Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Here’s a biocreative print from one of my favorite artists, Charley Harper. Have a double-lucky day!

Double-Lucky © 2008 Estate of Charley Harper. Open edition lithograph print available from https://charleyharperartstudio.com.

 

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ECO Art + Science Series: The Sustainable Art of Emily Bryant

On today’s ECO Art + Science Series I’m pleased to introduce the sustainable artwork of Emily Bryant. When Emily first contacted me through the biocreativity blog, I was awestruck by her work, which in many ways channels the iconic collages by Eric Carle (of The Very Hungry Caterpillar fame). Though, where Carle transforms colored paper into his widely recognized plants and animals, Bryant puts pressed invasive plants to work in her collages of invasive insect species. It’s not often you meet someone with the degree of simultaneous training in the arts and sciences that Emily has achieved. She pursued a double-major in Sustainability and Studio Art (along with a nifty minor in biology) at Baldwin-Wallace College. She even created her own course in Sustainable Art to research the environmental impact of fine art materials with stunning results. Her invasive-species collages and digital nature photography collages are created entirely from sustainable materials. I am glad that we both live in Austin, Texas, where I have been lucky enough to view her meticulous collages in person and assist her in collecting more invasive plants for her next series. As I head out the door to meet Emily on the Lady Bird Lake hike + bike trail to do more collecting, I hope you enjoy her thoughtful interview for the ECO Art + Science Series.

**UPDATE 4/16/12  Emily currently has 9 pieces of sustainable native species art hanging at Cafe Josie in Austin, TX until May 26th! 1200 B west 6th Street, Austin, TX 78703**

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Emily! What type of work do you do?

[EBB] As a specialist in the field of sustainability, I help reduce operating costs of companies by decreasing utility and natural resource consumption. I also use a lot of creative problem solving to make products and processes more sustainable. I have experience with a governmental organization, small local business, large international business, and multiple non-profit groups. I’ve worked with wildlife, engineers, automobile mechanics, park rangers, city legislatures, artists, and ecologists, and I’ve found that as long as I can be creative and make a positive contribution to environmental protection and promote stewardship, I am fulfilled. I love exploring and photographing natural areas.

Native Texas Aquatics. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

[biocreativity] Emily, where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? Closer to the arts end or the science end?

[EBB] I think I fall right in the middle! I went to school at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, where I double majored in Studio Art and Sustainability, with a focus and minor in Biology.

[biocreativity] That’s an impressive combination of credentials! How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? What’s your take on how these disciplines interact?

Torpedo Bug. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

[EBB] I think creativity is a necessity in the sustainability field. You really have to have a holistic viewpoint and be able to balance many different disciplines and the concerns of many different stakeholders. I love the challenges involved in trying to find sustainable solutions that improve a product or process and save companies money. When people say the term innovative, I hear creative.

In positions I’ve held in the past, my employers have realized that my creativity was an unexpected asset. I’ve used creative writing, photography, filming, drawing, and graphic design to enhance marketing for sustainability initiatives companies were pursuing. They were thrilled with my ability to share sustainability messaging in such captivating and appealing ways. I think arts enhance the sciences and take them to another level. I feel that many people in the sciences can get so caught up with processes and data that they forget to take a step back and remember how incredible the subject matter they are studying really is. I think the arts enable people to share their research and passions with those outside of their academic disciplines on a very personal and captivating level, and I sincerely believe it is critical that scientists share more of their work with the general public.

The Magical World of Pollination. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

I was lucky in that I could sit in a biology class and admire the human body for its complexity and functionality and later go to a life drawing class and admire the human body for its beauty and form. My photography professor told me that the few science majors in his classes produced some of the best work. My invertebrate natural history professor, happy that I was using my art to teach others about insects, told me that we needed more creative people in the sciences. The natural world has always inspired me and is the motivation behind my art.

[biocreativity] It sounds like you had an amazing art-science experience at Baldwin-Wallace! Emily, what are your current art-science projects?

