The Microscope: eye of the age


   Total surveillance or pathway to liberation?


The CCTV of the infinitesimal in which we are all potentially guilty and in danger of being found out, as in a CSI police drama? Or recognition that the little things that run the world require a new bio perception of the small, smaller and still smaller and that together add up to the biggest reproach yet to the monetary economy? If insects and invertebrates could speak as one voice they would be telling us the biosphere can't take much more predation and capitalism.


Below: Around and about one very dead Dingy Skipper butterfly from Maltby Colliery spoil heap, South Yorks in 2008



Above: Images from the film

Three years ago to my astonishment I found by an intuitive use of macro lenses and digital zoom that I could get close, very close, to insect anatomy in the wild. A fraction of a millimetre this way or that and the image appearing in the eye piece was thrown out of focus. It was an exacting operation and only possible, at least as far as butterflies were concerned, in dull weather. The macro lens became the portal to a new world and I was glad to shed the skin of this world. I became lost to myself in a good way and when I recounted this experience I was surprised how compelling listeners, especially women, found it. It seemed they too wished to be transported and make their escape into this inverse of the galactic voyage and which also is a journey to emancipation in this world and the opposite therefore of a flight from the crushing problems facing humanity today. Ultimately this voyage is one of facts not fictions and does not deal in narratives and therefore the polar opposite of sci-fi.

After days looking through a macro lens, or microscope, these enlarged images of the small began to play havoc with my sense of proportion, both morally and physically. A butterfly egg lingered on as a giant football and what hatched from it a colossal, accusatory insect anaconda that demanded it be feed on its appropriate food plant, once it had polished off its first, high protein, meal of egg shell. My guilt over small things just grew and grew into an awful size and I would hold myself to account at the end of each day, wondering how many insects and invertebrates I had unknowingly, and involuntarily, crushed beneath my feet. I became inconsolable when I accidentally lost a Green Hairstreak egg. Daring to voice what was on my mind, the reprimands were not long in coming: "pity you don't have more important things to worry about", I was told - which temporarily eased my selective, and secular, bio Buddhism, for I would rather have rather aborted a million foetuses than lost this one butterfly egg from carelessness.

 Three years later and I still berate myself and at the same time am sick in the stomach when asked to honour our glorious dead on Remembrance Day, victims of an appalling inter-Imperialist war, part of the valorisation/devalorisation, gut-wrenching cycle of capitalist production. Sorrow over this lost egg and its caterpillar that emerged into a barren world only to promptly die of lack of nourishment, does not diminish my outrage at the needless loss of human life. On the contrary it grows because of it, for this is not an either/or situation but both: the butterfly egg is human kind. And a person can be like this whilst vigorously rejecting the hapless moralizing of nature behind which hides nostalgia for irretrievably lost transcendental origins. However in the failing niches of rural and urban landscape where nature is still allowed to run free, we do have a hint of another kind of a transcendence, that of the transcendence of capitalism. It is the reason brownfield sites and sites of industrial dereliction are so abjured. Though good for nature, they also evoke a past of struggle and hope that must be extinguished at all costs. The pit spoil heaps were not even allowed to naturally evolve into harmless, picturesque features, their bare presence judged an incitement to revolt that simply could not be tolerated in the de-industrialised, chocolate box landscapes of finance capitalism. Aesthetic considerations aside, something else of major interest to science was also lost. The pit spoil heaps had something in common with the primary soils of 10,000 years ago left behind by the retreating icecap. It takes thousands of years to develop a mature soil profile and here was a unique chance to record the changes as they actually happened, not just in terms of the successive waves of vegetation but also the animal life the spoil heaps were beginning to play a remarkable host to. In the late 1970s the British State had defined derelict land as incapable of beneficial use without further treatment and so was already drastically tipping the scales in favour of spoil heap makeovers. Then the aim was to return them to agricultural use but come the millennia this original intention had been buried beneath the scorched earth of the direst environmentalism in full cahoots with conservationist bodies such as Butterfly Conservation.

