If you are at all intrigued by lepidoptery, you will want to find yourself a copy of Simone Hébert Allard’s “Manitoba Butterflies: A Field Guide,” one of this year’s two finalists in Science and Medicine for a High Plains Book Award. Filled with photographs and species-specific information, this is a handsome and welcoming volume. But the real contribution Allard has made to the genre is in combining scientific information and cultural lore.
Manitoba Butterflies is geared toward beginners as it covers 101 of the most common and spectacular species in the province. Introductory material explains Allard’s fascination with butterflies and prepares the reader to venture out into the field or garden. Each species biography consists of a well-illustrated two-page spread with useful information on longevity, seasonal activity, field marks, flight patterns, larval and adult food sources and habitat preferences. Photographs illustrate each stage of the butterfly life cycle, from intricately patterned egg, to larval form, to sometimes jewel-like pupa. Every species is also shown in its full life-sized adult glory.
However, Allard does more than simply identify species. She focuses as much on biology and behavior as on field marks. Orange and Common Sulphurs hybridize, for example, producing some individuals with “orange on only one half of the wing ... while others are albino with pink fringes.” A Satyr or Wood Nymph actually has “the uncanny ability to detect sound due to swollen veins along the edges of its forewings.” Allard explains that butterflies can be aggressive, gentle and even unselfish. They are sometimes tended by ants and often parasitized by wasps. They can be gynandromorphic, mixing male and female characteristics, as one particularly striking photo of a Pink-Edged Sulphur demonstrates.
All this is quite nice (my one criticism is that the range maps are not detailed), but the real reason it should find a place on the natural history shelves of home libraries is its innovatively holistic approach. Following every species biography is a snippet of cultural interpretation proving that people around the world invest butterflies with symbolic meaning, often associating them with deities or souls of the dead — the Teotihuacanos of what is now Mexico, for instance, linked butterflies, war and religion: soldiers killed in battle “believed they would be transformed into butterflies in the afterlife.” Inuit cosmology, in contrast, sends “lazy hunters and idle women” to Nugumiut when they die, a realm where there are “only butterflies to eat.”
Some field guides should see the world, ending their careers torn, muddy, dog-eared, and rain-splotched. If you travel to Canada, Manitoba Butterflies could be such a guide. It certainly has a sturdy binding and heavy matte cover. However, my copy is going to stay inside where I can learn from its wealth of scientific information, admire its photography and refer to the many cultural beliefs associated with butterflies.