The Dewy Bug Guy Is Back

July 29, 2021 chris helzer


7:17 a.m. - By the time the first sunlight hit the prairie on Sept. 15, 2019, I had already found this migratory dragonfly and had my tripod and camera ready.

Story and photos by Chris Helzer

All the photos in this article were photographed on the morning of Sept. 15, 2019, at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora.

When I first started working with Nebraskaland as a college student in the mid-1990s, my nickname among at least some of the magazine staff was “the dewy bug guy.” It was completely fair. A large part of my portfolio, such as it was, consisted of insects covered in tiny water droplets.

7:28 a.m. – Another dragonfly (variegated meadowhawk) waits for the sun to warm and dry it enough that it can continue its southward journey. Photo by Chris Helzer.

At the time, my parents had recently helped me acquire my first macro lens, and I immediately became entranced by insects and other tiny creatures I’d mostly overlooked before. I spent countless hours crawling through prairies, peering at these minute wonders. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm was tempered by the harsh reality that it cost me about 30 cents every time I clicked the shutter on my slide film camera.

7:56 a.m. – This male bumblebee had spent the night beneath this native tall thistle flower and endured the presence of my camera. Photo by Chris Helzer.

If you’ve ever tried to look closely at insects, you know how difficult it is to get them to sit still. Compounding the problem, the plants they’re on are usually waving around in the breeze. That combination means that a strong majority of insect photo attempts result in useless, blurry images. In today’s glorious world of digital photography, those misses are free, so who cares? As a young hobbyist photographer shooting slide film on a budget, however, I literally couldn’t afford many of them.

8:04 a.m. – Dewdrops covered the pollen-filled anthers of big bluestem and other grasses. Photo by Chris Helzer.

The struggle was real. However, my life hack, before I knew to call it that, was to restrain my insect photography urge most days and then release it on glorious, late summer mornings when dew covered everything on the landscape. Not only was the light from the rising sun perfect for photography on those mornings, but also the wind was usually calm, or nearly so. Most importantly, the prairie was full of lovely glittering insects that were too cold and wet to jump, fly or crawl away from me.

8:06 a.m. – Tiny hoverflies were shaking off dewdrops and starting to feed on grass pollen. I watched this one pause briefly in between flower visits to, I assume, scan for potential dangers and wipe stray pollen grains from its legs. Photo by Chris Helzer.

I was in heaven on those dewy mornings. I could edge my tripod and camera right up to a dragonfly or bumblebee and it would just stare at me as I captured its gorgeousness on my pricey slide film. I hardly noticed that my pants were soaking wet and my feet were sloshing around inside my sodden boots. The world was sparkly and still and perfect.

8:18 a.m. – I got distracted from my hoverfly-watching by this Chinese mantis sitting in ambush on a goldenrod flower, waiting for the first big pollinator of the day to stop by. Photo by Chris Helzer.

Now, more than 25 years later, I’m still entranced by insects and tiny creatures, but my budget is a little bigger and I can just delete blurry images from the memory card of my camera. I can chase active little critters around on breezy days, pressing my shutter button like I’m sending a telegram, and it doesn’t cost me a thing. Sometimes, I even get a good photo that way.

8:25 a.m. – When I returned to hoverflies and grass flowers, I got to watch this fly feeding on the pollen in this anther like it was an ice cream cone. Photo by Chris Helzer.

The freedom afforded me by digital cameras and a paying job, though, hasn’t lessened my love for dewy mornings and sparkling bugs. During the summer, I still scan weather forecasts daily, paying special attention to cloud cover, dew point and wind speed. When all those factors line up, I set my alarm and arise before the sun so I can be in place, socks already soggy, by the time the first shaft of morning light hits the prairie. Then, I spend a happy hour or so trying to defend my title as “the dewy bug guy.”  

Chris Helzer is the Nature Conservancy’s director of science in Nebraska.

8:36 a.m. – This was the last photo I took before reluctantly leaving the prairie on that magical morning. The prairie was drying out, but this milkweed seed had been in the shade until just a few minutes before I found and photographed it. Photo by Chris Helzer.

The post The Dewy Bug Guy Is Back appeared first on Nebraskaland Magazine.

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