Friday, 20 April 2012

Madam Butterfly


When Shereen Abdullah discovered that the butterflies were disappearing, she took matters in her own hands.


At first glance, the neatly lined bottles seem to be just a mundane collection of jam jars, but on closer inspection, one discovers that they are filled with twigs, leaves and life. These thirty or so bottles serve an extraordinary purpose; they are nurseries for caterpillars till they metamorphose into beautiful butterflies. Shereen Abdullah, a housewife and a mother of three, has been playing host to these caterpillars, nurturing them like they were her own children, for the past eight years now.

When Shereen’s eldest son showed an interest in nature and insects, she wanted to show him the four stages of the development of the butterfly in real life, and not just pictures in a book. But after an extensive search of her garden and nearby nurseries, she realised that all the butterflies had somehow disappeared. She visited nurseries and questioned the gardeners there but they didn’t seem to know or care where the butterflies had gone. Her sleuthing finally bore fruit when she was able to identify the prime culprit behind the decline of butterflies in the city: pesticides. To her horror, she found that plants in all the nurseries and home gardens were being sprayed with pesticides fortnightly, thereby killing all the caterpillars, butterflies and other garden insects that are crucial in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.


Shereen asked around for people who could help her in increasing the dwindling number of butterflies, but didn’t find anyone even remotely interested in the task. “I didn’t want my children to grow up and say ‘There once used be a beautiful, colourful insect that used to fly around in our gardens.’ So I thought I’d do something about it myself,” says a determined Shereen.

Breeding and raising butterflies came naturally to her. When she was young, her father used to do the same thing, not for preservation purposes, but to show his children the many transformations the unimpressive larva goes through till it transforms into the majestic butterfly. Thanks to this upbringing, she already knew how to raise them from larva to butterfly and with research and experience she learnt many other tricks to best care for her new charges. “What had started off as a simple project to teach my eldest child the development stages of a butterfly, turned into a lifelong association with these remarkable insects,” she says. “It is hard work raising butterflies, but seeing a caterpillar that you have personally raised come out of its chrysalis is one of the greatest joys in the world.”
Caring for these to-be butterflies is just like caring for young children. Shereen has to keep a constant eye on the insects, keeping them well fed, away from ants and in the right temperature. At times, she has to cut leaves in the middle of the night to feed them. Additionally, she also has to ensure that her garden is well stocked with specific plants which the caterpillars feed on. “My work has grown a lot over the years but I always manage to squeeze in some time for them,” she says. On a typical day Shereen inspects her bottles right after she wakes up at dawn. If she finds that a butterfly has come out of the cocoon, she releases it then and there, or gives it to one of her children so they can release it with their class at school.

After the children leave she rushes to tend to the bottles once again. This involves carefully taking out the leaves and insects from each bottle, cleaning the frass (the caterpillar’s faeces), putting in new leaves and finally putting the caterpillars back in the bottle. This process takes her up to one hour and she has to repeat it in the evening.


Apart from her own garden, Shereen also rescues larvae from a particular nursery. Out of the several nurseries she approached, she was only able to convince one to cooperate with her. Though she couldn’t get the gardener to stop using pesticides altogether, he cooperates with her by waiting till she has collected all the larvae and pupae till he sprays.
Shereen says that the only way one can attract butterflies to their garden is by not using pesticides and planting bright coloured flowers and host plants, i.e. the plants the butterfly lays its eggs on and the caterpillar feeds on, like the lemon tree. Another step that will make the butterflies frequent your garden more often is to make butterfly feeders. This can be done simply by putting rotting fruits like oranges and bananas in a plate and placing them a bit above the ground so that the butterflies can drink the juice from the fruits. Another visually appealing step to attract butterflies is to make a butterfly puddle. In hot summer afternoons, the puddle acts as an oasis for the tired butterfly. “The puddles are easy to make, all you need is a shallow ceramic plate and a few big stones or pebbles. Put some water in the plate and then place the stones in a way that they are half submerged in the water,” explains Shereen.

At the moment, Shereen only works with butterflies that feed on citrus plants and mostly fosters butterflies that have wide wing spans. Up till now she has grown Swallowtails, Mormons and the African Monarch. She recounts that as a child she was used to seeing a type of Mormon called the Red Rose Mormon which is now totally extinct in Karachi, a fact that saddens her deeply.

In her quest to spread her message, Shereen also conducts sessions at schools for young children as she feels they are most receptive to her message of conservation. “The students and staff call me ‘the butterfly lady’,” she says with a proud smile. Not content to rest on her laurels, Shireen aims to put together a society for the conservation of butterflies that can work in tandem with the various horticultural societies in the city, in order to increase interest in conserving these beautiful insects.

Shereen believes that if everyone who cares even a little for the preservation of our beautiful world pitches in to help protect these butterflies, they will make a major impact on the preservation of these insects.  Perhaps then our children can learn about them firsthand and not just through some pictures in a book.

Shereen Abdullah can be contacted at 

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