The Language of Butterflies by Wendy Williams

*I did receive a digital version of this title from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.*
While insects as a whole can sometimes get a less than savory reputation from the population at large as being annoying, frightening, biting, and stinging bugs, the same cannot be said of perhaps its most beloved order Lepidoptera. Meaning “scaled wings” this insect order is comprised of butterflies, moths, and skippers. As the author Wendy WIlliams points out early on in The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect, there are about 180,000 known and described species in this order! (This would place them only behind the beetle’s order of Coleoptera in number of species.) With a focus on the butterflies this book examines these creatures from several different lenses including their biology, conservation and ecology, to the myriad cultural connections humanity has with butterflies.

    The different individuals that find their way into this work and justify the subtitle of the book are almost as fascinating the butterflies themselves. These include collectors (both legal and clandestine) of thousands of butterflies, especially during the Victorian heyday of insect collecting, and their cutthroat and not always friendly competition with each other. More importantly, many scientists, ecologists, and conservationists are also to be found within these pages. Within these ranks can be found leaders of citizen-science butterfly tracking initiatives, golf course landscapers that prioritize sustainable butterfly habitat, and even a flustered and discombobulated Charles Darwin’s musings on some perplexing qualities of butterflies. However, there is one person that really stood out. This remarkable individual was a German-born woman born in the mid 17th century by the name of Maria Sibylla Merian. She was one of the first true entomologists, especially focusing on the butterflies. A terrific naturalist, she was also an accomplished artist and illustrated many images of the species she studied with accurate detail in her published work. Her works detailed many of her studies and observations in South America, particularly on the life cycles of many New World caterpillars and their metamorphoses. She was a true pioneer as a female scientist in many regards because of these tremendous endeavors.
    In light of all this, the butterflies are still the stars of this book. While I could have used a bit more space dedicated to their life cycle and biology, the reader will still come away with many details on the science of butterflies, such as the physics of the proboscis (and its variations) that a butterfly uses to “drink” whatever medium it attains its nutrients from. There are several detailed accounts of efforts to preserve or bring back certain butterfly species to different areas. Some of these projects really helped in the understanding of the complexity of ecology and the connections between different parts of the environment (most notably with the successful conservation efforts to bring back the large blue back to Britain where it was once extirpated.) Monarchs make a prominent appearance in the book, though this is probably to be expected since they are the most studied butterfly species with worldwide recognition. From their love-hate relationship with milkweed (for real, while the caterpillars rely on the plant many also fall victim to the plant in some strange ways as well), their incredible migration story across the North American continent, and the programs and studies that have been done and are still underway in regards to these butterflies more is likely known about them than any other butterfly. Yet despite all this knowledge and effort on their behalf, monarch populations have sadly been on a downwards trajectory.
    Overall The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect by Wendy Williams is a delightful read on our Lepidopteran friends. While butterflies may seem a bit boring and ubiquitous to some people, reading this book will likely change the way one thinks about them the next time they see one. All in all a fascinating book for anyone wanting to learn about these amazing creatures!

    4.5 out of 5 stars.

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