As I was cleaning out some old files, I came across this article written by me in 2005 for a class project. After I read it to my husband, he said I should post this. Here it is, unchanged:
TITLED: INSECT ORNAMENTS
My project is a collection of insects contained in clear glass ornaments hung on a miniature Christmas tree. Each ornament contains an arthropod collected during the fall months of 2005 from the UCONN campus grounds, around my home in Broad Brook, and from property near the Scantic River in East Windsor. Natural and synthetic plant materials were added to each ornament to represent the types of plant life found near the insects. Also hung on the tree are information cards about insects, and some cute little decorations obtained during the Halloween season.
This reason I selected the Christmas tree with ornaments as an art form is two fold. First, the ornaments serve as a way to showcase the insects’ intricate designs from a container that can be easily viewed. When we have the opportunity to look at an insect up close through a glass, it is less threatening then when insects are alive and moving quickly, which tends to scare people. Second, I wanted to use the Christmas tree theme to challenge the way in which insects are traditionally used by various cultures for holidays. As we know, insects are usually reserved for Halloween decorations or for themes related to death or illness, but insects are not so popular for Christmas decorations. There are exceptions such as beautiful butterflies and colorful dragonflies as ornaments, but it is very uncommon, and perhaps impossible to imagine a Christmas tree adorned with wasps, bees, stink bugs or centipedes, for most would find this offensive or ugly. However, I’m sure insects on a tree would capture observers’ attention and they may question why insects adorned this little Christmas tree.
In researching Christmas tree history, I discovered the use of Christmas trees was born from the worship of agriculture. The early Romans marked summer solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the God of agriculture. This was due to the fact that solstice meant good farming would be underway since the days would be longer and warmer. Also, homes were commonly decorated with evergreen boughs. In fact, long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. These beliefs lead to the use of firs, pines, and spruce as symbols. To me, it seemed like a natural fit to tie these two items together – insects and evergreen trees as a media for my project.
Insects, however, did not adorn the green symbols in ancient history, but they were however, worshiped in their own right for other reasons, such as resurrection as with the cicada beetles placed in the deceased mouths. The scarab beetle was associated with the generative forces of the rising sun and with the concepts of renewal. It was regarded in early Egyptian history as a symbol of rebirth and good luck. Ceramic scarab beetles are attached to the top of my miniature tree for this reason. Another example is how the Chinese cultures worshiped crickets because they believed they would bring good luck to their homes. Katydids were used as a symbol of fertility. It seems fitting to me that insects should bear the right to adorn Christmas trees because the trees symbolizes similar themes – birth, renewal, and good fortune. By placing them on my tree, I am attempting to connect them and challenge the themes.
While realizing there are many negative effects by harmful insects to human life and food, such as spreading of diseases through parasitic wasps, or the awful swarms of locust that can virtually destroy all valuable food sources for some areas, we also know that without insects many needed activities in our environment would slow or come to a complete halt. Insects provide many useful services as well. They serve to decompose organic matter, eat other harmful insects, serve as food for other animals, help solve forensic crimes, and provide pollination of flowers for fruit production. Not only are they helpful creatures, they have existed much longer than human beings on earth, more than 350 million years on every acre of land, plus they live in almost ever habitable place on earth, thus sharing space with them on this miniature tree, for me, was a way to help us see and understand their roles of insects with trees via a non traditional form.
Many different insects were captured for the insect ornament tree. A Monarch Butterfly is in one ornament on the top of the tree. My mother captured the monarch specimen in late August. She found a flock of Monarchs feeding on clover plants in a large field, and she said she quietly approached and stood still. She calmly reached down and captured one in her bare hands. The large Katydid in another ornament was found on the hood of my sister’s car, ironically she was pregnant at the time and has since delivered a baby girl. Perhaps that sign of fertility is not so imagined! Ladybugs are embedded in an ornament among milkweed seed plumes because I found a ladybug on a milkweed one day. Also milkweed is eaten by Monarch butterflies, thus a symbol of their food source on this tree. Spiders are sitting upon a yellow rose petal because I found three garden spiders on flowering plants in the campus floriculture garden. Wasps are over their paper wasp nest in another ornament. These wasps were found in a nest under a window’s storm shutters and it was interesting to see the larvae embedded in the individual cells. Grasshoppers were easy to capture during the warm days earlier in the season, as they were plentiful on campus and in the meadows of my parent’s property. I found a centipede under a rock and a sow bug under an acorn one day – both fast movers and tried to hide quickly, but captured all the same. Moths, bees, stink bugs, and other flying insects are displayed. One moth was found inside a college building near window shades of a similar color as the moth. My other sister, Rosalie, found a white moth in an office on a windowsill. If you look closely, you can find some of the captured insects and ants on bark pieces attached to the tree. And some fake, plastic insects of ladybugs, cockroaches, and houseflies are attached at the base of the tree.
Manipulating the insects as I created the ornaments proved beneficial as I observed so many different traits about the insects. I discovered that insects are not so scary when they don’t move. I would look at the intricate jointed appendages of the grasshoppers realizing they can be moved and posed into interesting, and sometimes funny positions. The exoskeleton of insects is much harder than I first realized, and often times it was difficult to pin the insects. I observed the spiders abdomen to discover the locations from which it expels its webbing. When inserting insects into the round glass ornaments, I learned how to move their wings carefully. It was fun to look at the colors and patterns closely. I had also collected many soft bodied insects, such as a wooley bear caterpillar, swallow tail butterfly caterpillar, and other small worm like insects, but upon defrosting them, they did not keep their shape and started to rot, so they were not used in this project.
Lastly, family members collected some insects. It was fun to hear of their stories. My sister in law collected insects from her pool filter, but discovered that laying them out to dry was not a good idea because they were quickly stolen as food by the birds above. My sister told me she would never put an insect in the freezer again because she felt guilty for ending its life. Many people would also approach me when I was outside on campus with a bug net in hand to see what I captured. When showing my insect ornaments to a friend, she just loved the one with the butterfly but shrieked when she saw the one containing simple wasps. All of these incidents enabled me to share my experience with insects and enhance my knowledge.
As a result of this project, I learned not to fear insects so much. I’m amazed by their architecture and ways in which they inhabit their earth, how they react to movements, and how they can manipulate their colors to mimic other insects, or send out chemical pheromones as warnings or to attract mates. I hope other will enjoy viewing my new insect ornament collection on the tree as much as I did!
By: Cathy F. Testa
Project – PLSC 125
Insects, Food and Culture
Fall 2005 UCONN
Photography by Rene Bechard
Copyright 2011-2013. All Rights Reserved
P.S.: I don’t have a photo of the “insect tree” written about back then, for if I did, I would share it with readers.
Visit again soon, Cathy T