October 25, 2013
You’ve probably seen a bee fly by hundreds of times in your life, if not thousands. When it arrived, maybe attracted by something you were eating or drinking, you likely shooed it away, or perhaps remained entirely still to avoid provoking a sting.
One thing you probably didn’t do was consider how the bee would look under intense magnification, blown up to 30, 300 or even 3,000 times its original size. But—as photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher has discovered over the past two decades working with powerful scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) to capture images of the insects in remarkable detail—everyday bees feature incredible microscopic structures.
“Once you scratch the surface, you see there’s a whole world down there,” says Fisher, who published her photos in the 2010 book Bee and is having them featured in the new exhibition Beyond Earth Art at Cornell University in January. “Once I started, it became a geographical expedition into the little body of the bee, with higher and higher magnifications that took me deeper and deeper.”
Fisher began creating the images back in 1992. “I was curious to see what something looked like under a scanning electron microscope, and a good friend of mine was a microscopist, and he invited me to bring something to look at,” she says. “I’ve always loved bees, and I had one that I found, so I brought it in to his lab.”
When Fisher first looked at the creature through the device, she was awestruck by the structures that comprised its body at scales naked to the human eye. One of the first that captured her attention was the bee’s multi-lensed compound eye. “In that first moment, when I saw its eye, I realized that the bees’ eyes are composed of hexagons, which echo the structure of the honeycomb,” she says. “I stood there, just thinking about that, and how there are these geometrical patterns in nature that just keep on repeating themselves.”
Fisher was inspired to continue exploring the body of that bee, and others, continually looking at their microscopic structures and organs in greater and greater detail.
Her creative process started with the obvious: collecting a specimen to examine. “First, I’d find a bee, and look at it through my own regular light microscope to confirm its parts were intact,” she says. “The freshest ones were the best, so sometimes I’d find one walking on the ground that looked like it wouldn’t be around much longer, and I’d bring it home and feed it some honey, to give it something nice for its last meal.” Some of these were rejuvenated by her care, but those that weren’t, and perished, became the subjects of her microscopic exploration.
At her friend’s lab, in off hours, Fisher used a model of scanning electron microscope called a JEOL 6100, which can detect objects as small as 40 angstroms (for comparison, a thin human hair is roughly 500,000 angstroms in diameter). Before scanning, she’d carefully coat the bee in an ultra-thin layer of gold sputter coating.
This coating, she explains, enhanced the electrical conductivity of the bee’s surfaces, which allow the microscope to detect them in finer resolution. “The SEM uses a very finely focused electron beam that scans across the surface of the prepared sample,” she says. ‘It’s akin to shining a flashlight across the surface of an object in a dark room, which articulates the form with light. With an SEM, it’s electrons, not light—as it moves across the bee’s surface, it’s converting electrical signals into a viewable image.”
Once the bee specimen was prepared and mounted inside the SEM’s vacuum chamber, Fisher could use the machine to view the insect at different angles, and manipulated the magnification to look for interesting images. At times, zooming in on the structures abstracted them beyond recognition, or yielded surprising views she’d never thought she’d see looking at a bee.
“For instance, when I looked at the attachment between the wing and the forewing, I saw these hooks,” she says. “When I magnified them 700 times, their structure was amazing. They just looked so industrial.”
Zoom in close enough, she found, and a bee stops looking anything like a bee—its exoskeleton resembles a desert landscape, and its proboscis looks like some piece of futuristic machinery from a sci-fi movie. At times, Fisher says, “you can go in deeper and deeper, and at at a certain level, your whole sense of scale gets confounded. It becomes hard to tell whether you’re observing something from very close up, or from very far away.”
For more beautiful bee art, see Sam Droege’s bee portraits shot for the U.S. Geological Survey
October 16, 2013
Stephen Young is geography professor at Salem State University. He studies vegetation change on Earth using satellite imagery and displays his photographs outside his office.
Paul Kelly, a colleague of Young’s, is a herpetologist. He studies snakes’ scales under a microscope to determine which species are closely related evolutionarily. His classroom walls are decorated with scanning electron micrographs.
“I saw some similar patterns there,” says Young. As a joke, last year, he put a landscape image on Kelly’s door. The biologist mistook it for an electron microscope image that his office mate had created, which got the two talking and comparing imagery. “We found that we had this similar interest in understanding scale and how people perceive it,” Young explained.
The two scientists have since created and collected more than 50 puzzling images—of polished minerals and glaciers, sand dunes and bird feathers—for display in “Macro or Micro?,” an exhibition currently at both Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery and Clark University’s Traina Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Kelly notes, “After I saw Steve’s images, I could think of things that would look something like his satellite images from knowing how tissues and organs are built microscopically.”
