Usually, when someone mentions “insects” or “bugs,” you can hear a resounding “eeeeww” from the audience.  Insects are often thought of as creepy-crawlies, monsters, the stuff of nightmares, etc.  Why is that?

As a child, I was constantly playing in the mud.  I was interested in all the creatures the Earth had to offer, no matter how many legs they had.  However, a few years ago I suddenly noticed that I no longer had the same appreciation for insects.  I, too, developed an aversion to bugs!  I decided to dig into my past and try and find the turning point.  There wasn’t any.  Years of being too busy to spend time outside, lack of knowledge on the creatures I used to love, and the general society’s “ew” had eventually turned me.  So, I began to work with insects.  I quickly found myself returning to my old self.  I no longer felt uncomfortable seeing all of them at work.  My interest in insects was reignited, and I hope to do the same for others.

This brings me to the Museum of Biological Diversity’s 2018 Open House.  I was asked to come up with a bug-related interactive activity for the Triplehorn Insect Collection.  I decided to try and create a station where visitors could put together their own insects.  The bugs had to be simple enough to appeal to young children, yet aesthetic and elegant enough to attract the interest of an older audience.  I settled on creating two designs, a butterfly and a dragonfly.

Using source images, I made an outline of the dorsal view of each of the insect’s wings, and a lateral view of their bodies in Adobe Photoshop.  The butterfly consisted of two parts, and the dragonfly of three.

Creating the butterfly silhouette in Adobe Photoshop.

Then, I converted the outlines into vector images in Adobe Illustrator, and multiplied it to fill an entire page.

Getting the design ready for the laser cutter using Adobe Illustrator.

After trying different materials, I settled on using 6-ply Railroad Poster Board.  It is strong enough to have structural integrity, while being thin enough to not sacrifice the delicate design.  I used an Epilog Laser to cut out the pieces, which covered over 25 pages of 24 in x 36 in poster board.

The pieces were then separated by type and labeled accordingly.

During the Open House, the activity was a huge success! (I was there as a volunteer!)  Both children and adults took the time to complete the activity.  Many children even drew their own designs on their insects.

I noticed a lot of the adults that tried to assemble the bugs initially did it wrong.  I hope that by having to start again, they had the opportunity to think about the different parts of the insect they were trying to assemble and by doing so developed a new appreciation for the insects.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My model bugs also had holes lightly cut into their bodies, allowing for the addition of  legs. During the event we borrowed colorful pipe cleaners from another activity in the collection (Googly-Eyed Dragonfly) to make the legs of our insects.

The bugs were then put in little bags so that the children could reassemble the insects at home without losing any parts.

I hope that activities like this will help the younger generations continue to be fascinated and appreciative of the world around them.  Hopefully, if the younger generations grow up with a sense of wonder about insects, the commonly found disgust of them will eventually fade away.

About the Author: Tamara Sabbagh is an artist that recently earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts, with a specialization in Art & Technology, from The Ohio State University.  She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection as an Undergraduate Curatorial Assistant.  Contact Tamara and see her other projects through her website.

Illumination – Guest Post by Liz Alvarez

In early 2018, artist Elizabeth Alvarez proposed an insect-focused art piece that would address the theme of the Museum Open House, “Magnification”. Collaborating with Jordan Reynolds and Tamara Sabbagh, two artists who work here at the Triplehorn collection, Elizabeth collected macro images of a local sweat bee (Agapostemon sericeus, specimen number OSUC 127013, collected in Columbus, Ohio in 1930) to bring to light what is normally lost in scale. Not only did she render the invisible— visible, but she added vitality and intrigue by animating the bee.

In the artist’s own words:

Where did you get inspiration from?
“My experience of viewing specimens using a microscope inspired this piece. The microscope lens and mirrors bend the light projected onto the specimen, illuminating it, which allows us to visually explore its features. Specimens become more endearing when you can look upon their faces. Even the shape of the display was circular to mimic the eye piece of a microscope.”

How did you build it?
“I had divided and cut up a reinforced cardboard mold, normally used to pour concrete footers, for its cylindrical shape, and tautly wrapped leather around the exterior. A clear, acrylic platform held up a tablet that displayed the animation of the sweat bee. A clear transparency was angled below the tablet to reflect the animation to create the illusion of a hologram. A sweat bee specimen was imaged from many angles, and the images were then used to create a fluid animation. I studied several videos of sweat bees to create accurate articulation and movement. The flowers were printed on standard paper, and mounted on cardstock. They were then cut and attached to the interior of the footer to work with the position of the projected bee.”

