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New Exhibition Presents Insects Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before

Microsculpture: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss opens Nov. 19

PHILADELPHIA, October 21, 2022

The intricate shapes, colors and structures of insects are dizzying in their variety, but without the power of an optical microscope or camera lens, their astonishing complexity remains mostly hidden to the human eye. Until now.


A new exhibition opening Saturday, Nov. 19 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University presents a new perspective on insects and reveals their unexpected and often breathtaking beauty. Microsculpture: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss is a series of beautifully lit, high magnification portraits that capture the microscopic form of insects in incredibly large-format, high-resolution detail.


Each photograph makes visible the many intricate adaptations to the form of insects—what entomologists call their microsculpture. These extraordinary images invite viewers to contemplate the hidden details of the insect world in a unique and engaging way.


Award-winning British photographer Levon Biss created the exhibition which showcases the insect collection of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in Oxford, England. Pinned specimens from the Academy’s own world-class Entomology Collection are added to provide visitors an up-close look at the actual size of insects compared to similar-looking insects in the photographs.


Microsculpture offers us an incredible look at the tiny intricate details that make up the body of insects all around us but that we can’t see without the aid of special magnifying equipment,” said Academy President and CEO Scott Cooper. “Now is the perfect time to experience this show, as the Academy is rounding out its 2022 celebration of Water Year and launching Biodiversity Year in 2023.


How he did it


Each of the 37 images on display in Microsculpture took about four weeks to create and was made from around 8,000 separate photographs taken using microscope lenses. The photographs are printed in large-scale formats, with insects that are millimeters long being presented at up to 9 feet tall.


In a video accompanying the show, Biss explains his process:


  • Each image from the Microsculpture project is created from around 8,000 individual photographs. The pinned insect is placed on an adapted microscope stage that enables me to have complete control over the positioning of the specimen in front of the lens. I shoot with a 36-megapixel camera that has a 10x microscope objective attached to it via a 200mm prime lens.
  • I photograph the insect in approximately 30 different sections, depending on the size of the specimen.Each section is lit differently with strobe lights to bring out the micro sculptural beauty of that section of the body.
  • For example, I will light and shoot just one antenna, then after I have completed this area, I will move onto the eye and the lighting set up will change entirely to suit the texture and contours of that specific part area of the body. I continue this process until I have covered the whole surface area of the insect.

Biss’ work covers a wide range of photographic genres, from portrait to documentary and sport. His photographs have appeared on the covers of TIME, The New York Times, GQ and Sports Illustrated. His work has been exhibited around the world, including in museum collections.


Microsculpture: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss, from the collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, is on view through April 23, 2023.



To download images, visit the Press Room. Here is the caption information for the six images posted:


Amazonian Purple Warrior Scarab, Peru. Coprophanaeus lancifer (Coleoptera, Scarabaeidae).

This large and impressive scarab beetle is found widely across the Amazon Basin. This species is particularly active at dusk when the contrast in color between the black horn and the blue body is enhanced and helps individuals to recognize others of the same species. Although belonging to a group of scarab beetles which mainly consume dung, this and related species have switched to feeding on dead animals. The toothed, blade-like area at the front of the head and the serrated front legs are thought to help in breaking up tough carrion. Credit: ©Levon Biss


Jewel Longhorn Beetle, Nigeria. Species of the genus Sternotomis (Coleoptera, Cerambycidae).
Once magnified, the secret to the spectacular patterning of this beetle is revealed—a covering of extremely fine pigmented scales similar to those of butterflies and moths. Credit: ©Levon Biss


Orchid Cuckoo Bee, Brazil. Exaerete frontalis (Hymenoptera, Apidae).
The orchid cuckoo bee is the most spectacular of all bees in terms of size, color and microsculpture. We usually think of bees as benign, helpful creatures, but Exaerete is a cuckoo bee. Instead of collecting pollen and constructing their own nests, female cuckoo bees enter the nests of other bees and lay their eggs in the host’s brood cells. This particular specimen has grown to a large size by consuming the pollen diligently collected by its host. Credit: ©Levon Biss


Pleasing Fungus Beetle, Bolivia. Species of the genus Brachysphaenus (Coleoptera, Erotylidae).

Close relatives of ladybirds, this species of pleasing fungus beetles show a seemingly endless combination of bright colors, spots, stripes and other patterns. Their attractive colors are not there to please humans of course; rather the striking decoration advertises a sophisticated chemical defense system to predators. Credit: ©Levon Biss


Splendid-necked Dung Beetle, Madagascar. Helictopleurus splendidicollis (Coleoptera, Scarabaeidae)

Arguably the most attractively marked dung beetle in the world, it is thought that after the extinction of all the large animals in Madagascar, this beetle survived by switching from feeding on dung to feeding on dead animals. Credit: ©Levon Biss


Tortoise Beetle, China. Platypria melli (Coleoptera, Chrysomelidae).

The wonderfully complex shape of the tortoise beetle is a composite of bumps, pits, wrinkles and rows of spines. Light passing through the specimen further reveals areas where the wing cases are paper-thin. The function of the spines is unclear but can be assumed to be a physical defense or to help camouflage the insect on its host plant. Credit: ©Levon Biss