Dr Blanca Huertas

If you love butterflies then Dr Blanca Huertas has your dream job.

She is Senior Curator of Butterflies at London’s Natural History Museum and more than most about one of nature’s most colourful characters.

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Despite being born in a major city, Dr Blanca Huertas has always been interested in nature, specifically natural history.

She was born and raised in the city of Bogotá, capital of Colombia in South America, but that didn’t stop her from getting out and exploring the great outdoors with her family.

“I grew up doing walks with my family in the mountains of Colombia collecting plants and insects during the family trips. My dad was a great influence and always a supporter.”

That childhood fascination for plants and insects has remained with her throughout her life, but there was always one creature which interested her more than others.

Butterflies.

"I have been always interested in butterflies since I was a small girl. When I grew up I was able to start travelling and doing my own collections of insects.”

Dr Blanca Huertas countryside


Projects

When the time came to go to university she met the man who would go on to become her mentor, Professor Rodrigo Torres, an entomologist (someone who studies insects). He was the one who convinced her she could turn this passion for insects into a career.

After studying at university in Bogotá, Dr Huertas moved to the UK where she studied for her Masters and PhD degrees at University College London (UCL) where she got involved in a huge project as a coordinator with research of butterflies taking place in the UK, United States, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru.

“It was a wonderful experience and a lot of travelling and learning.”

Then it was straight into work at the Natural History Museum after earning her PhD. From there she’s gone onto her proudest achievement to date.

“Professionally, [my proudest achievement] has been without doubt to be in charge of the world's biggest and oldest collections of butterflies at the Natural History Museum.

“I learn something new every day I have been working there and I have the opportunity to pass a bit of that knowledge too.

“Personally, my biggest achievement is somehow keeping that difficult 'life/career balance' as I have a wonderful job but also a lovely family!”

Dr Huertas’ job also visits places which are so remote, the only way in is via helicopter such as Chiribiquete National Park in her native Colombia to find a new species of ringlet butterfly which she and an international team had first found, uncatalogued, in the archive drawers of the Natural History Museum.

Challenges

“Although women's role in science has improved and it is more appreciated over the last century, there are still a lot of gender bias in my field. It was not easy to reach my position in a traditional institution.

“Also being a foreigner in a new country, there are difficult barriers that one has to deal with everyday such as language and culture.”

You can find butterflies almost anywhere in the world, except Antarctica. Rainforests are good places and near river banks.

If you want to find them in your own garden, Dr Huertas has a few tips to encourage them to visit.

“First and golden rule: don’t use pesticides. Most people plant lovely flowers that might attract butterflies, but when they use chemicals they are killing not only the pests but also caterpillars and other harmless wildlife.”

The wonders that are butterflies

And if you rink butterflies are just pretty, colourful creatures that are attracted to equality pretty, colourful plants, think again.

“Some feed on the juices of dead animals, rotten fruit or even poo.”

Dr Blanca Huertas butterfly

And if you're after some butterfly records, then where better to start than with the Largest butterfly; the Queen Alexandra's birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) of Papua New Guinea. Females may have a wingspan exceeding 28 cm (11 in) and weigh over 25 g (0.9 oz).

And butterflies can travel much further than you think.

The Longest journey by a butterfly was by a tagged male monarch (Danaus plexippus) which was released by Donald A. Davis (Canada) at Presqu'ile Provincial Park near Brighton, Ontario, Canada on 10 September 1988 and recaptured on 8 April 1989 in Austin, Texas, USA.

It is assumed that this butterfly spent the winter in Mexico as it would not have been able to survive freezing winter temperatures in Texas. Hence, this butterfly travelled at least 4,635 km (2,880 miles) – a distance obtained by measuring a line from the release site to the overwintering sites and back north again to Austin, Texas, USA.