[EBB] The goal of my first series of sustainable art is to educate people about invasive species. Invasive species are species that have been introduced to an area purposefully or accidentally that harm ecosystems by out-competing native species. Some invasive species that have been introduced purposefully were originally intended for a good cause, such as pest removal, but it can be difficult to know all the impacts a foreign species can have in an environment. To make this artwork, I collect and press invasive plant species and layer them using a plant-based glue to form collaged images of invasive species. So far, I have been making insects, but plan on making other invasive animal species in the near future. In some of my pieces I have also featured the native plants that the invasive insects destroy to show people what impact the species are having on local ecosystems.

Japanese Beetle. Collage of pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

Native species are the focus of my second series of artwork. Many of these images have a fantastical or ethereal quality to them because I want people to see nature in the same enchanting way that I do. These pieces are made in Photoshop by stripping away the original colors of a picture and manually adding new ones, or by layering multiple pictures together in order to form a new image. These photographs are printed on sustainable bamboo paper by a company that runs on 100% green energy. Many of the animals featured in this series are also insects because after taking an Invertebrate Natural Science course where I had to make my own insect collection, I really began to observe and appreciate some of the incredible invertebrates of our world. I think most people don’t even notice insects when they are outside. As one of the most misunderstood types of animals, I thought it was important to show people how fascinating and compelling these species could be. Featuring native species was very important to me because I want people to become in touch with natural areas on a local level and get them passionate about protecting these places.

B-W Native Plants Garden (You're More Beautiful When You're Open). Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

[biocreativity] I think the collages are particularly impressive. They’re so delicate, and the cutouts so intricate it looks like they must have been very painstaking to construct! What is your inspiration for these series?

[EBB] My idea to create sustainable art began when I decided to try combining my two disciplines. Having studied some material and product chemistry, I began to realize how unsustainable and harmful a lot of the art materials I had been working with really were. This led me to create an independent study Sustainable Art course with my art advisor. The objectives of the course were to create art with various sustainable materials that would educate viewers on different environmental issues. I had just accepted a sustainability internship with the Cleveland Metroparks at the time, and invasive species management was a big focus area of theirs. This inspired me to make artwork featuring invasive species because I knew that so few people in the greater Cleveland area were aware of the devastation that was occurring in our parks, especially from species like the Emerald Ash Borer.

Emerald Ash Borer. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

[biocreativity] What does the emerald ash borer do to affect native species? Why is it so important that we know about the effects of invasive species?

More than 50 million ash trees in the midwest are estimated to have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), whose larvae eat through the tissue between the bark and wood of Ash trees, disrupting a tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients. Adults emerge from Ash trees and feed on its leaves in late spring or early summer. The adults then lay eggs, which promptly hatch and feed on the Ash tissue for one to two years before maturing into adults. Trees usually die over the course of a couple years. EAB was brought to Michigan from Asia from wood on boats. It has since spread to more than one dozen states, commonly through individuals transporting firewood. A large portion of suburban trees are ash trees, planted to provide shade and reduce energy costs. So far, we have no way to deter the spread or destruction caused by the EAB. It causes billions of dollars in damage each year and threatens to destroy most ash trees in North America. Do your part by not transporting fire wood and reporting signs of EAB infestation observed locally. Instructions on where to report EAB signs can be found by searching for EAB in your state online.

Other invasive species I have collaged include the Japanese Beetle, which feeds on roses and other ornamental plants in Ohio; the Cactus Moth caterpillar, which feeds on the Prickly Pear Cactus; and the Torpedo bug, which feeds on a variety of ornamental plants. I am planning on collaging one of the invasive species of ants in Texas next. I will continue to collage insects, but may branch out to other animals, such as birds, in the near future. It all depends on the materials I am able to find and what colors they are.

Cactus Moth Caterpillar. Collage, pressed invasive plants and plant-based glue on paper © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

[biocreativity] What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[EBB] I want people to look at my artwork to know what is at stake. I want them to look at my series of native species art and show them all the incredible and overwhelmingly beautiful organisms that are right outside their doors. I want them to know that natural areas can be enchanting, spiritual places that are a breath of fresh air when we are feeling drained in our lives. I want them to know that if we keep carrying on consuming the way we do, they might lose something beautiful that they never knew existed.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch.

