A bug's life

PINNED to paper, their tiny, delicate wings spread wide, the coleoptera align in regimented rows. Only their iridescent colours, camouflage and casings - normally protected from the light by dark covers over their glass cases - bring life to the tiny carcasses.

• Richard Lyszkowski displays his passion for insects

Beetles to bugs, praying mantis to purple emperor butterflies and every type of insect in between make up the two million or so creepy-crawlies in the National Museums of Scotland's vast collection.

But while they wait at the Granton storage centre until they can take their place at the refurbished Royal Museum next year, their array of colours and designs have been attracting attention from a rather unusual quarter.

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Around 46 fashion, costume and textile students from Edinburgh College of Art have been taking inspiration from insects to create new designs which will eventually grace the catwalk at the annual graduation fashion show next May, as well as take pride of place in the Sculpture Court.

Head of textiles, Lindy Richardson, explains: "We had already collaborated with the National Museums using the archive at Edinburgh Castle and we'd talked about other areas of the collection which might be useful for students.

"Insects offer fantastic scope for colour and shape, form and texture and the students were hugely inspired.

"They got to be very hands on as the cases were opened and they got to touch some of the specimens as well as take photographs and sketches.

"So now they are taking what they saw and using it in their work. They are not using insects directly, such as printing bugs on to textiles, rather it's more abstract, using the colours and textures and surface qualities. In fact, you might not be able to tell they're inspired by insects at all."

While the relationship between coleoptera and couture might not seem an obvious one - even though the wasp has been the inspiration for the hourglass figure for decades - insects have recently been having their moment in the catwalk spotlights.

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In his last collection, Alexander McQueen printed bug designs on to his dresses.

Malaysian designer Ding Yong's spring collection last year was aptly titled Metamorphosis and the designs again bore a striking resemblance to a moth's life cycle - from caterpillar to emergence from the cocoon.

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Matthew Williamson has also used butterflies as a long-term signature trend - and more recently Princess Beatrice sported a Philip Treacy butterfly hat to her cousin Philip's wedding, almost upstaging the bride and certainly capturing the style magazine headlines.

But just why do we have such a fascination with bugs? Clare McIntyre, left, administrator of the Museums' Collections Management department - who helped organise the student visit - says: "I've certainly found myself fascinated by beetle wings. They operate on a hydraulic system, where the beetle pumps fluid into the veins of the wing to expand them ready for flight, then drains and intricately folds them up, to tuck into the pro- tective wing casings. All this takes place in an instant, so this power of transformation could be applied to anything from carnival costumes to hi-tech tents and soft-top cars.

"So when you look at insects like that, they are more than just something rather grisly that you want to get rid of. I think the students really got a lot out of the visit."

Richard Lyszkowski, assistant curator of entomology with the National Museums, has been interested in insects since childhood, and feels that they have much which can captivate and fascinate.

"I think people are intrigued because they are so different to any other creature. People are fascinated because of the colours and the forms.

"For instance, many people don't realise that butterflies and moths' wings are covered in scales - that's what gives them their colour.

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"Butterflies are definitely the most popular insect because of their colours, but their whole life cycle is also very different from anything else. To go from egg, to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, it's such a massive change - and that alone can spark the imagination.

"There are 24,000 species of insects in Britain but most people don't even notice them - apart from kids, they see them all the time, perhaps because they're closer to the ground," he jokes.

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The fashion students were fascinated by the collection, he adds. "I had looked out dragonflies, large beetles and moths, and one student had asked to see a praying mantis.

"They were quite fascinated by them all, and we had the old glass cases out so they could see as many as they wanted for their sketches."

The basis of the whole collection is the Dufresne Collection, bought by the Museum in 1819, which included 12,000 insects. It has been added to over the years, so now there are around two million examples.

Even though the insects are in storage, the public don't have to wait until the Royal Museum reopens, as appointments to view can be made. "Not just for student parties but the general public who want to learn about what's in our collection," adds Richard. "That's the whole purpose. But I must admit I can't wait to see what the art college students do with what they've learned from insects."