Mau armed us with nets, vials, and plastic bags—the weapons of rookie insect collectors—and turned us loose in the botanical garden. Divided into five teams of two, we stalked various insects through the rows of bromeliads and palms. I was teamed up with Natalie, an aspiring scientist from Occidental College in Los Angeles. We caught whatever we found. Grasshoppers and ants and beetles and butterflies (or were they moths?) and little beady-eyed things with skinny, curly noses and long, mechanical legs. Basically, if it buzzed, we bagged it.
We had a butterfly battle. A beautiful blur of blue in the sun caught our eye and drew us into a clearing. There we saw a butterfly haphazardly flitting about. An elusive blue Morpho, maybe? I’d never seen one before, but I’d heard that they were a magnificent blue—and difficult to catch. We chased it, but its flight pattern was totally disorienting. It blinked in the air like a bright blue strobe light. Our net slashed the air, always a half second behind it. But we stayed with it and Natalie tracked it to where it was resting under a heart-shaped Anthurium leaf. I dashed at it with my net and sent the fronds a-bobbing. We inspected the net and saw the beating of fragile blue wings. Got it! Gingerly, we took it out of the net, folded it into a wax paper bag to protect its scales, and took it back to the lab to analyze it.
Back at the lab we popped our captives in a freezer for five minutes or so to slow them down. This allowed us to examine them under a microscope. Mau then handed each of us a dichotomous key and instructed us to attempt to identify them.
A dichotomous key is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure book for scientists. Are your butterfly’s tarsal claws forked? If not, skip to step 6 to find out if your specimen is a Lycaenidae or a Papilionoidae! As you wind your way through the key, the story of your insect becomes clear.
Our insect had clubbed antenna, so it was butterfly, not a moth. It only had four walking legs, so it was probably in the family Nymphalidae. So was the Morpho! Its veins were enlarged at the base of its forewings, so it was in the subfamily Satyrinae. From there, we pinned it down to a specific species based on photographs. It was Chloreuptychia arnaea. A small brown butterfly with a reflective blue splash on its hindwings—actually not even close to a Morpho, just another Nymphalid. I grimaced, crestfallen, then laughed off our naive over-enthusiasm for certain charismatic species. We let it go and moved on to our next specimen.
Afterwards, Mau gave us our first assignment of the semester: catch and identify ten insects. Over the next few days, I went out into the garden, armed again with my science weapons and collected more specimens. I followed the various keys to identify Geometridae moths (yawn), Chrysomelidae beetles (ladybugs and friends), Apidae bees (all the friendly bees, really), and Nymphalidae butterflies (brush-footed butterflies). I picked up a lot of technical anatomical knowledge along the way: the tarsal formulae are the number of segments on the foot of a insect; the elytra is the hardened set of forewings that a beetle hides its hindwings under; ocelli are the small eyelets that detect differences in light intensity; the protonum is the hard protective cover that shields the thorax.
Each time I finished identifying an insect, I’d think a little more fondly of it. I felt I could relate to it better because I had a name for it, a way to talk about it, and some idea of how it connects to its kin. Because I could file my butterfly into a drawer of characteristics known as Satyrinae, I could reach into that drawer and pull out knowledge that has been accumulated about its habits: it feeds on rotting fruit and fungi; it will lay a single egg at a time; its eggs are often parasitized by wasps.
Naming and identifying transforms the unfamiliar into the recognizable. The first question we ask a new acquaintance is, “What’s your name?” This is how we make friends out of strangers. Now the forest is a bit more friendly and a bit less strange.
But I’d be lying if I ended the story here. Because I think back to our false Morpho and the disappointment I felt when I learned what it really was. Before I identified it, I was excited about it. Afterwards, I wasn’t. Why the about face? The butterfly was exactly the same arrangement of carbon before and after I identified it. It didn’t alter its behavior or its coloration. I just couldn’t file it away into the drawer of characteristics called Morpho.I’m not sure that my names have any bearing on the external world. The only thing they change is me. My naming had stripped me of my appreciation for what fundamentally was and replaced that appreciation with an awareness of all it wasn’t. I had limited my perception, turned an individual into an idea, a being into a specimen. The butterfly itself doesn’t care the slightest whether I call it Morpho or Satyrid. When it sails over fern fronds, its scales still shine the same.
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