Sunday, December 13, 2015

Butterflies: A Great Gift Book, But....

First of all, may I say how genuinely flattered I am that publishers think so highly of this blog that they are now offering to send me new books to review here. Let me also say that this sometimes puts me between a rock and a hard place. There is seldom a direct conflict of interest, but it is sometimes difficult to be as objective as I would like. Take for example the new book Butterflies, written by Ronald J. Orenstein, with photographs by Thomas Marent.

Butterflies is published by Firefly Books Ltd., a Canadian-based company noted for their visually stunning pictorial works, of which this "coffee table book" is no exception. Indeed, their press never disappoints. The organization of this book is straightforward and comprehensive, addressing the most important aspects of butterfly classification, life history, diet, and their role in the environment at large. The last chapter addresses moths, which ironically is a problem I have with the publisher, not the book. More on that later.

This book got my attention with this assertion: "Butterflies are moths." Not only is this accurate, it is brave. In three words, the author turns all our usual assumptions about Lepidoptera on their heads. I could recommend this book for that reason alone, but there is more.

Orenstein's text is perfectly tailored for a general audience and educated reader. Scientific terms are defined within the text, but in a way that still renders the narrative smooth and engaging. This is not easy to accomplish and the author deserves great credit for his skill. The words are in white, on a black page, which lends an elegant air to the book, but may or may not make reading more difficult for someone with visual difficulties.

Photographer Thomas Marent is based in Switzerland and, unfortunately, that bias shows. An overwhelming number of images are of species found in Switzerland, or Europe in general, and this is a typical flaw with most popular entomology books produced outside of the U.S. I could write forever about the shortcomings of U.S. publishers when it comes to nature and science titles, but back to this particular book. Images of butterflies from Australia, Peru, Africa, and other locations around the globe are also included. In fact, the location where each image was shot is always given in the caption, a refreshing detail that needs to become standard for all such books.

Now to expose my own bias. Butterflies, as a book subject, have been done to death. The phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" comes immediately to mind whenever I am confronted by yet another volume devoted to them. Butterflies are already popular. Publishers are loathe to take risks by approving proposals for books on other kinds of insects, even in the face of a growing popular appreciation of moths (the ones that aren't butterflies). There needs to be a book like Butterflies that is devoted to moths. Period. I could guarantee it would be a best-seller or nearly so, in the hands of the right author.

Despite my inherent reservations when I received the book, Butterflies exceeded my expectations and I can honestly give it a ringing endorsement. It is also priced reasonably considering the quality and quantity of imagery. You will find more images and another opinion on Colin Knight's blog. He also includes helpful links to Ron Orenstein's blogs.

Happy holidays, friends!


  1. In 2015 Ontario got its first regional guide to butterflies and it was well done. It is the defacto field guide for Ontario and no more need to be written. Dragonflies have been well done as well and Ed Lam's upcoming book on dragonflies will close the chapter on odonata in my area (central Ontario). What I really want to see is a field guide to hoverflies. One is in the works.

  2. Hi Eric -

    Just a note to thank you for your kind review - it means a lot coming from a genuine entomologist (I have your Kaufman guide). I am certainly not one. And I would love to do the moth book (or a similar book on dragonflies!) if I got the chance. Of course the last chapter of the butterfly book is on moths - or should I say on non-papilionid moths? - but I admit it barely scratches the surface. One has to do what one's publisher wants.

    You mentioned my blogs - in case you ever look at my travel blog "A Wandering Naturalist" ( you will see that it includes a lot of (mostly Malaysian) insects. I am not at all sure that all my identifications are correct, so if you see any howlers please let me know.

    Best regards - Ron (

    1. You are most welcome. Thank you for doing such a great job!