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Insect art: Monsters and creepy crawlies by Jonathan Wojcik

Warning: This post contains monster art. If you are a squeamish person or suffer from trypophobia, you might want to skip this one. 

From day one this website had a links page, and one of the first links to appear was for a website called “The Insidious bogleech”, an artistic platform for all-things-scary created by Jonathan Wojcik. The reason I initially included the link was his Pokemonology page that I wished more people would know about (and I secretly wish will be updated with more creatures). There is also a page with species that should have made it into Pokemon. But bogleech is so much more than just a dive into Pokemon science. Wojcik is a monster fanatic who dedicated his life to studying and celebrating the creepy. He is also an amazing artist with a hell of an imagination. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Jonathan Wojcik and posted with his permission.

Imaginary creature inspired by a scorpionfly (Mecoptera)

Imaginary creature inspired by a scorpionfly (Mecoptera)

On bogleech every day is Halloween. The website, which I stumbled upon in late 2004 and has been in my bookmarks ever since, is probably the largest repository of anything gruesome or monster-related in existence. Jonathan tells me an early version of the site already existed in 2001, so it is a piece of history! Bogleech has entire pages dedicated to reviewing monsters in any form imaginable (fiction, media, toys etc’), popular science articles about misunderstood animals and parasites, reviews of store finds around Halloween, a printable horror game, and heaps of original artwork by Wojcik. There is an extensive webcomic that allows you to get to know some of his original monster creations better and see how they would act in different scenarios. The website has a large community of followers, many of them actively add content to it. There are even hidden corners on the site, like these toy octopus and mummy character pages. Jonathan is also active outside of his own kingdom on Tumblr and Devianart, and he also has an Etsy store where he sells some bogleech merchandise. He used to write articles for cracked.com as well.

Leeches by Jonathan Wojcik

Leeches by Jonathan Wojcik

The image above is taken from the article about leeches, check it out if you want to learn more about these magnificent animals. This is what I like about bogleech – it takes subjects that most of us will never dwell upon, and delivers them in a friendly and informative manner. Where else can you read about the different types of leeches and at the same time get a personal perspective on these animals? Bogleech is the place. When my Epomis research was published, Jonathan and I talked about it and he dedicated a page on his website to the beetles, including some first-hand impressions from me about the study. You can say that this was my first featured interview. Since then, I have not checked his website for some time, and… he has been busy.

Thanks to its long existence, the website is like a labyrinth full of surprises. You can spend an entire day going through its content and still have plenty more left to explore. Spiderween is a series of posts attempting to present information about spiders in a non-threatening way using cartoonish drawings, a one-of-a-kind spider guide for the arachnophobe. I think it is absolutely brilliant. It contains a lot of interesting facts about spider biology but also debunks common misconceptions (for example about widow spiders, brown recluses, and others). Remember the ogre-faced spiders from a few posts ago? Here is a family-friendly, anthropomorphized version of the spider by Wojcik:

Ogre-faced spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Ogre-faced spider by Jonathan Wojcik

There is also series of articles about flies that is still in progress and worth checking out. One page I like in particular is Mortasheen, where Jonathan allows himself to go wild with creating his own world of monsters, occasionally inspired by real-life animals or by science fiction. When I find myself bored I like to get lost in this section of his website. This is where it’s fun to go and search for animals and plants you know, and see them from a slightly different perspective. When it comes to arthropods and other invertebrates, making the jump into imaginary creatures and monsters is almost expected and too easy. This is something I have already discussed in the previous insect art post on this blog – many of them seem alien to us because they are so different from other animals in their body structure, and some of them are so small that they are simply overlooked. Just to give a few examples, here is a creature based on a globular springtail:

Globular springtail by Jonathan Wojcik

Globular springtail by Jonathan Wojcik

Formicrawl is based on an Eciton army ant soldier:

Formicrawl - army ant by Jonathan Wojcik

Formicrawl – army ant by Jonathan Wojcik

Horrida is loosely based on a jumping stick:

Horrida - jumping stick by Jonathan Wojcik

Horrida – jumping stick by Jonathan Wojcik

Katydread is modelled after what seems to be a spiny devil katydid (Panachanthus cuspidatus):

Katydread - spiny devil katydid by Jonathan Wojcik

Katydread – spiny devil katydid by Jonathan Wojcik

Exothresher is based on a camel spider. It makes you wonder how fortunate we are! As humans we are much larger in size than these voracious predators, so we do not have to worry about being chased and eaten alive by them.

Exothresher - camel spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Exothresher – camel spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Rotsucker is inspired by a botfly larva:

Rotsucker - botfly larva by Jonathan Wojcik

Rotsucker – botfly larva by Jonathan Wojcik

Eldoon is a cute worm-like creature that is inspired by hammerhead flatworms:

Eldoon - hammerhead flatworm by Jonathan Wojcik

Eldoon – hammerhead flatworm by Jonathan Wojcik

And it’s not just invertebrates. Other animals get representation in Wojcik’s work as well, here’s one for example:

Abysmal by Jonathan Wojcik. If you are unfamiliar with anglerfish, they have a fleshy protrusion on their head to use as a lure for prey. This monster is an interesting interpretation when the prey is human

Abysmal by Jonathan Wojcik. If you are unfamiliar with anglerfish, they have a fleshy protrusion on their head to use as a lure for prey. This monster is an interesting interpretation when the prey is human

Fungi and plants are also represented. This guy is based on latticed stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber):

Funguslyme by Jonathan Wojcik

Funguslyme by Jonathan Wojcik

In addition to the bogleech website, Jonathan has a Patreon page, where he shares even more creature designs and bits from his creative process with his supporters. The characters in the sketch below were designed after carnivorous plants. You have to be very familiar with the plants to fully appreciate the small details in each of these drawings. For example, I have been keeping butterworts (Pinguicula) for years, and I can attest that they look exactly like the one in the top left corner!

carnivorous plants by Jonathan Wojcik

carnivorous plants by Jonathan Wojcik

But Wojcik’s work is still so much more. It’s not just about animals and plants. He takes notes from whatever is around us, even everyday objects, letting his imagination dictate what is possible. Here are some examples (again, from his Patreon posts), check out that sawdust monster!

Angelworm, Mushroom berserker, and Sawdust juggernaut. Creatures by Jonathan Wojcik

Angelworm, Mushroom berserker, and Sawdust juggernaut. Creatures by Jonathan Wojcik

Bogleech also contains a lot of information about parasites. After all, they are a wonder of nature that most of us don’t want to think about, but they do deserve respect for their importance and their evolutionary success. The influence of real-world parasites can be found throughout many of Wojcik’s creations. For example, the following monsters were inspired by Leucochloridium, a parasitic flatworm that infects snails:

Leucochloridium-inspired creatures by Jonathan Wojcik (Paraseethe, Eyezome, Parasidious, Pestare, Paraslob)

Leucochloridium-inspired creatures by Jonathan Wojcik (Paraseethe, Eyezome, Parasidious, Pestare, Paraslob)

Speaking of parasites, Jonathan is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to launch the next series of enamel pins bearing his artwork – parasites.

