Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Death Into Art

There are countless artists who render insects and other animals with traditional media like pen, ink, pencil, paints, clay, wood, and other materials, creating a realistic representation of the organism itself or, alternatively, a whimsical or inspired interpretation thereof. What, then, do we make of art that uses deceased life forms as the medium?

Detail of Jennifer Angus' In the Midnight Garden, 2015
© Smithsonian Magazine

Your appreciation, or disapproval, may hinge on one or more facets of personal taste or ethics. Have we given collective thought to the implications of such works? Maybe we should. People tend to place animals into one or more general categories. One category is reserved for other species that benefit people directly, and usually economically, though often framed as pets or companions for which we like to think there is no "price" we could assign to those individual animals.

Another group we call "pests," or vermin, enemy species that cost us economically in terms of damage to property, pets, livestock, or livelihoods. They may even cost us our lives if they are species that can prey upon us. Those are the two major categories, though most species fall through the chasm between the two, ignored or unknown to most members of Homo sapiens

Ideally, when it comes to animals, art is a way to enhance the appreciation of other species, encourage us to think differently about them, inform us as to their unique behaviors and place in the bigger picture (outside the frame, if you will), and inspire us to learn more once we leave the gallery. I personally know dozens of artists who share that intent, and who execute amazing works. I also know artists for whom I assume that is the foundation of their works, but who use insects themselves as raw material for their works. This begins to make me feel uncomfortable.

© Christopher Marley

The overwhelming message I receive from artwork composed of dead insects or their body parts is that the creature itself is not a complete expression of beauty unless it is modified by human hands into something "greater." I am quite certain this thought never crosses the mind of the artist, and that is understandable. I might even go so far as to say it is human nature to have the desire to "improve" other objects, other species. Look at every domesticated animal, every plant cultivar.

The second ethical aspect of turning deceased animals into art has to do with sourcing. Where did the specimens come from? The acclaimed artist Damien Hirst is currently creating art from dead butterflies, carefully removing the wings and applying them to boards in colorful patterns. He obtains specimens by purchasing old collections. Re-using and repurposing, so what is so bad about that? Nothing, if the collections have no scientific value, but a travesty if the specimens had location data with them. They belong in museums in that event. Other artists use "farmed" specimens bred in captivity so there is no detriment to wild populations.

An absolute purist would argue that even the best sourcing of specimens is still taking away from the carbon and nutrient cycles that other organisms benefit from. Hirst and other artists might consider simply putting out dead insects and letting carpet beetles and booklice reduce them to powder that can then be used to create more art. What an installation that would be, to bring awareness to the natural process of decay.

Dermestid beetle damage
© deanslab.org

The final insult, and I would welcome a better word, is that the artist employing organisms or their parts makes money from the exploitation of nature's works. Artists might consider donating at least a percentage of income to wildlife conservation organizations for the protection of the living versions of the dead ones they use in their works. Maybe, like Christopher Marley, they do and it is simply not widespread public knowledge.

Artists have the power to change our minds, our attitudes, and our behaviors, but it would be nice to see more respectful methods in the madness. More murals. Huge insect images like the ones rendered by Portugese artist Sergio Odeith. Spectacular glassworks like those of Rafael Glass. The real creative challenge, then, is finding new ways to exhalt nature without exploiting her. It can be done. I have faith that way.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Book Review: Bugged Delivers a Mixed Bag

Well over a year ago, someone at St. Martin's Press contacted me by e-mail asking me to review David MacNeal's latest effort, Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them (2017, St. Martin's Press, 297 pp). They would hardly take no for an answer, sent me an advance uncorrected page proof, and so finally, here is my assessment, colored by the circumstances of my receipt of the book, my lack of familiarity with MacNeal's previous works, and my personal biases, which I will reveal honestly.

First, my sincerest compliments to the author for his most thorough research, his diligent reading of numerous books and scientific papers, and in-person visits with the human subjects highlighted in Bugged. Whatever shortcomings the book may have, the foundation it was built on is as solid as they come. Additionally, I can say that in my opinion the book gets markedly better the farther the reader gets into it. Unfortunately, I found the first one-third to two-thirds of the book to be an exercise in the author's ego, perhaps due to my own peculiar style that I prefer to write in, and the approach to the subject that I would rather read.

The chapters reflect an overall theme that I am personally averse to: that in order to validate their existence, all non-human organisms must prove they have an economic value to humanity.

MacNeal may simply be trying too hard in the first chapters to convince the reader that he is edgy, funny, irreverent, intellectual, and jet-setting. It comes off as self-centered in my opinion, and aimed more toward those who value shock-and-awe prose. I prefer that an author remove themselves as much as possible from non-fiction, save for memoirs and autobiographies. I personally try to get out of the way of the story when I am writing myself, unless my direct experience is the story. I see no need for profanity ever, not because I am opposed to it, but because I think it can be a distraction if not a detraction from the rest of the words used. I do not try and paint myself as intellectually superior by throwing around words and phrases from foreign languages.

