Reader Pete Moulton, responding to my call for photos of animals without feathers, has given us some nice insect shots. His captions are indented; click photos to enlarge.
You can see more of Pete’s wonderful photos, including those of mammals and b*rds, at his ipernity site.
In answer to your plea for some nonavian wildlife photographs for your website, I’ll offer these. Photographing birds is my hobby; bugs (yes, I know) are serious business.
Hesperagrion heterodoxum is the Painted Damsel, a common enough damselfly in Arizona, but restricted in range to the desert Southwest. This one’s a male, photographed along the Hassayampa River near Wickenburg, Arizona. My favorite insect.
Erpetogomphus lampropeltis is a male Serpent Ringtail, a clubtail dragonfly (Gomphidae). Another southwesterner, but more widespread than the Painted Damsel. Coastal populations have gray thoraxes, while our inland version has green. This handsome guy was at a small stream northeast of Carefree, Arizona.
Ammophila aberti is a female thread-waisted wasp at her burrow. Once the burrow is finished, she’ll stock it with a small caterpillar, lay her eggs on it, and seal up the entrance. The larval wasps will then subsist on the body of the paralyzed, but still living, caterpillar until they pupate and emerge as adults. This little girl is around 20mm long, but her life history is very similar to that of the better known Tarantula Hawks, just on a much smaller scale.
Last, but not least, is a female Thistledown Velvet Ant Dasymutilla gloriosa, which is in the process of digging up the burrows dug by the thread-waisted and local sand wasps. Very fast and difficult to photograph, unless you can find them at this business, which localizes them enough that you might get some shots. A ferocious stinger, by all accounts, so I treat them with plenty of respect. This and the thread-waisted were both along the Rîo Salado northeast of Mesa, Arizona.
I remembered that “velvet ants” weren’t really ants, but couldn’t remember the group, and Pete gave me the answer:
A lot of Dasymutilla spp. do resemble ants, though D. gloriosa doesn’t look like anything so much as a windblown creosotebush seed. They’re wasps of the family Mutillidae. Only the males have wings and can fly; the females are wingless.
I’ve since learned that velvet “ants”, comprising over 3,000 species of wasps in the family Mutillidae, are so called because of their combination of wingless females and their covering of bristles, often brightly colored). Those bright colors are “aposematic”—or “warning” coloration—telling predators to avoid these creatures. Velvet ants have painful stings and tough exoskeletons that make them hard to nom, and the coloration has presumably evolved to save the insect from being tasted by a predator who has already learned to avoid its pattern. (Presumably the bright coloration is easier for predators to learn. In some cases it may have evolved through “kin selection”—the first colorful mutant insect is actually more likely to be eaten, as it sticks out like a sore thumb; but a learning predator can then avoid its brothers and sisters who also carry the genes for that coloration. There are other scenarios for the evolution of aposematic coloration involving individual rather than kin selection.)
Wikipedia says this about velvet ants:
The exoskeleton of all velvet ants is unusually tough (to the point that some entomologists have reported difficulty piercing them with steel pins when attempting to mount them for display in cabinets). This characteristic allows them to successfully invade the nests of their prey and also helps them retain moisture. Like related families in the Vespoidea, males have wings but females uniformly are wingless. They exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism; the males and females are so different, it is almost impossible to associate the two sexes of a species unless they are captured while mating. In a few species, the male is so much larger than the female, he carries her aloft while mating, which is also seen in the related family Tiphiidae.
If you want to see a bunch of fearsome-looking velvet ants enrobed in red (and one in striking royal blue), click the Google image search here.
Biology lesson: Learn what aposematic coloration is. Patterns can be aposematic, too, as in the prominent striping of wasps, coral snakes—and skunks. So can behavior: think of the mock “threat displays” of snakes and other animals who aren’t toxic or dangerous, but mimic the displays of species that are.