Illustrations of North American Butterflies
IN the early part of 1868, Mr. W. H. Edwards began the issue of an iconographic serial publication on North American butterflies.1 Planned as a quarterly, but with no expectation of extending beyond a single volume, it has appeared at irregular intervals up to the present time, when, having in twentynine years completed three quarto volumes. with fifty or more colored plates each, the veteran author lays down his pen, quoting Spenser’s lines : —
In wished harbour where we meane to rest ;
For now the Sonne low setteth in the West.”
It is the story of a remarkable achievement. The only previous attempt to issue such a work, by Titian Peale, had ended with a first number, and Peale was his own artist. Edwards, when he began, had been known but a few years as an entomologist; he had to pay all the charges of printer, draughtsman, lithographer, and colorist, and could hardly expect any adequate support from a limited and generally impoverished group of naturalists. Not a man of wealth himself, he met with financial losses during the progress of the work which severely crippled him, and would have utterly daunted any one less persistent and enthusiastic than he ; and it is only by the aid of grants from scientific funds that he has been able to complete his third volume.
Nevertheless, by great sacrifices he has given to the world, at the cost of many thousand dollars, what is on the whole the finest series of illustrations of butterflies that has ever appeared in any country ; and if we take into proper account the proportion and character of the figures which illustrate the history of butterflies, we may say, incomparably the most valuable. This is due in very large measure to his good fortune and good sense in securing the services of Miss (afterward Mrs.) Mary Peart, who has not only drawn for him as needed all the illustrations of the early stages, first on paper and afterward (excepting most of the third volume) on stone, but has also drawn on stone all the butterflies of the first two volumes, excepting the five plates of the initial part. No drawings of butterflies, whether in their early stages or in the final stage, have ever been made which surpass these for faithful portrayal, delicate finish, and artistic arrangement, and they have seldom been equaled anywhere.
The work makes no pretense at being a complete treatise, and the butterflies are not treated in systematic order. It was proposed at the start “ to publish a sufficient number of new or hitherto unfigured or disputed species.” No Hesperids are treated of, and only a few Lycænids, which are confined to the earlier parts. It is curious, also, to notice that the Satyrids, which figure so largely in the last volume, occupying indeed nearly half the plates, were not considered at all in the first volume, and but slightly in the second. Great prominence is given to the genera Argynnis (33 species), Chionobas (19), Colias (15), and Papilio (14), and reasonably so, for they are dominant groups of wide distribution, the species of which are much disputed. In all, one hundred and sixty - five species are illustrated (about a fourth of our known fauna), referred to twenty-eight genera,—more than half the genera and nearly two thirds the species being Nymphalidæ ; but it should be remembered that the author uses genera in a very broad sense, while his attitude toward species is rather the reverse.
In his announcement in the first part, Mr. Edwards said, “ It is a matter of regret that in so few instances I shall be able to say anything of the larvæ.”Until the seventh part of his work (1871) no figure of any of the early stages appeared on his plates ; but since then only two parts have been issued (out of thirty-four) in which some early stages are not shown, and more than half of the plates are used to some extent for their illustration. The reason for this is largely a happy discovery by Mr. Edwards, in 1870, that by imprisoning gravid females alive over their food-plant they could be persuaded to lay any number of eggs. This discovery has completely changed our mode of studying the life-histories, and placed us in this country well in advance of our European brethren, who have been slow to adopt this facile method ; one instance of this will shortly be given. By experiment he also proved that caterpillars can be reared to maturity under conditions very different from those natural to them ; so that in his retired little corner in the Kenawha Valley, in West Virginia, he has been able to rear, and so to draw and study in every stage, butterflies from such distant and varied points as the Rocky Mountains, California, British Columbia, Canada, and Texas, simply by having packages of fresh-laid eggs sent him through the mail by collectors at these points. It seems to have been of little hindrance that his artist lived at Philadelphia, more than three hundred miles away ; for she too had her vivarium with its tiny inhabitants, which were fed on plants constantly forwarded by her indefatigable patron.
