Butterflies – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

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Butterflies – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

The Dark Side of Beauty

It had been a long, hard and uncomfortable day, just one of many long and uncomfortable days in the depths of the steaming rainforest of the Molucca (now Maluku) Islands of northern Indonesia.

Alfred Russel Wallace was hot, tired and sweaty; a state of affairs he had grown to accept, if not exactly enjoy, during his travels around this remote and hostile archipelago. He had put up with these discomforts for five years and would endure them for a further three, during which time he was to collect a phenomenal 126,000 specimens of birds, butterflies and beetles. He was a collector extraordinaire. Unlike most of the scientific establishment, with neither family wealth to draw on nor friends in high scientific places, Wallace was funding his travels by finding and selling specimens to enthusiasts back in England. And despite being a self-taught naturalist who had left school at fourteen, he had managed to come up with a theory that was to revolutionise science.

The previous year, 1858, he and Charles Darwin, the most famous scientist of his day, had had papers jointly presented to a distinguished audience at the Linnaean Society in London, in which each outlined a theory of evolution by means of a process that would come to be known as ‘natural selection’; a theory each had worked out independently of the other.

Of the thousands of creatures Wallace was to collect during his long life, one particular butterfly stood out as the most special. At first, all he glimpsed was a brief flash of gold in the darkness of the foliage; then he had a slightly better view and noticed that the wings were patterned in bold yellow and black. Finally, it settled on a flower just a few yards in front of him. Moving slowly forward, Wallace’s heart was beating so loudly he thought it might frighten the insect away, but it stayed put, greedily drinking the flower’s nectar. Inch by inch, Wallace moved near enough to pounce. Then, with a rapid swish of his net, the butterfly was captured.

Despite his long experience as a collector, Wallace was flabbergasted by its sheer beauty, as he recalled in his bestseller of 1869, The Malay Archipelago:

The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.

Wallace’s passion soars off the page, his pure, unadulterated obsession with nature. This insect was indeed new to science, and is sometimes known by the name of its discoverer: Wallace’s golden birdwing. Its scientific name Ornithoptera croesus also emphasises its bright colour: Croesus, the King of Lydia (now western Turkey) from the sixth century BC, was legendary for his overflowing coffers of gold.

Wallace was amassing his butterflies, along with many other creatures, at the height of the Victorian collecting frenzy. The specimens he assembled, along with his detailed notes, have proved invaluable to modern naturalists. We owe the collections in most of our museums to the labours of these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century naturalists who travelled the world, often in extreme and dangerous conditions, to collect animals and plants. The American poet Robert Frost called butterflies ‘flowers that fly and all but sing’. It’s a powerful image. The butterfly is the essence of a warm spring or summer day and we use it as a symbol of fragility and frivolity: people with butterfly minds skip from one subject to another.

But surely the attraction of butterflies is that they are only with us for a short time, their seasonal flights having a poignancy that tugs us back to sunny days. Even now, whenever he sees small tortoiseshell butterflies, Brett is seven years old again, a young hunter lurking by the buddleia bush at his grandparents’ back door, armed with a net taller than himself. The lasting memories of such fleeting encounters and the chance to collect butterflies make them so irresistible.

Colourful and highly mobile, it’s no surprise they have captured our imagination in art, music, literature, religion and science and, of course, hobbies. More than almost any other creature, butterflies have come to embody a rich and varied panoply of symbolic and cultural meaning. Their colours and patterns, short and ephemeral lives, delicacy and spirituality, and, above all, their apparently miraculous transformation from earthbound larvae to creatures of the air, have contributed to our perennial fascination with these beautiful creatures.

There is even mythology surrounding the word ‘butterfly’. For example, it is sometimes asserted that the word was originally ‘flutterby’, describing the flight of the insect. (Sadly this is no more than a charming thought.) Another suggestion is that the word – a contraction of ‘butter-coloured fly’ – comes from a single familiar species, the brimstone, which is often the first butterfly to appear in spring; the males are indeed strikingly yellow.

