Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Living amber exacts its deadly toll

with 47 comments

The demise of two ants in the resin of a sunflower; click for greater detail.

Greek legend tells us that Icarus created a pair of artificial wings and attached them to his body with wax. Then up he flew, but when he got too close to the sun its heat melted the wax, the wings fell off, and Icarus came crashing down, fatally chastised for his haughtiness in wanting to rival the gods of the heavens.

Back here on earth the sunflowers have flourished all over central Texas for three months, and as veteran readers of this column know, those flowers have kept inspiring me. But I’m not the only creature drawn to them. Perhaps attracted by the aroma of the resinous drops that sunflower plants exude, the two ants shown here, like Icarus, likewise ventured too close and perished, entombed near the surface of the wax-colored drop of resin.

Those of you so inclined may continue on to read a sonnet about Icarus by the French poet Philippe Desportes, who lived from 1546 to 1606. That was late enough that he might well have seen some of the European sunflowers cultivated from plants and seeds brought back from the New World. Following the French original I’ve added a straightforward (as opposed to poetic) English translation.

*   *   *

Icare est chu ici, le jeune audacieux,
Qui pour voler au Ciel eut assez de courage :
Ici tomba son corps dégarni de plumage,
Laissant tous braves coeurs de sa chute envieux.

Ô bienheureux travail d’un esprit glorieux,
Qui tire un si grand gain d’un si petit dommage !
Ô bienheureux malheur, plein de tant d’avantage
Qu’il rende le vaincu des ans victorieux !

Un chemin si nouveau n’étonna sa jeunesse,
Le pouvoir lui faillit, mais non la hardiesse ;
Il eut, pour le brûler, des astres le plus beau.

Il mourut poursuivant une haute aventure,
Le ciel fut son désir, la mer sa sépulture :
Est-il plus beau dessein, ou plus riche tombeau ?

*   *   *

Icarus fell here, the daring young man,
Who had courage enough to fly to Heaven;
Here fell his body bereft of plumage,
Leaving all brave hearts envious of his fall.

O blessed work of a glorious spirit,
That draws such a great profit from so little a loss!
O blessed misfortune, full of so much advantage
That it may render the vanquished victorious over the years!

So new a path didn’t daunt his youth;
He lacked the power, but not the daring.
He had the most beautiful of stars to burn him.

He died pursuing a high adventure;
The sky was his desired goal, the sea his sepulcher:
Is there a lovelier purpose, or a richer tomb?

© 1573 Philippe Desportes
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 7, 2011 at 5:49 AM

47 Responses

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  1. this is just astonishing. your eyes and camera continue to amaze me with the details of nature, already my favorite subject. I think this one should be a post card!

    susie fowler

    August 7, 2011 at 6:43 AM

    • Like you, Susie, I never cease to be amazed by the plants out there in nature and what’s going on on the plants out there in nature. As much as I like the bright yellow rays of a sunflower and the brown-with-yellow-highlights of the disk at the center, I’ve learned to look as well at the green bracts underneath because I often find a spider or insect—or both—there.

      I like your idea of a post card. I think the last time I made a post card from one of my pictures was around 1982, so you could say I’ve waited long enough.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 7, 2011 at 7:06 AM

  2. What a capture. Temptation frozen in time.


    August 7, 2011 at 8:48 AM

    • I was tempted to—and did—get in close. The resin is sticky, but fortunately I’m a lot larger than a drop of it. Not so for the ants.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 7, 2011 at 8:57 AM

  3. I agree with Susie, your photographs are unique!

    Dr Anto Youssef

    August 7, 2011 at 10:28 AM

  4. What a beautiful post to accompany this photo. What you have done, here, is help me to look at these poor ants as adventurers, rather than just two dead ants. Excellent clarity in writing as well as photo.


    August 7, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    • Thanks so much, Leslie; I really appreciate your comment. In addition to uniqueness, I’ve long prized clarity (especially as a teacher).

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 7, 2011 at 10:52 AM

  5. This is a fascinating picture, I’ve never seen anything like this – bravo!

    Journey Photographic

    August 7, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    • Thanks. It was a novel find for me too, even though I’ve seen ants on sunflowers before this and after this.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 7, 2011 at 11:19 AM

  6. Glad I found your blog, Steve. Your photos are beautiful! I’m a beginner photographer, so will enjoy being inspired by your photos and writings.

    Karen Chandler

    August 7, 2011 at 2:18 PM

  7. The lives of the little creatures are so fascinating and I enjoyed reading the story, too. Thanks Steve.

    farmhouse stories

    August 7, 2011 at 9:38 PM

  8. Astonishing, stunning, beautiful. I feel dumbfounded looking at this photo. Truly brilliant. And I enjoyed your translation of the poem – Icarus’ great allure.


    August 8, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    • I appreciate your kind comments. When I came across this scene I was excited because I’d never seen anything like it. In contrast, the French poem has been in my head since I was in college; the plight of the ants quickly brought it to mind.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 8, 2011 at 1:24 PM

  9. […] Sunflower?  Just a shot in the dark, but I thought of that after reading this blog post where Steven Schwartzman shows two ants trapped in sunflower resin.  I observed this small bee trying to get the gook out of its mouth for some time before I moved […]

  10. amazing!


