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USGS Makes Digital Curation Beautiful

When one hears “United States Geological Survey”, he or she probably can’t help but think of rocks.  Perhaps they imagine geologists roaming around the country drilling for core samples and making nerdy jokes about augers or perhaps they recall seeing a USGS Benchmark imbedded in their favorite hill during a recent hiking trip.  But playing with rocks and stamping metal seals into the ground are 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 their environment.  One facet of this aim 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.”  Within this marvelous institution is the perhaps little known Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab headed by Sam Droege, who in addition to developing native bee surveys and monitoring techniques, has overseen 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 genuinely stunning macro images of various Hymenoptera.  What makes them even more stunning is their composition.  The minimalist presentation and magnificent articulation create images that would not be out of place in a fine arts gallery and I could literally spend hours pouring over them and soaking-in the detail.  Of course, they also have a very utilitarian purpose in that they allow for better identification of the portrayed species, but I find it particularly pleasing to see that mission fulfilled so spectacularly.

So how did they accomplish such stunning and informative imagery?  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.  Essentially, a pinned specimen was placed within a custom photo rig and a series of incremental frames were recorded which were 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 absolutely marvelous images of various bees and wasps that are sure to be appreciated by scientists and non-scientists alike.  Well done, USGS!

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 be found on Sam’s photostream here on Flickr.

If you own the image or images depicted in this post and would like them removed for any reason, simply contact me and I will remove them immediately.

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