What’s your favorite invasive insect? The emerald ash borer? The Asian long-horned beetle? The pine shoot beetle? The brown marmorated stink bug?
Local artist Maggie Gourlay’s illustrations of those four destructive critters have been engraved into stamps that fans can use to make souvenir prints. That’s the most playful aspect of “Adaptation/Migration in the Anthropocene,” a show that combines art, science and buggy fun. Some of the biological information relates directly to the National Zoo, the show’s host.
“Adaptation/Migration” is the second installation exhibited in SPACE4, a mobile gallery initiated in October by Cultural DC. Gourlay was inspired by the venue, a 40-foot-long converted shipping container, because many of the 12 invasive insect species she drew for the show made their way to North America in similar big metal boxes.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is Gourlay’s set of 12 colored-pencil illustrations. In addition to the four incised onto stamps, the insect rogues’ gallery includes the red imported fire ant, the Mediterranean fruit fly and the Formosan subterranean termite. All but one were drawn from photographs. (The stink bug derives from a real model.)
A few of the species have been in North America since the 19th century, but several didn’t arrive until the 1990s or later.
The artist rendered the insects approximately 10 times their actual size, which makes the European gypsy moth, for one, a little overwhelming. But the enlargement was necessary for tiny creatures such as the Asian citrus psyllid, whose petiteness makes it an inconspicuous stowaway.
The installation also features curtains and strips printed with pictures of the bugs. Images of insects are projected on a video of water flowing from melting ice, a reminder of global warming or — to use the more precise term — anthropogenic climate change.
“Anthropo,” from the Greek word for human, also is part of the show’s title. A proposed term for the current geological period, “Anthropocene” spotlights mankind’s recent enormous influence on its environment. Warmer temperatures create new habitats for encroaching tropical species, and global trade brings exotic pests along with those cheaper products. Citrus psyllids didn’t cross the Pacific under their own power.
Many invasive insect species traveled here on or in wooden pallets, which is why Gourlay included pallets in this array. She propped them against a wall and turned them into planters for two species, English ivy and golden pothos, that are highly effective at purifying interior air of such contaminants as formaldehyde and carbon monoxide.
That’s good, but what’s not so great is that both are invasive species. Golden pothos, in fact, is so aggressive an interloper that it’s sometimes called “the devil’s ivy.”
When Gourlay first conceived this project, she didn’t know it would end up at the Smithsonian zoo. (The mobile gallery will remain parked near the visitors center during the annual ZooLights festival.) It’s an ideal place, since one of her chosen bugs is the subject of a study at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute near Front Royal.
That’s where, as part of the Smithsonian-led Forest Global Earth Observatory Network (ForestGEO), ecologists are monitoring a 50-acre plot whose trees are under assault. Just this year, an ongoing “mortality census” reveals, the property has lost 10 percent of its ash trees.
Their nemesis? The emerald ash borer, which Gourlay so carefully depicted. Sleek and shimmeringly green, the illustrated bug appears as elegant as a piece of jade jewelry. But the real ones are likely to kill most of several endangered species of ashes — large trees that create much of a forest’s canopy.
Tracking the effects of the borer, a beetle native to Asia, is crucial to the zoo, said ForestGEO research assistant Ryan Helcoski. The insect, he said, “is greatly changing our forest environment. Without healthy, resilient forests, you don’t have animals like we have here.”
So pandas, trees and beetles all fit together, just like the parts of this show — and the Smithsonian’s efforts to conserve flora and fauna. In an anthropocentric age, bugs still have their roles.
Plus, their wings, legs, antennae and aerodynamic thoraxes look really cool when streamlined to a profile that can be stamped on a scrap of paper.
National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-633-4888. nationalzoo.si.edu.
Dates: Through Jan. 1.