Butterfly Wing Site-Specific Installation – Emily Volk

Inspired by the scale detail of butterfly wings, my project at Digital Naturalism centered on gathering microscope images and videos of butterfly wings, and using them for a site-specific projection installation.


Butterfly wings produce their detailed coloration and patterning through light refraction off of microscopic scales that cover the surface of wings. Scales also cover the heads, as well as parts of the thorax and abdomen in insect species, including butterflies. Scales also aid in flight and help waterproof the insect, and their delicate nature is a reason to avoid touching live butterfly wings (all of my specimens were deceased and gathered throughout the trails, roads, and buildings of Gamboa)! Through various optical properties of these microscopic scales, intricate and detailed patterns of colors are created across butterfly and moth species.

Panama is home to a great diversity of the world’s butterflies and moths, many of whom exhibit dramatic wing coloration. Panama is especially known for its diversity of neotropical Heliconius butterflies, which express an incredible array of wing colors and patterns. Panama is also known for its many mimics, as well, or species who express the same coloration for various hypothesized reasons, including imitating poisonous species in order to deter predators in a process called Batesian mimicry. Exploring the genetic pathways for scale expression, wing coloration, and patterning is an area of current research and interest to better explain the relationships between the incredibly rich array of butterflies in areas such as Panama.

Overall, scales provide not only biologically useful functionality through meaningful coloration and mimicry, assisting in flight, and waterproofing, but also draw the eye with incredible aesthetic beauty. To expose an audience to the aesthetic and biological wonder I find in observing butterfly wing scale detail, I gathered an array of microscope images and video of butterfly wing scale detail, and displayed my media in a site-specific projection installation outside of Dinalab on a public exhibition evening.


Throughout my time at the conference, I gathered deceased butterfly specimens throughout the Gamboa area. I found deceased butterfly wings, or fragments, throughout trails, roads, and buildings of Gamboa. Importantly, all specimens I gathered were deceased when found. Absolutely no live butterfly or moth specimens were handled during my time at Digital Naturalism Conference. Throughout my time at the conference, I collected wing fragments from a diversity of species. (As of October 1st, 2019: Many of these I am still working on correctly IDing–please reach out with correct scientific names for those shown!)

We found an incredible number of butterfly and moth fragments on the patio of the Gamboa Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Here are wings found by Tiare Ribeaux–her phone served as our collection plate after being surprised by the number of wings here! Unfortunately the STRI entryway seems to be an insect graveyard, being a large, concrete and covered area with consistent nighttime lights overhead.

Microscope Images and Video

I used a Plugable USB microscope (thanks Lee Wilkins, Dinasaur extraordinaire!!) and Plugable Digital Viewer free software (https://plugable.com/drivers/microscope/) to gather both video and still images of microscopic detail on collected specimens. (As a special shout-out to this microscope, it is relatively affordable at about a $20 price point online! Get your own, and explore microscope imagery in your own area!!).

Here is a selection of my favorite still images:


Installation set-up scene. Computer, projector, bromeliad and vegetation galore!

To display the microscope video I collected of wings, I set up a site-specific projection installation at one of our evening Digital Naturalism public installations in and around our Gamboa Dinalab. Here, I projected my microscope videos of butterfly wing detail onto a utilities box (shown below, from front and side). These utilities structures are common throughout Panama, and appear to me to be open canvases for a variety of art! This type of public canvas is especially conducive to using projection, which does not harm or modify its canvas.

I am drawn to projection art as a medium that seems to me to be both a light and a fluid. In working with projection, I seek to modify projection canvases to insert mobility, depth, and layers into a projection-based art installation. I’m interested in projection work that gives videos motion and disrupts a 2D canvas. I find that projection, through it’s light, motion, and ability to display on various surfaces, can be a uniquely dynamic and immersive medium for art installations. In using projection for my wing video installation, I seek to draw an audience into the colors and scale detail with a projection environment that blends technology, biology, and fascination.

I incorporated natural elements into the installation through arranging bromeliads saved by Dinasaur Rabia from a local tree-trimming operation and an adjacent tree in the projection surface. The process shots above and below show the location of my local Gamboa installation!

