Love is like a butterfly, as Kya deLongchamps derides the age old and still popular practise of traditional collecting and pinning.
Butterfly collecting was, up to surprisingly recent times, a highly respectable, educational pastime, a feast of fresh air and a division of the macabre Victorian obsession with entomology.
Period dramas set to film, including Austen and EM Forster, feature country parsons and elegant young misses, red cheeked in straw bonnets, in pursuit of insects— bounding through the summer grasses like antelope, drifting muslin nets as large as hooker sails.
Like fly fishing and watercolours, this horrible hobby was portrayed as a delightful exercise for the body, senses and mind and cloaked in cultural hegemony.
Iridescent, highly coloured wings made pretty ornaments behind glass, fastened into jewellery and even set on table tops. Dedicated cabinets with slender drawers were commissioned by the wealthy for their collection of domestic, foreign and highly exotic trophies.
Butterfly hunting in full period costume was an athletic and potentially dangerous activity. The delicate prey, some types pushed to the edge of extinction, were gleefully coaxed into a jam jars with a little cyanide or chloroform from the friendly local chemist.
Even children were encouraged into this cheerful destruction during the school holidays, mangling delicate wings and bursting juicy little abdomens as amateur lepidopterists as late as the 1970s.
Moths didn’t escape by night, but were attracted in with special lamps and baiting feed, like fermenting fruit. With the rise of toxic, airborne fertilisers, including the dreaded DDT, butterflies and other wildlife were under increasing pressure. It’s unlikely collecting committed the major damage to their numbers.
Cases of butterflies from as far back as the mid 1700s come up regularly at auction, with buyers and museums looking out for examples of rare and even extinct insects, especially where the collector has given details of the place and time of capture.
Kept in daylight, wings fade and tiny thoraces crumble. Where you do have a nice case of butterflies from before the first war, it might be worth contacting the Natural Science department of your local third-level college, to see if its contents are of any interest.
Make a note in your will of this or any invertebrate collection. Store any collection out of direct sunlight, direct heat, high humidity and fluctuations of temperature.
Today, there is some importance for natural scientists to record and even collect examples of individual species of butterfly, to study and ascribe them to a particular locality and its biodiversity.
This apart, capturing and assembling butterflies as dead specimens, rather than recording them in photographs, is now not only popularly derided, but in the case of rare varieties, is a criminal matter.
Wild colonies, even rare types of butterfly, are still eagerly chased down by determined collectors here and in the UK, pinned to boards with maniacal satisfaction.
It’s not against the law to collect butterflies where the landowner allows, and it remains a very popular activity in the US for example.
The website Home Science Tools (for American children) advises on the ‘relaxing jar’ — ‘Butterflies, because they are so fragile, sometimes batter themselves in a killing jar so it is better to first stun them by pinching their thorax — the central part of their body.
“It might take a little practice to get the method down just right, so try it out first on common moths or butterflies that you aren’t concerned about keeping for your collection.”
I don’t want to meet some of these kids when they reach 22.
The Amateur Entomologist Society which covers Northern Ireland has great advice in their Code of Conduct for finding, capturing, examining and releasing insects, and point out that even common butterflies may be locally vulnerable and should not be taken away.
Photography, they argue (and so do I, as a keen wildlife snapper) is the perfect alternative to killing butterflies for all enthusiasts, amentsoc.org. Over 18% of the native 32 species of Irish butterfly fauna is under threat of extinction.
Butterfly Conservation Ireland
was formed in
2008 by a small group of dedicated naturalists following the alarming decline of most of our butterfly species. Read more about their work or join, and enjoy walks and talks at butterflyconservation.ie.
Biodiversity Ireland also has a full spring/summer calendar starting this weekend in Dingle, and is hard at work compiling the 2021 Butterfly Atlas from this year (with your help!) Volunteer your local walking time and get involved in the next Butterfly Monitoring Scheme in your area, biodiversityireland.ie.
The Natural History Museum of Ireland has
1m pinned specimens. Take a couple of hours with your children to enjoy their incredible variety and beauty next time you are in Dublin.
Fota Wildlife Park has a Tropical House where you can see 14 fabulous exotics.
Kept in daylight, wings fade and tiny thoraces crumble
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