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Wellcome Image of the Month: Spike’s fairyfly

10 Sep, 2010
Fairy fly

The fairy fly (or Mymar pulchellus)

September’s Image of the Month is a photomicrograph of a fairyfly created by Spike Walker, who was awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s Combined Royal Colleges Medal last night. The medal, established in 1958 by the RPS in collaboration with the Royal College of Physicians of London, the Royal College of Surgeons of England and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, recognises Spike’s outstanding contribution to photography and its application in the service of medicine.

Spike has been creating biomedical images for most of his life. He received his first microscope at the age of ten, a present from his father. After gaining a degree in zoology he became a teacher, but took early retirement in 1989 in order to produce photomicrographs full-time and thus “satisfy his creative urges”. His retained interest in zoology is apparent in the images he creates – Spike is renowned for his photomicrographs of small creatures. In May, his microscopic photos of a bee were featured on the front cover of The Times’s science supplement, Eureka.

This photomicrograph shows a tiny insect from the Chalcidoidea superfamily of wasps. It is known commonly as a fairyfly and has a wing span of just 4mm. Its cute appearance is deceptive, however – the fairyfly is a parasitoid, a parasite that kills its host. Adult fairyflies lay their eggs in the eggs of other insects. The fairfly larvae then feed on the developing host larvae inside the egg, ultimately killing it upon hatching.

Spike originally used a technique called Rheinberg illumination to give this image a rich, blue background, but he felt it “lacked impact,” so painstakingly converted the blue background to black using digital techniques. This improved version won first place in the 2008 Olympus Bioscapes photomicrography competition. Spike has received many more accolades during his career, including 19 Wellcome Image Awards.

Receiving his latest accolade, Spike said he felt “a trifle unworthy to say the least. After all, photomicrography is a very small pond – not much more than a puddle – in the field of photography and I am not even a big fish in it, just a very old one!”

Spike isn’t about to rest though, and his images are in the running for the Wellcome Image Awards 2011, the judging of which is just around the corner. Any images submitted to Wellcome Images before 15th October will be eligible for consideration.

Find out more about the Wellcome Image Awards

Louise Crane, Picture Researcher, Wellcome Images

Image credit: Spike Walker/Wellcome Images
Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unique collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. All our images are available in digital form so please click the link above if you would like to use the picture that features in this post, or to quickly find related ones. Many are free to use non-commercially under the terms of a Creative Commons licence and full details of the specific licence for each image are provided.
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