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by Valerie

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Knowing how voracious fire ants can be, I have long thought that a good Thanksgiving image would be the elegantly alliterated "Fire Ant Feast." I kept playing with ideas of how to illustrate this, perhaps with an animation of ants carrying all sorts of parts of their prey. Nothing ever really seemed to work, though. Then I thought of a grasshopper, which I really HAD recently seen being eaten by ants. Then the Aesop fable came to mind. It turns out that the idea needed no animation, as a single frame says it all. This one even has a subtitle: "Fire Ant Feast, or What Really Happened to that Lazy Grasshopper!" I'm really hooked on using dingbat font characters as art. They are so easy and fun to work with.

The familiar Christmas song was certainly the inspiration for this next animation. I like the double meaning of "rock." My only problem with this one was file size. It uses an embarrassingly large amount of bandwidth - nearly 100 KB. Of course, with just about everyone having high-speed internet nowadays, it is not the problem it would have been five years ago, but I am generally a frugal person and hate to waste bandwidth on silly jokes. Once again, every aspect of the drawings is a dingbat font character. I had to use a potato (decorated with doodles from a different font) for the rock, but they look the same anyway. The whole thing moves in tempo with the rhythms of the song, so you can sing along if you want.

Everyone knows the myth that a female praying mantis always eats her mate, usually biting off the head. It is a myth because this is only usually true of captive animals, where the male cannot escape and the female feels stressed out. In the wild, it probably happens very occasionally. "Tough Love" seemed like a nicely titled graphic for the Valentine's Day issue, and it gave me yet another opportunity to play with dingbat fonts, manipulating them in Ulead Photo Express. The red gift box matched the letters used in the heading of the issue.

I couldn't help but notice the similarity between the figures in an explanatory square dance animated GIF and bugs. It took a lot of pixel counting to make sure that everyone had room to maneuver and also ended up in the right place. Since a Big Grand Square is just a group of four Standard Grand Squares, then this assemblage must be a Super Duper Extra Large "Grand Bug Square." But then that is how it is with bugs - there are always lots of them. The whole animation was done in MS Paint and compiled in Ulead GIF Animator Lite, still my standard method of creating these.

I'd worked pretty hard on the previous month's animation, so I took it easy for the next illustration and went with a still. "Lepidopteran Equinox" is one of those Yin/Yang kind of picture - opposites juxtaposed. I liked the idea of the diurnal butterfly and the nocturnal moth getting their equal times. All the pieces are dingbat font characters. The gradient backgrounds are the sort of thing that is easy to do in MS Word. One of the trickier things is to put something with white in it over a colored background. The way I do it is too complicated to explain here. There is probably a much simpler solution but I have not yet mastered it.

The inspiration for "Beach Ball Bugs" was a dingbat font with nothing but balls with various sorts of shading or designs. I like the way the bugs sort of squash down when they are hit by the ball.

I'm not sure why the idea of "Seed Bugs" had not come earlier. There is a whole group of true bugs called that. In this case, though, the seeds of a clip-art watermelon suddenly come to life, which I think is darkly humorous. Sort of like biting into an apple and finding half a caterpillar in it.

Zip-lines are not particularly big here in central Texas, maybe because we just don't have big trees. However, I've seen these in Florida, where they are hot. Not surprising for a whole state that caters to tourism and outdoor recreation. Spiders regularly use their silk to bridge the gap between trees, so it makes sense that one might have a little fun as a "Zip-line Spider," at least in my imagination. I especially like horizontal designs, as they fit well in the format of our newsletter.

I had taken some close-up photos of a robber fly and thought the enormous eyes looked quite abstract. In order to achieve better symmetry, I took half the photo and mirrored it. It is quite similar to the original, but of course more perfect in every detail. The color is true. I thought "Fly's Eyes" meant just that: the compound eyes of a dipteran. Well, a quick search on the internet showed that it is used in other ways, especially pertaining to a part of the male anatomy that also has two matching spheres.

Sometimes an animation isn't about action, but about examples. I couldn't help but come up with more "Beetle Bumper Stickers" after imagining the logo of "Grub on Board" on the back of a Volkswagen. The old engraving of a Hercules beetle seemed just right for plastering various sayings onto. For those that don't get the "Kiss your ash goodbye" one, it has to do with the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive exotic green-colored bupestrid beetle that is decimating ash trees in our country.

