At first glance, the insect paintings by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger look no different than the images in a Peterson field guide. The subjects are set against a white background and copied in exact detail. Stare at them long enough, and something seems off. A rumpled wing, or a misplaced antenna. The insects are not merely damaged, claims the artist, but have been mutated by chronic exposure to radiation. For the last 30 years, Hesse-Honegger has been collecting and documenting insects that live in and around Chernobyl, the site of the world’s largest nuclear disaster.

I have admired Hesse-Honegger’s paintings for years, so when I saw one of her pieces on exhibit at Austin’s Art.Science.Gallery at this year’s Entomology conference, I placed a bid. The show ended last month, and the print made it safely to my doorstep in time for the new year

[See header photo]. But there’s one lingering question I’ve had about Hesse-Honegger’s work: Are the insects she paints actually mutated?

Insects develop deformities for all kinds of reasons, and when you sift through thousands of specimens you’re bound to come across something odd. Hesse-Honegger has run into her own share of skepticism, and the 2005 Chernobyl Forum report suggested animals were thriving inside the exclusion zone. To find out more, I talked with De Anna Beasley, a scientist at Your Wild Life who studied the insects of Chernobyl before coming to work on urban species living in Raleigh. Check out our interview below:

How did you get interested in working with insects at Chernobyl?

There were previous studies looking at children born to the liquidators–the people who went in and cleaned up the mess after the disaster. Their children had higher chromosomal abnormalities and mutation rates, and it was suggested they inherited these mutations from their fathers. I was interested in how well grasshoppers developed with similar loads of inherited stress.

So if someone traveled to Chernobyl today, what would they see?

Earlier studies coming out said that the wildlife around Chernobyl was doing fine, and in some cases thriving. People would see animals in the exclusion zone and say, Oh these animals are here, so they must be OK, but when you look at their growth rate and population abundance, you see this close relationship between the level of background radiation and antioxidant stress.

When I think about mutants, I think about the Ninja Turtles or the X-men. What does a mutated insect actually look like?

People always joked that I would be doing battle with giant grasshoppers like in those 1950’s movies where the insects get huge and turn into monsters. But what we find, and we’ve looked at insects and we’ve looked at birds, is that they tend to get smaller, actually.

What were you looking for exactly in the grasshoppers you studied?

We collected grasshoppers from Chernobyl that had different levels of background radiation, and we brought them into the lab to raise their offspring in clean, radiation-free conditions. We were looking for changes in symmetry, like how similar their wing veins were on either side of their bodies. If you can’t make symmetrical wings, then you can’t fly as well or mate. That can help us identify vulnerable populations.

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger showed insects in her paintings with crumpled wings or deformities on half of their bodies. Have you seen similar abnormalities at Chernobyl?

In my work I was looking at the indirect effects of radiation, while she was looking at direct effects. My colleagues, who have worked at Chernobyl for a long time, talk constantly about the abnormalities they see in insects but also in birds. You have birds with higher levels of albinism, and they have more tumors on their eyes and on their feet. So you do see these developmental deformities

Is it possible that populations are evolving to deal with radiation better?

That is the question–25 years later, what are these populations doing? One adaptive response may be to just grow smaller. In our grasshoppers, parents were allocating more resources to keeping themselves going rather than reproduction, so offspring had fewer resources in the egg to start with. That leads to smaller grasshoppers.

How can studying grasshoppers or any other animal at Chernobyl tell us anything about human health?

One of the criticisms when you look at radiation effects on humans is how to tease out factors like smoking and alcohol that cause similar effects. A study on barn swallows found that radiation exposure caused smaller brains and lower sperm counts. This is one thing you see in Ukrainian populations, where you find higher infertility in men. It’s easy for critics to dismiss it and say that the effect is not due to radiation but some other factor. When you see similar patterns in animal populations that don’t smoke and don’t drink, it makes for a more compelling argument.

You worked with grasshoppers that came from Chernobyl, but you never actually went there. Do you have any desire to go?

As an ecologist, sure, I have a desire to see what these ecosystems look like. On the other hand, I don’t know. I’m still young. I may want to have kids one day. So maybe I’d want to wait!

De Anna Beasley wants to understand how insects adapt to human-caused changes in the environment, from nuclear radiation to timber harvest to urbanization. When she’s not studying the insects that live with us, De Anna can be found writing, practicing Tai Chi and dreaming of being a hang glider pilot.

Header Photo: Tree Bug Pentatoma rufipes collected from the Paul Scherrer Institute for Reactor Research, by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger (Photo credit: Clint Penick).