The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Tag Archives: diptera

Photo Friday: one-shot wonder

When working with live insects in the field, one of the biggest challenges is to get the shot before the bug…bugs off. Sometimes you only get one or two chances before your subject is suddenly nowhere to be seen – it’s the reason why I end up with so many badly lit or blurry images that get tossed and make me quietly mutter bad words.

Every now and then, though, I get lucky. This image of a snipe fly was the one and only shot I managed to fire off – and it was definitely a keeper 🙂

Rhagio hirtus, female (Rhagionidae)

Hey Geek, what’s this? Creepy long-tailed water thingie…

My Twitter feed alerted me to a new interaction – I’d been flagged in a tweet by @MarconiRebus containing a most intriguing photo:

An earlier tweet provided a little more info:

Whoa. That is one weird bug!

Aquatic insects do have a tendency to look weird and wriggly, but this long-tailed beastie was nothing I was familiar with; also, the photo was coming from overseas, making this ID challenge potentially tricky.

Luckily, that snorkel-butt was an incredibly useful character for narrowing the ID down to one insect Family. There are a number of aquatic insects that use a similar apparatus for breathing, but none that I’m aware of that look quite so wormy. A search turned up a most awesomely-named fly larva:

“Rat-tailed Maggot”

You gotta love that name; it conjures up so much “EW”! 😛

The Rat-tailed Maggot is the larva of a drone fly (Eristalis sp., Syrphidae).  Syrphids are generally known as “hover flies” for their ability to fly in place. The adults tend to hang out near or on flowers, and many mimic bees.

I actually encountered some large bee-mimicking hover flies (possibly drone flies, but difficult to tell from my photos) while camping last week; this isn’t the most awesome photo ever, but it gives you the general idea of the nature of the beast:

See Miles’ comment about this photo, below – I made a boo-boo! Thanks, Miles!

There were ample ponds and quiet pools in the area, which would have made perfect breeding grounds for these fascinating flies!

Photo Friday: Soldier fly (Stratiomys badia)

On Tuesday, my wife and I were doing one of our daily “tour of the grounds” (i.e., checking out the progress in the gardens), and she said, “Hey, look at that bee“.

A large, hairy, heavy-bodied, yellow-and-black-striped critter was resting on a leaf.  It was doing a darned good job of imitating a bee, but a closer inspection of the face and wings revealed it to be a fly. An interesting fly – this animal was nothing I’d ever seen before – so I went in the house to get the camera and take a few shots.

The setting sun was still just peeking though the trees and I managed to get this one hand-held shot, which I immediately posted on Twitter…

hoping that Morgan Jackson would be able to give me a name. Sure enough:

Turns out he knew these flies pretty well! They’re pretty distinct and nifty. These solider flies like to hang out in open spaces near forest edges and often frequent flowers (exactly the type of habitat in which our fly was found). The antennae are not very typically fly-like: they have a long, enlarged end segment, making them look “flagged” or elbowed.  Also, their larvae are aquatic!

This second shot represents one of the first times I’ve used a tripod for insect macros. I almost never use a tripod (despite having been strongly advised by some pros to do so) for several reasons: 1) I’m lazy (it’s a royal pain in the butt to carry, set up, etc.); 2) I don’t have the capacity to manually focus with my point-and-shoot, so the distance between tripod and subject has to be just right for the auto-focus to work correctly (see point #1); 3) I find that most subjects are flighty or running and it’s easier to chase them without being tied down to a tripod.

This fly, however, was placid and had no interest in moving. The lighting was very dim (it was dusk and there was no longer direct sunlight), pretty much at the limits of my camera’s capacities with natural light (any ISO over 200 gives me terrible noise). Experiments with a flash yielded (to me) unaesthetic results, so I had to crank the shutter speed way down (1/15 s)  in order to get enough light into the camera while maintaining the greatest possible depth of field.  The tiniest motion therefore resulted in blur.

So, this seemed like a good time to try out the ‘pod. It was a royal pain to get into position among the plants in my garden, but this fly was probably the most cooperative possible subject to work with (it even let me prod it into a position I wanted). There was also no breeze whatsoever and I used the 10-second timer function to help eliminate any other mechanical shake. I’m pleased with the result!


Goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis)

I remember finding out about these when I was a first year Journalism undergrad.  I was watching the latest lecture-on-tape of my elective class: “Natural History of Ontario”. *

The instructor** pulled a stem of goldenrod out of a bag and laid it on the desk.  We were told the fleshy, spherical structure on the stem was caused by a fly, and that the structure was called a “gall”.  The camera operator zoomed in on the pocket knife blade now held firmly against the gall; I watched as the instructor carefully cut through its thick wall, just deep enough to allow him to pry it cleanly apart into two halves.  The camera zoomed in closer, and lo: a stout white grub, curled in a protective ball, nestled in a tiny chamber at the centre of the bulbous growth.

This seemed amazing to me at the time…like magic.  I had to see if such a thing could be replicated.  Sure enough, a trip to a nearby park quickly led to the discovery of galls on dozens of goldenrod stems.   My very own pocket knife carefully cut in (not too deeply), and then…TA DAAAA!!!!  Magic!  Fly larvae out of a round chunk of plant!  I had to repeat the procedure a half-dozen times or so to convince myself it wasn’t a fluke.

The galls are formed when larvae of the goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis) – deposited in goldenrod (Solidago sp.) stems during spring by the female – chew on the stem tissues, inducing a hormone-mediated response in the plant.

Five Goldenrod galls

The thickened tissue provides both food and protection for the developing larva, which overwinters in its gall.

A single, intact gall.

Not all gall flies survive the winter to adulthood, however. The robust white grubs are a highly sought food source for birds such as Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers, who bore through the galls with their beaks and pluck the tasty treat from within.

Goldenrod gall raided by a Chickadee. The hole is messy and irregular. A neat, round hole suggests woodpecker feeding.

If you find a gall with a small, single round hole (a woodpecker’s feeding hole would be about the same size as the Chickadees, above, only tidier), the larva managed to avoid predation and chewed its way out of the gall in the spring, emerging as  a new adult.

Even after all this time, I still get a little thrill when I find one intact, and carefully split the structure into two neat hemispheres…TA DAAAA!!!! Fly larva, like magic!  It’s one of my favourite nature “party tricks” when I’m outdoors with the uninitiated. 


* Yes, Journalism.  That was my first major.  The Natural History course in question was the catalyst for my switch to a Biology major the next year.

** Natural history genius guru of epic proportions.  My hero. 

Dead Dipteran…Art

Current job title:  Doggy Nurse.   Job description: administer antibiotics, probiotics, anti-inflamatories, pain-killers; use of peanut butter is non-optional.  Apply hot compresses.  Design clever “pens” to keep patient quiet and immobile using household objects.   Pick errant fur out of wounds.   Bring patient out several times a day for toiletting.  Remove frisbee from patient’s mouth; ignore sad, sad face.  Fret.   Lather, rinse, repeat. 

I am spending waaaaaaaay too much time looking at the three-legged one’s rear.  

Since I need to keep a close eye on her I’m spending most of the day downstairs and on the computer.   It is not productive computer time, because I’ve got one eye on the dog , and have to stop what I’m doing every 10 minutes to say “don’t lick” or “don’t rub your butt on the floor, stupid”.  So I’m surfing, chatting, and blogging. 

I came across this site, Muhr Photography, and the artist’s collection of what can only be described as Dead Dipteran Art:

My somewhat overtired brain isn’t sure if this stuff is actually funny.  Is this funny?  Help me out here.

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