The choice of categories that define the chapters was predictable: Insect specimens as novel merchandise, social insects as a parallel to human societies, insect and spider sex lives, insects as disease-carriers, the pest control industry, insects in forensic science, insects and other arthropods as the source of inventions and advancement of technology, insects as live entertainment in Asia, entomophagy (intentional human consumption of insects as food), and honey bees as perhaps the most important of all insects (to mankind).

The chapters reflect an overall theme that I am personally averse to: that in order to validate their existence, all non-human organisms must prove they have an economic value to humanity. Maybe MacNeal recognizes this and is planning a sequel that will visit topics like endangered insects and the people working to save them, the economic impact of "ecological services" provided by insects and related invertebrates, and the myriad of citizen science projects available for his readers to participate in and become active contributors to science instead of passively entertained by his books. MacNeal does give a nod to ecological services, as almost literally a footnote (another aspect of books that I find distracting and mildly irritating); and he lists a few conservation organizations in the acknowledgements at the end of the book.

The bottom line is that I am glad the book was written, but I would have preferred that someone else had written it. If you enjoy this brand of storytelling that focuses on both insects and people, you may be better off reading works by Richard Conniff or Sue Hubbell.

Does MacNeal succeed in recruiting a new generation of entomology-appreciators? Hard to say. I think it takes actual in-person engagement with scientists to achieve that, and I hope that Bugged encourages readers to take that next, crucial step toward a better understanding of invertebrates in general, and an appreciation of those people, not the eccentrics you presume them to be, who make a living in the science of entomology.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Happy Holidays and What Lies Ahead

Work, work, activism. That is what Bug Eric has been up to lately, and mostly what the immediate future holds in store. I just added a new page to this blog, though, and can share with you some upcoming events near and far that you might want to be aware of in 2019. Happy New Year!

Guava Skipper from Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, demonstrating the "rule of thirds" in photography

My good friend Nancy Miorelli created a wonderful handout on how to take great images of insects and arachnids with your smartphone. You can find that document under the tab above, entitled "Take Great Bug Pics." Many of the tips she gives also apply to photography in general, so please check it out. Nancy is an outstanding science communicator, gifted artist, and tour guide if you ever want to visit her in Ecuador.

Specimens awaiting my attention....

Right now I am busy identifying all manner of arthropods, from insects to spiders to millipedes and woodlice and amphipods from pitfall trap samples taken in Miami, Florida. This is part of a nationwide project funded by a National Science Foundation grant and there are more stakeholders than I can count. Once the results are compiled, I'll let you know the outcome. Meanwhile, what are snails doing in here....

You'll only see the Mexican Bluewing along the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas

The continuing saga of the border wall, especially in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, is a nightmare for those of us who value not only the rights of global citizens to seek asylum from violence and abuse in their countries of origin, but for the wildlife and ecology of this unique region. The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas has become the center of the storm, both figuratively and literally. I urge you to visit their website to understand what is at stake, and to see updates to the travesty that is unfolding and how you can act to stop it. This has ceased to be about politics and has become a situation of wanton destruction and abuse of power.

A lovely native sweat bee, Agapostemon sp.

Locally, the Mile High Bug Club just announced the formation of a chapter in Denver, Colorado (club headquarters are in Colorado Springs). Mark your calendars for the kickoff, on Sunday, February 10, at 6 PM (to 8 PM), at Highlands Event Center, 3401 W. 29th Ave., Denver, 80211. Chapter founder Ryan Bartlett will be giving a presentation on native bees for your entertainment and education. Watch this blog for announcements of other events, including a behind-the-scenes visit to the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster.

Buprestis langii, a type of jewel beetle

I will be giving a presentation about "Colorful Colorado....Beetles!" for the Aiken Audubon Society at Bear Creek Nature Center in Colorado Springs on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, 7-9 PM. This should be a nice preview for the Mile High Bug Club's annual tiger beetle hunt, which usually takes place in April at Lake Pueblo State Park, dates and times to be announced.

Pleasing Fungus Beetles

Additionally, Denver, Boulder, Ft. Collins, Golden, and Colorado Springs are participating in the 2019 City Nature Challenge. The event is like a bioblitz, with participating individuals taking images of plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms April 26-29, and then uploading the observations to iNaturalist where experts will help identify them, April 30-May 5. The event started several years ago as a challenge between Los Angeles and San Francisco and has now grown to a global scale. Check the website to find out if your city is participating.

Birds are ok....except when they eat the bugs!

