In 1955, Time LIFE magazine ran the feature article, “The World of the Insects,” an “intimate look at this world of buzzing, flying creatures which abound in summer.” Therein was a 2-part, 6-page-fold-out spread illustrated by famed artist Dr. Walter Linsenmaier titled “A Communal Life on the Dunes.” In detailed cut-aways, the vivid panels feature the flora and fauna of the Antioch Dunes.
Today, the 55-acre Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge is the only federal wildlife refuge in the United States established for the protection of two endangered plants and an insect:
Antioch Dunes evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides howellii)
Contra Costa wallflower (Erysimum capitatum angustatum)
Lange’s metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei)
It would be 21 years before the Antioch Dunes’ own Lange’s metalmark butterfly was placed on the Federal Endangered Species List and the dunes designated as Critical Habitat for this dwindling butterfly.
In Linsenmaier’s 1955 illustration, the Lange’s metalmark escaped mention. Instead, the article notes:
“On the Antioch dunes of California, near the junction of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, lives one of the most richly varied insect communities. The sand, clay and soil are ideal for the burrows of wasps and bees. Grasses and lotus and lupine plants flourishing on the dunes provide plentiful food. Because the dunes lie near the University of California and the California Academy of Sciences, the life upon them has been studied for decades by entomologists. Artist Walter Linsenmaier’s painting of the integrated society found there is based on their discoveries.”
Linsenmaier the artist was no mere observer. Dr. Walter Linsenmaier (August 18, 1917 – October 31, 2000) was a renowned Swiss painter and entomologist who made a name for himself in part because of his specialized work preparing illustrations of birds and insects – especially wasps – for books and magazines. Linsenmaier was also a respected entomologist, known to have described several hundred new species and subspecies of insects, and to have collected an estimated 250,000 insects from around the world.
Given Linsenmaier’s interest in insects, the Antioch Dunes proved the perfect subject. Beginning in 1929, the remarkable insect fauna attracted entomologists from the California Academy of Sciences and the University of California. Between then and 1982, entomologists continued to revisit the dunes every year (excepting 1931, 1943, 1970, and 1980) making it a veritable hot spot for Bay Area entomologists. During that time, 376 insects were recorded at the dunes, of which only 219 were recollected during survey efforts in the early 80′s, suggesting some 157 insect species have since disappeared. All told, their collecting efforts led to the discovery of 27 new taxa of insects. Several of these species were recorded then for the first and last time, remembered today only by the preserved specimens collected during these early forays. And eight insects are—or were—endemic to the Antioch Dunes and nowhere else on earth. During the most recent survey effort, performed between 1995 and 1997, a total of 249 insect taxa were recorded. However, these taxa represented only 35% of the insect species recorded previously during the last extensive survey effort between 1976 and 1982.
Linsenmaier’s landscapes represent a snapshot of the dunes in their decline, leaving it to one’s imagination how the sandy hills might once have been alive with the hustle and buzz of insects in their hey-day.
[Dr. Walter Linsenmaier’s illustrations featured here were reproduced with the kind permission of Maja Linsenmaier (http://www.bilderatelier-linsenmaier.ch/)]