New butterfly species discovered in Israel
New butterfly species discovered in IsraelILTV

The butterfly teaches us how the world is changing. Their language might save our planet. We have to appreciate their importance to the human food chain.

Military security is no longer bound to physical borders or magic marker lines on maps. Mass migrations, terrorists, satellites, rockets, and drones reveal the anachronism of borders. Assuredly, there are doctors without borders, lawyers without borders, libraries without borders. The Internet demolished intellectual border hegemony.

Do you know who else ignores borders? Butterflies, moths, and honeybees migrate across man-made borders. These tiny insects know no bounds.

I realized the threat to the world food chain a decade ago. Mass crop displacement happens when honeybees disappear. Butterflies and moths are under threat. Food shortages and high food prices undermine national security.

I wrote about the situation in The Jerusalem Post after interviewing Professor Chancing (Alex) Lu of the Harvard School of Public Health. Folks at Hebrew University’s Triwaks Bee Research Center (see The Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment) are leaders in this field of research.

Wendy Williams explains it all in a luscious, readable, scientifically informative book, The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, And Other Obsessives Unlocked The Secrets Of the World’s Favorite Insect (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2021). She laces her love for the beauty and majesty of butterflies with science. This science journalist “was never again so deliciously, so exquisitely, so naively shocked” about art and color until she entered the world of butterfly obsession.

She describes in 200 pages her Lepidoptera epiphany. “An entire universe opened to me. I learned that the language of butterflies is the language of color. They speak to each other using that flash and dazzle.”

Science and Sex

These six-legged creatures and a proboscis revolutionized our understanding of nature.

“Today (they) are helping us in many practical ways, improving our own lives by providing surprising new models for medical technology.”

My son breathes easier with bio-designed devices because of what we learned from butterfly scales.

Studies of the monarch and painted lady butterflies teach scientists about maximizing the capillary force of the proboscis to transport columnar liquids.

The science of sex has seldom been more intimately described: “The proboscis is where the rubber meets the road. Where insect and flower join together in joyful partnership. It’s a marriage not just of convenience, but of sustenance. Flowers, with their alluring scents and sweet nectary, tempt the insects to come hither. The insects, while obtaining nectar (or “nectaring…) inadvertently obtain pollen, which they obligingly but unintentionally carry to the next flower, so that the flower is fertilized by a new set of genes.”

Some butterflies change their colors to avoid being eaten by predators. Caterpillars eat poisonous plants they can digest to keep their predators at bay. An Indian butterfly can disguise itself as a dried-up old leaf. When it opens its wings, “blue colors flash and dazzle in the sunlight, along with wide stripes of gaudy orange.”

Butterfly-inspired structural designs millions of years old led a NASA scientist to “discover” the gyroid. Built from lightweight materials, it allows for almost infinite energy flow. The work of naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian led to Newton’s prism separating light into a rainbow of colors. “A team of Australian scientists has already mimicked this butterfly’s gyroid to create a human-made 3-D structure… for use in computer technology by replacing soldering boards.”

Williams includes 34 color pictures that illuminate the text. She laces the book with stories about scions and raconteurs who buy, sell and steal butterflies. The stories add spice and amusement.

A World Without

Williams warns their populations are precipitously dropping. Loss of their esthetic value is criminal. “The disappearance of butterflies would be a planetary disaster.”

Butterflies went extinct in Britain in 1979 and nearly so in Europe. 35 years passed before butterfly friends turned things around. America, once home to marauding swarms of butterflies, is down in great numbers. Butterfly migrations are not rote like birds. Butterflies integrate climatic changes into their behavioral decisions.

Butterflies and moths find refuge around Mount Hermon in Israel. We stuffed the coast and central parts of the country with forestation, farms, industrial centers, and housing-office developments. It is unfortunate that with 93% of the land of Israel in the public domain, only 14 species of butterflies and moths are under protection.

The Takeaway

Butterflies, moths, and honeybees need substantial wetlands, nectar-filled fields of flowers, and milkweed to thrive and survive. They have hardy survival skills in managing predators and climate changes.

It is whimsical that Israelis have any patience for building an environmental protection agenda with all on the plate. Yet, it makes perfect sense. Every inch of land is holy, contested, and the fruit of raging battles between militaries, developers, naturists, and farmers.

Wendy Williams offers a fascinating tale of human-nature interaction set around one of God’s most beautiful creations. She advocates for them in the most romantic and captivating language. Who can think of a butterfly and not smile? I smiled often reading The Language of Butterflies.