Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Entomology collections manager Christy Bills shows a Maack's swallowtail butterfly from Japan that will be on display at the Utah Museum of Natural History Saturday.

Oppressed by grungy air and snowy ground? Then head to the Utah Museum of Natural History on Saturday for a jaunt forward in time to the bright colors of summer.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the museum will display scores of glass-topped drawers filled with mounted butterflies and moths. The delicate insects range from white and orange to pale green to iridescent violet — and about every other hue known to the prism.

The 9,000 specimens are the gift of Jacque Wolfe, a retiree living in South Salt Lake who has collected the beautiful bugs since 1948. The new butterflies double the size of the museum collection.

On Saturday they will be available at a special showing, put on because the museum won't be able to display many of them again until a new building is constructed sometime in the future. Wolfe will answer questions, as will Christy Bills, entomology collections manager.

Certain butterflies like monarchs are poisonous to birds, Wolfe explained during a visit to the museum (located on the U. campus at the top of 200 South). Others that are not toxic may mimic the nasty-tasting ones. To a bird not equipped with a magnifying glass, the two species look identical.

One gulp of a poisonous butterfly, and the bird learns never to dart after anything that looks like it.

In a display drawer, eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies were arranged in rows, males on the left and females on the right. The males were bright yellow. But females mimicked a pipevine swallowtail, a dark species that tastes nasty to birds.

"The males don't mimic it, but the females do, because the females are more valuable," Bills said. A female butterfly may lay 100 eggs at a time.

You might think males are worth protecting anyway. But in the cold calculations of nature, that turns out to be counter-productive.

If a bird's buffet table is loaded with a fine spread of butterflies that look alike, a few poisonous but most not, the predator may not run into a sour morsel right away. It could learn to enjoy eating butterflies of that coloration, and not steer clear of the type.

"Then it (mimicking) doesn't work," Wolfe said. "There have to be more poison ones than the mimics."

This is Wolfe's second butterfly collection. The first was destroyed in a house fire years ago. The blaze made him concerned about the new collection's survival, so he wanted it placed where it would be safe.

"The reason I did this now is because I had all this in my little house and I had no more room, for one thing," he said. He intends to continue collecting butterfly eggs, larvae and pupae and rearing them. Then he will give the adults to the U. to round out the collection.

Usually, Wolfe doesn't chase after his quarry with butterfly nets. He's part of a new generation of scientific collectors. He visits the museum's herbarium to study plants that butterflies eat and learn where they grow. At the right time of year, he will travel to those localities and collect butterfly eggs.

Then he goes through the painstaking efforts of raising them to adulthood. For some species, that takes six years.

"It's all very labor-intensive," he said.

Bills said Wolfe is donating time to catalog the details of his collection and will go through the museum's earlier collection to "help us update it and get it organized a little better."

Wolfe has provided detailed notes that will help scholars. They tell when and where the butterfly was collected, by whom (some are trades), at what stage of the insect's life it was gathered, what food plant it was found on, what food it was reared on, and when it emerged as an adult.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com