The national science standards mandate a set of topics for all studies of organisms:
- Their morphology — that is, their form, body parts, and other physical characteristics.
- Their lifecycles.
- Their habitats.
- Their relationships with humans.
What are the relationships among insects and humans?
When you think of insect interactions with humans, you might think about negative interactions:
- insects bite people
- they are vectors for disease
- they destroy crops
- they contaminate food
You might also think of some positive interactions:
- insects like honeybees and silkworms produce things humans use
- other insects are themselves used by humans as food, or for medicines, dyes, and other products
- insects pollinate crops
- they clean up the environment by scavenging
- they inspire human artists
Are you raising your eyebrows about insects and art? Consider these musical compositions:
- “El Grillo” by Josquin Des Prez
- “Glow, Little Glowworm” by Johnny Mercer
- Stravinsky’s “Summer” from The Four Seasons — it has lots of insect sounds
- “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov
- “High Hopes” by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen
- “The Ants Go Marching”
- “La Cucaracha”
- “Let’s Do It,” by Cole Porter
- “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”
- “The Boll Weevil”
There is another “habitat” where you can often find insects: the visual arts.
Insects “live” in all kinds of art forms, from sculpture to architecture to fashion. It would be hard to find any great painter who has never once drawn or painted an insect. Have students collect examples and add them to a bulletin board over the course of your insect study. This is also a good topic for practicing web searches.
But there are two categories of art which were particulary big on insects. Neither gets studied much in the classroom, so here is your chance to introduce your students to something new.
- First, Ancient Egyptian art. Images of beetles (scarabs) are plentiful in Ancient Egyptian art, in both two and three dimensions. National Geographic offers a thorough discussion of the scarab beetle.
- An easy reading version includes the story of Kephir, the scarab-headed god, with some beautiful pictures.
- Examples of scarab carvings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Making a scarab is an excellent class art project. Have students observe the carvings and photos of the beetles, and then give them clay or Crayola Model Magic out and let the kids try their hands.
Second, Art Nouveau. This style, a reaction to the heavy, formalized Victiorian styles of art, used many images from nature, and insects were a favorite motif. Louis Comfort Tiffany and Alphonse Mucha were a couple of famous insect fanciers from this period. You can find many examples of insects in useful objects like lamps, silverware, and wallpaper. Click here for an online Art Nouveau exhibit from the National Gallery.
Dover has some excellent books of pictures for both these schools of art:
- Art Nouveau Animal Designs And Patterns has 60 color plates, including many fine insects.
- Art Nouveau Fantasy Animal Jewelry Designs is another source of inspiration. Both scarabs and Art Nouveau animal designs have been used extensively in jewelry. This could make a fun class project.
- From Nature to Ornament: Organic Forms in the Art Nouveau Style brings more art history discussion and information.
- Ancient Egyptian Designs for Artists and Craftspeople
- Ancient Egyptian Designs and Motifs CD-ROM and Book gives you the images on disc.
Since you have been practicing observing and capturing generalizations in science lessons, you can have students use those skills on these images.
Find as many as you can and examine them. Compare the two types. Ask questions like these:
- Are the shapes open or closed?
- Are they realistic or stylized?
- Do they repeat or are they individual motifs?
- Are they symmetrical or assymetrical?
- Are the colors simple or complex?
Help students figure out what makes an Art Nouveau image look like Art Nouveau, and what makes an Egyptian image look Egyptian.
While you’re at it, have students find photographs of the insects they’re admiring in works of art.
There are also some interactions between insects and humans that are not as clear-cut. For example, Napoleon’s troops in Haiti were winnowed from 25,000 to 3,000 by yellow fever, a disease spread by mosquitos. This was bad news for Napoleon and his troops, but was it bad news for the victorious Haiti? This insect-influenced event was one of the main reasons for the Louisiana Purchase, so without those mosquitoes, we might be speaking French today. Were the insects good guys or bad guys in this case?
This, too, would be a good writing assignment. Have students write a story showing how the world might be different today if Napoleon’s troops had not run into those mosquitoes, or arguing the question of who won that battle: Toussaint L’Ouverture, the people of Haiti, or the mosquitos?
Read about yellow fever, Napoleon, and Haiti at these links:
To broaden the topic, why not stage a mock trial? Put insects on trial for their relationships with humans. You can choose attorneys, judges, and witnesses, give everyone time to prepare, and stage a mock trial. Other students can be reporters, posting their reports on hallway bulletin boards to keep everyone up to date on the outcome of the trial.
Use a PDF Mock Trial Mini-Manual with lots of helpful details:
A final fun writing assignment would be a personal essay. “Now that I have learned all the good and bad things about human and insect interactions, I still like/dislike insects” or “… I have changed my mind and I now like/dislike insects.”
If you choose this assignment, be sure to seize the opportunity to make some charts and graphs.
Of historical interest — You can see a clip of Toussaint’s last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/
Thank you for sharing that!