Pretty dead butterflies

“I like them! They’re beautiful.”

That’s a black veined white. They’re extinct now.

“These ones are nice!”

“Large blue. Also extinct.”

“Ooh this is good.”

“What are they?”

“Large Copper. They’re extinct too.”


I picked up a large lepidoptera collection in a rented van with my brother. They were donated over a century ago to a private school in Surrey, by an ex pupil. They’ve been in a basement for decades, mouldering. Many of the big private schools had similar collections donated to them around the same time and have done similar fuck-allness with them. This school is later than most in giving up theirs. Harrow flogged theirs two decades ago, which means it was there when I was there but I was certainly never aware of it. Likely in another basement. Eton kept theirs. They have got it on display. They are rich as Croesus, sure, but they are also pretty much the only one left. Most of the other expensive schools with interesting collections from that era of rampant collecting – they have either flogged or donated what they were given. It’s not fashionable now. But it’s done. We are very very busy killing things in other ways. Doing it on purpose for science is as frowned on as it is for fashion.

“We have an entomologist here as a pupil,” my brother is told. “But he’s from far away. The rules are different there. We had to teach him that here we only take photographs of specimens. We never collect or look at live specimens.” And so these extraordinary things, these extinct colours of a lost past… Apparently they have no educational value. This is why they are leaving the school they were given to, and going to the Natural History Museum. Despite collections just like this being a big part of Max’s route to his deep conservational role in the entomological world, they are not considered educational anymore. Every prospective scientist should only look at pictures now it seems. Pictures are good enough…?

I looked at these beautiful extinct bodies. I remembered them, I saw their colour fresh with my eyes. I stood and communed with the husks of these things that had once had life. That life had been taken prematurely by a collector decades ago. But taken so they could be contemplated and understood and recorded. Something shifted in me thinking about it.

Large veined white to the left

“Were these things collected to extinction? Is that a thing that can happen?”

“Think of having an insect infestation in your house. You could have a team actively trying to collect the insects to extinction and you could never do it no matter how long they tried. No. Not this collection at this time. Sure if you are on an island and there’s only a few breeding pairs left after a habitat extinction or a new disease you must not collect. But no, not these, and not generally, no. There are three major factors contributing to extinction. Disease, habitat change and climate change.

The collection comes in the form of many shelves housed in large cabinets. To move it you take the shelves out of the cabinets. Then they can be moved with less chance of damage to the specimens. It means you see the creatures you’re moving. You hold a shelf of them in your hand as you walk. The school has a team of staff to help us. We all looked at them.

“I remember these from my childhood – they were everywhere!” That’s Steve, one of the staff. He’s pointing smiling at a Tortoiseshell Butterfly in one of his shelves. “Yeah, I remember them too.” I say, looking, smiling. “You barely see them anywhere now,” I attempt, speaking my personal truth. “Yeah, you’re right, they’re gone,” Steve agrees, with a momentary troubled thought. It hangs. “… But they were everywhere!”

In the late eighties / early nineties some butterflies were snuck over in bulk from France, probably for a one shot thing like a wedding release or a film shoot. “Hurrah!” *Onwards*

They had a parasitic fly in them previously unknown to the UK. For somebody’s moment of “oooh” the fly ran rampant through the UK’s Tortoiseshell Butterfly population. It is only now evolving to recover.

This is how easy it is for us to disrupt the natural order with our lazy consumerism. “I WANT THE BUTTERFLIES! JUST SNEAK THEM OVER, STUPID CUSTOMS!” One guy with a van load of butterflies for a pop video or whatever. That parasitic fly will never leave the UK now. But generations go fast with lepidoptera so the uk butterfly has learnt to live with it like it has in France for hundreds of years. Still, it has been literally decimated and likely it’s niche has been filled so it’ll never be as prevalent.

We are so fucking irresponsible. Most of us, if we can find one inconsistency with someone trying to teach us an inconvenient truth we will chuck the whole message out wholesale and change nothing about our behaviour because we all basically think we are doing enough with what little we do to help stop the world killing us. Lazy greedy lazy greedy smug buggers, every one of us. It’s not the scientists and collectors who broke these populations of beautiful creatures that used to live with us. It’s the consumers with our thirst for “now”.

Stop it. Grow. Learn. I’m talking to myself as much as you, oh holy reader. Stop being so damn smug. You can do more to help. Send this to Bezos. Bleh.

Pretty pretty pretty dead dead dead butterflies. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

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