The Pikes Peak Birding and Nature Festival will celebrate its fifth anniversary from Friday evening, May 17-Sunday afternoon, May 19. Please consider attending to visit some of our more spectacular natural wonders, view local specialties like Black-billed Magpie,and check out the blacklighting for moths, presented by Mile High Bug Club. MHBC will also have a table at the "Birds and Brews" social event Saturday night, May 18. All field trips will originate in Colorado Springs.

Come "mothing" with Mile High Bug Club
© Amanda Accamando

The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History will be hosting its ever-popular Bug Fair, also the weekend of May 18-19. The museum regularly breaks attendance records with this shindig. I may make an appearance to sign copies of Insects Did it First and the Kaufman field guide, as well as promote Mile High Bug Club to a larger audience. It is well worth the visit despite the crowds. One year I met Dominic Monaghan of Lost fame. You never know who you might run into....

White Peacock butterfly from Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas

I will try and resolve to put up more posts here in 2019 than I did in 2018, but I make no promises. What are your resolutions for the new year? I hope they include continuing to explore, be it a new state, province, or country, or even a local park or your backyard. There are so many discoveries still awaiting us. You might be the one to find something new or shed new light on the familiar.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thankful For Small Wonders

On Thanksgiving day I usually make a pilgrimage to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where my wife works as a keeper of orangutans, gorillas, Golden Lion Tamarins, and related primates. Thursdays are part of her regular work schedule, but at least the zoo's grill caters lunch for the staff and their families on the holiday. The rest of the day I do an informal mini-bioblitz looking for uncaged wildlife, mostly insects and spiders, of course. You would be surprised by what you can find in late November.

Convergent Lady Beetle

With all the press about a very legitimate "insect apocalypse," it does me good to get out and realize there still is a respectable degree of arthropod diversity, at least for now, and despite heavy human impacts. Last Thursday I managed to find over thirty (30) species of insects and spiders in casual searching, mostly on fences where it is easier to spot small organisms that are otherwise well-camouflaged or esconced in nooks and crannies and cracks and crevices.

Gall midge, a type of fly

Right now there is a good deal of major construction happening on zoo grounds, so there is upheaval of normally static habitats. The zoo is located on a mountainside, the landscape remaining largely natural with mixed coniferous trees, an understory of Gambel's Oak, chokecherry, and various wildflowers and herbs and grasses, most of them native. Yes, there are fruit trees and various exotic flora planted for visual pleasure, and a butterfly garden designed to attract the more colorful insects found in the region, but mostly the place has a very natural look.

Jumping plant louse, Cacopsylla pararibesiae

Zoos do not like to publicize the native fauna found on their grounds because in some instances non-captive animals can transmit diseases to the vulnerable captive animals. This is cause for both veterinary concern as well as potential disciplinary action by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the organization responsible for issuing accreditation to zoos for adherence to basic professional standards. This is certainly understandable, but most native animals seen at zoos are birds, sometimes squirrels, and, overwhelmingly, insects. Zoos that fail to acknowledge and embrace those local creatures are doing a disservice to visitors.

Ichneumon wasp

It bears repeating to say that "biodiversity begins at home," and demonstrating how visitors can promote biodiversity on their own property should be a priority at zoos and botanical gardens. That can take the form of a butterfly garden, brush pile, a drilled block of wood that functions as a "bee condo" for solitary bees, or a small water feature to service birds and aquatic insects. You should probably take this only as far as hummingbird feeders, at least here in Colorado where bears and other dangerous wildlife will take full advantage of any food you offer to other kinds of birds, squirrels, and even your own pets. It is in fact a violation of law to feed wildlife.

Flat bark bug, family Aradidae

Simple signage can do a lot to inform zoo guests about the local ecosystems and the role of various animals in maintaining them. Indeed, there are placards around the zoo that do address pollinating insects, bark beetles, etc. It is a start, and something other zoos should emulate as it applies to their own unique macro-fauna.

Ant-mimic spider, Castianeira sp.

Besides the "bugs" themselves, I am grateful for citizen science and social media outlets where I can share images of what I find, and hopefully encourage others to follow suit on their next visit to the zoo, city park, community garden, or even their own backyard. At this time of year, even a bioblitz in your shed or garage or basement can turn up a surprising variety of life forms. Just don't tell your spouse or your mom if they have hostile inclinations toward uninvited animals.

Seed bug, family Lygaeidae

I post regularly to iNaturalist, and occasionally to Facebook....and I need to get back to Project Noah. Whether you know a cockroach from a carpet beetle or a butterfly from a moth, no matter. Share what you observe. Others will help you learn about the critter in question. You may even find something previously unknown to your neck of the woods, to your state, province, or even new to science altogether. There is no end to the discoveries that await you.

A small dung beetle, Scarabaeidae: Aphodiinae