The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 27: 20 June, 2012

KYPP Nugget: Great Grandfather's Butterflies

In this 19th century wood cut by New Yorker Alexander Anderson, butterflies and children frolic while the hay is cut.

Great Grandfather's Butterflies: Background Research
Samuel Hubbard Scudder

Samuel Hubbard Scudder was clearly a man who loved butterflies. He was born (1837) and died (1911) in Boston. He attended Williams College and then Harvard. He seems to have had immense curiosity and incredible energy.  Most of his personal ramblings were in New England, and his works are spiced with the recollections of various trips and experiences in the region. He published several popular books on butterflies including A Brief Guide to the Commoner Butterflies of the United States and Canada (1893), Frail Children of the Air: Excursions into the World of Butterflies (1897) and Everyday Butterflies: A Group of Biographies (1899) . Has magnum opus on butterflies was the three-volume, self-published Butterflies of the United States and Canada with Special Reference to New England (1889). While Scudder clearly knew his butterfly taxonomy and contributed much original work on butterfly systematics, his works are also replete with the simple joy of butterflying. The Butterflies of United State and Canada, for example, intersperses detailed species accounts with a diversity of essays (so-called "Excursus") on such themes as 'favorite butterfly haunts', 'friends and associates of caterpillars', and 'butterflies as botanists'.

He was, of course, not alone. He gives much due to a predecessor (in both butterfly studies and as a librarian at Harvard), Thaddeus Harris (1795-1856). Much of Harris' work focussed on agriculturally-relevant insects, and his tome was a Treatise on Some of the Insects Injurious to Vegetation, which included a detailed section on butterflies, not all of whom were pests.

Thaddeus Harris as portrayed in the frontpiece of  the third volume of Scudder's work.

Closer to home (Washington County, in fact), Asa Fitch, a contemporary of Harris' and New York State's first State Entomologist, focused his work on pest insects, some of which happened to be butterflies. One interesting account describes the abundance of the Mustard White. In 1870, Fitch wrote, "“…these plants [cabbage and turnip] being grown so extensively in all our gardens furnish it an abundant supply of nourishment, whereby its numbers are now greatly increased. I think … these butterflies are ten fold more numerous than they were forty years ago. … they are threatening to become a formidable evil.” Today, the Mustard White is quite rare; we have never seen one in the County, and it is a "critically imperiled" species in Massachusetts. At least in terms of its role as a pest, It has been eclipsed by the Cabbage White.

mustard white
The Mustard White from Charles Maynard's book on New England butterflies.

Fitch was succeeded in his state post by Joseph Lintner, a man with whom Scudder evidently exchanged correspondence. Some of Lintner's most interesting butterfly papers are his "Calendar of Butterflies" in which he documents a series of visits he made across the season to various sites in the Albany area. His notes describe "flocks" of Karner Blues and a record of the Regal Fritillary, a species now extinct in the State.

regal fritillary

The Regal Fritillary, as painted by the pioneering John Abbott.

The Comstocks, Anna Botsford and John Henry, were a wife/husband team who were active in and around New York State. They were based at Cornell for several decades, where Anna Botsford was that university's first woman professor. Her Handbook of Nature Studies became a key textbook in the outdoor teaching of natural history (aka The Nature Studies Movement). John Henry Comstock was a respected and well-published entomologist whose fascination with insects was spawned by Harris' work. Since they co-wrote their butterfly book, How to Know the Butterflies, it is hard to know whose childhood reminiscences are reflected in it, but given his somewhat traumatic upbringing (the death of his father, their migration from Wisconsin to NY, and his mother's subsequent illness), they probably are derived from her apparently more peaceful youth on a western NY farm.

red admiral
A modern-day Red Admiral - this species has recently flown through in tremendous numbers.

For more on today's butterflies, we've put together a web page listing the butterflies we know of from the County and some useful tools and links. I'd especially recommend Sharon Stichter's web page(s) on Massachusetts butterflies; she has done a nice job of juxtaposing historical and contemporary information in stimulating ways.

