Local Nature Photographer Encourages Others to Catch the Bug

Tiger swallowtail butterfly, Virginia’s state insect, on the author’s home-grown mammoth sunflower.

Move over, supermodels. There are some new beauties in town — bugs!   Beautiful, beguiling, bewitching bugs. Or to be more specific,  arthropods for you scientists.

Newbie to expert photographers can capture these colorful critters on  “catwalks” in their own backyards and on scenic “runways” at Fairfax County parks. These beauties and cuties are not just butterflies. Take a gander at neon-green, six-spotted tiger beetles and rainbow-colored handsome meadow katydids with baby blue eyes. Or fluffy pink- and peach-colored rosy maple moths.  

And don’t get me started on spiders, like this yellow garden spider. You may not want these mini-monsters in your bedroom, but once you peer through a closeup lens at these beautiful beasts peering back at you with eight eyes, you might get hooked. There’s a whole mysterious world of hidden beauty if you just stop and look closely. These cool creatures sport a photogenic cornucopia of shapes, sizes, patterns, and textures.

I learned to love bugs as an adult after photographing them for several years, but I didn’t fall deeply down the insect rabbit hole until I bought my first macro lens and macro flash. It was a proverbial game changer, but you don’t need a fancy camera to capture fanciful photos.  You can also use a cell phone or an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera.

Cell phones are great for capturing overall photos of insects and their cousins, however, a point-and-shoot camera with a macro mode will let you get much closer. You just have to consult your camera’s manual to use the proper focusing technique. Choose a single, moveable focal point for the sharpest images.

If you want top quality and extreme close-ups to enlarge and print, use a DSLR or mirrorless camera coupled with a macro lens.  A true macro delivers 1:1 proportion, but many photographers  just prefer close-ups and typically use 90-105 mm lenses.  Macro-specific flashes can help transform “good” photos into jaw-droppers.  Tripods are typically preferred for macros, but hand-holding is easier since bugs often squeeze into tight spots.

So when and where should you hunt for these supermodels?

Summer’s the best time to explore, though many insects are easy to find in the fall and the spring.  You can spot them on flowers, clinging to cattails, hiding under leaves, and just hanging out in dirt. Sometimes you’ll spy them dangling from the mouths of birds like sunflower-yellow prothonotary warblers or hanging with their BFFs like cobalt-blue skinks and itsy-bitsy green treefrogs.  In the winter, you can peek under rocks or pop into the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s hands-on indoor Insect Zoo and Butterfly Pavilion.

Back in Fairfax County, you may wonder if some of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s whopping 400+ small to large parks are better for bugs than others. A huge park like Huntley Meadows, with its epic boardwalk stretching over water, is a prime place to find rainbow-colored katydids.  Green Spring Gardens is a magical draw for butterflies to beetles.  Some flowers even brighten its winter landscape. 

Just step foot into almost any park or along any leg of the county’s more than 330 miles of official trails — click on https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/trails/trail-buddy to pinpoint a trail — and you might come eye to eye with that glowing neon tiger beetle. Or at least one of his cute kinfolk.

Check out native wildflowers like red or purple bee balm for pretty pollinators like hummingbird moths and teensy green sweat bees. Endangered flaming-orange monarch butterflies and their yellow-black-and-white-striped monarch caterpillars survive and thrive on pink and purple milkweed wildflowers.  

When you look closely for bugs, you might first overlook some tiny ones that appear boring, bland, or uninspiring. But if you nab a close-up, you might get lured into its micro world to appreciate its beautiful colors, shapes, or patterns.  It’s almost like photographing underwater for the first time and discovering brightly colored corals and neon-tinted fish hidden under a dark, watery cloak.

You don’t have to know much about bugs to photograph them, but if you are just a tad curious — whether you’re a school kid or an adult — you may yearn to learn more, especially after using the free iNaturalist app to identify them and post them to that important citizen-science database. By the way, “In common language, people often use the term ‘bug’ to mean any insect, as well as small arthropods that are not insects,” say the University of Florida’s experts. So, like them, when I say “bugs,” I mean “insects and other small, land-dwelling arthropods.”

“There are a seemingly infinite variety of them, small and large, drab and colorful, and each of them has a story,” adds fellow Virginia Master Naturalist and bug photographer Judy Gallagher. She reminds us, “Insects are an under-appreciated but very important part of our ecosystem.”

Think like Magellan while you’re exploring. You might discover a whole new species right here in Fairfax. Just this year, Virginia Tech discovered a new species on its own campus. They dubbed the dark red bug a “Hokie twisted-claw millipede.”

Barbara J. Saffir’s selfie with a hackleberry emperor butterfly.

Personally, while I love contributing to science and art by sharing my photos, I’m basically just a hardcore nature photography junkie, so I want to get others hooked on these supermodel-beautiful bugs!

Author Barbara J. Saffir is a Fairfax Master Naturalist and an award-winning nature photographer who provided the photos for her story.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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