Soul on a Short Leash: Butterflies, Bees, and Technologies


by Irena Nagler

My parents both traveled in Mexico when they were young. They hadn’t yet met and would not for a few years. A flock of butterflies accompanied the bus in which my mother crossed the border from Arizona. She said they were pale in color, not monarchs, like a scatter of flowers, a flock of mariposas on the wind’s breath, and for the Aztecs, a symbol of fire and soul. 

Flying alongside the bus-windows, they transported her spirit over the border on their strong wings in a surge and uplift that she never forgot, into lands and among people with whom she felt affinity. She spent some months in Mexico, traveling and working with children. 

Both my parents, on their separate journeys during the 1950s, saw Diego Rivera at work on murals. My mother had a glimpse of him painting in a courtyard. “This big guy,” she said. “I didn’t know who he was.”

My father had been in the country a few years earlier with a group of students in their late teens. They were doing volunteer work through a Quaker organization. Rivera had gotten word of them, and when they encountered him in Mexico City he called them over to where he was working. He had something he wanted to tell them about his time in Detroit.  

“He said,” my father told me, “that after observing the impact of the technology on human lives and on the environment, he did not want the same for Mexico.” In Michigan, and specifically Detroit, narrative, it is usually stated that Rivera idealized technology as a liberating force for humanity. Apparently he arrived for his commission at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932 with something close to that outlook: intrigued and enthusiastic. 

However, the murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts may tell a somewhat different story. Fisted hands burst up into open skies above scenes of factory work enclosed among ganglia of pipes and struts. Technology is depicted as a god, compared and contrasted with images of Aztec deities. A scene echoing the Christian Nativity has a nurse as Mary and a doctor as Joseph administering vaccines to a golden child. The workers are immersed in unremitting gray, dwarfed by machinery. There are larval factory scenes with no space for the metamorphosis of winged creatures and processions of men with heads bowed. 

But the dynamic earth, from which the metals have been wrested to make machines and other artifacts, seems triumphant, arrayed over their heads, brightly burning in rainbow hues.

Frida Kahlo, Diego’s spouse, painted an electric cord protruding from a machine in Michigan becoming the root of a tree in Mexico. The dry, salty Yucatan Peninsula, with its underground waters, is almost directly south of our lake land. There’s an odd north-south resonance with the Aztec and Mayan motifs so often chosen to decorate buildings during the time of Detroit’s flowering.

When I was a child, butterflies of many varieties were frequent guests in summertime gardens. They wafted along planes of sunlight and lighted on flowers. Their flight traced contours of invisible waves that we could sense beneath consciousness: magnetic fields visible to them in shades of blue and ultraviolet. Their elegant forms, miniature ladies and gentlemen bearing the weight of wings, strode leaves and petals with the grace of tiny space walkers. 

We were told not to touch them, that we would wipe the dust off their wings and they would no longer be able to fly. Though they must be treated gently, they are in fact stronger than this. Their wings are composed of thin membranes, webbed with veins and covered by protective, nanoscopic scales, iridescent and overlaid like shingles. The scales are shed periodically throughout their lives. They constitute the “dust” that lingers on the fingers of those who touch them. Too much scale loss can indeed affect the membrane beneath, though one touch would not make much difference. But they can’t regenerate the scales, and older butterflies often show naked patches on their wings. 

Once, in my family, we watched caterpillars form chrysalises in a big jar. The larvae would dissolve within them, and soon the crumpled wings would emerge, the slow opening and closing of them, the lifting and the flight. 

A caterpillar, when full-grown, extrudes a button of silk to fasten to a leaf or twig. The skin of the larva, the last of many, is shed. Underneath is the hardened chrysalis, within which a measured, alchemical dissolution and reconstitution occurs. Butterfly organs laid out in perfect order within what is sometimes compared to a soup, to be stitched together from within for the final phase of metamorphosis. Some butterflies, inside their chrysalis, can create sound and make abdominal segments move, which may scare away predators. Eventually the butterfly works to shed the chrysalis, discarding a little wizened mask. It suspends itself quietly to dry its wings, and then launches itself into the air. 

With their fast metabolism, time may be subjectively slow for them compared to our experience of it. Each wing-beat for us might seem to take only a moment, but for the butterflies the moment is long. They may be savoring a world stained to their eyesight with visions of ultraviolet and blue that paint the flowers in colors that we cannot see. A gift, perhaps, that mitigates the shortness of their lifespan.

Butterflies are a rare sight now, most years, in urban and suburban areas. It seems almost a dream to remember otherwise. 

