Animal Advice Article

Lessons from the Smallest

Image by Suzanne D. Williams

       I’ve been an adamant animal lover my whole life but like many who would claim the same thing, bugs often escaped my interest. It’s not that I hated them (except for cockroaches and house centipedes, I’m hard to frighten), they just didn’t quite catch my attention. Much of my interest in animals wasn’t just about the way they looked, but in their intelligence and behavior. there’s very little research on the intelligence of bugs, and I’m sure most can guess why. It’s both hard to research and easy to assume that there isn’t much to learn.

       Insects definitely weren’t what I had pictured when I began looking for an animal-oriented job. I had yet to finish my degree and pickings were slim; I didn’t want to have to work at a chain pet store where I’d knowingly neglect animals on the daily. I came across a job listing on Craigslist, the most reputable of job sites, by chance. Apparently, “butterfly farmer” was an occupation. I’d never given much thought to the mail-order butterfly kits I remembered from childhood classrooms, but evidently, my new employer was responsible for this kind of operation – raising the caterpillars, carefully sorting through pupae, and breeding healthy adults. The wages weren’t ideal, but I was hooked on the idea.

       At first, I was less than mesmerized. It wasn’t the idyllic fantasy I’d had in mind. Masses of butterflies crawled aimlessly in undecorated hanging nets; Ziploc containers of caterpillars writhed eagerly as I opened their lids. It wasn’t the animal interaction I had craved. I cared for the Painted Ladies, the classic wildflower-dwelling little fellow. The lifespan of an adult Painted Lady isn’t much of anything. They’re typically alive for a little over two weeks. Much of that time is spent feeding, mating, and laying eggs. As they grow old, their fragile wings chip and grow pale, and eventually, they grow too weak to feed. It isn’t an eventful life, but it’s honest and natural.

       Given what I knew going into this – butterflies are essentially born to breed, then die – I wasn’t expecting to see much interesting behavior. But the longer I spent observing them without thinking, often while performing menial tasks, the more I noticed. I was charmed by the delicate manner in which they groomed themselves, like little winged cats, carefully rubbing their thin legs over their faces and delicate antennae.

       Certain butterflies preferred to hang out with specific individuals. Some seemed to recognize me as a caregiver, or at the very least a provider of food; they would eagerly gather by the spot where my hand entered the net, and some would eagerly flutter onto my fingertips. Even the tiniest caterpillars had their own quirks. Some were eager to leave the Ziploc they called home and find new life in the small cups they would pupate in. Others balked as soon as they were placed into a new container and made repeated escape attempts.

       I was taken aback by the number of personality variations in the smallest bug. There were distinct preferences, and some butterflies didn’t seem to like each other. Unfortunately for them, housing situations weren’t often subject to change, but they made their displeasure clear with their pointed avoidance.

       The Gatorade on which they fed (the all-American nectar replacement) varied, and some butterflies preferred some flavors to others. Despite our best efforts to feed a healthier, low-sugar natural alternative, it took a simple step onto the juice-soaked sponge for an individual to decide they’d had enough. Butterflies taste through their feet, and a single tap was enough for them to make up their minds about the new offerings.

       My experience didn’t give me conspiracy-theorist level beliefs. I know that a butterfly doesn’t have a concept of human language, mathematics, or mirror recognition. But I did find a surprising humanity in the small bugs we so often overlook. I’m now sure to take the time I need to stop and watch passing insects without so easily discounting them.

       I just recently said goodbye to the butterfly farm to move on to a higher-paying place of employment. It seems silly to some, but I couldn’t help but worry that the next person to take the position wouldn’t care as much for the insects. Although in the end, I didn’t get ahead financially, I have no regrets; my former job invigorated a lot of new interest in the world around me.

      My past interactions with butterflies were mainly stopping my dog from snatching them out of the air on our walks; now, I’m actively trying for a sighting of New Hampshire’s treasured endangered butterfly species, the Karner blue butterfly.

Patrick Kuklinski is a writer and animal lover residing in New Hampshire with a dog, two cats, a lizard, and an ever-growing mischief of rats - along with his ever-patient partner. You can find him ranting about birds and other animals at his blog, Today's Bird (todaysbird.tumblr.com).