I guess you could say I became passionate about bugs at an early age. I grew up on a farm on the north shore of Maui – a tropical island that was a virtual paradise for an abundant and unique assortment of insects and other fascinating little creatures. Somewhat to my parents concern, I kept an on-going collection of them in various jars, bottles, and containers in my bedroom.

Then when I was nine, my parents gave me a real stereoscope for Christmas, instantly opening up a whole new world. Normal beetles turned into colorful giants with bulging eyes, a simple spider had exotic looking feathery legs and a visibly beating heart.

After an egg sack containing hundreds of tiny praying mantis’ hatched in my bedroom one day, causing mild hysteria in my mother, my parents bought me a camera, hoping that this might encourage an interest in a different sort of hobby. Unfortunately the idea backfired as I then began photographing…yep, insects, and still in my bedroom. At that point, my parents gave up and just told me to keep my door shut.

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 9.49.16 PM.png

Waikamoi 1


My interest in photography and quest to find new and interesting subjects to photograph led me farther and farther afield. Along the way, I learned that the island of Maui is actually made up of nine entirely separate ecosystem including Coastal Reef, Dry Land Shrub Forest, Alpine Desert, and Rainforest. I spent many days discovering and photographing subjects unique to each of these regions. It was during these explorations that I developed an interest in Hawaii’s native species, specifically insects.

Then, beginning in the summer of 2014, I was given an opportunity to photograph in the Waikamoi Preserve on Maui. Managed by The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii (TNC), Waikamoi is the largest private nature preserve in the state of Hawaii. On the lower slopes of Haleakala, it consists of nearly 9,000 acres of stunning and remote rainforest and alpine shrub land. There is an abundance of native plants that exist here, many of which are rare. Koa and ‘ohi’a trees are found here as well as the beautiful lobelia plant. The preserve is also home to native birds, several endangered. These include the ‘I’iwi, apapane, amakihi as well as the rare akohkohe and the kiwikiu (Maui Parrotbill) And, lastly, Waikamoi is home to a large variety of very interesting native insects.

My goal was to document native species, including those considered rare and endangered, and then exhibit them as a way to emphasize the importance of preservation and conservation.  



My first trip was somewhat of a disaster. You’d think that having grown up on Maui I would have been better prepared. Waikamoi weather can be unpredictable – sunny and warm one minute, rainy and cold the next. The part of Waikamoi I was working in is considered jungle, and the terrain is steep and thick with vegetation. Just finding a reasonably level spot to set up my “studio” was a challenge. The fly to an old tent I’d brought along in case of rain proved to be woefully inadequate and provided only a very small area of protection. My forays searching for subjects to photograph left me scratched and soaking wet. Note to self: next time - waterproof pants, gaiters, and a better tarp.

The other challenge was that I, understandably, would not be allowed to remove any subjects from Waikamoi. It would have been considerably easier for me to collect samples and return home to photograph them under a more controlled setting. However, that would have required special permits from the DLNR as well as TNC, an often lengthy process.

Despite the difficulties, I successfully photographed a number of interesting subjects that first day and the experience allowed me to be better prepared for future visits to Waikamoi.

The Spiders

A few weeks later, I received a call from Kerri Fay, director of TNC on Maui, asking if I would like to accompany a spider researcher into Waikamoi. Well, yeah, of course! What Kerri failed to mention was that Susan Kennedy, a doctorate student at UC Berkeley, did her research on spiders, or more precisely, spider webs, at night. That’s how I came to find myself hiking deep into the preserve early one evening and hiking out again at 3am, and that's also when I made a fascinating and unexpected discovery.

During the day, the remarkable beauty of the Waikamoi Preserve is unmistakable. Remote and tropical, it is filled with striking images of sunlight filtering through the trees, lush plants, and the ceaseless chatter of the brilliantly red Apapane.

At night, however, Waikamoi was a bit eerie, and hiking through it was a very different experience. Certain spiders that live within the preserve are nocturnal and these were the focus of Susan’s doctorate thesis. While Susan was documenting webs, I was able to collect the actual spiders to photograph.

Susan Kennedy in Waikamoi

Susan Kennedy in Waikamoi

If I thought setting up a studio during the day in Waikamoi was challenging, it was nothing compared to setting one up at night. The only advantage was the presence of a narrow boardwalk that served as a sort of home base. I also brought with me a much better tarp and aforementioned waterproof pants and jacket – all of which proved to be much needed.

The biggest challenge was in photographing the subjects themselves. Finding subjects is always difficult but after awhile, I began to learn where to look and developed an eye for movement. However, nocturnal insects possess a surprising amount of energy at night and getting them to cooperate with my attempts at photographing them was like nailing jello to a tree. There began a kind of insect rodeo: capture an insect, place it on the plexiglass tray, try to convince it to hold still, snap away, watch as insect hops/skips/scurries/flies off, retrieve insect or find another one, begin again.

When it started to pour and the temperature dropped significantly, causing my fingers to stiffen with cold, it became even more difficult and I was beginning to seriously question sanity. 

Why was I in the middle of a jungle in the middle of the night purposely looking for creepy crawly things to photograph and why did I ever think this would be a good idea?

