Chasing Tiger Beetles

Cicindela sexguttata, photographed in early spring at Medway Creek, 2010
Patience is virtue, but if there is an insect that knows how to tests your patience, it has to be a Tiger Beetle. Belonging to the order Coleoptera, family Carabidae , subfamily Cicindelinae (all Tiger Beetles belong to Carabidae, but not all Carabidae beetles are commonly called Tiger Beetles; they were previously considered to be under a distinct family Cicindelidae), these beetles are commonly referred to as Tiger Beetles for a very good reason. We all know that tigers are carnivores, earning the rightful throne of being on top of the food pyramid in their prime habitats. Their hunting tactics involve ambushing, stalking, chasing and surprising the prey, making them efficient – if not supreme – predators of the Indian subcontinent. Likewise, Tiger Beetles are known to use all these tactics while hunting for food. Only difference between the mammalian tiger and an insect tiger is their apparent size, but if we were to blow a Tiger Beetle to the proportion of a tiger, the Tiger Beetle would be a far supreme predator to rule the planet. The reason behind their success is because they are one of the fastest insects, capable of running as well as flying at great speeds (20 to 30 mph!). But worry not, a tiger beetle will never run you down, it will, in fact, make you chase after it, if you are curious about these marvelous beetles flaunting an extravagant armor of Chitin. This post is about my field observations of the Tiger Beetles of southern Ontario, as I stalked and chased for hours to photograph them over the summer.

I tried to document as many tiger beetles as I could besides other insects (such as butterflies that I discussed in the previous post), herptiles, birds and mammals. And out of these, most challenging were obviously the Tiger Beetles. You know the reason why, but I had quite an idea of how to get close enough for a photograph through countless tries. I am talking about photographing Tiger Beetles using a Point-and-shoot (PNS) camera with no high-end super-macro lenses. Using a PNS strips the photographer of the privileges of shooting the subject from a distance, which is practically possible but the result is photographically insufficient. In order to obtain that near-perfect shot for any PNS, the photographer has to be as close as possible, but not too close to scare the subject.
C. sexguttata was observed feeding on ants at Medway Creek, Spring 2010
In order to achieve this, one must first know where to find the Tiger Beetles. These beetles inhabit a range of habitats from woodlands, forest clearings, river and lakeshores, mangroves and salt marshes, deciduous forests of Ontario to sand dunes near the Great Lakes. And if you see one beetle, there are bound to be more around. It’s often by accident that you may come across a tiger beetle, since they sit still until we approach close enough, and disappear quickly – but often land close by. Therefore if you ever see one fly and disappear, walk around and you will probably find it in close proximity. On the other hand, if you know which tiger beetle you are looking for, you will have an idea about the habitat it is found in as well, making it easier to find the place they prefer living in, although you may have to do a little research about the distribution of the certain beetle.

The biggest deal after you know where to find one is when to find one. The best season to find tiger beetles in Canada is spring, summer and late summer (March to October). Only a few Tiger beetle adults emerge during early spring, the best example is Cicindela sexguttata. As summer proceeds, many more show up and the diversity peaks with the passing season. By the end of August and early September, the diversity dwindles again – it’s time for the adults to hibernate (while some die) and for the grubs to wait for next season.
C. sexguttata, seen basking on a log during noon at Turkey Point, Summer 2010
Tiger beetles, like all other insects need to raise their body temperature in order to perform bodily functions (since they are ecothermic), and to do that they prefer basking in clearings such as on exposed logs, rocks or on the ground. This is usually observed during early morning hours till noon. Most beetles become very active by afternoon, engaging in activities such as hunting for prey or searching for mates. By late evening, their metabolism seems to slow down, making them sluggish and weak. By twilight hours, they prefer roosting in plants. I observed Cicindela lepida burrowing in the sand during evening at Long Point, but I did not come across any available literature on such behaviour. Through my experience, I find early morning hours and early evening hours until twilight to be the best period to photograph these beetles, but it is not so difficult to photograph them in their active period of time – all you require is patience and persistence.
C. formosa feeding on an unidentified beetle. It only consumed the soft parts and left behind the exoskeleton.
Photographed at Long Point, 2010
Once you know when and where to find a Tiger Beetle, photographing it becomes half easy. Like photographing any animal, one has to be cautious, watch their movement, step on the right ground in order to keep the subject from spooking and slowly move closer. Tiger Beetles almost always prefer to sit on clear grounds; hence it’s often easy to maneuver around in order to get perfect light on the subject. However, I find it easy to shoot Tiger Beetles on cloudy days, because on sunny days, the light is harsh, and the Tiger Beetles reflect a lot of the light, hence the images are usually high in contrast. On cloudy days, the clouds act as natural light diffusers, helping in capturing the beetles in their true colours. Use of flash is also very helpful to light up the subject in cloudy conditions. I prefer to use a homemade flash diffuser in order to keep the tiger beetle from being overexposed by a strong flash.

