Date: 9 June 09

The Dangerous World of Butterflies

Tonight we turn to the butterfly and we talk with Peter Laufer, author of a new book with the intriguing title of The Dangerous World of Butterflies.

Recent News and Facts About Butterflies

Butterfly facts. From Milkweed Café dot com comes some interesting facts about the butterfly. [Incidentally, Milkweed–the plant, not the website–is one of the major food sources for the Monarch butterfly, from which it actually ingests poison that make the Monarch distasteful to predators.]

Did you know……that the wings of butterflies and moths are actually transparent?

The iridescent scales, which overlap like shingles on a roof, give the wings the colors that we see. Contrary to popular belief, many butterflies can be held gently by the wings without harming the butterfly. Of course, some are more fragile than others, and are easily damaged if not handled very gently. Both butterflies and moths belong to the order lepidoptera. In Greek, this means scale wing.

Did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?

Their taste sensors are located in the feet, and by standing on their food, they can taste it! All butterflies have six legs and feet. In some species such as the monarch, the front pair of legs remains tucked up under the body most of the time, and are difficult to see.

Did you know that butterflies don’t have mouths that allow them to bite or chew?

They, along with most moths have a long straw like structure called a proboscis which they use to drink nectar and juices. When not in use, the proboscis remains coiled like a garden hose. Some moths, like the Luna moth don’t have a proboscis. Their adult lifespan is very short, and they do not eat.  They simply seek a mate, reproduce, then die. The Asian Vampire moth pierces the skin with its strong, sharp proboscis and drinks the blood of animals.

Did you know that a caterpillar grows to about 27,000 times the size it was when it first emerged from its egg?

If a human baby weighed 9 pounds at birth and grew at the same rate as a caterpillar, it would weigh 243,000 pounds when fully grown. Because the caterpillar’s skin doesn’t grow along with it as ours does, it must periodically shed the skin as it becomes too tight. Most caterpillars molt five times before entering the pupa stage.

The Butterfly Effect. And then there’s this curious phenomenon called “the butterfly effect,” which is less about entomology than about chaos theory. As reported by Wikipedia:

The term “butterfly effect” itself is related to the work of Edward Lorenz, and is based in chaos theory and sensitive dependence on initial conditions [….] In 1961, Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127 the computer would hold. The result was a completely different weather scenario. Lorenz published his findings in a 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences noting that “One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull‘s wings could change the course of weather forever.” Later speeches and papers by Lorenz used the more poetic butterfly. According to Lorenz, upon failing to provide a title for a talk he was to present at the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972, Philip Merilees concocted Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas as a title.

A Sound of Thunder. Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” provided a science fiction look at the butterfly effect. In terms of our discussion tonight, it raises the question: Do butterflies matter? In that story, an enterprising time travel company allows big game hunters to go back in time and shoot dinosaurs. The caveat is that nothing in the past can be altered by the hunters, for this would affect the future. Thus the hunters get to kill only dinosaurs that were just about to die anyway. To make this short story shorter, one of the hunters panics when he sees the dinosaur and briefly steps off an elevated path designed to keep the hunters from touching and therefore interfering with the earth and thus its future. When the travelers return to the present, they are astonished to see that everything is slightly changed: language, their offices, even the outcome of elections. Everything is different, wrong, mysterious. The hunter looks at his shoe, where he picked up a bit of mud when he strayed off the path:

“Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.

‘Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!’ cried [the hunter].

It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and [the Hunter’s] mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it?

Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder,” in R is for Rocket, (New York: Doubleday, 1952)

International  Butterfly Trade. Does the killing of one butterfly matter? Well, for sure, the international community is increasingly concerned about protecting butterflies. We want to reread a story we presented on the very second episode of Ecotopia last fall. It concerns illegal insect gathering in India, and you can do time for it.

KOLKATA, India: The conviction of Czech scientist Emil Kucera – who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment by the chief judicial magistrate’s court in Darjeeling on Wednesday for violating the Biodiversity Act – will go a long way in protecting the region’s forest resources.

