A Macro View of My Garden

by Robert D. Stephens

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Walk through any flower garden and your attention is probably on the beautiful blossums there. But on closer inspection, you’re also likely to see bees, hoverflies, and any number of unrecognized insects flying around or walking upon the petals and blossoms of those beautiful flowers. Our world of flowers abounds with the colors, textures, and shapes that amaze and please us. But if you’ll take the time to look closer at the myriad insects that are enjoying these flowers right along with us, you’re likely to be as amazed by these insects as you are by the beautiful flowers. Macro photography can bring the colors, textures, and shapes of the mysterious world of insects to us in ways that our naked eye rarely can. And once discovering this unusual world, we can easily find ourselves hooked on this photographic technique. And once hooked, we can find ourselves taking interests in insects and insect facts that we otherwise would simply shrug our shoulders at. And yet, this amazing world of insects is right outside the door of virtually every home in America and virtually every home anywhere in the world of planet Earth. For it is estimated that for every human being on our planet, there are 200 million insects (1). That’s an estimated 40 million insects per acre of land. And, where human beings represent only one species on Earth, estimates of the numbers of insect species on earth range from 4 to 30 million. The sheer range of shapes, sizes, and behaviors of these insects is truly astounding. And many of these insects abound just beyond our doorstep, waiting for us to discover.

This is the story of my Michigan garden as seen via macro photography. This world of insects can be enjoyed on any leisurely summer morning. I can step out of my house on any morning with a cup of coffee and leisurely browse the garden and see where the action is. Or I can choose my spot and watch and wait. Both approaches work. And with a little patience, the interesting critters will show themselves and sometimes seem to pose for the camera. Watching the world of gardens in this way quickly reveals that it is truly “a jungle out there” – a jungle of insects striving for survival. If not by collecting pollen or eating leaves then a world of insects eating each other.

When it comes to insects eating other insects, no insect does it better than the mighty Praying Mantis. In the insect world, the Praying Mantis is at the top of the food chain. It is better equipped for preying on other insects than virtually any other insect. The Chinese Praying Mantis, common throughout North America, can easily grow to five inches in length. At that size, it is the largest insect most people will ever see. Its front two legs are lined with needle sharp spikes that it uses to impale its victims, which it catches with a lightning fast strike. The Praying Mantis typically “hunts” via ambush, waiting for pray to come within striking distance, hidden via its camouflage of color and shape. Its prey is consumed while still alive, struggling to escape.

The reputation of the Praying Mantis as ferocious predators is well founded. Video footage has been recorded showing Praying Mantises catching and eating animals much larger than themselves; animals including mice, small snakes, and birds.

The Praying Mantis has the unusual and uncanny ability to turn its head fully from side to side and up and down. The range of motion of its head extends far beyond any other insect. This equips the mantis to search for and see its prey better than any other insect predator. It also gives us humans the distinct impression that it has an intelligence beyond any other insect.

In my garden, I often encounter Praying Mantises. Some, I see again and again and they have become favorite subjects of my macro photography. I sometimes think they have become so accustomed to me and my camera that they actually “pose” for their portraits. They seem completely unfazed by my camera and macro lens set up on tripod mere inches from them. And they seem completely unfazed by my flash, which I’ve sometimes used.

These photos were taken with a Canon EOS 10D digital SLR camera with a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. Depending upon the shot, some photographs might also have utilized a Kinko extension tube or tubes, which yield closer focusing distance for any lens. These are particularly useful for extremely small subjects. For extreme depth of focus, I’ve used f-stops down to as low as f/45. With these settings, ambient light typically requires long shutter speeds that are inadequate to “freeze” the action of these outdoor subjects where the slightest breeze or subject movement can cause motion blur. In such cases, I’ve relied upon a Canon 420EX Speedlite flash, which allows me to shoot at 1/250th of a second while yielding excellent exposure even at f/45 with this lens. And of course, with extreme depth of focus, the background must be chosen carefully to avoid cluttered, busy shots. I accomplish this primarily by choosing to shoot subjects when their location enables me to shoot from an angle with nothing nearby in the background, or alternatively, with a flat background provided, for instance, by a large leaf.

