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An Unusual Job with USDA

Painting by Taina Litwak of a new species of tiny parasitic wasp in the genus Perischus.  Done in 2011 for Dr. Matt Buffington.  The painting starts with a pencil drawing done through the microscope of a dead pinned specimen.  Details for this painting were included which only are visible in scanning electron microphotographs, as the species is so very small.  The painting itself is done digitally in Adobe Photoshop.  The species was first collected in South America in 2010 and is involved with parasitizing a species complex of flies which lay eggs in cucurbit plants (melon, cucumber and squash family).

Painting by Taina Litwak of a new species of tiny parasitic wasp in the genus Perischus. Done in 2011 for Dr. Matt Buffington. The painting starts with a pencil drawing done through the microscope of a dead pinned specimen. Details for this painting were included which only are visible in scanning electron microphotographs, as the species is so very small. The painting itself is done digitally in Adobe Photoshop. The species was first collected in South America in 2010 and is involved with parasitizing a species complex of flies which lay eggs in cucurbit plants (melon, cucumber and squash family).

I am a scientific illustrator on staff with the Systematic Entomology Lab, in the Plant Sciences Institute, ARS, located in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Secretary Vilsack, who was interested in several of my paintings of newly described species of insects that I entered in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2012 Employee Art Exhibit.  As I answered his questions, it occurred to me that people may not associate USDA with artistry or illustration and that my job as “Scientific Illustrator” may in fact seem unusual to many.

New species of insects are introduced into the US with alarming regularity.  Some have become devastatingly serious agricultural and forest problems.  As modern travel and commerce moves species around the globe, it is more important than ever that we know what species occur outside the United States.  Three newly named species of bark beetles from the Dominican Republic could be our next destructive invasive species, and we know so little about their biology.

Two paintings by Taina Litwak.  Top image is the lateral view of a tiny golden parasitic wasp (Sycophila smilax) done for Dr. Michael Gates.  The lower image is a newly described species if bark beetle (Licracantha formicaria) done for Dr. Steve Lingafelter.  The golden wasp was done to illustrate a publication, a study (being done in Florida) of a complex of wasps and their parasites, which produce of galls on a native species of vine plants.   The beetle painting is a lateral view of one of a series of 3 newly discovered species of ant mimic bark beetles from the Dominican Republic.

Two paintings by Taina Litwak. Top image is the lateral view of a tiny golden parasitic wasp (Sycophila new species) done for Dr. Michael Gates. The lower image is a newly described species if bark beetle (Licracantha formicaria) done for Dr. Steve Lingafelter. The golden wasp was done to illustrate a publication, a study (being done in Florida) of a complex of wasps and their parasites, which produce of galls on a native species of vine plants. The beetle painting is a lateral view of one of a series of 3 newly discovered species of ant mimic bark beetles from the Dominican Republic.

When I was studying art and biology at university, I had no idea that I would turn my fascination with the natural world and my passion for drawing into a career.   I began working as a full-time scientific illustrator in 1983 for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (Department of Defense), working with specimens, microscopes, pen and ink, paints and brushes.  The specimens keep coming, the microscopes have gotten better, and now all of my finished work is inked and painted digitally.

Currently, I provide illustration services for 15 research scientists; taxonomic specialists in numerous groups of insects and mites.  I support their work describing new species and reclassifying complex groups with my drawings, paintings and photographs, which they publish in peer-reviewed journals, books, and on the web.  When a scientist describes a new species he or she also names it. I have the honor of having two species named after me.  Being part of the human effort to investigate and document the incredible diversity of life is very satisfying work.

Painting by Taina Litwak of a new species of Soldier fly in the genus Parastratiosphecomyia.   This species is from India and it’s a wasp mimic.  The larvae are scavengers, nutrient recyclers, which feed under bark.  It was done in 2011 for Dr. Norman Woodley.  The illustration process starts with a pencil drawing done through the microscope of a dead pinned specimen.  The sketches are scanned and the painting itself is done in a fairly traditional manor, but digitally, using Adobe Photoshop.

