Super-A Book Review

by | 4th Sep 2020

HOW THIEVES, HOARDERS, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insects

By Wendy Williams

A Book Review by Adrian Woolfson (Author of “Life Without Genes”)

The insects that seem to defy physics — and have humans under their spell

For many, insects are an annoyance and at best an inconvenience. They deserve and even demand to be dispatched to an abrupt and untimely demise. In Victorian England, on the other hand, insects were so revered that documenting and cataloguing them became a popular and passionate pastime. The eccentric banker Charles Rothschild is said to have stopped a train to allow his servants to capture a rare species of butterfly that he had spotted from a window. His daughter Miriam Rothschild, in between determining the mechanism by which fleas jump and establishing a dragonfly reserve on her estate, became a leading authority on the monarch butterfly, which she described as “the most interesting insect in the world.”

In her glorious and exuberant celebration of these biological flying machines, “The Language of Butterflies,” Wendy Williams takes us on a humorous and beautifully crafted journey that explores both the nature of these curious and highly intelligent insects and the eccentric individuals who coveted them. En route we discover, among other things, the remarkable interconnectivity of living things, the deceptions that insects deploy to trick predators and the complexities that present a significant challenge to our attempts to conserve the rapidly disappearing natural world.

The beguiling nature of butterflies, in particular the more extravagant ones such as the monarch, issues from the remarkable “flash and dazzle” of their wing patterning and coloration. For some enthusiasts, the wings of a monarch invoke an almost metaphysical sense of exhilaration similar to that experienced while observing the stained-glass windows of a cathedral. Indeed, Williams enthusiastically asserts that the monarch’s wings are nature’s version of Paris’s Notre Dame. She rapturously describes the trays of dead butterflies housed at Yale University as “kaleidoscopic assemblages” that are “so sensuous, so entirely luscious” and reminiscent of a Turner seascape.

The illusive and enigmatic pageant of color generated by butterfly wings arises, in part, from the way the tiny scales covering the wings play tricks with and manipulate light, while also functioning as optical filters. The brilliant blue hue of the blue morpho butterfly, for instance, is achieved in a unique manner. Rather than synthesizing pigment, the scales selectively remove light of every other wavelength, leaving only blue. Its unique clarity, Williams informs us, is reminiscent of the vibrating and shimmering blue of Mary’s dress in Michelangelo’s Holy Family, housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

While a lepidopterist — an expert in moths and butterflies — is likely, in the words of the natural historian Richard Fortey, to be “as familiar with the speckles and dappling of a butterfly wing as he would be with the faces of his own family,” capturing this dynamic pattern of color has proved challenging. The explorer and first natural historian of Lepidoptera, Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the epitome of an Enlightenment woman, the author of the best-selling “The Wonderful Transformation and Strong Floral Food of Caterpillars” (1679) and the discoverer of the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies, resigned herself to the fact that she could not re-create the dazzling brilliance and aura of butterflies with watercolors. The fleeting and ephemeral nature of the colors was affected by the angle of vision, which shifted the iridescence through a suite of multicolored transitions in a manner that appeared to defy physics.

Although having a brain no larger than a pinhead, and weighing less than a paper clip, monarch butterflies navigate great distances. Unable to regulate their temperatures, they travel south from as far north as Canada. Williams describes how — like pilgrims walking along Spain’s Camino de Santiago — they make their way south along one of three butterfly highways toward Mexico, where they vacation during the winter months. The California coast harbors a host of overwintering monarch zones, including Pismo Beach and Morro Bay. But more than half of these have been abandoned in recent years, and the number of migrating butterflies is steadily falling. This is in part because of the loss of their habitats, which have been subsumed by intensive monoculture, orchards, vineyards and farms. It is also a result of changes in the frequency of species such as the milkweed plant that play key roles in their life cycle.

Despite their radiant beauty and often-described gentle nature, male monarchs indulge in brutal sexual behavior, knocking down females and forcing themselves upon them while they are in a half-dazed state, according to a description Miriam Rothschild provided in a 1978 essay titled “Hell’s Angels.” But close to the time of migration, their behavior undergoes an abrupt change. Instead of flitting around chasing females and feeding on nectar from flowers, they become highly social, gregarious and focused on flying south. But not all butterflies develop a travel bug. Fender blues are homebodies and do not vacation, and whereas the majority of monarchs fly back north in the summer months, a few decide to vacation year-round in Mexico.

On reviewing Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” the highly religious entomologist Thomas Vernon Wollaston noted that the existence of butterflies proved that Darwin was wrong. For how could the marvelous “tints of certain butterflies” be the product of anything but design? But in fact they offered a sound corroboration of Darwin’s theory.

While butterflies provide us with what the author Vladimir Nabokov described as “the highest enjoyment of timelessness” and teach us how life has co-evolved as a complex nexus of interconnectivities, the gradual disappearance of these magnificent creatures and the ancient secrets they invoke should shake us to the core. We must reach out to preserve the remaining fragile wildernesses before they are no more.

The Language of Butterflies

How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect

By Wendy Williams, Simon & Schuster. 256 pp. $26

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