Rare Specimens: An Unusual Match-Up In Entomology

Sep 23, 2012
Originally published on September 23, 2012 6:16 pm

Alma Solis, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Systematic Entomology Lab, and her husband, Jason Hall, a researcher with the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, are, at first blush, a natural match.

Both are entomologists, a career that requires long hours, field work and travel for months at time — all without huge pay. But the couple soon learned that though they shared a passion, they did not share a specialty.

Hers: moths.

His: butterflies.

In the world of entomology, Solis explains, that makes rare specimens.

"Butterfly people usually stick with butterfly people and moth people usually stick with moth people," she says. "We were the only moth-butterfly couple up until about a month ago, when we had some colleagues in Finland get married. But we were it until then."

"It's a very unusual shared passion," Hall adds.

She collects specimens at night, with a huge, lighted sheet in the forests of northern Mexico. He scales Ecuadorian mountains with giant nets, braving mosquitoes and waist-deep mud. Ecuador, in fact, was something of a first date for the couple.

"He took me out into the field, I think, because he wanted to make sure I could do this before he could even think about marrying me," Solis says.

When they're not traveling, the couple relax in a vast butterfly garden they've built surrounding their suburban Maryland home.

"It's very quaint," Hall says. "But that's part of the reason to have a little butterfly garden. When you're not in the field, it keeps the butterflies close — keeps them in sight. Reminds you of what you enjoy doing."

To hear more of the couple's interview with NPR's Jacki Lyden, click the audio link above.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


And if you're just joining us, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

I used to think this recording, "Poor Butterfly" by Judy Garland, was perhaps the most romantic take on the subject...


LYDEN: ...the subject being butterflies.


LYDEN: Until last week when I stumbled on the home of Dr. Jason Hall, one of the world's leading entomologists, having described 150 species of the butterfly known as Riodinidae.

DR. JASON HALL: I work at the Smithsonian on the tropical butterflies. And this is my wife, Alma Solis, Dr. Alma Solis.

LYDEN: Nice to meet you, Dr. Alma Solis.

DR. ALMA SOLIS: Hi. Hi. Well, I work for USDA at the Natural History Museum, and that's where I met my husband.

LYDEN: Dr. Jason Hall and Dr. Alma Solis live in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a house that is one big butterfly garden, which they created themselves. He's identified more butterflies in his yard - around 50 - than exist in all of his native England.

HALL: Well, for instance, the Papilio glaucus, the big yellow swallowtail, cabbage whites, white spotted, skipper...

LYDEN: As a couple, they are more rare than even the brilliant green and blue butterflies that Jason collects and classifies in Ecuador, even more rare than some of Alma's moth sightings in Mexico.

HALL: We are the only moth/butterfly couple up until about a month ago when we had some colleagues in Finland get married. But we were it until then. And...

LYDEN: So here's their story. It started with how they met at the Smithsonian almost a decade ago. Now, there are a scant few songs about moths, so we threw in a few other butterfly songs in here because, you know, why not?


HALL: We actually - when I arrived, Alma was on sabbatical. So there was this empty office next to mine. So, of course, when she showed up a few months after I arrived, I was curious to find out who was in this office. So I went and introduced myself. We went out to the movies, and then one thing led to another.


HALL: That's what happened.


LYDEN: You've got a big smile on your face.

SOLIS: Well, you know, I mean, I've always had to deal with the idea that sometimes that if you get married, your partner may not be - have to share the same interest. And, I mean, how do you tell your husband that you're going into the field with men for three months and that you're going to have to share tents and all this? I mean...

HALL: Like, oh, I'm going to Guyana for a month. OK, honey. See you.


HALL: Well, it's a very unusual shared passion.

SOLIS: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.


SOLIS: He works during the day, and I work at night. I collect my moths at night. So traveling together and looking at our organisms is very difficult.


HALL: Yeah. It is true. We had different backgrounds.

SOLIS: Yeah. But I came to it late. Most of my colleagues, my male colleagues...

HALL: Are more like me.

SOLIS: ...are more like him.

HALL: Little kids collecting butterflies in jars.

SOLIS: Butterflies. But, you know, all this kind of thing. I mean, I was an English major when I went to college. And then I learned that they had this biological station in northeastern Mexico, and it was the most amazing place I've ever seen. I mean, the trees are humongous. I mean, you know, they're 100 feet tall, 90 feet tall, and everything glistens.

And the clouds move in, and you just see things that you've never seen before. And I thought, I want to spend my life discovering and learning new things. And so then I just started taking science classes.


HALL: So in Ecuador, there's one day on a ridge top and cloud forest where I discovered two new species of Riodinidae butterflies on the same day. And they're beautiful creatures. They're very small. They have incredible metallic blues and greens, long tails, bizarre wing shapes, orange and blue markings with iridescent silvery-blue line down the outside of the wings. Just very beautiful.

SOLIS: What I remember is my very first time collecting moths. The way we do it is we put a sheet out. We put a special light to bring the moths in. And I remember, very distinctly, this sheet just full of moths, and then the bats coming in just to try and get some dinner. The very first time - and I was there by my - all by myself, and that was really scary to me. But I got over it.


LYDEN: And for his butterflies, you have to climb to the top of mountains, basically.

HALL: Well, if you're a moth, you put out this sheet, and the moths come to you.

LYDEN: Come to you.

HALL: The moths come to you.


HALL: But to catch butterflies, you have to go to them.

LYDEN: You hike.

HALL: It's a lot harder.

LYDEN: You hike. You hike straight up, right? (Unintelligible).

HALL: Not like walking around the garden here where everything's just, you know, like, pull it off the ground.

SOLIS: Not there. I mean...

HALL: It's a cathedral. They can be 10, 20 meters up.


HALL: And this is why I'm also finding these species. The rarer things fly higher up.

LYDEN: There's been so much destruction, too, of course, in the - of the Amazon...

HALL: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: ...and territory there. That's also got to be another concern to entomologists.

HALL: It is a big concern. I mean, almost every time I go back, obviously, you're going back to places that you found before, and you find places that have been cut. And I've just cried like a baby. On one occasion, I cried like a baby when I got there and found, you know, a couple of new species I was trying to find, like the male of something that we'd found the female of - it was a new species - and I couldn't even find the location, the exact place where I found it before because what was a beautiful forest was now a field.

SOLIS: Entomologists like us, we live for going out into the field. And so when we first met, we talked a lot about where we'd conducted fieldwork and what we'd discovered and, you know, what we wanted to do in the future and where we wanted to go collecting or where we want to go study.


LYDEN: So when you come back, and now we're sitting here in, you know, suburban Maryland, it must seem a little tame.

HALL: Definitely. It's very quaint...


SOLIS: Quaint, yes.

HALL: ...compared to five-feet mud and, you know, west Nicaragua. Yeah. But that was part of the reason to have a little butterfly garden. You know, when you're not in the field, it keeps the butterflies close. It keeps them in sight. You know, it reminds you of what you enjoy doing.


LYDEN: Jason Hall and Alma Solis live in Silver Spring, Maryland. Thanks, too, to the Friends of Sligo Creek for that story.

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