favourite moments # 3 – photographing the dobsonfly

This is the third of my posts about favourite moments of nature observation that have occurred over the past couple or so years. It’ll help to pass the time spent indoors this winter as I wait to be back out observing insects, spiders, frogs and others.

The insect in the above photo is a Dobsonfly (Corydalus cornutus) photographed on July 14, 2004. If you click on the image, you can see a much larger version — I’ve left it quite large so that you can get a good look at this insect as it has such intricate wings and a very interesting head. There’s a little story behind this photograph, which is why I’ve chosen to use it in this “favourite moments” series.

Quite a bit of my photography has been done at the request of naturalist or biologist friends who would like to document things they’ve found. A couple of summers ago, I got a call from the late Wayne Grimm, who was working as the invertebrate curator of a local natural history museum. An area resident had brought in a female Dobsonfly for identification, so Wayne asked if I could come up to the museum to take a few photos of the insect.

When I arrived at the museum, the Dobsonfly was confined to a large jar with a screen over the top. She was quite alive and moving about, so getting a good photo would be somewhat tricky. If we removed her from the jar, she would most surely have taken flight. At first, Wayne suggested that he hold the Dobsonfly while I shot some photos. You can believe it when I say that holding a Dobsonfly is much easier said that done as it’s quite large for an insect – the body being perhaps a couple or so inches long, with a wingspan of over 4 inches. While the male of the species has very long but relatively innocuous mandibles (you can see several photos of the male’s mandibles in examples on this page on the What’s That Bug website), the female’s are shorter and more powerful, and they are, as one of my fieldguides states, “capable of biting forcefully.”

Wayne reached into the jar and gently seized the Dobsonfly by the body, leaving the wings free. The Dobsonfly did not take kindly to being handled and began to thrash about, beating its wings and snapping its mandibles quite ferociously. To all intents and purposes, she more resembled a buzz saw or cuisinart than an insect. Several times, after she calmed down slightly, I attempted to approach with the camera, but she would begin a fresh round of flapping, snapping and writhing about. Clearly, this approach wasn’t going to work, and sooner or later it seemed likely that Wayne would be on the receiving end of a nasty bite. He replaced her in the jar and we resorted to that other strategy that insect photographers sometimes employ — of placing the insect in the refrigerator for a short while to chill it slightly so that it will become sluggish and immobile long enough to take a few photos.

After a few minutes of chilling, I was able to place the Dobsonfly a sheet of white paper, arrange her wings and antennae a little, and then shoot a few photos. As she began to “revive”, I placed her on a little stick to get a few more naturalistic poses. You can see one of those shots here.

This is really a double post because I have another associated photo that seemed worth sharing (see below). It’s of a hellgrammite, which is the larval stage of the Dobsonfly. I photographed this two or three summers ago while out on a stream survey workshop. A friend, Dr. Fred Schueler, found this hellgrammite beneath a stone in the water. We placed it into a baggie of water so that I could get some shots of the underside. Those fuzzy white things are the gills which extend out from the abdomen. As you can see, it was quite a large creature. I’m told that its mandibles can inflict a rather painful bite.

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8 Responses to “favourite moments # 3 – photographing the dobsonfly”

  1. Stuart Says:

    Hi Bev,

    Awesome photos – I certainly would not enjoy having to take a squirming, gnashing version of that out of a jar. Those are life altering moments – ask Gary Larson about the effect of an entomology friend, a jar, a sleeping bag and 3 whip scorpions on his comics.

  2. Ontario Wanderer Says:

    I’ve not seen a Dobsonfly in years. They were common in Kansas but seem less common here in Ontario. I don’t think I ever knowingly saw the larva stage. Thanks for sharing both photos.

  3. Peter Says:

    I read this yesterday and then had a very vidid dream lastnight about trying to photograph the hellgrammite as it ran around on a deck. Even Dr Schueler made an appearance :-)

    Anyways, I did some more searching on them on the net, they are very interesting creatures. That first photograph is great, love the details in the wings, though I’d hate to take a bite from one by the looks of it.

  4. burning silo Says:

    Hi Stuart – Thanks! Actually, I should have mentioned in this post, that the real fun was in getting the dobsonfly back into the jar as it was acting so wild (doing its food processor imitation), that I believe Wayne was probably just a little concerned about what might happen when he had to let go of it! So, that’s how Gary Larson got his inspiration, is it?!! (-:

    OW – I believe the larvae prefer certain kinds of aquatic habitats, so that might explain their abundance in one place compared to another.

    Peter – Ha! I guess that hellgrammite photo must have made quite the impression!! (-:
    Yes, indeed, dobsonflies are quite interesting. I find it quite amazing to consider the transformation required for certain larvae to transform into their adult stage. Dobsonflies are definitely a good case in point!

  5. robin andrea Says:

    What a beautiful creature. Those wings are spectacular. Thanks for posting the large photograph, so I could really take a look. I know I hsve never seen anything like a dobsonfly. So, I’ll have to do a little research to see if they are in the northwest. I’d be happy to come upon one, wouldn’t I? They’re not mad like certain stinging wasps, are they?

  6. burning silo Says:

    robin – The wings are wonderful. I just had to post a large photo as you can’t get the sense of that until you see them up close. I’m not sure if this particular species is in the northwest, but there’s probably a species that is. I started to look around online, but my net connection is so slow at the moment that I gave up. Yes, you should be happy to encounter one. I’ve never heard them described as aggressive. I think they’re usually considered rather placid unless bothered.

  7. Cathy Says:

    Beyond my appreciation of these incredible photos I find myself being impressed at your willingness to get up close and personal with these critters. Were you always so brave. Honestly, I’m such a chicken about bugs that I couldn’t click on your photo for the LARGER version. I was afraid I’d have a dream like Peter did :0)

  8. burning silo Says:

    Cathy – I’ve never really been nervous around insects or most other creatures for that matter – I was always comfortable with just about anything from a lady beetle to a horse. The more I work around insects, the more comfortable I feel as I can usually tell when a wasp or hornet is feeling irritable or hostile just by its movements, the way it holds its wings, etc… Most insects are so beautiful that it’s too bad that more people don’t spend more time examining them very closely. (-: