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It's Not Just About the Bee...

bumble bee oil painting    

We have been bombarded by the media about saving bees, and as our pollinators for crops, bees are crucial to both the economy and providing food for the human population. I love bees and in the future I would like to care for beehives. However, I do feel that the bee to insects is becoming what the panda bear is to animal conservation.

A panda is cute and cuddly, and more people are likely to donate their money to saving animals with the panda as its mascot, but as Chris Packham pointed out in 2009, attempting to save the panda is costly and not very practical. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/sep/23/panda-extinction-chris-packham Of course, the bee is vital to the human race, unlike the panda. The bee is one of our cuter insects, and the point of this blog is that it is not just the bee we need to save, but all insects…

Most people do not like “creepy-crawlies” but the majority of these creatures are not only harmless to humans, but carry out a vital role that we, the human race, take for granted. As the human race increases in numbers, insects are declining, and to what extent have we already lost diversity and population numbers?

The IPBES report said: “Insect abundance has declined very rapidly in some places … but the global extent of such declines is not known.”
Reference: (The Guardian, 7 May, “Humanity must save insects to save ourselves, leading scientist warns” by Damian Carrington, Environment editor)

Prof Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences believes that that during the last 40 years as the human population has doubled, the number of insects has reduced by half.
Reference: (The Guardian, 7 May, “Humanity must save insects to save ourselves, leading scientist warns”, by Damian Carrington, Environment editor)

What does it matter if the insect population has reduced by half? The impact of the loss of bees is becoming generally well known now. Bees pollinate crops and are critical for our food supply. They are also important for clothing, because if we want to move away from man-made fibres that contain plastics, these crops will become even more important.

However, bees are just one species out of over 900,000 insects on the planet (Smithsonian Institute, https://www.si.edu/spotlight/buginfo/bugnos), and that is just the KNOWN numbers of insects that have been identified. Scientists are still discovering species and there is no known number for the amount of species that have become extinct and were never even documented (and never will be).

Back to my original question, why are these insects so important to us? Let’s face it, some are rather annoying or even harmful to us. Insects are one of the lower levels of many ecosystems, and these lower levels need to be in abundance, because they support the upper levels by being eaten in vast quantities. Let us take the humble greenfly/blackfly, which infuriates gardeners; these are protein for birds, ladybird larvae and are often “farmed” by ants for the plant sugars they secrete. That annoying insect, which is making your roses look ugly, is in fact supporting two other insect species and several bird species. Many complain about the decline of garden birds, but how often do you spray your roses? The spray used to kill the greenfly/blackfly – what else does it kill? This is simply an example of an ecosystem, a small tiny insect that we take for granted or class as annoying is in fact vital food for other species, yet the human race indiscriminately kill this species so that their gardens look pretty in the summer… I never spray my roses or currants (which often get blackfly), because I have a nature friendly garden and the majority of insects that annoy me as a gardener are eaten by something…

There are other insects that are far more crucial to the human race in a direct way. The insects living in leaf litter is a great example of this. There are hundreds of different insects living in the piles of dead leaves, such as thrips, beetles, woodlice and devils coachman to name but a few, as well as other species such as bacteria, fungus, worms, spiders and snails. Some of these are vital to disposing of faecal matter, or even the bodies of dead mammals. The leaves are also broken down with other dead and decaying plant matter and all is combined to create soil. This incredible process is going on around us all the time, yet we take little notice.

Does it matter if some insects are declining, and there may not be the same amount of soil around? This process I have very briefly described above creates a rich nutritious soil for plants to grow, the plants that are vital to our very existence from food crops to trees.

The majority of trees convert CO2 to oxygen, this in itself is helping reduce greenhouse gases and offset carbon emissions. We don’t just need to cut down a tree to cause harm, but the insects working quietly away in the leaf litter under the tree are vital too and in turn feed the trees to make them healthy by creating nutritious soil. Soil itself also absorbs carbon (reference - https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/02/21/can-soil-help-combat-climate-change/ ), stopping it getting into the atmosphere. By keeping soil healthy, those tiny insects that we do not think or care about in fact have a vital role to play, and I have only described a handful of species. All insects have an important role in their habitat and the ecosystem that relies upon them.

We need the bees to pollinate (and other flying insects, flies, hoverflies, wasps, honeybees and bumble bees to name but a few), but we also need the creepy crawlies in the leaf litter and soil too.

Therefore, my portrait of a bumblebee is not just about saving bees and the importance of bees, but the bee also as a symbol for all those vital, forgotten insects that we ignore. I am passionate about these miniature ecosystems, and in my garden I suffer very little greenfly because they are eaten by the abundance of birds and ladybirds. It has taken me 9 years to get to a stage where the garden pests are essentially self-regulating and we have to do very little work to keep garden “pests” at bay.

Most of you that follow my work and regularly read my blogs, will know that I work on ideas for many years before they even reach an exhibition. My love and concern for insects is one such theme. Most of the above evidence is from fairly recent articles but I have been concerned for the natural world for over 30 years. I studied biology at A level and have always taken a great interest in the fragile ecosystems which are around us.

       
   

In 2012 I painted this painting, where you can see thousands of insects are creating the geometric forms of the dragonfly wings. The message is that these are the thousands of insects that support the one pretty one that we notice. The others are lost, hidden and forgotten. I deliberately chose the dragonfly because few know that this really is a “dragon” without mercy in the insect world. It is not the beautiful dragonflies that we see around ponds that are vicious, these are essentially pretty bodies simply for mating. It is the large “dragon” larva that lurk at the bottom of most ponds eating anything and everything in their path!

I think this was the very first painting that I created that was very directly influenced by ecosystems and my concern for the environment. I couldn’t resist, therefore, painting a portrait of a bumble bee. I do adore them. I love the really large ones that appear in early spring, who repeatedly bang into the windows as they “bumble around”. I find during the summer they sometimes fill their leg pouches with so much pollen that they struggle to get airborne again… This is my bumble bee below left,

       
   

I took over 2 years of work create this painting, from photographing and repeatedly drawing bumble bees in my sketchbook. From painting the incredibly thin layers of paint, to slowly build up the brush marks to capture the texture of the hair on their bodies and the multitude of colours. This is of one of the smaller summer bumble bees, I shall wait for an entomologist to read this blog and identify it for me! Last time an entomologist saw a drawing of a butterfly I had done, even though they could identify it, they pointed out that the butterfly was too symmetrical for that particular species. This had been done deliberately by me to create a harmonious picture! Similarly, my A level biology teacher used to get a little frustrated that I never drew what I saw, because I tidied up the symmetry on the cells I was studying through a microscope. So as with all my paintings, this is only part nature and mostly me, expressing my love of insects and this beautiful bee as a symbol that we need to save all the insects not just the pretty ones.

If you would like further information about any of my artworks or my love of nature, please do not hesitate to email me at art@claire-harrison.co.uk For regular updates on my art work, tuition, special offers and other arty info please sign up to my newsletter by clicking here.

June 2019

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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