While we can compare historic and modern species lists, it is more difficult to compare abundances. Were the dramatic abundances that the earlier writers described rare but memorable occurrences, the likes of which might still be recounted if one were to pick and choose from a lifetime of butterflying, or were they instead, as I have suggested, just the 'tip of the iceberg' and indicative of historically higher abundances? I wonder if the answer to that question is even knowable.

We'd be glad to ID any photos you'd care to submit of butterflies (or moths) around the County. Let us know if you'd like any tips on hunting butterflies with a camera.

In addition, if any of you have old insect collections lurking in your attics, we'd much appreciate looking at them - they can give clues to past natural history.
May 2012 Column (with slight edits, Nov 2018)

Great Grandfather’s Butterflies.
By Conrad Vispo.

I can imagine it: a dirt road baked by a hot summer sun, yet here, where puddles remain from last night’s rain, the air is touched by the flat, sweet, sandy smell of warm mud. And touched too by butterflies, mostly yellow ones who pause lightly around the edges of the water, where the moisture is wicked up to form a ring of wet ground. Around these puddles, there are not two or three butterflies, but tens of butterflies whose wings rustle silently from the twitch of tiny muscles or the tickle of the wind. Each is intently lapping at the dampness, hoping to extract some of the salts left by the dissolved dung of the passing horsepower. And, lo, a horse and cart, thankful for the mostly dry road, roll through the scattered puddles and raise around themselves gentle clouds of white and yellow petals.  As the disturbance passes, these coalesce once again around the puddles, as if a feather pillow had burst and yet the loosened feathers were convinced to reassemble. The cartman casually waves an arm to clear his way and feels the gentle brush of one or two butterflies as he passes through. The horse and cart move on, the butterflies call their meetings back to order, and, in the thoughts of the man at the reins, the butterflies recede into forgetting. After all, he has seen such displays so many times before.

Samuel Hubbard Scudder, whose detailed , 19th century accounts of Northeastern butterflies give us a window into that landscape, was not my great grandfather, but he was of a similar generation and leaves me wondering at what my progenitors saw as they passed through the countryside of Troy and then moved west. His books included descriptions of hundreds of Wood Nymphs floating across a Nantucket road as they are startled by the early-morning passage of a horse rider, of Mourning Cloak caterpillars so numerous as to weigh down tree limbs, of Spring Azures painting a roadway blue, and of Tiger Swallowtails so common that up to 20 could be caught in a single sweep of the net. Such accounts suggest abundances beyond what we witness today.

Scudder is seconded by others such as the Comstocks. In their butterfly book, incidentally dedicated to Scudder, they describe the butterfly-rich playgrounds of their childhoods. They share the names that they invented to describe their companions, such as “butterfly money” which they applied to the silvery dots on the underwings of fritillaries and the butterfly-popular floral gathering spot they named the “Sign of the Thistle”.

Some insight comes, oddly enough, from Anthony Trollope's mother, Fanny Trollope. Visiting the US in the late 1820s, she wrote "In a bright day, during any of the summer months, your walk is through an atmosphere of butterflies, so gaudy in hue, and so varied in form, that I often thought they looked like flowers on the wing ... Some have wings of the most dainty lavender colour... others are fawn and rose colour; and others again are orange and bright blue. But pretty as they are, it is their number, even more than their beauty, that delights the eye. Their gay and noiseless movement as they glance through the air, crossing each other in checkered maze, is very beautiful."

The point here is not to bemoan past glories – indeed a much more thorough review than this would be needed in order to truly test any claims of past abundance – rather, it is to highlight one largely inescapable flaw in human perception: the time frame of our perspectives is limited by our own lifetimes. While images and words can thread together some connections to our past, each generation wakes into a new world and accepts as given the nature that meets their eyes. Thus change that happens at larger time scales, often as the result of humanity’s own doings, is largely invisible to our hearts, if not our intellects, and hence provides little motive for the modification of our actions. If we could but mount that cart and ride just one familiar road with our great grandfathers, what morals would we imbibe as the yellow butterflies circled around us?

Thanks to David Wagner for some of the original discussion leading to these ideas.