This Exhibition Made My Jaw Drop. It Reveals an Extraordinary Secret

These photographs can be viewed with scientific interest, but the final experience is much deeper and more spiritual. A thought-provoking visit to the Natural History Museum in Tel Aviv

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Orchid cuckoo bee, 26 mm.  One of a million insect species.
Orchid cuckoo bee, 26 mm. One of a million insect species.Credit: Levon Biss
Dror Burstein
Dror Burstein

Insects, for most people, exist on a scale between negligible and bothersome. Usually they’re not noticed, and when they are, many of them are perceived as a nuisance, apart from some colorful types, notably several species of butterflies. The word “bug” means both a hitch and an insect, and many people look at bugs as a bug, as something we’d be better off without and better off not seeing.

A large number of insects really are invisible to the human eye. Some of them are too small (there are wasps that are a fifth of a millimeter long), some possess impressive camouflage capability, others live outside human locales, such as in the rainforest canopy in South America. But insects are far from being a negligible entity on the planet. On the contrary. Today we know of 1.5 million species of plants and animals. Of them, about a million species belong to the insect class. Of the million known species of insects, the vast majority (800,000) belong to four large orders: beetles; flies and mosquitoes; butterflies and moths; and bees, wasps and ants. On top of which, according to cautious estimates, the million known insect species are only a small part of the true and as yet undiscovered number. Some scientists speak of a much greater number of insect species on Earth: I’ve seen estimates of 5, 10, 30 and even 50 million species.

These figures refer to the number of species, not the number of individuals. It’s thought that at every given moment there are 10 million trillion (10 followed by 18 zeroes) insects in the world. According to cautious estimates, there are 200 million insects for every person. Moderate evaluations maintain that, taken together, all the insects weigh 12 times as much as all the human beings. These are astronomical figures, approaching the number of stars in the visible universe. Though there are about a million times more stars than insects, we must not forget that the stars have the whole universe to exist in, whereas the insects have only one small planet. In the light of the tremendous multiplication of beetle species, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane said that God apparently loves beetles. According to this line of thought, God also loves stars. Beetles and stars share something. They are part of the infinite, and not in an abstract, vague sense, but very concretely. Insects and stars are among the most mysterious and thrilling things in our world, though there is no doubt that an insect is a far more complex entity than a star. Insects are simply a vast part of what there is, a vast part of life. One would think, then, that they would be one of the main themes of literature and art, whose salient material is the mysteries of earthly existence.

Amazonian purple warrior scarab, 26mm.Credit: Levon Biss

Their vital integration into the various life systems, as recyclers and pollinators, for example, recently made the headlines because of the blow sustained by the honeybee population. “All are servants of the world, leaders of the world, and humans do not know it” (Book of Zohar, Emor, p.107).

What to many of us seems to be an indiscriminate mass of small creatures, symmetrical, with three body sections, six legs, compound eyes, antennae and an exoskeleton, developed gradually over millions of years. Insects have existed for 420 million years; humans like us have been around for no more than 200,000 years. In short, insects are different, ancient, numerous, diverse, essential and, as a new exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv (curator: Dr. Netta Dorchin) shows – also gorgeous. What more is needed to persuade people to take an interest in them?

I walked through the exhibition mouth agape, literally. The photographs are by Levon Biss, in very large prints of fearfully high quality. They were made with the aid of a microscope, of course. Each photograph consists of thousands of composited computerized images. This method makes possible an equal focus of all parts of the insect. The insects were not put to death for the purpose of the photographs; they are taken from the insect collection of Oxford University (and were of course put to death in the past for that collection).

