NABA and butterfly watching

Guy Van de Poel Guy_VdP at
Sun Jun 20 12:08:12 EDT 1999

Though I consider this discussion to be somewhat proper to the US, I would
like to add some comments.

I started butterflying as an 6-7 year old, with my hands and a marmalade
jar. Those pretty things were interesting, and with my newly acquired
reading skills, I started getting books in the local library.
They taught me lots of things on butterflies, and also how to catch and
spread them. I used a simple net, though the netting was a transparent
plastic bag, and I used ether to kill them in my jar (still marmalade),
which took longer, but I put the jar away in a bag, so I did not have to
watch them dying (I still do).
In fourth class, we had a teacher that encouraged us to do things not
directly related to school, be it playing football (soccer for some of you)
or - in my case - collecting insects.
You read it right, insects. The area where I grew up, even in the late
sixties, didn't have that much different species of butterflies any more, in
total maybe ten. So I grew interested in all kinds of insects, and it was my
greatest pleasure to find something during the week, and then spend Sunday
researching it in the library. The librarian (the same teacher) let me look
in the shelves that were meant for the grown ups. I used both scientific and
Dutch names for the things I found, because some of the bugs simply did not
have a common name, and after all, common names were only to communicate
with 'other' people, that were not 'really' interested. But in my small,
though ever growing collection, I arranged them with their scientific names,
the ones that belonged with each other in the same box. These scientific
names had a 'magic' feeling in them, it made me dream of far-away countries.
My father's aunt was a missionary in Zaire (we all still called it Congo),
and when she came back for a short leave, I showed her my collection. In
short, after some story-telling, she promised me to bring me some the next
time she would come back to Belgium. She did, five years later. The
collecting was done on Sunday mornings, the only time during the week she
had some free moments (after the mass, of course). The area where she was
at, Mbandaka on the Congo River, is the richest in Africa where it comes to
butterfly species. And they're big too.
In what we call Middle school (age 12-18), we had an arts teacher that
shared my interest for insects, though he primarily painted them. He had
some books I hadn't seen before, but the best thing about him was his
encouragement for me being busy with bugs. Even my biology teacher wasn't
interested, that one only wanted results on the tests.
And then my aunt came back. Big problem. Where was I going to find the names
and data on all of these ? The library of the school was not much of a help,
my arts teacher had better and more. So I went to the Zoo in Antwerp, and
from their exhibited collection (Congo was our ex-colony), I managed to ID
most of them.
During the next summer leave, my arts teacher died, way too young.
Meanwhile, I had started rearing butterflies (my father didn't really like
it - he did the garden), and got lucky with some of our larger species - it
was the first time I saw a live Papilio machaon.
My mother died, and my life was rearranged. I was growing up too, my own
hormones causing interest in other living beings than butterflies. School
was nothing for me, I thought, so up to the factory.
The Belgian Army still had conscripts then, and there was no way to escape.
... And though my name isn't Davy, I'm still in the Navy, and probably will
be for life. It's the army actually.
But being with the Paratroops, meant being out 7 months a year, and I liked
it. Though I did not collect any more, I got to all kinds of places, not
only in Belgium, but all over Europe. My interest was still there, and from
the bees of Scotland to the wasps in Turkey, the beetles in Spain or the
butterflies everywhere, I enjoyed it.
But the times changed, and from training defense against the Russians, we
found ourselves in Congo (yes, they are there, as big and beautiful as the
ones I still have at home), Rwanda and Somalia. Where the first two were
brief operations, which did not leave me much free time, Somalia was
different. Four months, one trunk of luggage, and I knew six days in advance
I had to go.
After two weeks, I had read almost all of the books I had taken, and while I
was working as a wireless operator, I had lots of free time. We (+- 20) were
based some 120 km away from the coast and the main base, in the middle of
the Thorn-bush Savannah. We did patrols so that somebody else could stay at
the base, just to keep the time going. We hunted, there was enough wildlife
: antelopes, crocodiles (mmmmm), the big non-flying birds that hide their
head in the sand (at least that's what they do in Dutch, hope you understand
what I mean) and especially the locally thriving large wild African pigs
(Somalians are Muslims, the dummies :-). And after a good hunt, there was a
good grill. But, when the last book was read, I was in trouble.
Not yet. There were butterflies too. So after some consideration (I was
amidst of Paratroops after all), I started constructing a net from high
tension wire, a pole antenna section and my personal head-mosquitonet. At
first, I only hunted when off-duty, but after a few days, the fever had come
back to its full extent, and I put the remote control for the radio outside,
volume on maximum, so that I could hunt all of the time. The colleagues,
after some initial laughter (you could hear them till the main base),
adapted quickly, and even brought me some specimens every once in a while.
The remaining three months went by as if it were merely weeks, and if there
were no butterflies, there were wasps, beetles, ants ...
After returning home, I needed to set them, so I started looking for pins.
Which after some months, through some friends who collected stamps,
succeeded when I found out about the Antwerp Entomological Society. These
are people that share a common interest: Nature. After some initial 'doing
everything', I decided to stick with my first love butterflies, since you
can't do everything (unless you're a Baron Rothschild or something, which
I'm clearly not). I still have 'the fever', though I now live and work in
Germany, but I can communicate with my friends over the www, and there's you
Through my general interest in insects and nature, it's easy to see that
mistakes are being made everywhere. We don't do a good job in Belgium (our
longest forest is 40 km long, but only 30 m [sic] large, and between the
lanes of the Brussels-Antwerp highway) (and did you read about our chickens
lately ?). The small village where I grew up now has only about 7 different
species left, and it's not getting better, on the contrary. The Germans have
better laws protecting the environment, and they are being applied (in
Belgium you sometimes get the impression you only need to know the Mayor's
hairdresser to obtain a permit to build your new house in the middle of a
protected green area)(and some money of course). But too often 'nature' is
synonymic to neatly mowed lawns. And the Germans like neat things. So the
neighborhood I'm living in now, looks like the one I grew up in in Belgium.
So in about 20 years, this too will be an ecological desert.

