Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Prickly Situation

In almost any souvenier shop you go to, in most parts of the world, I am sure you have come across display cases containing butterflies. Indeed these butterflies, which have been dread, spread out and then stuck up onto pieces of cardboard with little pins make wonderful pieces of decoration for any household. But for the amateur lepidopterist, to capture, preserve and display butterflies in such a manner has always been some sort of mark of proficiency; a living (pun-intended) testament if you may, of all the butterflies you have ever seen, observed, studied and collected in the field. As an amateur lepidopterist myself I have always come up with the interesting dilemma or question “to pin or not to pin?” one that I think I will share here.

Insect taxidermy has a long history of popularity with many amateur naturalist for many reasons. For one, insects are a lot easier to hunt/collect than say, birds or larger mammals, and a second reason is that they are fairly easy to preserve and keep in good condition with minimal costs and chemicals. Add that with the natural beauty of butterflies and I suppose it is quite easy to see why the mounting of butterflies is so popular amongst many, from the seasoned entomologist to young children chasing after butterflies in Japan. Indeed I will dare wager that the practice is so spread and popular that you can ask any different lepidopterist on “how to get tihngs done” and he or she will probably have a different or preferred method of preserving butterflies that they can share with you. One lepidopterist who approached me was quite elaborative on the subject.

“When you catch the butterfly, be sure to squeeze it really hard and quick between the thorax. That should kill it nice and good! But with the bigger butterflies, remember to give it an extra pinch while you're at it because the squeeze only stuns some of the larger ones...”

Rather graphic, isn't it? And I suppose it sounds rather cruel as well but I googled it up and I actually learnt that it is the most “human” way to kill a butterfly as the pinch would kill it almost instantaneously and is practiced by most lepidoterists around the world. I definitely wasn't ready to do that, and yet I was also interested and curious at the same time on the methods of butterfly taxidermy that he was also kind enough to share with me. Fortunately for me, I also breed butterflies and once they have lived out their natural lifespans I collect their corpses (morbid, I know) and use their wings to make fine jewellery pieces. As such I had a box of dead butterflies just lying around that I could practice on. I decided to use the biggest (easier to see = less accidents)
Grave of the Butterflies
 Unfortunately, I hadn't counted on rigor mortist. When butterflies die, their bodies go stiff (much like the bodies of other animals) and it gets very difficul to spread their wings out without breaking them. Fortunately for me, my dear lepidopterist acquaintence had an answer to that as well“If your butterfly was already dead when you found it, put it in a cardboard box and then place it above a container lined with damp tissue paper. Put some insecticide on it to prevent infestation and then place it in an airtight place for a week. Your butterfly should be all soft and pliable and ready to set then” Now, I suppose this is why many lepidopterists prefer to catch their specimens and kill right before they are due to be set. It definitely saves up on the time but...oh well. Unfortunately for him I was never one for patience and one week was a little long so I decided to proceed with my butterfly anyway. And yet, the wings still posed quite a problem. The butterfly had died in a rather awkward pose and the position of the wings would just simply not allow me to set it properly, or at all. I decided to try a new technique of my own. Gripping the butterflies thorax between my thumb and fore-finger I slowly “massaged” the butterfly. Now, I'm really not sure if butterflies have joints the same as humans do but that little “massage” I did worked somehow and I managed to spread out the butterflies wings a little.
My Elastic Insect Catcher net, which is as good as new its still in its packaging

And then came the hard part. Sticking the necessary pins in. Now I tell you, and you may call it hypocritical of me, but though I have removed the wings off of countless of butterflies for my line of butterfly-wing jewellery I could barely bring myself to impale one with a pin. And I suppose it didn't even matter that these were butterflies that I had bred, fed, taken care of and had died at ripe old ages of natural causes either. It didn't matter that I had not caught it from the wild, killed it untimely and now wanted to display its corpse up on the wall, it was just difficult. I managed, of course, eventually and not without my finger trembling uncontrollably and what I'm sure takes mere seconds for most lepidoterists, I achieved in about half an hour, and here it is;
There's really nothing quite as unsettling as sticking a needle into the heart of a butterfly

The following then proceeded with the long (and tiresome) process of setting the butterfly, curing it with insecticides and framing it for display which (thank God for small mercies) I shall not bore you with here. What I do want to end with though is the appraisal I recieved from my lepidopterist acquaintence on the results of my endeavours. They were not good, I'm afraid and he believed strongly that there was nothing quite like preserving a butterfly which you have just killed by your own hand.

"Its really quite easy. And you breed butterflies too, which means you're never short of specimens! Just catch the ones that you do not release for breeding and use them! You pick out the females who have mated, pinch them on the thorax to kill them and then squeeze out the eggs for you to hatch and raise! It's really that simple!"

And I will tell you the same thing I told him, and that is thanks... but no thanks. I guess there are just many kinds of people out there. The kind who enjoys butterflies in the wild and the other who catches and preserves them, and while it is not my place to pass any value judgements on the latter, I guess there are just some lines this lepidopterist is not willing to cross and for now I like my caterpillars alive, my butterflies flying, and my specimens to have died-of-natural-causes.


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