People have always marvelled at the colours, patterns and designs on the wings of butterflies and moths, but there has been little attempt to decode them or recognise any great significance in them. Philip Howse explains how these living tapestries have been designed by evolution to protect insects from their principal predators, which include birds, lizards, monkeys. These insectivores, it is argued, detect their prey by perceiving small details of shape and colour rather than the 'whole picture' of the insect. With the possible exception of some people with autism, we generally overlook such emblematic features. If we look at the detail of a living butterfly in the way that a bird sees it from many different angles and perspectives, surprising images reveal themselves. There are features of owl eyes, snake heads, caterpillars, lizards, wasps, scorpions, birds' beaks and feathers to be found there. Many butterflies and moths have bizarre combinations of images on their wings and bodies which prompt comparison with the works of art of the surrealists, such as Magritte and Dali. They have a similar effect: to unsettle the way in which things are rmally perceived: to confuse and shock. The signs and symbols that appear to be so important in the animal world: details of eyes, snakes, birds, etc., are archetypal symbols in ours, but for us they carry very complex meanings. Our ability to recognise these potent symbols of danger and threat goes back to the beginnings of the human race. Over the millennia, they have been incorporated into mythologies and transformed into the Mother Goddesses of many cultures from those of Palaeolithic man to the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and the Aztecs.
Professor Philip Howse has published several books and numerous research articles on insect behaviour and ecology. He has developed novel environmentally-friendly methods for the control of insect pests, and this has been recognised by a number of awards, including a Prince of Wales Award for Innovation, and the OBE. After a career spent mainly at Southampton University during which he travelled widely setting up projects for the control of tropical insect pests, he has now retired but continues writing about the insects that have fascinated him since he was a boy.