Parasite pins by Jonathan Wojcik

Parasite pins by Jonathan Wojcik

I think they are simply stunning (they glow in the dark too, so cool!). One day I hope to see an artistic interpretation of Epomis larvae through his eyes. Until then, I recommend checking out bogleech if you have the time. There is a lot to see and learn from, and what I presented here is only a tiny fraction of the gigantic web-monster that bogleech really is. If you want to support Jonathan’s work and get access to even more cool stuff, including a chance to have a monster designed at your request, feel free to check out his Patreon page.

Insect art: Animal sculptures by Skink Chen

Art comes in many forms. In my previous insect art posts I focused mainly on graphic art that closely follows natural appearance, from natural history illustrations to arthropod-based characters. What these creations have in common is that they attempt to portray nature as accurately as possible. However, when we look at different media around us, there are many imaginary creatures that borrow heavily from existing organisms. To say that fictional creatures are often inspired by real animals would be an understatement, and invertebrates play an important role in this (I’m still waiting for your call regarding Epomis beetles, Hollywood!). There are many aspects in invertebrates’ external appearance that may look out of this world because of how different they are from us humans, so when these characters are exaggerated and taken out of their normal proportions the results can be quite impressive. This is exactly what Skink Chen is doing with his sculptures. If you have never heard of Skink and don’t know his work, boy you’re in for treat. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Skink Chen and posted with his permission.

Undead membracid treehopper by Skink Chen (based on Notocera)

Undead membracid treehopper by Skink Chen (based on Notocera)

Skink is a very talented individual. You might not know it, but I have already shared some of his work – a tutorial for making a wide angle macro relay lens (at the bottom of this post). Based in Taiwan, he designs monsters and creatures and meticulously constructs them into 3D models. The sculptures are made of polymer clay, and are quite big, standing at 20-30 cm height. Not all of them are based on arthropods, but looking through his work shows that these animals provide most of the inspiration for the designs. The way I see it, Skink’s animal-inspired artworks consist of three separate lines:

Hyper-realistic models: These are sculptures modelled after existing animals, accurate to the very last detail. Skink began making those in 2008, and selected Taiwanese animals as the theme. By modeling his sculptures after real animals, he sharpened his skills to present animal morphology and structure in the most accurate way possible. This required long hours of data collection and examination of biological properties. Occasionally he would find a roadkill animal and collect the specimen for further study. There are many reptile and amphibian models (you can see photos of them in his online shop), but also some mammals and insects. They look just like the real thing, and can be used as stunning pieces on display in a natural history museum. I cannot express the amount of precision that goes into these artwork pieces and just how realistic they look. Take this male antlered flower beetle (Dicronocephalus wallichii) for example. Skink not only captured its physical appearance in great detail, but also nailed the pose perfectly. This is something that only someone who has seen the live beetles can appreciate, and as someone who kept them in captivity for years I can tell you this model is just like looking at the real beetle (you can compare to a live beetle here. It’s a different species, but the video is excellent).

Antlered flower beetle (Dicranocephalus wallichii). Artwork by Skink Chen

Antlered flower beetle (Dicranocephalus wallichii). Artwork by Skink Chen

Fusion between animals and humans: This is the most surreal category. I haven’t seen many works, so I guess Skink doesn’t make a lot of them. The idea is to merge the human body with components from animals to create a super organism. I find them very appealing and interesting to look at. It makes you think what it would be like to have grasshopper legs or raptorial limbs.

The incredible Grasshopper-man! Artwork by Skink Chen

The incredible Grasshopper-man! Artwork by Skink Chen

Jumping spider woman in mid-leap. Artwork by Skink Chen

Jumping spider woman in mid-leap. Artwork by Skink Chen

“Undead Creature” series: This is where Skink unleashes his imagination and lets it go truly wild. He began working on this series in 2014. Skink explains the idea behind it as “dead animals transformed into giant undead creatures returning to the world for revenge.”

Undead membracid treehopper (based on Centrotypus) playing with a human. Artwork by Skink Chen

Undead membracid treehopper (based on Centrotypus) playing with a human. Artwork by Skink Chen

They all start from an existing species, but then selected characters are stretched and exaggerated, until you end up looking at a completely new creature. These monsters are not restricted to insects, by the way. I have seen deep ocean fish, reptiles, and even plants.

Carnivorous pitcher plants (based on Nepenthes) by Skink Chen. If you look closely, there is a fly "king" sitting at the throne.

Carnivorous pitcher plants (based on Nepenthes) by Skink Chen. If you look closely, there is a fly “king” sitting at the throne.

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa) by Skink Chen. Even though it belongs to the "Undead Creatures" series, I see this as highly realistic and true to the real animal. It is one of those works that the more you look at it, the more detail you discover.

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa) by Skink Chen. Even though it belongs to the “Undead Creatures” series, I see this as highly realistic and true to the real animal. It is one of those works that the more you look at it, the more detail you discover.

There are almost no limits to what is possible here. And even though these are not real creatures, the amount of detail in them is impressive. The body postures and surface textures look so realistic, that it is easy to forget you are looking at something that came out of someone’s imagination. I cannot imagine how long it must take to finish them. What I like about Skink’s models is that they are always doing some kind of activity: fighting, reflecting, leaping etc’. They are never boring to look at. It is a little difficult to judge Skink’s work solely from photographs. I found that the more I look at them, the more hidden details I discover. I can only imagine what an interesting experience it is to see them in person.

Undead Cordyceps-infected ant meditating by Skink Chen. There is a lot of hidden detail in this work, and I hate to say this but the photo doesn't do it enough justice.

Undead Cordyceps-infected ant meditating by Skink Chen. There is a lot of hidden detail in this work, and I hate to say this but the photo doesn’t do it enough justice.

Caterpillars fighting by Skink Chen (based on Polyura and Acherontia caterpillars)

Caterpillars fighting by Skink Chen (based on Polyura and Acherontia caterpillars)

Antlered stag beetle (based on Rhaetulus) rests after defeating an atlas beetle in a fight. One of my favorite works by Skink Chen, and also one of my favorite stag beetle species.

Antlered stag beetle (based on Rhaetulus) rests after defeating an atlas beetle in a fight. One of my favorite works by Skink Chen, and also one of my favorite stag beetle species.

You can see more of Skink’s stunning work by following him on Facebook or Twitter. You can also order selected models as resin kits from his online shop.

