The great butterfly apocalypse (butterpocalypse) of 2013

I had a dream the other night. I was working at my desk, when suddenly, cabbage white butterflies (like the one in the picture) started raining down all around me, dead or dying. I tried to save them, but I couldn’t move. I screamed, down on my knees; a long, drawn out, “Nooooooo!”. It was very dramatic – think Charlton Heston at the end of planet of the apes, when he finds the statue of liberty and realizes he was on Earth all along (spoiler alert!).

Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae)
Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I woke up. As my dog Darwin realized I was awake and started licking my face, the thought occurred to me that it was one of those dreams that you wake up from, but then once you’re awake you realize that what you were dreaming is really happening. At least allegorically – like the dream was a big metaphor for my life.

Spring this year was cold and wet, and most of the butterflies decided to sleep in until midsummer. They are out now, but as far as I can tell, they are still not common. Perhaps they hide from me, scheming little butterfly schemes.

I need to raise a whole generation in captivity if I want to use them for research, so when I catch females, I try to get them to lay eggs. Sometimes they do lay eggs. Sometimes they don’t lay eggs. Often they just die, lying on their sides and breathing laboriously (metaphorically again – insects don’t have lungs) in their little white mesh butterfly houses with their potted plants and sugar-water feeders.

Most research projects I’ve worked on involved watching animals in the wild, collecting them temporarily and then re-releasing them, or analyzing data that other people had collected. None of these were easy. Nevertheless, I think that simultaneously raising a number of butterfly species in captivity, and trying to keep them happy and healthy, is one of the hardest things I’ve tried yet. Perhaps the worst part is having to continuously rethink my plans. It’s amazing how hard one can think and plan for something, but then when you actually try to DO it, everything immediately falls apart.

Learning that all your preconceptions were actually misconceptions is pretty normal for science, and probably for life in general. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Learning is hard. For now I’ve got some good ideas of what to try next, lots of help and advice from my mentors and friends here, and a lot of adult butterflies provided by some very nice people that should help me out by laying the next generation of eggs. Fingers crossed!

Next time I post I’ll try to get into why I even want to raise butterflies in the first place.


First post!


I’m Eli, and I recently started a postdoc at the University of Minnesota, working with Dr. Emilie Snell-Rood.

Picture of Eli Swanson
This is me!

I finished my Ph.D. at Michigan State in the spring, started here in June, and will be working here for a few years. I liked living in Lansing, but I’m originally from Minnesota, so I’m excited to be back!

The purpose of my blog is to talk about my research and what I’m learning, discuss the research process, and share any good stories that come up along the way. The project I’m working on here is a huge change for me, because all of my previous research experience was with either frogs or mammals, and now I’m not only working with butterflies, but trying  to raise them. I will be trying out lots of new field and lab techniques for working with invertebrates (like how not to accidentally squish them!). I will also be doing a great deal of programming and evolutionary modeling whenever I can find a break from my adventures in husbandry. During my third year here I plan to teach two classes, and hopefully take a couple graduate education courses.

My research focuses on hormones, life histories, and evolution. Life histories describe aspects of an organism’s life such as how fast they grow, how big they get, how much they reproduce and when, and how long they live. Life history traits are important because they describe reproduction and survival, and therefore are the building blocks of evolution. Specifically, I’m interested in how hormones simultaneously influence multiple life history traits, and how hormones and life histories evolve together. I will get into more detail about who I am, my research, and my plans for the next couple years in future posts. I also have some alternative formats planned such as video and animation that should help people understand my research and what I’m learning in some more dynamic ways.

I’ll post again soon,