For a few years, prior to 2009, I often encountered them in the shady Heathdale valley of the Nichols Arboretum. Wherever there was a patch of sun, one would be spreading its wings, resting—on the back of a bench or clinging to a plant on the steep hillside. They were of many species, not a flock like monarchs. 

In the summer of 2009 a friend told me: “I never see butterflies anymore.” I hastened to mention to him the Heathdale butterflies and determined to go there soon and check out the scene. I hadn’t done so for about a year. I visited the spot repeatedly over a month or so and found that my friend was right—there were almost none there. I only saw a few very small ones. 

In the late summer of that year, I walked one day to the edge of the city and a little beyond. Off the road, I saw a field; pathless, burry, a tangle of bushes and tall grasses, a place not frequented by humans. 

But there they were, the butterflies. A cloud of them rested and fluttered among the bushes. Again, they were not monarchs, not all one species. It was as if all the varied butterflies and moths of the city had congregated in this field. They bejeweled it, many-colored, vivid and light as breath, yet creatures of intensity. 

Maybe they are only fleeing humans—that is, if they can find a space to flee to. Maybe it is the same with some of the bees. 

Occasionally I will see them still. Sometimes a small flock of monarchs with monitor-tags on their wings, browsing on flowers near my home. Yellow swallowtails—one dancing over the butterfly garden in the Arb, another among plantings of flowers near the Food Coop, arresting the gaze of passersby. The humans don’t pull out their phones and move in to photograph it, they are too riveted by the now-rare sight, caught in a luminous spell. 

Another I pass at the edge of a garden. It flies to me, and then traces a spiral flight from my feet up to the space over my head, and wings away across the road to a wooded area bounded by rocks.

And a big black and iridescent-blue one that tried to follow its accustomed flight path across the Broadway bridge and was hit by a car. It lay on the road, struggling. Fortunately, there was no traffic for a little while. I ran out and picked it up, and after a few attempts to fly away, it stayed on my hand, opening and closing its wings. I walked about with it at home for about an hour, and finally deposited it on a leaf. When I went to check on it later it was gone. I realize now that perhaps I should have tried to follow its intended flight path, crossing the street and leaving it on the other side.

One day, in search of a possible link between the scarcity of butterfly sightings and the proliferation of devices made with radioactive rare earths, I Googled butterfly and smartphone together. 

I found page after page of references to smartphones’ rendering of color, borrowed from the way light reflects iridescence from butterflies’ wings. Future developments will include imitation of the irregular structure of the transparent glasswing butterflies’ wings to eliminate most reflections from any angle, reducing glare almost completely for e-reading. 

Have we been borrowing properties of their legendary wing-dust for use in devices that may be distressing them?

Butterflies and bees both vanished in alarming numbers shortly after smartphones proliferated. Mites, pesticides, habitat fragmentation, and for bees, agribusiness moving them constantly between areas—all of these contribute to their decline, but these population hazards have been in evidence for a longer time. Since the 1970s, a beekeeper told me, the mites have been an issue, though they tend to be cited sometimes as the major culprit, as if they were a newer development than they are. 

The simultaneity of sudden massive bee colony collapse and vanishing butterflies with the availability and ubiquity of phones that are now powerful miniature computers transmitting what is ironically called a beehive world, may be related. The devices are capable of so many functions that it becomes tempting to use them incessantly. 

I pictured the synchronicity not as a direct causal sequence, but a critical mass of many factors spilling over in a cascade of distress for creatures that are demonstrably sensitive to, and dependent on, perception of magnetic fields. Some beekeepers concur, saying that if the cause were illness, there would be more dead bees found near hives. 

There is not much research in that area, but I found several articles, many in small, scholastic fonts not intended to be sensational. Experimental results indicate stress and behavioral changes: bees giving off agitated noises, significant numbers of them showing an increased tendency to swarm or be aggressive, reacting in definite ways to phones in talk mode or crawling away from phones laid on the grass. Ants moving house, taking their nymphs and pupae with them, when mobile phones are placed under their nests, and returning when the phones are removed, some moving their legs with difficulty, or not progressing toward their normal food sites as usual. 

There is no clear conclusion that the phones or cell towers are actually killing them, though one beekeeper reported disoriented bees foraging in the winter instead of summer and dying of cold. 

And what about humans? We have magnetite in our bodies, too, which may be capable of detecting fields. Much of ours is in the area of our noses (birds have it in and behind their beaks.) The ethmoid bone bridges the nose with the brain. It is named for a sieve because it contains little perforations to allow air to move, sinuses that connect with the frontal ones behind the face. In migratory animals and birds, the deposits of magnetite behind their beaks enable them to read the electromagnetic fields of the earth. Could it aid in sensing specifically earth-based magnetism, transmitted in part through minerals encased in rock? 