Insect art: Arthropod girls by Jun (Kemono Friends fanart)

Imagine a world where humans have disappeared, while animals transformed into humanoid form but stayed true to their natural behavior and preferred habitats. This is the premise of Kemono Friends, an anime series from last year that surprised everyone and became very successful despite its seemingly low production value. It presents the dreamworld of Japari Park, a mysterious deserted zoo that houses animals from around the world (in the form of cute girls). In fact it was so successful that it generated a global cult following, regardless of gender, origin, and even species (if you are not familiar with the story of the old male penguin that fell in love with a cardboard cutout of one of the characters, read it here – it will melt your heart …and then its tragic ending will break your heart). Full disclosure: I did not watch the series, so I decided to test it out and watched one episode. I must say that despite my low expectations, I found it entertaining. You see, to enjoy Kenomo Friends you have to look beyond what it is on the surface. Leaving the plot and the quirky animation style aside, the naturalist in me liked the way animals were portrayed in the series, and appreciated the information presented to make viewers more familiar with their real-life counterparts. I am sure the series itself has great potential (want to see an interesting take on it? watch this). Anyway, the series deals with cute girls modeled after animals (mainly mammals and birds), also known as gijinka, however invertebrates were left out of the series. This is a real shame, because the huge diversity of invertebrates could inspire a similar diversity of characters, sparking interest and evoking respect and appreciation for these animals.

But do not fret. Several independent artists decided to do just that: designing their own arthropod-themed characters, while drawing inspiration from the anime series. One of them is Jun (@ni075 on twitter), an artist from Malaysia, who has spent the last months creating incredibly detailed arthropod gijinka. After discovering his art and following his posts he quickly became one of my most favorite artists. He kindly agreed to talk about his work and describe the process of creating the characters.

Chiasognathus grantii, stag beetle artwork by Jun

Chiasognathus grantii, stag beetle artwork by Jun

What exactly is gijinka?
Jun: “Gijinka (擬人化) means anthropomorphized characters based on any non-human subject (non-human characters, organisms, non-living things etc’). However, not all characters inspired by non-human subjects are gijinka unless the artist states they are (for example, characters with cat ears and tail are not always meant to be a cat’s anthropomorphism). There are no guidelines for gijinka but in general, instead of a non-human characters bearing human-like features, gijinka always come with a full human body at least in appearance, which sometimes makes them looks more like a cosplay based on their model. This type of anthropomorphism is also called Moe gijinka (萌え擬人化, see here for more details). There are many examples for gijinka products that follow these rules in Japan, such as Kantai Collection (warship girls), Touken Ranbu (sword boys), Houseki no Kuni (genderless human-like minerals), and Kemono Friends (animal girls).”

How did the idea of creating arthropod-inspired characters come to life?
Jun: “The idea of arthropod gijinka originated few years ago (during my high school days), but I started working on this series in May 2017, so only about half a year. I do not have any background in character design, the same goes for fashion and cloth design. This is my first original character series ever made. I think I was inspired by Kantai collection, a web browser game with the theme of warship gijinka, which I played throughout several years. The biggest inspiration came from the Kemono Friends series and the twitter user 小森雨太 (@comori_uta) who makes insects and other bugs gijinka as fanart “friends” (friend = gijinka individual in Kemono Friends). I love arthropods since childhood, from the infamous terrestrial bugs to the rather famous crustaceans. As the arthropd gijinka series took off, I decided to also debunk the common misconceptions people have on this fascinating and important group of animals.”

Xya japonica, pygmy mole cricket. Artwork by Jun

Xya japonica, pygmy mole cricket. Artwork by Jun

How do you choose which arthropod species to use as the model?
Jun: “Most of them simply come on a whim, and few are requests I get from other users. If possible, I will choose a ‘typical’ species at first. For example, I chose the water flea Daphnia pulex for having typical characteristics and being a well-known representative of its taxonomical group. Later I decided to make another character from the same group but based on a different species – Leptodora water flea. So in this case I used the first work as a basic design, and then added the characteristics that differentiate between the species. In some cases I make an exception and choose the “unique” species as the first character of its group, like in the cases of Chiasognathus grantii for a stag beetle and Rhagodes melanus for a camel spider. Both have quite a different body plan compared to other representatives of their groups (small-headed; short-legged, respectively). Though the creation process is still somewhat the same, in which I at least try to imagine how the ‘typical’ one looks like. For the examples mentioned above I chose Prosopocoilus stag beetle and the camel spider family Galeodidae, and used those as the basic design and made changes to it.”

Leptodora richardi, a water flea. This is one of my favorite designs by Jun; if you are not familiar with this animal please search for it online. He really captured the essence of this crustacean.

Leptodora richardi, a water flea. This is one of my favorite designs by Jun; if you are not familiar with this animal please search for it online. He really captured the essence of this crustacean.

One thing I love about Jun’s work is his attention to detail. His designs are not only flawless in execution, but also show a great deal of accuracy when it comes to arthropod morphology. Here are a few examples:

Crematogaster ants have a characteristic, elegant abdomen. Artwork by Jun

Crematogaster ants have a characteristic, elegant abdomen. Artwork by Jun

Pseudoscorpion by Jun. Accurate. I don't think I need to add anything here.

Pseudoscorpion by Jun. Accurate. I don’t think I need to add anything here.

In the case of Myrmarachne, Jun not only captured the lively and inquisitive nature of the jumping spider, but also the intricate details of its appearance. I would like to draw your attention to the color of the eyes, and to the dark stripe running along the second pair of legs in the spider, and its corresponding element on the girl’s arms. Brilliant.

Myrmarachne, an ant-mimicking jumping spider by Jun. Excellent depiction of morphology, coloration, and posture.

Myrmarachne, an ant-mimicking jumping spider by Jun. Excellent depiction of morphology, coloration, and posture.

By the way, Jun was not joking when he mentioned getting work requests from other people. After discovering and admiring his work, I half-jokingly asked if we are ever going to see a girl modeled after Epomis beetle. He gave it a shot using the first-instar larva as the model, and created the following jaw-dropping artwork. Ground beetle larvae are hard to characterize to begin with, so needless to say I was very impressed.

Epomis circumscriptus larva by Jun. She is missing a pet frog by her side, but I will let this one slide...

Epomis circumscriptus larva by Jun. She is missing a pet frog by her side, but I will let this one slide…

What do you do to get the information you need for creating the characters?
Jun: “Almost all of the information is obtained through an online search. My personal experience and records will be included as well if I have encountered the species in real life. Photographs of live individuals and specimens are a major part of my research. I also search for identification keys since many arthropods can look very similar between species or even higher classifications. Searching for taxonomy and behavior publications written by specialists is a must-do as well.”

As a side note, when you follow Jun’s posts on Twitter you get a first-row seat in viewing his entire creative process, and I do not mean just random posts showing work-in-process. You are exposed to the initial research, morphology studies, first sketches and outfit design, head design, and final character design. I find this not only fascinating to watch, but also quite engaging.

Jun: “I mainly express the species characteristics through clothes design, while leaving the hairstyle and face for last, because it has a big influence on the character’s personality. As all of my gijinka are created down to species level, I want to make them different from each other, each one with its own unique look. The Introduction corner is based on the one used in Kemono Friends anime, which appears on the screen when the animal girl makes her first appearance. The format I use is slightly different from the anime, and includes: class-order-family; Japanese name; scientific name.”

Rhagodes melanus, a camel spider by Jun. Another very impressive achievement; this is an animal that rarely gets any positive attention, not to mention the difficulty to portray it well in art form.

Rhagodes melanus, a camel spider by Jun. Another very impressive achievement; this is an animal that rarely gets any positive attention, not to mention the difficulty to portray it well in art form.