For those who are still reading, the comments:

I firmly believe common names are not necessary, but helpful.
Standardization ? Let those do it that want to do it, there's more important
things to do.

If you want to have interested grown-ups, start with the children. Children
will learn everything, but they need some encouragement the school 'system'
does not give them. The www is a great thing for this, and every time a kid
asks a question, it should be answered. It's easy enough for you who speak
English, there is work to do for the rest of us, all over the world.

Collecting ? Without wanting to restart the usual debate, I'm pretty sure
for me that's where it all comes from. What about letting kids collect where
they want ? If you have somebody guiding them, they will grow up as
knowledgeable people, who after all will have to live in - and clean up -
the mess we created.

Taking pictures instead ? My parents would surely not have given me their
camera when I was that small, and I only got a good one very recently. I
already spoiled a lot of films (I'm thinking of starting to cheat, sorry
Anne), and for me it's a nice addition to collecting, but will never
completely replace it, especially not in areas where I haven't been before.

Be careful with mass-popularization of anything. I'm always afraid when I
see and hear about such things. It may work out for you, but I think most
Europeans get visions of Coca Cola and burgers to accompany the wrestling
championships. And 'dumbing down' the subject is not really the solution.
E.g.: in a Belgian reserve, they tended to mow and burn the whole of the
grassland annually. I need not explain what this did to the skippers. But
they were 'plant folks'.

This took the better part of this Sunday afternoon, but it's no butterfly
weather anyway. My cat just came by to tell me she's hungry, so I better
start doing these 'more important things' she insists on.


Guy Van de Poel
Guy_VdP at

Royal Entomological Society of Antwerp

More information about the Leps-l mailing list