Creativity with Insects - Elytra Part I

Beetles are in the insect order Coleoptera, most commonly characterized by their hardened or leathery forewings. These hardened structures are called elytra, and they protect the more delicate flight wings underneath. Through evolution, beetle species have evolved to display a wide range of colors and patterns, either to conceal them within their surroundings or as warning signals to deter predation. One amazing feature about beetle elytra are that most of the coloration is due to the micro-structure, and not pigmentation, of the elytra. Small micro-structures (ridges, dents) on the surface reflect light differently, and the slightest alteration of form can cause our human eye to perceive a different color. This is the same as with the scales on butterfly wings.

Because of their structural coloration, the color does not fade over time, even when the insect is long dead. This provides a fantastic opportunity for artists to utilize these durable components in lasting art.

Jan Fabre, a Belgium artist, has been using insect elytra in his artwork for over a decade. Fabre's beetle of choice for most of his works? Sternocera acquisignata (image center) is found in India, Thailand, and Myanmar. This species is in the Buprestid beetle family, the same family as the emerald ash borer we have in the United States. Culturally this beetle is used to adorn various textiles, paintings, and jewelry (watch for a future post on the last topic). Another artist, Michael Cook, also uses this species of beetle for his embroidery.

Image credit to Elizah on Web Ecoist via

What sets Fabre's work apart is his three-dimensional sculptures. He has 120+ exhibitions around the world under his belt, with several touring and a few upcoming this year.

With all artwork, there is an underlying reason for the material of choice. For Fabre, it is the metamorphosis process that all beetles (along with many other insects) undergo to reach independent adulthood. Even though S. acquisignata only survive adulthood for a few days, Fabre was once quoted, “They symbolize our passage to death, though death understood in the sense of a positive energy field." These beetles spend two years preparing for their adult life, but the resulting next generation makes the tedious journey worth the wait for these beetles. Passing life into the next generation is the positivity Fabre talks about in his quote. This concept is exemplified by his series of elytra-adorned skulls, representing the fragility of life yet peace and beauty in death. Please leave a comment below on your reaction to his work, from the skulls (center left & bottom right) to the globes (center right) to the fresco Heaven of Delight in Brussels’ Royal Palace (bottom left).

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