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Collecting Insects: Images

by Britt Griswold

Vast valleys, high peaks, enormous lattice structures in iridescent blue or red... A bizarre alien landscape? No, large highly detailed inkjet prints of insects spied in a New York Times Article and other sources by artist Joseph Scheer. These images set off an interesting discussion on the Sciart Listserve about just how to capture insect images for display or as reference material.

Using a high-resolution scanner (8200dpi) and a large format inkjet printer allowed Joseph Scheer to print 34 by 46 inch images with 300dpi detail to grace the walls of art galleries around the world.   But how does an artist wrestle a fresh specimen onto the glass plate for that beautiful shot before the colors fade? The best suggestions is to capture your image while still alive, freshly dead, or carefully preserved. "I cool my dragonfly specimens in a refrigerator, and when they are cooled enough to slow their movement, I place them under a small box," says Jacki Morrison, graphic designer & illustrator for the USDA, Agriculture Research Service. “ I then place the box face down on a scanner.  The box I use has a white background in order to get accurate and colorful images, however, when in a hurry I have just placed the dragonfly under a white sheet of copy paper, and had good results as well.  After I am satisfied with the images I have collected for my database, I then release the dragonflies back to where they were captured.  I’ve had stunning results.” 

However Ingrid Wolsk, also of the Sciart Listserve, was not so fortunate. "I found a beautiful one that had died on the sidewalk... I had a small box in my bag and took it home. This one had a most beautiful electric blue/green body.  I kept it in the box from the light. Some months later when I again looked at it to my great dismay all the beautiful color had faded to an almost black," Ingrid lamented.

Photo by Jacki Morrisson

"Some insects do not keep their color after they die. This is true for other animals, as well. Sometimes body fat migrates to the surface and makes the insect oily," says Elaine Hodges, long time entomological illustrator. Geoff Thompson, entomological illustrator at Australia's Queensland Museum adds, " Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) are notorious for losing their color, but some  specialist collectors now remove the fat from the specimens in the  field with acetone. I've seen Dennis Reeves from the Queensland Naturalists' Club do this in the field and the results are fairly good.  We once had an extremely rare blue form of a common local Bladder Cicada, Cystosoma saundersii, brought in to the Queensland Museum.  We had photographs taken and then freeze-dried the specimen. I took out the specimen yesterday to show people. More color is preserved than if we had just pinned it normally but it's still not a patch on the photographs.  Freeze drying or ether drying works well for some insects though.”

Some species of insects can actually change color while alive.  Jacki Morrison notes, "There are dragonflies that can adjust their body color as an aid in temperature control.  The darker color during cooler periods offers protection by camouflage for the dragonfly when it is not flying, and can aid in faster absorption of heat when temperatures rise.  This shift in color can cause confusion in identification.

Jacki Morrison Grabs an Opportunity:

"This dragonfly was discovered at night by luck in a cedar tree near my balcony, where it had cooled naturally from the weather in the late fall.

Adult male Green Darners have a brilliant pruinescent-blue color to their abdominal segments, but when cooled they become a brown color, as in this example. This can be confusing in identification, as this is normally the color you would see in a female, or male juvenile. So, obviously, this confusion could be troublesome for an illustrator."

Besides traditional kill jars using cyanide or alcohol, it is also possible to kill some insects by freezing and then warm them back up for pinning.  Jacki Morrison had second thoughts on this after examining a dragonfly specimen through a hand lens while dipping it in acetone, "I saw the expression on this poor dragonfly, gasping it's last breath as I killed it.  This upset me enough to decide to find other ways in which to educate the public without having to destroy living specimens. I knew about methods used to immobilize dragonflies by cooling them, and since I had been working in digital imaging, I decided to combine the two concepts in order to then release my specimens.  I was also trying to set a good example for my daughter regarding preservation & conservation.  Dragonflies are thermo-regulated, so you can cool them in a refrigerator for up to 3 days (I only cool for 2 days for added precaution) in order to stun them long enough to scan or photograph, but do not put dragonflies in a freezer, as they are very sensitive to the cold, and that would kill them in a very short period of time.  I am also aware of the flight periods for certain species, and if I REALLY need a dragonfly specimen to keep, I wait till the end of their cycle to collect them.  I then cool them, in order to slow them down just enough for photographing and scanning, I then place the live, but slightly cooled specimen in acetone to preserve their color.  Preserving specimens using this method can be difficult, as it could easily affect the true color you’re trying to obtain, but more often than not, I’ve been able to achieve excellent results."