“I try to avoid including religion, culture, narrative or any other human-related elements of the animals in my gijinka’s design. The main reason is that those are not the characteristics of the animal itself. Moreover, many of those elements are based on misconception, which is something I try to debunk through the design itself. I want to show the true nature of the animal, instead of repeating people’s wrong impressions and stereotypes.”

How long does it take to complete each work, from conception to finished artwork?
Jun: “The time can range from 3 days to 2 weeks. In most cases I spend up almost a week throughout the process: 1-3 days for research and concept, 2-4 days for the final artwork.”

Another interesting aspect in Jun’s characters is the eyes. “While most of the gijinka will have the animal’s eyes reconstructed around the character’s head like an accessory, I decided to go against this rule and make the human eye more similar to the species’ eye itself. In extreme cases like huge eyes or stalked eyes, I reconstruct it as an accessory in a non-eye-like design.”

This is very apparent in the following examples, the split-eyes of Chiasognathus grantii stag beetle, or the six clustered stemmata (simple eyes) of Epomis larva are perfectly depicted in the characters’ eyes.

A Composite image to show the level of detail in characters' eyes. Chiasognathus beetles have split eyes, while Epomis larvae eyes consist of six stemmata arranged in a cluster. Jun expressed these features within the iris of both characters.

A Composite image to show the level of detail in characters’ eyes. Chiasognathus beetles have split eyes, while Epomis larvae eyes consist of six stemmata arranged in a cluster. Jun expressed these features within the iris of both characters.

How many characters do you plan to make?
Jun: “Actually I haven’t set any limit for the number of characters, so the plan is to make as many as I possibly can. But I want to make more characters representing different taxonomical groups. For example I still lack myriapods, and I have only two crustaceans.”

Damon diadema, a whip spider by Jun. Another personal favorite that shows the essence of the model species, from the presence of spines and sensory whips to the banded legs depicted here by belt straps.

Damon diadema, a whip spider by Jun. Another personal favorite that shows the essence of the model species, from the presence of spines and sensory whips to the banded legs depicted here by belt straps.

Do you have any future plans for these designs like publishing a book or running an exhibition?
Jun: “Currently I only made this series as Kemono Friends’s fanart, so I still don’t have any future plans for it.”

I must admit that reply to my last question left me a little bitter. There is something about Jun’s work that makes me wish for more. For someone who is passionate about arthropods, it is pure eye candy. I would love to see it becoming something big, a collection perhaps. Hey, I even find myself fantasizing about a spinoff anime series or a manga following the arthropod girls’ adventures. For the time being, I will continue to enjoy whatever I can find on Jun’s twitter. But I can dream, right?

Public outreach: Promoting the appreciation of arthropods

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in an outreach event, Guelph Bug Day, at the University of Guelph Arboretum. Bug days are public events, usually free of any admission fees, which promote the appreciation and admiration of insects and arachnids, and set out to educate anyone who is fascinated by arthropods.
This is not the first time I participate in such an event. Last year I presented arachnids at Bug Day Ottawa. In fact, ever since I became interested in insects and their natural history, I have been involved in presenting them to whoever was interested: I brought live insects to lab sessions in high school, I led my mates in outdoor excursions to find spiders and scorpions during my military service, I collaborated with operating museums and insectariums as a consultant on exhibitions, and I incorporated the use of live insects in biology studies at universities to help students gain a better understanding of the courses material. More recently though, I have been more active in events aimed at the general public, in order to bring arthropods into the mainstream and help people overcome their fears. And so far, it has been a blast. Take this recent bug day in Guelph for example: I found myself smiling from ear to ear the whole time, and my table was always busy with no moment to rest, not that I am complaining. This was the first time Guelph holds a bug day event and to be honest, it was the best one I have ever been to. It was that good. But before I talk about the bug day, let me elaborate a little about public outreach and why I think it is important.

When working in science, especially when you acquire some expertise, it becomes difficult to expose the public to your subject of research and communicate about it. The more knowledge you gain about your study system, the harder it gets to explain it to people with little or no science background and get them to care about it. I am happy to say that this is changing thanks to the engagement of researchers and science communicators with the public on social media. Yet there is still a long way to go.

More specifically, nowadays most people go about their daily lives with little or no exposure to the wonders of nature. I once brought velvet worms to a public outreach event at the Toronto Zoo and the response was phenomenal. It was not surprising – the majority of people, biologists included, will live through their lives without even knowing these majestic animals exist, let alone see a live one. So in my opinion this exposure is critical, it can influence the public’s opinion and later have implications for nature conservation. I do think people should familiarize themselves with whatever is found in their area, both plants and animals. After all, insects and spiders are everywhere, and most of them are not out to get anyone. They are harmless and usually mind their own business.

When I present live arthropods, I love interacting with children and let them handle the animals, but I am even more interested in getting the parents into the game. You see, the reality is that the majority of kids already like bugs. They are curious about the diverse world of invertebrates, those common animals that are so different from mammals and birds, and have the appearance of small toys. Unfortunately, at some point children lose their interest in invertebrates, and sometimes even worse, replace it with fear and hate. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why that stage occurs. But it is most likely due to an environmental influence – succumbing to peer-pressure from friends or parents, and witnessing a shift in cultural appreciation as technology takes nature’s place. Parents have a huge role in preserving the view of the natural world in young people’s minds by encouraging them and nurturing their curiosity. Many times I have seen an excited kid holding an insect turn to their parents in hopes for affirmation. However, sometimes the kids are uninterested in insects, in which case I try to work directly with the parents and get them to handle the animals. Some children just need to see their parents doing something a bit unconventional to get confirmation that they are cool!

It just so happens that I stumbled upon this beautiful artwork by Tiana Cabana, a lovely composite image (inspired by another artwork) depicting my burning passion and mission –

Give small critters some room in your heart. Embrace them.
It will make you a better person, and they will appreciate it too.

Going back to Guelph Bug Day, I was astonished by the sheer amount of positivity expressed by the visitors attending. Even those who confessed their fears gave the arachnids a chance after listening to some facts about them and realizing that they do not pose a threat. I find this level of open-mindness incredible, and it is in great part thanks to the amazing organizers and volunteers who put so much of their energy into making this event a reality. Such a talented group of people.

I returned home from the bug day with such a “high”, almost intoxicated, feeling. At first I didn’t know what it was. Sure, the event was fun, but was it that fun? What is this smile smeared all over my face? Why am I so restless, why can’t I just sit down? And it finally dawned on me what it is that I was feeling. It was love. I was in love.
So yeah, I can get pretty emotional at times, but the important take home message for me here is that I can see myself doing this every single day, for the rest of my life. Thank you, Guelph Bug Day. You have a special place in my heart.

One lesson learned from doing these events – I need to bring a camera…

Insect art: Transformers and other insect mecha

In my previous post I discussed the use of insects in Japanese anime. There are many other fascinating examples of insects being featured in cartoons, but I cannot leave the subject without mentioning one specific example that is somewhat related: The Transformers.

