Moths, butterflies, silkworms, caterpillars — dumb bugs all, that is, until you hear Rick Mikula describe them.
Painstakingly delineating each of their minute physical attributes and uncanny defense mechanisms, the acclaimed “Butterfly Guy” unveiled the breathtakingly beautiful world of his gossamer-winged companions to an avid audience of young enthusiasts at the finale of the Morgantown Village Library’s Fizz, Boom, Read summer reading program on Aug. 13.
“I wasn’t always interested in butterflies,” confesses Mikula. “When I was a kid, bugs were bugs. You drove over them with your bicycles, you poked them with sticks, you put them in a jar and let them beat each other up, because after all they were only bugs.”
So what changed his mind? Apparently, a question mark, embossed bright silver on the wing of a butterfly.
“Hah! That was the coolest thing I ever saw,” he recalls, and that set him off on a quest.
“I wanted to find out what that butterfly was called. So I jumped into my car and drove out to the library, got a book on butterflies, looked it up and found out it was called the ‘Question Mark butterfly’.”
Fast forward 34 years and today Mikula raises butterflies on his farm in Hazleton as well as in Central and South America, besides also spearheading many butterfly zoos and authoring several books dedicated to his winged companions.
“I am not a butterfly collector, I don’t go out and catch every butterfly I find just so I could kill it and put it in a frame. I love them very much,” he says matter-of-factly. “I let them fly around my farm, and when they die by themselves, that is when I put them in frames.”
The average butterfly’s adult lifespan being two weeks, the ones framed aren’t always flawless.
“If you look carefully, some of them may have broken antennas and some of them I had to glue their stomachs back on because they fell apart by the time I found them.”
Live butterflies can be bought from the farm to grace occasions ranging from weddings to birthday parties, graduations and even divorces.
“I also sell them for funerals, because going as far back as 10,000 years, people believed that when they died they turned to butterflies and flew to heaven on those wings. In a lot of languages, soul and butterfly is actually the same word.”
“I do sell butterflies but only to people who won’t harm them. I also supply butterflies for movies, TV commercials, magazine ads… any excuse to use butterflies and I am there.”
At the Morgantown Village Library, he had his task cut out: to make instant butterfly experts.
“Like with anything else, if you want to get good at raising butterflies, you will have to read up all the books on butterflies,” he spells out the first rule.
“I read every butterfly book I could get my hands on. Problem is, the more books I read, the more mistakes I found in those books. Here’s an example. How many of you kids had to read the ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ in school? Now, Eric Carle is a great author but he doesn’t know anything about butterflies. And he makes a big mistake that a lot of people make. Eric Carle said that that caterpillar made a cocoon and then it became a butterfly. But that’s not true. Moth caterpillars construct a cocoon. Butterfly caterpillars become a chrysalis.”
Fascinating, informative, illustrative and humorous, within minutes into his discourse, Mikula had captured the imagination of both children and parents with effortless ease. Take defense mechanism, and the silver-spotted skipper caterpillars — also called the “poop-flingers” — are masters at fooling their adversaries, thereby steering clear of danger. Squeeze its belly and poop will go shooting about three feet.
“Wasps that want to eat these caterpillars detect them through the smell of their poop. So if they fling their poop some distance away, the wasps will go searching elsewhere, leaving the caterpillar alone. Pretty smart for a dumb bug, eh!”
A video presentation later, the audience were made privy his “Dollar Store” ideas on capturing and carefully storing butterflies using simple everyday implements available cheap or simply recycled. From plastic bottles cut in half to form effective traps for bothersome bugs, to laundry bags and picnic hamper covers serving as safe haven for collecting butterflies, the tricks came faster than a butterfly could flap its wings.
In any case, as per Mikula, even a butterfly can be bewitched into absolute stillness if only for the camera to capture a few interesting shots.
“Capture a butterfly, put it in a paper bag and put the bag in a refrigerator. Anytime it gets colder than 60 degrees a butterfly falls asleep, and inside the refrigerator it is about 40 degrees. So you put the bag with the butterfly in the refrigerator and wait for 10 minutes. When you take it out, wherever you put that butterfly, it’s going to pop its wings wide open and hold it like that for some time. You see, as it begins to warm up it’s going to slowly flap it’s wings; every flap he gets warmer and eventually his internal body temperature gets to 86 degrees and then it’s going to fly away. So till the time it gets warm enough to fly away, you can put it on your nose, you can put it on your friend’s nose, you can even put it on your dog’s nose to get that perfect picture!”
For the ladies, he offered up an ingenuous tip. “If you go someplace where they have live butterflies, wear vanilla scented perfume. Butterflies love the scent of vanilla, so if you go into a butterfly exhibit wearing vanilla scented perfume they will come to you like by magic. They are also attracted to urine and manure, but I think you’ll be much better off with the vanilla perfume!”
For sheer facts, consider this. They smell through their antennas, breath through a bunch of holes in their bellies (scientific term “spiracles”), taste with their feet, can see in a thousand different directions at once and suck up nectar using a long, straw-like feeding tube (scientific term “proboscis” that stays curled up in front of the face when not in use) – and yes, butterflies practically flourish on Gatorade. Dumb they certainly aren’t.
Candid and forthright, Mikula tells his audience, “I know these things because I am a butterfly expert, but that’s very easy to be because most people don’t know anything about butterflies. Today, if you go to any search engine in your computer and type in the words ‘butterfly expert’, I’m going to come up number one on that list. All because I played with a bunch of bugs for the last 34 years.”