 The mills, mines, quarries, forges and smelting ovens at the very beginnings of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century were often given a curious romantic treatment in the topographical representations of the day, as if already subject to decay and about to topple into a ruin. Though these prints were fashionable and the appearance of hands-off mismanagement contrived, they were a prelude to revolt because they were against the excessive ordering of nature. These early representations of industry could be seen as advocating a wilder nature that was not only opening up the bowels of the earth but also championing the rights of weeds and unsightly rubble. As industry developed, breaking landscapes in two and rearranging mountains, so the notion of the dark sublime shifted to include cavernous railway cuttings, tunnels like the entrance to hell and blast furnaces from which flamed Satan's fires. They also stoked massive resistance from those that worked in them and come the 1980s they began to be relocated elsewhere, leaving behind oxidising memorials of metal and gigantic heaps of spoil that continued to stir up highly charged emotions that had to be dampened down. And so they were by a sanitizing greenery that buried the past under a blanket of pseudo ecology, including the nature that had begun to make its home there. This act of pathological erasure doesn't bear thinking about and that was indeed the aim behind it, for what was at stake here was the extermination of the thought of history.

 The dead Dingy Skipper that I was examining, and now filming, under the microscope was a direct victim of this perverse environmentalism. Greenwash has all but obliterated it from its number one industrial haunt. A butterfly of the wastes, it sums up in its delicate little frame the history of the wastes, those wastes that lay outside the pale of even the Commons and that from time immemorial held out hopes of an even more far-reaching transvaluation of values. Living on the margins of society, the butterfly I had before me was more than just a butterfly. Crystallising my shattered hopes, above all it was a heartfelt wish that had come to nothing in the shape of a butterfly.

 From a macro lens I graduated to a series of microscopes, now well within the range of the average purse because of the off shoring of production to S.E. Asia that has kept the lid on inflation, in optical instruments as well as electronic gadgetry. And yet this capacity to give myself new eyes, to disappear into a new landscape of butterfly scales as I panned across a Dingy Skipper wing was everywhere beset by a stench of decay. It was not a happy experience examining this dead butterfly under a microscope over a period of several days. It grew so large in my imagination that I felt myself to be in a morgue for outsize insects. This butterfly corpse became a human sized cadaver of analogies. A broken off section of antenna reminded me of a wholemeal loaf I was condemned to eat. I heaved at the thought of it. An exposed area of palpi, pock marked with pores that had once held hairs and the pedicel of scales, reminded me of a plucked chicken leg that had been left to putrefy in a supermarket refrigerator. And those expressionless, compound eyes that for so long have been a symbol of unfeeling humanoid aliens in cartoons and movies. To me they were so full of rebuke as if protesting their deadness. And nowhere have compound eyes been mimicked like the simple eyes of mammals have on the wings of peacocks or the emperor moth for example. And the closer the resemblance to flecked mammalian eyes, the greater their selective success in terms of frightening off potential predators.

 The specifics of butterfly biology has grown enormously since E.B. Ford's pioneering works appearing in the 1940s and 1950s, especially so over the last twenty five years. Before that the separate disciplines of genetics, behaviour, physiognomy and systematics were allowed to go their own way. They tend now to be covered by the overarching science of ecology and beyond that the imperative need to conserve ecosystems. Since Ford's time the science of butterfly biology has found an aim: the conservation of the species. It was a logical step that met with little resistance. The aim now must be to place the science of ecology and conservation within a critique of political economy. Though also a logical step, it is one that encounters massive resistance and on present showing is set to fatally impede all conservationist endeavours.