But what do you see? Is the subject something massive, viewed from space, or something miniscule, seen through the lens of a microscope? Test yourself here, with these 15 images curated by Young and Kelly.
Answers can be found at the bottom of the post.
1. Macro or Micro?
2. Macro or Micro?
3. Macro or Micro?
4. Macro or Micro?
5. Macro or Micro?
6. Macro or Micro?
7. Macro or Micro?
8. Macro or Micro?
9. Macro or Micro?
10. Macro or Micro?
11. Macro or Micro?
12. Macro or Micro?
13. Macro or Micro?
14. Macro or Micro?
15. Macro or Micro?
“Macro or Micro?” is on display at Clark University’s Traina Center for the Visual and Performing Arts through November 1, 2013, and at Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery through November 6, 2013.
H/T to Megan Garber at the Atlantic for the formatting idea. Check out her “NASA or MOMA? Play the Game!”
1. Macro: Lakes surrounded by steep sand dunes in the Gobi Desert in China’s Inner Mongolia (Data downloaded from the European Space Agency. Additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
2. Micro: A polished mineral surface (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
3. Macro: The Matusevich Glacier in East Antarctica (Original image: NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
4. Macro: Sand dunes in Algeria’s Sahara desert (Landsat Thematic Mapper data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility. Image processing by Stephen Young.)
5. Macro: Cumulus clouds over the South Pacific Ocean (Image created by Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, additional image processing by Stephen Young.)
6. Micro: A rotten human tooth (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
7. Micro: The surface of a snake eggshell (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
8. Micro: The interior of a leopard frog’s small intestine (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
9. Macro: The Ganges-Brahmaptutra river delta in South Asia (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
10. Micro: A polished sample of boron (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
11. Macro: White lines cutting through China’s Gobi Desert (Image downloaded from Satellite Image Corporation and cropped by Stephen Young)
12. Macro: Sea ice forming around Shikotan Island, at the southern end of the Kuril Islands, north of Japan (Image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using data provided by the NASA EO-1 team. Downloaded and cropped from NASA’s Visible Earth website.)
13. Micro: The surface of a leopard frog’s tongue (Imaged and processed by Paul Kelly)
14. Macro: A Landsat thermal image of western Australia (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
15. Macro: A Landsat image from North Africa (Raw data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Facility and processed by Stephen Young)
September 26, 2013
About a half hour’s drive northeast of downtown Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Sam Droege holds court in a lab filled with hundreds of insect specimens neatly pinned in styrofoam-lined boxes. On any given day, the biologist shares the space with interns under his tutelage and the meticulously classified and catologued insects.
Some of the insects—wasps, bees, crickets and beetles—Droege collected himself, either near his home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, or on the grounds of his lab in Beltsville. Others are sent to him by scientists at the U.S. Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, as well as by researchers and students from other institutions.
Droege is tasked with photographing the different species, and his images appear in guides, identification manuals, posters and power point presentations used by the USGS. The publications, Droege explains in an email, “illustrate everything from the general look and feel of a species to the intricate details of their legs, mandibles and integument.”
As I write this, Droege has 1,236 photos uploaded to his Flickr photostream, a number that grows by the day, and about 75 percent of those images are of bees.
Droege leads the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. In this role, he has been documenting many of the 4,000 species of bees in North America, so that he and his colleagues can first accurately identify individual bees and then track fluctuations in different species’ populations. As many media outlets have reported, bee populations have collapsed for any number of supposed reasons—climate change, parasites, disease or our pesticide use in agriculture.
To properly identify different species based, “We needed some good pictures,” he recently told NPR. “We [needed] really high-definition pictures that people can drill into and say, ‘You know the pattern of the crosshatching between the pits on the skin of the upper part of the bee is really different than this one.’”
Droege riffs off a technique pioneered by the Army’s public health lab. The Army took detailed photographs of insects capable of carrying human diseases and other pests on remote military bases and sent them to entomologists around the world for confirmation, he explains. With a $8,000 getup, including a camera, a 60 mm macro lens, a flash, a StackShot rail to ensure highly detailed images and special software, Droege takes multiple shots at different distances from a bee and then stitches the images together to create one sharply-focused portrait.
To ensure that his subjects don’t have mangled wings or matted fur (“There is nothing worse than a bee with bad hair!” he says), Droege takes bees stored in water, alcohol or glycol, puts them in a canning jar with a screen top, washes them in warm water with splash of dish soap and rinses off the suds. He then dries the specimens with a hair dryer. No need to be gentle, he explains in instructional videos on YouTube. The bees are hardy.
