The Insect We Love to Hate

Jan 8, 2009

Catherine Chalmers hates cockroaches.

She said so at her presentation Wednesday night, Jan. 7, at UC Davis. The occasion:  “The Consilience of Art and Science centennial colloquium, sponsored by the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion experimental learning program. 


“We have an adversarial relationship. I essentially worked with the cockroach because I hate it.”


But as a multi-media artist (video, photography, sculpture and drawing), Chalmers  wants people to know that insects, including cockroaches, are part of the planet, whether we like them or not.


“If all the insects disappeared, our ecosystem would crash within a matter of months,” she said.


The New York-based artist worked with cockroaches for 10 years.  She reared them. She  posed them climbing, running, eating,  mating and laying eggs.  She “executed” them in the gas chamber, in the electric chair, burned them at the stake, and hung them.


But not really.  No animals were harmed in the making of her art. The burned-at-the-stake cockroach? The flames were real, but the cockroach strapped to the stake was reacting to an air current. The one engulfed in flames was a dead body. It had earlier died a natural death, she said.


Chalmers showed photographs of cockroaches she'd painted to resemble a bird of paradise, a ladybug and a bee. “Imposters," she said. "People tend to like an insect if it pollinates flowers.   And with spots and colors.”


She drew gasps from the audience when she showed a roach “trophy head," much like a hunter's deer trophy. Laughter erupted when a roach climbed the stem of a wine glass and then toppled into the wine.


For an hour and a half, Chalmers entertained, educated and informed her audience with videos titled  “Squish,” “Gas Chamber,” “Crawl Space” and “Safari.”


Some of her quotes:

  • The American cockroach is not from America. Its origin is in Africa, like us.
  • The cockroach followed us as we colonized the planet. It’s not to be found in the wild anymore; it lives in our homes.
  • One of the problems we have with the cockroach is its aesthetics. It’s not our favorite character
  • Cockroaches really like bananas
  • The transformation from juvenile to adult--the molting stage--is beautiful.
  • The female cockroach mates once and is pregnant for life. She's very particular about which male she chooses.
  • Hatching is difficult to see. We had 180 egg cases in the nursery (a room she created). I saw only one hatching.


"I worked with cockroaches for 10 years, which was probably 10 years too long," Chalmers quipped.


So, what did she learn about roaches in those 10 years? She gained a deeper appreciation and respect for the insects.  "But if my home were infested, if the cockroaches were not caged, I'd be the first to call the exterminator."


The real reason why people hate roaches? "Because they invade our space," she said, "and we can't control them." 


"The more we throw at them, the more they come back."


Still, Chalmers said she'd much rather encounter a cockroach than a grizzly bear. One of her vidoes shows roaches swarming over a teddy bear in a nursery, a scene that  prompted a "Yecch!"  chorus.

Her next project?  Leafcutter ants.


"Ants are dominant," Chalmers said.  “They’re one of the dominate species in any ecosystem.”

Her newly created video, "We Rule," shows leafcutter ants cutting leaves and carrying them back to their nests. To add humor, she filmed them carrying leaves she'd previously  shaped into letters of the alphabet. One ant scurries across the screen carrying an "A," another a "B," and another, a "C."


"Ants rule," she said. 


Next stop: Costa Rica, where Chalmers will continue to work with leafcutter ants in her  multi-media art.


"I'm done with cockroaches," she said.


Note: Check out her work on her Web site at You'll see the insect we love to hate--and perhaps gain a deeper appreciation and respect for it.  

By Kathy Keatley Garvey
Author - Communications specialist

Attached Images:

AT THE RECEPTION--From left are entomologist Diane Ullman, associate dean of Undergraduate Academic Programs, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and co-director of the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion experimental learning program; artist Catherine Chalmers; and UC Davis Department of Art faculty members Matthias Geiger and Darrin Martin. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

At the Reception