Forest officials, who had been working hard to ensure that Kucera and his biologist companion Petr Svacha did not get away, were elated by the judgment. Svacha, however, has been let off with a fine.

“It is a landmark judgment. Over the last few years, there have been several cases of illegal collection of insects and butterflies. But none was punished. This time, we were hell-bent on ensuring that the offenders did not get away just because they were foreigners. We had gathered enough evidence that helped to nail the duo,” said Utpal Nag, assistant divisional forest officer of Darjeeling, who played a key role in getting Kucera and Svacha arrested and jailed.

It was under his leadership that forest officials collected 46 documents against the Czechs. These included their e-mails, photographs taken by a digital camera, a pen drive and instruments used to collect butterflies from the Singalila National Park.

“Some of the documents were quite incriminating. But the fact remained that they were foreigners and that the Czech ambassador was playing an active role to ensure their release. It, however, did not deter us from pursuing the case. We always knew that their intentions were suspect and that they had come here to collect butterflies knowing fully well that it was not permitted,” added Nag.

Our Questions for Peter Laufer

Peter Laufer is author of The Dangerous World of Butterflies. His books include Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq and Wetback Nation: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border. He is also co-anchor of a weekly current affairs program on Radio Green 960 in San Francisco.

Part I: The Dangerous World of Butterflies

· You have done books about some of the biggest political issues of our time—Iraq and immigration. You’ve gone face to face with Bill O’Reilly. Now a book about butterflies. How did that come about?

· The title of your book is The Dangerous World of Butterflies. Where does this danger lie? with the poor little butterflies? with those who would protect them?

· Much of your book focuses on issues that are created, directly or indirectly, by collectors. As kids, we netted, chloroformed, and mounted butterflies. Is that really such a big problem?

· Who are some of the players in the world of butterfly collecting? Are there good guys and bad guys, in your opinion? How would you characterize the “uses” of butterflies?

· What are the some of the conflicts between the so-called “butterfly huggers” and butterfly breeders?

· Earlier, we reread a story we first reported on this program in September regarding the arrest of Czechs Emil Kucera and Petr Svacha in India. You’ve followed up on that story. What did you learn about this issue? What does it tell us about the international trade in butterflies (and other endangered insects)?

· Who are some of the other butterfly traffickers covered in your book? [Yoshi Kojima. Richard Skalski.] How would you evaluate their impact on the world of butterflies?

· How do people use butterflies in art? What do you think about people who use segments of butterfly wings to create works of “art”?

· Do you believe any butterflies have been deliberately driven to extinction in order to raise the price on the market?

Part II: In the first part of the program, we talked about some of the skullduggery in the world of butterfly collection. In this segment, let’s talk about endangered butterflies and conservation efforts.

· You say that habitat destruction is probably a greater danger to the butterfly than illicit collection and smuggling. Please explain.

· You spend a chapter on probably the best known butterfly—the Monarch. First please tell us a little about their amazing migration; then, perhaps something of their endangered wintering grounds and the ecological efforts of Jose Alcala and Ed Rashin to preserve those grounds. What are they doing and how is it working?

· The Bush administration border wall; does it have an impact on butterfly migration? How? —can’t the butterflies just flutter over it?

· Let’s talk about Jana Johnson and the Antioch Dunes restoration project. Where are the Antioch Dunes and why do they need to be restored? What have been the successes? How does this effort make a difference? Aren’t these efforts just a drop in the bucket?

· We mentioned the “butterfly effect” earlier in the program. How many butterflies could go extinct before—to mix metaphors and use one of yours—we’ve lost too many rivets on spaceship earth?

· What, in the end, are butterflies good for?

· Do you see an Ecotopian connection between butterflies and the troubled world we live in?

· How has doing this book changed you?

· What’s your next book?

The Dangerous World of Butterflies is published by the Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot. You can learn more about Peter on his website: and you can check out other Lyons Press books at


You  can become part of the global butterfly preservation movement by creating a butterfly garden. Colleen Smith of Denver writes on Examiner dot com:

Butterflies are darlings of the insect world. Like bugs in elaborate costumes, like beautiful flowers in flight, butterflies grace our gardens, spreading their papery wings, flitting here, poised there, all the while enchanting the onlooker with their elusive lightness of being.

