Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Butterflies In My Stomach

This week I’ve been helping a student with a lepidoptera project.  The project is hers, and she's not in one of my classes, though she did take the Tropical Ecology class I teach in Central America this year.

Kentucky roadside butterfly banquet. Can you see the little one?

Here is the danger of becoming a professor of Environmental Humanities: people begin to assume that you care about nature, and that you are willing to share what you know.

Both of these things are true, by the way. (Many of my photos of wildlife and nature are here, on my Instagram account.  I do care, and I am delighted to share the little I know.)


Over the years, I have come to love insects. This has come about partly through my years studying trout, char, and salmon, and of the places they live.  I've spent a good portion of the last decade walking Appalachian waterways from Maine to Georgia.  Over that same time, I've walked hundreds of miles through the remaining forests of northern Guatemala and Nicaragua. As both a researcher and teacher I've walked through the mountains of the American West; and I've made similar excursions to the foothills of the Brooks Range, the Kenai Peninsula, and Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. 

The fish that I love depend upon the insects, so, like so many people who gaze at salmonids, I have come to know many riparian insects.  

Once you study the insects along the streams, you start to notice the other plants and animals that depend upon them, too.  In Kentucky I have come upon a steaming pile of bear scat that was full of half-digested cicadas.  I've started to notice the wings of insects, left behind by the birds that only eat the fleshy bodies of the bugs they catch.

Butterfly wing, left behind by birds. Guatemala.

From there, it's not a big leap to realize that if the fish and the birds and the plants need the insects, then so do I.  Butterflies and other insects feed the larger animals my species eats, and they pollinate the plants that feed us. All of us have the actions of butterflies in our stomachs. Can you see the lepidoptera in this next photo?  There are quite a few of them, resting on the bark of this tree in Petén.

Gray cracker butterflies, Petén, Guatemala.

Little six-legged creatures feed us all.  The small things matter.

And so do my students, even if they're not currently enrolled in one of my classes.  

So in the past week I’ve gathered a few hundred of my best butterfly photos to share with my student. This photo is one of the worst in photo quality, but it’s a great image nevertheless:

Butterflies on the ground in Kentucky, 2008.

I took this nine years ago in the mountains in Kentucky while working on my book on brook trout.  Three distinct species of butterflies are gathered here, sipping minerals from the ground.  My coauthor Matthew Dickerson and I came upon this arboreal banquet by chance.  

I wish I'd had a better camera with me. For now, the blurry image is enough to bring to mind that memory of hundreds of lepidoptera sipping and supping together on the forest floor, filling their bellies with the bare earth before flying off to pollinate flowers that, through a complex net of relationships, would someday fill my belly too.