There is a stronger clue in the German word for butterfly: Schmetterling. According to author and entomologist Peter Marren, Schmetter derives from a dialect word meaning ‘cream’ or ‘sour milk’, while another folk name is Milchdieb, meaning ‘milk thief’. This may refer to the ancient Teutonic belief that witches stole milk from cows, which links with a strange phenomenon where butterflies were known to gather in large numbers when milk was being churned into butter outdoors. Perhaps, Marren suggests, butterflies are somehow drawn to a chemical pheromone in the milk or butter itself. However, schmettern is also the German verb meaning to beat, smash or crash, which might lead us to suggest an equally plausible derivation of the word: that it comes from the Old English verb beatan (also meaning ‘to beat’), and simply refers to the action of the insects’ wings as they fly through the air.

The words for butterfly are clearer in most other languages than in English. Thus the French have papillon, itself derived from the Latin word papilio meaning ‘tent’ (hence our modern English word ‘pavilion’) and referring to the shape of the wings. The Italian word farfalla is more familiar in its plural form, as farfalle, the name for the pasta shaped like a bow tie (or butterfly!), while the Spanish mariposa has a religious origin which derives from the phrase ‘la Santa Maria posa, meaning ‘the Virgin Mary alights’ – presumably a reference to a butterfly landing delicately on a flower. The Norwegian sommerfugl translates as the evocative ‘bird of summer’, but of all the different words for butterfly, surely the most fascinating is the ancient Greek psyche. The root of many modern terms including psychology, psychiatrist and psychic, to the Greeks it meant ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’, as Peter Marren explains:

The Greeks were the first people to adopt butterflies into their philosophy and world view. They noticed that the caterpillar turns into a pupa which seems to be dead, almost as if the caterpillar has made its own coffin, and then suddenly the pupa splits open and out comes this angelic butterfly, a spiritual insect that flies off into the sky and is no longer bound by the earth.

This is, however, only one of many different ways – albeit perhaps the most powerful – in which we have incorporated butterflies (and their complex life cycle) into our view of the human world. Butterflies have come to symbolise life and death, heaven and hell, freedom and imprisonment, joy and despair. In doing so they have entered our lives – our psyche, one could even say – in a way few other creatures have managed to do apart, perhaps, from birds. As the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi wrote in the fourth century BC: ‘I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.’

Butterflies are bittersweet. Their transient beauty inspired the tragic figure of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Religious paintings use butterflies to symbolise resurrection, or as portents of doom. There’s more on both of these later. Muhammad Ali famously said he could dance like a butterfly, but sting like a bee. It’s probably safe to say that he wasn’t speaking as a dedicated lepidopterist, but rather his comment reflects the fact that as a society we have always watched butterflies closely, fascinated by their lives from egg to caterpillar to adult.

Only birds – in all their variety and conspicuousness – rival butterflies as exemplars of human qualities, emotions and passions. Thus butterflies are perceived as beautiful, fragile and ephemeral, as indeed they are: most are strikingly patterned; they can be easily damaged or killed; and few live more than two or three weeks.

Beauty and fragility are an irresistible combination, that ephemeral and fleeting psyche that we strive to capture and pin down. It’s an image that inspired John Fowles’s dark novel The Collector, the tale of a lepidopterist who ‘collects’ a young woman and keeps her in a basement. This idea is central to Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly with its tragic heroine, a young Japanese woman, so beautiful her devious suitor, Pinkerton, compares her to a fluttering butterfly, so captivating he must capture her, even though it will damage her wings. In one of the most moving scenes, Madame Butterfly sings about how it feels to be pinned down like this:

They say that overseas

if it should fall into the hands of man

a butterfly is stuck through

with a pin

and fixed to a board!

Her words prove prophetic: later, rejected by Pinkerton, Madame Butterfly stabs herself with her father’s hara-kiri knife. Pinkerton’s response is equally telling about why we still see butterfly collections as pieces of art:

There’s some truth in that;

and do you know why?

So that it shouldn’t fly away again.

I’ve caught you …

You’re mine.

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The most wide-ranging and powerful images of butterflies refer not to the adult insect we see on spring and summer days, but to the process by which this creature comes about; one of the most extraordinary examples of metamorphosis in the whole of the animal kingdom.

If a visitor from outer space were to be shown the life cycle of a bird or a mammal, it would presumably make some kind of sense: the fertilised egg (or embryo) gradually develops – either inside or outside the mother’s body – until it produces a small version of the adult creature. But butterflies and moths undergo the most extraordinary change, in which the three stages following the hatching of the egg appear so different it is hard to believe they belong to the same species, let alone represent three stages in the life cycle of a single individual. As the US architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller pointed out: ‘There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.’