    August 11, 2011 at 2:41 AM

    • That’s what I think, Michelle. There’s always something new to be surprised at in nature.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2011 at 6:01 AM

  11. […] took this picture at the same place where I photographed a new cedar elm leaf and two ants entombed in a drop of sunflower resin. As I mentioned in the post about the cedar elm leaf, the site is a rundown lot whose buildings […]

  12. […] bracts just below this gumweed’s yellow disk flowers. Back in July we saw a similar fate for two ants trapped in a drop of sunflower resin. It’s a hazardous world out […]

  13. […] on August 7th I showed a photograph of two ants that met their demise when they became entombed in a drop of sunflower resin. Most ants, especially the bigger ones, […]

  14. […] free, but I also referred to a post featuring two small ants that met their demise when they became entombed in a drop of sunflower resin. Because I photographed the free ant way back on August 3 of last year, I decided to look through […]

  15. […] wild grape, Vitis mustangensis. Mr Schwartzman first caught my attention with this photograph of ants in living amber, but he holds my attention with many other interesting posts and photographs, ensuring my return […]

  16. Who would have seen such an intricate detail and the fate of the two ants pictured above? Beautifully shot
    : )


    January 23, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    • I was fortunate to notice the two ants, especially as they were under the rays of the sunflower.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2012 at 5:15 PM

  17. […] The title “They’re back”—which I’ve used before—applies to several things. What first occurred to me this time was that, like various other native species you’ve seen here in 2012, our sunflowers, Helianthus annuus, began to put in an appearance at least a month before their traditional time. By mid-April I’d started seeing a few of the familiar yellow flower heads along highways in my part of Austin, and with them came the ants that are common goers on these plants (sometimes at great cost, as early readers of this blog saw in a post last August). […]

  18. Someday someone will be wearing a ring made out of that resin. I love amber and have some amber jewelry! No ant pieces visible in mine, though, but that makes it more valuable.


    August 4, 2012 at 5:35 PM

    • I’d never thought about jewelry made from such resin, but either way it’s valuable to me.

      The lot where I took this picture (and quite a few others) has been razed in preparation for development.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2012 at 6:27 PM

  19. Recent story of a pair of bugs immortalized in amber that made me think of this blog article. http://seattle.cbslocal.com/2012/10/09/100-million-year-old-spider-attack-preserved-in-unique-fossil/


    October 9, 2012 at 2:57 PM

  20. […] did a post about ants trapped in a drop of sunflower resin, but I have no idea what the searcher meant by adding “free people” to the […]

  21. […] fate—at least up to the time of the photograph, and I can’t vouch for afterwards—than two that I found entombed in resin on this property a few weeks later, on July 17 of 2011. The common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is […]

  22. Et bien ça alors, je ne connaissais pas ce poème… j’aime beaucoup. Ta photo est époustouflante!


    February 11, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    • Ce poème a figuré dans un cours de poésie française que j’ai pris à l’université il y a longtemps.

      Si tu ne connaissais pas ce poème, moi je ne connaissais pas le verbe époustoufler, attesté (selon mon Robert) assez récemment, en 1867, et d’origine incertaine. L’adjectif est attesté en 1915.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 11, 2013 at 2:09 PM

  23. […] Living amber exacts its deadly toll […]

  24. […] What the person got taken to was a picture of two ants trapped in a drop of sunflower resin. […]

  25. That is amazing!! What an impressive shot!!


    Miss Lou

    April 10, 2014 at 8:04 PM

    • Poor ants, but also now poor site, which has become the parking lot of a hotel. I’ll always remember the things I saw and photographed there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 10, 2014 at 10:27 PM

  26. Thanks for sending me this link, Steve! I thoroughly enjoyed the post, as always. So intriguing to see amber in action in the present day: it puts the ancient preserves in quite a different and much livelier perspective for me. History is just earlier modernity, if I only remember it!

    And as you knew it would, the poem delighted me. I assayed the reading in French first, and was pleased to find that my exceedingly rudimentary understanding of the language allowed me a reasonable interpretation of the poem; your translation was absolutely necessary to steer the nuances in the proper directions, and did so in ways that made it all the more poignant and compelling a piece, too.



    April 13, 2014 at 3:43 PM

    • You’re welcome for the link, K.I. I like your insight that “history is just earlier modernity.”

      I’m glad that you like the French poem and that your own French carried you fairly far into it. I would have read the poem for the first time in around 1966, and the memory of it stayed with me all these years.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 14, 2014 at 12:11 AM

  27. […] to avoid the static image that can result from a centered subject. For example, in the picture of two ants entombed in a drop of sunflower resin, the ants occupy a position one-third over from the left edge of the frame and a bit more than […]

  28. Your entombed ants remind me of the fact that each evening when I bring in the hummingbird feeders so that bears won’t get to them at night, there are some ants that have drowned in the nectar. There is something to be said about having a sweet death, I guess.


    August 23, 2021 at 2:52 PM

    • The ants that you find in your hummingbird feeders are an apt follow-up to the ones entombed in sunflower resin that reminded me of the poem about Icarus. The place where I took this picture is now a hotel parking lot adjacent to the local Costco. When I got gas there the other day I looked at the hotel parking lot and remembered the many pictures I took there. Some sunflowers at one margin of the property were the last native plants to survive the paving and eventual landscaping. I could pick up your theme and say I preserved the sweetness of the property in pictures before its death.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 23, 2021 at 3:33 PM

      • Yes you did, Steve. But that sweetness of memory was followed by the bitterness of reality. I find it increasingly difficult not to be bitter about most things humans say or do.


        August 23, 2021 at 3:54 PM

        • As far back as the fall of 2000 I did a little before/after slide show nature pictures on properties that had since been developed. If I were to put together a slide show like that now, two decades later, I could go on for a long time. Yes, there’s sadness in the losses.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 23, 2021 at 4:00 PM

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