Art derived from insects through the ages

Beeswax can be used to create many mediums such as encaustic paint, lithographic inks and crayons, and casting materials. (Photo by Florine Ory, Agroscope, via SNSF Scientific Image Competition on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Elisabeth Bello

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series provided by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other articles by and for entomology students Here has entomology today.

Elizabeth Bello

Elizabeth Bello

Human history has undeniably been linked to insects as a source of boredom and creative influence. Long before the invention of the first microscope, ancient peoples depicted insects that they observed. The oldest recorded depiction was a cricket carved from bison bone which was found in a cave in southern France in 1912 and is estimated to be around 14,000 years old. Not only have insects been depicted in art, but they themselves have become Art. The Tamanmushi Jewel Beetle Shrine in Japan is believed to be the earliest example of a beetle’s elytron being used for decorative purposes. Other insect depictions and artistic uses can be found around the world, from Australia to the early Mayan civilizations of Central America and almost everywhere in between.

Perhaps the two most popular and well-known forms of insect art are the explicit illustration of insects and the use of insect body parts or entire bodies to create jewelry, resin art, collectible displays and sculptures, among others. However, insect art can also be defined to include the use of insect media, in which an artist uses the extracts or products of an insect to create art. Although Charles Hogue defined cultural entomology in 1980, little has been published about entomology and ethnoentomology in direct relation to the arts, especially insect media.

In late 2021, Barrett Klein, Ph.D., professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, published a fantastic look at insect art and insect media titled “Wax, Wings, and Swarms: Insects and Their Products as Art Media” in the Annual Journal of Entomology. Meanwhile, the theme for the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada and British Columbia is “Entomology as Inspiration: Insects through Art, Science and culture”. So now is a great time to share and explore some of the insect art mediums that Klein talks about in his review. This is by no means a complete overview of the subject, but I just want to provide a few examples from Klein’s review of how insects can be used in art that many people may have overlooked before .

Body and body parts of insects

Insects come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors (both structural and pigment-based) and can be remarkably eye-catching and beautiful. For this reason, artists have directly used insects in their art to create jewelry; adorn textiles; build sculptures, dolls and figurines; and curate dazzling displays of ornate insects for museums or personal collections.

Wings are a popular material and have been used in mosaics, in swinging installations, on canvas, and in fantastical fairy lands. Butterfly and moth wings are of particular interest, and a technique called “lepidochromy” uses a wing and an adhesive to transfer wing scales onto paper or other materials.

Live insects can also be used in art and entertainment: members of the Elateridae and Lampyridae families have been used to create bioluminescent embellishments, fleas have been used in circuses, Dermestid beetles have been used in dioramas, ant colonies were admired by children, and leafcutter ants were brought in to carry tiny flags and peace symbols in concept art.

In these cases, the insects are the way. But other examples illustrate how mediums can be derivative insects.

Wax, Honey and Propolis

Beeswax is a sugar conversion product that takes place in specialized glands on the ventral abdomen of worker bees. It was used for sculpting, casting and creating molds. It was also used to create encaustic paint, which is the result of mixing pigments and liquid wax. Lithographic inks and crayons can also be made using this wax.

Honey, often used for culinary purposes, may have been used as a binder for pigment particles and may have been used by the Greeks to paint the walls of Nestor’s palace.

Propolis, a resin-like material also produced by honey bees, was used by artist Marlène Huissoud to create sculptures by applying basic techniques of glass blowing, etching and temperature modification of the oven and curing time.


Spiders might be the first creature that comes to mind when you think of silk, but it was the silk of insects, especially moths, that gave birth to the silk industry. silk. A species, Bombyx mori, or the domesticated silkworm, is primarily responsible for the production of silk used in fashion, textile arts and canvas. It has been bred for over 4,500 years and is entirely dependent on man. Silk was so important historically that the German geographer and traveler Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the phrase “Silk Road” to describe the whole series of trade routes linking Europe and East Asia, where the silk was considered a great commodity.

Dyes and tinctures

The most vibrant natural red dyes come from scale insects (superfamily Coccoidea). Carmine is a brilliant crimson dye that comes from scale insects of the genus Kermes and scale insects by drying the bodies of females and grinding them into a fine powder. This dye binds particularly well to mammalian hair, textiles, walls and books, but is susceptible to fading as the pigment molecules degrade over time.

Another insect-derived pigment comes from lac insects (Kerria spp. and Paratachardin spp.) in which the dye is more colorfast than carmine but still susceptible to degradation.

Insect gall ink is the most permanent and was originally thought to come from the bodies of gall wasps, but was later found to be the result of high concentrations of tannic acid found in insects. galls caused by certain gall wasp larvae. This ink can be seen in important pieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh.

Interestingly, houseflies (domestic musca) were fed mixtures of sugar and watercolor to create stains composed of their saliva and excrement, as seen in John Knuth’s paintings of flies.

Lacquers and finishes

Shellac is a commercial resin that is made from the secretions of female Kerria lacca lake bugs. It is a protective coating and decorative finish for wooden furniture that has been used for over 3,000 years. Another finish, used in Mayan civilizations, comes from the fat contained in the giant margaroid female Llavia axine scale bugs.


Paper can be made of a variety of materials, but it is mostly made from pulped plants or trees, resulting in a mixture of cellulose fibers and water. Humans, however, aren’t the only ones making paper. Members of the wasp family Vespidae create paper nests by chewing plant or wood fibers and combining them with their saliva. Wasp nests can then be collected and pulped by humans to create sheets of paper. It can also be galvanized, cut and ordered, or applied to various surfaces as a type of papier-mâché.

paper wasps nest

Wasp nests, similar to paper made by humans from trees, can be collected and pulped and used to create sheets of paper or in projects involving papier-mache. (Photo by Corey Holms via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Importantly, in his review, Klein also discusses insect biodiversity in relation to art and the ethics of using insects in art. As I couldn’t have said it better myself, I leave you with the words of Klein:

“Human-induced extinction rates are increasing alarmingly, and each loss, in addition to having ecological consequences, means a loss of potential to appreciate an insect, including artistically. It is imperative that humans, including artists, practice responsible and sustainable use of insects or insect products with the aim of preserving the diversity and abundance of insects, respecting their implicit value, fulfilling their known and unknown ecological roles or invest in future anthropocentric attributes (material, medical).”

Elizabeth Bello is a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the representative for the Physiology, Biochemistry, and Toxicology Section on the Student Affairs Committee of the Entomological Society of America. Twitter: @ insects247. E-mail: [email protected].