red flannel pantry

creative pursuits in the kitchen, garden, library and sewing room

painted ladies and E.O. Wilson

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While I replaced nectar in the hummingbird feeders this morning, this little butterfly swooped and circled around me. I looked her up on the Missouri Department of Conservation website and learned that she is a painted lady. She was smaller than a monarch or a swallowtail, and I can’t say I ever noticed this type of butterfly before. I love the googly eyes on her hindwings.

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Coincidentally, I recently read about painted ladies. Last week I finished Letters to a Young Scientist by E.O. Wilson, the Pulitzer Prizewinning biologist. In a series of letter-essays, Wilson gives advice to young aspiring scientists as well as recounts his own career trajectory. While living in Washington, DC in the 1930s as a boy, he became fascinated with butterflies, collecting them and visiting the insect collections at the National Museum of Natural History. He writes,

Returning in 1940 with my family to Mobile, I plunged into the rich new fauna of butterflies. The semitropical climate and nearby swamps were a close realization of my earlier dreams. To the red admirals, painted ladies, great spangled fritillaries, and mourning cloaks characteristic of the more northern climes I added snout butterflies, Gulf fritillaries, Brazilian skippers, great purple hair streaks, and several magnificent swallowtails–giant, zebra, spicebush.

Aren’t those wonderfully descriptive names?

I enjoyed reading about Wilson’s path to entomology (his true passion is ants) and his philosophy, distilled from decades as a scientist, researcher, teacher and mentor, as to what makes a good scientist. It’s not being a math whiz (though having some mathematical competence is necessary). Rather, it’s finding what “you are interested in and that stirs passion and promises pleasure from a lifetime of devotion,” being restless and curious, and being willing to try something no one else has ever thought of or dared.

At this point in my life, it’s a little late to begin a career as a scientist! But as a citizen-scientist, I can continue to observe, marvel and learn in my own backyard.

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