Australian Pierid butterflies from the collection of Al Hopkinson

Butterfly collecting : my opinion

Butterfly collecting is a very divisive subject amongst those of us who have a passion for these fascinating insects. At times, I’ve been saddened by the level of animosity that exists between some of the people who stick to observing and/or photographing butterflies, and those who catch specimens and preserve them in collections. I see all of us – well, most of us – simply as butterfly enthusiasts, though nowadays this seems to have become a minority viewpoint.

Butterfly collectors have, for the most part, been thought of as rather strange people. The story of Lady Eleanor Glanville is a well-known example, at least in the UK. Back in the 17th century she collected a lot of specimens, many of which still exist in London’s Natural History Museum. When Lady Glanville died in 1709 her son used her collecting hobby as proof of lunacy, this being the legal pretext to overturn her will to his own advantage. The Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), which she discovered, is named in her honour but it wasn’t until 2010 that she achieved true fame (?) when she became the subject of a historical romance novel entitled Lady of the Butterflies.

For a time, butterfly collecting became respectable, perhaps even fashionable, reaching its peak during the ‘golden age’ of the later Victorian and Edwardian period. Well-to-do gentlemen in tweed suits roamed the countryside brandishing butterfly nets or, in the case of the mega-rich such as Baron Walter Rothschild, hired professionals to do it for them and bankrolled expensive collecting expeditions all over the world. Collecting as a hobby has declined dramatically since then, and nowadays it is very much seen as an old-fashioned pastime. It is rare to meet a young collector.

It’s fair to say that butterfly collectors are largely frowned upon once again. In this amusing take on the subject, Sarah Jane Abbot gives several examples of literary villains who happen to be Lepidopterists, and speculates that perhaps it is the act of collecting butterflies that drives the characters mad. To counter this view I would, perhaps inevitably, offer the following proof that good guy collectors also exist :

Am I weird in thinking that this evidence would have carried much more weight had it been Sean Connery?

For the record, I myself am not a butterfly collector unless you count my collection of photographs, but I do have friends who are collectors and I have frequently gone out butterflying with some of them. In most cases I have found them to be very good company and more than willing to share their butterfly knowledge, which has been extremely helpful as most have been much more experienced than myself. They haven’t been net-wielding maniacs bent on catching and killing any butterfly that comes within reach, in fact they’ve been as passionate about butterfly conservation as the non-collectors I’ve met.

I’m therefore going to have a look at the pros and cons of collecting; this is not meant to be an attack on anyone, I’m merely stating my own personal opinions on a controversial issue. Contrary opinions are most welcome in the Comments section below, but please keep it civil. This isn’t Facebook 😉

Is Collecting harmful?

It seems to me that there are two main arguments against butterfly collecting :

  1. Butterflies simply should not be killed, or harmed in any way
  2. Collecting butterflies puts species at risk of extinction

The first of these arguments is largely an emotional one, but there is no doubt that some people genuinely do get distressed about the idea of butterflies being killed or harmed. I absolutely do understand that, and “live and let live” is a perfectly valid viewpoint, though in some cases it isn’t always extended to include more noxious creatures. I have met people who were vehemently opposed to collecting but who had no compunction about swatting a mosquito or emptying an entire can of Mortein onto a cockroach.

Despite this reservation, I believe it is a powerful argument because, let’s face it, butterflies have as much right to live as we do. This perspective gained a lot of traction during the 1960s, as did environmental consciousness in general, and would now be considered as the mainstream view.

I think the second argument is the weaker of the two, because in my humble opinion habitat destruction is by far the biggest threat to butterflies. As the human population continues to rise the amount of land required for homes, agriculture and industry inevitably increases too, resulting in habitat loss. Many butterfly species naturally exist at low population densities, and so require a surprisingly large area of habitat in order to survive. Even the higher density species become increasingly vulnerable as their habitat becomes more fragmented and isolated; for example if a catastrophic bushfire destroys one such fragment its butterfly community may not be able to reestablish itself if there are no nearby colonies.

Habitat destruction does not just mean land falling to the bulldozer, it comes in many forms such as the overuse of pesticides, the introduction of invasive species (which the CSIRO recently proclaimed as Australia’s number one extinction threat), changing land management practices, pollution and climate change, all of which impact whatever butterfly habitat still remains.

Some butterflies are vulnerable because of their very specialised ecological niches, so even small changes to their environment can be devastating. Many butterfly species depend upon hilltopping sites; if a hilltop is used to house a wind turbine or communications tower the topographical changes can render the site unsuitable for the butterflies, with a detrimental impact upon the populations of hilltopping species.

Compared to all of these factors, the activities of a handful of butterfly collectors are likely to be of little consequence. Although collecting has been derided for causing butterfly extinctions, analysis has generally not supported that conclusion. Collectors were blamed for disappearance of Britain’s Large Blue (Phengaris arion) in the late 1970s, but It is now agreed that the true cause was habitat loss due to changes in grazing practices. Unfortunately, the efforts to conserve the butterfly had concentrated so heavily on foiling the efforts of collectors that the real problem was identified too late to prevent the species becoming extinct in the UK (it was successfully reintroduced from Swedish stock).