There are approximately 2,600 species (Pearson and Volger, 2006) (2,100 or 2,300 according to Wikipedia and Pearson, 2001 respectively) of Tiger Beetles known to science. About 930 species of Carabidae (or Ground Beetles) are found in Canada (CBIF), and 109 species of Tiger Beetles in North America (Pearson and Volger, 2006). In Ontario, about 14 species (University of Guelph, 2000) of Tiger Beetles occur. Their numbers are usually concentrated around the Great Lakes, especially along the sandy shores and sand dunes, rocky shores and the alvars. A few species are found farther from the lakes as well, especially around rivers and streams.

...yet another photograph of C. sexguttata, showing the typical six spots (that may or may not be present) giving it
the common name Six Spotted tiger beetle. The common name is not to be confused with
Six Spotted ground beetle, Anthia sexguttata found in India, which is also wrongly called a Six Spotted tiger beetle
 The first Tiger Beetle I photographed in Canada was at Medway Creek in April 2010. It was Cicindela sexguttata, one of the early Tiger Beetles to greet the warming season. Since then, I recorded about eight species of Tiger Beetles in Long Point area and Manitoulin Island. The habitats explored were Carolinian forests, sandy shores of Lake Erie, the alvars and rocky shores of Manitoulin Island.

Cicindela sexguttata: Commonest tiger beetle. Seen at Medway Creek, Long Point, Turkey Point and Port Rowan.
the very last picture of C. sexguttata.
Cicindela formosa: Largest tiger beetle of Canada. Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. formosa
Cicindela scutellaris: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. scutellaris
Cicindela punctulata: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. punctulata
Cicindela lepida: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. lepida
Cicindela repanda: Seen at Manitoulin Island
C. repanda
Cicindela longilabris: Seen at Manitoulin Island
Probably C. longilabris, with some confusion with C. punculata, but due to the some morphological characters and since C. longilabris is seen at Manitoulin Island, I am inclined towards it.
Cicindela purpurea: Seen at Manitoulin Island
C. purpurea, one of my favorite tiger beetles of Ontario!
These beetles play a pivotal role in the ecosystem by providing valuable ecosystem services. Their contribution towards keeping other insect population under check is apparent by their appetite. Although I have never seen a Tiger Beetle feed on mosquitoes, they will, given the opportunity, feast on them. They also predate on other beetles that are pests on plants, or are invasive in nature. They also seem to have an appetite for ants – as they are often seen standing near an ant nest and leaping on a passerby. The grubs are a nemesis for ants as well, as they wait in a burrow, protected by an armored head for any passing insect. Tiger Beetles are also considered for studying the health of a habitat, thus greater the diversity of Tiger Beetles, healthier the habitat. Pearson and Volger (2001) also noted, “the use of tiger beetles as model organisms has made possible or greatly enhanced many areas of research, including molecular phylogeny, the function of acute hearing, spatial modeling and physiology of vision.”
C. formosa showing the fearsome mandibles that are a nightmare to many pests!
Conserving these beetles is very important for the above mentioned reasons, but they face threats like every other species. There are several species of tiger beetles that are endangered throughout the world, mainly due to deforestation, habitat loss, urban and industrial development, as well as, interestingly, sport activities such as dirt bikes. This destructive hobby is of interest to many in North America. This has caused the Carolinian life zone, which is rich in sand, and hence supposedly ideal for this sport, to be prone to bikes that not only cause air and sound pollution but damage the ground as well. Extensive use of lands for this sport, as seen at Long Point, has lead to a great impact on wildlife, such as the Species-at-Risk Eastern Hog-nosed snakes. Tiger Beetles as well are disturbed by such activities and more so due to the fact that these dirt bikers have a special desire to bike on protected wildlife areas, rampaging thoughtlessly on the delicate ecosystem that is already struggling to survive.

Thank you for reading!

8 comments:

  1. An interesting article about tiger beetles, accompanied by stunning images. Never observed tiger beetles in our area. Nice to hear that they are human friendly.

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  2. i must say u capture amazing pictures..gr8 going :)

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  3. Tiger beetles rock - nice article.

    I spent a year PNS-photographing tigers before getting a dedicated macro rig - good explanation of the issues one must deal with.

    Great composition in the C. formosa photograph!

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  4. You are an amazing photographer. Your blog is very nice. When you have a chance, do see my blog that I recently started. it is Sakepedia.blogspot.com
    It too is on animals. I am an animal enthusiast.
    Thank you

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  5. Very nice collection, can u tell me which source or book you are using for identification of insects? Photo quality, presentation and information is very useful.
    Best of luck

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  6. Thank you for dropping by, Manish. I don't use any books, there aren't any if you're looking for Indian insect diversity, but there are many online resources from pictured guides and groups.

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  7. The image of Cicindela longilabris is actually Cicindela hirticollis rhodensis Calder which often lacks the whitish markings on the elytra. Cicindela longilabris has a noticeably long labrum and the elytra are very opaque black.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for the clarification!

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