New Exhibition Presents Insects Like You’ve Never Seen Them

The intricate shapes, colors and structures of insects are dizzying in their variety, but without the power of an optical microscope or camera lens, their astonishing complexity remains mostly hidden to the human eye. Until now. 

A new exhibition opening Saturday, Nov. 19 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University presents a new perspective on insects and reveals their unexpected and often breathtaking beauty. Microsculpture: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss is a series of beautifully lit, high magnification portraits that capture the microscopic form of insects in incredibly large-format, high-resolution detail. 

Orchid Cuckoo Bee, Brazil © Levon Biss
Instead of collecting pollen and constructing their own nests as most other bee species do, female cuckoo bees enter the nests of other bees and lay their eggs in the host’s brood cells.

Each photograph makes visible the many intricate adaptations to the form of insects—what entomologists call their microsculpture. These extraordinary images invite viewers to contemplate the hidden details of the insect world in a unique and engaging way.  

Award-winning British photographer Levon Biss created the exhibition which showcases the insect collection of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in Oxford, England. Pinned specimens from the Academy’s own world-class Entomology Collection are added to provide visitors an up-close look at the actual size of insects compared to similar-looking insects in the photographs.

Amazonian Purple Warrior Scarab, Peru. ©Levon Biss 
Although belonging to a group of scarab beetles which mainly consume dung, this and related species have switched to feeding on dead animals. The toothed, blade-like area at the front of the head and the serrated front legs are thought to help break up tough carrion.

Microsculpture offers us an incredible look at the tiny intricate details that make up the body of insects all around us but that we can’t see without the aid of special magnifying equipment,” said Academy President and CEO Scott Cooper. “Now is the perfect time to experience this show, as the Academy is rounding out its 2022 celebration of Water Year and launching Biodiversity Year in 2023. 

Pleasing Fungus Beetle, Bolivia ©Levon Biss 
The striking bright colors, spots, stripes and other patterns on this beetle advertise a sophisticated chemical defense system to predators.

How he did it  

Each of the 37 images on display in Microsculpture took about four weeks to create and was made from around 8,000 separate photographs taken using microscope lenses. The photographs are printed in large-scale formats, with insects that are millimeters long being presented at up to 9 feet tall. 

In a video accompanying the show, Biss explains his process: 

  • Each image from the Microsculpture project is created from around 8,000 individual photographs. The pinned insect is placed on an adapted microscope stage that enables me to have complete control over the positioning of the specimen in front of the lens. I shoot with a 36-megapixel camera that has a 10x microscope objective attached to it via a 200mm prime lens. 
  • I photograph the insect in approximately 30 different sections, depending on the size of the specimen.  Each section is lit differently with strobe lights to bring out the micro sculptural beauty of that section of the body. 
  • For example, I will light and shoot just one antenna, then after I have completed this area, I will move onto the eye and the lighting set up will change entirely to suit the texture and contours of that specific part area of the body. I continue this process until I have covered the whole surface area of the insect. 

Biss’ work covers a wide range of photographic genres, from portrait to documentary and sport. His photographs have appeared on the covers of TIME, The New York Times, GQ and Sports Illustrated. His work has been exhibited around the world, including in museum collections. 

Microsculpture: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss, from the collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, is on view through April 23, 2023. 

To purchase tickets, click here.

Banner image: Jewel Longhorn Beetle ©Levon Biss. Once magnified, the secret to the spectacular patterning of this beetle is revealed—a covering of extremely fine pigmented scales similar to those of butterflies and moths.

One comment

  1. The images look wonderful.
    I’m only discovering that this exhibit is available and today being Christmas and the last day of my holiday visit to my home area, is a disappointment. The field of insect photography with microscope elements is something I’m getting into, so I would have attended.

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