preferred now. Death takes place in what’s called a killing jar.
Some essential kit is required. You need entomologist’s forceps—sharppointed tweezers, really—to unfurl the wings without ripping them. Then insect pins and a spreading board on which to dry out the butterfly. After a few weeks it will be brittle and ready to display in a cork-lined wooden box, ideally made from mahogany. Historically, these would have been fumigated with naphthalene, the main ingredient of mothballs, another dangerous carcinogen, but now freezing the specimens for three days is the preferred method to repel the notorious anthrenus museorum, or museum beetle. You will also attach a label in neat cursive detailing where and when you found the butterfly. Then they are meticulously filed away. No serious collector would display a case on the wall, as the specimens would mottle and deteriorate very quickly. They need to be kept in darkness, and taken out only occasionally to be admired.
What inspires a human being to kill a butterfly? For non-collectors, it might be hard to fathom, but the impulse must be similar to the one that exists behind most hobbies. It is a pursuit to swallow up spare hours and it allows you to spend satisfying sums on specialist equipment. Collecting gets you out of the house, often to bucolic spots, and you are left with an exotic keepsake to remind you of summer as the nights draw in.
Still, butterfly collecting does seem a strange way to spend your days; an activity so arcane it wouldn’t totally surprise you if it was reclaimed by hipsters in Hackney. The golden age of lepidoptery—as the scientific study of butterflies and moths is known—was around the turn of the last century in Britain. Rich men (and it was almost exclusively a male pastime) would travel around the UK and the empire hunting for trophies. Their attire, typically, was tweed suits; one accessory du jour was a top hat lined with cork, so that the insects could be pinned immediately. These chaps would leap around fields swiping at the air with a fine-meshed net or they would engage local children to do the work for them for a modest fee.
Over the past 300 years, huge numbers of the great and the good have been collectors. While bombs fell during WWII, Winston Churchill planned a sumptuous butterfly garden at Chartwell, his country house in Kent. Britain’s wartime leader started at the age of six, and his drawers were filled with exotic specimens picked up on military campaigns in Sudan, Pakistan and South Africa. His dream enclosure was to feature fountains of water and honey, and he even wanted to reintroduce a large butterfly called the Black-veined White, Aporia crataegi, which had become extinct in Britain in 1925. It was never realised in his lifetime, but today 20-odd varieties of native butterflies can be found in Chartwell’s gardens.
Nabokov is the great chronicler of butterflies: both directly in poems and autobiography, and more obliquely in his fiction, including Lolita. He actually discovered some new species and named one Nabokov’s Blue, although it was latterly demoted to a subspecies. More recently, butterflies have been a leitmotif of the British artist Damien Hirst’s work. When asked in 1997 why they recurred so often in his art, he explained: “You have to find universal triggers: everyone’s frightened of glass, everyone’s frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies.”
Where there are butterflies, death is never far away. Hirst’s work ‘In and Out of Love’ (1991) was an installation in which tropical butterflies erupted out of chrysalises, pinned to boards, leaving behind a pink and gold fluid that some thought to be butterfly “blood”. In a 2012 retrospective, the work took over two rooms of the Tate Modern. Animalrights campaigners were furious when it was revealed that more than 9,000 Heliconius and Owl butterflies, which usually have a lifespan of nine months in the wild, died during the 23 weeks that the exhibition was open. Another Hirst piece, ‘I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds’ (2006)—a riff on the Bhagavadgita scripture quote made famous by J Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb—was made entirely from a kaleidoscopic arrangement of thousands of butterfly wings, covering more than five metres across and two metres high. It sold at Christie’s London auction house for SGD4.4 million in 2010.
Butterfly collecting, as nature writer Patrick Barkham once noted, is invariably “a male, if not especially masculine, preserve”. In the early days, Aurelian (literally “the golden one”) societies were only open to men, much