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Dorset Lives – The Polymoth

Lepidopterist, professor, inventor and author, Philip Howse talks to Joël Lacey about butterflies, insecticide and cigarette advertising

Professor Philip Howse is a genial and welcoming host at his home near Bridport. His conversation is that combination of deep and broad knowledge, diffidence and humour, which marks the polymath from the expert, and the expert from the dilettante. He seems a little taken aback at the success of Butterflies: Messages from Psyche, his sweeping panoramic treatise on the role of perception and deception in nature. Given Vladimir Nabokov’s view that ‘Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man’, the success is perhaps not so surprising after all, and there is little doubt that the Burton Bradstock author’s lavishly-illustrated and thought-provoking book has proven popular with scientists and critics alike.

Philip Howse was born and raised among the spoil heaps of the industrial East Midlands – a seemingly unlikely starting point for a man whose passion has been butterflies, but whilst his first sight of the marbled white, grayling and pearl-bordered fritillary were in Dorset, his love of the butterflies dates to when his mother captured a small tortoiseshell in a jam jar and asked him to come and have a look. He recalls ‘I got hooked from the moment that the tortoiseshell opened its wings.’

This fox’s head and butterfly may seem completely different at first glance, but birds and other predators may see differently to humans

This fox’s head and butterfly may seem completely different at first glance, but birds and other predators may see differently to humans

As for Dorset, that too had him hooked from when he came to Chideock and stayed at the George. ‘I first came to Dorset as a young lad and thought it was a really exotic place, there were lots of things you just didn’t find in the Midlands.’ In fact, Dorset is home to 48 (of the 54) UK-resident species of butterfly, a greater number than in any other county; some species, like the Lulworth skipper, are only found here and the range of environments is huge. As Philip puts it: ‘Dorset is a wonderful place for butterflies, from the chalk downs in the north to the heathlands of East Dorset and Purbeck. There is a tremendous range of habitats, with the variety of rocks, soils and flora here.’

It may seem a bit of a leap from this kind of appreciation of the nature of Dorset, to a book that includes imagery from ancient myths, a Marcel Duchamp urinal, and insects imitating foxes, but it demonstrates what is possibly Philip’s greatest strength, and one which is perhaps lacking a little in today’s ever-increasingly focused pure sciences: an ability to step back and take a broader, or multi-disciplinary view of science.

Philip Howse, with a friend, whose wings each contain a transparent window to make it look as if it has eyes

Philip Howse, with a friend, whose wings each contain a transparent window to make it look as if it has eyes

The book had its origins in Philip’s one-time daily commute to Southampton University past a series of billboards, which were, at that time, still showing cigarette advertising. Each day he was struck by the surreal juxtapositions of images (purple silk and scissors, pyramids and cigarette packets) and he started to ponder on whether other animals (than humans) would or could be fooled into seeing something that wasn’t there, or wasn’t what it appeared to be at first glance. He already knew that a butterfly, which has incredibly sensitive eyes when it comes to detecting the movement of predators, has the ability to go from a standing start to flying at full speed in a third of a second. Consequently he wondered just how evolution might have worked – both from the prey’s ability to mimic or resemble something else, to the predator having inherited fears of something that might give it pause before attacking a butterfly. He was also puzzled by how man has come to view art – and urinals as art – mythology, nature and the animal kingdom through the same eyes.

As well as this recent volume on butterflies, Philip is a great ally to Clive Farrell, the ‘butterfly whisperer’ and founder of the Butterfly World Project in Hertfordshire, a 27-acre site including the world’s largest butterfly biome, which will eventually house up to 10,000 tropical butterflies and hummingbirds. Philip Howse’s next book is one written for Clive as a more straightforward and accessible companion volume to the current book. After his zoological teaching and research career culminated in a chair in Biology at the University of Southampton, Philip collaborated with a fellow professor (in engineering) to create electrostatically-charged wax particles to stick pheromones to insects. This became one of the products of Exosect – a company set-up to develop his intellectual property from Southampton University and commercialise it. The system is a non-toxic contraceptive which, owing to the pheromones, confuses insects as to which sex they are so as to thoroughly disrupt their mating opportunities – which seems a bit mean, if very effective and environmentally-friendly.

Philip and Clive Farrell, the developer and driving force behind the Butterfly World Project

Philip and Clive Farrell, the developer and driving force behind the Butterfly World Project

The system has currently been applied to reducing the breeding of Yellow Stem Borer moths (which attack rice), Light Brown Apple Moth (grapes, cherries, blueberries and plums), Codling moth (apples), Clothes moth and stored product moths, five species that prey on dry goods indoors. In an age where fuels and food are getting to be in shorter and shorter supply, a product that allows more food to be produced per square metre without an increased use of fertilisers or chemically harmful pesticides can only be good news for the world.

Although no longer teaching since retiring from university life, the pedagogue in Philip Howse has not disappeared. He now organises talks both for the Burton Bradstock Society and also for the Bridport U3A, to bring some heavyweight names in their respective fields to come to West Dorset to share their knowledge with interested listeners. Given that in addition to doing all this he is writing two further books and working with Butterfly World, it would seem that Philip Howse is a perfect example of what author Gerald Brenan described when he said that: ‘We are closer to the ants than to the butterflies. Very few people can endure much leisure.’

Butterflies: Messages From Psyche by Philip Howse is published by Papadakis at £25. ISBN 978 1 901 09028 06

Butterflies: Messages From Psyche by Philip Howse is published by Papadakis at £25. ISBN 978 1 901 09028 06

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