American fantasy painter Malina Dowling, otherwise known as Void Bug, paints portraits of insects as fairies. When doing so, she never forgets to include images of the real-life insect species her whimsical creatures derive from. Dowling also includes small facts about these insects, giving her audiences a chance to stop, admire, and appreciate insects' rich and yet often overlooked lives, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Life on Land.

Malina Dowling talks to visitors at the Motor City Comic Con by Eric Seals. Image courtesy of the Detroit Free Press.

Some of the earliest pieces in her series of bug fairies began with her paintings Lepidoptera, or moth, and Butterfly Fairies. In an Instagram post, Dowling shares how she attempted to catch some of them from her yard to keep as pets. Though at that moment it was unclear whether she managed to do so, she learned that moths do not come out until late spring or early summer. Immediately, her affinity for drawing them as fairies and educating her audiences on the insect species they’re inspired by was apparent.

Butterfly species from left to right: the yellow orange-tip, the great purple hairstreak, and the common meadow blue by Malina Dowling. Image courtesy of @void.bug/Instagram.

In one of her early pieces, Dowling portrayed three butterfly species playfully chasing each other as one held up a flower as a prized possession. The butterflies’ wings have been beautifully rendered in soft, true-to-life colours, while their bodies have been cartoonized. Its fluffiness has been exaggerated, making it especially cute, while its legs have been transformed into huggable human-like limbs. The piece invites its viewers to imagine that these are the very butterflies that fly around in gardens, living their own little anthropomorphized lives.

The Glider by Malina Dowling, based on the Sulawesi Moon Moth - Actias isis. Image courtesy of @void.bug/Instagram. 

In a more recent piece titled The Glider, Dowling has depicted a fairy inspired by the Sulawesi Moon Moth, with striking red and gold colours and an elegant trailing tail. “Actias isis might be one of the most gorgeous of the genus with significant sexual dimorphism—the males are rust-red and yellow, and the females are a pale yellow,” Dowling shared bringing her audiences closer to the bug life she is representing.

A study published in 2021 by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) charted that there has been a decrease in moth abundance and diversity across the globe, including an especially alarming one in Europe. Hence, Dowling’s pieces, which cultivate a closeness between audiences and these moths, become an imperative tool in helping her audiences understand the dire circumstances that moths are facing. Human activity such as light pollution and the use of pesticides are cited as some of the specific reasons behind such conditions, while habitat loss and climate change emerge as overall causes. The familiarity that Dowling’s pieces create through their portrayal of the fictional lives of moths serves as a gentle reminder of how human activity is affecting their very real lives.

Study of Empusa pennata (Conehead mantis) by Malina Dowling. Image courtesy of @void.bug/Instagram.

Dowling has also portrayed less cute insects, such as praying mantises. In another Instagram post, Dowling outlines how she finds them to be strange and alien-looking, yet beautiful at the same time. This extends to a need to honour their complex natures, which are not as cute or sweet as moths and butterflies are. Mantises are different characters altogether that Dowling’s viewers can get to know better.

As Dowling continues to expand her paintings to include other species in the insect world, she continues to cultivate intimacy between these insects and her audiences, allowing them to empathise with these creatures that exist all around humankind and yet are often taken for granted.

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