Story behind mysterious butterfly collection still baffling for Manitoba Museum

The story of how a collection of rare butterflies and moths caught in California a century ago ended up in a derelict van left parked and forgotten on a farm in Arborg, Man. is a mystery that has bugged Janis Klapecki for years.

How did a collection of rare butterflies end up in a van on a Manitoba farm?

Janis Klapecki, a management specialist in charge of Manitoba Museum’s natural histories collection, shows off a donated collection of rare butterflies found in a van on a farm in Arborg, Man. How the collection got there is a mystery that's bugged her for years. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

The story of how a collection of rare butterflies and moths caught in California a century ago ended up in a derelict van left parked and seemingly forgotten about on a farm in Arborg, Man. is a mystery that has bugged Janis Klapecki for years.

Klapecki had just started working as a management specialist in charge of Manitoba Museum's natural histories collection in the spring of 1993 when she was contacted by a woman in Arborg who said she'd come across a curious collection of butterflies on a property she'd just bought.

When she went to the farm, Klapecki found a collection of around 700 butterflies — some expertly pinned, others kept safely in special collection envelopes — tucked away in several cigar boxes in the back of a long-since broken-down cargo van.

It's the sort of collection she'd expect to find in the archives of a museum or university.

The collection contained around 700 butterflies, some expertly pinned. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

"Insect collections are so fragile, like just the slightest jostling and even a cigar box can break wings off ... break bodies off," said Klapecki, who still works at the museum.

"So to have a collection that in most cases was pretty pristine, is unbelievable," she said.

"But how did they get there? We just don't know … it's totally a mystery."

It's a mystery that's been fluttering around the back of Klapecki's mind ever since, and one that got even more curious when she got back to her office and took a closer look at the collection.

Each butterfly and moth came with a handwritten data label documenting the name of the species with information about when and where it was found. The labels also included the name of the person who had originally caught them. 

Who is R. F. Sternitzky?

The majority of the specimens had the stamp of R. F. Sternitzky, a prolific insect collector who spent a lifetime collecting mostly butterflies and moths in parts of California and Arizona.

His collections can be found in several large American museum collections including the Essig Museum of Entomology at the University of California at Berkeley, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Sternitzky even has a moth named after him — the Nemeris Sternitzkyi — a species he found in Arizona in the 1960s.

As far as Klapecki knows, the Arborg collection is the first of Sternitzky's to be housed in a van.

A majority of the butterflies in the collection were caught by R. F. Sternitzky between 1920 and 1940. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

"Typically a curator or researcher ... would have collected them and then they'd go straight directly to a university collection or a museum collection and then they're left under those conditions where these questions can be preserved for perpetuity," she explained.

"So to have that section of time where they weren't under care and for them to come out the other end in such fantastic condition it's amazing."

The collection also includes several extinct species, including 26 specimens of the Silvery Blue butterfly, an insect Sternitzky collected in the dunes of what is now the Sunset District of San Francisco in the 1920s, before the species is thought to have gone extinct when the area was cleared for housing in the 1940s.

The butterflies are now kept safely under glass in the Manitoba Museum's natural histories collection. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

It's a find Klapecki says is invaluable for researchers who study collections like the one now housed safely under glass at the Manitoba Museum archives.

"We don't know [a species has] become extinct if we've never collected [it] in the first place," she said.

"If R.F. Sternitzky wasn't collecting, we would have never known that this extinction even happened."

'They were just so lovely'

Jeffrey Marcus, now an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Manitoba, has used collections like the ones caught by Sternitzky for research on California butterflies he did when he was the Canada research chair of phylogenomics.

He says most butterfly enthusiasts stopped catching and pinning their prey decades ago, preferring to now capture the winged insects using cameras. That means researchers rely heavily on the actual specimens trapped by collectors like Sternitzky.

For example, Marcus' work involved using the insect's DNA to help him figure out the evolutionary trees of butterflies, something he couldn't do with a photograph.

Marcus says butterfly and moth collecting used to be a fairly popular hobby and collectors would often swap their finds with fellow enthusiasts.

He thinks that may be how the collection ended up in Manitoba.

Researchers rely on the actual specimens caught by collectors like R. F. Sternitzky. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

"People would trade material with one another so that they could sort of fill out their collections and so they could have you know all the different species in a particular group," he explained.

"My guess is that it was probably some sort of of a batch of material that was being sent in trade between two similar enthusiasts who were trying to show one another the diversity of butterflies or butterflies and moths in the two places where they lived."

It's a theory, but only "one of many" Klapecki says she's considered over the last 25 years.

She's tried researching Sternitzky, but other than learning he died in 1980, Klapecki says there's not much else about the collector online, and all of her efforts have come to dead ends.

As for the woman who found the butterflies in the first place, Georgina Ball says she hasn't the foggiest idea how they ended up in the van, but she's glad she was able to save the collection.

"They were just so lovely," said Ball, who still lives on the Arborg farm. "I thought 'well we can't destroy these.'"

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