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The Art of the Insect

'bee veins' by Barrett Klein

Earlier this week I was tickled by a study about dancing insects. European honey bees perform a rump-shaking ‘waggle dance’ in order to tell their hivemates where they’ve found food. The new research showed that when the bees don’t get any sleep, their dance moves become spasmatic and repellent; they clear the floor like a drunk uncle at a wedding (see a video here).

I suspected that the lead researcher, Barrett Klein, would be an interesting guy just based on the URL of his website — www.pupating.org — and I was right. He not only comes up with clever experiments to test Apis social interactions, but is an illustrator, sculptor and expert in ‘cultural entomology’: the study of how insects inch into human culture.

I had never heard the term before, and when I first read it, the only example I could think of was bedbugs. Here in New York City, the critters’ resurgence has caused some of us to check bedbug status of hotels, avoid movie theaters and even ostracize our neighbors. Rightly or wrongly, people think of bedbugs as symbols of disease, squalor and chaos. After reading a couple of Klein’s articles, I realized that people have used insects as symbols — not only of contamination, but of strength, transformation and immortality — for thousands of years.

The first known example of bug art comes from a 20,000-year-old bison bone on which one of our ancestors inscribed a cricket. You’re probably more familiar with the Ancient Egyptians’ sacred scarab beetle, a species whose main activity is rolling up tiny balls of dung. The Egyptians likened this to the sun moving across the sky, and used the beetle as a symbol of renewal.

A few notable modern artists have used bugs to convey political messages. Take Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s paintings of the deformed bugs that she found near nuclear testing sites. Or Catherine Chalmers’ chilling ‘cockroach execution’ photo series (pictured above).

According to one of Klein’s essays, insects pop up so much in art, and in all forms of human culture, because they stir up strong emotions in us. That certainly rings true — bedbugs make me shudder and dancing bees make me giggle — but why? I asked him, and he said: “because insects are ubiquitous, because some are notorious for serving as vectors of disease or celebrated for serving as producers of honey and silk or as pollinators, and because of their sheer beauty.”

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Klein’s study about sleepy-bee dancing appeared this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Check out Catherine Chalmers’ absolutely stunning photographs — of cockroaches, flies, ants, genetically engineered mice and all kinds of other critters — on her website.

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing