Fabulous Insect Photos

Wildlife photographer and insect enthusiast Kirk Mason shares his top tips for taking fabulous insect photos, whatever camera you have.

Well done to everyone that came to the Summer School photography workshop. I was blown away with your photographs, videos and knowledge of insects – well done!

Let’s recap on some handy hints to improve your photography.

1. Getting down to the eye level of insects.

One of the things that makes photographing insects and other invertebrates so awesome is that you start to see things in photographs that you would have missed with just your eyes. Getting down to the eye level of insects makes them look bigger, more impressive and can take your viewers to a perspective they wouldn’t have seen without you. If you compare these photographs, which do you prefer?

2. Empty space.

Leaving empty space in your photographs can make your subject really stand out. It leads the viewer’s eye to what you want them to focus on or show your subjects in their environment. You can use the rule of thirds to get a feel for how much empty space you should leave – ideally the subject should take one third of the space, and two thirds empty space. Though artistic rules are made to be broken, so the best thing to do is experiment and see what you like most! Check out the examples below to see what you prefer.

3. Background is everything!

Leaving empty space can look great, but if the background is messy or doesn’t look nice to you, it can take away focus from your subject. Most insects and other invertebrates are tiny, so moving around the insect by a few centimetres can really change the look of a background and the feel of a photograph. See below for examples of a bad background made better by moving a few inches, which do you think looks better?

4. Focus on the things that you find interesting about the subjects.

They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and whilst invertebrates do not show emotion through their eyes, they are often super interesting to look at! Typically, having the eyes in focus makes for great photographs, however invertebrates have lots of interesting features that are great to see up close! Wing patterns, antennae shapes and even feet are super diverse and make for great photographs – here are some examples of things I find interesting, do you?

5. Practice makes perfect!

Photography is like many things we do in life – the more we practise, the better we become! Luckily, going out finding insects and photographing them is great fun. This makes improving feel almost effortless and with thousands of insects to find in Britain, it’s hard to get bored! Wind and fast-moving insects make it hard to get good photographs every time, so the more you take, the higher chance you have of getting the shot you want. I still throw away way more photographs than I keep! I started my photography journey three years ago and have since had my photographs on BBC Springwatch, and in BBC Wildlife magazine and several newspapers. See below for my first photograph that I was happy with and compare it with what I take today. You all took fantastic photographs and if you keep doing it, by the time you are my age, you will have taken the world by storm!

Gallery

Inspired by these top tips? Have a look at our Photo Gallery and then have a go for yourself. As Kirk says, practice makes perfect! We’d love to see the results: you can email your best photo to us at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk. Please make it clear if it’s OK for us to use it on this blog. We’ll also need permission from a parent or guardian to publish your name.

Photo Gallery

A gallery of your favourite insect photos. We’d love to share yours too!

If you would like us to share one of your photos, please email it to hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk. If you want us to use your name in the image credit, we will need permission from your parent or guardian.

Raising Moths

Ben brought in some Poplar Hawk Moths to show the other participants at our recent summer school. Here he describes how he raised them from eggs he received as a gift from his grandfather.

Last year during lockdown my Grandpa gave me 32 hawk moth eggs: 30 eyed and two privet. Not the most common of presents you might think, but these turned into the most enjoyable gift. I was very excited as I tore open the parcel and found the eggs safely packed in a small tube. It took roughly a week for the leafy-green eggs to turn into the most delightful little caterpillars. I decided to call them all Jim. The first thing they went towards was the fresh willow that lay in a small, water-filled jam-jar.

Poplar Hawk moth caterpillar with Ben’s hand for scale. Photo credit: Ben Atwell

Immediately, they started taking chunks the size of their heads out of the leaves until there were no leaves left inside the tank. I was very surprised by how much they ate in proportion to their size. Every day they grew bigger until, within 4 weeks, they were the length of my index finger! They were bright green with white stripes, pink spots and little pointy tails. To help them grow, they shed their skins every few days. Sadly, one little Jim got stuck in his skin whilst shedding and died. Willow-collecting took a lot of effort as it involved daily trips to the canal, but this was a welcome break from staring at my computer all day during online school.

Poplar Hawk Moth larva feeding. Photo credit: Ben Atwell

One morning we found that a lot of the caterpillars were wandering around, banging their heads on the bottom of the tank. They were also turning a darker green which (after a bit of research) we found out meant they needed to bury and become a chrysalis. We put a deep layer of soil into the tank and within minutes they had disappeared. We tucked them up in the shed for winter and waited.

After months of hibernation, they started emerging this spring with crumpled wings, looking very like dead leaves. After stretching out their wings we noticed that we couldn’t see the eyes that the eyed hawk moths are known for, but as we later realised, they only show the eyes as a defence mechanism if they were under attack. Normally it would take a while for the males to seek out the females using their fanned antenna, but because they were in a large tank, it was easy for them to find each other and mate. Within a few days they had laid over 1,000 little green eggs! So, the process of willow collecting began again, but this time, after checking with the county moth recorder, we released the little caterpillars (who this year I called Jeff) into our local wildlife reserve, hoping that they survive and go on to repeat the process in the wild this year.