"Look! There is some interesting text written down there"

“Look! There is some interesting text written down there”

"Yes! Let's check it out!"

“Yes! Let’s check it out!”

I grew up in the 1980’s, a time when giant robots were popular among kids. The Transformers was one such franchise, telling the story of two races of transforming robots fighting each other, who one day end up stranded on earth. Despite its apparent novelty, it was not the first show to come up with the idea of robots that can change form into vehicles and other objects; the same concept was already in use by other animated mecha shows like Gobots, Voltron, Macross etc’. Nevertheless, The Transformers had the largest variety of shape-shifting robots compared to its competitors. It is important to remember that at its core, The Transformers cartoon series was meant to promote the sale of toys created by the Japanese manufacturer Takara and licensed to Hasbro in the US. New characters were introduced continuously on the show, corresponding to new toy models being released. Soon enough, The Transformers became a huge success, attracting a large crowd of followers. Together with its toy lines, unique animation style, and recognizable sound effects, it coined catchphrases like “More than Meets the Eye” and “Robots in Disguise”. Now, over 30 years after its first launch, it is still growing as a franchise.

I look at this image and I see toys. So many toys.

I look at this image and I see toys. So many toys.

To make things clear, I am not a hardcore Transformers fan. I do not collect the toys, and I am not too obsessed with the cartoon. I also do not care much for the recent reboot of the franchise in live-actions films, but I am not their target audience anyway. To put it more simply, I love the idea of transforming robots for exactly what it is – creatures trying to disguise themselves as something else. You can imagine my excitement as a kid when I found out about the Transformers’ line of robot insects: the insecticons.

As a young naturalist I learned that insects try to hide or disguise themselves all the time. It seemed natural to me (and I must admit, also very cool) that insects inspired the design of some of the Transformers characters. Although the thought of giant robots from another planet taking the form of insects may come as a surprise, does it really? Insects already look bulky, and their movements are often described as mechanical, thanks to their restricting exoskeleton. I think the idea of robot insects is as straightforward and predictable as it can be.

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons were introduced early in the Transformers series, in the episode A Plague of Insecticons. The group included three members: Shrapnel, the gang’s leader who can also control lightning, was modeled after a stag beetle; Bombshell, who can mind-control other robots by using capsules, transforms into a weevil; and Kickback, a robotic locust. Some of the show’s fans will probably try to correct me that Bombshell is supposed to be a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, however the design of his snout complete with two antennae-like projections, along with the way he uses it in his insect mode, suggest he is a weevil. In addition, the insecticons were supposed to portray insect pests; they had the ability to multiply and form swarms, consuming crops and energy resources in their path. Pest locusts and weevils are well known. As to why a stag beetle was chosen to represent a pest species, that is indeed a good question.

The insecticons swarm on its way to defoliate a crop field. Oh, Kickback. Why are you so cute?

The insecticons swarm on its way to defoliate a crop field. Oh, Kickback. Why are you so cute?

"Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!"

“Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!”

I love this comic artwork showing Kickback's locust swarm. It is an excellent depiction of our helplessness not only against giant menacing robots, but also the unpredictability of catastrophic natural phenomena.

I love this comic artwork showing Kickback’s locust swarm. It is an excellent depiction of our helplessness not only against giant menacing robots, but also the unpredictability of catastrophic natural phenomena.

By the time The Transformers were popular as a TV series and a toy line, they released several other insect robots toys known as “Deluxe insecticons”. These colorful figures were never featured on the animated show due to a licensing issue, but they appeared in the comics.

One of the first appearances of the Deluxe insecticons in the Transformers comics

One of the first appearances of the Deluxe insecticons in the Transformers comics

The Deluxe insecticons included a Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma) called Barrage, another stag beetle named Chop Shop, a grasshopper named Ransack, and Venom – a cicada. You can definitely see the influence of Japanese culture reflecting in these insect mode choices.

Barrage and Chop Chop. The Deluxe insecticons were not exactly loyal to each other.

Barrage and Chop Shop. The Deluxe insecticons were not exactly loyal to each other.

Deluxe insecticons Venom and Barrage. I love how they designed Venom to have sucking mouthparts, a proboscis, in his insect mode, just like a real cicada.

Deluxe insecticons Venom and Barrage. I love how they designed Venom to have sucking mouthparts, a proboscis, in his insect mode, just like a real cicada.

Despite their bright color palette, the Deluxe insecticons were more similar in their appearance to real-life insects than the original insecticons. The only figure I have issues with is Ransack: With his black and yellow coloration he is supposed to represent a gregarious morph of the desert locust Schistocerca gregaria, but his colors make him look more like Aganacris velutina, a wasp-mimicking katydid.

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

There is a small a history lesson here too: Despite their late addition to the franchise, the Deluxe insecticons were not really new characters. They were designs borrowed from another Japanese franchise by the name of Beetras: Armored Insect Battalion, manufactured by the Japanese company Takatoku Toys. The Beetras story revolved around five young warriors who pilot insectoid mecha to protect earth from threats. I like this idea of humans using insectoid vehicles to perform different tasks. Anyone who has stumbled upon the photo of John Deer’s Walking Harvester will know what I am talking about. However, shortly after the Beetras toy line was released in 1984, Takatoku Toys went bankrupt. The toy molds were sold to Bandai, another toy manufacturer who then licensed them to Hasbro, and those would later become the Deluxe insecticons. I much prefer the original Beetras color scheme of the robots as opposed to the brightly colored deluxe insecticons. The Beetras colors appear more natural and closer to what insects look like in real life.

The insecticons toys presented in the 1985 catalog. The original insecticons can be seen at the bottom, while the Deluxe insecticons, still sporting their Beetras coloration, at the top.

The insecticons toys presented in the 1985 catalog. The original insecticons can be seen at the bottom, while the Deluxe insecticons, still sporting their Beetras coloration, at the top.

The Deluxe insecticons toy line in the 1986 catalog, now with their reissued colors.

The Deluxe insecticons toy line in the 1986 catalog, now with their reissued colors.

Going over the Beetras robot designs reveals that there were several additional characters in planning – a Hercules beetle, yet another stag beetle, and a ladybird beetle (a female robot toy, which at the time was quite unusual). Unfortunately, these characters never made it through to the production stage.

The Beetras planned toy line from 1984. This could have been such a great series.

The Beetras planned toy line from 1984. This could have been such a great series.

If there is anything that the insecticons have taught us, it is that good things are only temporary. Like many good Transformers characters, the insecticons’ fate was to fade from existence. They were hit, run over, and eventually killed off during the events of Transformers: The Movie in 1986.

Kickback being run over by a vehicle. The poor guy can be seen trying to cover his head and antennae just before the impact. I can feel for him.

Kickback being run over by a vehicle. The poor guy can be seen trying to cover his head and antennae just before the impact. I can feel for him.

Although they never returned to the animated series, their legacy still lives on in the form of toys, with interesting reissues from time to time. In my opinion the insecticons were a great idea that never really reached its full potential. They left much to be desired. Maybe we will see them again one day, after all insects are all around us.

Soundwave releases tiny insecticons for a mission. Maybe there are still some little transformers out there?

