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The Butterfly of Doom

Or so it was named by the late 19th-century Russians — leave it to them to label a butterfly as such. It’s definitely the first time I’ve ever heard Butterfly and Doom used in the same phrase; there has to be heavy-metal band with this name out there somewhere.

Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), Florida Everglades

A Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) rests in the Florida Everglades

Zebra Longwing Butterfly (Heliconius charitonius)

Florida’s abundant all-year blooms provide enough butterfly chasing, even for me. The most common encounter is the Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius), found throughout the hardwood hammocks, swamps, and Everglades — and designated the official state butterfly of Florida.

Found in North America, Asia, and Europe, territorial male Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) can be found in the same location day-to-day — and as a testament, the images below were shot on separate days, in the same clump of foliage. Red Admirals are dark brown, with brick-red bars and white markings on the tips of the forewings. Although known to be quick fliers, they’re considered a perfect companion for gardens, being very people-friendly, and known to perch on humans.

Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), Florida Wetlands

The Butterfly of Doom terrifies all

The Red Admiral is considered the favorite butterfly of author and amateur lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977); it’s mentioned throughout his writings, taking a prominent role in the 1962 novel Pale Fire. When scholar Alfred Appel, Jr. asked why he was so fond of Vanessa atalanta, Nabokov replied: “Its coloring is quite splendid and I liked it very much in my youth. Great numbers of them migrated from Africa to Northern Russia, where it was called ‘The Butterfly of Doom’ because it first appeared in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seem to read ‘1881’. There is something interesting in the Red Admirable’s ability to travel so far” (Strong Opinions, p. 170).

According to Pale Fire‘s character — poet John Shade — the original Old English name for the butterfly was actually Red Admirable, which was later degraded to The Red Admiral. In the novel, Vanessa atalanta appears as Shade’s heraldic butterfly, as seen in the verses:

Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly… (lines 269–271, p. 42–43)

Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), Florida Wetlands

Nabokov’s favorite in the Florida wetlands

Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), Florida Wetlands

A Red Admirable kindly displaying for the butterfly-chaser

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54 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great shots! Love the name Butterfly of Doom.

    May 17, 2013
    • Thanks so much! 🙂 Isn’t that name fantastic? There has to be a use for it somewhere, honestly….

      May 17, 2013
      • I like it as a heavy metal band. I did some quick searching and couldn’t find anyone who already has it. After all, there was Iron Butterfly.

        May 17, 2013
      • Hah, true!!

        I just found a Butterfly of Doom on MySpace (they still use that?) and a SUPER Butterfly of Doom. B/C a regular Butterfly of Doom isn’t quite enough.

        May 17, 2013
  2. You’ve given me something else to watch for! thank you!

    May 17, 2013
    • Ah, wonderful!! I hope you see them in your garden — I’ve yet to see them in mine! I always see them on my hikes or in the wetlands. 🙂

      May 17, 2013
  3. Lovely photos – you always get such beautiful detail. It looks like one of them has ragged edges on its wing. I wonder if it escaped being gobbled up by a bird or something.

    May 17, 2013
    • Ah, thanks so much!

      I noticed that too…. I always wonder if they’re at the end of their cycle (sniff), or just tattered due to our sometimes-tough weather (and as you say, predators).

      May 18, 2013
  4. Beautiful photos as always. The last guy looks like it has put on a few miles fluttering along. 🙂

    May 17, 2013
    • Thank you!!

      Another blogger just commented on this as well (you’d actually love her work — Denise — she’s an artist and nature writer working out of the PNW!). Despite the natural cycle of things, a part of me sighs when I see those tattered wings.

      May 18, 2013
  5. That almost jumps off the page.

    May 17, 2013
    • Thanks so much… I was lucky with them, catching them in their usual spot!

      May 18, 2013
  6. Excellent photos!

