the fine details

I love the wonderful detail you can capture in a macro shot, and my Tamron 90 mm f2.8 lens does a fine job of sharpening up details when I really get close to my subject.  But I re-learned (or re-demonstrated to myself) the other day, how important it is to get the settings right before shooting, especially if the subject is bigger than a small bee.

asian star lily

With a larger subject, you need greater depth of field (more of the shot in sharp focus), and that means dialing in a smaller aperture (= higher numbered f-stop).  I really was aiming here to get the stamens of the lily in sharp focus, but didn’t want the petals to get blurry, so this was shot at f13 (a pretty small lens opening).  Click on the image to see the fine details more clearly.

Here’s a quick demonstration of the effect of aperture opening on the depth of field, using the same lily.  I stood in the same spot, focused on the same spot on the flower (the stamens), and just changed the aperture from wide open (f2.8) to very small opening (f16).  You should see an increase in the depth of field and fine focus in the series going from the first photo to the last.  Click on any of the photos to see the resolution and detail in the anthers — it is far sharper at f16 than any of the other apertures.

asian star lily (f 2.8)

asian star lily (f 2.8).  Only 1 or 2 of the anthers is actually in focus here because the plane of focus is so shallow.

asian star lily (f 5.6)

asian star lily (f 5.6).  This is a better choice of lens opening to get all of the stamens in focus, but some of the petals are not.

asian star lily (f 11)

asian star lily (f 11).  Most of the flower is in pretty good focus here.

asian star lily (f 16)

asian star lily (f 16).  The complete flower is in sharp focus here, but the semi-focused day lily leaves are becoming distracting in this view.

There is a trade-off to getting better depth of field in the subject, however, because I have also sharpened up (unintentionally) the background, which was nicely blurred and complementary to the flower at f2.8 and is now competing for attention with the lily at f16.  So, I guess the lesson here is to either choose a better background for the whole flower shot, settle for less than perfectly sharp (e.g, at f 5.6) or shoot less than a whole flower (like the very first photo).  Or….use a different lens!

bumblebee faces

I love watching the bumblebees work the milkweed flowers.  They are so systematic in the way that they probe into each chamber of the flower, moving along using their front legs to separate the chambers and dipping an antenna in occasionally to check for scents left by other foraging bees.  On a recent morning, I got up in the bumblebee’s face with my macro lens while the bee probed the flowers, hoping to catch the action of their tongues as they lapped up the sticky syrup.

This bee looks like it is sitting down while sipping.

This bee looks like it is sitting down while sipping.  Head, legs and thorax are intensely black — but I’ve lightened them up considerably here so you can actually see the different body parts.  Both the tongue sheath and one antenna are inserted into one of the floral chambers of a swamp milkweed flower.

Bumblebees use their tongue, which extends from that long sheath, to mop up nectar at the base of a flower.  Generally, the larger the bee, the longer its tongue is, which allows bees of different sizes to specialize on differently shaped flowers.


The cartoon illustrates the tongue extending from the hard maxillary sheath.  Although the tongue appears “hairy”, the tip is really a mass of fine capillary tubes that suck up nectar as the tongue is dipped in and out of the sugar source.


Here the bee has pulled the tongue sheath out of the flowers but not far enough to actually see the extended tongue itself.

I’ve always been curious about how bees “decide” whether a given patch of flowers is worth an investment of their time to probe for nectar.  Bumblebees (and perhaps a variety of other bees as well) mark the flowers on which they have spent considerable time foraging (i.e., rich nectar reward) with a scent that indicates it has already been tapped.  As the scent decays over time, presumably the nectar reward builds up again, resulting in more visits from foraging bees.

Head on view -- you can see the ocelli above the compound eyes.

Just opened milkweed flowers, like the one at bottom center, with their pollen sacs still in place, are better bets for higher nectar rewards.  And clumps of flowers on a plant or clumps of plants of the same species are better bets for finding nectar sources, so bumblebees will search such large patches until they fail to reap some minimal reward — and then move on.

I never did get a good look at the mop end of that long tongue, but I certainly have a new appreciation for bumblebee faces.


Magnificant mountains

Another couple of photos from the Wyoming adventure — to finish off the series in style.

grand tetons outside Jackson, WY

The Teton range just north of Jackson, on the road to our campsite at Gros Ventre.  The Grand Teton is the highest mountain in Wyoming (13,770 feet). Click on the image to get a full screen panorama.