It was during one of these forays into Waikamoi that I discovered a truly remarkable spider. The Tetragnatha spider, sometimes referred to as a stretch spider, or long jawed orb weaver is a genus of spiders containing hundreds of species. They are found all over the world, although most occur in the tropics and subtropics. While generally no more than 1-2cm in length, they have especially long, spiny legs and their abdomens are comprised of shiny and metallic looking geometric shapes.

There are several members of the Tetragnatha family that are endemic to Hawaii and some of these reside in the Waikamoi Preserve. They are all nocturnal in nature and most active after complete darkness until dawn. During the day they remain camouflaged by stretching out and lying flat amongst plants that match their color, making them especially difficult to find.

It was after midnight and I’d managed to find a few Tetragnatha specimens that I’d carefully placed into small containers. I brought one out to photograph and while getting in close with my macro lens I noticed what looked like some movement in its abdominal area. I thought at first it was the heart beating but wasn’t sure. I took a quick video and when I examined it the next day at home I could see that each individual geometric shape was fluctuating and, remarkably, changing color!

I sent the video off to Susan Kennedy who then sent it on to Rosemary Gillespie, Professor & Schlinger Chair in Systematic Entomology, University of California, Berkeley and Past President of the American Arachnological Society. They were both very interested and indicated that this was a phenomena they were aware of but had never seen. Rosemary then sent the video on to Geoff Oxford, Professor of Biology, University of York, UK, and another spider specialist who has studied this phenomenon. Apparently, this particular Tetragnatha is capable of what is referred to as Rapid Color Change, using the same physiological process that a chameleon does!

The following is an excerpt from a research paper sent to me by Geoff Oxford. The authors, Judith Wunderlin and Christian Kropf, explain the process as follows:

Physiological colour change is generally enabled by movements of pigment granules within cells or by modifications of the morphology of the pigment- containing cells. When pigment granules move within chromatophores, they either disperse or concentrate. These spiders show mostly a white or at least light opisthosomal pattern, made up by specialized midgut cells beneath the hypodermis, the so-called guanocytes. These cells store the excretory product guanine that appears white and acts as a colourant. In all reported cases of rapid colour change in spiders, the white guanine markings on the opisthosomal surface diminish in size or disappear more or less completely. As a consequence, the general colouration of the spider’s opisthosoma changes to the darker or greyish brown of the digestive mass.
— Judith Wunderlin and Christian Kropf "Rapid Colour Change in Spiders"

I made this discovery near the end of that summer and quality of the footage, while fascinating, was inadequate in really showing this process.  It was, therefore, with some reluctance that I packed up my gear and headed back to RIT for my final year. Through the winter I continued to think about the spider and was determined to obtain more footage.

Waikamoi 2

When the opportunity came up for me to fly home for spring break this year I immediately got in touch with Kerri to see if I could return to the Waikamoi Preserve. It took a bit of quick paper shuffling but I was, again, granted permission and the day after flying nearly 6,000 miles home, I found myself back in Waikamoi!

This time I was prepared for anything. 

Despite an otherwise rainy spring here on Maui, my days in the preserve were thankfully fairly dry. Setting up a reasonably secure studio was still challenging and, as I was limited to only daytime visits, finding the reclusive Tetragnatha capable of rapid color change was going to be difficult. On my third excursion, I found success! Knowing what I was looking for this time, I was able to use my camera and a powerful macro lens to record some additional footage of the spider undergoing this phenomenon in great detail.


This is a snippet of the vast majority of footage I recorded. I would get my shot lined up, the spider in focus, and then it would scamper out of frame!

Again, I sent my video along to Susan Kennedy, Rosemary Gillespie, and Geoff Oxford – all whom were excited to see it. The discussion this time revolved around a more detailed examination of what might be actually occurring from a physiological point of view.

The question remains though – exactly WHY does this spider change color? So far, no one has been able to answer this. While the process seems to be similar to a chameleon, the Tetragnatha doesn’t seem to change color to fit it’s background – rather it chooses to hide within plants that most closely resemble it. Does it change color as a means of protection from prey? Is it a reaction to light or heat or noise? Is it part of a mating ritual? These are questions I hope to answer on my next visits to Waikamoi.


I would say that I have a much deeper appreciation for nature and it’s vast capabilities then I did before. I’ve learned that even the most innocuous of creatures may be capable of the most extraordinary behavior. The Tetragnatha spider is no bigger than a dime and at first glance appears to be relatively uninteresting, yet it possesses a most sophisticated physiological ability.

I am grateful to TNC for the very important work they are doing in the preservation of native species in my home state of Hawaii and for allowing me to venture into Waikamoi. I hope to do so again many times in the future. Spending time there has strengthened my commitment to bringing recognition to the often fragile ecosystems that exist here in the Hawaiian Islands and around the world.

Finally, some things never change. I am still in the backyard collecting various creepy crawly things and keeping them in jars in my bedroom…or in the refrigerator (having learned that some bugs are easier to photograph when they’re cold). Over spring break my long-suffering mother opened what she thought was a container of yogurt only to find an unusually large and enraged centipede waiting for an opportunity to escape. Oops.