His close-ups of bees magnify the specimens anywhere from one to five times their true size. At this rate, a viewer is privy to all details one would see under a microscope. “An illustration of the magnification?” says Droege. “Our biggest problem is tiny specs of dust that show up on all these specimens that have to be photoshopped out, but normally would never be seen.” The photographer can print the images large-scale, about 5-by-8 feet, without them pixelating.
Droege has a queue of about 500 pictures vying for his attention. He will edit them in photoshop and eventually post them to his Flickr site, a virtual museum of sorts for both science and arts enthusiasts. The biologist certainly has a flair for the artistic. He chooses to display the bees on stark black backgrounds, as opposed to white or gray, to avoid the distraction of brightness.
“The insects themselves come with palettes of color that are naturally balanced, harmonious and draw you in,” says Droege. “The level of detail of the pictures and the offset flash lighting pops the small surface features, making visible what normally gets lost in lower resolution shots, and provides the depth and contrasts of sculptures and oil paints.”
I can’t resist saying it: The photographs are bee-utiful!
See more of Droege’s images on the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab’s Flickr stream. Also, watch the biologist give a live demo of his photographic technique today at 1 p.m. EST. Go to the USGS YouTube site, and the video feed will load automatically. If you are a Google+ user and have a private account, log in directly to the Google Hangout here.
September 25, 2013
As a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design, Samantha Dempsey made a series of 18 watercolors about humankind’s relationship with infectious diseases. She enjoyed the project but realized in the process that the artwork failed as a communication device. People, she says, didn’t quite understand that one painting, for example, was about Oliver Wendell Holmes discovering the communicability of childbed fever.
“I realized that I wanted to be making art that didn’t describe science but could actually affect the science that was out there and affect our relationships with that science. I guess it’s more science communication activism,” says Dempsey. “I wanted to make art that could do things instead of just talk about what already existed.”
So, while earning her BFA in illustration, the artist took classes at both RISD and Brown University to fulfill a science communication minor of her own design.
By this past spring, Dempsey, a senior in her final semester, was thinking like a true activist. She had identified a problem: when it comes to endangered species, people seem to only care about animals that are cute and charismatic, like the giant panda or some exotic bird. “It is upsetting that, though other animals are just as important to our genetic diversity as a planet, no one pays attention to them,” she says. So she devised a solution: the Extinction Tattoo Project.
For her project, Dempsey designed tattoos of an oblong rock snail, a St. Helena giant earwig and a Pasadena freshwater shrimp—three extinct, and rather ugly, creatures. Like commemorative tattoos for loved ones who has passed, Dempsey’s designs include references to the species life spans. She writes “in memoriam 1881-2000″ next to the oblong rock snail, for example, which is thought to have died out due to habitat loss in the Cahaba River in Alabama, and “R.I.P. 1798-2000″ for the ill-fated giant earwig.
With the designs, she then launched a campaign to make the public aware of these often ignored animals. She created posters, photoshopping the tattoos onto portraits of models, and hung them around her campus, and she distributed temporary tattoos to students and faculty.
“They went like candy,” she says.
For this first foray into temporary tattoo production, Dempsey chose animals that, in her eyes, had at least one redeeming physical quality despite their otherwise homely appearances. For the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, it was its curly antennae, and with the St. Helena giant earwig, it was the sweeping shape of the insect’s pincers. “I tried to find what was beautiful about each of the ugly animals,” she says. Guided by this endearing feature, Dempsey determined the overall layout of the tattoo.
“Because they were extinct, there aren’t a lot of photographs of them, or the photos are hard to find,” Dempsey explains. Some of the tattoos are drawn directly from images but others are a blend of scientific illustrations she could find of both the particular species and of modern animals related to it. “It was a little bit of sleuth work,” she says. “There is slight artistic interpretation as well, because it had to fit into the tattoo style.”
Dempsey distributed nearly 100 temporary tattoos, mostly around RISD, to gauge interest. “It was mostly people looking at them and being sort of whaaa, not really sure how to feel, and then deciding, wait, this is great!” she says. Her inventory vanished in just 30 minutes or so. “I would love to produce them at mass scale,” she adds. “There are a lot of ugly animals. The blobfish is pretty awful, but important.”
In her projects, Dempsey aims to make science accessible, to make it hip, mainstream and fun. “Design can really affect the public’s relationship with science and how we view it. Instead of some lab coat, old, white man telling us ‘blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Eat your vegetables,’ the science that is out there should really be as exciting to everyone as it is to the scientists themselves,” she says. “That is what drives me.”