Iridescent bark mantis, 24 mm. Radiant with splendor.Credit: Levon Biss

A prodigious secret

The photographs can be observed with scientific interest, but the experience that is conjured up is deeper. Science abuts mysticism, and the photographer’s achievement takes on a spiritual thrust. The lenses, the computer and the printer draw the viewer closer to visions that would not shame the prophet Ezekiel. I am not exaggerating. A prodigious secret is revealed here. The small dimensions have kept the secret hidden from our eyes, just as the distance of the stars kept them hidden from our eyes until a few decades ago. Even if only one of the insects in these photographs existed, it would have been proof to me of the existence of a supreme creative intelligence that is at work in our world. There are, as I noted, millions and trillions of individual insects. Nothing within our ability can compete with that supreme intelligence in terms of form and color. I have been viewing paintings of the great artists over the generations, but here we have something of a completely different order.

Several things could be said about the conception of beauty harbored by this supreme intelligence (which has been called by names such as nature, God, the Dao) in the wake of a visit to the exhibition. And perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. First, the intelligence loves symmetry, but not precise geometric symmetry. Second, it loves to invent, but its inventive capacity is not altogether wild; going wild is its thing, but based on a relatively simple format (three sections, six legs, antennae, etc.). The beetles and the flies in the exhibition are very dissimilar, but not completely different. Third, the intelligence likes to stretch the boundaries of the form slightly beyond what appears to be reasonable. There’s a stalk-eyed fly, its compound eyes located at the end of something that might mistakenly be taken for arms. And a dazzling, amazing tortoise beetle that looks like an African tribal mask, rife with prickles and pores, eyes gaping, with the force of a glaring face, like a chestnut-black thistle that can see through you.

Tortoise Beetle. Credit: Levon Biss

Fourth, this intelligence loves color, is intoxicated with color. The range of colors here is stunning, and in some cases the diversity exists in one insect. Fifth, this intelligence attaches no special importance to physical size. It knows how to make a star and a beetle, and both of them with all seriousness, and neither is preferable to the other because of its dimensions. “There is in the world nothing bigger than the tip of the hair of an animal in autumn” (Chuang-tzu, circa 300 BCE; source: “Sufism and Taoism,” by Toshihiko Izutsu). Insects are not “small,” because they are infinite: only our weak eyes hinder us from seeing their full grandeur and complexity. Sixth, the intelligence possesses humor and employs metaphoric thought. One of the high points of the exhibition is a grasshopper that camouflages itself as an autumn leaf.

The greatest of jewelers have never created, and never will create, anything like the Amazonian Purple Warrior Scarab that’s on display in the exhibition, a powerful totem that demands bowing down and worship. And even if they managed to approach this complex, miniature perfection, it will only be a jewel. It won’t be able to fly. It won’t be able to see. “Is it not true that if all the creatures in the world were to convene in order to create just one gnat and endow it with a soul, they would not be able to do so?” (Midrash Beresheet Raba 39:14; from “In Partnership with God,” by Byron L. Sherwin).

Someone – I’ve forgotten who – wrote that evolution, or natural selection, is indeed a fact, but that we should not forget that evolution is not an explanation for the very fact that life exists, but for the changing diversity of its forms. In other words, evolution is the editor and proofreader, not the poet. Natural selection can explain variations in the structure of hands or of an insect’s eyes, but not the sheer existence of living creatures or the sheer existence of vision.

Jewel longhorn beetle, 20 mm. Insects have existed for 420 million years.Credit: Levon Biss

This exhibition stirred awe in me, and astonishment, like what’s evoked by an exhibition of a great artist, and the knowledge that what is on view here is merely the exterior side of the creatures emphasizes this even more. The photographs cannot show internal organs, senses, the ability to fly, metamorphosis, social cooperation. This exhibition, being one of photographs, exposes the face of the hidden, the fringe of the mantle of the secret of life, but even the edges of this vast cloak are heavy and radiant with splendor.

Visitors to the exhibition will never be able to look at a housefly the same way again when they venture back into the world. I have no doubt that in another two decades some of the flabbergasted children I saw gazing at the huge pictures – the children were smaller than the fly, smaller than the beetle – will become scientists and entomologists who might even succeed, if it won’t be too late, in preventing the extinction of this place where the beguiled things are.