Sexy moths flap their wings (and cleavage). Some dude dressed like a lightning bug flashes his butt. The audience swarms the stage at Midtown Art (formerly Midtown Art Supply)—with antennae, arms, and legs flailing—rocking to performances by local hardcore noise bands.
There are edible snacks made of insects. Bug-themed artwork covers the walls of the adjacent Harney Street Gallery. It’s like a mosquito trap for Omaha’s weirdest and most creative. But the main event? That would be the keynote bug lecture and photo slideshow by Dave Crane.
Crane—a wetlands biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers—is the co-founder and co-curator of the Omaha Bug Symposium, the strangest science-art-music combo this side of the topsoil.
Crane’s lecture is a psychedelic crash course in entomology (i.e., the study of insects), a legit science presentation packed with big words and Latin binomial names. His photo slideshow features beautiful imagery (zoomed and panned to show macro views of tiny insects like you’ve never seen before) along with ludicrous commentary.
At the 2016 event, Crane’s younger brother (Omaha artist Dan Crane) shouts a question, “Because I find them so fascinating, why are they called boring beetles?” The elder Crane responds to his brother, and other hecklers’ comments, with a genuine enthusiasm that is contagious.
His passion for bugs started at a young age. “I’ve been interested in nature, in general, all my life,” Crane says. “I was an adventurous, outdoorsy kind of kid. I wore holes in my clothes faster than anyone else I knew. Around the age of 7, I started attending week-long day camps at Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods every summer. I think it was at these camps when I really honed in on bugs. I’d come home from the camps and start looking for the things I found while in the wild. Around this time, I started collecting bugs I’d find around my neighborhood. My parents picked up on this and started buying me field guides and insect preservation boxes. I started making my own collection tools, like a plastic bag duct taped to a long stick for catching butterflies and dragonflies. I had a terrarium out in the back yard that I would put captured praying mantids into to watch them fight, mate, and eat prey. I amassed a rather large insect collection—probably 40 species—by the time I was 12, but without knowing about proper preservation methods, the specimens were consumed by pests and all turned to dust.”
Discouraged by early attempts at insect preservation, Crane’s insectophilic tendencies lay dormant until roughly age 21. That’s when he received his first digital camera as a birthday gift.
“I was snapping away outside one day and noticed a damselfly on my car antennae,” he says. “I snapped a photo of it, and when I reviewed the image, it was like all the memories I had chasing bugs as a kid came rushing back to me. That moment revived my interest in bugs. I was hooked. Taking photos of all sorts of macroinvertebrates became my No. 1 hobby, if not obsession. From then on, I would dedicate more and more time to taking photos of bugs all around me—when I traveled, when I went camping, when I went to the bar, etc. I took photos for the sake of seeing things up close and learning about them, never really with the intention of printing them out as pieces of art.”
Crane’s photographic work captures the essence of bugs’ behavior, rather than focusing on images “that would look nice on a wall.” He prizes subject matter with informative storytelling potential over aesthetics.
“I feel that presenting my photos in this style does them the most justice. I have some very high-definition photos, and they deserve to be blown up, zoomed in, and explored. The content in the photos is very well served by being plastered on a 10-foot-by-10-foot projector screen so every little detail can be magnified and scrutinized by the crowd. Before these bug shows, I started making calendars in 2007 for family and friends. Otherwise, I basically just stockpiled my photos for seven years—until I started showing them off as the bug shows.”
The 2017 Omaha Bug Symposium takes place at OutrSpaces (528 S. 24th St.) on October 7. It will be Crane’s fifth (and fourth annual) bug show. The inaugural event in 2014 went by the name “Nebraska Insect Showcase” because it was held at Midtown Art Supply the weekend following the Nebraska Hardcore Showcase.*
That first year of the event consisted of Crane “giving a two-hour presentation, followed by multiple sets of bug-themed noise bands, and topped off with one of the most bizarre, horrifying bug worship performance art piece I have ever witnessed,” he says. “It was a blast, so we started planning the second one instantly.”
The event’s format has since remained essentially the same. Bug food, bug art, and dance competitions joined the lineup in 2015.
The original Nebraska Insect Showcase co-organizer, Ethan Happe, parted ways with the event to focus more on entomophagy (eating insects). But Crane wasn’t ready to call it quits. He met Andy Matz in 2016 while planning his third bug show.
Matz, who has a degree in entomology, became a co-lecturer and co-organizer for the 2016 event, the first to go by the name “Omaha Bug Symposium.” Joining the party were bug costume contests, insect snacks prepared by local chefs, and kegs sponsored by Upstream Brewing Co.
Crane and Matz continued their collaboration in planning a special 2017 Omaha Moth Night to coincide with National Moth Week in July (which, despite the name, is a worldwide citizen science initiative encouraging the public to learn more about moths). Omaha Moth Night used the same Bug Symposium format with music, art, lecture, and costume contest.
“Ours had to be the weirdest National Moth Week event, but it fit right in with the spirit of the week, as well as the concept of the Omaha Bug Symposium,” Crane says. “The moth night really was a bit of an experiment just as much as it was something we were genuinely excited to put on. The turnout was similar to last year’s symposium, and I’d say we were highly successful in our attempts to interweave moth art, information, music, and the human connection with moths into a fun night for all.”
Attendance grows each year. Insect artworks continue to surprise. Meanwhile, Crane is thrilled to encourage others to share his love for bugs and the greater outdoors.
“A lot of people go ‘birding,’ but I go ‘bugging,’” Crane says, describing his photo-shooting sessions. “The most important part of bugging is to do it frequently. I think as you start out you’re just fascinated by everything, you’ll see a lot of things from angles and magnifications that you’ve never seen before. It’s like seeing the world the way it really is for the first time.”
Crane has developed what he refers to as “bug-eyes.” He’s usually the first (or only) person to spot a bug while out walking the streets or out in the field.
“If I’m walking through a field of weeds, I’m not searching for the next pretty flower, I’m subconsciously scanning every bit of green for that one bug-shaped discrepancy,” he says. “After so many years, I’m still fascinated with snapping a photo just to look at something around me close up. I love using my camera as a portable, photographic microscope, revealing truth that’s just beyond the naked eye.”
Visit facebook.com/omahabugsymposium for more information.
This article published in the 2017 September/October edition of Encounter Magazine.
*UPDATE: The host venue moved from Midtown Art and Harney Street Gallery to OutrSpaces after the publication of the issue. OutrSpaces is located at 528 S. 24th St.