Poplar hawk Moth adult. Photo credit: Ben Atwell

We are still waiting for the privet chrysalises to hatch, but to keep me busy, my Grandpa sent me 15 poplar hawk moth eggs this spring. These have already been through one cycle of eggs-caterpillars-chrysalis-moth-eggs and I gave some of the eggs to the museum during the Insect Investigators Summer School. I hope the staff have time to collect all that poplar!

The Poplar Hawk Moth, Laothoe populi, is a beautiful insect found thrououghout the UK and is common wherever their foodplants can be found: mainly the poplar trees from which they get their name, aspen and willows. Ben describes the voracious appetite of the larvae well. The adults don’t feed at all and so are short-lived. You can find the adult moth from May to July and the caterpillars from June to October. In Southern England there may be a second generation of adults in the autumn.

Make a butterfly feeder

In the last post Kate told us all about her favourite butterfly. In this post I will be showing you how to make your own butterfly feeder, from items you might commonly have at home, to help attract butterflies, and other insects, to your outside space. I had to raid my recycling bin for key materials.

Here are the same instructions on how to make a butterfly feeder, as can be seen in the video:

What you will need:

  • Cardboard
  • Coloured pens or paints
  • String or wool
  • Glue or sticky tape
  • Scissors
  • Bottle top
  • Hole Punch
  1. Take a piece of cardboard and draw a flower with five petals, roughly 20cm wide.
  2. Decorate your flower in any way you wish.
  3. Cut out your flower.
  4. Fix the bottle top to the middle of your flower using glue or sticky tape.
  5. Use a hole punch to make a hole at the edge of each petal of your flower.
  6. Cut five pieces of string or wool, each roughly 40cm long.
  7. Tie the five pieces of string together at one end.
  8. Turn your flower over and thread a piece of string through each hole, and tie the five pieces of string together.
  9. Tie an additional piece of string, or wool, to the knot.
  10. Hang your butterfly feeder in a sunny, but sheltered, spot outside.
  11. Mix together sugar and water, or take a small piece of overripe fruit (e.g. orange or banana), and put it in the bottle lid.

Watch to see any butterflies, or other insects, that visit your feeder. You could investigate which foods different species prefer.

Please tell us about your butterfly feeders and investigations. We would love to see photos of them. Contact us or email at hopelearning@oum.ox.ac.uk.

Make a pitfall trap

Try out a new technique for finding insects with HOPE Learning Officer, Kate.

Have you found any interesting insects lately?  Along with the other HOPE Learning Officers, I have been out and about in Oxfordshire schools where we have found some fantastic insects.  Among my recent favourites is the thick-legged flower beetle, Oedemera nobilis

These beautiful beetles are distinctive with their stunning emerald-green colour and their chunky thighs which are seen only in the males.   We have also found lots of varied species of ladybird including cream spot, 14-spot and eyed ladybirds. Generally, we collect insects using sweep nets and beating trays but, of course, you might be lucky enough to find some interesting insects just by looking in the right places.  Under stones, logs, leaves, in amongst long grass or on flowers are all excellent places to start.  Insects, however, are very good at hiding so why not make a pitfall trap? This can be a great way to find a range of insects, particularly ground beetles.

Here are the written instructions.

You will need: 

  • A small pot such as a clean yoghurt pot
  • A trowel for digging
  • A few stones
  • A small piece of wood or a flat stone to act as a rain cover

What to do:

  1. Find a good spot for your trap on level ground, amongst vegetation.
  2. Dig a hole big enough to sink your pot so that it is completely level with the ground.
  3. Place the pot into the hole. You can put a few leaves, small stones and twigs in the pot to make any insects you catch feel at home.
  4. Build a cover over the trap by placing stones around the pot and resting a flat stone or piece of wood on top.  Make sure there is enough space for insects to crawl under.  This will stop the pot filling with water if it rains.
  5. Wait for a few hours or, better still, overnight.
  6. When you are ready, empty your pot carefully into a tray so you can see what has fallen in.  Take photos so that you can have a go at identifying what you have caught.
  7. Remember to check your pitfall trap every day and return any creatures carefully to a sheltered spot in vegetation.

We would love to know what you find! Let us know by commenting below or by using the Contact Us page.  Happy insect collecting!

Cartooning with Chris

Here at Crunchy on the Outside we love insects and we also love cartoons. What could be better, then, than cartoon insects?!

In this video Chris Jarvis shows us how to draw a mighty dung beetle called the Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus) complete with its own ball of dung!

Minotaur beetles grow to about 2cm in length and can be seen between September and July. They live in grassland and heathland with sandy soils. They feed on rabbit droppings and other dung (yum!) which they roll into balls and bury them in nests which can be over a metre deep underground. Male beetles may defend these nests using their long horns. The females lay their eggs in these nests. The eggs then hatch and the larvae feed on the tasty dung!

Watch the video carefully and you will see that Chris has included many of the key features of this fascinating beetle. He has deliberately left one insect feature out of his drawing. Can you spot what is missing? Here’s a clue: they help insects sense their environment.

Let us know what you think is missing by commenting below, or sending us a message using the Contact Us page. We’d also love to see you own cartoon insects!