These Invisible Roommates Will Take Your Breath Away


Story at-a-glance -

  • Photographer Daniel Kariko takes breathtaking photos of household insects
  • Kariko spends 15 to 25 hours on each photo, which he creates by combining images from two microscopes – a stereoscopic microscope and a scanning electron microscope
  • Insects are the most diverse and species-rich creatures on the planet, but many species are currently threatened

By Dr. Becker

Most of us would rather not think about the bugs that might be hiding in our basements, closets or, worse, bedrooms. Except, perhaps, for photographer Daniel Kariko, who has framed these “invisible roommates” in a whole new light by taking breathtaking photos of household bugs.

"With the naked eye, you see the insect as brown bug. But when you enlarge it, you really see the wonderful colors that come from the process,” he told CNN.1

Kariko spends 15 to 25 hours on each photo, which he creates by combining images from two microscopes – a stereoscopic microscope and a scanning electron microscope.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so to get the full effect of just how incredible Kariko’s photos are, you can view them on CNN. Carpet beetles, ants, boll weevils and moths are just some of his subjects, and once you view them up close you’ll probably never look at them the same way again.

Beautiful Aliens Among Us

When you see insects up close – really up close – “they kind of look like characters you might meet in the cantina scene in ‘Star Wars,’” Kariko told CNN.2 Indeed, you’ll see vivid, almost luminescent, colors, long snouts and antennas, large eyes and pinchers that are as terrifying as they are fascinating.

Kariko has completed about 50 portraits so far, all from insects he happens to find dead. The project began in 2011. That’s when East Carolina University’s biology department allowed other departments to use its equipment. (Kariko teaches photography at the university).

He begins by shooting a photo of the insect under a stereoscopic microscope, which captures the vibrant colors. Kariko uses tiny LED lights to illuminate the bugs and tweaks the lighting further using reflectors and diffusers.

After a handful of shots using varying vocal lengths, he moves on to the scanning electron microscope.

This latter microscope allows for the stunning detail found in the photos. The end result is a combination of Kariko’s artistic vision and technological talent. WIRED explained:3

This [electron microscope] image must correspond with the stereoscopic microscope image in terms of focal length, angle, and the like, so Kariko places that image on his laptop for comparison while shooting.

Once everything is aligned, he takes another half dozen photos at different focal lengths.This can take hours, but even then, Kariko is far from finished. He’ll spend hours using Photoshop to carefully blend the images into a final print …

He loves providing a new perspective on these insects and has drawn inspiration for lighting and angle from 17th century Dutch painters like Johannes Vermeer and Jan van Eyck.”

Insects Are Incredibly Undervalued

Many people view insects as nothing more than pests, and you may kill them without a second thought, but insects deserve some serious respect. Part of what Kariko hopes to gain from his photography project is collaboration with scientists, who may be able to see the insects in new ways.

An international team of 100 researchers that mapped the evolution of insects revealed insects were among the first creatures to inhabit the earth. They arrived 480 million years ago, together with plants, formed some of the earliest ecosystems on the planet.4 According to Rutgers University:5

They found that when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, dragonflies and damselflies had already been there for many millions of years.

They also determined that insects developed wings long before any other animal could do so, and at nearly the same time that land plants first grew substantially upwards to form forests.”

Insect Populations Are Declining

Insects are the most diverse and species-rich creatures on the planet, but many species are currently threatened. Since the year 1500, on average, 67 percent of invertebrate species have declined by 45 percent.6

Stanford biology professor Rodolfo Dirzo and colleagues believe we are in the early stages of the planet's 6th mass extinction event, and this includes insects.

Invertebrates such as beetles, butterflies, spiders, and worms have seen declines of nearly 50 percent in the past 35 years. As with larger animals, habitat loss is a major factor in their declines.

The analysis included data on only 452 such species – out of an estimated 1.4 million that have so far been described. So less than 1 percent of invertebrate species have been studied for potential declining numbers.

Still, the finding suggests the problem may extend much further than was ever expected. Ben Collen with University College London, who co-authored the analysis, stated:7

"We were shocked to find similar losses in invertebrates as with larger animals, as we previously thought invertebrates to be more resilient …

While we don't fully understand what the long-term impact of these declining numbers will be, currently we are in the potentially dangerous position of losing integral parts of ecosystems without knowing what roles they play within it."