The Butterfly Man
Q&A with Robert Michael Pyle
It’s hard to call yourself a Northwest nature aficionado unless you’ve read some of Robert Michael Pyle’s writing. His works, with topics ranging from Bigfoot to butterflies, are represented in both poetic collections and practical field guides. As one of the region’s leading lepidopterists (butterfly and moth scientists) and an author of more than 20 books, Pyle has spent over five decades devoted to conservation and education. His new book, Butterflies of the Pacific Northwest, co-written with Caitlin C. LaBar, is a detailed guide to the more than 200 species of butterflies in Oregon, Washington, and surrounding territories, and it is set to be released by Timber Press in spring 2018. The guide will help both the inquisitive butterfly chaser and the more experienced lepidopterist find, identify, study, garden for, and conserve the natural butterfly fauna of the region.
Columbia Land Trust talked to Pyle about on how he hopes this new book will influence the next generation of butterfly enthusiasts.
Tell us how you went about studying the butterflies in your new book?
For this book, I mostly worked with other lepidopterists, who have been learning new things about Northwest butterflies. Caitlin C. LaBar, my co-author, and I had to round up all new digital images of all the species too.
I collected specimens for years, but my collections have long since been donated to several important university collections, which I use extensively for books like this. Both the University of Washington and Oregon State University collections were essential to it. Far fewer people collect, than watch or photograph, but their ongoing work remains essential for learning and conservation.
What can a person learn from simply observing these creatures?
Almost everything one can learn in nature can be learned by close observation of butterflies. They have taught me basic ecology, ethology (behavior), biogeography, plant-insect co-adaptation (and therefore botany—you can’t be a good butterflier without becoming something of a botanist), and so much more. Especially the essentials of evolution: as Darwin, Wallace, Bates, and Beebe all said in their own ways, the wings of butterflies are canvases of evolution in action. I believe people can also model peacefulness, gentleness, and a becoming attention to the land and its life through close acquaintance with butterflies—not that they possess these traits themselves; they can be quite feisty, and they do what they need to do to survive. But their sheer beauty, grace, and fluid motion cannot help but influence our imaginations and minds toward our better angels, merely by paying them the close attention they demand and deserve.
What are the main threats to butterfly populations, and what role can land conservation play in addressing those threats?
There are many threats, and they are tough on butterflies and getting worse: pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids; climate change, which will benefit some adaptable and expanding species but prejudice rarer denizens of specialized, moist, cool, and high-elevation habitats; and the sheer displacement of habitat by urban, suburban, and rural development. Intensive agriculture is a real problem for butterflies, as are some exotic plants, while others actually furnish replacement nectar sources for butterflies. Certain introduced species of parasitic flies and predaceous wasps are hurting native butterflies too. Collectors are not a threat; it is very difficult to damage populations with a net, and most netters are working to better understand and conserve butterflies. We cannot conserve that which we do not know, or know where it lives.
Butterflies are among the elements of diversity that constitute life on earth. They comprise important food for songbirds and many other organisms, they are fairly important pollinators of flowers, they serve as dramatic ecological indicators of change, and we all find them very beautiful and fascinating in their lifeways. Butterflies find themselves under growing threats from human-caused changes to the environment. Long-term research by Art Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of California Davis, had found that some butterfly populations in Northern California are collapsing, and British ecologists are documenting the sad loss of many colonies and even species of butterflies in the British Isles, despite heroic conservation efforts. We need to know why, so we can do something about it. We need to know why, so we can do something about it. The single most important thing we can do is to protect and carefully manage their habitat. Along with that, one of the very best things we can do for butterflies is to interest the young
Learn more about how to help butterflies at backyardhabitats.org or at xerces.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You can now purchase Butterflies of the Pacific Northwest at Timber Press and other major stores.