HOW TO: Pin a Butterfly

Have you ever seen a piece of art or craft that you think to yourself “I could do that!” but of course you never act on it?  Well, some people do act on that impulse and I’m going to show you how to do just that. 

Every now and then I get a phone call from someone who has a deceased butterfly and they want to spread its wings so they can put it in some sort of shadow box for decoration.  This is always a fun phone call because it’s kinda hard to explain the process of spreading a butterfly.  I usually end up inviting them up to the museum to watch me do it, but other times I just have to do my best at explaining it. 

 Papered Butterflies

Now, I do not spread butterflies at work for artsy reasons, but rather for scientific purposes.  We have a very large collection of “papered butterflies” that have not been spread yet.  (When I say “papered” I mean that they are in glassine envelopes awaiting curation, after which they will be placed in the collection – see the photo at right.)  These butterflies were collected by various individuals who never had the chance to process them –  which makes my job lots of fun because I get to do it! 

I have processed butterflies from places all over the world, Australia, India, and Peru to just name a few.  I remember spreading one that was collected in 1922.  You’re probably thinking “How can you spread the wings of a butterfly that is 86 years old?”  Well, that’s where we are going to start this butterfly-spreading lesson! 

1.  You have or have found a butterfly but it’s wings and body are hard and all dried up.  You can’t even open the wings.  This is typical, so no need to worry.  All you need to do is rehydrate the butterfly in a relaxing chamber.  If your butterfly is already flexible (you can slightly squeeze the thorax and the wings move) there is no need to relax it.

 Relaxing Chamber

2.  The relaxing chamber is very easy.  You can use any type of air tight container – I use Tupperware.  Place 3-4 damp paper towels in the bottom of the container.  This creates humidity, which will seep into the butterfly.  You also need to add a cap full of either Listerine or Pine-sol.  These act as mold inhibitors so your butterfly doesn’t get all yucky.  The last thing you need is something to prevent the butterfly from touching the paper towels.  I use wire mesh that I cut to the size of the container and put it on top of the towels.  I usually leave the butterfly in here for 2 days before I check on it. 

3. When you check on it, pick it up carefully with forceps or tweezers and hold onto the thorax.  Gently squeeze the thorax to see if it is flexible and the wings move a bit (This is very difficult to explain, so I’m sorry if it’s hard to understand – if you have any questions please comment below).  It this occurs, you are ready to start, but if not – just leave the butterfly for another day and check again.  Sometimes it takes 5 days or so, so be patient. 

4.  Now, you need a large piece of Styrofoam covered with wax or tracing paper.  While you have the wax or tracing paper out, make sure to cut strips about 3 x 1 inches to be used later. This paper prevents the scales from rubbing off of the wings. 

5. Next, you will need some type of pin to put through the thorax.  We use pins purchased from bioquip specially made for insects, but you could probably use any type of long thin straight pin.  Put the pin straight through the middle of the thorax leaving about 1/4 of the pin on top.  While pinning the butterfly, you may need to open the wings a bit.  Do this with your forceps and try your hardest not to damage the wings.

Opening the wings with forceps.
Put your pin through the thorax.

6.  This next part is different from the norm, but I think it’s so much easier.  You are going to pin your butterfly upside down, so the pin head will be going into the Styrofoam instead of the sharp end.  Spread open your butterflies wings and gently poke the pin head into the Styrofoam.  Be careful not to poke your finger on the sharp end.  Now your butterfly should be completely flat.

7.  You will need more pins to do this next part.  Place the first two pins on both sides of the abdomen, right where it meets the thorax.  This prevents the butterfly from moving around when you try to move the wings.  Next, take a pin and find a vein in one of the forewings.  Gently use the pin to move the wing so that the bottom of the wing is perpendicular with the body.  When you get the wing to the correct position, take one of the strips of paper and put over the wing and use some pins to hold it in place.  Do not poke the pins through the butterfly wing. 

8. Now you are going to move onto the hind wing.  Use one of the pins to move the wing so that the top of it just covers the forewing and use the paper again to hold it in place.  Now you can move onto the other side.  The trickiest part here is getting both sides of the butterfly to be even.  This takes practice, so don’t get frustrated. 

Halfway there!
Both wings should be even.

9.  Just a few more things and you will be finished. If the antennae are still attached to the butterfly, you can pin them into place so that they are symetrical. Remember the pins that you used a the beginning to keep the butterfly from moving?  You want to remove those and make a small teepee over the abdomen with them to prevent the abdomen from curling up. 

10.  Now you just wait!  I would wait about a week before checking things out.  When the week is over all you need to do is remove all the pins and paper, lift up the butterfly, turn it right side up and stick the pointy part of the pin in the styrofoam and VOILA!  your butterfly is ready!  Now you can put it into a shadow box or just keep it in your collection. 

