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John Landy's Insect memories

John Landy reflects on the years building his collection and what collecting has meant to him over his life. In his own words, John Landy's Insect memories.

This Butterfly Collection that I am donating to the Australian Museum in Sydney represents 75 years of studying and collecting Australian butterflies. My collecting was intermittent with a career in Agricultural research and development, my athletics pursuits, family life and public service.

I seem to have been associated with insects all my life. I have half a dozen memories from around the age of 4 and two of them are of insects.

One is the very clear image of two large yellow and black highly polished jewel beetles on a banksia tree and the other of a grass blue butterfly sunning itself on a leaf. I began school at the age of 4 and walked a kilometre or so to classes. And on my return walk I would sometimes arrive with large emperor gum caterpillars crawling out of my schoolbag.

I recall that my mother and I placed some of these in a shoebox and soon the insects spun cocoons and after several months emerged huge moths with fernlike antennae, large eyespots on the wings. Is there anything more magical than the transformation of a butterfly or moth…I was hooked!

I was fortunate in that my mother encouraged me in this interest and later when I was perhaps 11, she contacted Mr. George Lyell., one of the authors of the classic book, “The Butterflies of Australia.” , published in 1914. He was most helpful and not only provided advice as to how I could start collecting butterflies but sent me some of his setting boards and within a few weeks I had assembled the equipment necessary.

At about this time David Crosby, later to become an expert on Australian butterflies particularly those from Victoria, came to live across the road from where we lived, opposite Central Park, East Malvern, near Melbourne .We teamed up with other boys of the same age and together we roamed the parks of East Malvern and Gardiner’s Creek. However, these locations were limited with little natural vegetation and we soon sought more fruitful areas….Mount Waverly, Heathmont, and Frankston. And then we discovered the Dandenong Ranges and at the weekends we would cycle 30 kilometres to Ferntree Gully, Belgrave or Kallista where there was relatively rich butterfly fauna . It was here when collecting we met Mr. F. E. Wilson, always known as “Ras”.

Ras was a business man who had been a naturalist all his life and was honorary entomologist to the Victorian Museum. He had an outstanding knowledge of natural history, had been a prominent member of the Victorian Field Naturalists Society and delighted in sharing his wide knowledge with this team of young enthusiasts. He drummed into us the need to record on each specimen where it had come from, the date it was captured and our names as the authority.

Moonlight Jewel, Hypochrysops delcia

Moonlight Jewel, Hypochrysops delcia

Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

I remember it as a very exciting time as we sought some of the rarest butterflies and of these the prize was the Moonlight Jewel. We didn’t call it by that name but always used the specific Latin name, which was in this case, Delicia . It took several years before we were able to capture this elusive species. Although it was brilliantly coloured, it was inconspicuous on the wing and the larvae lived in bore holes in wattles where they were attended by ants. At night the ants accompanied the larvae to eat the foliage.

All this joint activity changed during term time when my parents sent me to Board at the age of 14 to Geelong Grammar School, Corio where there were very few butterflies. However, I do remember the Small Copper butterfly on the cricket pitch when I was in the outfield and this was more interesting to me than the game itself.

One unusual Skipper butterfly occurred on rushes growing in the saltflats near the school and I made occasional trips at the weekend to Avalon to the salt flats which is also then the home to the Orange Bellied Parrot. Unfortunately these areas were later inundated to form evaporation basins for the production of salt.. The school had an active Natural History Group but they were more interested in birds than insects. I was able to encourage some boys to accompany me to Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove which were quite good areas and different to those around Melbourne.

On leaving school in 1948 I embarked on a course of Agricultural Science at Melbourne University. I soon found that there was much less time available for collecting butterflies except during the long summer vacation. David Crosby who was also at the Unversity and I spent two months at Cairns in North Queensland in 1950. Queensland had by far the greatest number of butterfly species in Australia and certainly the most spectacular and we were both felt we were in our element!

In the next year we spent time in East Gippsland where again we found butterflies we had not seen before. It was at this stage that I became involved in athletics and interrupted my university studies to attend the 1952 Olympic Games held in Helskini. I did keep in touch with my butterfly interests but inevitably balancing study and running and natural history became increasingly difficult. After University my first job was as a teacher at the newly founded Timbertop School near Mansfield and this appointment gave me the opportunity to renew my interest in natural history and butterflies.

