When Art and Science Mesh:

When Art and Science Mesh:

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Those who mesh together both art and science are a decidedly rare breed. For Dr. Barrett Klein, what started as a boyhood interest in bugs went to a whole new level. Today he is a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where his passion for entomology is only equaled by his passion for art (www.pupating.org). 

Art runs in Dr. Klein’s blood. “My father and mother owned an art gallery for 40 years,” he says, “and my mother is an artist whose work brilliantly incorporates nature. Art was both familiar and promoted when my siblings and I were growing up. Entomophilia (love of insects) came later, at age five. Blending the two seemed only natural. I raised insects indoors and my mother would include them in her work. Applying to college, I was torn between pursuing entomology or art, so I chose an entomology major, but complemented this science track with art classes.” 

Dr. Klein uses a variety of media in his art. “I love to draw with pen and ink and colored pencils,” he notes. “I also love to use mixed media when sculpting. I have recently begun experimenting with insect products – beeswax, shellac, cochineal, silk, and wasp nest paper.” 

As a scientist, Dr. Klein’s skills in artistic expression have an extremely practical use. “I’ve had opportunities to create scientific illustrations and enjoy esthetically enhancing my own science using illustrations or imaging techniques that I find beautiful,” he says. “It becomes challenging to carve out time to create art separate from my research; but when I do, it almost invariably involves insects.” 

“With no one to stop me, I drilled holes and affixed some models escaping the forest – on the ceiling, a fly across the hall…” 

Since he’s not motivated to sell his art, Dr. Klein doesn’t market what he creates. “Thankfully, I have the luxury of surviving as a professor and scientist, so I don’t have to depend on selling my works to survive.” 

But the need for artistic depictions with scientific accuracy is great. Dr. Klein has worked on insect art for scientific publications, educational outreach, and museum exhibits across the world. One of his favorite stories involved creating insect models for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “I had the opportunity to position the models in the Hall of Biodiversity forest diorama using a cherry picker, alone and late at night,” he recalls. “With no one to stop me, I drilled holes and affixed some models escaping the forest – on the ceiling, a fly across the hall, that kind of thing. Once the diorama was finished and the Hall of Biodiversity opened to the public, I enjoyed watching as children eagerly looked for hidden arthropods. As adults passed by, they either assumed the models were real (success!), or were too oblivious to notice the fly on the wall (or the faux wasp nest on the tree).” 

Bees and their colonies are of particular fascination for Dr. Klein from an artistic as well as a scientific perspective. “As beekeepers know well, apiculturists have developed clever ways of housing honeybee colonies, sometimes in visually spectacular ways,” he relates. “An observation hive and bell jar hive are two great examples. I had the pleasure of working with an innovative beekeeper in Würzburg, Germany, and he was willing to create a ‘Kunstschwarm’ (art swarm) with me so I could film a colony constructing its comb using a thermal camera over many days. Playing with different visualization techniques to reveal behaviors that are otherwise hidden is exciting.” 

What fewer beekeepers may know about is the obscure history of artists working with honeybees to sculpt comb on novel substrates or on unusual forms. “I’m beginning to explore this practice, and – as with any innocuous modification of a hive – I learn about the behavior of my bees in the process.” 

How does Dr. Klein choose his artistic subjects? “Either a natural phenomenon or scientific concept intrigues me, or I feel the need to augment a work of science with visual clarity and beauty,” he says. “Sometimes I think of a problem or a concept that, with a twist, could be presented in a manner that could introduce a viewer to a new way of looking at the problem or concept.” 

Because honeybees play a significant role in many aspects of human culture, Dr. Klein finds his scientific interest in <I>Apis mellifera</I> means bees play an outsized role in his art. 

“Creating art can be fabulously fun and tremendously challenging,” says Dr. Klein. “You have much to gain and nothing to lose by combining an interest in beekeeping with a curiosity about art. I am not formally trained in most of the techniques I use. That doesn’t stop me, nor should it stop anyone else.” 

Finally, Dr. Klein wants to reassure people that neither scientists nor artists are on some lofty and remote pedestal – quite the contrary. “Artists and scientists are generally a passionate, personable lot!” he emphasizes. “They tend to be approachable, kind, curious people. Don’t hesitate to reach out to scientists or artists if you have questions or would simply like to say hello. Too often, we do not benefit from knowing how our work affects others.” 

And if that’s not the words of a true artist, I don’t know what is. 


  • John Abbott, “Damselflies of Texas” 
  • Gene Kritsky, “The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture” 

Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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