Thus the egg hatches into a caterpillar, a typical insect larva that is basically an eating machine with legs. Having hatched, most caterpillars feed voraciously, often on a single species of food plant. As they grow, they pass through several stages known as ‘instars’, in which they moult their outer skin to reveal a new layer beneath. During the last of these stages, the caterpillar develops proto-wings, hidden beneath its outer casing.

Once the caterpillar is fully grown – a process that may take several weeks or even months – it is ready to enter the next stage of its life cycle: pupation. This is perhaps the most incredible transformation of all, from a mobile, active caterpillar into a static, apparently inactive, pupa. During this stage the insect undergoes the various processes that alter it from the caterpillar into the adult butterfly – changing its body shape and growing the wings it will need to fly.

When it finally emerges, the adult butterfly cannot immediately fly, so is very vulnerable to being eaten by predators. Its wings gradually unfold, inflate and dry (a process that usually takes between one and three hours) before the adult butterfly finally takes to the air. Yet although its lifespan may be brief – certainly compared with its time spent as an egg, caterpillar or pupa – it is this stage of the insect’s life that we most often celebrate. As the comedian George Carlin wryly observed: ‘The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.’

Most representations in art – indeed almost all the best-known examples – at first appear to be overwhelmingly positive, yet this is perhaps because we are seeing them from our own, modern perspective, as Peter Marren explains:

Artists did not always paint a butterfly for its own sake, but as a symbol, an embodiment of some abstraction, whether moral or religious. Because they were the nearest thing in the natural world to our idea of a spirit, butterflies tended to symbolise the world beyond, a prefiguration of the afterlife that awaits us … Butterflies were part of the creation of our world and, like all life, we could learn from them. They were at once real and metaphors. They were a promise of a world beyond, and in this life they put us in our place.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of the Dutch Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch. As you look closely at his masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights, created in the opening decade of the sixteenth century, it takes time to find the butterflies among the plethora of human and animal characters. But searching reveals several examples of butterflies depicted in ways we find quite hard to understand nowadays.

There is a fearsome-looking ‘butterfly-monster’ with the body of a man and the head of a butterfly (it is not clear which species, though it does show the peacock’s false ‘eyes’), thrusting his sword into the stomach of an unfortunate captive. Nearby, what is clearly a meadow brown, augmented with the head and claws of a bird, attacks another victim, while what may be a painted lady feeds greedily on a blue thistle, which in turn emerges from the body of a homunculus.

We still struggle to understand the extremity of Bosch’s butterfly imagery: the drab meadow brown was once seen as a spy from hell, the small eye-spots on its wings being the equivalent of satanic closed-circuit TV, noting misdemeanours for future reference. The association between the meadow brown and the powers of darkness is still commemorated in the scientific name for the species’ genus Maniola, which roughly translates as ‘little spirit from the underworld’.

Even butterflies we find beautiful today held a sinister meaning in the past. Take the red admiral, a common visitor to our gardens, with its velvet black wings slashed with red. That colour combination gave rise to all manner of dark thoughts. Although the English name was previously ‘admirable’, perhaps reflecting its popularity, it once had a far more sinister significance, as Peter Marren points out: ‘Red is a very rare colour in butterflies, and although to us it is beautiful, in the past it was seen as sinister, as an echo of darkness and flames, and of hell – hence this became the butterfly from hell.’

Thus red admirals appear as representations of evil and hellfire in many late medieval and Renaissance artworks, often juxtaposed with white butterflies representing innocence, purity and hope. The red admirals are often to one side, in the shade, perched on a faded bloom or decaying fruit, or with grotesque birdlike heads, making them ‘look like little devils’ or, perhaps, damned souls. Peter Marren also points out the French word for the red admiral is Vulcain – after Vulcan, the blacksmith of the gods.

In Floral Wreath with Madonna and Child, a religious still-life painting by the seventeenth-century Flemish artist Daniel Seghers, two butterflies are shown: a large white and a red admiral. While the Virgin Mary is looking at the white butterfly, the eyes of the young Christ are gazing at the red one, a symbol both of sin and death but also, perhaps, a reminder of the crucifixion.