Soundwave releases tiny insecticons for a mission. Maybe there are still some little transformers out there?

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* This post makes use of copyrighted material for the purpose of commentary under fair use.

Insect art: The use of insects in Japanese anime

I have a confession to make: I love anime.
It should come as no surprise, especially after my post featuring an animated cockroach video. I cannot seem to trace back when my interest in anime has started, but it has been there for a while since childhood. It would be difficult for me to explain why I love this form of media so much, as well as it predecessor, the Japanese manga. I love everything about it: The character design, their well-crafted stories, the overly detailed backgrounds, and the wink to some of Japan’s culture. And what is better than having your interests collide and merge into one? There is some extensive use of insects and other arthropods in manga and anime, but it is so subtle that you may have not even noticed it.

A field of plain tiger butterflies (Danaus chrysippus). From "Natsume's Book of Friends"

A field of plain tiger butterflies (Danaus chrysippus). From “Natsume’s Book of Friends”

To start off, Japan’s culture has an interesting relationship with insects (collectively called mushi). It is a nation that embraces the eccentric and weird, where insects are a part of the mainstream. They are mostly not feared from, but admired and respected. Japanese people enjoy listening to singing insects, observing the behavior of fighting insects, and in some areas even eat insects. I will not go into much detail about the Japanese beetle culture (as this is a topic for a full post by itself), just mention that it is widely accepted for kids (and adults) to keep beetles as pets, and you can buy a variety of beetles and their breeding supplies in stores. The popularity of live beetles in Japan is no less than that of cats and dogs. It is a pity that the rest of the world is a bit lagging in this regard. There are numerous Japanese books dealing with insects as well as insectariums targeting children. In addition, every summer kids in Japan catch and play with insects, from dragonflies and butterflies to cicadas and water bugs. The result is that almost no children in Japan are afraid to handle insects. With such a culture, the children are also always connected to nature.

And this brings me to art. With mushi playing such an extensive role in Japanese culture, it is very easy to find representations of that in art. I am going to focus mainly on examples in anime but it is important to note that insects can be found painted, sculpted, or carved in everyday objects. The mushi culture is truly overwhelming; this post is merely scratching the surface.

Without exception, the insect that is most commonly used in Japanese art, and specifically in anime and manga, is the singing cicada.

Cicada molting into its adult stage. Beautiful use of insect biology from Makoto Shinkai's "The Garden of Words"

Cicada molting into its adult stage. Beautiful use of insect biology from Makoto Shinkai’s “The Garden of Words”

The emergence of larval and adult cicadas represent the onset of warm summer, and these insects are used to give a sense of time for the ongoing plot. This is usually done by showing cicadas singing while clinging to trees, poles etc’, even in an urban envronment. In anime the sound of singing cicadas is used to represent summertime even without actually showing cicadas in the frame.

Singing cicada on a street lamp post. From "Steins;Gate"

Singing cicada on a street lamp post. From “Steins;Gate”

Unique styling on this singing cicada. From "Welcome to the NHK!"

Unique styling on this singing cicada. From “Welcome to the NHK!”

Cicadas are also used to show the end of summer, by depicting a dead cicada falling from its perch, or a carcass on the ground.

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From "Aoi Bungaku"

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From “Aoi Bungaku”

Dragonflies are another commonly used insect in anime, usually to give the sense of a bigger picture; despite what just happened in the plot, it is but an insignificant event and life around is still going on. This adds a dramatic impact to the more serious anime genres, in moments where a catastrophe just took place.

Life goes on. From "Steins;Gate"

Life goes on. From “Steins;Gate”

Other insects are used to depict different emotions. Fireflies usually represent a special event in the life of the characters, whereas singing insects evoke curiosity and a sense of exploration.

One day I will take a firefly photo just like in this scene. From "Encouragement of Climb"

One day I will take a firefly photo just like in this scene. From “Encouragement of Climb”

Observing a Japanese bell cricket, suzumushi (Meloimorpha japonicus). From "Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day"

Observing a Japanese bell cricket, suzumushi (Meloimorpha japonicus). From “Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day”

Spiders and other predatory arthropods are usually used as a sign for danger. I wish it wasn’t the case. I can only hope that one day arachnids are going to represent beauty and complexity in popular culture, but it seems we still have a long way to go.

The spider had nothing to do with what happened in this scene. From "Aoi Bungaku"

The spider had nothing to do with what happened in this scene. From “Aoi Bungaku”

Which spider family? From "Aoi Bungaku"

Which spider family? From “Aoi Bungaku”

In Japanese mythology, the golden orb-web spider (Nephila clavata) is considered a shape-shifter that seduces young men. From "Beyond the Boundary"

In Japanese mythology, the golden orb-web spider (Nephila clavata) is considered a shape-shifter that seduces young men. From “Beyond the Boundary”

Somebody is in ambush, and I don't mean the mantis. From "Sword of the Stranger"

Somebody is in ambush, and I don’t mean the mantis. From “Sword of the Stranger”

Another important part of the Japanese insect culture is the appreciation and celebration of insect diversity. The collecting of insects is explained and demonstrated in both manga and anime as a fun activity for the summer days. The “Endless eight” plotline from anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya relies heavily on an insect collection trip as its main setting. Although the characters are out to collect cicadas (they release them eventually, in case you wondered), many insect species are shown, including beetles, butterflies, bugs and grasshoppers.

Collecting insects isn't always easy. From "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya"

Collecting insects isn’t always easy. From “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”

More specifically, rhinoceros and stag beetle species are represented in great detail and are often referred to by species name. In the series Natsume’s Book of Friends there is a split-second scene in which the main character flips through an insect book from his childhood. It is hard not to appreciate the accuracy shown in that short scene, all the insects can be easily identified to the species level (and probably even mentioned by name, too bad I cannot read Japanese). In the screenshot below you can recognize the various subspecies of the atlas beetle (Chalcosoma atlas), neptune beetle (Dynastes neptunus), eastern Hercules beetle (Dynastes tityus), western Hercules beetle (Dynastes granti), and the rare satanas beetle (Dysantes satanas).

Detailed insect book from "Natsume's Book of Friends"

Detailed insect book from “Natsume’s Book of Friends”

As with any type of collecting activity, some specimens are highly prized and receive special attention.

"A golden stag beetle!" From "Teekyu"

“A golden stag beetle!” From “Teekyu”

Saw-toothed stag beetle (Lamprima adolphinae)! From "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya"

Saw-toothed stag beetle (Lamprima adolphinae)! From “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”

Beetle fights are also a common theme. One good example is a whole franchise centered around the world of rhinoceros and stag beetles. Musiking included a manga, an anime series, and an arcade game complete with activation cards containing information about different beetle species. It even had collectible merchandise (beetle models) that sold very well. More than anything, Mushiking exposed kids to the huge diversity of fighting beetles, and there are even reports claiming that this franchise is responsible for the rise in popularity and illegal trafficking of certain beetle species in Japan. The concept of beetle fights as a game of gambling is also explored in some anime. For example, in the series Samurai Champloo, the character Mugen is shown training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, known as kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma) by letting it pull weights. Later he is seen putting his trainee to the test, while a crowd of drunk people cheer in the background. Allomyrina dichotoma has a long-standing status in Japanese culture because of its unique male horn and strength. It is extremely popular as a pet species, and even has toys modeled after it.