 The following anatomical 'dissection' of a dead insect is in many ways a throwback. Though through the eye piece of a microscope I saw things I had never suspected, I yearn to see how they actually function in the wild. Could I ever get that close to a living Dingy Skipper to see it comb its proboscis or remove a minute particle of dust from one of its compound eyes? Though I have in the wild been able to fill the screen of my camcorder with a compound eye, the insect was in a dormant state, the heat receptive enzymes having shut down that enable it to move. However every living eye I have examined was always clear of any fouling which has never been the case with a dead, or nearly dead, insect. So with these reservations in mind please continue.......


Stuart Wise: Late Summer, 2009



Some of the above comments apply to two films on Green Hairstreak butterflies, which can be viewed below particularly in relation to micro photography and the  compound eye of insects…..

"Open air Green Hairstreaks on Ovenden Moor 2007-9" can be played by clicking on the following:"

Ovendon Moor Green Hairstreaks 2008 from David Wise on Vimeo.

Beginning with a general survey of the butterfly's immediate environment in the arena of former industrial dereliction, the film ends up with close up anatomical details of a Green Hairstreak in the wild.

Anatomy Of A Dying West Yorks Green Hairstreak 2008 from David Wise on Vimeo.

The above film records the last close up moments of a stricken Green Hairstreak which was removed from Ovenden Moor and taken to an enclosed room in Bradford to be videod. At one point note the way the dying butterfly tries to remove dust from its compound eye.

The following is both voiceover and/or written explanation superimposed on the microscope film analysis of the dead Maltby Dingy Skipper.

(The film has yet to be rendered for streaming)



 Anatomical dissection of a dead Dingy Skipper 2008

The compound eye

These eyes were once two large skull platesin the caterpillar which cannot see properly and is only able to register light. In between the eyes is the narrow band of the forehead.The eye consists of a vast number of separate lenses set side by side between opaque partitions that are hexagonal so that a microscopic view of the eye is like a section of honeycomb. Each separate hexagonal lens transmits an image to the brain providing a mosaic like picture. Though it enables a large angle of vision, the butterfly cannot adjust the focus. The butterfly will be putting together countless snap shots, each frame combining together to create a impression of movement like in jerky silent film sequences. This is the closest analogy we have when trying to imagine how a butterfly sees. However as trichromatics we will never be able to guess what it is like to see in the ultra violet as well as infra red end of the spectrum – except through the use of night vision and a quartz lens.Some species, like the Wall but not the Dingy Skipper, have hairs growing all over the surface of the compound eye. These may protect the eye from injury. If they do, it is surprising this anatomical feature has not become general.



These are not singular fan like struts spreading out from the thorax. They branch and are connected by cross bars but do not have the net curtain appearance of the dragon fly wing. The wings are like four small sacks when the butterfly emerges from the pupa. At this stage the veins are filled with blood that is forced back into the body as the wing expands and which is then ejected through the abdomen. The tapering veins that are open at the end then become transparent and filled with air. Covered in scales, and more visible in some butterflies than others, between these veins is stretched the fabric of the butterfly's wing. They are not visible in the Dingy Skipper unless descaling is well advanced and then generally only with the aid of a magnifying glass.


The wing

Primary function of wings is for flight. However their colour pattern is of the utmost importance. Colour pattern has many functions and in the case of the dingy skipper it is its ability to become one with a dead knapweed or woodrush head when roosting or resting that is most striking. Looked at under a microscope the range of colour is surprisingly more subtle and varied that meets the naked eye with a hint of iridescence at times which is only apparent when close to.


The scales

The wings of lepidoptera are scaled, an attribute from which the order derives its name. Scales not only clothe the wings but also the head including the abdomen, palpi and other parts of the thorax.The scales vary from the thread like to a short paddle somewhat similar to the familiar wooden cooking utensil. The paddle scale is the most usual form with the edge furthest from the stalk toothed or indented. However though scale diversity is considerable they also share a common structure. A typical scale fits into a socket by way of a stalk or pedicel. It is also laminated. The lower surface that lies on top of the wing is basically smooth whilst the upper lamina is more complex and is grooved and often cross-grooved. Scanning electron microscopes have revealed a structure punctuated by a series of windows whose precise function is far from clear. Able to trap air they can cool as well as insulate. Since the Dingy Skipper is a spring butterfly the body scaling may be of particular importance helping maintain a high body temperature when flying on a chilly spring day. The dark scales of the butterfly's wings also absorb more heat energy and so the dark scaling must have a thermo regulatory function.The male Dingy Skipper has a costal edge of the forewing folded back so as to make a pleat half way along the edge of the wing, which shows as a dark line. Inside this fold are the scent scales which contain glands for the making of scent scales.