Ironically enough, today these two butterflies are regarded in an almost diametrically opposite way. Whereas the red admiral, a migrant from southern Europe or North Africa, is now seen as a welcome sign of spring, the appearance of any of the familiar ‘cabbage white’ butterflies is a signal for gardeners, allotment owners and vegetable growers to reach for their pesticide spray. But not, hopefully, before they have stopped to take a closer look at these fascinating insects.

When we see a butterfly – especially once it has perched so we can take a closer look – we are often captivated by its colour and markings. And just as we often take an anthropocentric view of birdsong as nature’s gift to us, rather than as an essential tool in the biological process of courtship and breeding, so it is easy to view butterflies’ wings as pleasing and attractive, without ever stopping to wonder at the purpose of their complex patterns.

As with many bright colours in nature, the reds and oranges serve as a warning: that the insect may be toxic or at least distasteful to predators. The ‘eyes’ on the upper wings of many butterflies – notably the familiar peacock – are also a defence mechanism: they fool a hungry bird into pecking at the wing tip rather than the insect’s body so that it can escape alive, albeit often with a damaged wing.

A new theory, proposed by Philip Howse in his 2014 Seeing Butterflies (subtitled New Perspectives on Colour, Patterns and Mimicry), suggests that these patterns are even more complex than one might assume. Howse argues that butterfly wing-patterns don’t just send generic messages to a predator; instead, by mimicking specific creatures, including caterpillars, spiders, bumblebees and even birds of prey, they send targeted warnings.

Their patterns hold other messages for us, including mathematical formulae, which it takes an art historian to unmask. Giovanni Aloi, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who specialises in the representation of animals in art, outlines another reason we find butterflies so appealing:

It’s not just the bright colours – there’s something more to the structure and pattern of the wings that we humans find particularly fascinating. It’s been argued that the golden section, which is the ratio of proportional perfection in classical art, is contained in the wings of butterflies – they have a kind of primordial appeal.

The ‘golden section’ (also known as the ‘golden ratio’, and represented by the Greek letter phi) was discovered by the ancient Greeks. They used it in their art and sculpture as it has a special appeal to the human eye. It is also found widely in nature, for example in the whorls of a snail’s shell, the pattern of seeds on the head of sunflowers, the shape of spiral galaxies and the whirling cloud patterns of hurricanes – even the shape of a human face demonstrates the golden section. When something is pleasing to us, it probably follows this particular mathematical structure.

But the golden ratio isn’t just pleasing to the eye; it actually has a stabilising, calming, comforting effect, as Giovanni Aloi explains: ‘When we look at butterflies, especially in the traditional specimen cabinet configuration found in museums where the wings are spread out in a symmetrical fashion, we are instantly – almost subliminally – captivated by the golden ratio that is captured in the shapes and patterns on the wings.’

Such detail was not lost on one group of men who became obsessed by butterflies: the Victorian collectors, who were so numerous they were even commemorated – and indeed satirised – in the popular fiction of the period. Among the varied cast of minor characters in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, Dr Vesey Stanhope stands out as the epitome of clerical absenteeism, as Trollope makes clear: ‘Years had now passed since he had done a day’s duty, and yet there was no reason against his doing duty except a want of inclination on his own part.’

Nominally the rector of two parishes in this fictional diocese, he has lived for a dozen years in Italy, where he appears to have spent most of his time collecting butterflies – much to the disgust of the redoubtable Mrs Proudie, wife of the new bishop.

We can smile at Trollope’s barbed portrait, as is the author’s intent. But Dr Stanhope was by no means untypical of the clerical profession at this time. In his detailed study The English Parson-Naturalist, Patrick Armstrong traces a passion for butterflies among churchmen back to the seventeenth-century theologian and naturalist John Ray, with whom ‘the adventure of modern science begins’.

Ray combined his love of God and fascination with nature in a way we can still relate to today:

You ask what is the use of butterflies? I reply to adorn the world and delight the eyes of men; to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels. To contemplate their exquisite beauty and variety is to experience the truest pleasure. To gaze enquiringly at such elegance of colour and form designed by the ingenuity of nature and painted by her artist’s pencil, is to acknowledge and adore the imprint of the art of God.

Later parson-naturalists with a particular interest in butterflies included the nineteenth-century evangelist F.O. Morris, who produced some of the most sentimental, inaccurate (yet hugely popular) writings on nature ever published; the Revd Leonard Jenyns, who kept accurate diaries on the butterflies of Cambridgeshire; and the best known of all, Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne.

