And by making the short trip from the Queen’s Gallery to London’s Natural History Museum, visitors can see many of the insects that Merian herself witnessed and painted in her famous book. The museum is once again staging its Sensational Butterflies show and it is a wonderful experience for adults and children alike.
Maria Merian would have been overjoyed to see such a display for not only are there lepidoptera here from South America but also from the tropical forests of Central America, Africa and Asia. The museum has set up a butterfly-friendly environment of tropical plants, vines and foliage and visitors can study them close-up with the aid of a magnifier, picking out details of wing structure and features not normally seen by the naked eye.
“Butterflies can see a wider spectrum of colours than us, and have evolved colour schemes to communicate with each other or as a warning to predators as a surviving strategy” says Dr Blanca Huertas, the museum’s Senior Curator of butterflies. “Sensational Butterflies gives you a glimpse of the great diversity of colour and pattern in these beautiful and delicate creatures.”
You need to be very observant to find eggs amongst the greenery but that’s because the female needs to keep them – and the tiny caterpillars curled up inside – from hungry predators. Hairy sensors on her legs enable her to find the best place to lay them and a butterfly’s antennae are more like a nose, helping to detect a wide range of smells. Some butterflies sense sound with a tiny, funnel-shaped organ beneath their wings which is only visible with a microscope.
One fascinating exhibit is the emerging room where chrysalises from the tropical climes hang in species-defined rows until they release themsleves as fully-grown butterflies. Centuries after Maria Merian, it is still a strange and miraculous sight. ”How you suddenly get from a larva that looks like a worm or grub into this winged adult is amazing and it is still a thing that we don’t fully understand today,” explains George McGavin. “But there has to be a stage between the larva and the adult in which all the organs of the insect are transformed. So inside a chrysalis the organs of the larva will be broken down almost into a kind of ‘soup’ and areas in this soup will form a focus from which the adult organs will eventually grow.
“I remember being a kid of eight or nine seeing this happen for the first time and for Maria it would have been just the same…Three hundred years on from her work we’re only now just beginning to understand the hormonal changes, what goes on inside a chrysalis to make that incredible change happen.”
The show is full of amazing facts. For instance, humans have between 640-850 muscles in their bodies, but a tiny caterpillar has around 4,000. They contract and distend their bodies in sequence to push blood from their rear muscles to the front so they can move forward to find new food sources. Some grow so big on their food that they can shed their caterpillar skin up to five times before emerging as a butterfly. And whereas a caterpillar will use its mouth to chew on leaves and plants, a butterfly extends a hidden tube to suck up nectar, the liquid food it lives on.
These are two very different but nevertheless inspiring shows and the Natural History Museum and the Queen’s Gallery are combining to run a two-day painting and sketching course at the gallery in June called Metamorphosis under the microscope. Guided by entomologists and a professional artist and illustrator, the aim is to produce ‘a detailed and unique piece of art, charting stages of [the] amazing process from egg to adult butterfly.’
All the photos of butterflies were taken at the Sensational Butterflies exhibition so to see them in all their glory and to follow in Maria Merian’s footsteps, see the links below and marvel as she did at their fragile beauty.
Queen’s Gallery: Maria Merian’s Butterflies
Natural History Museum: Sensational Butterflies
Queen’s Gallery/NHM creative course weekend: