Monday, April 28, 2014

Chernobyl’s Bugs: The Art And Science Of Life After Nuclear Fallout


A squash bug Coreus marginatus from Polesskoje, Ukraine, found August 15, 1990. "The left feeler lacks a section and is shorter," says Hesse-Honegger. (Watercolor, Zürich 1990.

In 1986, a Swiss artist set out to document insects from regions affected by the Chernobyl disaster, and science is starting to catch up with her.

If you stare at one of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s watercolors long enough, you’ll notice something’s a little bit off with the insects she depicts. There’s a bent antennae or a crumpled wing—the deformities make it clear to the viewer that this bug is not “normal.”

A Zurich-based artist and scientific illustrator, Hesse-Honegger has been peering into microscopes and drawing malformed insects for decades. Her bright paintings of “true bugs”—insects like firebugs, aphids and cicadas that all share a unique sucking mouth organ—often focus on their anatomy, and look like something out of a beautiful old-school entomology textbook.

She got her start working is an illustrator at an entomology lab at the University of Zurich in the 1960s, where she drew flies and other insects that had been exposed to different mutagens, such as x-rays and ethyl methanesulfonate (a compound similar to Agent Orange). But, perhaps her most famous work comes from areas affected by the explosion at a nuclear power station in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986. 

Knowing that severe radiation exposure can cause mutations in the string of DNA letters found within cells, and that those mutations might cause deformities in a creature’s body plan, Hesse-Honegger went looking for her preferred bugs in regions under the Chernobyl cloud, first in Sweden and then in southern Switzerland.

“All living beings in areas contaminated by the radioactive cloud were now in a situation comparable to that of laboratory flies exposed to radioactivity,” she says. And when she looked, collecting 50 to 500 insects at various locations, she did find insects with slight abnormalities in their anatomy.

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