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Original Issue


A photographer creates an insect alphabet

Everyone knows it's the little things that count. But Kjell Sandved was the first to discover that they can write, too. Sandved is a shutterbug in the most literal sense—he has found and photographed the entire alphabet on the wings of butterflies and moths.

Sandved has been a photographer for the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., for nearly 30 years, but he shadows flittery letters only in his spare time. He has stalked his subjects through 30 countries on five continents: across snow-clad foothills in the Andes, through lush New Guinean rain forests, over rocky escarpments in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands. He has scanned the wings of millions of moths and butterflies, from common cabbage whites and roadside ramblers to seldom-seen spicebush swallowtails and great spangled fritillaries, from half-inch pygmy blues to eight-inch Rajah Brooke's bird-wings. Along the way he has turned up more letters than Vanna White.

In flight, butterflies are as obvious as, well, butterflies, but at rest on plants, their wings folded, they are all but invisible. To photograph them, you need infinite patience, ingenuity and a battery of micro close-up lenses. Sandved has had to crawl on his belly for hours, fend off dogs and stand neck-deep in fetid ponds. "I don't mind leeches," he says of the occupational hazards. "You feel refreshed after they remove a quart of blood."

While butterflies are creatures of sunlight, moths are fly-by-nights. Sandved attracts them with haze-penetrating mercury lamps. "If the moon is full and there's been no rain, forget it," he says. "Moths swirl up into the sky, and you haven't got a chance. But on dark, drizzly nights they come in millions and trillions and zillions."

His butterfly and moth letters are cataloged on yard upon remarkable yard of storage shelves in his Fairfax, Va., apartment. The alphabet fills a dozen fat loose-leaf notebooks, each of which contains about 12 pages of 15 or so slides per page. There are binders for treehoppers, mites, cicadas, the mating rituals of crickets; for penguins, rain forests and shells. His photo essay on spaghetti worms is enough to make Tommy Lasorda swear off linguini. In 1975 a poster featuring some of his butterfly alphabet was produced and sold out. In March, two new posters will be published (for further information write to: Kjell Sandved, 12539 North Lake Court, Fairfax, Va. 22033).

Sandved talks about butterflies in deep, rich Scandinavian accents that hang thickly on some of his sentences like wet snow. Born in Norway, he was a successful book publisher in 1960 when he came over from Oslo to dig up photos for an encyclopedia of animals that he was putting together. When he visited the Smithsonian, he was so captivated that he hired himself out as a photographer. He never used his return ticket.

Sandved began to think of moths and butterflies alphabetically in 1964 while standing atop a ladder in a musty Smithsonian attic. He was rummaging through a cigar box full of mounted specimens when he came upon a member of the Riodinidae family, a butterfly as creamily pastel as a Renoir nude. Inscribed on its front wing was a perfect F. "The scales just sparkled," he recalls. He photographed the letter through a microscope and hung a print over his desk. "It was there for a year and a half before something dawned in my wooden Scandinavian head," he says. "I thought, Kjell, maybe you can find the rest of the alphabet."

And he did. He found an A in Assam, an R in Venezuela, a Z in Eastern India. After 15 years of hunting, all he lacked was a G "Nature tends to go toward the symmetrical," Sandved explains. Then, while doing bat research in a Ghanaian rain forest, one of his assistants spotted a brush-footed butterfly clinging tightly to an orchid leaf. On its hind wing was an unmistakable scarlet G Call it a winged victory. Or a red-letter day.

Since then, Sandved has discovered G's on an Ecuadorian Danaid, a Himalayan parnassian and a Peruvian Nymphalid. He has also found question marks, ampersands, mice, fish, flame-spewing dragons and the Eiffel Tower. "Every design on butterfly and moth wings has a significance," Sandved says. Bright patterns improve an insect's chances for survival by directing attackers away from vital organs.

In his travels, Sandved has had occasion to dine on corn worms, termites and spiders ("a little buttery, until they pop"), but he draws the line at moths and butterflies. "I couldn't eat them," he says. "It wouldn't be ethical. You've got to learn to protect them."

While Sandved says butterflies have no shortage of letters, their numbers are constantly dwindling. "They're slowly, inexorably being crowded out of existence," he says. In Sikkim, the so-called Butterfly Paradise on the slopes of the Himalayas, deforestation, soil erosion and insecticides spell extinction for many species. Sandved wonders if all butterflies will someday flutter away.

Moving swiftly through his office study, Sandved retrieves a letter that contains Howard Ensign Evans's meditation on butterflies from his book Life on a Little-Known Planet. Sandved finds the passage he wants and reads aloud: "...not long ago I visited some of the meadows where I used to chase butterflies as a child. They were solidly in houses, and the closest approximation to a butterfly was a tattered Kleenex blowing from a trash can."



Sandved found these dazzlingly colorful letters in the markings on the wings of butterflies and moths.



Sandved has also discovered that you can count on butterflies when the need arises.