Making a living from butterflies

Anshul Fernando is an interesting guy.  He’s an artist based in Canada that creates very lovely pieces with butterflies and other exotic insects.  In this video, he walks you through the process of “relaxing” and spreading a dead insect specimen.  Towards the end he also discusses the cost of a butterfly, supply and demand, and the use and farming of endangered species:

We’ve had some really interesting discussions here about the use of dead insect specimens in art.  Fernando is actively involved in sourcing his insects, including setting up a foundation that promotes the production of birdwings in captive breeding programs.  (Although the exact status of that foundation is a bit murky; I wasn’t able to find much info about it).

Is getting people to think about and value pretty insect species from far away worth promoting a trade in dead insects?
(i.e, Promote biodiversity!….um, by killing lots of things and displaying their bodies.)  Does it really reduce poaching of wild populations to encourage insect breeding projects?

I think it balances out. You?

Discuss!  

(Can: Open. Worms: Everywhere)

12 thoughts on “Making a living from butterflies

  1. Thanks for posting this video. This man truly is an artist. I think he describes the dynamic between prohibition and price pretty well. Prohibition only works if it is absolute – and, in this case at least, it obviously isn’t. I think one other argument for what he is that he is encouraging a greater appreciation for these rare species. That is, in addition to the few rich people who will pay high prices, he is also bringing the beauty of these creatures to the masses. If done properly, this will also help make people more sensitive to the importance of protecting these species. Now, I realize that this is the argument that is often used for the alleged exploitation of any rare creature, (Come, see our many stuffed rare pandas so that you will love them!) but I think, in this case at least, there is something to it.

  2. I don’t really understand collecting live, i.e. soon-to-be-killed insects, excepting for scientific study purposes; watching a bug fly away is more beautiful to me than having it pinned behind glass. But obviously there are a good number of people who feel it is worthwhile and enriching and beautiful. I’m just not sure how much this kind of art promotes the valuing of insects (for their place in the natural order, as opposed to for their looks), in people who didn’t already value insects.

    Re: the breeding programs he’s talking about — if they actually do reduce poaching of wild populations, it definitely sounds like a good thing — although still a little creepy, honestly. I suppose they will get to reproduce though, which is good for everybody.

  3. I don’t understand killing things for no good reason. If your life depends on it, by all means kill it, but not for art/entertainment/fun/adventure, etc. Take a camera and take some artistic pictures.if you want to use life subjects for art!

  4. I’ve killed hundreds of thousands of insects for my research, natural history work focused on the illumination of biodiversity. I justify their deaths by knowing that knowledge of these organisms fuels the ability to conserve them. It’s hard to conserve what is unknown. So I deal in death, despite loving the living organisms.

    We both kill insects, and I’m wondering how different our reasons really are. I’m wondering if his contribution is more important than mine, because he can get more people to see the beauty of insects and invest in insect conservation.

  5. I hope the bit of self-promotion I’m about to engage in is relevant to the discussion. I just completed an experimental short film entitled “Zombie Dragonfly Discotheque.” (https://vimeo.com/35260700) It was created from 100+ Green darner dragonflies collected during a migratory swarm in North Florida last September. Most were roadkill victims, some had washed up on the beach. I didn’t use any that had enough life in them to fly off, they were all collected by hand. I actually had a few headless dragonflies crawling around my studio for about a day and a half. I was inspired by seeing the work of Jennifer Angus and respect the methods of her and Anshul in acquiring specimens. My process felt somewhat grotesque as I use a flatbed scanner instead of more traditional macro photography and had to disassemble each and every dragonfly to capture some of the patterns I wanted to use.

    I hope the film will inspire curiosity as well as a love for ecology and nature and reach audiences that might not usually seek out this kind of subject material. It had it’s film festival premier at the LA Animation Festival playing in front of the classic feature-length anime “Grave of the Fireflies” a few weeks ago. I’m also confident I can get this kind of art into the clubs where all the kids are listening to their crazy electronic music these days.

  6. The point about favoring live butterflies to dead is certainly a valid one. I certainly would always prefer to see a butterfly in my garden to one pinned to my wall. But I don’t see this as mutually exclusive. What Mr. Fernando is doing certainly doesn’t eliminate the ability of people to enjoy living butterflies. Nor is he seeking to replace photographs of the same. The whole premise is that by adding an aesthetic component he is expanding our appreciation of these insects through art.

  7. Thanks for posting that video! I do believe killing insects for art can be as valid as killing them for science. Insect-based art (with real insects) can reach people in ways that even well-crafted science outreach or nature documentaries might not, especially people who recoil from living insects. Through artworks, people’s attitudes about insects can be reshaped, allowing empathy, curiosity and wonder to take hold. Now sure, this is all easy with Fernando’s butterflies, but I think the same holds true for other species used as an art medium, such as Angus’ amazing works made with decidedly less-cuddly specimens.

    I am curious, however, what entomologists and environmentalists who work in places where such collecting takes place have to say about these practices. Do they work? Have they demonstratively helped to secure habitat and actively helped local communities? Of course the primary threat in every case is habitat loss more than over-collecting, but it would be interesting to hear first-person accounts all the same.

  8. I think it’s pretty clear that captive breeding of birds and reptiles popular with the pet trade has significantly reduced the market for wild-caught specimens. It seems likely a similar dynamic would be at work with insects, but it also seems like this would be a good master’s degree project for some enterprising student.

  9. I don’t see anything positive about what this guy does. I don’t believe that all the butterflies in his inventory were raised on farms (even if they were, I still don’t like this). As a comparison, ,most civilized people would now consider it barbaric if you showed off a recently acquired collection of North American warblers or other birds, no matter how beautiful. I feel the same way about butterflies, dragonflies, Tiger Beetles or other insects. Why someone who says they care about these creatures, yet justifies killing them for “art” or other reasons mystifies me. It disturbs me when I see “responsible entomologists” who proudly show off their extensive insect collections, knowing that some species (e.g., North American Tiger Beetles) have been driven to extinction by collectors. I know too many people who believe that “the only good bug is a dead bug.” People who say they care about insects but kill them en masse don’t help in efforts to educate the general public that insects have value and that we need to do a better job of conserving and protecting these creatures. I can reluctantly accept arguments for killing and collection of insects for “legitimate scientific purposes,” but I don’t think that is a free pass for anyone.

  10. Reminds me, I should make an effort to go see that “Bodies” exhibition next time it’s near me.

  11. In this instance, I’m with Wordsworth:

    Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
    Our meddling intellect
    Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
    We murder to dissect.

Comments are closed.