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Beetle mania larger than life

If Christmas beetles really did grow to the size and the weight of the one Eleanor Gates-Stuart displayed so proudly to us at the CSIRO's Discovery Centre on Thursday we'd all need to wear helmets when we go outdoors in high summer. Real Christmas beetles blunder into us.

But Thursday's beautiful beetle, a vision in iridescent blue (eerily, identical to the blue of the gown Emma Matthews wore at last week's launch of Voices In The Forest) and 40 times the size of the real Summer-blundering members of its species and made of heavy titanium will never go a'blundering. It is a work of art.

And yet, and in ways we are about to explain, it is in its way an immortalisation of an actual beetle that once blundered about in Gates-Stuart's garden at Royalla. She came across it, wanted to use it for artistic and scientific purposes, but didn't know how to humanely euthanase it. She asked advice and was told ''Put it in some vodka'' but just before she had to resort to this (and what a humane death it surely would have been) the beetle whirred off this mortal coil through natural causes.

When we say that there is today a kind of immortalisation of it we mean that the monster Christmas beetle is a 3D version, much enlarged, of the actual Royalla beetle. It was made using a novel 3D scanning system and then was printed out using a CSIRO 3D printer.

For these sorts of printers, brain-bogglingly for those of us who have a Luddite gene, print, make and deliver actual three-dimensional objects.

The 3D printing machine adds layer upon layer of titanium to build up each bug. Up to 12 bugs can be produced at a time and after 10 hours in the machine the bugs emerge from the titanium powder.

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At the CSIRO on Thursday Gates-Stuart, a CSIRO science art fellow (an artist-in-residence) showed off a small entomological menagerie of these 3D-created creatures. Most are copies of real items in the CSIRO's National Insect Collection.

As well as electric blue Christmas beetles there were among others iridescent silver and iridescent khaki weevils and a royal purple, even suffragette purple, Long-horned beetle.

All have been considerably scaled up in size but one of the beauties of the fiendishly clever technique is that the enlarged bugs keep so much of the fine anatomical detail of the exquisite little creatures they're copied from. And so they don't look and feel at all like toys. They are a new kind of hard-to-define, 21st-century artefact, part sculpture, part scientific model. Canberrans will be able to go and see them at an exhibition (details below) and make up their own minds about what sorts of creations the lustrous bugs are.

It all came about, the artist explains with great enthusiasm, ''because I'm actually doing a piece for the Centenary of Canberra about wheat [and the wheat science work of the great William Farrer at Lambrigg near Tharwa]''.

''I was investigating the pests of wheat and flour and one of the pests is the weevil and that took me on the journey to entomology.''

Researching the despised weevil she began to marvel at it, at how it somehow manages to eat so much wheat and flour and at how the structure of it (magnified it looks armour-plated and she enthuses that ''they're constructed like an army tank, just incredible'') enables it to survive being crushed under the tonnage of the contents of silos. She wondered how she might take so tiny an insect and enlarge it for display in an art work. And then, with lots of collaboration from all sorts of people in all sorts of areas of CSIRO, the art and the science of the production of 3D-enlarged insects was conceived and put into practice.

And it offers promises not dreamt of at first. Probably the most exciting of them (and in conversation Gates-Stuart is engagingly enthusiastic about all this) is that fine virtual versions of some of the insects in the CSIRO-housed Australian National Insect Collection might be made and made more accessible. As it is, the public can't (except as scholarly individuals engaged in research) ever see the wondrous creatures in this treasure trove of 460,000 neatly preserved and pinned-in-place items found in 44,000 places. They, the 3D bugs, have, enlarged, lots of the qualities of the real bugs in the collection. For example their shape is utterly truthful (because it really is the actual shape) to the exquisite physique of the insect being portrayed.

What's more (and although of course the model bugs displayed on Thursday have been given especially flamboyant colours ahead of being displayed as works of art) the making of the bugs with titanium powder gives them the almost exact peculiar iridescence that so many beetles really do have. At the CSIRO on Thursday the splendid, enlarged, 3D bugs were all arranged, glistening, glittering and gleaming on top of a glass case full of real insects all glistening, glittering and gleaming with an almost identical lustre.

■ The 3D creations will be on display in the exhibition Embracing Innovation Volume 3 , at the Craft ACT: Craft & Design Centre, July 18-August 24.