Behind the camera with UT insect photographer Alex Wild

Portrait of a Mexican Honey Wasp. San Antonio, Texas, USA
Portrait of a Mexican honey wasp, Brachygastra mellifica

Ten million known species of insects call this planet home. Alex Wild, curator of the Entomology Collection at the University of Texas, is on a mission to photograph as many of them as possible.

Wild says he found his calling by accident. As a PhD student in entomology at the University of California, Davis, he needed insect photos to accompany his presentations—so he started taking them. He created a website in 2001 to share his images and as requests to buy them poured in, Wild realized he had tapped into a niche market. “The business side of things became so demanding, I didn’t have time for research,” he says.

His professional photos have been used in taxonomy research (“insect yearbook photos,” he jokes), in textbooks, for training and marketing in the pest control industry, and by conservation biologists to showcase the fascinating world of insects.

Portrait of a red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. This species arrived to the southeastern United States from South America in the 1930s. Specimen from Brackenridge Field Laboratory, Austin, Texas, USA. Public domain image by Alex Wild, produced by the University of Texas "Insects Unlocked" program.

Portrait of a red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta

Wild has fine-tuned a process to capture his six-legged subjects. He mounts a digital camera and powerful lens on a motorized rail that adjusts focus and connects it to a computer that processes the images. The setup requires adjustment based on the species.

Fire ants, for example, have skin almost as shiny as glass, and photos of them are all glare and shadow unless the lighting is diffused. Live insects present their own challenges. “A big fat caterpillar that just sits there is easy,” he says. “A swarm of African ants trying to kill you, not so much.” Wild figured out how to capture even the latter, placing a rock in the middle of a pan filled with water and dumping the unfriendly subjects onto it.

Portrait of a queen twig ant, Paraguay.
Portrait of a queen twig ant, Pseudomyrmex filiformis

In April, he wrapped up a fundraising effort on HornRaiser, UT’s crowdfunding site. Insect fans donated more than $12,000 to beat his $8,000 goal. Called “Insects Unlocked,” the project will train undergraduate students to photograph insects in the field and under the microscope and, in the process, create a collection of copyright-free images.

“We wouldn’t exist without insects,” he stresses. “They are crawling through the earth and aerating the soil, and studies show that without ants and termites, agricultural production drops because water doesn’t soak into the ground. They give us the flavor of cinnamon, rosemary, and thyme, because those plants developed chemicals to protect them against insects.” Acknowledging that most people are anything but fond of insects, he points out that most of them want nothing to do with us, either.

Wild became interested in insects early, trying to capture carpenter ants in a paper cup at age five and being mesmerized by his first ant farm in fourth grade. He didn’t realize until college, though, that he could make a career of that interest. While attending Bowdoin College with vague plans of studying history, he was pulled aside by an ecology professor who suggested switching to entomology. “There was a lack of role models,” Wild explains. “I didn’t know anyone in the field.”
After graduating with a degree in biology, Wild spent two years with the Peace Corps in Paraguay as a beekeeper. For his PhD and short-lived postdoc work, he studied ant evolution and classification.

Insect specimens preserved in museums are not just pretty objects. The associated information on the label provide a concrete record of where and when that insect lived, priceless data for monitoring the occurence of species across changing landscapes. This is a male Phaeneus dung beetle. Public domain image by Alex Wild, produced by the University of Texas "Insects Unlocked" program.A male Phaeneus dung beetle. The information on the label provide a concrete record of where and when the insect lived, priceless data for monitoring the occurence of species across changing landscapes.

Now he manages the million-plus insect specimens housed at UT’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory for students and researchers. And, of course, he and other budding entomology photographers use some of those specimens as models.
The task could be considered job security for an insect enthusiast. “Working our hardest, we’ll be lucky to image one one-hundredth of a percent of the world’s 10 million species,” he says. “We’ll be lucky to manage one-tenth of one percent of the insect fauna of just Texas.”

Photos by Alex Wild


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