Even the names of butterflies evoke the fanciful. With categories that include satyrs, wood-nymphs and grass-nymphs, Colorado counts among her native butterflies the Creamy Marble and the Lilac-bordered Copper, the Pearl Crescent and the Painted Lady, the Mourning Cloak, the Funeral Duskywing, the Silver-spotted Skipper.

For all their ethereal charm and delicateness, butterflies are tougher than their delicate appearance belies. Some fly as far as 2,000 miles in migration, soaring at altitudes of up to 7,000 feet above the surface of Earth. Except for the coldest environments where a lack of plant life can’t sustain caterpillars, butterflies inhabit most of the world’s ecosystems.

Yet many environments are becoming uninhabitable for the planet’s 20,000-some butterfly species. Consequently, their populations have taken a nose-dive, particularly in industrialized nations, where some butterflies are now extinct, and others have landed on the endangered species list.

You can help the butterfly population by planting a garden with these lovelies in mind. Habitat gardening has been on the upswing, largely due to a heightened awareness of how our changing environment. When we replace meadows and forests with parking lots and office buildings, apartment complexes and strip centers, we eliminate natural habitat. When we’re left with cement and metal, we lack the ideal living arrangement for insects. (This affects more species than just butterflies.)

    • The first rule in butterfly gardening is to eliminate the use of pesticides that kill insects, including butterflies. To survive and reproduce, butterflies need three elements: habitat that includes shelter, food plants for larvae, and nectar source for adults.
    • Plantings should include a variety of species that bloom at different times of the season. Planting flowers in clusters makes it easier for butterflies to locate and access the nectar sources. And gardens most successful in attracting butterflies have blossoms of different colors and varying heights
    • Plants are important for both larvae food and nectar sources. One of the best annuals for attracting butterflies is zinnias. For perennials, choose butterfly bush, the buddleia. Both of these choices respond well to our climate and growing conditions.
    • Some butterfly species are specific about plants they feed on, and adults will lay eggs on these plants to provide a food source for caterpillars. Dill, parsley and carrots, for example, attract black swallowtails. I plant dill every season for the swallowtails. Viburnum, sweet alyssum, hollyhock, and milkweed provide both nectar sources and act as host plants to butterflies laying eggs.
    • Place bowls of fresh water bowls in the butterfly garden, then add a rock or two so the butterflies have a place to perch and bask in the sun. Or if you have a bird bath, add a rock so the butterflies will feel welcome, too.
    • Butterflies also enjoy mud puddles. They find minerals and nutrients in there when they’re puddling. If the habitat doesn’t have natural occurring mud puddles, gardeners can add a shallow bowl of dirt kept moist. Another tip recommends occasionally adding a few grains of salt to the bowl to provide the sodium required by butterflies.
    • In addition to plants, gardeners can set out rotting fruit, fruit juice. The rind of watermelon will attract butterflies. (But also other flies.)
    • The butterfly garden also should include shelter for roosting and sleeping. When winds kick up, they need something to grab onto and a place to stay.

Habitat gardens can benefit butterflies substantially because they will quickly recolonize an area if what they need is there. Wildflowers can make a difference, too, in gardens because they can serve as nectar plants or host plants.

Playlist for Ectopia #36: The Dangerous World of Butterflies

1. Little Butterfly 4:01 Susannah Blachly Come On H
2. Baby Butterfly 2:29    Mr. Nicky Rattlesnakes for Breakfast
3. Little Butterfly (Remastered 2001) 5:14 Carmen McRae Carmen Sings Monk
4. Four Little Butterflies 4:38 Kin Behind Closed Doors
5. Poor Butterfly 4:18 Johnny Mathis       Johnny
6. Weave Me the Sunshine 4:28 Peter, Paul And Mary The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary
7. Royal Garden Blues 1:54 Don Byron Bug Music
8. Powerhouse 2:56 Don Byron Bug Music