One recent July on the banks of the Orfento river in Abruzzo, central Italy, I found myself wading through a parallel stream — an iridescent current of butterflies shuffling and pirouetting over a froth of wildflowers. It was hard to see which was the more dazzling, the glint of the water or those thousands of wings.
Such richness was common once in Europe and the United States. No more. A third of Europe’s butterflies have populations in decline, losses Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, calls “extremely worrying. They point to a major loss of wildlife and wild habitats across Europe.” (Along with their contribution to pollination, butterflies are indicator species.) Meanwhile numbers of North America’s Monarchs, whose 5,000-kilometre migration is a wonder of the continent, have dwindled by over 90% since the mid-1990s as their milkweed habitat disappears.
No accident, then, that five books looping through our office this summer focus on the insect.
Environmental writer Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm (John Murray) uses Lepidoptera as a lens on both personal loss and ecological degradation. McCarthy’s childhood, spent near Liverpool in the UK, was marked by his mother’s episodes of mental illness. He found his coping mechanism in a buddleia bush “covered in jewels, jewels as big as my seven-year-old hand…red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells and painted ladies”. McCarthy’s absorption in nature deepened amid the astounding biodiversity of 1950s England, when hares “galumphed across every pasture” and moths on summer nights “would pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard”. This impassioned multiple narrative is expertly interwoven, but necessarily leaves the key thread dangling — the ultimate outcomes of climate change and galloping extinction.
The transformation of caterpillar to butterfly is one of the most enthralling events in the animal world. The larva partially liquefies within the carapace of its pupa before a momentous reorganisation and emergence in a form wholly other — log into ballerina. For Metamorphosis (Bloomsbury), naturalist-photographer Rupert Soskin spent two years snapping metamorphosing insects. The star has got to be the giant Atlas moth Attacus atlas. The larval progression to greenish-blue monstrosity; the month in a silky cocoon; the emergence as winged victory with a vast russet-and-gold span; the death after a week or so. A compressed existence that lends extraordinary pathos to its beauty.
“Someone whose first memory is of being eaten alive by red ants in a playpen might be expected to develop a pathological loathing of entomology”. But lepidopterist Matthew Oates was bitten deeper by curiosity. For his personal and scientific memoir In Pursuit of Butterflies (Bloomsbury) Oates — an expert on butterfly species such as the extravagant Purple Emperor — has mined five decades of notes penned on the wing round the British Isles. This is a narrative that, for all its blow-by-blow accounts of sightings, lands as lightly as a Pearl-bordered Fritillary on the mind. Oates is a celebrant of place, a devotee of literary lights from Keats to Thoreau, and a man with significant messages for conservation — not least that “perhaps it is we who need rewilding, not Nature”.
Rainbow Dust (Vintage) by wildlife writer Peter Marren is a subtly brilliant cultural and scientific history of lepidoptery, interspersed with vignettes from his own life in the field. ‘Chasing the Clouded Yellow’ and ‘Graylings’, for instance, segue from Marren’s youthful butterfly collecting — a now-defunct hobby — to 1690, when pioneering entomological body the Society of Aurelians was founded, with the great naturalist John Ray as adviser. Marren parses the etymology of butterfly names from hairstreak to brimstone, the rarity of red in their wings, the recent explosion in research on their behaviour. There is a sighting, too, of Vladimir Nabokov, the towering novelist-lepidopterist whose mastery of language “seems at times to be deployed with the crisp decision of a pin through the thorax”.
The coevolution of pollinators and flowering plants is bracingly explicated by Stephen Buchmann in The Reason for Flowers (Simon & Schuster). Buchmann, a pollination ecologist, notes that some large butterflies such as the Monarch can be “beautiful pollen klutzes”, lamenting that “their skinny legs rarely slip into the floral grooves”. He is more enthusiastic about moths. The sleek hawk moths he admires for their “fighter-jet look” and acrobatic feeding on the night blooms of datura, while the yucca moth, endowed with weird elongated mouthparts, scoops and makes “meatballs” of pollen to pack onto the plant’s stigma.
The arrival en masse of these five books has made my summer, even though each carries some reminder of what these beguiling and unpredictable insects are up against. Yet, as the bee’s case indicates, a shift in agricultural practice and land use — including the way we manage back gardens — can help restore habitats to support wildflowers, insects and insectivores. Scientists from Miriam Rothschild to Dave Goulson have shown it’s possible to ensure butterflies still (as John Ray had it) “adorn the world and delight the eyes of men”.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.