The biologist J. B. S. Haldane, when asked what his studies had taught him of the mind of God, famously replied that the creator had "an inordinate fondness for beetles". Certainly this vast order of insects, with almost 400,000 named species, appears to have received more than its fair share of creatorial attention: it has been estimated that one in every five living creatures is a beetle.
Poul Beckmann's Living Jewels is a homage to this astonishing diversity - a portfolio of full-page colour photographs of some of the most strikingly coloured and magnificently formed examples of these insects. The book is large format (25cm by 34cm) and the subjects are presented against a plain-white background, which increases their visual impact. Some species are shown from several angles, and full-page close-ups of their patterns are occasionally given.
The species selected have been chosen for their exuberant, often metallic colours, and for bizarre weaponry and adornments, which bring to mind Wordsworth's "beetle panoplied in gems and gold, a mailed angel on a battle-day".
Specimens from all over the world are featured, including two European species, the emerald-green Chrysocarabus auronitens , a predator of damp woodlands, and the glorious kingfisher-blue Rosalia alpina , a scarce and legally protected longhorn beetle from the beech forests of central Europe.
Notwithstanding the specialist nature of its subject, Living Jewels does not claim to be a scientific work. It is, however, what the author intended - "a visual feast of beetles". Nevertheless, there is an excellent seven-page introduction by Ruth Kaspin, describing many aspects of these insects, their ecology, the use of beetles as jewellery, beetle collections and the custom of keeping beetles as pets, a lucrative trade where prize specimens can fetch thousands of dollars.
A section on "magic and mysticism" discusses beetles in folklore, including 25,000-year-old beetle pendants, the ancient Egyptian cult of the scarab (the dung-rolling beetle that became a symbol of rebirth and immortality) and a curious anecdote of an ecclesiastical court in 14th-century France, which summoned a plague of cockchafer (maybug) grubs to appear before the bishop on pain of excommunication. When they did not appear, an advocate was appointed to represent them.
The quality of the still-life photography in this book is outstanding, with even the curved metallic or reflective surfaces of many subjects being beautifully captured. Only a few of the full-page close-ups appear somewhat out of focus. The use of beetles as subjects for a photographic project is refreshing. Despite their vast numbers and their presence everywhere, beetles tend, as Kaspin and Beckmann note, "to fly beneath the radar of human notice", or even to be regarded with distaste.
After leafing through this portfolio, readers will (one hopes) look at beetles in a more positive light. The array of colour and form would be a credit to any designer, and indeed designers would do well to consider books such as this for inspiration.
Living Jewels will be a fine addition to the libraries of artists, photographers and those who love beetles, but it is also a beautiful book that should appeal to anyone who retains a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer extravagance of nature.
Maxwell Barclay is curator of Coleoptera (beetles), Natural History Museum, London.
Living Jewels: The Natural Design of Beetles
Author - Poul Beckmann
ISBN - 3 7913 2528 0
Publisher - Prestel
Price - £24.95
Pages - 112