Given what he became, Jaret Daniels had the ideal childhood growing up near 6-1/2 Mile Road in Caledonia.
“I was lucky. My parents had a large piece of property – woods and grass and field,” he said.
He collected bugs, became fascinated with them and went on to become an entomologist. Now 43 and an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida, he was recently nominated for the Indianapolis Prize, a $100,000 award given every other year to a person who has made notable achievements in conservation. Daniels has focused on butterflies.
“They were easy to get, easy to observe. They were just a lot of fun as a kid to bring in and to raise,” he said. For a career they had other advantages.
“Butterflies were a no-brainer because they’re the most charismatic of insects and one of the few that people will actually travel to see,” he said. Thus they can be a good introduction for the general public to the topic of insect conservation.
Butterflies are pollinators. Although not nearly as important as bees, Daniels said, they are still important.
Some butterflies are also in decline. The Monarch, for example, is declining in the West. Wisconsin has the Karner blue, an endangered butterfly which has been part of the tug of war between environmentalists and developers.
Butterfly numbers and diversity are a good early indicator of the health of an environment, Daniels said. Losing one or two species probably won’t have an effect, but losing too many pollinators will affect whether we can raise enough food to meet human needs. We don’t know where that balance point is, he said.
Aside from the property where he grew up, Daniels said his parents, Nancy and Richard, nurtured his interests although they were not scientists themselves.
Susan Borkin, who is head of life sciences and curator in invertebrate zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum, recalls that it was Daniels’ mother who inquired about an internship for her son while he was a student at The Prairie School. Daniels said that was his first introduction to real science.
From a quiet, enthusiastic and knowledgable intern, Borkin has seen Daniels’ career grow. He is a pioneer in butterfly conservation, Borkin said, and in trying to advance the entire field. She mentioned meetings he has arranged between academics who produce basic knowledge and people from museums and zoos who do the practical work of breeding and releasing butterflies.
“We know very little about these endangered butterflies to begin with, what it takes to conserve them and especially what it takes to rear them in captivity,” Borkin said.
The 29 nominees for the Indianapolis Prize will be winnowed to six finalists and the prize will be awarded in September.
Daniels said it has been an honor to be named in the same group as the other 28 nominees. Among such a group, Daniels said, it’s also an honor to represent the very small creatures – the insects – who really run the world.