Comics, scientific illustration & sleeping insects

What do scientific articles have in common with comics?

Well, they can both use arrangements of images to convey ideas.

Abstract comics expert Andrei Molotiu inspired me to keep an eye out for their overlapping approaches. He gave compelling examples of how “natural, physical phenomena can be structured by human activity to seem to echo, or be echoed by, abstract comics. For example, visual records of various scientific processes are usually arranged for publication in sequential art form”.

This is not only true for abstract comics — abstract forms that morph, meet, grow outward or shrink over time; it also happens in more figurative depictions. Image arrangements can suggest the movement of time, or can represent a kind of mosaic that gives an overview of different situations.

In two lovely studies about sleeping behaviours of bees and ants I learned that not only do insects sleep, they may also dream.

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A sequence that shows how an active bee (A) becomes a sleeping bee (D): time moves on as you ‘read the panels’.

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A ‘mosaic’ that shows different states of ant activities: awake and asleep. A contrast-and-compare puzzle. Note the differences in antennae and mouth. A dozing fire ant queen sleeps with her mouth open and antennae slightly raised; a queen in deep sleep has her mouth closed and antennae folded inward. When her antennae start to quiver in deep sleep, it may be a sign that she’s dreaming — kind of like rapid eye movements in larger dreaming animals, such as humans.

Knowing this, insects become ever-more mysterious yet relatable at the same time. These types of studies blow my mind, and also provide good starting points for how to convey aspects about these little lives through visual narratives. Yep, there is a comic in the making here.

Secret traditions: visit the flower before you die

I notice a lot of bumblebees resting or napping in flowers. They also seek out flowers as a resting place shortly before they die. A flower might give some food and shelter from the elements, but is it enough? Might the bees have additional reasons for choosing the flower as a resting place?

Could it be that they find some kind of peace, comfort, or pleasure in the soft, colourful, fragrant shapes of the flower?

Thinking along these lines, it almost sounds like a religious, spiritual or cultural tradition….

and so, she disappears into the light.

You might think all of this sounds crazy, but there is some serious research looking into questions of beauty and the sensory perceptions of nonhumans, including insects (eg. as discussed here). There is even research that asks if animals might have culture or folklore.

I’m fascinated by the idea that animals can have aesthetic preferences. That they know beauty. Not (or not only) because it serves some kind of function (like an indicator of health, vigour or nutrition), but just because there are things they feel attracted to — which are not always explicable. Why is something beautiful to you? Beauty is elusive to humans, too. 

a final drink

To me, it makes sense that we should no longer think of insects as automatons that just carry out tasks and respond mechanically to their surroundings. Instead, we can think of them as agents who experience the world in multi-sensory ways, and are attracted (or repulsed) to the smells, textures, colours and shapes around them.

Beauty, a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. 

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My thoughts are inspired by feminist writers Hustak & Meijers — this is a good read:

Hustak, C. & Myers, N. (2012) Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters. d i f f e r e n c e s: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 23 (3), doi 10.1215/10407391-1892907