Knee deep in mud, attacked by blood-sucking leeches and pestered by savage mosquitoes, while vainly pursuing butterflies that refuse to descend from the canopy high above – this is butterflying in the tropical rainforest.
But it doesn’t have to be. Early observers noted the propensity of butterflies to congregate at particular patches of damp earth, the so-called mud puddling effect. The reasons for this are complex – it appears that these (almost exclusively male) insects are imbibing salts and proteins, which they pass on to female insects during mating.
It was a small step from this observation to artificially creating puddling sites where the shyest specimens would venture down from the tree tops, to be collected (in ancient times), or more recently to be photographed.
Baiting for butterflies has a long history. In the UK, it was noted long ago that the Purple Emperor, Apatura iris, would descend to carrion and dung, although few other species could be tempted in the same way. In the tropics, tastes are much more catholic. A sunny spot among the trees, doused with a favourite concoction, will soon attract insects of a wide variety of species.
Recipes vary, but currently shrimp paste is a favourite, often augmented by other secret ingredients, usually involving something unpleasant and distasteful. A few years ago The Aurelian discovered a host of butterflies congregating behind a customs post on a mountain border in south-east Asia. Here, the guards on night shift had taken to urinating out of the back door rather than walking across to the toilets, in the process creating a prime puddling spot.
Interestingly, at puddling sites butterflies tend to congregate in families. This seems to be a result of visual recognition as in scientific studies, insects can be induced to puddle next to paper dummies that appear similar to their congeners.
There are downsides to baiting for photography. The best pictures are usually achieved by lying prone on the ground, in the process wallowing in the foetid bait itself.
The numbers of butterflies attracted to the bait at any one site can also become rapidly excessive, making it difficult to secure isolated shots of single insects.
But laundry bills aside, baiting will be part of the repertoire of most butterfly photographers in the rainforest and jungle.