I hope that through my invasive species art, people will begin to learn about and appreciate native species to stop the invasives from spreading. I think many people believe that scientists have all the answers, but invasive species show us that there are tangible consequences for being careless with foreign imports and purposeful introductions of exotic species. The United States may lose all of its ash trees from the Emerald Ash Borer, and there is nothing we can do right now except collect ash tree seeds for the future. I would love for people to know the positive impacts of growing native plants in their yards, such as mitigating harsh weather conditions and providing food and habitat for native species, some of which may be endangered due to habitat loss.

[biocreativity] Emily, I think that’s a very strong message, and a very creative way of conveying that message.What’s next for you in art + science? Where do you see your projects going, or what would you like to do next?

[EBB] I plan on continuing both series of artwork. Having just moved to Texas in August 2011, there are plenty of native species for me to photograph and collage. There are also many more invasive species to feature! I may move into pests and invasive animals outside of the insect world. I am considering making collages of native species out of native plants, but then I’d have to find a way to not feel guilty about collecting the native plants…

Find Us in Ohio's Parks. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

[biocreativity] What got you started in the arts?

[EBB] I have been making art since I was a child, but my current artwork where I am combining art and sustainability has meant more to me than any other work I have done. It gives my art a sense of urgency and makes me want to share it. It has helped me articulate my sustainability education and connect with and reach people in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. I think I’ve found my artistic niche and it gives me renewed inspiration, joy, and pride in my artwork. It’s really refreshing to work on art that you feel is unique when there can be a lot of redundancy in the art world.

[biocreativity] Do you have any advice for young artists and scientists who might be thinking about getting into art-science projects?

[EBB] I would tell them to absolutely go for it, young artists especially. Going through school and struggling to find out who you are in the face of difficult social situations can really damage your self-esteem. Your art is always a talent that you can feel good about. No matter what, no one can take that away from you. Art is always there for you to express yourself, learn about yourself, and grow as a person. Creativity is what has made the world we live in possible and what will continue to make our quality of life better. I think creativity needs to be appreciated more in our society and especially in our schools. Being both left and right-brained can open up an entire world for you that many people never get to explore. Art is a way for you to communicate with the world and I think the sciences need to be available to everyone, not just other scientists in the field.

[biocreativity] How can the biocreativity readers find out more about your work?

[EBB] I have an Etsy shop with prints of my artwork for sale, and jewelry that I make for enjoyment. I am also working on finding more sustainable products to feature my prints on. So far, I have made prints on recycled content note cards. You can check them out on etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch. I can also be found on LinkedIn.

Long-horned Beetle. Digital photo collage © 2011 by Emily Bryant. Sustainably made prints available from etsy.com/shop/TheScoffPatch

[biocreativity] Emily, I hear you’re also looking to start a career in sustainability here in Austin, what types of work are you interested in?

I have found that as long as I can be creative and make a positive contribution to the environmental field, I am more than happy. I enjoy being challenged and look forward to the opportunity to contribute sustainable solutions to different environmental problems in Austin, whether that be through writing, product or process design, the protection of species and wild places, or helping green businesses grow.

[biocreativity] I can’t wait to see what comes next for you in the arts and sciences, Emily. Thanks for sharing your talents with the biocreativity blog! [Note to potential employers: hire this talented and creative woman before someone beats you to it!]

ECO Art + Science Series: Metalsmith + Entomology Enthusiast Charity Hall

Entomology Collection. Copper, enamel. Image © 2008 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

Welcome to the first ECO Art + Science Series post of 2012! Today, I’m excited to feature the first metalsmith and jeweler in the Series: Tucson-based artist-scientist Charity Hall, who creates enameled works of art that are grounded in her fascination with botanical and entomological imagery. Her art-science collaborations with entomologist Paul Marek are sensational examples of art-science crossover that truly advance both fields in creative and mutually-beneficial ways.

