The Study of insects, spiders and their kin has come a long way since they first came to the attention of thinkers of the ancient world. An account of migrating plague locusts is to be found in the book of Exodus, written about 1500 BC, which tells of a plague of these insects in Egypt. Yet even before the writing of the Book of Exodus, about 2350 BC, a locust was depicted upon the wall of an Egyptian tomb of the 6th Dynasty [about 2625-2475 BC], and from the 7th century BC there is an Assyrian bas-relief showing locusts being brought to the table of King Asshurbanipal as part of the menu.
Upon the wall of an Egyptian tomb dating to around 1000 BC is the painting of a prince hunting waterfowl in a boat. As he prepares to hurl a boomerang at a flock of birds taking flight from reeds, a butterfly is shown to one side. Its markings and orange colour are unmistakable; it is a Wanderer Butterfly, a world-renowned migrant species in modern times. The ancient Chinese made studies of insects as did the classical Greeks, but we can thank the Anglican monks of 12th century Britain for turning the study of insects, spiders and their kin into a science. In finely executed illustrations in illuminated manuscripts they described and named a variety of species.
By the time of Henry V111 butterflies and moths had caught the attention of lords and ladies of the Court, who made it their pastime to collect, and display in a crude fashion, species which, sad to say, are today either totally extinct in Britain, or else very rare, due to indiscriminate land development, pollution, and the depredations of unscientific collectors [as apart from researchers]. It is known that Henry V111 rewarded his courtiers with a gold sovereign for capturing butterflies for his collection. Despite the crude collecting, killing and display methods of those times, the early collectors had, through keen observation, discovered the intricate life-cycles of a number of secretive species of ‘blues’ and ‘coppers’.
The first known book on British, as well as European insects was Sir Theodore de Mayerne’s Theatrum Insectorum, which he published in 1634. Sir Theodore de Mayerne was a physician to Charles 1 and a contemporary of Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, who was killed at the first battle of Newbury fighting on the Royalist side, and who is noted for having once stated that he “pitied unlearned gentlemen on a rainy day”. Other famous works followed, each adding to the list of British and continental species; most notable of these was “The Aurelian”, by Moses Harris in 1766. In those days, as the science of Entomology dawned, collectors called themselves ‘Aurelians’; a name derived from the golden [aureolus] chrysalis of some butterfly species.
By the time of the Napoleonic wars, the study of insects was becoming more refined, with improvements in the killing, setting, display and preservation of specimens and collections as a whole. For example, in the days of Moses Harris, collectors used the ‘Batfowler’, favoured by farmers to catch bats or birds in their orchards, which consisted of two hockey-like bent sticks to which was sewn a deep gauze bag 5 to 6 feet long. The collector used both hands to swing the contraption, bringing the sticks together and thus closing the net when a specimen was caught. The ‘Batfowler’ was used well into the early part of the 19th century, until replaced by the hoop net of today.
In those days the modern killing jar did not exist and specimens were killed in the net by pinching of the thorax with thumb and forefinger, or placed in a box of crushed camphor leaves, whose fumes eventually killed the specimen. Camphor would be used also as a preservative. The coming Age of Darwin would see Entomology rise to become one of the major sciences of modern times. Australia, to be sure, has its own history of Entomology, as does neighbouring New Zealand. 382 species have been recorded from Australia and its island state of Tasmania, with just 27 from New Zealand, 12 being immigrants, leaving 15 native species, although that country has 1,000 moth species.
The first insects known to have been recorded in Australia were termites and bushflies, whose unwelcome attentions were vividly described by both Pelsaert  and Dampier  during visits by these explorers to our shores. The first butterflies to be collected in Australia were those gathered by Banks and Solander, naturalists of Captain Cook’s Endeavour, when the Endeavour arrived in Botany Bay on the afternoon of 29th April 1770 and remained until 7th May. The Banks collection still preserved in the British Museum of Natural History, contains 715 butterflies of 462 species including 37 Australian species.
There is little doubt that the most significant contribution to our knowledge of Australian butterflies, was made by one man, Dr G A Waterhouse [1877-1950]. Although since his passing a number of new species have been identified, and a considerable amount of scientific research into butterfly and other insect genetics has been carried out, particularly into variation. The author has also devoted many years research into variation studies, particularly upon a good many of the 130 or more Blue Mountains butterfly species.