This pun is so obvious that I can't believe I didn't already use it. "Fire Fly" was created using a text effect in Ulead Photo Express on a dingbat font character. Of course, this insect is different from the real firefly (actually a beetle with a glowing butt). That distinction is exhibited in the name: true flies, in the order diptera, always have a space between the adjective and the word "fly."

Halloween is ripe with great imagery, so this time I just reveled in the spirit of the season. There is no hidden meaning or underlying joke, except perhaps for the nice alliteration of the title. It's just a sort of surreal "Halloween Happening."

There are times when I think I might never run out of silly ideas for even sillier animations. "Home Less Bugs" not only has a minor pun for the title, but I think I did pretty well at butchering the words to the familiar song about a happy country house with cavorting ungulates.

Even though we don't often have snow here in central Texas, snowflakes are universally attractive. There are some very nice dingbat font characters available that feature these ice crystals, so the only difficult part was choosing which ones to use! "Snow Removal" is actually two animations side by side. If you look carefully, you will see the duplication.

We don't usually feature Groundhog Day with our January issue, frequently opting for the more popular Valentine's Day. However, after recently watching the classic movie "Groundhog Day" with Bill Murray, I guess that was more on my mind. It also happens that over the past year or so I'd been writing a poem on the same theme and used it in this issue. Yeah, writing poetry is not something that just happens for me; there's no inspiration, just muddling through the morass of the mind. Anyway, the poem was about using bugs instead of a rodent to forecast the weather, hence "Groundbug Day." Besides using a dingbat font for the cricket, I used a Bamboo tablet to draw the clouds and snow. About the only thing I use the tablet for is to make lines that gradually increase or decrease in size. Luckily, it's very simple to just plug it in and use it with PhotoShop Elements 2.

Lack of inspiration resulted in "Butterfly Trio." I'm not sure I mind it much when I can't think up an animation, since I really enjoy playing around with dingbat fonts and special effects, especially when they come out this pretty.

For the next issue, I had written an essay about jigsaw puzzles, so it was natural to think of an animation which used that theme. The question was: how to create it? I settled on using a neat little program I have called "Living Scenes Jigsaw Puzzles." It allows for using any image and turning it into a puzzle with a wide variety of parameters. I made the image first, using a clipart butterfly and putting a nice dingbat font border around it. Then I turned it into a puzzle, with the scattered pieces arranged the way I wanted them. I then did screen shots as I put the pieces in place. I had to do the whole thing with no slips in placing the pieces because then I would have trouble putting the piece back to exactly the same spot and trying again. It was tense towards the end, as I didn't want to have a mouse-slip screw up my 15 minutes of work. Once it was finished, I was quite pleased - I think "Monarch Puzzle" is one of the most elegant and attractive animations I've ever made.

I have a cute little program on CD that I bought for $1 or so at Half-Price Books years ago called "My Type Artist." It has a bunch of graphic fonts that can be used for making headings and such. I sometimes use it to create the heading for the newsletter and this time I used one that put each letter into a sort of capsule. It was then a no-brainer to use the same kind of capsule, elongate it and stick a bug inside. The bug is from a dingbat font. Once I had created it, I was surprised to see that there was a problem with how the frames removed themselves, as there were little marks left after the bug. Perhaps I had cropped too closely or something. This didn't seem too detrimental to the effect, though, as the marks looked like little footprints!

Why had I never thought of "Fire Ants" before? It's not like I am not almost constantly aware of the little beasts since I am always getting stung. And I certainly love puns. I've also used this flame effect from Ulead Photo Express for several previous graphics, so it was just a matter of time before I applied it to this particular taxon.

One of my activities (when I'm not making silly animations) is giving slideshow presentations about insects to various nature groups. I had just created a new talk about pollination and one of the points I brought up is that, while bees are the most important insect pollinator, flies are the second most important. Most people don't know that. Since "Fly Feast" has a nice alliteration (well, I guess I could have used bee banquet - maybe next time), that became the title. More dingbat fonts, with the flowers painted in PhotoShop Elements 2. I have no intention of ever buying a later or more complex version of PhotoShop; it would be a waste of money. The simple but pretty border was created by nesting tables.

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