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News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.


Photos of Insects Reveal Extraordinary Beauty

As with so much in life, a lack of familiarity with the natural world can breed fear and a sense of alienation. What we don't know makes us shudder.

In the case of insects, though, the rule might be, "The closer you get, the cooler they look," and biologist Sam Droege, head of the bee inventory and monitoring program at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has prepared a number of them for their close-ups.

Droege and his colleagues at the USGS began to inventory all the North American bee species in 2001, in part because of the insects' importance to the U.S. agriculture industry. Their work got an important boost when they encountered the work of the U.S. Army's Public Health Command, where, in 2008, molecular biologist Tony Gutierrez devised a camera system that would enable soldiers throughout the world to take detailed photos of biting insects.  Disease is a major concern for the Army, and Gutierrez needed to create better identification methods to discover if the mosquito that bit a soldier in the field, for instance, was one of the handful out of 80,000 species in the world that could actually transmit disease.

Applying Gutierrez' complicated photographic techniques — which Droege says can expand the image of a tiny bee to "the size of a German shepherd" —  to his work in the field, Droege was able to create an astonishing series of images that give the viewer a whole new appreciation of the beauty of small creatures.

Though Droege cleaned up some of the images in Photoshop (the process of catching and preserving them can leave tiny insect bodies a little shopworn) and removed the pins that supported them, the biologist says he didn't manipulate the color in any way. The jewel tones and iridescence are just as nature made them — and nature made them snazzy. Some are even — dare we say it? — adorable, and others breathtaking, miniscule works of art. Textile artists and painters, take note: amazing textures and colors await you.

On one hand, they're just flies, just bees, just those little bugs we see hopping out when we disturb the grass or sand. But very close in? These images form an exuberant celebration of the other-worldly artistry of the itty bitty.

Droege's respect and appreciation for the insects and the worlds they inhabit are apparent both in the finely detailed images, rendered with delicacy and integrity, and in his captions that are anything but the dry language of a detached observer.

"These images call up something ancient," Droege writes, "something that brings home the fact that our evolutionary paths separated long ago. We each conquered the world in our own way, but these successful pathways seem so utterly and beautifully alien.

"There is no need to imagine or personify alternative life forms on other planets when the examples of such splendid architectures are right here."

All these images were produced with standard commercial camera equipment which rides on a movable sled called a "Stackshot," which can be programmed to move small distances, then fire the camera in a series of overlapping shots. That stack of shots is then sent to a type of software that processes it into a single, all-in-focus picture. And the results are just flippin' cool.

Apis mellifera
DRONE alert! Here is a handsome honeybee drone, a male Apis mellifera, washed, blown dry and buff for his closeup.

Apis mellifera
Augochlora pura
The lovely Augochlora pura is one of the most common bees of forests and forest edges, here with its tongue partially extended just to remind us how different bees are from mammals.

Augochlora pura
Anthidiellum notatum
These little bees often go unnoticed, both because they are very small and because they are very fast, zipping from flower to flower seemingly without resting. This boss specimen cam from Prince George's County, Md., and is often associated with dry, barren sites.

Anthidiellum notatum
Bombus griseocolis
This is one of the species that seems to be holding its own in terms of numbers. This worker has a corbicula (pollen sac) on its tibia full of a mix of pollen and nectar; it is lying on a piece of black felt. Note the beautiful contrast in textures.

Bombus griseocolis
Caenochrysis doriae
"Normally," Droege says, "it would be easy to Photoshop out the pin, but in this case it is so tiny a specimen that it has integrated in with the pin and glue. The metallic-ness of pin wasp are complementary and the layout graceful, which like any good photograph generates stories and questions that your mind answers in its search for meaning. Phew. Heady stuff. I have to cut out the late night chocolate."

Caenochrysis doriae
Calliphora vicina
Ah, the hidden beauty of flies. You have to download and print this out to really see the details on this bad  boy. It was found near the Mall in downtown Washington, D.C.

Calliphora vicina
Centris lanipes
This is a small Centris species from Puerto Rico.

Centris lanipes
Chrysidid Wasp
An unknown Chrysidid from Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah. "Unmatched by any automotive shop," Droege says, "the blues of Chrysidid wasps remind me of this fragment of an Emily Dickinson poem.
'Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
'"

Chrysidid wasp

To see even more of these awe-inspiring images, which you are free to download and use (your tax dollars at work!), see Droege's Flickr page.

Photos courtesy USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program