Professor Jim Perkins of Rochester Institute of Technology spent his high school years as a guide at the Museum of Science in Boston.  One of his favorite activities was to take a roach out for a "walk" and demonstrate it to the museum visitors.  "I'd scoop one out in a glass jar and place it under the nozzle of a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher.  A quick little blast (less than a second) was enough to knock it out for about five minutes.  I'm not sure if it was the cold or the CO2 that did the trick," said Jim.  The roach (Blaberus giganteus) was fine, and returned to its colony.  But as roaches are one of the few creatures expected to survive a nuclear attack,  Jim says this might not be very good for other insect species, "I'm not sure how a dragonfly would respond - my impression is that they are more delicate than roaches."  Bee researcher and connoisseur, Liz Day confirms this need for caution. "CO2 is best avoided with bumblebees because it appears to alter their behavior afterwards.  One study found that bees who were anesthetized with CO2 and then returned to their nests, ejected their larvae." For bees, different handling is required, "When I wanted to photograph them, I put them in a freezer for a short time.  The bee becomes comatose.  When put back at room temperature, you have a short time where it will lie still, although not in a very natural position, or for very long.   When put back outside (85F), you have about a minute from comatose to airborne. I would not put them in the refrigerator, because when you take them out, the bees warm up too quickly for you to get good pictures." she said.

Liz Day Catalogs Indiana's Bees

A large bee, fresh from the freezer.

Photo by Michael Jeffords. Copyright Liz Day

Entomological illustrator Geoff Thompson has used both stun techniques. "I used to use CO2 to immobilize tiny flower bugs (Anthocoridae) I worked on back in the 70's. Some insects take it fine, but others die on the 2nd or 3rd time you use it. I often cool down beetles and other insects in the fridge to slow them down," he says.  Some insects are thermo-regulated and some are not. "Large, fast-flying insects with strong wing muscles are often thermo-regulated”, says Liz Day. "That is, they burn calories to heat themselves up (as opposed to just sitting in the sun to warm up).  When they allow themselves to cool off, they are no longer able to fly well (or at all). Examples are bumblebees, large carpenter bees, sphinx moths, saturniid moths, dragonflies."  Liz Day suggests a book, "The Hot-Blooded Insects" by Bernd Heinrich, for a list.

The consensus seems to be that you can cool insects to immobilize them by placing them in a refrigerator, or possibly even place certain insects briefly in the freezer, this will create a short window of opportunity in which to photograph or scan the lovely insect you have captured.  However, if you intend to capture cockroach images, Jim Perkins says, "(Sometimes) the colony would get overcrowded and we'd have to "thin out" the population a bit. The Museum staff...would stuff a whole bunch of them in a brown paper bag and put them in a regular refrigerator freezer. It would take at least two weeks for them all to die! They must have been generating some of their own heat and huddling together for warmth. It wouldn't surprise me if they actually starved to death by exhausting their calories before they actually froze. So,  if anyone really wants to draw a cockroach, you can probably freeze it almost solid and it will still come back to life."

As illustrators of natural science it’s always best to first practice techniques that allow for preservation & conservation of species, but if your needs are to permanently collect and preserve insects for optimum display, here is a link to the American Museum of Natural History for some basic tips: Maintaining an Arthropod Collection

Dragonfly illustration by Karen Johnson
See dragonfly art here, at science-art.com!


National Geographic- Joseph Scheer Photos

PhotoInsider- Joseph Scheer Interview

Sciart Listserve

Collecting Odonata (Dragonflies, including Damselflies)
Univ. of Texas entomology lab handout. (PDF)

Catching and Preserving Dragonflies FAQ-
The International Odonata Research Institute

Dragonfly Links:

Digital Dragonfly Museum

Odonata - dragonfly biodiversity

Texas Naturalist- The Dragonflies

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Gary Raham

"Teaching Science Fact with Science Fiction" Book Cover100% Fact, Honest!

Gary Raham's most recently published book, which he wrote and illustrated (including the cover), is called "Teaching Science Fact with Science Fiction," published by Teacher Ideas Press in August of 2004. This adds to a long list of publications directed toward the teaching of science to young people. But he doesn't stop when the book is done! Gary says, "I am currently working with teachers in northern Colorado to implement curriculum based on this book." The book is available through Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, or visit Gary's web site at www.biostration.com.

skull of the dirk-toothed cat, Dinictis felinaGary exhibited the illustration shown here in the paleo art show held at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists, in November of 2004; a scratchboard illustration of the skull of the dirk-toothed cat, Dinictis felina.

View more of Gary Raham's work at

Chris Sanders

Iris painting: Cochleanthes discolorGetting Her Name in Lights!

Chris has been interviewed in the on-line DIG IT! Magazine - East Coast Gardening and Outdoor Living. The article tells about Chris' background and her approach to botanical art: "Chris Sanders, a fourth generation artist and New York costume painter and dyer by trade, began painting scientific illustrations four years ago...."

More about her than we knew before! And she even manages to get a link in to Science-Art.com!!! Read more about Chris and three other GNSI members at: DIG IT! Magazine's Goodies column.

