Passion Vine Times

Butterly Cooing Like A DoveButterfly Cooing
Like a Dove

by Miriam Rothschild
Dined with Margaret Fountaine in 1926

Butterflies and moths play a significant role in most entomological initiations. Remember the excitement when a photographed specimen takes on the reality of a field observation? I recall the stunning silver underwings and the threatening looking caterpillars of the Gulf Fritillary, Dione vanillae, on the passion vine jungles of Vine Street in Los Angeles. Butterflies and moths often intertwine them-selves into our lives. The following are butterfly and moth threads that weave throughout my history.

As a child, my initial exposure and consequent addiction to insect form and behavior came from a village schoolmate who collected and reared British Hawk Moths to pristine adults. Such perfection of form and design made a lasting impression.

In 1978, I visited the insect collection housed at the Castle Museum in Norwich, England. Fifty years prior, Margaret Fountaine, an avid lepidopterist, traveller, and collector, had bequeathed her collection to the museum along with a box that had remained locked until the year of my visit. Once opened, the box revealed the diaries of Margaret’s international quest for butterflies. Her travelogue reveals a web of historic connections of particular interest to this issue of Cultural Entomology Digest.

In 1926, Margaret Fountaine dined with Lord Walter Rothschild. While at dinner, she commented on the exuberance and energy of Miriam Rothschild who, sixty five years later, wrote the fabulous and highly recommended compilation of butterfly ephemera entitled, “Butterfly Cooing Like A Dove.”

During the 1920’s, Margaret found herself in California working with the Newcomb’s of Pasadena as a butterfly farmer. Butterfly farming at the time was generating considerable interest, fueled primarily by collectors back east, hungry for specimens from the west. Several enterprising individuals mastered rearing techniques and made a respectable profit from their endeavors, notably, the McGlashan’s of Truckie, California. They were successfully established a butterfly farm, and published “The Butterfly Farmer” to promote business. Other families, like the Carter’s, also established butterfly farms during that period.

The concept of butterfly farming seems to be experiencing a revival, with the current number of butterfly farms on the rise. Through the Internet, I became aware of a contemporary McGlashan, Jack Mikula, using his web site to promote a flourishing revival of butterfly farming. Wings over Hawaii is one such company recently formed on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. The market for butterflies has expanded from collection specimens to stock for a growing number of butterfly zoos and live releases of butterflies for weddings and special occasions.

A conservation-inspired cottage industry is well under way, offering butterfly and insect cultivation and harvesting as an alternative for rain forest communities to clear cutting and grazing. Although the commercialization of lepidoptera through butterfly farming might be considered exploitative, it is benign compared to centuries of sericulture. In fact, the rain forest cottage industries provide an innovative alternative to inevitable habitat destruction. Destroying the environment is by far the most lethal of man’s activities on insect populations. Non-profit organizations such as the Xerxes Society focus their energy on habitat preservation.

Because no other insect group holds the positive associations most people have toward butterflies, they represent a gold mine for educating people about the importance of biodiversity conservation and habitat preservation. As with cultural entomology, the window of attention afforded us through utilizing butterflies as a vehicle to promote preservation strategies for all insects is a naturally winning combination.

I hope the contents of this issue serve to pique people’s interest in insects and, more importantly, inspire us to learn what we can do to insure they will remain for future generations.