This youngest range in the Rocky Mountains, only about 50 miles in length, pushed up about 9 million years ago, while at the same time the basin around the Jackson hole area began to sink, making the peaks tower almost 14,000 feet above the flat plain below.  Their recent appearance with relatively little time for erosion makes their profile spectacular — everywhere we drove in this valley, I had to stop and take photos just to see if I could get “the best” view of the peaks.

wind river mountains-

The Wind River range runs approximately 100 miles forming a core of very high peaks in the central portion of the Rocky Mountains.  More than 40 peaks rise above 13,000 feet, and harbor seven of the largest glaciers in the Rockies.  Rugged hiking there!

This area of Wyoming has some fascinating history, of early explorers, trappers, Indian history, etc.  We got just a taste of this when we visited the Museum of the Mountain Men in Pinedale, WY (see my earlier post).   I think I need to go back and re-read Irving Stone’s Men to Match my Mountains.

Macro moments

July is probably the highlight of color in my backyard garden, and what a feast for the eyes upon my return!  As I passed by the potted hibiscus that gets moved outdoors for the summer months, I noticed quite a few brilliant red flowers had just opened.

red hibiscus flower-

This is the tropical red hibiscus that is so popular as a house plant and a favorite of plant breeders hoping to create a new color variety.

Interestingly, red hibiscus is no longer found in its original native (Asia) habitat, but has been introduced all over the new world tropics where it typically grows into a tall shrubby hedge.  Hummingbirds and other nectar-lovers visit the flowers, but do they really pollinate it?  No one seems to know the answer.  It’s a very large flower, and the pollen-containing anthers are well separated from that 5-pronged stigmatic surface, so one would think something larger than a hummingbird must do the pollen transfer from flower to flower.

Such a beautifully constructed reproductive structure deserves a closer look.

hibiscus pistil and stamen

The stamens (male) grow right out of the style that terminates in those 5 fuzzy-ball looking stigmatic surfaces (female).  You can see a few pollen grains sticking to the hairs below the stigmas.  One ball of pollen seems to be floating in air.

hibiscus pollen-

The anthers supported on slender pink-red filaments are full of yellow balls of pollen.  It doesn’t take much more than a shake of the flower to dislodge the pollen, but gravity causes it to fall down into the base of the flower, not out toward the stigma.

hibiscus stigma and pollen-8625

It looks like the stigma traps errant pollen grains with those long hairs on the ends of the style. The fuzzy surface of the stigma must make it difficult for pollen to make it down to the actual surface to germinate.

Red Hibiscus are apparently self-fertile, but the plants only resort to “autonomous self-fertilization” after a certain length of time, in order to permit pollen transfer from other plants to occur.  However, these flowers don’t last much more than a day in my garden, so pollinators would have to respond quickly to do the plant’s bidding.

What marvels we find when we look up close…

Wild and wet Wyoming

I wouldn’t have believed it would rain every single day in the arid scrub land of western Wyoming during the past three weeks — but it did.  This made camping less fun, but did provide some amazing opportunities for photographing clouds and thunderstorms.  Here a few examples of the kinds of weather we experienced.

wyoming thunderstorm

Taken through the window of a car going 70 mph — a rain cloud dumping its moisture on the sagebrush scrub.

wyoming thunderstorm

How about this for a little drama? It was sprinkling on me but raining further away.

rainstorm Pinedale WY

The benefit of all this summer rain is all the lush perennials that spring up along the roadside. There was an amazing diversity of color.

sagebrush desert-clouds

Before the storms, big puffy clouds gathered overhead. This one is for you, trip leader!

pronghorn bucks-

But these pronghorn bucks don’t care if it rains or shines. They are just happy to eat the sagebrush.

Life in the Sagebrush

It’s aromatic and prolific, and it dominates the plant life of a broad expanse of Wyoming and Montana.

Sagebrush wildflowers

Wildflowers persist only as long as there is soil moisture, but the sage is there to stay.

Even though it appears to be lush and green following spring and summer rain, sagebrush thrives in arid lands that receive less than 10 inches of precipitation per year, by dropping its leaves when water is most scarce, and developing both a deep taproot system to access the water table and a network of superficial roots to access the moisture from rainfall.

