The drawings of a bee and its parts.

“The bee and its parts,” a drawing by Francesco Stelluti from Apiarium

Watching the bees visit our garden once again, I am reminded of a somewhat obscure blip in the history of illustration. Between 1625 and 1630, two Italian scientists printed the earliest records of microscopic observations in their publication, Apiarium. Federico Cesi wrote the text while artist Francesco Stelluti created drawings based on what the duo observed.

At the time, the microscope was a new technology. Reportedly, in 1624, Cesi had been sent a compound microscope by his friend Galileo (the famous Italian inventor). Cesi and Stelluti used the new device to observe insects and dedicated much of their publication to bees.

In Apiarium, Cesi describes honey bees as being either “civil” or “solitary.” The civil bees were those kept by beekeepers; they “live together with work and duties,” and “are accustomed to make honey in the homes of hospitable men.” The solitary bees, on the other hand, are “wild” and “wander.”

The pair used Galileo’s compound microscope to view never-before-seen anatomical structures of bees. From these observations, Stelluti created his drawings at 10 times the life size. The drawings show the microscopic appearance of an intact bee from dorsal (above), ventral (below), side views, and several dissected parts.

Most notably, Stelluti’s drawings show the multipartite nature of the bee’s eyes, which are composed of many structural functional units called ommatidia. We now know each ommatidia specializes in seeing patterns and helps the bee find its way to our flower beds.

The microscope opened new powers of observation, and Cesi and Stelluti were eager to share their discoveries and sense of wonder. Today, Stelluti’s illustration of a bee and its parts is a reminder of how artists have always used emerging technologies to observe nature and to unlock their creativity.

In a letter to his brother, Vincent Van Gogh once said: “Art demands dogged work ... and continuous observation.” Any technology that helps us see the world can help the artist. In a way, video captured with a drone is as traditional as a drawing based on microscopic observations.