A typical example of prey for a young and growing Praying Mantis is the Hover Fly – also known as the Serphid Fly. The Serphid Fly, in turn, is a predator that consumes plant aphids – typically considered garden pests. In spring and early summer, my garden has a profusion of Serphid Flies. With just a little patience, I captured the photo below.

Another typical example of prey for larger carnivorous insects is the Katydid and its various forms of nymphs. Katydids undergo a form of incomplete metamorphosis. That is, they transform into their adult form in stages. In the case of the Katydid, it passes through five stages on its way to adulthood. While in these pre-adult stages, they’re known as Katydid Nymphs. These nymph phases often look quite bizarre as seen in this photo of a Katydid nymph.

There are an estimated 4,000 species of Katydids around the world. Adult Katydids look similar to grasshoppers, but in reality are more closely related to crickets. All Katydids and their nymphs, have very long antennae, often longer than their body’s length. These antennae, and the sensory organs there, allow the Katydid to find their way in the dark, when they are most active.

Gardens in moist environments are often visited by dragonflies and damselflies. Many of these can be strikingly beautiful. The reflection of light from and refraction of light through their wings produces a beautiful range of colors which often change with viewing angle.

Dragonflies and Damselflies are carnivorous predators. How are they distinguished from one another? Typically, damselflies are smaller than dragonflies. Also, damselflies can fold their wings over their backs when at rest – something a dragonfly cannot do. Lastly, the eyes of a damselfly are separated by more than the diameter of one eye. Dragonfly eyes are much closer together.

It’s somewhat ironic that one of the many insects that is neither carnivorous nor predatory is one that many people fear the most and is actually capable of hurting us. That insect would be the bee, which serves us so well by pollinating our flowers and crops. We’ve coexisted in this symbiotic relationship with bees for millennia. This is such an important function for mankind that Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years left to live." And yet, bees go about their work for themselves, obviously, and not for us. Anyone that has ever watched a bee go about its business in a flower garden understands the saying “as busy as a bee”. The one in the photograph below has been busy awhile, as evidenced by the amount of pollen he has collected and stored on his hind leg.

Whereas Praying Mantises exemplify the world of the predator/prey in our garden jungles, nothing in the insect world seems more harmless, soft, and delicate as the butterfly. Butterflies survive from the nectar of flowers. Some have sensory organs in their feet to detect the sweetness of the flowers upon which they land. Once finding their flowers of choice, the butterfly unfurls a long proboscis which it uses to probe into the blossom to find its nectar.

There are an estimated 24,000 species of butterflies. Some are as tiny as 1/8 inch and others as large as 12 inches from wingtip to wingtip. All undergo a “complete metamorphosis”, starting as caterpillars, which eventually will weave a cocoon. It is inside that cocoon that the caterpillar makes its amazing transition into a butterfly.

Although butterflies seem delicate and ungainly fliers, many travel thousands of miles during their short lifespan. In this article, I’ve taken artistic license by including the photo of the Rice Paper Butterfly, shown above. This butterfly is actually native to Southeast Asia and sadly, doesn’t live in my garden. However, it is a relative of the Monarch Butterfly, which does. Monarch Butterflies make an annual migration of up to 2,000 miles.

Our gardens are truly jungles in miniature. They teem with life that we often take for granted or consider to be bothersome pests. However, if we take the time to look closely, it’s just possible we will be surprised at the beauty in this tiny world. For tips on equipment and techniques for macro photography, see the author’s “Beginner’s Guide to Macro Photography”.


1) Pedigo, Larry P. 1999. Entomology and Pest Management, Third Edition.Prentice Hall. P. 1.

While many people find insects fascinating, others can experience extreme fear when coming into contact with any species of insect. The excessive and persistent fear of insects is called entomophobia and can be treated by a therapist or psychologist like Cynthia Telles. Dr. Telles and other mental health professionals provide treatment for entomophobia by systematic desensitization. This will help entomophobics enjoy the great outdoors without fear and maybe even choose an insect for a macro photography subject.

Macro Photo Galleries:

Insects      Flowers         Residential Wildlife

Robert Stephens
TheWorldinLight Photographic Gallery

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All photographs are the property of Robert Stephens and TheWorldinLight Photographic Gallery. Unauthorized use or reproduction is prohibited by US copyright law.