Lepidoptera epitomizes a few of the problems that have been hammered out on nature’s workbench over many millennia. In the evolutionary call and response between prey and predator, many moths have developed the ability to detect the ultrasound clicks of bats, and some can even send confusing countersignals. Butterfly wings tend to be black closer to their bodies, to help capture heat. Those wings are covered with a contaminant-resistant coating—they self-clean. The ornamental “eyes” on those wings, meant to scare away predators, are often positioned near the edge to minimize wing damage if the butterfly is bitten.
And then there’s the color—what we think of when we think of butterflies. “People call them flying flowers,” says Robbins. While some use color for camouflage, the most vivid species go the other route, advertising their toxicity to would-be predators in a gaudy display. The writer David Quammen dubs them the “bimbos of the natural world,” an “evolutionary experiment in sheer decorative excess.” Overall, Quammen writes, butterflies “represent an ideal of sweetness and gentle grace that seems almost innocent of the whole merciless evolutionary free-for-all.” And there’s a wealth of inspiration waiting to take flight on those gossamer wings.
Researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, inspired by birdwing butterflies—the black area of their wings enables almost total light absorption, to trap heat—are creating a structurally similar super-black amorphous carbon film to help create more efficient solar technology. A project called NOtES, which grew out of research at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, uses nanoscale light-interfering structures to create an anti-counterfeiting stamp that is more difficult to crack than a hologram and can be “printed” not only on bank notes, but on a whole range of other objects. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are used for everything from tracking inventory to sensing the performance of one’s tires, tend not to work well in extreme environments, particularly where there’s water or metal. And so a company named Omni-ID adapted the interference principle to create a more reliable RFID, using tiny metal scales in the tags to improve their transmission of radio signals.
Given that the Morpho deploys color to attract attention, it seems appropriate that the butterfly has also inspired human fashion. Donna Sgro, a fashion designer in Sydney, Australia, and self-described “occasional lepidopterist,” created three dresses from a fabric called Morphotex, a pigment-free, iridescent blue material that draws its color from optical interference. Sgro says that while Morphotex eliminates the need for dyes (and thus potentially bears a smaller environmental footprint), her interest ranged beyond the usual “problem-solution-type design approach” that biomimists tend to follow. Fashion, after all, is about more than the basic need for clothing. How can the way nature uses aesthetics inform the way we do? Sgro is now studying for a PhD in biomimicry and fashion at the Royal Institute of Fashion in Melbourne.
Robbins and I left the Natural History Museum’s collections center and went to the nearby Butterfly Pavilion, and it was like a lepidopterous lovefest. A woman angled her smartphone to photograph a Monarch feeding on a flower. A Japanese tourist exclaimed as a Gulf Fritillary landed on her shoulder bag. A child squealed as a Morpho peleides slowly wafted its iridescent blue wings. It’s not easy to imagine this scene occurring with any other insect; justly or not, we don’t visit grub or ant pavilions.
I asked about the peculiar appeal of these insects. “They don’t sting, they don’t bite,” he said. “The ones that people see are generally pretty. Some of them are harmful agriculturally, but they’re pretty friendly guys and they’re a hell of a lot prettier than most other insects.” If only, I thought, people could now know how useful all that beauty can be.