Why bees?
“There is concern with the disappearance of honey bees, but all pollinators are important and include sweat bees. This was an opportunity to highlight a pollinator that is commonly found in Ohio, to raise awareness, and endear these vital species to the general public to avoid potentially grave consequences. This bee became more tangible once you could see how it interacted with its environment.

Ultimately, I wanted to create something visually striking to present the bee in a new context. It needed to magnify the bee’s presence literally and metaphorically, because knowledge is synonymous with illumination.”

“A special thank you to Jordan and Tamara for all of their hard work imaging the specimen and providing feedback.  Dr. Musetti for providing access to the specimen and the imaging equipment, for verifying the accuracy of the display, and most of all for providing a space for me to exhibit the work during the Museum Open House 2018.  To my family for helping me where they could along the way.”


About the Author:  Elizabeth Alvarez is an Art & Technology OSU alumna and former staffer at the Triplehorn Insect Collection. While working at the collection she specialized in the production of publication quality photos of museum specimens, and later, on the recommendation of Dr. Musetti, had the benefit of a summer internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History under the direction of Dr. Talamas, then a Postdoc there at the Entomology Department. After graduating, Liz briefly continued her work at the Triplehorn collection, fine tuning imaging protocols and training new personnel on specimen imaging.

Researching Pelecinids – Part 2

One of the most useful resources the Triplehorn Insect Collection has to offer is its extensive HOL database, an online taxonomic initiative that documents collected specimens of various insect groups. This database already contains records for over 845 thousand Hymenoptera specimens, and it continues to grow every week through the hard work of countless contributors.

One way to contribute to HOL is to photograph and upload images of collected specimens, further enriching the available data on specific taxa. Prior to the start of my research on pelecinids, there were zero images of the genus Pelecinus available in the database. To remedy this, I had the opportunity to work with Jordan Reynolds, an undergraduate student in Art & Technology who is currently working on specimen photography for the collection. Over the last several weeks, Jordan taught me about the technologies and techniques required for taking high-quality images for the database.

My goal in photographing a selection of the collection’s Pelecinus polyturator specimens is three-fold. First, I will obtain a more in-depth understanding of the external anatomy of these intriguing insects. Second, I can compare the morphologies of males and females of different sizes and localities. Third, I will contribute previously unavailable data to the HOL database.

Photographing collection specimens is not as simple as taking a picture with a camera. Because the specimens are relatively small, and because we require intricate detail in the images, we instead use a method known as focus stacking. With this method, the camera gradually moves along a track and takes multiple images at different distances. The focused areas of each image are then “stacked” together by a computer program so that the entirety of the final image is clear. Because the P. polyturator specimens required a large depth of field, we sometimes had to photograph and stack up to 100 images to create a sufficiently focused final image.

In addition to taking individual specimen images, we also took several comparison images. These provide a quick side-by-side comparison between two different specimens. Some of the images we took compare males and females of similar localities. Other images showcase females of similar localities and their dramatic variance in size.

comparison image of P. polyturator females

Comparison image illustrating the size variation in P. polyturator females

Of course, no system is perfect, and we faced many challenges along the way. Most of the parasitic wasps that get photographed by the collection are very small in size (no more than a few millimeters long). Therefore, the collection’s microscopic camera that is traditionally used for parasitoid photography is designed to take highly detailed images of very small specimens. P. polyturator females are unusual in that they are very large parasitoids that can exceed 40 mm in length. Because of this, many of the specimens we wanted to photograph could not fit under the microscopic camera. We instead opted to use a DSLR camera, which is used for macrophotography of larger specimens such as beetles and butterflies. Using this nontraditional method of parasitoid photography, we were able to produce high-quality images of the larger specimens by exploiting various imaging techniques.

Another challenge we faced was the handling of the specimens. All mounted insects in a collection must be handled with great care because they are dry and brittle. Pelecinids must be handled with extra caution because their long, string-like antennae and fragile abdomens will break with even the slightest bump.

We ended up with many beautiful images of these wasp specimens. The complete collection of images has been uploaded to HOL and is available on the page dedicated to P. polyturator. I would like to thank Jordan for all of his help with this photography endeavor. Without the countless hours he spent performing behind-the-scenes image processing, the final images could never have turned out so well.

About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.