 “With my passion for botany extrapolated outward to entomology, I create enamel and metalwork pieces with biological imagery. My botany loupe became my stone-setting loupe, and a few more tools have been acquired. My work as an artist is based on the tiny intricate details and fascinating biological stories that first captivated me.” – Charity Hall

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Charity! What type of work do you do? How would you describe your interests or profession?

[CH] I am a metalsmith and enamelist who makes jewelry inspired by biological forms. I’ve created a lot of enameled jewelry and bowls that depict different insect species. In some of my jewelry, I use actual insect specimens-or pieces of them by embedding these in clear resin. Recently, I’ve been making sculptural jewelry based on abstracted invertebrate forms (everything from radiolarians to articulated insect legs).

Kissing Bug Brooch. Copper, enamel, garnet. Image © 2011 Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum?

[CH] I feel a bit polarized on both ends. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology from Colorado College (I majored in biology, but they had a very nice Arts and Crafts program and Dindy Reich taught me my first metalworking skills there) and have worked professionally as a botanist for the U.S. Forest Service, although that was awhile ago. I also have a Master of Fine Arts in metal design from East Carolina University. I am a full-time artist now, so I guess I’m more on the arts end currently. But, I also help my entomologist husband [University of Arizona research associate Paul Marek] with field work. In fact, we just came back from 5 nights of collecting millipedes in northern California. Last year, I cast a millipede in bronze to make a press mold for making hundreds of clay millipede models for one of his research projects which is described in this article on Discover blogs.

Paul Marek made hundreds of clay millipede models for a research project examining the function of bioluminescence in millipedes using a bronze cast of a millipede made by Charity Hall. Image © 2011 by Paul Marek. Used here with his permission.

[biocreativity] To summarize, the clay millipedes were used to help discover why Moytoxia millipedes glow in the dark! Half were painted with glow-in-the dark paint, half were not, then they were left in the forest overnight. About half as many glow-in-the-dark models showed evidence of attacks by predators (mainly rodents) as the unpainted ones, leading researchers to conclude that bioluminescence in this species lends protection from predators! Charity, that is a fascinating research project and a great example of art-science collaboration for field work. That is relatively rare since such collaborations are often focused on the final product of the research: the results. How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences?

[CH] Art and science are surprisingly similar in many respects. In both fields, the work is largely based on observation, creativity, analysis, and drawing conclusions that inspire the next project. If we got rid of labels to designate one person a scientist and another an artist, we might find more opportunities for crossover and could benefit from the skills of each other more readily. As artists, we are constantly working with our hands, developing a skill set and a mindset that makes it easy for us to build things. But that ability to build stuff is remarkably important for scientists too. There is always some jig or specialized piece of equipment (maybe it’s a special insect trap or collapsable terrarium) that they need which might not yet exist or perhaps does, but needs to be modified. I remember helping with an insect collecting project once, but the scientist leading it had forgotten to bring the collecting nets. I just took apart some old wire hangers and used some netting to construct a makeshift net. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

Katydid Pendant. Copper, enamel. Image © 2009 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] That is very true. When I was working on my dissertation research, my lab-mate and I often joked that we should also be getting a “Master’s in Fabrication” because we were always building new contraptions for our field and lab work. Interestingly, the Association of Art Historians just released a call for papers today for a conference entitled The Two Cultures: Visual Art & Science c. 1800-2011, which will challenge the assertion that the visual arts and sciences are separate entities. Charity, what inspires your work?

[CH] I’ve always been fascinated by insects and other biological species. When I was in college, I loved botany and collected plant specimens for my college’s herbarium (basically a museum of dried, pressed plants).  Occasionally out in the field, I would witness these dramatic scenes…a bug attacking another and eating its head while it was still alive…or I would notice the tiny insects back in the lab while identifying the plants and seeing them under the microscope looking absolutely monstrous on leaves and flowers. Maybe its because I’ve never studied insects scientifically that I find them so fascinating.  I love their forms, from their tiny intricate leg hairs to their articulation in their joints.

