Butterflies have been a bit of a passion ever since I found a peacock butterfly on my Dad’s Michaelmas daisies … I was about five or six at the time. There were red admirals, small tortoisehells and others to gladden September days but until that day I had never seen anything so exquisite as that peacock.
Regrettably, I did collect for a while for that was the’ encouraged’ way to show one’s love of nature in those typical young naturalists’ handbooks of the 1950′s. But the dying convulsions of a butterfly in a jar of Thawpit vapour (carbon tetrachloride or tetrachloromethane - CCl4 dependent upon when you did your chemistry) as it flapped and its wings turned inside out horrified me.
I was under ten when I worked that out and I now hold even more strongly to the principle that there is something obscenely arrogant in any ‘nature’ photographer killing insects in order to create an image that exploits that beauty. There are far too many images on the internet obtained by using insects killed for the purpose – especially in galleries devoted to ‘stacking’. Yes, it is far easier if the little so and so’s movement is impeded by ‘recent death’ but it is not consistent with an appreciation of living nature… something that unites us on this blog. So, given that stance, you can understand that when I once saw a post on Pixiq about how to make a killing bottle I was not, shall we say, best pleased. Che stronzo… for those who do not speak Italian – what an ‘anus’ … but just a tad stronger.
It is the living creatures that intrigue and delight me and, over the years, I have raised many species from eggs and larvae – hawkmoths are also a passion and I am fascinated by their caterpillars! This love of butterflies and moths has always been carefully maintained at the level of pleasure and interest thus avoiding the occasional obsession that has crept in with my published work on orchids – hey, I was even Chairman of Butterfly Conservation S Wales for a few years before leaving the UK; though occasionally more of a referee than chairman, it has to be said.
In my study-cum-studio there is large collection of butterfly and moth books from over the past century and more but the clear favourite is a small, hand-coloured volume from the Jardine Naturalist’s Series “ Entomology Vol III British Butterflies by James Duncan (1835) who wrote all 7 entomological volumes in a series that encompassed some 40 volumes published by Sir William Jardine, 7th Baronet of Applegirth, Dumfriesshire. Believe it or not, there is a plate on which the Apollo is depicted, along with the (now extinct in the UK but plenty around here) black-veined white or ‘hawthorn butterfly’ as it was then known.
… “This insect was first introduced into our British list, in consequence of it having been supposed, through some mistake, that a few continental specimens in the possession of Lord Seaforth, were procured from the Isle of Lewis, one of the Hebrides…and then later “ we have been assured , however, that it was noticed on the wing last summer in some parts of the west coast: and, though inclined to think that this must be a mistake, we willingly avail ourselves of the excuse which it affords for retaining in the meanwhile such an ornamental insect among our indigenous species…
I have used a similar excuse for including images of Calypso (Calypso bulbosa) that exquisite orchid of far northern and arctic lands in talks on the British Orchid flora under ‘rumours’….Some said that the legendary Vernon Summerhayes (author of the Collins New Naturalist volume on British Orchids) knew of its whereabouts…
This Lepidopterophilia or (casting that kite net a bit more widely) Entomophilia has also passed to my son Rhodri who is a first rate entomologist though, when lead singer in his Oxford days in a punk rock band it tended not to be the information carried on the “T” shirt. Daughter Hannah grew up keeping caterpillars and stroking them meaningfully to say “I would rather have a kitten” and now her two year old daughter Tallulah is obsessed with beetles and bugs thanks to her mum’s enthusiasm for nature. Wonderful, I cannot believe my luck!
There are some very good books for identification purpose that I can thoroughly recommend if you do not have them already. They are all eminently portable unlike the two-volume folio set of the Rev F. W Frohawk’s The Natural History of British Butterflies that I bought in 1971 in Hay-on-Wye for £25. It was all I could muster and with pockets (and bank account) emptied in a good cause I hitch-hiked back home to Bridgend in S Wales.
1. Butterflies of Britain and Europe: A Photographic Guide
by Tari Haahtela, Kimmo Saarinen, Pekka Ojalainen and Hannu Aarnio
383 pages, 450 col photos, dist maps. (A&C Black) ISBN-13: 9781408104743
The photography is excellent with both close-up and habitat shots, the quality of the Chinese printing is superb and the descriptions reduced to the important, distinguishing factors by people who really do spend their time in the field. There are also grids of all the species in a family for easy comparisons plus distribution maps and an extensive bibliography. It is, in my opinion, the best of the crop of guides currently available because of its printing quality and clarity of the images.
2. Butterflies of Europe: New Field Guide and Key
Tristran Lafranchis ( Diatheo) ISBN 2-9521620-0-X
Very comprehensive and authoritative text full of hints on recognition and differentiation of difficult species such as Blues and Fritillaries. Thoroughly recommended if you require more detailed information and it is written by someone who has spent a lot of time in the field puzzling over blues and fritillaries…
3. The Pocket Guide to Butterflies of Britain and Europe
by Paul Whalley & Richard Lewington. (Mitchell Beazley) ISBN 1 84000 272 7
This exquisite Mitchell Beazley Guide has gone through several editions and revisions since it appeared in 1981. I am on my fifth having given others away to friends throughout Europe. The text is very accurate and Richard Lewington’s paintings are faultless for he captures every detail with an accuracy that few other can achieve. It goes everywhere with me.
NB These MB pocket guides are astonishing value and available in several European languages: for example I carry both Italian and English editions of the bird guide in the car that have exactly the same pagination and it has thus provided a painless way of learning names in another language. If you know the Latin names of butterflies or plants you can get guess Italian names. Strangely I know few people who know the Latin names of birds…I just know the ones that appeal such as Upupa ipops (hoopoe) because it is onomatopoeic and Troglodytes troglodytes (wren) because it suits that irascible-sounding little bird that makes its nests just inside our ‘tombs’
And now for something completely different….For Inspiration and excellent nature writing
4. The Butterfly Isles: A summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals
by Patrick Barkham ( Granta) ISBN 978 -1-84708-127-8
This book was a birthday present from my son and, in its 375 pages devoted to an attempt to find all of the UK’s butterflies in a single season, one might imagine a work of unmitigated boredom except, that is, to a few die-hard nerds who do not get out much…Wrong, so utterly wrong. This is beautifully written by Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham with a wry humour where the ups and down in a life of butterfly hunting are paralleled with the dying embers of a relationship whose ‘longevity’ is not helped by the task he has set. So, it’s me or the butterflies then … OK, let me carry your bags for you (been there, done that and wear the “T” shirt)
This is a work by a writer able to pack in detailed information culled from numerous sources current and historic and yet make it flow in a way that never bores. What a joy to read accounts of natural history written by people who are thoughtful and literate and that are not merely lists punctuated by the same set of under 100 words used with never a synonym. This is a gentle journey through ‘mania’, peppered with human encounters and vignettes of some excellent butterfly folk along the way such as Matthew Oates and Jeremy Thomas. Humanity and passion shine through – those who think butterfly enthusiasts must be slightly away with the fairies have been misinformed..to a certain extent that is! We are only a tiny bit eccentric…makes people much more interesting. Butterfly watchers do get out more…as much as they can, in fact they hate being in!