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Floats Like A Butterfly

The monarch butterfly is one of the most readily recognized and beloved insects in North America. The king of the insect world, the monarch is known for its vivid orange and black markings and often bold behavior around people. Because of its popularity, the monarch is the state insect of Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas and the state butterfly of Vermont and West Virginia. It was nominated in 1990 as the national insect of the United States, along with the honeybee, but the legislation never passed.

Monarch Butterflies. Saint John’s Bible Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly. 1873

Monarchs are especially noted for their lengthy annual migration and are among the few insects capable of making transatlantic crossings. In North America they make massive southward migrations starting in August until the first frost. A northward migration takes place in the spring. By the end of October, the population east of the Rocky Mountains migrates to the sanctuaries of the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve in the Mexican states of Michoacán and México. The western population overwinters in various sites in central coastal and southern California, notably in Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz. How the species manages to return to the same overwintering spots over a gap of several generations is still a subject of research; the flight patterns appear to be inherited, based on a combination of circadian rhythm and the position of the sun in the sky.

To learn more about these winged wonders, the Science, Technology and Business Division has put together a reference guide featuring selected titles, Internet resources and journal articles about monarch butterflies, conservation initiatives and migration projects.

Although you’ll have to go to your nearest zoo or butterfly garden to catch a glimpse of these creatures, the Library does have a specimen, of sorts. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Library sent almost 5,000 crates of historic documents (equivalent to 26 freight-car loads) to repositories in Virginia and Ohio for safekeeping. In 1944, one of those crates, which should have contained 24 of Walt Whitman’s notebooks, was returned to Washington. When the seal was broken and the crate unpacked, only 14 notebooks were found. Also missing was a cardboard butterfly made famous by an 1883 Miami Herald photo showing a white-bearded Whitman with a butterfly landing on his hand. A 10- year internal search was unrequited and, at that time (1954), acting on advice from the FBI, the Library circulated a description of the missing goods to book and antiquities dealers, archives and other likely individuals and institutions, asking that a watch be kept for the missing items.

Forty-one years passed without a response. Then, in 1995, a New York lawyer turned up at Sotheby’s to ask them to appraise four of the lost notebooks and the cardboard butterfly, which he reported were given to his father, who had held them for 30 years before his death. As soon as he learned their history, he returned them without claiming any of their value.

Poet at Work: Walt Whitman Notebooks 1850s-1860s offers access to the four Whitman notebooks and an up-close view of the butterfly, along with two essays into the Library’s preservation efforts of the collection.

The Science, Technology and Business Division also offers general subject-specific guides that not only provide links to corresponding Science Tracer Bullets but also Internet resources, specific bibliographies and other Science Reference Guides, which are intended to help researchers navigate the Library's catalogs and introduce basic reference sources.

A. Monarch Butterflies. Saint John’s Bible. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.

B. Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly. 1873. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-77082 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: LOT 12038 [item] [P&P]