Photography Technique

Extraordinary close-up images show insects as you’ve never seen them before

The petrol-blue wings of a swallowtail butterfly, soft fur of a giant Patagonian bumblebee, and oil-painted smudges of a ladybug are some of the details captured by British photographer Levon Biss in a new book that documents insect decline.

Released on 22 November, “Extinct & Endangered: Insects in Peril” is a collaboration between Biss and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). It features photographs of 40 insect species that are either vulnerable, threatened or already extinct.

Biss spent two years photographing the insects, capturing every extraordinary detail from strands of hair to the reflection in a wing. Each individual image was created from over 10,000 photographs taken using a bespoke rig and microscope lenses. They were then layered together, producing a single shot that’s fully focused and contains minute details normally invisible to the human eye.

Using a special macro photography technique, Biss is able to capture the texture and exquisite beauty of the endangered Luzon peacock swallowtail.

Using a special macro photography technique, Biss is able to capture the texture and exquisite beauty of the endangered Luzon peacock swallowtail. Credit: Levon Biss/American Museum of Natural History

He hopes that the clarity of the photographs will allow the viewer to see insects in a new light, inspiring respect for the tiny creatures that are too often seen as an irritation — waved off with the shrug of an arm or squashed with the back of a book.

“Hopefully people can look at one of my images and just marvel about how beautiful this thing is, look at the engineering that nature has created within these insects — they’re beautifully functional,” he said.

Insects in crisis

Insects, whether beetles, bees or butterflies, are essential to the planet’s survival. Some are pollinators, helping in the production of fruits and vegetables, others are decomposers, recycling plants and animal matter into the soil, and many form the base of food chains that underpin natural ecosystems.

But globally, more than 40% of insect species are in decline and a third are endangered, with their rate of extinction eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles, according to a 2019 scientific review published in the journal Biological Conservation.
"Extinct & Endangered: Insects in Peril" is out now in hardcover.

“Extinct & Endangered: Insects in Peril” is out now in hardcover. Credit: Abrams

The majority are threatened by human actions, the report says, such as intensive farming practices and urbanization, which have led to severe habitat loss, and pollution from pesticides and fertilizers. Biological factors such as pathogens and introduced species, and climate change are also key drivers.

Biss hopes that the “Extinct & Endangered” book will raise awareness of the crisis of insect decline, and the effect it will have on humans.

“Even though insects are small, they’re the most populous animal or creature out there — and if we lose them, there’s a significant impact to the way we live,” he said.

“Unsung heroes”

All the insects photographed in the book come from the archives of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which contain more than 34 million artifacts and specimens in total. Nearly 20 million of them are arthropods — insects, arachnids and crustaceans from around the world.

Those photographed for the book were selected based on the specimen’s condition, its geographic range, conservation status, and the scope of threats. “We really wanted stories attached to each one of the specimens,” said Biss. “So that when somebody’s reading the text of the image, they can understand, why is this thing gone? Why is it disappearing?”

Biss says the book is written for all ages and he insisted that the global common name be used before the Latin name, in a departure from museum publication tradition.

The insect specimens were couriered to the UK, where Levon Biss photographed them in his studio.

The insect specimens were couriered to the UK, where Levon Biss photographed them in his studio. Credit: Elli Biss

“I want the text for these images to be able to be understood by an eight-year-old boy or girl, and also an 80-year-old man or woman,” he said. “It has to be able to engage all walks of life, otherwise you’re limiting the number of people that you can affect.”

The release of the book, published by Abrams, coincides with an ongoing exhibition at the AMNH that opened in June, where the the 40 images are magnified in enormous prints, some stretching eight feet wide.

Lauri Halderman, AMNH’s vice president of the exhibition, said that she is excited for the book to share its message with a global audience. “Insects are the unsung heroes in so many ecosystems, and our project calls attention to both their importance and the threats posed by their decline,” she said.

Biss specializes in macro photography that gets up close and personal with the subject. He has photographed seeds and fruits in extraordinary detail, insect eggs, the human eye and even mold growing on tea bags. But he believes that “Extinct & Endangered” is one of the most meaningful projects of his career.

“If you hold on a pin an insect that is never going to fly on this planet again, primarily due to human influence, it’s a humbling experience,” he said. “I want people to appreciate these creatures more, understand the work they do for us and the value that they have.”

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