August 28, 2013
O’Brien and naturalist Amber Hasselbring of Art-ecology have launched a campaign called “Tigers on Market Street” to speak for the butterflies that live in the canopy of trees that line the busiest street in downtown San Francisco. They are bringing the butterfly’s story to light using science and art as the City of San Francisco re-imagines the role of this hardworking boulevard in a project called Better Market Street. On blank walls and in Powerpoint talks given to groups throughout the city, the duo display photographs, paintings and fantastical collages of the butterflies and the urban world in which they live.
One of the options being considered for Better Market Street is to make way for a Copenhagen-style bike path by removing many of the London plane trees planted 40 years ago. O’Brien and Hasselbring are all for the bike paths, but their mantra is “bikes and butterflies.”
“This is not an ugly brown butterfly,” says O’Brien. “We’re talking the biggest, showiest, prettiest butterfly we have in the city.”
If you stand at the Ferry Building and look up Market Street you can see why the butterflies view the boulevard as a river canyon, their normal habitat. Naturalist John Muir also referred to city streets as canyons—he said he was more comfortable picking through an ice field than to be in the “terrible canyons of New York.” But to a butterfly, San Francisco’s city canyons provide a kind of haven.
Some species of butterflies need hillside habitats, but a tiger swallowtail lives in corridors on the banks of waterways. “Market Street is a tree-lined linear concourse that our species calls a street,” says O’Brien. “Through the point-of-view of the creature this is a river.”
To understand how a street becomes a river to these creatures, you have to slip into that point of view, says O’Brien. It’s not the species of tree that attracts them as much as it is the topographical lay. They patrol long linear things with plantings on both sides. “It’s a random accident that this street looks just like a river,” he says, “which is the magic of this story.”
They are also attracted to glades, which, in San Francisco, means open areas downtown that are protected by an initiative approved by voters in 1984 that controls shadows from tall buildings. The glades and nearby parks provide sunlight, water from fountains or sprinklers, nectar sources and an increased chance of finding a mate.
O’Brien and Hasselbring received a grant to conduct a six-month survey of the butterflies. This summer they have walked transects from the Civic Center to the Ferry Building to count them, observe their life cycles and note their nectar and larval sources. Thirteen is the highest number they have counted on any given transect, but that number is deceiving given that a butterfly has four stages of life: egg, larvae, pupae and sexually mature adult, or imago.
We spot our third butterfly after ten minutes of walking on a sunny August day. O’Brien explains that a butterfly has an 80 percent chance of being eaten in each of its four stages, which makes the one in front of us seem like a miracle. It lands on a leaf close enough for us to see the yellow and black stripes running the length of its extremely furry body, which explain the “tiger” in the butterfly’s name.
Hasselbring and O’Brien photograph each butterfly they see, then geo-tag the picture and post it on iNaturalist, an app to record and share observations in nature. They also use the images in artwork to help communicate the tiger’s story.
O’Brien, who describes himself as an Old World illustrator, has not always been a lepidopterist. His metamorphosis happened 15 years ago when a Western tiger swallowtail, the poster child of this very campaign, floated into his backyard and changed his life. To explain why he left a successful acting career to become San Francisco’s butterfly expert, he quoted Russian novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov: “When I’m in a rarefied land with a rare butterfly and its host plant all that I love rushes in like a momentary vacuum and I am at one.”
Hasselbring paints and engages in performance art. She moved to San Francisco ten years ago from Colorado and jumped into the natural side of San Francisco. Now she is the director of Nature in the City, a nonprofit that advocates for ecological restoration and stewardship in San Francisco, and sees art in the everyday. She considers all of it art—from watching the butterfly’s behavior to talking to people on the street to installing a temporary mural at Seventh and Market, which she did in 2011.
“We’re not butterfly huggers,” says O’Brien. “We just want to celebrate what’s already here. If a landscape architect had been paid to create swallowtail habitat on Market Street they couldn’t have done a better job.”
O’Brien and Hasselbring want the butterflies to be a part of an improved Market Street. They’d like to see more hardwood trees and planter boxes with butterfly-friendly flowers that will bring the butterflies down from the canopy where people can see them. They’d also like to design standalone signs similar to those in Paris that celebrate natural biodiversity in that city. On one side, the signs would illustrate the life cycle of the tiger swallowtails, and on the other side, they would list and illustrate all the other creatures in the downtown area.
“I’d like to give people in the densest downtown area these nature moments,” says Hasselbring. “With all the richness that we have on our hilltops and in our city, we could become the city of biodiversity.”
The Western tiger swallowtails of Market Street have ambassador potential. The showy species offers an opportunity to connect a lot of people with nature, and help them to see that nature can be celebrated everywhere, even in the canyons of San Francisco.