Still photos of installation


I received feedback on my installation from Panamanian artist Kevin Lim. For more feedback or project inquiries, please leave a comment below!

Future Work

Importantly, the media I collected of microscopic wing detail is now portable. With these images and video, I can create more site-specific installation pieces in different environments. I hope to explore a more static installation piece, in a gallery setting or outdoors, where these microscope videos are projected onto a mobile screen shaped like a wing, that can flutter in the wind.

Additionally, as always, I seek opportunities to continue to merge science and art in creative ways to showcase and promote the fascination and inquiry inherit to both disciplines.

For inquiries or collaborations, please comment on my bio page on the Digital Naturalism website, or reach out online through another medium.

Utter excitement with the flexibility of site-specific projection, and all of Dinacon:

Yay Dinacon!

Further Reading and Exploration

“Butterfly scale optics” Google Images search 🙂

Butterfly Wing Optics STEMvisions blog post (https://ssec.si.edu/stemvisions-blog/butterfly-wing-optics)

Deshmukh, R. , Baral, S. , Gandhimathi, A. , Kuwalekar, M. and Kunte, K. (2018), Mimicry in butterflies: co‐option and a bag of magnificent developmental genetic tricks. WIREs Dev Biol, 7: e291. doi:10.1002/wdev.291

Florida State University and Olympus’s collaboration site Butterfly Wing Scale Digital Image Gallery (https://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/optics/olympusmicd/galleries/butterfly/index.html)

Kolle, M., Salgard-cunha, P., Scherer, M. R. J., Huang, F., Vukusic, P., Mahajan, S., . . . Steiner, U. (2010). Mimicking the colourful wing scale structure of the Papilio blumei butterfly. Nature Nanotechnology, 5(7), 511-5. doi:10.1038/nnano.2010.101

Srinivasarao, M. (1999). Nano-Optics in the Biological World: Beetles, Butterflies, Birds, and Moths. Chem. Rev., 99(7), 1935-1962. doi: 10.1021/cr970080y.


Generous thanks to the Boulder Arts & Culture Professional Development Grant program for funding my 2019 Digital Naturalism Conference engagement.

Special appreciation goes to Betty Sargeant and Madeline Schwartzman, whose initial microscope exploration of insect wings and feathers drew me in to further exploring microscope wing detail! Thank you for sharing your incredible work, expertise, curiosity, and inspiration during my first days acclimatizing to Dinacon, and throughout our time together.

Thank you to Lee Wilkins for letting me use your rockin’ microscope!

Thank you to Tiare Riabeaux for mega wing collection during our few days of overlap (on-the-phone photo).

Thank you so much to Dina-captain Andrew Quitmeyer for tireless enthusiasm, and bringing us all together with your brilliant conference and curiosity!

And to all of you across the huge Digital Naturalism community, I’m so happy to have all of you new, inspiring friends and peers <3

Seedpod LED Hack (Easy, educational bio-augmentation project) – Emily Volk

Exploring around Gamboa on trails and streets, I became fascinated with these flower-shaped seedpods. They appear as woody flowers, nearly blooming to release their inner fruit, and then expanding greater as they dry. This seedpod stalk was the first jungle object that I picked up as debris in the streets of Gamboa, and served as my first inspiration for a basic bio-hacking LED light project. What follows is a quick and easy tutorial for a basic natural object bio-augmentation project. This can serve as a simple lesson plan to explore bio-hacking to merge technology with natural objects and the directionality of LEDs.

Personal Process

Decorative Light: Personally, I explored various ways to rig this seedpod stalk as a full LED light that could decorate a space as a hanging decorative light. For this, I experimented with various conductive materials provided by Dinalab, including conductive thread and copper tape. I hoped to use a conductive wiring material that would either blend in to the seedpod stalk, or add aesthetic detail in the form of an attractive color or form. I did not settle on a favorite method for this full-stalk augmentation, and encourage others to pick up this process to explore different modes of creating a lamp with many seed pods!

