#606 This bug is an artist

By Cathryn Wellner / March 14, 2013
Hubert Duprat

Photo clip from Norfolk County Council video of Hubert Dupart discussing his work

I bow before the superior artistry of the caddisfly larvae. The ubiquitous insects weave complex silken sheaths to protect themselves in the watery homes where they await transformation.

My uncle fished trout streams any time he had a break from his plumbing business. He likely threaded a lot of Trichoptera (caddisfly) cases on his hooks without ever pausing to think about the intricate work of the creatures within them.

Hubert Duprat noticed. The artist watched them forage the landscape around them for bits of stone and twigs to incorporate into their cases. He wondered what they would do if offered only gold flakes.

Gathering them from streams and ponds, he gently removed their sheaths, placed them in tanks and watched. The caddisfly larvae began building again, creating exquisite, shiny homes. He added precious and semi-precious stones and tiny gold rods to the tank. The caddisfly larvae incorporated them as well.

The results are a collaboration between artist and insect. Looking at the photographs gives me a new respect for a species that few people, beyond fly fishers, offer much regard.

The jeweled cases are only a small example of Duprat’s talents. You can see other samples of his work in the video below, filmed during a solo exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum in 2011.

The cases are also only a small example of the caddisfly larvae’s talents. A 2004 interview between Duprat and philosopher and art critic Christian Besson explains why these jeweled cases resonate for me far beyond their artistic merits. In the article, translated by Simon Pleasance and posted on the Web by Leonardo on-line, Duprat makes an intriguing observation:

An American entomologist, Charles T. Brues, describes the curious observation he made in a river in northern Nevada. Among all the little particles of sand and minerals swept along by the water, the Trichoptera make meaningful selections of bright blue opals—in other words, the most conspicuous or garish materials. Brues considers this phenomenon to be noteworthy, since the insect’s vision seems to play a part in the process, whereas it was ordinarily thought that materials were evaluated only on the basis of their weight and what they felt like.

Brues published his article in Psyche: A Journal of Entomology in 1930. The piece is short (just over two pages) and intriguing. I’m grateful to Duprat for bringing it to my attention. You may be ahead of me, already aware of the mysterious intelligence of insects, but for me Brues splits the world open.

If caddisfly larvae make decisions based not only on the heft and shape of whatever bits they fashion into cases but also on some inner, aesthetic sense, I owe them an apology for underestimating them. Duprat and Brues awaken me to the wonders of the tiny world of the caddisfly larvae. They remind me how much I will always have to learn about the creatures whose lives unfold around me. They give me hope.

Thanks to Marnie Duff for posting a link to the Science Is Awesome Facebook page, which posted a series of Duprat’s photographs of the caddisfly’s exquisite architecture.


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Mary McQueen and Luigi the Lovebird - April 20, 2013

Amazing! My friend just directed me here because I have an inter-species folk art project going on. Luigi the Lovebird is my muse–he shreds paper with his beak into perfect serrated strips and I craft pictures out of what his work. I would love to send you (and Hubert) an art card of what we do! I would love to find Hubert’s mailing address but no luck yet.

    Cathryn Wellner - April 20, 2013

    Wow, Mary, I’ve been out all day and just saw your comment. I immediately went to your site and am blown away! You and Luigi are a stunningly creative pair, and I’d be thrilled to see one of your cards. I’ll send my address via your Web site and encourage EVERYONE to go check out handandbeak.com and be as awestruck as I am.

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