Insect migration has a prominent place in these researches, and from 1963 to 1965 I assisted in the tagging of hundreds of Wanderer, Painted Lady and Caper White butterflies, as part of the butterfly migration studies undertaken by the Australian Museum Sydney. The reasons for this phenomenon among many species of butterflies, moths and other insects [which is similar to many species of bird, animal and fish species worldwide] has perplexed researchers for generations and is still not yet completely understood. A good example is the migratory habits of the Wanderer.
This species is related to a number of ‘tiger’ and ‘crow’ butterflies [subfamily Dinainae] grouped within the Family Nymphalidae, which contains a number of prominent migratory species, of the subfamily Nymphalinae, namely the Australian Painted Lady, Vanessa kershawi [McCoy], and also the European Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui [Linnaeus], which is found widespread throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, beyond which it is rare or absent from South America.
In south-east Asia it is found from India to Sri Lanka, Malaya and Sumatra. Some of these butterflies have been known to cross the Indian Ocean, reaching Perth, where the first known Australian specimens were captured. W.E. Wright took a specimen in Perth in January 1958, and during the 1970’s other specimens have been found flying commonly around Bunbury and Rottenest Island, south Western Australia. This species looks likely to become well established here, and perhaps eventually spread elsewhere in Australia. The European Red Admiral, Vanessa Atalanta [Linnaeus], which also reaches south-east Asia, has been reported seen on-and-off and captured in the Perth area over the years.
The Wanderer, or Monarch Butterfly is the world’s most travelled migrant of its kind and it has spread wherever its food plant [Milkweed] grows. It spread from North America to the Hawaiian Islands about 1854 and by 1870 it had spread through the Pacific Islands to Australia, with some earlier arrivals [such as a sighting by a Dr Ramsay at Ashfield, Sydney in 1856] prior to that year.
In America the Wanderer or Monarch migrates regularly around late Autumn [Fall], southwards to overwinter in Florida, Texas, California and Mexico - vast, uncountable numbers - and there are several locations near the coast containing trees which are used year after year by the roosting butterflies.
At Pacific Grove, California an ordinance has been passed protecting the butterflies from human interference, because the arrival of massive numbers of Wanderers each year attracts tourists from all over the United States.
In the Spring the roosting colonies begin breaking up as the butterflies fly northwards, producing broods along the way. It has been found that up to four broods are produced each summer and the descendants of the spring migrants move south again when Autumn comes.
In Australia a number of over-wintering tree sites are known in the Sydney district and in the Mt Lofty Ranges near Adelaide, South Australia.
A common myth is that butterflies only live a day or two and die. In fact, the shortest lifespan on the wing for some species is a few weeks, while others live up to six months. Breeders of butterflies have found some species live up to a year on the wing, particularly the Wanderer. In eastern Australia, one annual migration takes these butterflies from breeding grounds in south-eastern Victoria up the east coast, passing through the southern highlands south-west of Sydney, where numbers of roosting trees occur, they mate and lay eggs on the way. They continue on, eventually reaching over-wintering trees in the Brisbane area and south-east Queensland.
With the onset of spring the hordes of Wanderers begin to stir and commence a return flight south. However their lifespan is just about over and they die on the way. Yet, their young, laid as eggs on the way north have hatched as larvae, gone through the pupa stage and hatched as butterflies. They in turn fly north, eventually to reach the very same trees their parents once occupied. The mystery is: they have never known their parents, so how are they able to locate the very same trees that their parents once occupied?
The tagging experiment carried out by The Australian Museum, Sydney Entomologists, assisted by numerous other researchers, including this author, has helped unravel some of the mystery surrounding butterfly migration, and it is suspected by many researchers that individual butterflies lay down scent trails, which their offspring are able to detect and follow even months later. The Wanderer or Monarch Butterfly is a sturdy insect, enabling it to undertake the great migratory flights that have seen it spread out across the earth. They have been clocked at as much as over 30 miles an hour, so are fast flyers.