Tactile Engagement: I also explored various interaction designs using LEDs to inspire tactile and up-close exploration of this seedpod I found to have such a fascinating shape and process of opening. In this exploration, I used LEDs activated by a DIY button where squeeze intensity and location determined which LED would light, and LED brightness. These LEDs and the tactile button control were meant to encourage a viewer to pick up the seedpod stalk, and explore both its structure and LED light augmentation as a way to encourage close observation of a natural structure.

Tactile exploration of bio-augmented LED seedpods, including fun Dinacon atmosphere of giggles and sharing work with an inspiring peer!

Project Tutorial: Quick educational lesson plan to explore bio-augmentation and LED basics!


In this quick tutorial, we explore a basic bio-augmentation project of adding an LED to a dried seedpod in order to make a quick and easy light. This project highlights the directionality of LEDs, and explores how technology and nature can merge to create new and innovative forms based on personal interest and exploration of natural objects.


  • Seedpod!
  • LED
  • 5V coin cell battery


The miraculous element of this project is how perfectly the base of one of these fully opened seedpods fits a standard 5V coin cell battery. This served as inspiration for this project, and allows the little LED product to be a compact and pretty sturdy unit!

Basics of LEDs: LED stands for “light-emitting diode.” A diode is a semiconductor device which only conducts electricity in one direction. An LED is a particular type of diode that emits light when current passes through it, in the positive to negative direction. On a basic LED, you can tell which side is positive for wiring because the positive prong is longer.

To fashion your own seedpod light, first note which side of your LED is positive (longer wire) and which side is negative (shorter wire). Then, extend the prongs of your LED horizontally, and carefully place your LED into the center of your seedpod. Position the LED prongs as close to the base of the pod as possible, and between “petals” of the pod. To secure your LED in your seedpod, carefully bend the prongs of your LED down with tension, which will secure your LED in your seed pod.

LED positioned in the middle of the seedpod, like the center of a flower. LED prongs are positioned through the gaps in the seedpod “petals,” and bent downward to secure the LED in the center of the pod.

From here, bend your LED prongs. Bend the negative prong to lay horizontally across the back of your pod, as close to the base as possible. Then, bend your positive prong above this, but leave slightly more space from the back of the seedpod. Make sure the positive and negative prongs are not touching, as this will short-circuit your LED.

Negative prong is bent level with the seedpod base, very close to the surface (left wire). Positive prong is bent slightly above the surface (right wire, above).

This little pocket between LED wires forms the fixture for your coin cell battery! Place your 5V coin cell battery face up (positive side up), and secure by clamping down the positive LED prong over the battery. Keep bending until the battery is snugly secured in the seedpod, and firmly contacting the negative LED prong.

Your LED should now be lit, leaving you with a completed little bio-augmented seedpod light! Make as many as you want, now that you know the basics of LED directionality and can experiment beyond with bio-augmentation.


Feel free to reach out with any feedback or interest. Thanks!

Emily Volk

Weaving fish scale "fabric"

Dinacon 2019 Dates: August 16-25th

Project: Interactive sculpture, “Fabricated foliage.” I will be researching, augmenting, and replicating jungle flora to create an interactive, responsive sculpture that emulates the sounds of rustling leaves, though with non-natural materiality. As a back-up to this project, I will be experimenting with fish scale structures and making an interactive, mobile sculpture using structures inspired by particular natural fish scales. As a back-up-back-up, I am coming to Dinacon ready to be inspired, and ready to make!

Bio: Emily Volk is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder, now embarking on the world. Her research and curiosity spans science and art disciplines. Specifically, her prior research delves into bioinspired engineering designs. In undergraduate research, she has extensively studied the mechanics of fish scale structures, with application to novel flexible armor designs and biomimetic swimming robots. Importantly, Emily believes that science is nothing if not shared, and continually works to creatively infuse data-driven projects with aesthetics to appeal to a wide audience. This passion has led to great collaborations in the Boulder, Colorado community, including events, conference panels, immersive performances, public installations, data-driven storytelling, and innovative course design. She is so excited to launch out of university and into Gamboa, Panama, to meet all of you thinkers and makers, all while frolicking outside!