MT-24EX twin flash.
Stick insect portrait
Found during a day hike in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Photo details: Canon mpe-65mm, MT-24EX twin flash.
Red harvestman
Found during a day hike in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Photo details: Canon mpe-65mm, MT-24EX twin flash.

Back in camp I fall into my hammock and massage my sore feet. I quickly fall asleep, recovering for another night of untold discoveries.


1 Response to Bugs before birds

  1. bee rose says:

    Leaf moth so cool.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s