• March 28, 2016

Meet the Bugs Living in Your Backyard

Alexa Keefe

Carpenter ants. Weevils. Wasps. These are some of the bugs Daniel Kariko has found hanging out on the screen door of his home, on his car, or crawling on the bright orange walls of his office on the campus of East Carolina University, where he is an assistant professor of photography.

[Long-legged Fly]
Long-legged fly, Christmas cactus flowerpot, kitchen window

What might seem like an uninteresting speck of black, brown, or gray—something we might be inclined to shoo out the window or perhaps not notice accidentally squashing—has been a source of fascination for Kariko ever since he first looked at one under a microscope. Here, their colors and shapes come to life. They become characters in an otherworldly, yet classical drama—Rembrandt meets Star Wars, to cite two of Kariko’s inspirations.

Unidentified moth, office hallway

Kariko’s first introduction into the potential of combining photography and microscopic imaging was when he was shown the scanning electron microscope (SEM) in the university’s biology lab. He then started noticing interesting little insects popping up around his home, part of a new subdivision on what used to be agricultural land in the rural town of Greenville, North Carolina. The seed of an idea was planted.

Dryophthorine weevil, front porch doormat

He began collecting the insects as he went about his daily activities, preserving them in the freezer. When he got another chance to spend time in the lab, he brought them in for a look. The subtleties amazed him. And he realized that there was something interesting about anthropomorphizing them by photographing their portraits. His first subject was a carpet beetle larvae. He has since photographed more than 40 insects.

Brown and black paper wasp, back porch screen door

While SEM technology renders an incredibly crisp, detailed image, it does so in black and white. Kariko had seen examples of these types of images being assigned false colors after the fact. It struck him that something was being lost in translation, so he began photographing the bugs first under a stereoscopic microscope lit by a LED, which captures the natural, albeit enhanced, colors.

Under the Table, Back Porch, May 6th  [Kudzu Bug]
Kudzu bug, under the table, back porch

He arranges the little insect bodies in his microscopic portrait studio (“I am losing the dexterity in my fingers,” he laughs). He first looks at each of the insects he’s collected under the stereoscopic microscope—examining their color, their attitude—and if there’s something that speaks to him he goes ahead and makes the photographs. He then scans the insect using the SEM, being careful to maintain the same position. The two images are then overlaid as a composite. With 15 to 20 hours of postproduction work on each image, he only goes on to photograph the bugs he really likes.

Cuckoo wasp, window screen

Those he considers the most successful aren’t the ones immediately recognizable as a specific species, he says, but rather those that invite us to recognize the patterns in their faces and apply certain human characteristics. In Kariko’s experience, that perceived character can be subjective—an insect seen by one viewer as conniving might look pensive to someone else. For instance, “Weevils have a Star Wars quality about them,” Kariko says of his favorite bug to photograph.

Baby mantis, top of the parking meter

Perceived personalities aside, the really cool thing for Kariko is that these ordinary insects are all around us, all the time. They are visible evidence of the human impact on the landscape as development constantly redraws boundaries between us and the natural environment. “We see our houses as hermetically sealed boxes,” he says, “but this is where they live.”

See the full cast of characters from Daniel Kariko’s Suburban Symbiosis: Insectum Domesticus on his website.

There are 12 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Mo
    April 1, 2016

    Can’t say I like bugs but these photos are gorgeous. Fabulous work.

  2. Susan Hayek-Kent
    March 31, 2016

    amazingly beautiful photos. some are scary, some make me laugh, but each allows me revel in their intricacies.
    we use no poison in our house or on our land. preserving all the life here, I hope.

  3. Dariusz
    March 30, 2016

    Amazing interesting artickle about the bugs. Beautiful facinating collection!
    Very good work!

  4. Jade
    March 30, 2016


  5. Anne
    March 30, 2016

    Although most bugs send me running in the wrong direction, I find these pictures to be absolutely beautiful. The insects are intricate and complicated and their instincts and daily duties in their little lives are amazing I’m sure. Thanks for posting these.

  6. Adrian Gonzalez
    March 29, 2016

    Greaat collection!, too much perfection in the little nature, and its just outside our doors =) I may steal one pic for mi facebook background hehe

  7. tia
    March 28, 2016

    All life is beautiful.

  8. Kofi elliot
    March 28, 2016

    I wish some my fellow Africans will see this. They will leave the devil alone.

  9. Tara kapur
    March 28, 2016

    Amazing close ups make these bugs interesting

  10. Brooke Hudson
    March 28, 2016

    Did not know bugs could be so interesting. Great work. Thanks.

  11. Jacqui
    March 28, 2016

    I do not like bugs! A few are interesting and more tolerable but for the most part, I find them to be destructive, annoying and/or disgusting.
    I spend a good deal of money every Summer on poisons and repellents.
    Bugs attack my garden, invade my cellar, cover my screen door, creep under the door, etc…I see no point for many bugs.
    The Praying Mantis is an interesting creature. Bees are pollinators. Butterflies are beautiful.
    Ants are disgusting, as are roaches, and so many others.

  12. barbara
    March 28, 2016

    Absolutely facinating!!!!
    Beautiful work!

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