Excerpts from A Guide to Nabokov’s Butterflies and Moths
by Dieter E. Zimmer
Hamburg (Germany) 1996

Except as otherwise noted, all butterfly illustrations are by William H. Howe, who generously allowed them to be reproduced here.

Nabokov’s non-fictional writings on butterflies

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Lep12: ”Sphingids over Water.” The Lepidopterists’ News (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 1 (7), Nov 1947, p. 82. A seven–line note saying that in Estes Park, Colorado, Nabokov had observed a striped hawkmoth of the genus Celerio poised over the water and immersing its proboscis.

Lep13: ”A new species of Cyclargus Nabokov.” The Entomologist (London), 81 (1027), 1948, p. 273–280. A second addendum to Lep9: a Neotropical lycaenid from the Cayman Islands that formerly had been (mis)labeled Hemiargus catilina FABRICIUS (or BETHUNE-BAKER) and that had been sent to Nabokov from Oxford for examination was recognized to belong to one of Nabokov’s new genera and named Cyclargus erembis NABOKOV.

Lep14: ”The Nearctic members of the genus Lycaeides Hübner (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera).” Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 101 (4), Feb 1949, p. 479–641. ”This work took me several years and undermined my health for quite a while. Before I never wore glasses. This is my favorite work. I think I really did well there,” Nabokov told an interviewer (Int1). What he accomplished was a complete revision of the North American members of the genus Lycaeides HÜBNER, a fact that was immediately acknowledged by Alexander B. Klots in his 1951 Field Guide (p. 164): ”The recent work of Nabokov has entirely rearranged the classification of this genus.” Nabokov had found it in bad disarray. What had plagued the genus was a disease called ”synonymy”: its members had been described under up to fifteen different names in a great number of genera, so even experts had a hard time figuring out which was which, and Nabokov dismissed many erroneous attributions. He followed up the synonyma wherever he could and suggested a tidy new classification. This he could do because he had established for himself two clear criteria of when to consider a particular form a distinct subspecies: ”A form… is subspecifically distinct if separable from any other intraspecific form… by at least two characters, one of which must be either (a) male alar (e.g. underside) or (b) male genitalic, and the other either male genitalic (if the first be a) or female alar (e.g. upperside or shape)” (p. 48). In other words, only if in a given form the male genitalic structure plus the male or female wing shape, coloring or maculation differed from all other forms of the species, it deserved to be counted as a subspecies. Using the methods devised in Lep8, Nabokov studied wings and genitalia in around 2000 specimens. He reduced the North American representatives of the genus to two species, argyrognomon (called idas since 1954) and melissa. Idas (ex argyrognomon) has ten subspecies: three on the West Coast between Central California and British Columbia (anna, lotis, ricei), three in the north, from Alaska to the Maritime Provinces (alaskensis, scudderi, aster) and four in the Rocky Mountains (ferniensis, atrapraetextus and two that were newly named by Nabokov, longinus and sublivens). Melissa, the commonest of the Orange-borderd Blues of North America, has four subspecies: three on the west Coast (annetta, inyoensis, melissa) and an isolated one in the East (samuelis). The classification still seems to stand; only three subspecies have been added, one of them bearing Nabokov’s name (Lycaeides idas nabokovi MASTERS).

Lep15: ”Remarks on F. Martin Brown’s ‘Measurements and Lepidoptera.’” The Lepidopterists’ News (New Haven, Connecticut), 4 (6–7), 1950, p. 75–76. A rejoinder to some objections the Colorado lepidopterist F. Martin Brown had raised against the preceding paper (Lep14) which he ”in every other way” found ”excellent” (in The Lepidopterists’ News, 4, 1950, p. 51). Brown had thought Nabokov’s scale-line counts (a way of morphologically describing the wings) a waste of time, as they lacked evidence of their stability from colony to colony of the same subspecies. He also had questioned the advisability of introducing two new subspecies, longinus and sublivens, when they might be isolated fragments of just one. Nabokov answered that it would be a loss of time to calculate anything like the ”mean length of falx” of the two subspecies to see if there was an overlap, as they were living 500 miles apart--and that the length of falx was not the only difference between the two forms. On the use of statistics in general, he said: ”Natural science is responsible to philosophy--not to statistics.” To which Brown, in a brief reply, wholly agreed: [I wanted] ”to point up the folly of depending solely upon measurements to set up subspecies”--all of taxonomy and statistics being ”tools, not ends in themselves.”

Lep16: ”Postscript.” The Lepidopterists’ News (New Haven, Connecticut), 4 (6–7), 1950, p. 76. A one-column note saying that Nabokov had found Lycaeides idas longinus at another locality in Wyoming, between Jackson and Moran, and listing some 38 other butterflies he had encountered in that region.

Lep17: ”Yesterday’s Caterpillar.” The New York Times Book Review (New York), Jun 3, 1951, p. 21. A review of Alexander B. Klots’ Field Guide (1951) which Nabokov calls ”the finest book on American butterflies” since Scudder’s monumental work of 1889. Still he notes a few blemishes, e.g., that ”ecology is a pretty metaphysical business unless it is absolutely accurate.”

Lep18: ”The female of Lycaeides sublivens Nab.” The Lepidopterists’ News (New Haven, Connecticut), 6, 1952, p. 35–36 (also in Strong Opinions). This semi-popular paper recounts the (successful) hunt for the female of sublivens in the mountains of San Miguel County, southwestern Colorado, near Telluride.

Lep19: ”On Some Inaccuracies in Klots’ Field Guide.” The Lepidopterists’ News (New Haven, Connecticut), 6, Aug 8, 1952, p. 41 (also in Strong Opinions). Notes some slight mistakes in an otherwise admirable book.

Lep20: ”Audubon’s Butterflies, Moths and other studies, Compiled and edited by Alice Ford.” The New York Times Book Review (New York), Dec 28, 1952 (also in Strong Opinions). Argues that Audubon, being an ornithologist, did not know much about butterflies and for this reason got them all wrong when trying to figure them.

Lep21: ”Butterfly hunting in Wyoming.” The Lepidopterists’ News (New Haven, Connecticut), 7, 1953, p. 49–52 (also in Strong Opinions). Enumerates the species found on a collecting trip to Wyoming.

Lep22: ”L. C. Higgins and N. D. Riley Field Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Europe.” Times (Educational Supplement) (London), Oct 23, 1970 (also in Strong Opinions). Praises this field guide of European butterflies, criticizing a few minor details.


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