Dobsonfly Belt buckle. Copper, enamel, silver, garnet. Image © 2009 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

At the same time that I studied botany, I started illustrating plant specimens and dabbling in metalwork.  It took a long time to realize I wanted to become a professional artist.

Moss o menos. Copper, enamel. Image © 2006 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission from the artist. Collection of Gail Brown. All proceeds for this piece benefitted Oxfam to assist the victims of the Myanmar cyclone.

[biocreativity] I love the botanical illustrations on your enamel work – especially the Moss o Menos pieces. I also have a lot of entomologist friends who would love to get their hands on that Dobsonfly belt buckle! What is the most important thing that you want others to know about you and your art-science work?

[CH] I’m an artist, but I’m also a collector. I collect insects, rocks, fossils, and anything else that seems useful. Mostly, I collect stuff for inspiration or sometimes to embed in resin. I am lucky that some of my friends collect things for me too (mostly dead insects and parts thereof). I’m always surprised by what I receive from friends who seem like they’d be too squeamish to collect dead bugs.

I hiked in the Appalachians during one of the huge cicada explosions and there were dozens of dead cicadas on the forest floor. Their wings are beautiful (and the birds don’t eat the wings anyway), so I carefully removed the wings off of several of them. With some of them, I roll-printed them onto sheet copper (sending them through a rolling mill -2 steel rollers kind of like a deluxe pasta machine), and the impressions of the veins were forever preserved onto the metal.

Cicada Wing Necklace. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. Silver, cicada wing, yellow sapphire, resin. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] Tell us more about your Metalbug series, which quite literally puts insects into your jewelry.

Metalbug is a collection of jewelry with real insect specimens. Many of these pieces are available for sale at my Metalbug Etsy store. These insects were humanely collected mostly in and around Tucson, Arizona. Occasionally, I also collect specimens when I travel.

Beetle Legs Necklace. Silver, resin, beetle legs, cz. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] What is the most common question or comment you get about your work?

[CH] “How do you make your work?” I use a variety of metalsmithing tools, including torches, hammers, and anvils.  Many of the techniques I use are the same techniques that metalsmiths have been using for centuries.  I like the continuity and traditions of craft, but I also use contemporary processes.

My starting material for the enameled bowls is a 6″ disc of copper sheet.  Using hammers and a rounded stake (looks like a trailer hitch), I pound the metal into a depression carved out of an old stump until it is shaped like a bowl.  Then I clean the bowl and apply a coat of liquid-based enamel, allow it to dry, and then freehand draw the design (in this case drawing=literally scratching through the enamel to get to the bare copper. This enameling technique is called sgraffito. Once the design is done, the bowl is fired at about 1500degrees F, a second coat of clear enamel (in this step, the enamel is in a powdered form) is applied and the bowl is re-fired, but for a shorter time  just until the clear enamel starts to fuse to the base layer. This is how I maintain the grainy, matte surface which is very different than the smooth surfaces of traditional enamels.

Tailless Whip Scorpion Bowl (detail). Copper, enamel. Image © 2007 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

For the enameled brooches, I enamel copper in more or less a similar way and fabricate the settings. My starting materials are only sheet, wire, or tubing. Everything else is formed (again with hammers), cut (with a manual jeweler’s saw) and soldered by hand.  (and of course there is a lot of filing and sanding too). The Metalbug series are pieces that incorporate real insect parts or entire specimens. The fabrication part is the same as the other pieces. The only difference is that I mix clear resin to use to embed the insect parts in place.

Rainbow Beetle Earrings. Silver, Copper, enamel, garnet. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. Used here by permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] What’s next for you in art + science? 

[CH] Right now, I’m actively working on this new series of sculptural jewelry. Imagery in this series includes the articulation of insect legs, the dogged march of a millipede, radial patterns in unicellular life, and diurnal states of being. This body of work will be showcased in a solo exhibition at the Penland Gallery this August/September.

