The Language of Butterflies

Wendy Williams

Simon & Schuster, £20

HOW much do you know about butterflies? If you're anything like me, you will come away from this entertaining book with new-found knowledge. The Language of Butterflies is packed with gems about the secret lives of these winged creatures – think of it as a tell-all biography.

Wendy Williams is a warm and often humorous writer who deftly weaves together weighty scientific detail with congenial anecdotes and descriptive imagery that stokes the imagination.

One of my favourite stories is that of Herman Strecker, a 19th-Century collector with a greedy compulsion for butterflies. Far from being a wealthy entomologist, Strecker was a sculptor and stonemason who made his living from carving children's headstones.

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His passion for lepidoptera began in childhood when Strecker was given a glimpse inside the hand-painted books on butterflies at a natural history museum in Philadelphia. "Into his drab world of soot, poverty and hopelessness, the goddess of colour had made her debut," writes the author.

It became Strecker's ambition to own at least one specimen of every butterfly species on Earth. He came close, amassing some 50,000 specimens.

You don't need this level of obsession to appreciate the beauty of butterflies or to discover how they get their striking colours and patterns (spoiler alert: one way is through chemical pigments that absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others).

The book is packed with fascinating details about their existence, be it surviving annual migrations across thousands of miles laced with peril, to how some species use a clever trick to fool other insects into caring for them.

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We even learn how these magnificent flying machines helped corroborate Charles Darwin's theory of evolution through demonstrating evidence of "deceptive dress", where one species was able to change its wing colours to mimic those of other butterflies and avoid being eaten by predators.

Nature on TV

Spy in the Wild, BBC One, Sunday, 5.35pm

Who needs EastEnders or Coronation Street? An elephant has a temper tantrum in the mud by the waterhole, chimpanzees embark upon extra-marital affairs and lemurs get high by sniffing toxic millipedes.