Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Dioxyna picciola

with 44 comments

During my time on the wildflowery embankment along Mopac at Braker Lane on March 18, I got in close to photograph the bud of a greenthread, Thelesperma filifolium. That’s when I noticed a tiny insect on it, not much more than 1/8 of an inch long (3mm). In looking more carefully, I realized I was seeing two insects, one on top of the other. Not recognizing them, I turned to Val Bugh, who quickly identified these for me as “the almost perpetually mating fruit flies… Dioxyna picciola. I think they don’t mate ALL the time, but they are so small that it is easier to notice them as a pair.” On the esthetic side, note the way the bud lines up with the center of a greenthread flower head. Note also the pleasant colors, including a little indigo from nearby bluebonnets. Below you get a better look at the action in a side view from a different frame.

Given the insects’ tiny size, the low light due to overcast skies, and the fact that the breeze moved the greenthread bud even as the flies sometimes moved about on it, I set a high ISO and a fast shutter speed and adopted the strategy of taking a bunch of pictures in the hope that a few of them would turn out okay. My minimally acceptable rate ended up being only one in six.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 26, 2020 at 4:26 AM

44 Responses

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  1. The photo of the flower is really fantastic. Looks a bit like the flower is part of another one. (Meaning the yellow blur in the background.)


    March 26, 2020 at 4:42 AM

    • The greenthread bud that the insects are on is in the foreground. Separately, a distance beyond that and therefore well out of focus, is an open greenthread flower head. The reddish-brown disk at the center of that flower head is mostly blocked by the bud, but the outermost part of the disk manages to create a reddish halo around the bud. I worked to get that alignment.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2020 at 6:32 AM

  2. Very striking! In colour and also in the layers of detail. Nice.

    Ms. Liz

    March 26, 2020 at 4:46 AM

    • Thanks. I knew what I wanted but the conditions made it difficult. I was pleased to end up with a few showable pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2020 at 6:38 AM

  3. I didn’t realize they were insects in the first image at all! How remarkable and wonderful your images are. Loved the second one. It’s so sharp and clear. 1 really good one is all you need!


    March 26, 2020 at 7:14 AM

    • I understand how someone glancing at the first picture might not make out the insects at first. I experienced that lack of initial recognition, too, when I was among the wildflowers, because the flies are so tiny.

      Yes, one picture is all it takes. I still wish I could’ve had greater depth of field and therefore more parts of the flies in focus. Conditions didn’t allow it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2020 at 7:33 AM

  4. Ah, fruit flies…that takes me back to genetics class in college. Boy, did we hate them by the end of the semester! The female here appears to have her ovipositor poised over the flower bud, rather than on fruit.


    March 26, 2020 at 7:34 AM

    • You’re right. In any case, with a sunflower-family wildflower like greenthread there’d be fruit in the technical botanical sense but not fruit in the common English sense, like an apple or a strawberry.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2020 at 7:55 AM

      • True, and that is what I concluded although with some surprise.


        March 27, 2020 at 8:42 AM

  5. You’re having great success centering the subject on a colorful background. I begin to suspect you’re carting all these blooms into a studio! Just kidding, I know these are taken in the field. Where you’re fielding flies, no photo-stacking, but definitely insect-stacking

    Robert Parker

    March 26, 2020 at 8:13 AM

  6. Insect-stacking: well said! Speaking of fruit flies, your wording “fielding flies” reminded me of the name Fielding Mellish in Woody Allen’s “Bananas.”

    Steve Schwartzman

    March 26, 2020 at 8:18 AM

  7. One in six is darned good, given the circumstances. Those greenthreads certainly offered you some intriguing photos. Even the smallest patch of flowers can be a world unto itself, and this is a wonderful view of the private lives of a pair that called it home — at least, for a few seconds. Also on the aesthetic side, the patterning of their wings is lovely.

    I think the current gloom and doom atmosphere may be getting to me. When I read your title, my first thought was of piccolo players poisoned by dioxin. The actual subject matter was far more pleasing!


    March 26, 2020 at 8:26 AM

    • Piccolo players poisoned by dioxin—your ever-vivid imagination sure went negative on that one. Yes, we’re all at least a little down now.

      You appreciate how hard it often is to get decent pictures out in the field. Still we try, because those worlds unto themselves are worth the looking and recording. I categorized the one-in-six ratio as minimally acceptable. Displaying the pictures at these small sizes covers up some of the imperfections.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2020 at 9:04 AM

    • Sometimes your imagination scares me, Linda!


      March 27, 2020 at 2:48 PM

  8. The bud soon to open up in front of the blurred background provided by a flower in full bloom makes an impressive combination, Steve.

    Peter Klopp

    March 26, 2020 at 8:34 AM

    • You won’t be surprised to hear that I agree with you, Peter. I’ve long been fond of rich colors and abstraction.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2020 at 9:06 AM

  9. First of all, beautiful photographs. I employ the same strategy in low light, windy situations: keep snapping. In situations like this, photography is a numbers game. It is also apparent that fruit flies not only like a banana; they like each other.

    Michael Scandling

    March 26, 2020 at 11:06 AM

    • In the days when we had to pay for film and developing, that strategy would have been too costly. Digital has freed us to be profligate when there’s a reason to, and in this case the overcast, the breeze, and the minuteness of the subjects provided good reasons.

      You may know linguists’ reaction to “Fruit flies like an apple.” They compare it to “Time flies like an arrow.” (For the sake of euphony and better parallelism, I changed the kind of fruit.)

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2020 at 4:17 PM

  10. Nice work with those tiny fruit flies, Steve. They do seem to mate constantly. One reason they were such suitable subjects in biology classes.

    Steve Gingold

    March 27, 2020 at 2:17 PM

    • Yes, this made me think about why biologists have often chosen fruit flies for experiments involving many generations. Photographing these little critters was a nuisance.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 27, 2020 at 4:18 PM

  11. Your main photo is nothing short of spectacular. You executed your goal perfectly in this one. One could almost miss the fauna without a close look–I’ve had a few photos with little critters that I didn’t notice at all until I was developing the image–I call these bonus bugs. And as for the smaller photo, good on ya, mate!


    March 27, 2020 at 2:45 PM

    • I’ve got to admit I was pretty pleased with the main picture’s colors and composition. Your comment that “one could almost miss the fauna” applies to me, who might well have missed it. Like you, I’ve had my share of pictures where I noticed an insect or spider only when processing the image; in some of those cases I’ve wished I’d noticed at the time I took the picture so I could’ve gotten better focus.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 27, 2020 at 4:30 PM

      • Just one more random thought: we nature photographers, as old-time troupers in a vaudeville show, we have to have our wits about us at all times and be ready to adapt when the fruit flies.


        March 28, 2020 at 3:12 PM

        • Sorry–guess you had this thought pretty well covered in your first reply to Michael. Must learn to read all the comments before adding what I cleverly thought was an original. Ah, well, great minds…


          March 28, 2020 at 3:16 PM

          • Great minds, yes. We’re always ready for another take on that play on words—or any other.

            Steve Schwartzman

            March 28, 2020 at 3:29 PM

  12. Love the background spotlight here … great alignment!


    March 30, 2020 at 12:34 PM

  13. Well spotted! Great shot of the bud Steve …


    April 3, 2020 at 3:04 PM

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