I have a couple of last minute pointers before you go crazy with spreading butterflies:

- Patience is very important! 

- Butterflies are very fragile, so be extra careful. 

- If you break off an antennae or tear a wing, just glue it back on with elmers glue that has dried just a bit so it is sticky.

- if you have any questions please feel free to leave me a comment and I will do what I can to help!

I hope you enjoyed this little lesson and hopefully you will be a pro the very first time, but don’t count on it!  It does take practice, so don’t give up, keep on trying and remember to have patience!

Exploring Sri Lanka

Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India.  But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture.  For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section.  My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation.  Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka.  He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.

Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history.  We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala:  both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle.  Both flourished during the same (long) time period:  about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD.  Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class.  The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar. 

Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.  The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive.  Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife.  Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees. 

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all).  We visited just a few of them.  My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast.  Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own.  It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife.  We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one.  However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds. 

Langur family

Langur family

Flying fox

Flying fox

In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc.  Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead.  Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks.  Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings.  They were spectacular!  Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas. 

I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka.  We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area.  The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.  However, the brightly dressed Tamil workers reminded me that this was the East and not the West. 

Tamil women

Tamil women

I also learned that Sri Lanka has a relatively high standard of living (the highest of any Asian country,according to WIkipedia) and a literacy rate of over 90% – among the  highest in the developing nations.  The country is predominantly Buddhist, but Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are also represented, and all appear to co-exist quite peacefully (the Tamil Tiger rebels are Hindu, but their rebellion is based on ethnic and economic problems, not religion).  The people we met were friendly, and I didn’t notice any who were desperately poor.  Most people spoke at least a few words of English, and there was a lot of interest in our upcoming election!  I loved the clothes – most women wore colorful saris – in all colors of the rainbow.  I saw only a few women, and only in the cities, wearing pants.  Men had a wider range of possibilities – some wore pants, others shorts, and many wore long or short sarongs.  Sandals and flipflops were the footwear of choice for both sexes.  Muslim men often wore caps on their heads, and the women covered their hair with a scarf.   

 

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

The food was good – although I did crave a bowl of cold cereal or a simple peanut butter sandwich more than once.  “Rice and curry” is eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their hands (the right hand only is used).  That took a little getting used to since I have been discouraged from putting my hands in my food since I was about two years old – and this was not discrete finger food, but rice and helpings of often soupy curried vegetables, or meat, or lentils, etc.   But, we managed (and sometimes broke down and ate with a fork).

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Our time was short and there were things we didn’t get to do – we missed seeing the traditional dancers in Kandy, for instance.  And I would have loved to check out some of the beaches, which were fabulously beautiful, with clear blue water and pinkish sand.  Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, and endless skeins of fishing nets, were strewn over some of them; others were completely pristine.  Although most areas have been extensively repaired, we saw some evidence of the devastating 2004 tsunami in places along the coast.  Seeing the bare foundations of houses, and hearing people’s stories, reminded us that Sri Lanka lost over 35,000 people in that disaster, with over half a million displaced – making our recent hurricane “Ike” seem benign by contrast.

Fishermen and nets near Galle
Fishermen and nets near Galle

All in all it was a very interesting visit.  If I go back, I’d like to have more time to explore on my own and get to know the people.  I’d especially want to go back to Galle, an old Dutch outpost on the southwest coast.  The colonial part of the city in particular was very picturesque.  The highland village of Ella had marvellous views and plenty of accomodations for tourists.  I would definitely want to get to Sinharaja, a rainforest preserve with many endemic plants and birds.  And I’d want to spend at least a bit of time on any of the gorgeous beaches – and do some shopping! 

 

Hindu temple entrance

Hindu temple entrance

Picking tea

Picking tea

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Street scene in Gampola

Street scene in Gampola

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.30.08)

heaven below
So, how deep do you think
this thing goes?
Creative Commons License photo credit: alonis

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Despite being repeatedly accused of plotting to destroy the universe, the physicists at CERN have retained their sense of humor – and they’ve used it to create a rap video explaining just what they’re up to over there. And – probably not surprisingly – it’s the best, simplest explanation I’ve seen yet.

In an effort to discover new species – and set a world record – Russian explorers will attempt to get to the bottom of Lake Baikal – the world’s largest and deepest lake.

New research is challenging whether scientists really discovered preserved soft tissue from a T. rex – or whether it is just bacterial slime.

68- to 145-million year old plant fossils in India are being crushed up for road construction. (via)

A lab in Beijing will be made available to test “suspect” female athletes’ gender - a tradition that goes back 50 years.

Titan – one of Saturn’s moons – has confirmed, natural electrical activity, one of the factors that scientists believe increases the possibility of the formation of life.