In ‘Extinct and Endangered,’ Photographer Levon Biss Magnifies the Potential Loss of Insects Around the Globe
Despite existing on separate continents thousands of miles apart, the Madeira brimstone and giant Patagonian bumblebee are experiencing similar hardships. The former, which inhabits the islands it inherits its name from, is dealing with an invasive species decimating the trees its caterpillars require pre-metamorphosis, while the latter has been struggling to survive in its native Chile after farmers introduced domesticated European bees to aid in crop pollination. Both species are in danger and are part of an ongoing exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History conveying what’s at stake if their species are lost entirely.
Extinct and Endangered is comprised of massive, macro shots by Levon Biss, a British photographer who’s amassed a stunningly diverse collection of images with a variety of natural subject matter from dried seeds to iridescent insects. Biss often collaborates with institutions like the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Oxford Museum of Natural History, gaining access to their archives and selecting specimens. He then takes about 10,000 individual images using various lenses that are then stitched together to create extraordinarily detailed shots of beetles, moths, and butterflies.
From the American Museum of Natural History’s collection of more than 20 million, Biss chose just 40 creatures, some of which have already vanished. “To know an insect will never exist on this planet again, primarily because of human influence, is upsetting and emotional. And it’s humbling,” he told The New York Times. “As an artist, it’s the thing that drives me on to make that picture as good as it can be.”
Spanning up to eight feet, the photos are immense in scale and focused on each specimen’s striking forms, whether the undulating wings of the 17-year cicada or the intimidating tusk-like appendages of the lesser wasp moth. Biss hopes that Extinct and Endangered, which is on view through September 4, will raise awareness about the rapid decline in insect populations around the world. “I want people to be in awe of their beauty but to also be damn sad about why they’re being put in front of them,” he says.
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An innovative creation of Cornwall-based Green&Blue, Bee Bricks are designed to establish homes within homes. The architectural building blocks can be layered with more typical materials and feature holes of various sizes that allow the fuzzy, winged insects a space for nesting. These multi-purpose bricks are especially crucial as bee populations dwindle due to habitat loss and a changing climate.
Burrowing inches into the blocks made of reclaimed concrete, the narrow openings are targeted at red masons, leafcutters, and other cavity-nesters that live outside of colonies. It’s estimated that the U.K. alone boasts 250 solitary species, which tend to be better pollinators than their social counterparts because they gather the sticky substance from multiple sources, which improves biodiversity.
Bee Bricks have made headlines in recent days after the city of Brighton and Hove announced that all new buildings more than five-meters-tall have to include some form of housing for the solitary creatures. The council’s move follows similar policies in Dorset and Cornwall, in addition to guidelines that establish homes for swifts in new buildings, as well.
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In collaboration with master beekeeper Mylee Nordin and swarms of the honey-producing insects, artist Ava Roth develops elaborate encaustic works that literally visualize the interaction between humans and the environment. The Toronto-based artist stitches small collages with leaves, twigs, rose quartz, porcupine quills, and other organic matter before handing control over to her six-legged counterparts, who faithfully build hexagonal cells around the original piece. Once complete, the waxy inter-species works are brimming with texture and color variances that highlight the inherent beauty and unpredictability of nature.
Whereas previous iterations of Roth’s embroideries used stock hoops at the center, she now enlists the help of woodworker Bernoel Dela Vega, who custom-makes inner and outer frames in the same dimensions that are typical in Langstroth hives. “Each piece requires some kind of border that separates my work from the bees’ work,” she says. “This (change) has allowed me to experiment with different sizes and shapes and has helped to make every aspect of my work hand (or bee) crafted.”
Roth tells Colossal that although it’s possible to manipulate the hive conditions to produce a 3D honeycomb or work with artificial elements, she creates self-imposed limits to use only organic materials and engender environments that mimic those bees would gravitate toward naturally. She explains:
I recognize that Langstroth hives are not a natural habitat for bees, but neither are most of the spaces that humans find themselves occupying right now. Ultimately, this project is about exploring the ways in which humans collide with the natural environment today and finding ways to make making something beautiful from this specific time and place. This means working in cities, in manufactured hives, in the midst of enormous environmental and political despair.
Roth will be pulling multiple pieces from her hives in the next few weeks, and you can follow that progress on Instagram. She also has a few works on paper currently available at Wallspace Gallery in Ottawa.
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Although busy hives filled with honeybees tend to dominate mainstream imagery and conversations about bee populations, 90 percent of the insects are actually solitary creatures that prefer to live outside of a colony. This majority, which is comprised of tens of thousands of species, are also superior pollinators in comparison to their social counterparts because they’re polylectic, meaning they collect the sticky substance from multiple sources, making them even more crucial to maintaining crops and biodiversity.
“Whilst bee numbers, on the whole, are increasing, this is almost exclusively due to the increase in beekeeping, specifically honey bees,” wildlife photographer Josh Forwood tells Colossal. “Due to the artificially boosted populations in concentrated areas, honey bees are becoming too much competition for many solitary bee species. This, in turn, is driving almost a monoculture of bees in some areas, which has huge knock-on effects on the surrounding ecosystem.”
