Silk, Dyes, Jewelry, and More: Insect-Derived Art Through the Ages
By Elizabeth Bello
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.
Human history has been undeniably intertwined with insects as both a source of annoyance and creative influence. Long before the first microscope was invented, ancient people were depicting insects that they observed. The oldest recorded depiction was a cricket carved into bison bone that was found in a cave in Southern France in 1912 and estimated to be about 14,000 years old. Not only have insects been portrayed in art but they themselves have become the art. The Tamanmushi jewel beetle shrine in Japan is thought to be the earliest example of beetle elytra being used in a decorative fashion. Other portrayals of insects and artistic utilizations can be found spanning the globe, from Australia to early Mayan civilizations in Central America and almost everywhere in between.
Perhaps the two most popular and widely known forms of insect art include the explicit illustration of insects and the use of insect body parts or whole bodies to create jewelry, resin art, collection displays, and sculptures among others. However, insect art can also be defined to include the use of insect media, in which an artist uses the extracts or products of an insect to create art. Although Charles Hogue defined cultural entomology in 1980, little has been published about entomology and ethnoentomology in direct relation to the arts, specifically insect media.
In late 2021, Barrett Klein, Ph.D., professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, published a fantastic look at insect art and insect media titled “Wax, Wings, and Swarms: Insects and Their Products as Art Media” in the Annual Review of Entomology. Meanwhile, the theme of the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia is “Entomology as Inspiration: Insects through art, science, and culture.” So, now is a perfect time to share and explore some of the insect art mediums Klein discusses in his review. This is by no means a comprehensive look at the subject, but rather I simply want to provide a few examples from Klein’s review of how insects can be used in art that many people may have previously overlooked.
Insect Body and Body Parts
Insects come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors (both structural and pigment-based) and can be remarkably eye-catching and beautiful. Because of this, artists have directly used insects in their art to create jewelry; adorn textiles; build sculptures, dolls, and figurines; and arrange dazzling displays of ornate insects for museum or personal collections.
Wings are a popular material and have been used in mosaics, in flapping installations, on canvases, and in fantasy fairy lands. Butterfly and moth wings are of particular interest, and a technique called “lepidochromy” uses a wing and an adhesive to transfer the scales of the wing to paper or other materials.
Living insects can also be used in art and entertainment: Members of the families Elateridae and Lampyridae have been used to create bioluminescent embellishments, fleas have been used in circuses, Dermestid beetles have been used in dioramas, ant colonies have been admired by children, and leaf-cutter ants have been coaxed into carrying tiny flags and peace symbols in conceptual works of art.
In these cases, the insects are the medium. But other examples illustrate how mediums can be derived from insects.
Wax, Honey, and Propolis
Beeswax is a product of sugar conversion that takes place in specialized glands on the ventral abdomen of worker honey bees. It has been used to sculpt, cast, and create molds. It has also been used to create encaustic paint, which is the result of mixing pigment and liquid wax. Lithographic inks and pencils can also be made using this wax.
Honey, often used for culinary purposes, can be used as a binder for pigment particles and may have been used by the Greeks to paint the walls of the Palace of Nestor.
Propolis, a resin-like material also produced by honey bees, has been used by artist Marlène Huissoud to create sculptures by applying basic glass blowing, engraving techniques, and modified kiln temperature and time for curing.
Spiders might be the first creature that comes to mind when thinking of silk, but it is the silk of insects, specifically moths, that have given rise to the silk industry. One species, Bombyx mori, or the domesticated silkworm, is primarily responsible for silk production that is used in fashion, fiber arts, and canvases. It has been bred for more than 4,500 years and is entirely dependent on humans. Silk has been so important historically that German geographer and traveler Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the phrase “silk road” to describe the entire series of trade routes connecting Europe and East Asia, where silk was considered a great commodity.
Dyes and Stains
The most vibrant of the natural red dyes come from scale bugs (superfamily Coccoidea). Carmine is a bright crimson dye that is sourced from scaled insects in the genus Kermes and cochineal bugs by drying female bodies and grinding them to a fine powder. This dye binds especially well to mammal hair, textiles, walls, and books but is susceptible to fading, as the pigment molecules are degraded over time.
Another insect-derived pigment comes from lac insects (Kerria spp. and Paratachardina spp.) in which the dye is more color-fast than carmine but still susceptible to degradation.
Insect gall ink is most permanent and was originally thought to come from the bodies of gall wasps but was later found to be a result of high tannic acid concentrations found in the galls caused by certain gall wasp larvae. This ink can be seen in prominent pieces by Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Vincent Van Gogh.
Interestingly, houseflies (Musca domestica) have been fed sugar-watercolor mixtures to create stains composed of their saliva and feces as seen in John Knuth’s fly paintings.
Lacquer and Finishes
Shellac is a commercial resin that is made of the secretions of female Kerria lacca lac bugs. It is a protective coating and decorative finish for wood furniture that has been used for more than 3,000 years. Another finish, used in Mayan civilizations, comes from the fat within giant margaroid female Llavia axin scale bugs.
Paper can be composed of a variety of materials but is primarily made from pulped plants or trees, resulting in a mixture of cellulose fibers and water. Humans, however, aren’t the only ones who make paper. Members of the wasp family Vespidae create paper nests by chewing plant or wood fibers and combining it with their saliva. Wasp nests can then be collected and repulped by humans to create paper sheets. It can also be electroplated, cut and ordered, or applied to various surfaces as a type of papier-mâché.
Importantly, in his review Klein also discusses insect biodiversity in relation to art and the ethics of using insects in art. As I couldn’t have said it better myself, I leave you with Klein’s words:
“Human-induced extinction rates are increasing alarmingly, and each loss, aside from having ecological consequences, means lost potential to appreciate an insect, including artistically. It is imperative that humans, including artists, practice responsible, sustainable use of insects or insect products for the sake of preserving insect diversity and abundance, respecting their implicit value, realizing their known and unknown ecological roles, or investing in future anthropocentric attributes (material, medical).”
“Wax, Wings, and Swarms: Insects and Their Products as Art Media”
Annual Review of Entomology
Elizabeth Bello is a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Physiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology Section Representative to the Entomological Society of America’s Student Affairs Committee. Twitter: @insects247. Email: email@example.com.
Beautifully written, Elizabeth! Thank you for writing about my review.