Even if a collector was to catch the last few specimens of a species, I would contend that the root cause of the extinction was whatever reduced that species to such a precarious state in the first place, rather than the event that happened to finish off the last couple of individuals. I seriously doubt it would be possible to wipe out an insect population in this way. In an experiment conducted in the USA a research team endeavoured to capture every individual Checkerspot butterfly in a particular colony, but were unsuccessful despite repeated and intensive attempts.

The authors of the Red Data Book of European Butterflies (Chris van Swaay & Martin Warren, 1999) reported that collecting was only of very minor or local importance. Although they noted that there were important exceptions, those species were suffering far more seriously from habitat loss and/or changing habitat management. Their conclusion was that “a simple ban on collecting is not an effective way of conserving butterflies, especially as our results show that is a comparatively minor threat. Moreover, simple bans on collecting can even be counter-productive since it hinders butterfly research by amateurs”, and they recommended that any new legislation “should be directed towards the protection and proper management of important butterfly habitats, rather than the banning of collecting”.

Does Collecting serve any purpose?

The Red Data Book’s conclusion brings us round to the principal argument in favour of collecting; amateur collectors are unpaid scientific researchers providing a great deal of essential data, and natural history collections (including butterflies) are invaluable resources.

On the surface, this argument only holds water in the case of really ‘serious’ collections. For instance, a collection comprising common and easily identifiable species could be replaced by an online album of photographs, if the images are accompanied by data such as the date and location where the butterflies were seen. Even better, the record could be logged in an online database such as the Atlas of Living Australia or the forthcoming Butterflies Australia: A national database of butterfly distributions (in which I intend to participate when it finally launches).

Citizen Science projects of this kind may well be the way of the future; the UK’s Big Butterfly Count has become very successful with over 100,000 people recording almost 1 million sightings in 2018. That project has managed to engage people, encouraging and maintaining their interest in butterflies, which I think is just as important as the data they have collected.

The main problem with Citizen Science projects is Identification; asking the man in the street to be able to identify obscure insect species correctly is plainly a nonsense; hence the Big Butterfly Count is limited to just 19 target species. Several Australian butterflies are – in all honesty – a bit of a nightmare to identify, and the difficulty increases by an order of magnitude without set specimens. In many cases it would be necessary to have very good shots of the butterfly’s upperside and underside to be able to make an identification; clearly a problem in the many species that never settle with their wings open. There are even some species, for example in the genus Telicota, where determining the species requires DNA analysis or dissection of the genitalia. My Sigma 150mm macro lens may be pretty sharp, but it’s not sharp enough for that. Physical specimens are required.

Traditionally, the best way to be able to identify species has been to maintain a decent reference collection of specimens, to use for comparison. In recent years, high-resolution photography has become more affordable, and DNA analysis techniques have advanced to the point where non-lethal tissue sampling has become an option, so much so that some people now argue that collecting specimens is no longer necessary.

This has been refuted by over 100 researchers who stated that none of the alternatives to collecting specimens can be used to reliably identify or describe animals and plants. While that may still be the case for now, it seems clear which way the wind is blowing. My guess is that collections will become redundant eventually, I just don’t think we’ve reached that point yet.

I suspect that if I still lived in the UK I’d be quite firmly in the anti-collecting camp, because there is relatively little of scientific value to be gained from collecting nowadays in that country. That’s not to say that existing collections are of no value; this very interesting article describes how it is now possible to extract and analyse DNA from dry specimens, which has provided a great deal of insight into population dynamics and has led to the discovery of new species. In order to study population genetics I do believe it necessary for some specimens to be taken on an ongoing basis.  The UK is a relatively small country with only around 55 butterfly species, so I think it’s quite feasible for such work to be carried out by professional researchers. If the necessary funding was available it would render hobby collecting redundant from a scientific point of view. 

The situation is completely different here in Australia. Large areas of the country have received little attention as far as entomological research is concerned, and there is still a huge amount to be learned about our butterfly fauna. New species are quite frequently discovered, and there is a lot of work to be done on the taxonomy and classification of many of the known species. The life histories of many butterflies are partially or completely unknown, for example we do not know which food plants many species use. The distribution ranges of butterfly species are continually being updated as more information becomes available. The majority of this work is being done by a handful of amateur collectors.

To my mind, it comes down to a question of whether or not the knowledge to be gained is sufficient to justify the killing of the butterflies. I believe it is. Call me a cynic, but I can’t see Governments here funding research projects on the scale that would be necessary to bring our understanding of Australian butterflies up to the level enjoyed in the UK.

I’m sure I’m stating the obvious here, but without sufficient understanding of our butterflies any efforts to conserve them are unlikely to succeed. For example; banning the collection of a rare species won’t achieve anything if that butterfly’s foodplant is bulldozed in order to grow a supposedly “eco-friendly” biofuel crop such as sugar cane.

Responsible collecting

My support of collectors is by no means unconditional; it does have limits. I have no doubt that there are some ‘bad apple’ collectors who just love filling cabinet drawers with specimens, and who have unnecessarily large series of those butterflies that particularly attract them. I have no time whatsoever for that version of Lepidoptery.

