Beauty on the Wing

Beauty on the Wing header image
Capturing caterpillars and butterflies in photography.
Metallic Blue Morpho butterfly. Photo by Jeffrey C. Miller.
Red Cracker butterfly. Photo by Jeffrey C. Miller.
Rothschildia erycina moth. Photo by Jeffrey C. Miller.
Orange-barred Sulphur butterfly. Photo by Jeffrey C. Miller.

A few of Jeffrey C. Miller's subjects (above, from top):
Metallic Blue Morpho butterfly (Morpho amathonte), Red Cracker butterfly (Mamadryas amphinome), Rothschildia erycina moth, Orange-barred Sulphur butterfly, male (Pheobis philea).

When Jeffrey C. Miller heads into the field to conduct research, he often totes along a photography studio. Miller, an insect ecologist in OSU Department of Rangeland Ecology, has schlepped his digital camera, computer, table, and a black velvet backdrop into the jungles of Costa Rica and Asia, as well as around the Pacific Northwest. This portable studio, plus patience and love for his subjects, have allowed Miller to study and photograph the diverse realm and spectacular beauty of butterflies, moths, and their larvae.

For most of his 30-year career, Miller has focused his studies on the biological control of pest insect species, in particular the biology and feeding habits of the gypsy moth caterpillar, a forest pest. He has studied how efforts to control such winged pests affect other species of butterflies and moths, and how insects can be used to control weeds in the Pacific Northwest. Along his professional journey, Miller has become a world-renowned photographer of caterpillars, butterflies, and moths. He has published six illustrated books, including two large-format volumes on caterpillars, butterflies, and moths of Costa Rica.

Miller began photographing caterpillars and butterflies as a way to help identify species of larval moths and butterflies for his research. Most insect manuals identify only the adult stage and rarely include the caterpillars.

“When biologists collect caterpillars in a new area, they usually have no idea what species they are,” explained Miller. “We have to beat the shrubs, collect the caterpillars, and rear them carefully in the lab in order to learn what kind of butterfly they each turn into.”

The wiggling captives are brought back into a lab and reared individually in containers along with the plants on which they were collected. Once the caterpillars change into adults, Miller photographs them again and identifies each species of butterfly or moth.

“When we finally rear the larva into an adult, we have the record and photograph of the caterpillar it once was. Once identified and photographed at each stage, we can make the link between the butterfly or moth and its caterpillar and its habitat, in particular its food plant. In many cases, this has never been done before.

“Some years I have reared, photographed, and identified more than 7,000 specimens in a single field season,” he said.

In 2003, Miller’s work caught the attention of Dan Janzen, a University of Pennsylvania tropical ecologist whose special interest is moths and butterflies of Costa Rica. Working with Janzen and Winifred Hallwachs in Costa Rica, Miller photographed the dizzying variety of shapes, colors, and cryptic markings of flamboyant tropical caterpillars, butterflies, and moths.

Their work culminated in the book, 100 Caterpillar Portraits from the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica, published by Harvard University Press in 2006. The book, featuring Miller’s large-format photographs and Janzen’s encyclopedic knowledge of local ecology, won the National Outdoor Book Award for Design and Artistic Merit. It was followed by a second book, 100 Butterflies and Moths: Portraits from the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica, in 2007.

Now working closer to home, Miller has embarked on research and photography for a new book about the conservation of sensitive species of butterflies and moths in the Pacific Northwest, with his colleague, OSU lepidopterist Paul Hammond. He hopes his work and his books will help people learn about and protect biodiversity.

“There is no doubt in my mind that when we have knowledge about something, we tend to take better care of it,” he said. “You can’t care for something if you don’t know anything about it.”

Published in: Ecosystems, People