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Insect supreme

Book>> The Book of Indian Butterflies by Issac Kehimkar Bombay Natural History Society and Oxford University Press Price Rs 1,500

By Ramesh Raut
Published: Wednesday 15 April 2009


The word butterfly has interesting origins. The winged beauties get their name from the yellow brimstone butterfly of Europe that is first seen in the early spring or "butter" season? The Anglo-Saxons used the word 'butterfloege' because their most common butterfly was the yellow brimstone butterfly. In fact there are very few living creatures that have such colourful names. Consider the names of a few butterfly species Jezebel, Chapman's Cupid and Harlequin. Rarely are monikers in the English language this imaginative.

The English took their love for the winged beauties to the colonies. But they were not the pioneers of butterfly study in India. This credit goes to a Danish medical doctor Johan Gerhard Koenig.In the late 18th century, Koenig made extensive collections of plants, butterflies and other insects. In 1767, as a naturalist to the Nawab of Arcot, the Danish doctor collected butterflies from south India and Sri Lanka. Thirty five of the butterfly species in Koenig's collection were probably the first ever scientifically-described ones. They are still preserved in the Zoological Museum of Copenhagen.

These are among the interesting nuggets one gleans from Issac Kehimkar's The Book of Indian Butterflies. The book describes 735 of the 1,500 butterfly species found in the Indian subcontinent. Lavishly illustrated, the book is a labour of love.

After an introductory section that covers basic butterfly biology, there are short pieces on behaviour. The entry on each species includes its wingspan, status, distribution, habit and habitat. This is followed by a key to common butterflies, which is most useful for amateurs and budding butterfly watchers.

Down to Earth But the most delightful section is the one on photographing butterflies. Did you know that the butterflies are the most camera-friendly between 7 and 9 in the morning? But do use your camera flash to get sharper details. Just interested in spotting butterflies? A blooming rose or a showy dahlia will not be of much use, but lantana growing wild along the road will have plenty of butterflies. A lemon plant or a curry leaf plant will bring the Common Mormon and Lime Butterfly to lay eggs.

The book abounds in information such as these. It even tells you how to plan a butterfly garden in your backyard patch.

Abhinav Rathi is a filmmaker

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