Mecky Furr never met a butterfly she didn't like. One or two moths maybe, but never a butterfly.
With her collection of North American butterflies about two-thirds complete, Furr has 15,000 of the winged insects mounted in moth-proof cases and another 8,000 to 9,000 stored in triangular envelopes with their wings neatly folded, waiting to be mounted.The collection is only one aspect of her hobby. She also raises butterflies in an effort to keep the skies above Shelby County, Tenn., filled with these living jewels.
This time of year her homemade mesh and plywood breeding boxes are stacked three and four high in the garage, each home to two or three female egg-laying butterflies.
The eggs soon become caterpillars, which are either taken into rural areas and deposited on the appropriate plants or kept to be raised by hand. The caterpillars, after stuffing themselves silly, enter a third stage, that of the chrysalis, and weave themselves into ugly brown and gray bags.
In the wild, the chrysalis hang from twigs. Furr pins her sacks to a screen where they hang until the final metamorphosis takes place and the brightly colored butterflies creep from the shells; they cling to the screen while their fragile wings gain enough strength to carry them away.
Butterflies are drawn to Furr's yard by flower beds filled with butterfly weed, phlox, bluebells, columbine, wood poppies, trillium, wild geranium, crested iris, violets, larkspur, daisies, bleeding heart, shooting star, fire pinks and Indian pinks.
"The monarch butterfly comes through here twice a year," Furr said. "This time of year it's coming up from Mexico going to Canada; it's coming right through here laying eggs, but only where it finds the milkweed.
"In the fall migration, going back to Mexico, where it finds the food, it will stay and feed. I have hundreds of monarchs out here every fall and I have them right now."
Furr, who grew up in Germany and speaks with an accent softened by 27 years in Memphis, raised butterflies as a child. She was drawn into the hobby again in the 1970s when her older daughter started a butterfly collection for a Girl Scout project.
"I like the field work," said Furr, who has helped university researchers by counting butterflies and moths for months and years at a time. After eight years of work on one project, she was rewarded by having a white veined butterfly named for her; it's now the pieris marginalis Meckyae.
"I like to go out and find out what's flying where. Over the last 17-18 years, I've noticed a lot of changes. You see, Shelby County is nearly all urban now and there are very few rural areas left. I've seen a lot of colonies disappear."
The black and white striped zebra swallowtail is one example of a butterfly that was once common; now Furr must travel 50 to 70 miles into the countryside to find zebras.
Furr is afraid that by the turn of the century many more butterflies will be gone.
"Wouldn't that be sad, but it could come to that. And people will say, `What happened to them?' But it will be too late. I saw it happen in Europe, because in the '60s and '70s they were so busy all over Europe; they would take ditches that had little creeks and concrete them, make them neat and clean. You didn't see any more wildflowers. Just lots of different things seemed to be disappearing, but it looked very clean.
"When you go over there it looks very clean, very orderly, very neat, no clutter outdoors, but also very sterile. Like all the storks they had nesting in Europe, they're not coming back from Africa anymore. As a child I used to watch them nesting. The reason they don't come back is because the common frogs are all a threatened species. They destroyed all the wet places. The storks couldn't live without the frogs."
One solution is for individuals and businesses to plant wildflowers and native plants, things like mallow, Queen Anne's lace, passion flower, milkweed and butterflyweed, black-eyed susan and sunflowers, columbine and clover.
"When we see a butterfly, we don't think of the caterpillar. But 98 percent of all eggs will never become another butterfly. All those that don't make it serve as food for something, primarily birds," Furr said.
Saving the common butterfly is something that everybody can do, she said.
"You might not be able to save the whales up there in Alaska if they get trapped by the ice, but you can make it more attractive in your yard for butterflies."