Posted 7 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022

Over the years, UW-La Crosse Professor of Biology Barrett Klein has helped thousands of students appreciate the diversity, beauty and ecological impact of insects.

For UWL’s Barrett Klein, there’s beauty in every bug

Growing up on the outskirts of Detroit, Barrett Klein treasured every piece of wilderness he could find.

His mother’s garden, the city zoo, pockets of nature around the neighborhood — all were sources of endless fascination for Klein.

One day, he discovered a dead butterfly in the family’s driveway. It was a moment that left an indelible mark on his young mind, and inspired his lifelong obsession with insects.

“I remember experiencing a thrill of knowing that insects could play a huge role in my life. How? I didn’t know, but not knowing helped fuel my exhilaration,” says Klein, now a professor of biology, specializing in entomology, at UW-La Crosse. “Sometimes, all it takes is a single, tiny creature to open our eyes or redirect our lives.”

A mixed-media model of Chlaenius, a type of ground beetle. Barrett Klein, 1996

Since 2012, Klein has shared his passion for insects — from dancing honey bees, to farming leaf-cutter ants, to singing crickets — with thousands of UWL students. Often, this involves gently converting those who regard insects as creepy and crawly — little nuisances to be squished by a shoe.

To Klein, insects are spectacularly diverse, amazing organisms. The vast amount of good they do for people and the planet, he says, is rivaled only by their beauty.

“All around us, we have these marvelous little beings that exhibit just about every form, color and behavior imaginable,” he explains. “If you are drawn to flashy iridescence or perfect crypsis, the delicate or the armored, the solitary or the social, the aquatic or the terrestrial, insects represent over 400 million years of evolution, radiating into more than one million described species. The diversity is so outrageous, there is something out there to appeal to any willing eye or mind.”

In his quest to capture the intricacies of insects, it was fortunate that Klein came from a family of artists.

His mother and father owned an art gallery for 40 years. His sister is a luthier and a writer. And his twin brother is a scientist who creates masks that could be considered masterpieces.

Naturally, Klein made insects the focus of his art.

A colored pencil illustration of Polistes flavus, also known as the yellow paper wasp. Barrett Klein, 1999

His work includes scientific illustrations, usually colored pencil or ink on paper. He also spent years making insect models for museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. 

Lately, he has used the sculpting skills he learned from model-making to create wearable, insect-themed masks. The kicker: The masks are made from materials produced by insects, such as wax from honey bees, paper from wasp nests, silk from silkworm moths and carmine dye from cochineal bugs.

For Klein, entomology is much more than a nine-to-five. He leans — dives — into the “bug guy” persona.

When he applied to UWL, Klein showed up to his interview in ant-themed clothing, head to toe. He jokes that it was the deciding factor in his employment.

Even his home is a shrine of sorts:

“Everywhere you turn in my home, insects remind me of their importance and their beauty — whether it’s insect art on the walls, our tank of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, or my collection of insect comic books, music, literature, stamps, currency, advertisements and foods.”

Insects, Klein says, “are just about always on my mind.”

All this effort and enthusiasm comes with a simple goal: to get others to stop and marvel at insects the same way a young Klein once stopped and marveled at a dead butterfly.

More than any other member of the animal kingdom, insects manage to fly under humanity’s radar. Yet no other class of animal is more important to our survival, Klein notes.

“Our very existence depends on the insects around us. They provide ecological services by pollinating, decomposing and feeding others, without which ecosystems would crumble,” Klein says. “If I can play a part in getting people to appreciate insects, maybe we can do more, individually and collectively, to behave less destructively and conserve some of the grand diversity we should celebrate and treasure.”

A model of a termite soldier. Barrett Klein, 1996

More on Klein and insect art

For a look at how insects and their products have been used in art, read this new article written by Klein.

Klein was also recently featured in Knowable Magazine.

Klein will present during the next TEDx event on campus.

Klein will explore and reveal cultural connections people have with the ten quintillion insects with whom we share the planet at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, in The Bluffs, UWL Student Union. Learn more on the TEDx website