“A millipede crawling upon your hand feels halfway between barely noticeable and lightly tickling. You can feel the overall sensation of movement, but not the individual legs so delicately fragile on your callused metalsmithing hand. But if you existed on the same scale as a millipede and had it walking upon you, I imagine it would feel quite different; its legs formidable, with the tips digging as it marches doggedly along.” -Charity Hall

Metallodesmus trigintaduopes. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] I really love the glow-in-the dark pieces from this new series:  Lumenorbis and Radialaris! Are those inspired in some part by your husband’s research on bioluminescense in millipedes?

[CH] Sort of, but mostly just in the material. He needed a really high quality glow substance for his clay models and gave me a little bit of it to play with. The forms of these 2 pieces are not really about millipedes. Although the piece, Metallodesmus trigintaduopes, is based on a wandering millipede.

Lumenorbis. Images © 2011 Charity Hall. The background of this piece glows in the dark. Used here with permission of the artist.

Radialaris. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. The center of this piece glows in the dark. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] Your collaborations with your husband are truly great examples of how art and science can be mutually beneficial to one another. Do you have any websites that you’d like the biocreativity readers to know about? I hear you also teach classes. 

www.charityhall.com features my work, upcoming events including shows, classes and workshops I’ll be teaching and more links to my favorite websites. I will be teaching a class on making brooches for the Idyllwild Metals Week program through Idyllwild Arts in California. 

www.metalbug.etsy.com is my Etsy store where my Metalbug series, and other works, are for sale.

www.apheloria.org is my husband’s website on millipedes.

[biocreativity] Charity, thanks so much for participating in the ECO Art + Science Series. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and your work! 

The biocreativity blog’s ECO Art + Science Series illustrates the many ways in which artists and scientists are combining their talents in the modern world. Stay tuned for more interviews each week right here at www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to biocreativity@yahoo.com. 

biologists and artist make fire ant art

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of creating this month’s biocreativity blog header image in Dr. Larry Gilbert’s “Fire Ant Lab” at Brackenridge Field Laboratory (or, BFL for short) – an 88-acre field station at the University of Texas at Austin. As you know from my post from last month, I’m really into time-lapse. After the July 2011 biocreativity header image and video using native plants from my backyard, I started brainstorming on what else I could use to create interesting header images and time-lapse videos for the blog. Of course, I wanted to do something with animals – but how would I keep anything still long enough to spell out b-i-o-c-r-e-a-t-i-v-i-t-y, and how could I get enough of any one kind of animal to do it? Then it hit me: FIRE ANTS!  What if you could make fire ants spell out ‘biocreativity’ and then all walk away? So, With the help of Dr. Rob Plowes from the fire ant lab, his excellent team of research assistants, my husband and his tripod and the BFL deep freeze, I set out to create the August 2011 biocreativity header image and time-lapse video using the South American red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). Here it is if you didn’t get to see it earlier.

biocreativity | august 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

As a former teaching assistant for a lab course in field ecology methods at BFL, I was familiar with the work of the fire ant lab, so I knew a few “tricks-of-the-trade” when it comes to ants that could make for a really interesting biocreativity project. Two natural history characteristics that make these invaders very good at what they do also worked to my advantage in this project.

First, fire ants make rafts. Literally. They link themselves together to make a raft formed from of their own bodies, which helps them disperse during floods to found new colonies. This phenomenon got quite a bit of media attention last April when researchers Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu published the findings of their research on the water repellency of fire ants and how they cooperate to make rafts in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It was covered by NPR, The Huffington Post and Scientific American among others. Their project is yet another great use of time-lapse that helped to visualize and explain how natural phenomena work, and it helped Mlot and colleagues make some very interesting discoveries about biomimicry which may have technological applications in developing new waterproof materials.

