Aristotle named the butterfly “psyche,” which means “soul” in Greek.
Butterflies are a metaphor in many cultures to describe the separation of the soul and body in death. People have been fascinated with this delicate insect’s beauty since ancient times — a beauty that intrigued one University of Idaho professor’s artistic sensitivity and became a passion.
Nelson Curtis, former UI Professor Emeritus of Art, started collecting butterflies in Idaho in the early ‘70s during his free time. Although it began as an appreciation of beauty, Curtis’ self-taught hobby progressed into a collection of more than 17,000 specimens.
Upon his death in October 2011, Curtis’ widow directed the collection to UI’s William F. Barr Entomology Museum, a collection museum curator Frank Merickel said the university is fortunate to have.
“It’s truly just an exquisitely curated collection,” Merickel said. “It’s just stunning I think.”
Merickel said Curtis’ collection, which he spent more than 30 years amassing, probably contains all of the butterfly species in Idaho, and 90 percent of species in the Pacific Northwest. The detailed field notes Curtis wrote and the time he spent labeling each specimen are what make the collection so valuable. Merickel said the information revealed by the collection will most likely be made into a compendium, or volume, documenting the occurrences of butterfly species in Idaho and become a source of baseline data for species identification.
A successful butterfly catcher must understand the habits of butterflies and know when they are “on the wing” — the time of day and year when butterflies are active. Factors like which flowers a particular species is “nectaring” on must also be taken into consideration. Most butterflies tend to stay close to the host plants where they lay eggs, but some, like the Parnassius butterfly, venture out to steep-sided slopes, Merickel said.
Different color patterns exemplify the sexual and seasonal variations of butterflies. Color patterns even vary between butterflies of the same species that live in different geographic reasons. It is necessary to collect a large number of specimens to represent the many variations between species, and collections should include dorsal and ventral mounts to display the back and front sides of the wings. Merickel said collections of insects like Curtis’ are invaluable in terms of studying the earth and learning about the creatures that occupy it.
The musculature of a butterfly that has just been caught is very pliable, Merickel said. The specimen is then mounted, or pinned, and the wings moved into an upright position. After several days the muscles dry and become rigid, and the wings maintain their shape. Merickel said although chemicals are sometimes used to humanely kill the insects, no preservatives are used in curating a specimen. A butterfly’s exquisite beauty is as natural and perfect in death as in life.
Amrah Canul — Blot
More than 17,000 butterfly specimens are part of the University of Idaho’s William F. Barr Entomology Museum. Nelson Curtis, former UI Professor Emeritus of Art, started collecting butterflies in Idaho in the 1970s during his free time and upon his death, Curtis’ widow directed the collection to the university.