This month we are celebrating ‘What’s Growing’ at ALNC! Each spring brings colorful flowers, but with the flowers comes a delicate balance with insects and animals that help pollinate and disperse seeds. However, many insects and animals may also eat or damage the beautiful blooms in the process—anyone that has ever kept a garden can tell you how much of a pest some critters can be!
Our featured scientist this month is considered the “mother of entomology”—the study of insects—and was one of the first people to pay close attention to the relationship between plants and insects. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717) was a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator. She grew up in a family of artists and was encouraged to draw and perfect her skill from a very young age. As a young girl, she drew the silkworms feeding on the mulberry tree in her yard. Through keen observation, Maria learned that these silkworms and other caterpillars changed into the moths and butterflies that could be found later in the year. She began collecting these insects and drawing them in the difference phases of metamorphosis.
Unlike many other naturalists or artists at the time, Maria drew her subjects while they were still alive and in their natural environments (not dead, taxidermied, and posed). She was also one of the first naturalists to emphasize the ecology of the organism, or their relationship to the environment, by drawing them on their host plants and including examples of the damage they left behind on the plant. Today our understanding of plant and insect interactions not only keeps all of our gardens going each summer, but allows scientists to understand and save species like the honey bee that play an important role in food production.
At the age of 28, she published her first book of illustrations on insect metamorphosis and then produced three more books in the following four years. While her work is now considered revolutionary, her lack of formal biology or art education as well as her gender meant that her colleagues were hesitant to cite her work and she stayed in relative obscurity until the 20th century.
Come visit the Aldo Leopold Nature Center this month and learn to identify and craft some of our native wildflowers, practice YOUR naturalist drawing skills like Maria Sibyll Merian, and learn how farmers and scientist depend on healthy soil and insect populations grow food in our changing world.