Snapping bugs: What can we learn from insect images?

Ladybird on snail shell (c) M Wasiczek Photos can reveal the magic of the natural world, but what about the science?

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Whether you think of them as creepy crawlies or gems of the natural world, it is difficult not to be fascinated by photographs of the tiny animals with which we share our planet.

Since the early experiments of Victorian naturalists, enthusiasts have strived to record the exquisite detail of insect life.

Now in the digital age, with technology becoming increasingly accessible, swarms of camera fans are taking up the challenge of capturing images of the creatures.

However beautiful they are, can all of these detailed images truly have an impact on our understanding of these animals?

Insects as art

Professional photographer Magdalena Wasiczek, who took the image at the top of this page, won this year's International Garden Photographer of the Year award.

Insects in focus

A banded demoiselle damselfly (c) Photolibrary.com

Her priority, she says, is not "showing the world exactly the way it is". She tries to approach her subjects from a more artistic perspective.

"I want the audience to [experience] my vision of the world; this idyllic paradise of fairytales," she tells BBC Nature.

But according to Ms Wasiczek, studying its minutiae has also raised her awareness of the natural world; she hopes to trigger the same interest in her audiences.

"The trick is to show the world [of the very small] in a way that impresses the average man who [pays] no attention to the world at [his] feet, or even hates those 'nasty bugs'," she says.

"Our pictures will make them see what is beautiful and diverse."

Fighting the fear

So-called "macromaniacs" are abundant in the world of wildlife filmmaking, using dazzling close-up images to share newly discovered or rarely-seen behaviour.

Wildlife cameraman Alastair McEwen, whose macro skills have been showcased on screen in numerous documentaries, most recently BBC Two's Springwatch, hopes that his work also inspires respect.

"It is very easy to carelessly destroy something that is small, yet the smaller creatures of this world often have an impact out of proportion to their size," he says.

"Good macro photographs help enormously to persuade people of the importance of preserving wild places even if they aren't home to big animals."

The Springwatch team compares the flight methods of insects using a high-speed camera and macro techniques.

Prof Chris Haines from the Royal Entomological Society agrees that positive portrayals of insects are vital.

"The variety of insect life and the ecological impact of insects are easily overlooked by comparison with larger and more charismatic animals, such as pandas and polar bears," he says.

"Good photographs of insects can help to redress this imbalance."

Emerging crane fly (c) D Beath 2010's winning picture for National Insect Week was Danny Beath's emerging crane fly

Sparked by childhood encounters, Prof Haines developed his own passion for insect photography during his student days and maintained the interest throughout his career, researching the ecology and management of insect pests of stored food.

Now retired, he is responsible for the society's photographic competition that runs during their bi-annual National Insect Week. The aim of this campaign is to raise awareness of our tiniest species.

Beyond raising insects' profile, however, Prof Haines identifies the rise in amateur photography as hugely beneficial to the scientific study of insects.

"There are now a number of websites where enthusiasts and learners can post their photographs of insects for specialists to suggest species identifications," he says, adding that such interaction can really engage the interest of non-experts.

And, according to Prof Haines, the benefits are mutual; the rise in photographic evidence is proving essential for researchers looking to begin or maintain species records.

"The combination of digital photography and the internet is providing opportunities for countrywide surveys of distribution and habitat," he explains.

Stars of science

At the advanced end of the scale, researchers around the world are embracing the latest equipment and pushing the boundaries of understanding the intricacies of insect life.

A recent investigation into fruit flies by Floris Van Breugel at the California Institute of Technology, US, revealed their complex flight dynamics by using a sophisticated set-up that incorporated a high-speed camera.

"Our study is the first that looked at the entire landing sequence, from initial approach to touchdown in freely flying fruit flies," said Mr Van Breugel whose findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Tips from the professionals

"Let the learning begin from [your] closest environment, [you] will be surprised how many interesting creatures live in [your] home, gardens and the meadows behind the house," says Magdalena Wasiczek.

"To get good photographs you must know as much about your subject as possible and when observing things it helps to have informed eyes. So some background in science is very useful," says Alastair McEwen.

"Don't worry about what other people have photographed, in fact, I find it's best to stay away from places and concepts that others have photographed to death," says Floris Van Breugel.

The resulting footage showed how flies land "by autopilot", using the expanding appearance of the landing post in their retina to calculate their descent.

"The most surprising result was how the flies are able to control their deceleration, since they don't actually know their ground speed, nor the distance to the object they are approaching," said the engineering student.

"This has exciting implications both for better understanding visual processing and motor planning in the fruit fly, as well as flight control design for simple robotic systems that do not have access to GPS."

In his spare time, Mr Van Breugel is also an award-winning natural history photographer, and says that his hobby is inextricably linked to his work. He sees both photography and science as opportunities to learn more about the world around him, including the parts invisible to the human eye.

A camera recording at 5,000 frames per second captures the fly's touchdown in full.

"I often try to take photographs that illustrate a particular natural phenomenon or aspect of natural history that I find intriguing, and I follow it up with some research to better understand what it is that I've photographed," he said.

Another US-based team are revealing yet more detail about the diverse world of insects.

As BBC Nature reported earlier this month, researchers from the California Academy of Sciences are embarking on a mission to capture an intricate snapshot of every ant species known to science.

The leaf-cutter ant Atta cephalotes (c) AntWeb With a "super-macro" technique, even tiny hairs on a leafcutter ant's head are visible

Using a "super-macro" imaging technique that combines dozens of 2-D photographs to produce one 3-D image, the project will result in an online ant database called Antweb.

"Many people don't know the amazing creatures that live in their back yards," lead researcher Brian Fisher told BBC Nature.

"This project will mean that anybody, anywhere at any time will have access to these specimens that we hide in museums."

Like many macromaniacs, Dr Fisher agrees that photographing life on a Lilliputian scale is improving our perception of the world.

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