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O. sagittarius beetle

An O. sagittarius beetle runs across Alex Wild's photography setup.

Alexander Wild

Beetle mania: how we captured a beetle on the cover

How quickly could I ship live beetles across the country? This question loomed on the top of my to-do list one recent Wednesday morning. With a rapidly approaching deadline, I needed to get live insects to a photographer by the end of the week who would—I hoped—produce an impressive photograph for the cover of Science. Just another day in the office.

My beetle adventure began when Science editors suggested a research paper about beetle horns as a cover possibility. I started thinking of images from nature documentaries and wildlife photography, where brilliantly colored, oversized bugs charged their prey, brandishing exotic-shaped appendages. As I gathered initial possibilities, I became excited about the visual potential.

four types of beetlesAlexander Wild

The four beetle species in the study we considered photographing for the cover of Science.

I began my beetle education, studying the paper and discussing possible approaches with the editor. I learned that the research explored how wings on the thorax slowly evolved into horns. Of the four species the researchers examined, two of them had long dramatic horns: Onthophagus taurus (upper left) and O. nigriventris (upper right). The other two, O. sagittarius (bottom right) and O. binodis (bottom left), had less pronounced horns.

I quickly discovered that the picture agencies we work with had few cover-worthy images of these species. I reached out to Alex Wild, a talented insect photographer who is also on staff as the curator of entomology at the University of Texas, Austin. Alex and I worked together in the past, and his scientific expertise and visual skills produce impressive results.

Alex sent me his existing pictures of O. taurus and O. nigriventris (the same pictures as above). The long horn on O. nigriventris was very horizontal and would be a difficult fit for the vertical cover format. However, the devil-like horns on O. taurus had potential.

Unfortunately, the horns didn’t fit the focus of the paper. Although the researchers used O. taurus to study thorax horn development early in life, the devil horns themselves were not representative of their paper.

I began thinking about how to have Alex create original photography. The researchers had beetles available—some living, some preserved. So, on this Wednesday morning, with the need for a finished photo looming ever larger, I found myself organizing the logistics of shipping live insects across the country for a photo shoot.

Alexander Wild

A focus-stacked photo of O. nigriventris held by a pin. The long horn created unnecessary white space in the vertical cover format. When rotated, the beetle feels like it is floating.

Alex began by working with O. nigriventris, the dramatic long horn species. I thought we might be able to stage O. nigriventris in a way that used the long horn effectively in the cover and did not clearly show that the insect was, in fact, dead. One benefit of working with dead creatures is that posing is easily controlled. Alex used a technique called focus stacking to take a series of sharp pictures that software combines into a single extremely sharp image, presenting the brilliant and intricate detail of the tiny insect body.

But despite our efforts, the long horn created too much empty space on the page. Tilting the bug at an angle made it appear like it was floating. The position seemed unnatural and might raise questions about how the beetle actually stands.

Alexander Wild

O. nigriventris photographed from a top view and in the Science cover layout.

Next, we tried a top view, which solved the horizontal shape problem. The cover space was more effectively filled, the beetle’s red color was more apparent, and the angle clearly showed a beetle with a long appendage. But from this point of view, the horn looked like it was coming directly out of its head, which was a problem for a paper that is about thoracic horns.

a dead beetleAlexander Wild

A lifeless O. nigriventris beetle.

From any other perspective, as I came to learn, the beetle clearly looked like a dead bug. The legs were shriveled and could not hold up the body. The color and essence of life were gone.  Nothing was going to change that.

We moved on to trying live beetles—O. sagittarius and O. binodis. Photographing living creatures is always challenging. You’re trying to capture the perfect moment and composition, working with a moving subject that does not take direction. But Alex, experienced in the ways of insects, knew these beetles were negatively phototactic, meaning they would move away from light. So, to one side of his brightly lit photography setup Alex held the beetles under a petri dish. Before releasing the beetle, he would shine a brighter light in the opposite direction of his setup, sending the beetle scurrying across the camera frame.

two pictures of a beetle runningAlexander Wild

Outtakes of O. sagittarius running across the frame.

Timing was critical to get the composition and focus right. Even with O. sagittarius having a more prominent thoracic horn than O. binodis, it was clear we needed to see the side profile of the beetle (left picture above), because the frontal view hid it from view (right picture above).

Using his lighting setup, Alex urged the O. sagittarius back and forth across the miniature photography stage, finally capturing a moment depicting both thoracic horn and beetle in a wonderfully photogenic pose that graced the cover of the 22 November issue.

the final coverAlexander Wild

Emily Petersen is the Senior Photo Editor at Science.