Life Science Noteworthy

USGS Elevates Digital Collections

When one hears about the United States Geological Survey, they probably think of rock nerds roaming around the country drilling for core samples and making jokes about augers. They might even think about a USGS Benchmark they saw embedded in their favorite hill during a recent hiking trip.  

But playing with rocks and stamping metal seals into the ground is just a small fraction of what the USGS does.  At their core (no pun intended),

The USGS is a science organization that provides impartial information on the health of our ecosystems and environment, the natural hazards that threaten us, the natural resources we rely on, the impacts of climate and land-use change, and the core science systems that help us provide timely, relevant, and useable information.

They conduct a range of multidisciplinary studies and surveys in an effort to better equip the people of the United States to understand the physical environment.  

One facet of that work includes maintaining the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which exists “to excel in wildlife and natural resource science, providing the information needed to better manage the nation’s biological resources.”  

The Center is home to the Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab headed by Sam Droege, who in addition to developing native bee surveys and monitoring techniques, oversees the production of online identification guides to native bee species.  

To meet his objectives, Droege worked with Dr. Anthony Gutierrez (of the U.S. Army Institute of Public Health) and fellow bee-people Brooke Alexander, Sue Boo, Heagan Ahmed, and Sierra Williams to create a collection of stunning macro reference images.  

The images are gorgeous.  The minimalist presentation and considered articulations make for arresting images. They also have a very utilitarian purpose. The high resolution and details allow for better identification of the portrayed species, but I find it particularly pleasing to see that aim fulfilled so spectacularly.

So, how did they produce these images?  The techniques used by Droege and his bee team were based on those first developed by Dr. Anthony Gutierrez and Graham Snodgrass at the U.S. Army Institute of Public Health.  

A pinned specimen is placed within a custom photo rig and a series of incremental frames are recorded. These frames are later combined into a single image using a combination of Zerene and Adobe Photoshop.  As stated by Brooke Alexander and Sam Droege,

The working idea behind this systems(sic) is that specimens are photographed using a camera with a very large sensor area and a high quality macro lens that magnifies the image of the specimens so that it fills the sensor area of the camera. This combination permits the creation of images with extremely high levels of detail. Due to the narrow depth of field created by the camera lens and high degree of magnification, multiple photographs need to be taken and then combined to create a picture of a specimen completely in focus. The Cognisys StackShot Rail is used to move the camera (or, alternatively, the specimen) in a user chosen set of increments (from 1um to 999mm). The controller that comes with the StackShot Rail also fires the camera/flash unit. Specimens are taken against a black background and a flash is used for illumination by bouncing the light off of white Styrofoam, in our case an old cooler.

The result is a collection of stunning images of bees and wasps that are appreciated by scientists and non-scientists alike.

For more information on the specifics of the photography techniques employed by the USGS bee team, see their publication “Detailed Macrophotography of Insect Specimens: a Laboratory Set-up” which is freely available as a PDF download.  More photos can also be found on Sam’s photostream here on Flickr.

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