In humans, the magnetite is said to be vestigial. But is it, really? How many of us experience a sense of pressure behind the nose, or vertigo, when exposed to intense electromagnetic fields?

Birds, bees, and butterflies, creatures that spend a good part of their time not tethered to the ground, have additional means of sensing the fields through sight. Cryptochrome in their eyes enables them to see fields in a blue light. Was this developed in birds after they took to the sky, with the beak magnetite a “vestige” of a more earthbound time? 

Smartphones are much more in evidence than butterflies now. They float through air, cradled in human hands. Their rectangular shapes and smooth surfaces dominate visually, within a worldwide mesh of invisible signals and fields, communication and tracking. It’s a field laid out on a grid of little squares, sampling elusive waves of life. 

Bowed heads and eyes cast down are in evidence up and down city streets in the “developed” parts of the world. The beehive realm plucks at humans constantly through electronic media, souls on a short leash.


A friend tells me a dream—she and other people are removing small white insects from their bodies. “This is how they control us,” a dream character tells her.

The connectivity is exciting, though glazed with abstraction. A digital screen’s molecules are impervious compared to paper’s reception of ink or paint, or indeed of human DNA. The continuity is cerebral, visual and aural, electric and psychic. Energy that would move directly through arm and hand to paper through the medium of pen or brush is truncated by keyboards, detached a few degrees from the inhabited body/soul. The deeply instinctive senses of smell, taste, and body-balance are excluded.

Soul and personality do find their ways through the grid. Their energies will use anything at hand to feed the hunger for connection. They will even blaze through wires and wifi to transmit ranges of emotion and human warmth. 

What might the cost be, however, in terms of more direct connection, even at remote distance?

We used to wade in the symbolic waters of life that resonated and expanded, depth and reach accessible to attuned senses. Increasingly, we skate on the surface instead, seeming to cover distances in an often exciting and profitable flash.

About forty percent of us that is. A greater proportion of humans are left behind, almost invisible and inaudible. This includes many of those who work to make the grid possible: mining for rare earths that pollute their local water in the process, assembling machines in soul-sapping factories, or dismantling e-waste. Out of sight, out of mind, across an ocean plied by enormous container ships loaded with products destined for stores where people are able to buy them, in part because they are made by cheap labor, the whole sustained by trade agreements between relatively powerful worldwide entities.

Ghostly and weighty at once, the ships that link the world appear like strange floating lands.

One night I dreamed of an ancient road made of flint. It resembled a gleaming flint-piece I found once in England. The road ran north and south through countryside in the British Isles. The stone was like polished glass—deep blue and striated with luna-moth green. In it were reflected the stars of the Milky Way. The road was long, merging with the night, reaching into futures and emerging from the commonality of our ancestral past.

Flint, the spark of fire, the substance of ancient arrowheads, is a variety of chert, formed as nodules within sedimentary rock. Inside it is often glassy, as if naturally polished, often coated with an exterior of rougher slate. It is not clear how flint is formed. The glassy substance may be gelatinous silicon material—that mineral associated with communications and electronics—deposited and solidified in cavities of sediment, holes bored by crustaceans and mollusks. However it’s generated, flint is one of the earliest technological materials, emblematic of human brilliance and ingenuity. 

Silica rock has been associated by some with the retention of ghost-voices that people hear at sites in England, like the ruined Glastonbury Cathedral, where a family friend, a skeptical and rational man, heard the chanting of long-deceased monks when he trod a particular path and ceased to hear them whenever he stepped off it.

The minerals of communication are veins in the rocks we walk upon. Maybe one day we’ll receive information and communicate through them without having to extract them. It’s possible that our ancestors did. There are legends about fairy-people who cannot touch iron, who avoid the metals wrested from earth that ended their way of life.

There is a grammar, a unified language, that all instinctively share even as it disperses into a dizzying variety of human speech, and animal gestures, and vocalizations reflecting diverse environments. When we must turn earthward again, and open to night skies salted with stars, we may recover lost languages, a reconnection to other animals, and to our fey ancestors.

And the butterflies of fire and soul, the bees of sting and sweetness, might emerge from the vanishing burry havens and move through our lives and gardens again on planes of color and light. 

Irena Nagler writes fiction, essay, and poetry, teaches environmental movement meditation, and is a visual and performing artist. She has been researching the environmental, social, and industrial underpinnings of current technology for nine years. Contact her by email at:

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