What these men had in common was a good education, plenty of what we would now call leisure time, and the ability – indeed a duty – to wander the highways and byways of their parish without being considered suspicious, at a time when anyone doing so without due cause would have been regarded as either mad, bad or both.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, a passion for natural history was no longer considered a niche interest; indeed it was becoming rather fashionable, especially among the landed gentry, in what butterfly enthusiast Matthew Oates describes as a ‘Victorian and Edwardian obsession’.

Of all these gentlemen-collectors, perhaps the most colourful was Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, 10th Baronet, of Calke Abbey, a former Augustinian priory in Derbyshire. Harpur Crewe was a genuine English eccentric: generous with servants and employees but tight-fisted with his own family; a committed anti-smoker who banished his daughter from her home for the rest of his lifetime for smoking a single cigarette; and violently opposed to any form of modern transport – not just motor cars but even bicycles.

His obsession was the amassing of an enormous collection of natural objects, including birds and their eggs, moths and particularly butterflies. On his death in 1924, the vast majority of his collection was sold in order to pay death duties, but a large number of specimens still remain at Calke Abbey, which is now in the hands of the National Trust.

Matthew Oates showed us through dusty rooms full of specimens geological, entomological, ornithological. He described the ‘glorious clutter’ of a shabby room with rows and rows of shelves stacked with cardboard boxes which, on closer examination, reveal Harpur Crewe’s obsessive nature – even by the standards of his day.

One case contains twenty-five silver-washed fritillaries, neatly pinned and mounted, as bright as when they were first caught on a single day in the New Forest. Although a few of the specimens display the classic orange and black upper wings of this large butterfly, the majority are an iridescent silvery-green in shade. These are of the very rare form valezina, an odd colour variant only found in females, and only then in large colonies. To have obtained so many of these specimens in a single day reveals how common this now rare butterfly must once have been.

This kind of obsession is reminiscent of another popular pastime of this period, stamp collecting. Like an album full of identical stamps, some showing a single imperfection that paradoxically makes them more valuable, these rows and rows of butterflies are testament to a single-minded obsession. But Oates sees a fundamental difference in the collecting of natural rather than man-made objects: ‘These are better than Penny Blacks, as they were living things, the result of a complex metamorphosis that produced an atypical butterfly, unique in time and place.’

The reason men such as Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe were so enthusiastic about collecting, while their successors – including Matthew Oates himself – are still so passionate about finding and documenting living butterflies, Oates believes, is connected to love, memories and a quite understandable obsession with beauty: ‘People collect memories – deliberately or inadvertently. Vauncey Harpur Crewe was collecting memories of great adventures with wildlife. Admittedly he killed it, he shot it, he caught it, he pinned it, and he kept it as specimens – but don’t think for a moment that he didn’t love these things.’

As butterflies have declined in number and the fashion for collecting them has become both illegal and widely considered immoral, we have perhaps lost something of our connection with these beautiful and fascinating creatures. But all that changed during the Whitsun bank holiday weekend in late May 2009, when Britain was invaded – by painted ladies.

The painted lady is one of Britain’s most attractive and enigmatic butterflies. Pale orange, with black wingtips spotted with white, it looks rather like a washed-out version of a red admiral and, like that species, it migrates here each spring from Spain or North Africa. But while red admirals are a regular annual arrival – like swallows or cuckoos – painted lady numbers vary dramatically from year to year; some summers they are few and far between, while in other years they can be fairly common. Yet nothing could have prepared us for the arrival of millions – perhaps tens of millions – of painted lady butterflies during that memorable spring and summer.

The invasion was the result of an incredibly successful breeding season earlier in the year due to heavy winter rains which produced a profusion of the food plants on which the caterpillars feed. Favourable weather conditions, with light southerly winds, then allowed the newly emerged adult butterflies to fly through Spain and France, and then across the Channel to Britain. The first sightings were on the coasts: staff at one Norfolk nature reserve counted fifty flying past every minute, with 18,000 in total in just a few hours.

For the rest of the summer, the butterflies just kept on coming, and the sight of them whizzing past with a flash of orange became commonplace throughout the British Isles. They then bred and laid eggs that hatched into caterpillars, which pupated to produce a new generation of adults in early autumn. These were then observed for the very first time heading off from south coast headlands on their long journey to their original homeland in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

The effect of perhaps as many as 1 billion painted ladies adorning the British summer was extraordinary: even people who never normally notice wild creatures were fascinated by these little insects and their epic journey to arrive here, and the invasion was a regular feature in newspapers and on TV news bulletins.

