Vanishing Monarchs

How a German lepidopterist stole a butterfly collection from a biologically interested ten-year-old kid

As many of my readers know, I spent my early childhood in India, roaming the jungles of the Western Ghats. As son of a German herpetologist I was keenly interested in all living creatures — and encouraged by my father to collect and study them.

That’s me on the left (really!) and thirty years later son Martin, embarking on his lepidopterist career.

The area was full of butterflies, gorgeous creatures of a zillion hues and shapes. I was especially taken up by the Monarch, a species found all around the globe. Their caterpillars were omnipresent, in milkweed shrubs, and I duly collected them, fed them fresh leaves, watched them pupate and then emerge from the chrysalises.

Actually these were not true Monarchs, Danaus plexippus, which you find in North America, but a species of the same genus, Danaus genutia, that closely resembles the monarch and is found in south Asia (from India to Australia). It is known as the common tiger, but at the time we called them Monarchs.

I soon discovered that there were a number of different varieties of Monarchs, some substantially different (as those in the picture above), some very subtly so. They are very beautiful and have a leisurely flight — for a good reason. Their caterpillars feed off the poisonous milkweeds, and as a result the butterflies are noxious to birds and other predators.

But especially interesting were some other butterflies I caught that I couldn’t figure out: they never emerged from the chrysalises I reared, no matter which milkweed caterpillars I collected. But they looked like Monarchs. And then (with the help of my father) I began to understand: they were mimics!

Above are two very palatable butterflies (an Eggfly and a Lacewing) that have disguised themselves to resemble the Monarchs, to protect themselves from predators who will not pursue anything that looks like the poisonous models. Very clever and quite fascinating.

So I started hunting Monarchs and mimics. I went about it very systematically — in fact it became a bit of an obsession. I would wander around with jars for caterpillars and leaves; and I had a big net with which I could catch perhaps a hundred butterflies a day. Most I let go, only the few that appeared to have taxonomic significance I kept to mount.

My father showed me how to handle the ones that were of special interest: you pinch the thorax to stun the butterfly, then insert it into a killing jar filled with wood shavings, and cotton balls soaked in ether at the bottom. Then you use a grooved board, pins and strips of paper or plastic to mount them nicely. After a few days the dry specimens can be fixed, with a single pin through the thorax, on a large display board. Over a year or two I had scores of butterflies neatly arranged, showing variations of the Monarch (the Common Tiger, actually), with the closest mimics below each.

Unfortunately my father did not know too much about butterflies — he was a snake person — and systematic books were hard to come by. So my collections lay there, admired by relatives and friends, pleasing to the eye. But all specimens were unlabelled. What to do? I was around ten years old at the time. (Warning: the next part of this story may be distressing for some readers.)

One day there was “good news”. We had heard that a German lepidopterist (butterfly expert) was visiting and in fact staying in a hotel that was in walking distance from us. Together with my uncle Joss, who carried one of my collection boards, I set out to visit him. He received us very graciously, ordered biscuits and lemonade for me and spent maybe two hours examining my specimens. It was very impressive for the young collector to see how the learned biologist was able to instantly identify a good portion of the butterflies and describe their distinguishing features. He explained exactly how mimicry worked, specifically the Batesian variety, named after a 19th century English naturalist Henry Walter Bates, in which an edible animal is protected by its resemblance to a poisonous one avoided by predators. On that visit I also learned about Müllerian mimicry, where both similar-looking species are dangerous or poisonous, and are simply pooling their resources by sending out similar warning signals to predators. I left the hotel excited and deeply satisfied, determined to become a biologist myself.

My lepidopterist mentor had learned that I had a second board with many more specimens at home, and he asked me to bring them by, keeping the first board in the hotel to make notes, which he promised to share with me. A few days later Joss and I went back to the hotel with the second board, which like the first had dozens of mounted butterflies. My scientist friend was very excited since he had, he said, found specimens on the first board that he had never seen before; and the new board appeared to have more butterflies that were unknown to him and presumably to biology in general. He also showed me how to store the butterflies in portable carrying cases that were less cumbersome and safer to move around. We spent another hour or two transferring the specimens into the new cases, regrouping them and making preliminary notes. A number got labels, some marked “?!” or even “??!!” for butterflies he could not identify. When we left he was pouring over books and making copious notes. He took our address and said that he would bring both collections to us in a week, in the new boxes and with notes on all specimens he had properly identified. I was ecstatic. Definitely biology for me!

Now brace yourselves: the week passed, then three or four more days, and he had not turned up. So Joss and I went back to the hotel to find out what the keeping him. He was not there! The management told us that he had departed almost a week earlier, shortly after our last visit, and no, he had not left any messages or told anyone where he was going. And of course he had taken everything with him, he had not left anything for anyone behind.

I was shattered — actually cried for days — while Joss was furious. He, a well-respected British citizen, went to the local police and insisted they conduct a thorough investigation. But they were not too helpful — they had other priorities and no time to search for a youngster’s missing butterflies.

The collection was gone for good, the man had stolen it from a ten-year-old boy. I do not remember his name, but I still thumb through books from the time, works on butterflies and especially Monarchs, hoping to recognize parts of my collections. I am thankful for all that I learned in our two meetings — work sessions actually, and retained my passion for butterflies.

Above is a collection I made during my student years. A number of these butterflies came as chrysalises from a holiday trip to India, and the butterflies that emerged lived happily in our house in Germany, feeding from colourful blotting paper soaked in sugar water, exploring the different rooms and on occasion alighting on the humans occupying their new home. The display above has been in our house for decades and is still in excellent condition — except that the Monarch on the bottom right has lost a feeler.

So the passion remained, but in the end I did not become a biologist. I would never be able to steal an insect collection from a kid.

Follow-up story: re-encountering Monarchs, millions of them, in a tiny forest in Mexico where they congregate after 4000-mile journeys. I have lots of pictures!

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.