May 19, 2018

1. Wasp details, summer 1991 (ink on acetate)
2. Wasp genitalia, summer 1991 (ink on tracing paper)

You are probably wondering what you are looking at exactly. Well, these are close up parts of solitary wasps from Papua, New Guinea. This is one of those times where the story behind the art is probably way more interesting and complete than the sketches you see here. In the summer of 1991 I worked at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and I did illustrations for a couple botanists and one entomologist who worked there. It’s kind of crazy as I have plenty of copies of finished plants and plant parts, but I could only find a few sketches of wasps. Not really sure why I have such scant bits of these ferocious bugs to remind me of that work, but I have some great stories about the people I met on the entomology floor of the Cal Academy.

So, now it’s time for the story about drawing wasp genitalia and I need to start with some kind of disclaimer or explanation. The entomologist I worked for at the Academy, and all of the people I got to know on both the entomology and botany floors, was amazing. My entomologist was so passionate about his studies of these solitary wasps from a far-away place. When I told my friends, and husband at the time, what I was doing there I was always met with a bit of a smirk or snort. Of course I don’t remember my husband at the time smiling about someone drawing wasp genitalia. He seemed to be more concerned with my possible deteriorating vision as a result of my looking back and forth at microscopic bug parts under a microscope (sometimes using an electron microscope) and then refocusing my eyes to look at a sheet of acetate where I inked in the lines of the wasp. He told me I should be getting more than 10 dollars an hour if I was going to go blind. Somehow, I just didn’t mind.

I thought all of it was so interesting. I loved the whole process I had to go through to complete just one final illustration. If this is all too odd for words, you have probably stopped reading. But if not, here’s how it went for each wasp I illustrated. First, the entomologist would prepare the genitalia bit he wanted me draw and placed it in a shallow dish of liquid (probably water). Then he placed it under the lens of a special projector that projected the specimen onto the wall of a windowless room that was lit only by light from the projector. Once he adjusted the picture on the wall to the size he wanted, I taped a small piece of tracing paper on that very spot. Then I used a pretty hard-leaded pencil to trace the structure and hairs you see in the second illustration. And once the sketch was done I then went into a well-lit room by a window and rendered the structure with a very fine point mechanical pen (.25 and .30 mm, that continuously clogged) on a sheet of acetate. Next, to add further detail to some “hair-like” strands of the lines I took a fine-pointed blade and scraped away some of the ink to make the lines go from thin to thick then back to thin again. “Lions and Tiger and Hairs, oh my!”

I guess the real question here is was it funny that I illustrated wasp genitalia, or was it funny that I enjoyed working really hard to make the best darn wasp genitalia I could? And I guess what’s really funny at this point in the story is that I assumed that each hairy little bug bit I illustrated was the actual wasp penis. But it isn’t! I never really asked him much about what I was drawing. And I only recently figured it all out when I looked it up online the other day—literally just the other day. Back then I knew that if you looked at the back end of these wasps, they looked different depending on the species. (I am guessing wasps didn’t need drawings to help them decide who was the male and who was the female.) But if you are a bug scientist, this is how you can tell one from another. I remember learning that you can look at wings or the head to also tell male from female. Look at the mandibles of that beast—at the very top of the bug hierarchy of predator bugs. Right? Are they afraid of you and you afraid of them? I’ve had them chase me…

From end to end I was fascinated with these wasps. But I was all wrong about their “back end” anatomy back then. It turns out that those hairy feather-like structures come in pairs and actually surround the penis on either side. So, I never did draw a wasp penis, just one side of the hairy outside covering. Who knew? I wonder why I didn’t wonder about it back then. Maybe the idea that this hairy feather like thing was a penis was kind of amusing to me. But I suspect the answer is even funnier than that. My entomologist had such passion for his work, but I was more interested in just making the best genitalia I could with no questions asked. I’m sure he would have explained it to me if I’d asked, but since I was on the clock it was all business the minute I walked into his office, with no time for explanations. Most of our conversations took place as I was starting a new specimen and when I came back from lunch. He frequently asked me then if I had had any caffeinated drinks, as he was concerned that my hand would be too shaky to draw. I guess the final part of this long winded disclaimer is that I never thought he was funny or ridiculous for studying such things. I got it. And he carried me along with his enthusiasm and I loved all the steps it took to get the final art of male wasp genitalia (penis coverings) from Papua New Guinea.

There were lots of reasons to snigger and smile that summer, I guess. Thinking back, probably the least funny bits were the actual wasp bits I was drawing, but I still smile when I think about some other characters I met on the entomology floor that summer. For example, one morning, as I walked down the hall behind one of the younger entomologists, he suddenly whipped around and presented me with a tiny box. It was a pair of copulating insects that had been captured, pinned and preserved in the act. Of course I was startled, but not as startled as he. He said, “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.” Then as quickly as he had first turned to look at me, he turned back around and hurried on his way. I remember thinking then as now, who did he think I was? Pretty funny, right?

Another morning I rode up in the elevator with another entomologist that enjoyed describing something called a “Skipper”—a tiny butterfly-like creature. With a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye he told me that he had spent his career studying this particular insect. Once we got to our floor he asked me if I’d like to look at some of the Skippers he had collected, but I noticed he was a bit slow getting out of the door. As we walked to his office he told me that he was about to have knee replacement surgery. It seems that he had compromised his knee joints from years of crouching in fields and balancing heavy collection boxes on his thighs with bent knees. But once he had a collection box in his grasp he was transported to a field of skippers. And I was there along with him. As a little girl I remembered these tiny golden things flitting from flower in a neighbors back yard. Ah yes, I got it too.

Of course the people who studied spiders were also on the entomology floor. I had a few encounters with those folks. Somehow I remember one “spider-guy’s” office as being more sinister and dark. Glad he didn’t ask me to draw any spider bits. I probably would have done it, but it would have seemed like Halloween all the time. Was I really ready to go blind squinting at spider parts for 10 dollars an hour? Too much for me, I think.

But the final and not very funny story of it all was when I told my entomologist that I was leaving. He was truly sad. So, when I finished my work on my final afternoon on the entomology floor at the Academy, he took me to a local, and very wonderful pastry shop, for a cup of tea and lovely sweet. And of course at that point, he didn’t really care if I had had any caffeine, as it didn’t matter if my hand shook. We visited for a time—don’t remember what we talked about—and he dropped me off at the BART station and that was that. I never went back as a Cal Academy employee. All future visits have been as a visitor. I’m sure such art would be done with a computer these days. Once you’ve drawn one bit of genitalia on the computer it’s just a bit of maneuvering that would need to done to elongate/shorten parts or add hairs. No more clogged mechanical pens and scraping. Of course now I do need glasses to clearly see this screen, write these words and create my art. But I can’t really blame it on my time with my entomologist or the solitary wasps from Papua New Guinea. It’s all due to just the passing of time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s