The U.K. alone boasts 250 solitary species, a few of which Forwood photographed in a series of portraits that reveal just how unique each individual is. To capture the creatures up-close, he constructed a log-and-bamboo bee hotel while bound to his home in Bristol during quarantine—Forwood frequently travels around the globe to document wildlife for clients including Netflix, Disney, BBC, National Geographic, and PBS.
After about a month, the hotel was in a buzz of activity, prompting Forwood to attach a camera to the end of the lengthy tubes and photograph the creatures as they crawled inside. The resulting portraits demonstrate just how incredibly unique each insect is with wildly differing body forms, color, eye shapes, and hair patterns. Every bee is in a nearly identical pose and its facial features dramatically framed in a ring of natural light for comparison, revealing how each insect truly has its own identity. Because the images only capture them from the front, Forwood says it’s difficult to estimate how many different species visited the structure considering most are identified by the shape and color of their bodies.
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60,000 Bees Recreate the Nefertiti Bust and Other Classic Sculptures in Wax with Artist Tomáš Libertíny
Tomáš Libertíny prefers to collaborate when recreating iconic busts and sculptures, although his chosen partners don’t join him in the studio. The Slovakia-born artist tasks tens of thousands of bees with forming the porous outer layers of classic artworks like the “Nefertiti Bust,” Michelangelo’s “Brutus,” and a large jug based on the “Nolan amphora” at The Met.
Encased in honeycomb, the resulting sculptures generate a dialogue between the newly produced organic material and art historical subject matter. Libertíny’s “Eternity,” for example, is based on a 3D model of the original portrait of Nefertiti and is “a testament to the strength and timelessness of the ‘mother nature’ as well as its ancient character as a powerful female reigning against the odds.” Similarly, the artist’s “Brutus” rests on a Coca Cola crate, a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, although his iteration diverges from the original as it questions “the fragility of fate and finding salvation” in modern times.
Currently based in Rotterdam, Libertíny provides professional beekeepers with a frame that the insects then colonize during the course of months and in the case of “Eternity,” two years. “I have to guide the building growth like you would with a bonsai, slowly string(ing) the workflow into places where you deem ideal,” he says. “The final result is always a surprise as it is not something you can completely predict like would with traditional craft techniques. It happens that I have to look at the finished piece for a couple of days in order to appreciate it fully.”
Beeswax as a material is inherently contradictory, the artist notes, because of its simultaneous ephemerality and durability—Libertíny’s sculptures have the potential to remain intact for thousands of years if maintained properly—a duality he’s been exploring since he began the Made by Bees series in 2005. “A beeswax candle is for me the best example of pure design. Absolutely nothing is styled about it. Everything about is a science of keeping the flame burning,” he says, explaining that the candle served as a catalyst for the ongoing series.
If you’re in Amsterdam, “Eternity” is currently on view as part of Libertíny’s solo show at Rademakers Gallery through January 30. Otherwise, follow the artist’s sculptures that explore contradiction and ephemerality on Instagram. For a similarly collaborative project, check out Ava Roth’s honeycomb-encased works. (via designboom)
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When Ava Roth adds the last stitch grasping horsehair or porcupine quills to her embroidered artworks, she passes the fibrous material on to her black-and-yellow counterparts. The Toronto-based artist collaborates with bees to encase her mixed-media pieces in waxy honeycomb. What emerges are organic artworks that consider interspecies interactions and the beauty that such meetings can garner.
Since 2019, Roth has been expanding the wooden frames of her works to twice the size as previous projects. She receives help from master beekeeper Mylee Nordin, and together, they vertically stack hive boxes, which are known as supers, and insert large, custom-made structures. The artist also has developed a more detailed practice in recent months. “Because this project has required so much trial and error, I was still experimenting with materials last season, trying to find substances that the bees would consistently respond to positively,” she writes. “I was trying to find organic substances that would not harm the bees but also that the bees would not eat or otherwise destroy.”
When the bees finished wax production in late October, Roth says her understanding of the species and confidence in her choice of raw matter had grown. “I spent the winter weaving and embroidering beeswax, porcupine quills, horsehair, and other organic material into embroidery hoops, and then fixing them onto my new custom made frames,” she notes.
Roth’s projects also have a sense of urgency through their connection to Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that’s killing colonies and threatening the species’ population. “Honeybees are often considered a harbinger of the health of our planet, and CCD is interpreted by many environmentalists and scientists as a clear indicator of our current environmental crisis,” the artist says.
I consider the bees to be my co-workers, collaborators in every sense. I take cues from their needs, design the project around their capacities, and work in sync with their seasons. Ultimately, this art that we make together is essentially hopeful at a time when we are overwhelmed with despair at the state of the environment, and our role in its destruction.
During the winter, Roth plans to refine her project further after reflecting on another season of interspecies collaboration. Follow the latest updates on her encaustic works on Instagram.
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