Collectors should follow a code of conduct, a good example being included in The Action Plan for Australian Butterflies (D.P.A Sands and T.R. New, 2002). They should also ensure they have whatever permits are necessary to collect in the various Australian jurisdictions; the CSIRO website has a page with links to permit requirements for each state and territory.

It is important that collectors are aware which species are protected by law, though finding a current list of such species is surprisingly difficult. The Federal Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) listed the following :

Critically endangered

Endangered

  • Antipodia chaostola leucophaea (Heath Sand-skipper; Tasmanian subspecies)
  • Oreixenica ptunarra (Ptunarra Xenica)
  • Paralucia pyrodiscus lucida (Eltham Copper)

Vulnerable

  • Oreisplanus munionga larana (Alpine Sedge-skipper; Tasmanian subspecies)
  • Paralucia spinifera (Bathurst Copper / Purple Copper)

It’s a very short list, but it’s by no means the whole story as there has been subsequent Federal legislation; the individual states and territories also have their own regulations eg NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 .

I did a bit of Googling on this subject and have not been able to come up with any definitive list of butterflies which are protected by law in this country. Each piece of legislation covers certain species, but I couldn’t find any resource collating the information to provide an overall view. Anyone planning on collecting butterflies is advised to take the trouble to learn if their target species are in fact protected, as a prosecution is likely to be detrimental to your bank balance.

Conclusions

On balance, I personally do not have a problem with Lepidopterists who collect responsibly, abide by the relevant legislation and report any significant findings. I believe their collections, many of which are eventually donated to museums or to the Australian National Insect Collection, are valuable historical artefacts as well as being beautiful to look at.

I do not see collectors as the enemy; to me the enemy of butterfly conservation is indifference. Most people nowadays have much less direct contact with nature than was previously the case, which results in them being less engaged with the natural world. When I was a lad a lot of people knew the names of many common butterflies; now very few people do. If a child starting a butterfly collection results in them growing up with an interest in nature then I’m all in favour. The study of butterflies is a wonderful subject for a curious mind. I admit I’d be even happier if they started off by photographing butterflies, but getting them interested in the first place is what matters most.

I wrote above that there are few young butterfly collectors, but from my experience that’s equally true for butterfly photographers as well, so clearly we need some new blood. There are plenty of people who have some interest in butterflies, but it will be a challenge to turn retweets and Facebook likes into something more. Unless people are engaged in nature they have little or no motivation to support conservation efforts, whether voluntarily or through their taxes. 

I’d like to see butterfly enthusiasts in general embrace our net-carrying colleagues. I’ve read some very extreme comments aimed at collectors, which strike me as being completely counterproductive. There are so few of us Butterflyers around, I wish we could all just get along, for our mutual benefit.

The majority of butterfly collectors have amassed a huge amount of knowledge over the years, and I’ve found most of them to be very willing to share that knowledge. If they feel forced to keep a low profile, or go underground entirely, to avoid getting flamed online they’re (understandably) unlikely to share what they know, which I feel is to the detriment of us all. I believe sharing information and encouraging each other’s passion is a much better way to go, and is much more likely to assist in conservation efforts. After all, Governments won’t be pressured to protect butterfly habitat and populations if they (and we) don’t know the butterflies are even there in the first place. And to me that’s the bottom line. It’s not all about our personal preference as to how we observe/study butterflies, it’s about all playing a part in the greater conservation effort.

And so…

Whilst I intend my blog to be largely about my own efforts to photograph Australian butterflies, I do also want to write posts exhibiting some interesting specimens from butterfly collections. To a degree this will be in order to show things I’ve been unable to capture with my camera, such as the upperside of a female Acrodipsas myrmecophila, but I also plan to include photos simply because they are beautiful specimens. One or two collectors have already agreed to photograph some butterflies for me, and I hope more will do so over time.

My thanks to :

  • My friend Al Hopkinson, for providing the featured photo from his collection
  • George Lazenby, for only playing the part of James Bond in one film.
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5 thoughts on “Butterfly collecting : my opinion”

  1. Peter pop Staton

    Very good , you nailed it ! (or pinned it) , responsible collecting and preserving with data , is essential .

  2. Alan Hopkinson

    A very informative read on collecting , i wish that all photographers shared your views on collectors carrying nets.

    That Bond clip is Gold .

    1. There is a big debate about who should be the next James Bond. Some say we should have the first black Bond (e.g. Idris Elba), whilst others contend it’s time for a female Bond (I’ve heard Charlize Theron’s name mentioned, amongst others). But if Bond is into Lepidoptery the only possible choice has to be Michael Braby 🙂

  3. Totally agree, although I don’t like going bugging with collectors as I don’t like to see them killed. However totally agree that preserving with data is necessary. Its also great to really look at them after the fact. I am like the meat eaters who love a steak, but don’t need to see where it comes from. Great article Martin.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Katrina. I too prefer not to see them actually being killed, so I generally manage to be looking in a different direction at the time.

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