Yet by the following year the normal pattern had resumed: painted ladies were decidedly few and far between and we had returned to a world in which, as Alan Bennett put it in his play Forty Years On, ‘a butterfly is an event’. What a different world from the one just a century or so ago when Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe could collect dozens of now incredibly rare butterflies in a single day.

H.G. Wells wrote in his 1895 novel The Wonderful Visit:

If it were not for collectors England would be full, so to speak, of rare birds and wonderful butterflies, strange flowers and a thousand interesting things. But happily the collector prevents all that, either killing with his own hands or, by buying extravagantly, procuring people of the lower classes to kill such eccentricities as appear … So one may go through England from end to end in the summer time and see only eight or ten commonplace wild flowers, and the commoner butterflies, and a dozen or so common birds, and never be offended by any breach of the monotony.

But even though collectors did take many specimens, there were millions more, and these depredations made little or no difference to population levels, apart perhaps in the cases of a few very rare species.

What has devastated Britain’s butterflies – and much of the rest of the country’s lowland wildlife – is the way we have chosen to farm the countryside since the end of the Second World War, using chemical pesticides and herbicides to raise yields, and destroying wildlife-rich but unproductive habitats such as hedgerows and field margins to increase productivity. Butterflies – especially grassland specialists – have been particularly badly hit by these changes and, as a result, the majority of Britain’s fifty-plus species are in serious decline.

Conservationists have fought back, and are still doing so. Bold and colourful species such as the swallowtail have now come to stand for conservation of habitats: in this case the fenland of East Anglia. The large blue, which disappeared from Britain in 1979, has been successfully reintroduced, while the Duke of Burgundy and high brown fritillary are being actively conserved to prevent further declines.

Now Britain’s butterflies face a new challenge, one that presents both a threat and an opportunity: global climate change. If, as predicted, temperatures do rise, we are likely to lose species such as the mountain ringlet which, as its name suggests, lives only at high altitudes in the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. Down at the other end of the country, new species from continental Europe are already arriving: large tortoiseshell (which used to breed here), scarce tortoiseshell, long-tailed blue and the wonderfully named Queen of Spain fritillary may all permanently colonise southern England during the coming decades.

Yet unless we change the way we manage the countryside to make room for wildlife, most will continue to be confined to the edges, the margins, the little parcels of land we set aside as nature reserves, whereas rightfully they should be something we see so often we take them for granted – part and parcel of our daily lives. Today they may be symbols of our harmonious relationship with nature, a utopia where people and wild creatures are at one, but the reality is very different. And if we allow them to disappear, we run the risk of losing far more than just a few species of insects.

Whether colourful, dowdy or pure white, butterflies continue to take hold of us, guiding our philosophy, art, music and literature. The power of the butterfly remains undiminished. Its transformation from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to flying ‘winged blossom’ still transfixes us with wonder. The last word goes to William Wordsworth and his poem, ‘To a Butterfly’:

I’ve watched you now a full half-hour;

And, little Butterfly! indeed

Self-poised upon that yellow flower

I know not if you sleep or feed.

How motionless! – not frozen seas

More motionless! and then

What joy awaits you, when the breeze

Hath found you out among the trees,

And calls you forth again!

This plot of orchard-ground is ours;

My trees they are, my Sister’s flowers;

Here rest your wings when they are weary;

Here lodge as in a sanctuary!

Come often to us, fear no wrong;

Sit near us on the bough!

We’ll talk of sunshine and of song,

And summer days, when we were young;

Sweet childish days, that were as long

As twenty days are now.

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By this time three of the crew, Bill included, had found axes, and one a rusty cutlass, and all were looking over the ship’s side at the advancing monster. We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the wake or train might have been 100 feet long. In the time I have taken to write this, the brute struck us and the ship quivered under the thud; in another movement, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel and she keeled over; in another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts, Bill screaming ‘slash for your lives’. But all our slashing was to no avail, for the brute, holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him; we were thrown into the water at once, and just as I went over, I caught sight of one of the crew, either Bill or Tom Fielding, squashed up between the masts and one of those awful arms.

Captain Floyd’s account of the sinking of the Pearl,
The Times, 4 July 1874

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