Of all the metaphors surrounding insect life, none has been plowed to death more than that of the butterfly. The caterpillar turns into a chrysalis which—blammo!—morphs into a butterfly. Exotic, enchanting and delicate, butterflies are the supermodels of the insect world.
How odd, then, that entomologists and lepidopterists somehow ended up with the image of fuddy-duddy geeks with butterfly nets and a taste for Bermuda shorts. For a lot of lepidopterists, it’s time that image changed. Truth is, butterflies are radiant, mysterious creatures, and butterfly-collecting is a multi-faceted hobby involving long, sweaty hikes, lots of socializing and a serious mind for science. Sure, plenty of collectors wander the hills with nets. There are just as many who scour the wilderness for just the right plant that a specific caterpillar feeds on. That done, caterpillars are captured for raising in a home lab.
“Raised butterflies in a collection look almost perfect,” said Todd Stout, a sales training specialist and devotee of most things Lepidopteran. “The challenge of figuring out how to raise them is more challenging than beating around the bush with a net. That’s interesting as well, but raising them can be more interesting. You have to go through a sequence. You need to be a savvy geologist smart enough to find the right rock formations where the host plant for the caterpillar is. Then you must find the right sandstone, the right plant and, finally, the right caterpillar. There’s a cardiovascular aspect to it because you’re hiking. There’s a social aspect to it because you’re trading information with other collectors. There’s a multi-dimensional intrigue to it. We do so much more than collect butterflies.”
Geographically speaking, the closer you get to the equator, the larger and more exotic the butterflies get. Like most insects, butterflies thrive in the humid, tropical climes of Africa and Latin America. That’s not to say that Utah doesn’t afford moderate opportunities for collecting. Since our state connects the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the east and the Oquirrhs of the basin and range province to the west, Utah is in fact the home of two distinct geological eras with distinct species of plant and insect life. Utah also has its own butterfly-collecting society, the Utah Lepidopterist Society, with regular meetings and a web site at www.utahlepsociety.org.
Getting started is a cinch. Acquire a basic net. Then get envelopes and/or a cigar box for specimens. You’ll also want a mounting board for your hopefully-growing collection. Finding butterflies is a bit tricky, and can require real effort. It’s so tricky for some, in fact, that photographing the creatures is preferable, for reasons both practical and ethical. Most butterfly populations remain relatively stable over time, so there’s no need to feel guilty about snuffing them out with a pinch to the thorax.
The famous Russian-American novelist and Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov certainly had no qualms. Besides imbuing his fiction with loads of butterfly references, he traveled vast expanses of South and North America to expand his collection. His literary fame aside, Nabokov is today recognized as the central force behind the discovery of several categories of blue Latin American butterflies. Nabokov also did a great deal of hunting around Little Cottonwood Creek, not far from Alta.
“The highest enjoyment of timelessness—in a landscape selected at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants,” Nabokov wrote in his biography, Speak, Memory. “This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.”
Stout probably wouldn’t go that far, but he has extended business trips a day or so to scout the surrounding area for new winged finds. Usually, the goal is to collect a “series,” or between four to seven pairs of a subspecies. Find something completely new, and there’s a chance you could even name it yourself. After Nabokov happened upon a special kind of pug moth near Alta, they were subsequently named Eupithecia nabokovi.
“A lot of people start collecting as kids, but as collectors get older, many become fascinated with a certain species’ life history,” Stout said.
“Sometimes it takes an obsessive effort to get a series of butterflies. But then, when you finally complete a sub-species of a certain butterfly, you can look at them and remember how hard it was to collect.”
There are collectors who relish the thought of a journey to Central or South America in search of the exotic. Stout keeps his heart close to home.
“When I look at my own series and collection, I remember the places I hiked to get them, the people I was with, and the good feelings I had about being out in the wilderness to get that butterfly—all that. It’s therapeutic, if that makes sense. If I look at butterflies from another region of the world, it just seems superficial.”