Wondering how to see the world’s flora and fauna without leaving the comfort of your chair? Described as the world’s largest open access digital archive dedicated to life on earth, The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) just made more than 150,000 high-res, copyright-free botanical illustrations available to download and the collection is just as spellbinding as any real-world expedition.
The illustrations belong to an archive which totals more than 55 million pages of literature, from intricate insect sketches and beautiful botanical drawings to detailed historical diagrams dating back to the 15th century.
With the world in the grip of a climate catastrophe, the BHL says this extensive public collection is more pertinent than ever. “To document Earth’s species and understand the complexities of swiftly-changing ecosystems in the midst of a major extinction crisis and widespread climate change, researchers need something that no single library can provide – access to the world’s collective knowledge about biodiversity.”
Candide entomologist Nina Davies says illustrations like these formed the foundation of our understanding of plant-insect relationships and are a vital window into the past: “Records like this are invaluable today because they can help us to understand how the environment has changed over time.” Rosie Leary, a botanist at Candide agrees: “Photographs and video have come on so much in terms of quality and what we can capture, but they lack the historical significance this library provides. These images are only going to gain significance as we lose more species.”
Leary belongs to a profession that is becoming as rare as the species it depicts, according to a recent Washington Post feature on the endangered career choice. These days, advances in technology mean photography is now the default when it comes to plant identification but Leary recalls how drawing enhanced her learning in her student days. “While studying I learnt that observation is the first step to understanding. When you draw something, you really have to focus on it. This forces you to take in so many more details and subtleties you didn’t notice before, and ultimately you come away with a better understanding of it.”
What’s more, there’s something unique in the way a pencil and paper can pin down the individual aspects of a plant or insect, says Davies. “Even with a macro lens, it’s not always possible to capture everything. Likewise, it can be more difficult to distinguish separate features of the specimen in a photo, so drawings of insect anatomy are particularly useful in my job.”
But more than any practical application, Leary says it’s the enthusiasm, passion and curiosity these illustrations spark that has helped her most in her career, and that is what she hopes will inspire future generations to pick up the botanist batton and run with it.
Below, we’ve pored over the archive to narrow down a selection of our favourite images. You can unearth the full collection on Flickr and Instagram.
Natural history, classification and nomenclature of insects from bees, wasps and ants:.
Frankfurt am Main: in the Hermannische Buchhandlung, 1791.
“Hymenoptera is my all-time favourite insect group. Just from a glance, I’m able to recognise ants, sawfly, parasitic wasps, gall wasps, social and solitary bees, thus demonstrating the incredible diversity of this group.” - ND
From: Horticultural Belgium. Liége.
“Houseplants are a hot topic. Caladium plants, in particular, have been extensively cultivated throughout the ages and you can see why. This gorgeous illustration captures the colourful, arrow-shaped foliage and patterns these tropical plants are grown for. ” - RL
“From what I can gather, this looks like a Shrill carder bee, a Field cuckoo bumblebee, a red-shanked carder bee, a red tailed cuckoo bee, a great yellow bumblebee and the last appears to be another kind of carder bee (the tribe is known as Bombinii). It's really exciting that these bees have been documented since the 18th century in such detail, but to my knowledge, the great yellow bee and the shrill carder are now extremely rare. It feels unfair that their numbers have diminished in under 200 years. This highlights the need to conserve historical artefacts such as these because sometimes, it can be incredibly difficult to observe and study some species in nature.” - ND
“Biological drawings allowed us to capture native flora and fauna in colour and to scale for the first time. The time and patience required to produce such accurate drawings is really impressive. Drawings like these probably were the primary resource for studying insects at the time.” - ND
London, Printed for the author,1823-1840 [i.e. 1840]..
“Our landscapes have changed drastically since 1840, and native wildlife has suffered. This drawing shows a leafcutter bee, with its pollinating apparatus, and a flower it must have been associated with at the time. I imagine the diet of a leafcutter bee has changed significantly since then, in terms of the flowers pollinated. Today, leafcutter bees are bred large scale, and shipped all over the world to commercial orchard growers, because there just aren’t enough bees to pollinate our crops anymore. Today, many of Japan's orchards are pollinated by commercially bred Mason bees.” - ND
The Botanical Magazine, or, Flower-garden displayed. v.1-2 (1787-1790).
“Easy and quick to grow and beautifully scented, the classic Sweet Pea is possibly my favourite plant. This illustration wonderfully shows off their colourful blooms, delicate veins and wispy tendrils. Looking at this, I want to get outside with my drawing pad!.” - RL
Flora of greenhouses and gardens of Europe
In Ghent: at Louis van Houtte, publisher, 1845-1880.
“This image shows a range of plants in their natural habitat. The human figure gives an impressive scale to the flora, placing the huge plants into context.” - RL
Complete natural history of forest crops in Germany. Berlin, A. Förstner'sche Verlagbuchhandlung (P. Jeanrenaud) 1851.
“The textures in this image are fantastic and I love the pencil sketches around the main diagram – you get a real sense of the learning process that took place as the image was formed.” - RL
Calathea makoyana , now Goeppertia makoyana
From: Horticultural Belgium. Liége.
“This image highlights the continuously changing taxonomy into which humans try to organise the world. Goeppertia is an old name, first described by Nees von Esenbeck in 1831. There has been much debate over the taxonomy of this grouping. It was thought to be synonymous with Calathea but has recently been separated into its own distinct genus, with many Calathea species now reclassified and included within Goeppertia.” - RL