Did you know that a lepidopterist is an entomologist who studies butterflies?
But what is someone called who kills butterflies?
A little while ago I realised there was a problem with my Lime. It’s three years old and lives in a terracotta pot on my balcony. With a lot of care and nurturing I’d finally coaxed it to bear fruit. Four tiny limes had formed beneath the waxy yellow-white blooms that had recently flowered. I was excited. So you can imagine my distress, when on one of my morning inspections, I noticed that something had munched about a third of the tree. I could now see the street where before there had only been dark green foliage. I was livid. So you can imagine my delight, when a few days later on a mid-afternoon meander around my potted garden, I spotted the culprit. A small but savage ogre, with a scaly chocolate, caramelly coating of miniature horns, spiking out from all over its body, was the villain responsible for the potentially fatal damage to my citrus sapling.
And then my heart lodged in my throat as I spotted the rest of them, stationed like an army of vicious little dragons all over the tree. There were at least ten of these two-toned titans splayed against the bottle green lime leaves that were left. Someone said they resembled bird droppings: maybe without your glasses, and from a long way away. And bird droppings would’ve been a cinch to flick off. But when I tried to gently nudge one of these small thieves off the leaf it reared up at me, with its fangs stretched wide, spitting vitriol. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but the monstrous little leviathan refused to budge.
So I took action, as any good gardener would to protect their domain. And in so doing I did sacrifice a fair few more leaves of the tree but I felt the means justified the end. Taking a deep breath I mustered my courage and quickly plucked the leaf that the barbarian still gripped, from its branch. With a firm flick of the wrist, I hurled it over the balcony and down onto the footpath below, checking for passers by as I watched it tumble away. And then I did the same for each of the other leaves that harboured these beasts. I would have to keep a careful eye out from now on for the return of danger, as it wouldn’t surprise me if these brutes were capable of crawling up several stories of brick wall to get back into my tree.
In between my hourly border patrols on the following days, I delved into the online world of caterpillars to try to understand why my citrus plant had been attacked. And that’s when I discovered that I’d committed lepidopteracide. My scaly monsters were actually the larvae stage of butterflies. Suddenly I was flooded with memories and knowledge from childhood. What kind of idiot doesn’t know that a caterpillar turns into a butterfly or moth? Remember cocoons? And who could forget silk worms? Oh how we consign the world to oblivion! How we become hardened and criminal as we age! My ravenous little chewers were actually the instar or pre-pupa stage of the Papilio aegeus, or Citrus Swallowtail Butterflies. Probably named after King Aegeus of Ancient Greece1.
I was horrified. You can imagine my anguish as I read that these were just the innocent immature larvae who would’ve turned green with white or pink markings once mature, growing to a maximum length of 45 mm. Then they would’ve deftly attached themselves to the leaf via a silk cocoon and spent weeks or even months (depending on the temperature) in this trans-formative stage, before emerging as adult butterflies, with black and yellow markings, and red and blue eye spots.
Oh what a fiend am I!
To have selfishly destroyed these winged beauties (albeit in their ugly, horny stage). And particularly in these despairing times when pesticides are already killing off thousands of bees and butterflies, these creatures are essential for the pollination of our plants and the creation of our agricultural food bowls. Oh, to have added to this tragedy of the commons (albeit unintentionally). Oh wail and weep. What to do! What to do! How to make amends? If I had a first born child I’d gladly offer it to the gods in recompense!
I was devastated. So you can imagine my surprise when a few days later, miraculously, as I have no offspring to bargain with, the universe answered my call, and a Faustian pact was born. The life of one of my other young trees would be sacrificed in exchange for the return of the Papilio aegeus to my garden. Well the message wasn’t delivered in quite so many words. But I gleaned the general meaning when one evening I stepped onto the balcony to pinch a leaf from my baby curry tree for the vegetable casserole I was stewing, only to find an immature caterpillar rearing at me once more. No wonder they are so admired in lepidopterist circles. Not only are they handsome but they’re smart enough to avoid the tree of death and find something new to chew on.
So I have now fulfilled my part of the bargain and let the little monster be. It sits and chews all day and seems to sleep on the underside of the leaf at night. I look forward to seeing it transform through its various stages. But just in case younger generations are dumber, and decide to re-colonise the Lime tree, I have a strategy. I will still pick them off, leaf by leaf, but this time I’ll place them carefully in a box and transport them to a new home. According to Wikipedia2, caterpillars feed on the leaves of the Rutaceae family of plants, commonly known as rue or citrus. All I have to do is find a common orange, Finger lime, Australian willow, lanolin bush or pot of parsley that is anywhere but on my balcony. Actually my mother has a full grown lemon tree. And now that I think of it, the neighbour has a rather lovely kumquat.
Images: 1. sagesomethymes; 2 Orchard Swallowtail butterfly by Summerdrought via wikimedia commons; 3 Lemon Tree by Fastily via wikimedia commons.