The art of insects

Story: Andrea Abbott

Pictures: Andrea Abbott & Tanza Crouch.

I grew up with a bad attitude toward insects. They were pests that had to be squished, swatted, stamped upon. I’m kinder now but even so, having destroyed countless tiny creatures, I bear some responsibility for the insect apocalypse that’s upon us now and that I discussed in an earlier article in the Chronicle.   

Flies: insects we love to hate.

It’s fair to say that insects are receiving better publicity these days but despite repeated warnings that their decline is a massive threat to humanity, the annihilation endures. How then to get across the message that to save ourselves, we’re going to have to save the insects?

A good starting point is to develop more tolerance toward them. One way to achieve this is through art. “Art makes it possible for us to use the same information but present it in a different form,” says Durban entomologist and artist, Dr Tanza Crouch whose nature-inspired designs featuring insects, flora, and other fauna grace her EntoCeramics range of functional ceramics and fabrics.  “Through art, we can make insects more familiar to people. Just giving someone a pamphlet about an insect won’t work but with a picture you stand a better chance of getting people’s attention. Images are powerful.” Tanza’s artwork is not only powerful but also accurate down to the last gossamer wing and reveals how beautiful   – even elegant  – insects are. “This helps people to relate to them in a different way and diminishes ancient fears about things that creep and crawl.” 

A bone china mug bears Tanza’s depiction of a spiny flower mantis.
Spiny flower mantis – the real thing. Image: Andrea Abbott

During our conversation I learn fascinating facts about different insects and their role in propping up biodiversity. It’s the sort of exchange Tanza often has with people who stop for a chat at her stall at the Shongweni Farmers Market near Durban. “Just one conversation provides the opportunity to broaden understanding.”  

Tanza Crouch (left) winning a new fan for the little hard workers that matter so much.

In recent times, Tanza has seen a more accommodating attitude toward insects and this is encouraging her to push the boundaries. “I have my mainstream designs like dragonflies and carpenter bees, but I’m starting to add more ‘scary’ things like bush crickets and beetles.”  Some species, bees in particular, have always been presented positively but unsung creatures like beetles – the most specious group on Earth  – are lagging behind in the popularity stakes. “There’s no guide book on them like there is for more charismatic animals.”  So, in celebrating those overlooked beings in her art and conversations, Tanza is winning new fans for them.

Tanza’s paintings of Katydids liven up a plate and a jug.
The ever-popular Carpenter Bee

Also championing insects through her art and in stories is conservationist and manufacturing jeweller, Elaine Kool whose Khameleon jewellery range of ‘wearable art’ is inspired by nature and most especially insects. Growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe, Elaine was surrounded by lesser-loved animals like scorpions, pythons, and countless insects which triggered her lifelong passion for them. “Whatever ecosystem you’re in, you’ll always see an insect before anything else,” she says as we stroll around her indigenous garden in the Upper Highway area of eThekwini, prying into the busy lives of bugs and other beasties that thrive in this diverse space.

Goldsmith and conservationist, Elaine Kool

One of Elaine’s favourite insects is the hawk moth, which she replicates as a pendant and whose story she loves to tell. “From the caterpillars to the emerging moths these creatures enthrall me. They’re one of the fastest flying moths, are great pollinators, and sometimes a beekeeper’s nightmare because they love honey.  A hawk moth makes a high-pitched squeak if you touch it, and it is truly beautiful.”  Also beautiful is her jewellery, each piece painstakingly crafted out of silver (very occasionally gold) and sometimes incorporating semi-precious stones that she sources ethically. “I will not use ivory, coral, amber or anything like that.” 

A little swarm of insect jewellery by Elaine Kool
On market day, goldsmith, Elaine Kool (right) uses every opportunity to tell people the stories of the insects that inspire her jewellery

At least half of her designs are insects, the most popular being hawk moths, dung beetles, and dragon flies. She also creates bespoke pieces such as the flies and mosquitos that entomologists have asked her to make. “There’s still some resistance to certain insects but attitudes are changing.”  Elaine’s love for insects has rubbed off on her grandchildren. “Insects enthrall them. They say wasps are like fairies.”

Wasps – like fairies!

Inspiring people to appreciate nature is a key objective for KwaZulu-Natal street artist, Giffy Duminy whose giant murals brighten public spaces in the Durban region and even as far away as the Netherlands. Giffy’s style has evolved from the graffiti he painted when he was still at school to nature scenes, like the series of bees hovering above colourful flowers that has transformed a once dreary concrete fence outside a school in Kloof, KZN. 

Giffy Duminy’s street art featuring bees pollinating flowers

“I’d seen how art could impact on public spaces and I wanted to put something beautiful out there for people to enjoy.” He adds that he’s always loved being out in nature and that the more he paints, the more he learns about conservation. “I’ve come to realise how everything in nature is connected.”  We’re chatting at Elizabeth Bridge in Kloof where he has created a giant display centered on the endangered Kloof frog. This visual feast is a project he undertook in collaboration with the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Part of the work includes another critically endangered creature – a Millar’s Tiger Moth, Callioratis millari. Covering an entire abutment, the painting grabs the attention of passers-by in a way that the real moth flitting past probably wouldn’t. 

Street artist, Giffy Duminy and two of the bold murals he painted in celebration of insects and frogs.

By amplifying nature, Giffy’s art has the effect too of triggering questions and conversations around the subjects he portrays. My curiosity about the moth piqued, I contact well-known lepidopterist, Steve Woodhall who tells me that Callioratis millari was first described over a century ago when it was spotted near Kloof. It vanished and for more than 75 years was thought to be extinct. Recently though, a tiny colony was found in the Eshowe area.

So there’s a glimmer of hope for that moth just as there is hope for humanity if we can learn to tolerate and even admire insects and make space for them in our lives. “A lot of conservation starts with appreciating nature,” Giffy says.

That truth brings to mind a profound statement by Senegalese forestry engineer, Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


7 Responses

  1. Readable, accessible, a delight to engage with this deeply important message through your writing. Thank you for drawing our attention to the beauty and significance of insects and their praise-singers.

    John Roff

  2. Thanks Andrea. There are many heart-stoppingly beautiful insects. I find them fascinating. Many are essential for ecology. Yet we will continue to squish and swat, especially flies in our kitchen and mosquitoes in our bedroom.

    1. Flies can indeed be a nuisance but these days I try hard to tolerate them and shoo them out of the house rather than swat them. I’m working hard on my attitude to mosquitoes…

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