    May 17, 2013
    • Thank you so much! They’re just lovely — and relatively new to me. 🙂

      May 18, 2013
  7. So beautiful photos. The red admiral even visited me one autumn a couple of years ago, they don’t come this far north very often..

    May 17, 2013
    • Thanks so much!

      It’s fascinating, a few people have commented on their wide distribution — I had no idea they could even be found in the colder environments (thus Nabokov). Some of our guys, for instance, don’t leave South Florida / Florida! So this was interesting.

      May 18, 2013
  8. Great photos of amazing critters!

    May 17, 2013
    • Thanks so much — I was lucky to catch them in their happy place. 🙂

      May 18, 2013
  9. Butterflies … So fragile … So beautiful … The butterfly of doom reminds a little bit of a butterfly, that i think is called Small Tortoiseshell …
    Interesting facts as well ! // Maria

    May 17, 2013
    • Ah interesting! I have to look up the Tortoiseshell — I’m not terribly knowledgeable on butterflies outside of my immediate area, unfortunately. Even then, I have to look them up sometimes, hee! 🙂

      May 18, 2013
  10. I’ve been vaguely aware of butterfly cover art on some of Nabokov’s books, and remembered, just barely, some mentions of butterflies in his work, but what I didn’t know is that he truly was another Charles Torrey Simpson. Here’s a part of what I didn’t know, from an article in “The NY Times”:

    “[Nabokov] was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and he collected the insects across the United States. He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves…”

    Your photos are marvelous, and I’m delighted that you sent me down this little path. More exploration is called for!

    May 17, 2013
    • Ditto!! I remember the butterflies on Nabokov’s books, and the mentions therein… But nothing to this degree. Nothing!

      WOW! I had no idea. Thanks so much for sharing that passage — I’m going to share with my brother, a true Nabokov fan (but not a total Nature-spaz like myself). It will be a bit of a sibling “Neener neener” moment.

      Thanks so very much — you’re right; this really would make a great essay for deeper exploration! I was fascinated by the bits I briefly uncovered, and I’m even more intrigued now!

      May 18, 2013
  11. Beautiful images and story; you do the same as I; I often look into literature and poetry too!

    May 17, 2013
    • Thanks so very much! I absolutely loved learning about this beauty… Such fascinating historical and literary connections. Who knew?

      May 18, 2013
  12. There’s lots of juicy information here. What interested me especially was the transformation of the name from admirable to admiral, which I hadn’t heard of before. Two years ago I was surprised when I saw a photo of a red admiral on a German blog and learned that this species is widely distributed across continents.

    May 17, 2013
    • It’s funny…. Out of the entire bit, the evolution of the name from Admirable to Admiral was the most interesting thing for me, as well! (Not a stretch, I was an editor.)

      I’m not all that knowledgeable on butterflies and insects in general, but I do find it unusual that any butterfly species would have such a wide distribution — some of ours down here, for instance, don’t travel too far north. I loved learning about this guy.

      May 18, 2013
  13. Lovely lovely lovely photos as ever, dear Fey person. As for the “doom” bit (so interesting), just the other day I called my little butterfly hair-clips “attack butterflies.” Because when I get a hug from somebody taller than I, the clips bite into both them and me scalp. Heh heh ouch. I still wear (love) them. Just call me (and my hugging friends) fashion victims. Check it out. http://www.goodsearch.com/search-web?utf8=%E2%9C%93&keywords=butterfly+hair+clips

    May 17, 2013
    • Thanks so very much!!

      And…. HAHAHAH! I love it! I actually have the same things — 2 little metal butterflies with stones, I love them! But man, they ARE hard to wear (especially now with my temporary hair fiasco). Fashion victims. Heh.

      May 18, 2013
  14. Very nice shots of the Admirals! I’m fascinated by the Zebra too, haveing never seen one.

