The latest display in our changing Presenting… series showcases some of the incredible colours seen in many insects. Zoe Simmons, collections manager in our Life Collections, explains how such wonderful hues are created.
Reflected and refracted light creates the many bright and shining colours found in some insects. The dazzling natural display shown in the specimens here is formed through a combination of embedded pigments and sculpted surfaces on each insect’s external skeleton.
Different pigment chemicals are responsible for different colours. Carotenoids produce yellow, orange and red hues, while bilins may be green, or blue if linked with proteins. They reflect and absorb different wavelengths of light, and the wavelengths that are reflected are the ones that we see as colour. Typically humans can see wavelengths of 390-700 nanometres, with the lower wavelengths perceived as blue, and the higher ones as red.
Many insects also have multiple thin layers over their upper surfaces to help protect them and prevent dehydration. Variations in thickness and chemical composition of these layers can interfere with the transmission of light, refracting and scattering it back.
The shape of the surface layer can reflect light in a multitude of directions, with micro-folds, grooves, pits, hairs and scales all helping to produce complex colours and effects.
The formation and purpose of these colours is scientifically interesting, with research having applications in areas such as nanotechnology. But these insects are also simply beautiful examples of the spectacular diversity of the natural world.