To this discovery, and particularly to Mr. Edwards’s persistence in carrying it out, we owe our present minute knowledge of a very large proportion of our butterflies. They are now easily studied from the egg onward, and though failures perplex and thwart us, patience and perseverance can win the entire field at no very distant day. A previous knowledge of the food-plant is desirable, and in many cases essential, but that can be learned in the field by carefully watching the female at laying-time. Mr. Edwards has thus put every part of the country under contribution. No better illustration of this can be given than by citing Chionobas (the snow-rover, to translate the term), a genus of butterflies peculiar to very elevated regions and the far north. Up to the present time hardly a figure has been published of the early stages of any European species. On the other hand, Mr. Edwards has given a complete, or almost complete series of figures (amounting in all to two hundred and sixty) of twelve of our species, besides partial series of two others, and nearly every one of these is given by him for the first time. Yet not one of them has Mr. Edwards seen alive in its native haunts; each had to be specially sought for by some agent on high mountain top, or region distant—often very distant — from human habitation and difficult of access. The agent had to remain on the inclement or wild spot long enough, often days, to secure eggs freely laid by an imprisoned female, whose moods are dependent on sunshine and a certain warmth. This is but one instance out of many of our author’s indomitable perseverance.
But if Mr. Edwards has done so much in pointing out the road to successful study of the histories and life-stages of butterflies, he has placed us under deeper obligation by the generous way in which he has translated his efforts into pictorial representation. Allusion has been made to the large proportion of plates illustrating the histories. It, is of more significance that these histories are shown in such wonderful and almost lavish detail. No less than sixty-nine species, or nearly forty-two per cent, are so illustrated, belonging to twenty-four of the twenty-eight genera, and there are nearly eleven hundred figures of the early stages, mostly colored, or an average of over fifteen to each species. Figures of the butterfly are also given with equal generosity, to show variation of color or markings, or to illustrate polymorphic species. There are more than eight hundred and fifty colored figures of butterflies, or an average of more than five figures for each species represented ; and it is just the butterflies whose life-histories are shown in the fullest detail that are most lavishly illustrated in the perfect stage. There are indeed ten butterflies (belonging lo seven different genera) which average sixteen figures each of the butterfly and twenty-two of the early stages, the climax being reached in Lycæna pseudargiolus, of which thirtyseven figures of the butterfly are given and thirty-five of the early stages ; no other butterfly in any part of the world has ever received such copious treatment as this.
This wonderful picture-book of nature has done even more for us, for it has been the means the author has taken of depicting his highly interesting and important discoveries in dimorphism and polymorphism, the minutest details in proof of which are given in the text. These discoveries have been a fruitful stimulus to similar studies in all parts of the world, and in consequence the present work may already he regarded as a classic, Mr. Edwards’s patient investigation, year after year, of Papilio ajax, Grapta interrogationis, Grapta comma, Phyciodes tharos, and Lycæna, pseudargiolus, and his trip to Colorado, when past seventy years of age, for the purpose of working out on the spot the complicated story of Papilio bairdii-oregonia, can but elicit our warmest enthusiasm. They have placed science under deep obligation to him.
May it not also he said that this really sumptuous work has its place in quickening a popular interest in the study of insect life ? As seen in public libraries it ought to arouse the latent enthusiasm of the young, even more perhaps than the orderly arrangement of preserved specimens of the same butterflies ; for in looking at the several stages, brought together on the same plate, and in reading the text, one is in imagination in a wellordered museum, under the guidance of the director. It is from hours thus spent that contagious interest spreads.
Although Mr. Edwards has arrived at an age when it is hardly fair to expect that he will feel inclined to continue this costly publication, it is scarcely to he looked for that he will intermit labors that have been the enjoyment of his life. Some means should be found by his friends for the issue through existing agencies of the considerable store of unpublished material still in his hands, the incomparable work of Mrs. Peart. We can but hope that some way may be found for its publication during his lifetime and under his care. The Smithsonian Institution could undertake no more fitting task.
- The Butterflies of North America. By W. H. EDWARDS, In three volumes. With 152 Colored Plates. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1868-1897.↩