31 August 2009

A ceiling made from jewel beetles

Humans have used insects for decoration since ancient times. The red dyes favored by European nobility track back to the Aztec discovery that cochineal could be harvested from scale insects on cacti. Another scale insect - Kermococcus vermilius - was used so extensively that its name is probably the root for both "carmine" and "vermiliion."

The ceiling depicted above is contemporary, created by applying the wing coverings of jewel beetles to the surface:
This incredible ceiling art - known as Heaven Of Delight - can be found at the Royal Palace in Brussels and was the brainchild of controversial Flemish artist Jan Fabre, a man renowned for working with strange media including blood, sperm and all manner of insects. Apparently it took Fabre's team of around 30 people 4 months just to glue the beetle shells to the ceiling.
Room photo credit, beetle photo credit. Via Killer Directory, Chris Tyrell's Blog, and Presurfer.

On a related matter, here's some information on the manufacture of shellac from lac scales:
Shellac has been used since 1200 BC and is made from an insect called the lac scale. The lac scale is a native of India and Burma and its host plant is related to the fig trees. The word lac is derived from the Sanskrit word, laksha which means 100,000 and refers to the large number of the minute insects required to produce lac. All female scale insects are wingless and the lac females cover their bodies with a resinous secretion. The resin hardens into a shield. Because the lac insect is sedentary, densities on branches can become very high. Branches on the host tree that become highly coated with the resin are referred to as a stick lac.

The stick lac is ground up to free the lac granules that are crushed and boiled in water. The lac floats to the surface of the water and is skimmed from the surface and dried in the sun. After the lac is dried, it is placed in burlap bags and stretched over a fire. As it is heated, the bags are twisted and the melted lac drips out. Before the lac hardens it is stretched like toffee. After the lac hardens, it is broken up into pieces and sold. About 17,000 to 90,000 lac insects are needed to produce a pound of lac.

Besides shellac, lac is the basic ingredient of an amazing list of articles, stiffening agents in the toes and soles of shoes and felt hats, shoe polishes, artificial fruits, lithographic ink, glazes in confections, photograph records, playing card finishes, and hair dyes.

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