With a number of other teachers, our role was to interest boys in outdoor activities, hiking, natural history and self reliance. Quite a number of the boys became interested and we even sent specimens to the Museum in Melbourne. After teaching I joined the National Parks Authority of Victoria as the first Technical Officer and covered many parts of the State, although I had little time to collect butterflies I did record one new species for Victoria.

Following this period of my career, I joined ICI as a Research and Development Officer and remained with the company for 21 years, the last 11 years as Research and Development Manager of the Biological Division. There was little scope for collecting butterflies but I did add to my collection in summer vacations with the family, on the coast of New South Wales . On retirement in 1983 I was able to visit areas that I had not experienced before such as Western Australia, Southern Queensland and Tasmania.

The study and collection of butterflies has been an integral part of my life leading to a much fuller understanding of ecology . Searching for butterflies inevitably requires an understanding of food plants and in the case of the lycaenidae (blue butterflies) , ants and their habitat. Alongside my interest in natural history, I developed a keen interest in photography which inevitably led me into photography of native orchids, funghi and lichens.

In the over seventy years since I started collecting butterflies, many of the locations which we visited in those days, have fallen victim to the urban sprawl. I recorded over 50 species from Heathmont and today you would be lucky find more than a dozen. The Fiery Copperbutterfly occurred in neighbouring Ringwood and the site was known to collectors in the 19thCentury but this site has been overrun by housing.

The Brighteyed Brown which occurred just outside the town of Dartmoor in Western Victoria no longer exists there. The site was cleared some years ago. It is not known if there are any other localities in Southerwestern Victoria but it’s survived in one small site over the border in South Australia.

When I first began collecting in 1943, Banded Grass Skipper was found commonly at Ferntree Gully but it has not been seen in the Dandenong Ranges for many years. However, some species miraculously survive urbanization.

One of my earliest records is of a Spotted Brown which I caught at Ferntree Gully in February 1944. A photographer friend of mine, keen to take a photograph of this somewhat rare brown butterfly, asked me if I had any localities. I mentioned the site at Ferntree Gully, which was just off the main road to Belgrave and said it was highly unlikely to have survived. He rang the next day excitedly, to say that it was still there despite the fact now it was seen only a few metres away from houses.

However, despite the challenges the urban sprawl and agriculture development poses to butterflies in destroying their natural habitat, some “new” species have appeared . In 1974 a very wet season favoured the movement of the large strikingly marked Tailed Emperordown as far as Melbourne and it has adapted to this new colder environment breeding here on Black Wattles although not often seen. I remember also in 1990 noticing a large black Skipper butterfly on one of our Buddleias in Camberwell. I knew instantly that this was not a butterfly that occurred here and subsequently identified it as the Orange Palmdart. This butterfly feeds on ornamental palms and in some years in NSW and Queensland causes considerable damage. It is now part of the Butterfly Fauna of Victoria having been transported here on ornamental palms which became very popular in household gardens in this State. Like the Tailed Emperorbutterfly it has adapted to our environment and now a regular to be seen in suburban gardens and the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne

Another small Skipper butterfly , the Green Grassdart, appeared in 1974 in the same wet year as the Tailed Emperor. The larvae favours the summer growing grasses like Buffalo and Kikuyo and is now very common throughout Victoria.

Many of the locations I knew as a boy as good hunting grounds for butterflies have now been cleared of native vegetation and although in most cases the species still exist there, their habitats are under threat from invading weed species.

Butterfly collecting in my younger days was regarded as the province of enthusiasts and eccentrics but with the concern about disappearance of wildlife generally, butterfly collecting in densely populated countries like United Kingdom is regarded almost as unfavourably as birds egg collecting. The fact that vastly more information is known about butterflies than any other group of insects reflects the amount of observation and study by amateur collectors, Unlike birds who lay a few eggs, the female butterfly can lay between 100 and 500 eggs and thus can rebound amazingly quickly if the appropriate food plants are available.

My lifelong passion for butterflies has given me a wonderful insight into natural history and I’ve never had a boring day in the bush!

During my lifetime I have collected over 300 of the 400 species that occur in Australia and to house them, I made my own store boxes and setting boards. I am now delighted to donate my collection to the Australian Museum in Sydney.