Training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma). From "Samurai Champloo"

Training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma). From “Samurai Champloo”

"Fight! Fight!" From "Samurai Champloo"

“Fight! Fight!” From “Samurai Champloo”

There are many more excellent examples out there, but I hope I convinced you that insects have an important place in anime. In fact, while researching anime series for this post I came a cross several dozens of additional examples that I missed during my first watch of the shows. So why am I writing about this? This is the first of two posts dealing with the use of insects in animated media that I really like. I thought it would be interesting and refreshing to depart a little from my usual posts about natural history and present you with a different aspect of who I am. Shocking, I know. Wait till you read the next post. I promise it will be fun, so please stick around.

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* This post makes use of copyrighted material for the purpose of commentary under fair use.
** This post is also a response to some people who tried their best to mock me about my anime-watching habits. I don’t see how pointing out someone for having a hobby that they love can ever be considered as an insult. If you are one of those bullies, take a good honest look at your own hobbies and answer me this – do you feel ashamed for your personal interests? No? Didn’t think so.
So why should I be.

Insect art: Illustrations by Carim Nahaboo

Looking back on my life as a kid obsessed with the natural world, I often found myself fascinated by scientific illustrations, whether they were accompanying taxonomic descriptions or not. Something about the intense level of accuracy, the neutral pose of the subject, and the fine details shown, every bristle, every pore, that made me sink my eyes into these books, even if I could not understand the language or scientific terminology at that time. At some point I started hoping that one day I too can become such an artist, drafting the various shapes and forms surrounding us. Although I did draw a lot, I eventually neglected this side of myself. I guess the passion for photography took over, as another medium for getting similar results. But my passion for natural history illustrations has not died, and today I am pleased to find myself in a middle ground between the two, as a part of “Meet Your Neighbours” project. I still have a high appreciation for well-made illustrations, so you can understand why I was excited to discover the amazing artwork by Carim Nahaboo.

If you have never heard of Carim Nahaboo and don’t know what I am talking about, I suggest heading over to his website RIGHT NOW.
Carim is a talented artist producing stunning, photorealistic artwork featuring insects, arachnids and other arthropods. He is quickly becoming one of the hot natural history artists out there.

All artwork shown here is courtesy of Carim Nahaboo and posted with his permission.

Chrysina resplendens - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Jewel scarab (Chrysina resplendens) – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

At first glance, it is easy to mistake Carim’s drawings for photographs. It clearly shows that the artist is well-immersed in the natural world and pays attention to the smallest details. Take for example the following illustration of a centipede preying on a lizard:

Scolopendra hardwickei feeding on Psammophilus dorsalis - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Scolopendra hardwickei feeding on Psammophilus dorsalis – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Not only the anatomy of both animals is shown in great accuracy, but also their posture, and the way the light “falls” on their bodies. Excellent depiction of the shiny centipede versus the dull, scaly lizard. You can almost feel this predation is happening right now before your eyes.

Another good example is this drawing of a female Australian stick insect:

Extatosoma tiaratum feeding - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Extatosoma tiaratum feeding on Eucalyptus – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Notice how the head area is bent forward? Only someone who knows how this insect moves in real life can get this minor detail correctly.

Nephila clavipes pair - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Golden orb weaver (Nephila clavipes) pair – artwork by Carim Nahaboo.
Hard to believe this is not a photograph.

The amount of detail Carim puts in his artwork is staggering. I cannot imagine how much work is going into color drawings of creatures such as this Death’s head hawkmoth:

Acherontia atropos work in progress - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Death’s head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos), artwork in progress

After months of drooling over the images Carim posted online, I decided it is about time I get my own Carim Nahaboo piece. I ended up getting three. They are just too good. Deciding on the subjects was not easy, because I wanted not only something that looks good, but also something that will be personal. The first piece though was a no-brainer: it had to be Epomis. I have spent years keeping and observing these interesting beetles, in order to document how their larvae parasitize and kill amphibians. Although the larvae can be very colorful at late developmental stages, I chose a first-instar larva for the piece, because of its unique body proportions.
The first thing I noticed about Carim is that he is very fast. Hours only after sending him the reference material he had already sent me an image of the work in progress. He has an amazing talent to get the right “feel” and texture for his subject, even if it is a creature he has never seen in person. More specifically, he managed to illustrate the mild transparency of the larva very well. When the piece finally arrived in the mail (very professionally wrapped, by the way), my eyes almost popped out of their sockets. It looked even better in real life.

Epomis circumscriptus larva - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Epomis circumscriptus larva, dorsal view – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

This cropped photo shows detail on another piece I got, a lichen-mimic katydid from Ecuador (Markia hystrix):

Markia hystrix - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Markia hystrix – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Here is a whip spider posing next to one of Carim’s drawings. Or is it vice versa? This shows the amount of precision and just how realistic these artwork pieces are. I have a strong feeling we will see a lot more of his work in the next few years.

Heterophrynus sp. - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Heterophrynus sp. – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

You can see more of Carim’s work by following his Facebook and Twitter feeds, and you can also order prints from his online shop.

Insect art: rubber stamps

Some months ago I stumbled upon on a blog post in Japanese with many images of insect plush toys and wooden figurines. The topic was the annual Mozo Mozo exhibition in Japan. In case you have never heard about this exhibition, dedicated to the love of small creatures, every year various artists join to display and sell insect-themed artwork. The diversity of works ranges from drawings and figurines to toys, clothing, bags and accessories. I hope one day I have a chance to attend this event in person. Until then, I will have to settle for photos posted online.
Nevertheless, upon noticing some artwork that I really liked in those photos, I decided to try and contact several artists in hopes they still have something available that can be sent overseas.

This is how I discovered the amazing hand-made stamps by the talented Mayu Watanabe (check out her work here). This young artist is not only very capable of translating complex structures (not just insects) into rubber stamps, but she also finds original and intriguing ways to combine different stamping methods to create esthetically pleasing designs on almost any paper media, for example postcards or gift wrappings.

stamps2

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), solitary form (left) and gregarious form (right). Beautiful stamp artwork by Mayu Watanabe

 

stamps1

 

stamps3

I couldn’t think of a better packing for these! Excellent!

 

The artist also puts a lot of thinking into the packaging of her artwork (marketing departments, take notes!): Every stamp is packed separately on cotton, stapled within a piece of cardboard and cellophane. Entomologists out there, does this sound familiar? This is exactly how you would send unmounted insect specimens overseas! I even had a prepared horned dung beetle (Copris sp.) lying around and compared it to its stamp counterpart – the similarity is very entertaining.

stamps4
But if you think this ends here, think again. Flip the packaged stamp and you will find the collecting data for that “specimen”, along with the species’ ID. Again, written very accurately according to the rules of scientific collecting.

stamps5
Overall, I am very impressed with the quality of these stamps, and I look forward to seeing more work from Mayu Watanabe in the future. I find it refreshing to see someone who not only loves what they are doing, but also does it very professionally.