Insect antennae are mobile structures and their function is primarily sensory. If removed, butterflies become disoriented which suggests a sense of direction depends as much on scent molecules as it does on sight. Arising between the eyes, they are attached to the head by a basal segment called a scape followed by a further segment called the pedicel and a flagellum formed of many segments. These units are called flagellomeres which are worked by extrinsic muscles. The flagellum is only partially covered with scales, the sensory areas being free of them.The antennae are covered with chemo receptors called sensilla that respond to chemical stimulus. Under the microscope they appear as transparent horn like protuberances. Sexual dimorphism is common with sensilla with sensilla best developed in the male, which indicates that on the whole lepidoptera are attracted to females by pheromones. Perhaps only in individual cases is it possible to strike the correct balance between attraction to colour and response to pheromones. However, the presence of androconial scent scales on the costal edge of the forewing of the male Dingy Skipper suggests it is the female that courts the male.


The Palpi

Formed from the chewing parts of the caterpillar's mouth these are two short leg-like organs. These two jointed organs are usually covered in hairs and scales. Richly equipped with nerves and organs of scent and touch they are situated at each side of the rolled up tongue which they serve to protect. The distal third segment of the labial palpi usually contains a pit like incision at the base of which is the sensilla. First noted as long ago as 1887, this organ is unique to lepidoptera and its function remains highly speculative. It has been shown to have a strong response to CO2, though quite for why no one knows. It may provide some insight into the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere and its effects upon butterflies.



Formed from the lower part of the caterpillars jaws this sucking tube has an annulated appearance and its function is to imbibe fluid, mainly nectar from flowers that is essentially a solution of various sugars in water. Its precise mode of operation is still unclear. The proboscis communicates directly with the gullet where there is a valve and a power of enlargement which creates suction in the tube, a valve in the proboscis closing and so drawing the liquid in. Toward the end of a butterfly's life the proboscis becomes permanently distended, coiling and uncoiling. Lacking the strength to visit flowers, there is something very poignant about a butterfly's death throws viewed at close quarters through a powerful lens. (See film  Anatomical Reflections on a Dying Green Hairstreak from Ovenden Moor).



Behind the head comes the thorax that is formed from the first three segments of the caterpillar. It is divided into three segments – the prothorax, the mesothorax and metathorax, this part of the body carrying the six legs – a pair for each segment. The prothorax and mesothroax also carries the wings.Each leg consists of six segments, the coax, trochanter, femur, tibia, tarsus and pretarsus.The tibia of the foreleg typically bears a comb- an epiphysis – used for cleaning the antenna and the proboscis. It is a structure unique to lepidoptera. As the antennae are dragged along the comb minute particles are removed from them.The legs are primarily used for walking though in many lepidoptera the legs are often the site of scale brushes or pencils, structures connected with the distribution of scents. The second but last segment of the foreleg, the tarsus, lacks muscles and terminates in the pretarsal claws. This ferocious looking hook can stop a butterfly from becoming dislodged from a leaf, flower head or stalk in near gale force windsBoth mechanoreceptor and chemoreceptor sensilla occur on the tarsi of lepidoptera. Probably the most important function for chemoreceptors on the tarsi of females is that of oviposition.


Eltringham's organ

These are cuticular patches found on the head of many lepidoptera from which arise bristles or narrow scales. First described in 1923 they are thought to be sensory organs.