Rafting not only helps the fire ants live to colonize another day, but it’s also used to the advantage of researchers studying fire ant behavior and how to control the spread of this invasive species. In Dr. Gilbert’s lab where I met up with Rob Plowes, he showed me how they use the natural tendency of fire ants to raft as a means of easily separating hundreds of thousands of fire ants from the soil they’re collected from so they can be used to study this invasive species. In short, when they dig up fire ant mounds from the field, they place the dirt mixed with ants in 5-gallon buckets. They then bring them to the lab where they slowly drip water into the buckets overnight. This ‘rising tide’ of water in each bucket prompts the ants to dutifully gather up their brood and make for the surface where they all gather together to form a large raft.

Here is a figure from Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu's paper "Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available from http://bit.ly/qYBnRw

Here is a figure from Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu's paper "Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available from http://bit.ly/qYBnRw

The research in the BFL fire ant lab is focused on developing effective biocontrol agents for S. invicta, and they’re doing it using very species-specific parasitic phorid flies (Pseudacteon sp.) which interrupt foraging and other behaviors which can end up making colonies less successful in the long term. You can take a really cool virtual tour of how they conduct this research here. Thanks to these generous researchers, the problem of where I was going to get enough ants for this project was solved. They simply set aside a single tray of tens of thousands of fire ants when they were done with their research for my project.

A tray of South American Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) from the Fire Ant Lab at Brackenridge Field Laboratory

A tray of South American Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) from the Fire Ant Lab at Brackenridge Field Laboratory.

Now that I had enough ants, how was I going make them be still long enough to spell out the title? Well, I was introduced to a similar problem when I was the teaching assistant for Dr. Gilbert’s field ecology lab. We taught our students how to conduct ant diversity surveys by baiting for ants, usually by setting out a piece of hot dog, which any picnic-goer knows is irresistible to ants. We quickly captured the ants on the bait with a plastic baggie (reminiscent of the process of picking up after your dog) and brought them back to the lab to identify to species and count. The problem was, how do you count all the individual ants when they won’t be still? The solution lies in the fact that ants are exothermic (or “cold blooded”), meaning they get their body heat from the external environment and are less active at cooler temperatures. So, we simply put the bags of ants in the freezer to immobilize them. Once frozen for 10-30 minutes, students had a limited time window to count the ants until they warmed up enough to start moving again. It’s amazing how long it takes for this to kill the ants – usually well over 12 hours of deep-freezing! For my project, I simply put the tray of ants from the fire ant lab in the freezer while we set up the video equipment.

A tray of fire ants is immobilized in the deep freezer.

A tray of fire ants is immobilized in the deep freezer.

To create the title image, I made a stencil to spell out ‘biocreativity’ on which I sprinkled the immobilized ants. One thing that made this a little difficult was the same thing that allows the ants to raft – their legs stick together, so instead of little individual ‘sprinkles’ I ended up with more of a flocculated mass of ants that stuck together a little bit, making the letters seem ‘fuzzy’ around the edges. Also, if you ever do a project where you pour ants through a stencil, make sure you pick a font with block letters. The angle on the “t” I used gave us a bit of trouble, but it turned out OK. Some forceps and pin tools helped clean up the edges, and after a few takes, we had a pretty good image and — if I do say so myself — a pretty darn cool time-lapse.

Here’s the making-of video that shows how we did this, along with some outtakes that show some of the difficulties we had getting the ants to go through the stencil just right. Many thanks go to my husband, researchers Dr. Rob Plowes and Dr. Larry Gilbert and the hard-working crew of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory fire ant lab. Enjoy!

biocreativity | making of august 2011 blog header from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

And, yes — because I’m sure you’re wondering — I did get stung twice…in the name of biocreativity!

ants in my pants | title image august 2011

biocreativity | august 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

Each month I’ll be creating a new header image and short film for the biocreativity blog. As you can see above, the August 2011 biocreativity blog header image and accompanying video are finally here! I had lots of fun making this one, but I want to give you a chance to guess how it was done. The ‘making of’ video will be posted in a couple of days, so get guessing!

One hint: fire ants! Many thanks to Dr. Rob Plowes and Dr. Larry Gilbert and the hard-working crew of the Fire Ant Lab at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in Austin, TX for generously providing red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) for this project!