Painting by Taina Litwak of a new species of Soldier fly in the genus Parastratiosphecomyia. This species is from India and it’s a wasp mimic. The larvae are scavengers, nutrient recyclers, which feed under bark. It was done in 2011 for Dr. Norman Woodley. The illustration process starts with a pencil drawing done through the microscope of a dead pinned specimen. The sketches are scanned and the painting itself is done in a fairly traditional manor, but digitally, using Adobe Photoshop.

Painting by Taina Litwak of a new species of tiny parasitic wasp in the genus Perischus.  Done in 2011 for Dr. Matt Buffington.  The painting starts with a pencil drawing done through the microscope of a dead pinned specimen.  Details for this painting were included which only are visible in scanning electron microphotographs, as the species is so very small.  The painting itself is done digitally in Adobe Photoshop.  The species was first collected in South America in 2010 and is involved with parasitizing a species complex of flies which lay eggs in cucurbit plants (melon, cucumber and squash family).

Painting by Taina Litwak of a new species of tiny parasitic wasp in the genus Perischus. Done in 2011 for Dr. Matt Buffington. The painting starts with a pencil drawing done through the microscope of a dead pinned specimen. Details for this painting were included which only are visible in scanning electron microphotographs, as the species is so very small. The painting itself is done digitally in Adobe Photoshop. The species was first collected in South America in 2010 and is involved with parasitizing a species complex of flies which lay eggs in cucurbit plants (melon, cucumber and squash family).

11 Responses to “An Unusual Job with USDA”

  1. Nancy Matteson says:

    Fantastic work. I’m an identifier in Yuma, Az and am of course, passionate about insects. Your illustrations show a tremendous feel for the organism. Thank you!

  2. Lenora Tooher says:

    Those gorgeous details are precisely what all engineers love to see. Nature is the best artist. Note the beauty of those wasps looks like the FA-18 Hornet Navy carrier-based fighter through the eyes of a pilot!:-) Thanks for your excellence in depicting true beauty.

  3. Lenora Tooher says:

    The bees and bumblebees are waiting for their moment ‘to be seen’. Opinion: We should dedicate areas of land just for these species to thrive appropriately. Are cell towers confusing them and effecting negative change on their neural pathways which ensure their survival? :-)

  4. Susan says:

    I would like to know if the same species from years ago are getting bigger in size from lack of activity and eating junk from trash like Americans, in there old age or if they have kept the same activities. In the end would they live longer from interaction or would the life span be changing as well. Just wondering!

  5. Pamela Hertzler says:

    Wow, what a fantastic job you have. Entomology is such a fascinating subject and the way you can illustrate these species to the very hair is incredible!! Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Alyse Enyart says:

    Thank you for posting your fabulous insect illustrations! I believe you are correct in believing that many people do not associate USDA with artistry or illustration. Based on my recent search for illustrations or photos of invasive bugs for my web site WaterVillages, easy accessibility to illustrations or photos may facilitate an increase of public reporting of some species. Your art is an inspiration to enter your niche in the field of entomology.

  7. Janet O'Dell says:

    Good work, so realistic. Why are you not drawing for the animation picture industry making the big bucks?

  8. Mike Miller says:

    I’d liken these ‘drawings’ to what John James Audobaun did for birds.

  9. mamarox says:

    This work is spectacular and I agree with the comparison to Audubon wholeheartedly. Ms. Litwak is a true artist and a national treasure for preserving and educating us with the nuances of insects.

  10. PSpaine says:

    Fantastic drawings of our friends and foes. I would like to take a course from you on how to color my drawings of fungi with Illustrator!

  11. Remy says:

    With the advent of people pouring into the USA from Third World countries (legally and ILLEGALLY) we have been victim to two (2) invasions. One of ILLEGAL FOREIGN NATIONALS, and two, of all the microbes and insects they bring with them. Perhaps APHIS should fumigate ALL persons and their baggage when they come from places that have species not native to the US and which could be destructive to US flora and fauna. These invading species arriving at an alarming rate further exemplify the desperate need we have to SEAL our US borders from invaders of every type and species.

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