The woman who paints insects

Swiss artist, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, finds and draws bugs deformed by Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents and exposures

By Claus-Peter Lieckfeld

We speak of “dumb creatures” because animal utterances are largely incomprehensible to the human ear. But animals can show us things. And if you know how to look, they might even give you warning signals. Bugs, for example, give warnings where human perception fails. But to understand those warnings, you have to learn how to read their signals.

You can find the insect drawings of the Swiss artist and scientific illustrator, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, in museums and galleries all over the world. Most of them reflect (and praise) the breathtaking beauty of the insect realm. But their beauty can be deceptive.

Cornelia bugs 1In 1987, one year after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Hesse-Honegger came across deformed leaf bugs in areas of Sweden that had been hit hard by fallout from Ukraine. She sensed that something was seriously wrong, even though what she saw did not come as a total surprise. Hesse-Honegger had already been working for many years as a scientific illustrator for the Natural History Museum at the University of Zurich. As early as 1967 she had drawn mutations of drosophila fruit flies and houseflies that had been exposed to radiation in the lab.

In the June 19, 2014 video below by Michael Segal for Nautilus, Hesse-Honegger explains her background and work.

After studying the bugs in Sweden she illustrated mutations in many places and documented them in her book Why I Am in Österfärnebo? She did field studies near the Krümmel nuclear power plant in Germany and the French reprocessing facility in La Hague, and she made drawings near Three Mile Island and the nuclear test site in Nevada. Logically, one of her insect illustration books is called “The Future’s Mirror.”

In October 2016, she was invited to Japan to give the opening speech at the Citizen-Scientist International Symposium on Radiation Protection in Nihonmatsu, where, at the same time, she showed her work at the Fukushima Art Biennale. But she also took the opportunity to conduct a field study around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Her studies focus on what are called true bugs — or Heteroptera. These insects belong to the phylum Arthropoda and are a suborder of Hemiptera.

“Since the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986 I have collected 18,000 true bugs, cicada and ladybird beetles,” Hesse-Honegger says. “I have conducted epidemiological studies in areas with nuclear power plants, nuclear reprocessing plants, nuclear test areas and the nuclear factories at Hanford. After collecting the true bugs, I examine them and paint some of them with the help of my binocular microscope. With my watercolors I show the quality of disturbances. With the help of maps I can demonstrate the percentage and distribution of disturbances.”

Everywhere she encountered Heteroptera bugs and Drosophila flies with distinct mutations. Her comment: “While the natural proportion of mutated insects is just one percent, in the places I studied, up to one in five insects shows physical damage. The damage is likely to be caused by the ingestion of radioactive particles, even in very low doses.”

What is really alarming, though, is that deformed insects are found not only where you might expect them — near the sites of nuclear catastrophes — but also, as Hesse-Honegger discovered, in the vicinity of well-maintained Swiss nuclear power plants under normal operating conditions.

Cornelia bugs 3“That is the real catastrophe,” comments Hildegard Breiner, Austrian anti-nuclear activist and a fellow Nuclear-Free Future Award laureate, (in 2015, the Nuclear-Free Future Award Foundation gave its award in the category of Education to Hesse-Honegger.) Breiner shares Hesse-Honegger’s conviction that bugs and other creatures with short reproductive cycles tell us that “normal operating conditions” at nuclear power plants are anything but normal.


Cornelia Hesse-Honegger is a member of the Atomic Photographers Guild.

The scientist/illustrator also raises her voice against other threats which go mostly unmentioned compared to the more obvious threat scenarios. One such example is the long-term danger of weapons equipped with depleted uranium. The reactions to “bug warnings” and the dangers of depleted uranium indicate that low-level radiation is an issue widely ignored and poorly understood.

Claus-Peter Lieckfeld is a journalist and author and is the editor at the Munich, Germany-based Nuclear-Free Future Award.

See Hesse-Honegger’s latest work on true bugs.

Beyond Nuclear is the North American affiliate of the Nuclear-Free Future Award.


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