Structural colour in beetles

View from India: Fragile ecosystems encapsulated on film

Image credit: Dreamstime

Film screenings on insects and marine life tell compelling stories of their habitat.

Insects bring to mind creepy-crawly creatures. Some of these winged creatures buzz around, often intimidating people nearby. It’s always best to keep away from them. Yet these creatures aroused the curiosity of Charlie and Lois O'Brien, who have spent a lifetime watching them closely, studying and monitoring them.

Their insect pursuit saw the couple travel to over 70 countries, just to bring home an unusual species. Their enduring collection has been turned into an award-winning documentary, appropriately titled 'The Love Bugs', by All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALTEFF). Incidentally, the insect love bug - aka the honeymoon fly - is almost always found in pairs. With over 60 years of marriage, Charlie and Lois O'Brien are similarly matched. He, her teacher, liked weevils; she, his student, soon embraced plant-hoppers. 

The committed entomologists have jointly researched for decades, arriving at the world's largest private collection of insects, representing thousands of species. The specimen range of insects, wasps and beetles are spread across 1,268 wooden drawers stacked one on top of the other. The home in Arizona is filled with books, journals, file cabinets, computers and microscopes. A layperson may not know enough about these insects, except that they colonise new habitats. For instance, some of them use their horns to combat enemies. With diversity in size and colour, close shots reveal that many insects have antennae and some are florescent. The couple has drawn attention to the peanut bug, known to zigzag through the forests of Mexico and Argentina.

Carefully curated and labelled, the worth of the collection is estimated to be $10m. The nonagenarian couple has been giving away their collection to Arizona State University (ASU). To give away a collection of a lifetime seems a difficult decision. Still, in this gesture there probably lies a universal message. This unique offering could enhance entomology research. A database can be built and digitised, thus becoming a subject of study for anyone. Many of the insects in the collection may not even exist any more.

Another noteworthy award-winning documentary film is Kokoly, produced by Blue Ventures and supported by the Skoll Foundation and the Sundance Institute. Madame Kokoly’s life is full of pathos, poverty and a personal tragedy. She is diminutive in stature, yet she’s a woman of grit. The audience was taken through the life of this Vezo fisherwoman from southwest Madagascar. By no means is her life easy. Day after day, she takes her boat out into the waters to go fishing, sailing under the blistering sun and getting back very little - or sometimes nothing at all. It is a poignant reminder of the decline in marine resources.

What we learn about is her ability as an octopus gleaner. Gleaning is the collection of marine organisms predominantly from the littoral zone - that part of the coastal environment closest to the shore. Gleaning is a means of livelihood for marginalised people living in coastal regions. Kokoly may be the story of a single fisherwoman in Madagascar. Nevertheless, the narrative strikes a chord with people across geographies and nationalities. Marine habitat destruction caused by climate change and overfishing is a global concern.

The marine ecology needs to be conserved and preserved. Let’s not forget also that millions of people living in the coastal belt thrive because of its social-ecological framework. Small-scale fishing is labour intensive. Within that, the small-scale fisher women are badly hit due to the fragile marine ecosystem that has been polluted. This needs to be addressed. Perhaps their livelihoods could be partly restored by orienting them into small-scale activities. The government and local NGOs could come together and bring forward initiatives for improving their income. They need to be trained and oriented to make local craft using environmentally friendly material that may be available in the surrounding areas. Basically, it’s a supplementary income arising from non-fishing activities. This could help in securing their livelihood and improving their lives.

These films are part of the 'FutureFantastic AI and Arts Festival', conceptualised by BeFantastic in partnership with FutureEverything (UK) and supported by The British Council’s 'India/UK Together Season of Culture' and Rohini and Nandan Nilekani Philanthropies. Three years of planning has gone into the making of the festival. What is interesting is the display of artworks in the foyer of the Infosys Science Foundation, where the festival was held. This shows the manner in which art is enabled by technology; in this case, artificial intelligence (AI). Art-AI triggered many conversations among the attendees. Artists seem to be engaged with a new paintbrush, whose brush strokes are driven by AI. Or shall we say, creative technologists?

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