Sagebrush in Wyoming

Sagebrush as far as the eye can see…

Stepping on or crushing the sage releases fragrant chemicals we associate with seasoning, but eaten in great quantity, these same chemicals are unpalatable and even toxic.  Only the Pronghorn, among large grazing mammals, and the Sage Grouse, among birds, can digest and tolerate the camphor oils and terpene compounds that sage plants use to defend against grazing herbivores.

Sage Grouse female

Sage Grouse browse the tender new leaves of sage and are able to hide quite effectively within the dense shrubbery with their cryptic coloration.  These are large ground birds, twice the size of their Ruffed Grouse cousins, that prefer to walk or run through their habitat rather than fly.

Ground squirrel

Cottontail rabbit

Rabbits are plentiful in the sagebrush community, but they, too avoid eating too much sagebrush and concentrate on annuals and other forbs.

Wyoming landscape

It’s hard to believe how much life there is out in the broad expanse of this harsh environment.

Real Mountain Men

Rendezvous Days in Pinedale, WY celebrates a brief (16 yrs) but exciting period of western Wyoming history when real mountain men carved new paths for westward expansion in their quest for the pelts of the beaver working the local mountain streams.   This furor of trapping and trading at various rendezvous points mostly in Wyoming was set in motion by the fashion sense of eastern Americans who demanded those stylish beaver felt hats to keep up with their European cousins.

Rendezvous Days, Pinedale, Wyoming

Wares for trade were set up in tepee shops

Role play is key here.  Everyone brings out their best worn leathers and fringes.

Role play is key here. Everyone brings out their best worn leathers and fringes.

Rendezvous Days, Pinedale, Wyoming

Beaver skinning demonstration was a big attraction

Rendezvous Days, Pinedale, Wyoming

The finished pelt was stretched on a willow frame for transport to the rendezvous and then shipped east by River to St. Louis and the eastern US for conversion  to hat material.

Rendezvous Days, Pinedale, Wyoming

Lots of beavers died so men could wear this high fashion, but the beaver trade ended when silk hats became more fashionable!

Migratory antelope

Like the caribou in the arctic, Pronghorn Antelope are migratory, traveling 170 miles back and forth over a narrow corridor of sagebrush habitat in western Wyoming from the Grand Tetons to the upper Green River basin, near Pinedale.

Pronghorn Antelope, western Wyoming

However, unlike caribou migrants, Pronghorn must negotiate highway traffic and barbed wire fences.  These are fleet animals capable of running long distances at speeds of 60 mph, but they can’t jump fences.  In fact, their typical strategy is to crawl under the fence, and they often get caught in the barbed wire.

Pronghorn Antelope, western Wyoming

In October 2012, a new Pronghorn overpass corridor opened that enabled the antelope to cross busy highway 191 where over a hundred antelope and mule deer were killed each year. Similar types of wildlife corridors have been built in Florida to permit the endangered Florida Panther to safely negotiate travel between protected areas there.

Antelope overpass over Hwy 191 in western Wyoming

Safe travels, Mr. Pronghorn

Magnificent elk — up close

While driving from Yellowstone to the Tetons the other day, we saw a lot of cars pulled over on the road, and that can only mean one thing — wildlife near by.

and this was what everyone gawking at…

Elk in Yellowstone Lake

Elk in Yellowstone Lake

Don’t you think carrying around that much extra bone on the top of your head would give you neck strain?

Elk in Yellowstone Lake

big Boy’s little brother was just a few feet away chewing down on lunch

Elk in Yellowstone Lake

Majestic Tetons

The weather wasn’t particularly conducive to photography, but it was great for hiking around these gigantic, sawtooth Teton mountains.  A few shots of what we did today…

Tetons and Jackson Lake

The majestic Teton range and Jackson Lake

Wildflowers in the Tetons

Still lots of wildflowers blooming in the valleys below the peaks

Creek to Phelps Lake, Tetons

Rushing creeks and lush green vegetation along the hiking path

Indian Paintbrush

Indian paintbrush was particularly bright along the creek

Columbine at Ohelps Lake, Tetons

This area was once part of the estate of Laurence Rockefeller, and we surmise that the family adorned the trail with a few colorful varieties of Columbine, which have flourished and spread.