    May 17, 2013
  15. Gorgeous shots and such a lovely butterfly (in spite of its name)…

    May 18, 2013
    • Hee, thanks so much! I’m still in awe of that name, too… 🙂

      May 18, 2013
  16. Impressive butterfly. Bflys are fascinating. I love it when they fly right around and stand there hoping one will touch me. A good omen.

    May 18, 2013
    • I totally agree…. I posted butterflies this week, because they were appearing for me *everywhere* — visited a conservation center for them, and then they just came in force through the week. So I had to honor them. 🙂 One couldn’t ask for a more lovely totem!

      May 18, 2013
  17. Val #

    The butterfly of doom!! Love it! 🙂 That said… I’m even more pleased at ‘Red Admirable’ as that’s what my husband and I call them. We get a lot on the iceplants when they’re in flower each year… have that to look forwards to.

    May 18, 2013
    • Isn’t that naming fabulous? Something has to be done with it…. 🙂

      I love how the name evolved, too — from Admirable to Admiral; and I love more the fact that you guys still call it ADMIRABLE. Because it’s obviously created to be admired, hee!

      May 19, 2013
  18. I think the name is cool as well. Butterfly and doom are just diametrically opposite really. I looked and looked but I think we need to send you back out to get underneath the Doom butterfly and take pic of the underside of the hind wings…I want to see the 1881!! I know that it is a terrible chore but you have to go on another hike with this assignment!! 🙂

    Lovely photos…enjoyed them tremendously!!

    May 18, 2013
    • Ohhhhh you’re so on my wavelength, lady!

      I was frustrated I couldn’t get a shot of that 1881 on the underside — as it was, I was in the shrubbery, and trying not to scare them away. 🙂 Ergh! Of course, now I’ll obsess. Must…explore…more! Darn it all.

      May 19, 2013
  19. Butterflies are such beautiful creatures; I love your photos. I also really enjoyed your background information.

    May 19, 2013
    • Thanks so very much! It was a treat learning about this guy — and the historical and literary connections! Just fascinating.

      May 20, 2013
  20. Beautiful photographs of these jewels! Very interesting information. This is the kind of stuff which should be taught in our schools!

    May 19, 2013
    • Thanks so much!

      And, I totally agree! I was amazed to learn about these historical and literary connections to this little flutterby… Even my brother, a real Nabokov fan, had no idea! Nature can be given a bum rap in our educational system, I fear.

      May 20, 2013
  21. Lovely photos of the butterflies!

    May 19, 2013
  22. Really love that Zebra one. Don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Cannot believe anyone would call a butterfly “doom”. When I was building my lodge (years ago, using only local untrained labour – they proved to be hilarious and I really should have written a book then), the one chap came running through the property shouting “Miss Susie, come quickly. Come look at the beautiful Butterflower”. I can never think of them without that name now 🙂

    May 20, 2013
  23. Dear FeyGirl,
    You are one of the blogs that I bring my son to sit on my lap and we read and look at the photos together. He loved the Zebra Longwing 😀 And I always pick up something new and interesting everytime! Thank you for the love. Hugs from us xx Sharon & Deshan

    May 21, 2013
  24. WOW, what beauties. Very interesting history lesson too. In the end I would say that atleast Red Admiral is a better name than the Butterfly of doom.even if it is not the correct name. But about the doom stuff, who can say, it is quite possible that the butterfly of that day was a seer. Life is full of so many mysteries?!

    May 21, 2013
    • Such an interesting perspective! Very true…. I do believe firmly in the concept of Animal Totems, so one never knows. 🙂 Why not bring a lovely creature into such chaos? Butterfly = Rebirth and Transformation, after all!

      May 22, 2013
  25. Such wonderful flutterbys you have captured here. You’re so fortunate to be able to enjoy such beauties. So happy you’re getting back out and enjoying your favorite place to be.

    May 29, 2013
    • 🙂 We have such lovely flutterbys — but I LOVE seeing the different ones in various parts of the world! It’s just fascinating.

      May 29, 2013

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