The Nat

Long-horned bee (Trichocerapis sp.) from South America.

Bradley Tsalyuk of The Nat saw Sam Droege’s insect photographs online, but these weren’t the average pictures. 

These photos gave Tsalyuk and others who viewed them online a completely new perspective. 

“Many of the coolest-looking bugs are right in people’s yards,” says Droege, a wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey. 

“They’re exotic just because people haven’t seen them at the same scale as dogs and horses and cats.”

The exhibit developer, Tsalyuk agrees and he and The Nat are presenting “Insects Face to Face,” a yearlong exhibit with these larger-than-life photos. 

“It’s a photography exhibition on the fourth floor and it features these really compelling macro photographs from the U.S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory Monitoring Lab on the East Coast. 

“They’re just so astounding that we wanted to share them in the context of the museum. The images range from bees, moths and beetles, but they’re just different colors, patterns and textures that you wouldn’t see with the naked eye.”

Tsalyuk and his team sorted through 800 photographs and pared that down to 36 for the exhibition. 

“We have a purple orchid bee and you’d never think you’d see a bee that color,” Tsalyuk says. “We have a surprisingly cute photo of a cockroach. You wouldn’t think a cockroach would look this way—almost gentlemanly. He looks very proper. There’s a velvet ant, which is covered in fuzzy white fur. The detail is astounding. Those are three highlights for me.”

Tsalyuk describes the photographs as fluorescent, menacing and cute. Macro photography allows the insects to “become more than a dot on the wall.”

Researchers snapped the photographs in search of identification tools like native bees and the plants and insects they interact with. The photos are taken at high and low magnification, using a little stacker—a screw-driven sled that the camera sits on. It is programmed to take a picture every so many micron. The software compiles them.

“We have created a catalog of 4,500 super high-res photographs that are used all over the world for things like this,” Droege says. 

“We don’t care. We’re the federal government and we do this as a public service. We make them to help with the identification of insects—particular the bee species.”

Droege says this particular use is important because many people do not have access to museums.

“Museums are going away,” he says. “The Nat still has an active collection. I spend a lot of time there. I love the museum and found some interesting specimens back there. I’m your typical bee nerdologist. I play with a microscope all day.”

It’s even amazing for Droege to see the photos enlarged.

“We never print these things out,” Droege says matter of fact. “We have no budget to print things out. We don’t have traveling exhibits. People get in touch with us and say, ‘We’d love to put together an exhibit of your photographs.’ We tell them they’re really high resolution and that’s great, but you’re on your own.”

The photographs are public domain so anyone may use them as they wish. 

“We retain no rights,” Droege says. “It’s somewhat expensive to put together an exhibit and have them printed out professionally. The museums auction the prints at a gala or give them away to donors. People sell our photos all the time. We don’t consider that a bad thing.

“Of course, the average person can get all these same pictures for free on Flickr.”

Droege says, until his daughter notified him, he had no idea the photos were going viral. 

“One day, one of my daughters Facebooked me and said, ‘Papa, someone has stolen your pictures.’ I looked and there was no attribution, but I recognized the photos. They’re on Reddit and more than 240,000 people have viewed it. The comments are sometimes vulgar, but it’s funny. 

“That woke us up. We had a unique opportunity to reach people we don’t reach. I get to look at these under the microscope. You see exactly the same thing I see. They’re as beautiful as the flowers they’ve landed on. I hope guests to The Nat have an appreciation for the beauty of the Earth on the very smallest scale. It’s similar to what the Hubble Space Telescope photos did in understanding the beauty of the stars.”

“Insects Face to Face” is free for members and included with general admission.

The Nat recently opened “Living Lab,” a new exhibition with live animals, who are “creepy, crawly and totally cool.” The facility has a Vivarium, a facility in which the staff cars for live animals, in the basement of the museum. 

“They’re two different exhibits, but they have some connections,” says Tsalyuk, of the exhibition on level one, just off the atrium. 

“It’s rooted in this idea of building empathy using our live animal collection. The museum had this collection of animals, some on display with exhibits or animal ambassadors through education and classes.”

The Nat’s staff wanted to share the collection with its visitors. Living Lab showcases everything from the stinging and scaly to the fuzzy and flesh-eating, including a red diamond rattlesnake, an observation beehive, a Gila monster and centipedes and arachnids.

“There are dozens of regional animals and neighbors in our local mountains and desert,” he says. “We wanted to share the story of how amazing they are to the local ecosystems. These aren’t the cutest and fuzziest animals in our region. They’re creepy crawly.

“Sometimes this is challenging for our visitors. They have fears they have to get over. We want to correct misconceptions about these animals and show them in a positive light.”

He also has flesh-eating beetles that are useful to the museum, as the bugs clean skeletal specimens for the staff. 

“Guests can see what this process looks like,” Tsalyuk says. “We are putting in an observation beehive, which connects through the window.

“Both exhibitions are just amazing. The two share this connection of trying to show the natural world in this light. They’re under-appreciated and misunderstood and we’re showing them in a new way. We’re hoping that visitors are just as astounded as we are.”