BugShot Belize: Treat yourself to something good

I have been meaning to write about BugShot Belize straight after my return, while I was still excited about it, but upcoming deadlines and a small entomological ordeal took most of the attention.
But don’t get me wrong – whenever I think about this trip to Belize I get a huge grin on my face. It was THAT good.

If you have some interest in macrophotography, you probably heard about the BugShot workshop series – a get-together of photography and arthropods enthusiasts, over the course of several days, led by some of the best macrophotographers out there.
The notice about an upcoming workshop in Belize caught me while I was conducting my research fieldwork in New Zealand. I was thrilled to hear there would be four instructors instead of three: Alex Wild, Thomas Shahan, John Abbott, and, joining them for the first time, Piotr Naskrecki. I knew I had to secure my place in that workshop.

By the way, do not mistake this for an in-depth review of BugShot. This post is not going to be a list of what we did during the workshop. If you search online, you will find several such reports. I believe that if you consider going to one of these workshops, you should stop reading about them online and start working on getting there yourself. I will, however, highlight a few things that made the whole experience worthwhile for me.

I came to BugShot Belize with three main goals: to improve in taking photos in high magnification, to learn more about wide-angle photography, and to hear about high-speed photography.

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying a leaf as food source for mushrooms cultivated inside their nest. These ants almost never stand still, and require some concentration to photograph. In addition, some backlighting helps to make the leaf "pop out".

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying a leaf as food source for mushrooms cultivated inside their nest. These ants almost never stand still, and require some concentration to photograph. In addition, some backlighting helps to make the leaf “pop out”.

 

We stayed at Caves Branch, a beautiful Lodge set in the middle of the Belizean jungle. The owner attended one of the earlier BugShots, so we were lucky to have the best host one can ask for. Although being acquainted with only one other person before the workshop, I immediately felt connected to everyone else.

One of the questions I was repeatedly asked during the workshop was “is any of this new to you?”, and I have to say I found it a bit odd at first. I am not known as a photographer and at that time I had only a handful of photos uploaded to this website. But then it hit me – I do have some experience in photography (I started the photography hobby when I was 14, so I must have learned a thing or two since then), and I do have background in Entomology. Nevertheless many things were new to me – every person brings his own approach to photography and for being out in nature. It was interesting to listen to both the instructors and the people attending the workshop. In fact, here I feel I need to apologize before my fellow BugShotees (and anyone else I might meet in the future) – Most of the time I am quiet and I do not strike as being a very talkative person. But once I “break-in” I do not cease talking, and unfortunately I can get a little annoying then. So I apologize if I never interacted with some of the people, or was simply impossible to shut up when talking with others.

We had a small light trap to attract flying insects at night, which proved quite promising in the first night when we had no clue what to expect. One of the moths that arrived was so adorable that it led to a collaborative post with Nash Turely, who recorded a hilarious video of the moth settling into its resting pose.

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) aka bunny moth. Cute furry legs!

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) aka bunny moth. Cute furry legs!

 

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) employs a defense posture when camouflage fails, revealing aposematic colors to scare off predators.

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) employs a defense posture when camouflage fails, revealing aposematic colors to scare off predators.

 

But the main highlight for me was not waiting for the insects to come, but being able to go on night walks in a tropical jungle and actively search for whatever I could find. Man, how I missed doing this! If you like nature but have never done it, I highly recommend! Just be aware of all the possible dangers lying ahead and care for you own safety. And DO NOT do this alone, especially at night (speaking from personal experience, you can easily get lost).

A juvenile whipspider (possibly Phrynus parvulus) feeding on a caterpillar, found during a night walk.

A juvenile whipspider (possibly Phrynus parvulus) feeding on a caterpillar, found during a night walk.

 

Let’s get back to my goals though. Unfortunately, I did not give myself too many opportunities to photograph in high magnification. There were so many things to see and photograph in the jungle, that very often I found myself making the mistake of sticking with one lens throughout most of the day just for the sake of not missing a subject. In addition, the intense humidity made it very annoying to switch lenses because they would fog up very quickly.

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

 

Scales on hindwing of an owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) - it reminded me of a tiger!

Scales on hindwing of an owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) – it reminded me of a tiger!

 

One of the techniques I was eager to know more about was wide-angle macrophotography, and you can image my excitement when I realized I could learn it from one of the best. Good thing I was not lazy and decided to bring my tripod.

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

 

This was my first attempt to shoot wide-angle macro in BugShot:

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

 

It is OK, but could be better. Apparently I was doing a few things incorrectly, which led to a poor composition and lighting in the photos.
And below is the photograph I took while learning from the master, Piotr Naskrecki. Some people might actually prefer the previous photo. I like this one much better.

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

 

Of course, in these techniques, practice makes perfect. There is still plenty of room to improve. But I am slowly getting there.

Apart from some interesting arachnids that we found, the best find in my opinion was a tiny scarab beetle (Ceratocanthinae, identified as Ceratocanthus sp. by Dr. Alberto Ballerio) that can roll into a ball. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo while the beetle was open and moving about. If anything, this is a good reason to go back to Belize, I think this animal is incredible. I have known rolling isopods, pill millipedes, pill roaches, even some flies and wasps evolved to roll up into the shape of a sphere for protection from enemies, but this animal was something that was completely new to me. This beetle is so tightly packed when rolled-up, every leg is inserted into a dedicated slot, that it almost looks like a transformer.

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

 

But my all-time favorite photo from the workshop was not of an insect (well, not entirely). One of the people who attended the workshop was Roy Dunn, an acclaimed photographer specializing in high-speed photography (and an avid arachnophile). I enjoyed listening to his and John Abbott’s comments about this technique, and we were lucky to have the opportunity to get a hand-on experience with it. While I was impressed with Cognisys demonstration, I was more interested in controlling the light using few accessories as possible while taking high-speed photos. When we visited a nearby butterfly farm we could not take our eyes off the stunning hummingbirds coming to feed on sugar water. Many people tried to photograph them from up close using a flash (to whom Roy remarked: “That’s not how you do it!”). Although macro shots of hummingbirds can be amazing, the flash created a harsh light. So I tried to photograph in ambient light using my telephoto lens (Canon 500mm) with no flash, playing with the settings in the camera. Carefully framing to get the light reflected behind the birds, I ended up with some impressive shots, one of them is clearly my favorite of all my BugShot portfolio. Actually, I consider it to be my best photo from 2013. And it even has an insect in it.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) and a paper wasp passing by

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) and a paper wasp passing by

 

So my tip to you: if you have any interest in small creatures (they do not have to be insects!), and you like to photograph, go to one of these workshops. It does not matter if you are an amateur or a professional. Even if you think you have enough photography experience I still recommend attending – just being around people who share similar interests might spark you to try something new. There is already a new BugShot Belize workshop planned with similar content and instructors. If you read this far, you probably want to be there.