David James became an entomologist because of his early childhood love of butterflies.
“I was an 8-year-old kid in England, and I knew what I wanted to do,” said James, an associate professor in Washington State University’s Department of Entomology. “I wasn’t interested in catching or pinning butterflies; I loved looking at them and thinking about their lives.”
Now, after a long and distinguished career, some of it spent studying his favorite animal, James’ book, “The Lives of Butterflies: A Natural History of Our Planet’s Butterfly Life,” is available to buy around the world.
Far from a textbook, James’ publication introduces everyone to the biology and ecology of butterflies, alongside large, beautiful images of many different species. The book is comprehensive, looking at caterpillars and the butterfly life cycle, in addition to covering how they feed, mate, and survive. That survival includes not only fending off natural predators but living in an era of radically changing landscapes and climates.
“Butterflies are a sensitive indicator of problems in an ecosystem,” James said. “If there are fewer butterflies, then there is less food for birds and other animals. And that chain continues up.”
James has focused on agricultural entomology throughout his career, studying how to keep pest species like spider mites and stink bugs from compromising food sources. But, over the years, his work protecting agriculture has increasingly intersected with his favorite insects.
“My hobby is butterflies,” James said. “However, its overlap with my career is considerable and growing as the concern over pollinator and other insect decline has grown. Early in my career, butterflies were less studied, but we now know how important they are in terms of healthy, functioning ecosystems.”
The book covers butterflies from around the world. Since James has lived, worked, and studied in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, he has the background necessary to write about a wide swath of species. His co-author, David Lohman, wrote the sections on tropical butterflies, an area where James doesn’t have as much expertise.
There is also a significant section on conservation, highlighting the importance of educating children on the best ways to help protect these natural wonders.
“Children today often spend less time in nature, and there’s a tendency to prevent them from touching or raising butterflies like monarchs,” James said. “The major problems facing these species are habitat destruction and climate change. Hands-on experience as children helps people care more about the existence of these creatures and be more invested in their future conservation.”
Visual appeal is what initially drew James to the insects, and it’s also what he sees as the main appeal of his book. Based on a lifetime of studying and watching his favorite flyers, the writing came almost entirely from James’ experience and knowledge. The book also includes his work to positively impact butterflies, including research on using biological controls rather than chemicals to reduce pests and creating butterfly habitats in and around vineyards.
“This really is a synopsis of my work — not just butterflies,” James said. “I hope it leads to more people taking enjoyment and a sense of wonder from these amazing insects.”