View more of Chris Saunder's work at Science-Art.com.

Marjorie Leggitt
Leggitt Design

A Titanical Botanical Undertaking:

Line Art of the plant Urospermum picroides
Click the image above to see a full plate!
Marj Leggitt is currently working on the Missouri Botanic Gardens' massive Flora of North America project. This past spring she was invited by Yevonn-Wilson Ramsey, the art coordinator and an illustrator (Missouri Botanic Gardens) to work on the project. Since April of 2004 Marj has worked on Volumes 19, 20,  and 21. The Missouri Botanic Gardens assigns batches of plants to illustrate. Dried and pressed herbarium specimens from throughout the country are sent to her. She then works with a botanist specializing on that particular group of plants, and the project taxonomists to make sure the renderings are botanically accurate. Marj captures the characteristics of each plant with a simple economical line art style that demonstrates what a science illustrator does best- remove distractions and kept the essence of each plant species. The results are beautiful, yet simple illustrations that serve the projects goals.

More project info:
Flora of North America North of Mexico is a synoptic floristic account of the plants of North America north of Mexico: the continental United States of America (including the Florida Keys and Aleutian Islands), Canada, Greenland (Kalâtdlit-Nunât), and St. Pierre and Miquelon. The flora is intended to serve both as a means of identifying plants within the region and as a systematic conspectus of the North American flora. Taxa and geographical areas in need of further study also are identified in the flora. http://www.fna.org/

View more of Marjorie Leggitt's work at Science-Art.com.

Sally Bensusan
Visual Science Studio

shark headScience art, now and then...

The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology and the Library at the Missouri Botanical Garden are jointly presenting an exhibit, Women's Work: Portraits of 12 Scientific Illustrators from the 17th to the 20th Century, from January to June, 2005.

There are six contemporary illustrators exhibiting works: Sally Bensusen, Megan Bluhm, Marlene Hill Donnelly, Bee Gunn, Jessa Huebing-Reitinger and Yevonn Wilson-Ramsey. The historic artists whose work has been chosen for this exhibit are Anna Lister (and her sister Susanna), Maria Sybilla Merian, Elizabeth Gould,  Anna Maria Hussey, Sadie Price, and Sarah Drake. Guild member Nancy Halliday has agreed to be guest lecturer on April 21, 2005. As with other exhibits, the Library will be publishing a catalog and a web site. There will be a variety of publicity materials including bookmarks, postcards, and new releases.

You can learn more about the Linda Hall Library at http://www.lindahall.org, and the Missouri Botanical Gardens at http://www.mobot.org.

View more of Sally Bensusen's work at Science-Art.com.

Dick Rauh

Black Locust tree, Robinia pseudoacaiaInvasives- Plants You Can't Forget (even if you wish you could)

Members of the Greater New York chapter of the Guild have been circulating an exhibit entitled "Beauty and the Beast" a collection of paintings of Connecticut invasive plants. This clever take on botany has been garnering lots of attention. The culmination of the exhibit is a year long showing at the Peabody Museum in New Haven, CT which will open January 12th 2005. This is the first art show that the Peabody (a natural history museum) has held. The chapter is currently assembling another show of New York State invasive plants, which will picture the unwanted exotics, and suggestions for natives to take their place. The group has extensive plans for exhibiting this show and is creating the first representative portfolio on Science-Art.com to advertise the art in this collection!

View more of Dick Rauh's work at Science-Art.com.

Veiw the New York Invasives Plants exhibit "Alive in New York: a growing invasion", only here at Science-art.com!

Rick Wheeler
Illustration and Design

Sockeye Salmon, scratchboard and watercolor illustrationZOO-ology

Science-art.com member, Rick Wheeler recently completed a 6 month project for the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Rick was contracted to illustrate ten 2'x2' panels for the zoo's newest exhibit, "Eagle Canyon." The exhibit features Bald Eagles, as well as a large tank of Sockeye Salmon, both of which Rick was asked to illustrate in his distinctive scratchboard/watercolor style. To see examples of this project, visit Rick's portfolio here at Science-Art.com, or visit his personal web site at www.rickarts.com. Rick is currently working on a geology book for Zion National Park, illustrating maps, geological cutaways and various other spot illustrations depicting the geological forces at work in this beautiful national park.

View more of Rick Wheeler's work at

Emily Damstra
John Megahan

Cover art for the book "Fishes of the Great Lakes Reagion".Fine wine and Fish Books... good things require time to mature.

Four years ago Emily and John created numerous color illustrations of fishes (and a few black and white) for the book "Fishes of the Great Lakes Region, revised edition." Now in December of 2004 it is FINALLY out in print from the University of Michigan Press.

View more of Emily Damstra's work at Science-Art.com.

View more of John Megahan's work at Science-Art.com.

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