Creativity with Insects - Jewelry Part II

If you love to wear actual pieces of an insect as jewelry, you might also be interested in obtaining some that were made by an insect. The caddisfly larvae to be exact. These guys are in the order Trichoptera, and have short adult life spans (they emerge, mate, and die). My tennis team, and all of the Lawrence University campus in Appleton, WI, battled large quantities of the newly emerged adults, who apparently preferred to mate on our white tennis uniforms. But the larvae are the most important life stage for artists.

Caddisfly larva (with and without casing) and adult.

I met Kathy Kyle Stout, president of Wildscapes, at the Entomological Society of America conference in Portland, OR back in 2014. Since I watched a lot of Discovery Channel shows, I had known about utilizing the caddisfly larva to make jewelry, and had even contemplated setting up my own station with precious and semi-precious stones. Unfortunately most of the caddisfly species where I lived (norther Illinois and Wisconsin) did not form these structures from surrounding materials. So of course I had to get a pair or natural polished stone earrings for my collection of insect design and wearable art, as well as a pair made with onyx and gold wires for my mother (see images below). One of the first artists to utilize the architectural prowess of the caddisfly larva was French artist Hubert Duprat, who presented gold flakes, opal, turquoise, rubies, and pearls to larvae. The industry has expanded from his first experimentation with the larvae and gold.

Caddisfly earings: left-natural stone and silver, right-onyx and gold.

Caddisfly larvae don't have the end goal of having their home made into art. The reason these aquatic larvae build these structures around themselves is for protection against predators. After hatching, the larvae collect debris from their surroundings and glue them together with silk produced from the salivary glands. In this way, a harden shell camouflages them against the natural background. These larvae are fantastically resourceful, and will take anything around them and incorporate it into their portable home. When artist Duprat or the employees at Wildscapes substitutes the dead leaves and pebbles for precious stones and metals, the larvae incorporate those into the casing and beautiful pieces result.

After talking with Kathy for a long time about her process, I learned that Wildscapes collects wild specimens of caddisflies every year. The artificial habitat includes a large slanted and elongated container with flowing water and several large rocks. Along the bottom of a single container reside several larvae and a particular mixture of precious stones and metals. This supply of materials is continuously added to throughout the year. Like all larvae, the caddisflies go through multiple instar stages, separated by a mold and growth. When the larvae outgrow their first homes, the wiggle out and start on the next that can accommodate their new body size.

Once the larvae transition into the pupa stage and later into the adult stage, they are released back into the wild, the same river system they were collected from. Once all the adults have emerged, the left-behind casings are collected and made into jewelry. This process can happen once or twice a year, depending on the caddisfly species. Some species emerge as adults in the spring to mate lay eggs, and die. This generation will go through the full life cycle, emerging in the fall and laying the next set of eggs that will over winter. Again, this artist is not only interested in the product quality, but also in the well being of the true artist, the caddisfly larvae. The beauty of the whole process lies in the sustainability of the work and insects, as well as the intricacy and beautifully haphazard incorporation of the larva's surroundings.

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