Creepy-crawlies don't give Bryan E. Reynolds the heebie-jeebies.
“My earliest memories are of bugs,” said Reynolds, a 47-year-old Air Force retiree who lives southeast of Norman. “Very young kids have yet to build up that fear. I've seen studies where they show toddlers who see spiders scuttle across the floor in front of them, and they don't react at all. Fear seems to be a learned thing.”
If so, Reynolds skipped that lesson. Today, he is a skilled nature photographer who focuses primarily on butterflies. His work has appeared in books, magazines, journals and textbooks, and he helps keep track of state butterfly counts.
He also is the founder of the Butterflies of the World Foundation, a Lexington-based nonprofit that has no paid staff and does not solicit donations.
But it all began when he was a boy in the upper Midwest, who loved the outdoors and insects. His curiosity was piqued when he was about 5 years old and encountered an aunt's bug collection. He set out to build his own.
“For a while, it was all bugs,” he said. “I started a bug collection in Wisconsin when I was in my young teenage years or earlier. It was curated, of museum quality. But I had forgotten to put in mothballs to keep out museum beetles (which feed on such specimens).
“They got into it, and they devastated my bugs. I looked inside my collection one day, and it was all pieces of wings and legs. They were all destroyed. These were living organisms that I had caught and killed myself.”
He was so distraught that his parents came up with an idea for him. Instead of capturing specimens and pinning them down beneath glass, why not take photographs of insects instead? They bought him a manual SLR camera in the early 1980s, and he set to work.
His hobby grew as he continued through school and entered the military. His equipment became more refined as he accrued macro lenses and extension tubes, allowing him to capture images of nature's tiny inhabitants with crystal clear resolution.
For a long while, he focused his camera lens mainly on spiders. While stationed by the Air Force in Albuquerque, N.M., he spent his free time volunteering as a docent at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, helping out with spider exhibits and trying to share with visiting children some of his appreciation for the creatures.
He didn't forsake other bugs, though. He continued to shoot whatever insects he encountered — wherever and whenever he came across them. Any time he, his wife and children went on vacation he'd spend part of the trip searching for insects to photograph. He'd wander in friends' backyards looking for bugs.
A focus on butterflies
Butterflies became his focus when Reynolds was transferred to an Air Force base in Minot, N.D.
“I got in touch with a guy at Minot State University who was into butterflies,” he said. “I don't know how I started the friendship, but he agreed to meet me. He was pretty excited when I showed him my photographs. He was working on a book about North Dakota butterflies and thought maybe we could work together on this book. … He became my guide. He knew exactly where to go and when and literally to what exact bush to go find them.”
Reynolds' friendship with the college professor, Ronald Royer, continued after the publication of “Butterflies of North Dakota: An Atlas and Guide.” Today, Royer is an adviser to Reynolds' foundation, which focuses on conservancy.
Reynolds and his family left Minot after he retired from the military and moved to Oklahoma about 2005. Reynolds plunged into the state's wildlife refuges in search of more butterflies, emerging with more photos and a better understanding of Oklahoma's ecological environment and challenges.
Butterflies, he said, are a sort of “canary in the coal mine,” an early warning sign that an ecosystem may be out of balance. If certain butterflies aren't where you expect them to be year after year, something's wrong.
That's why keeping track of them is important. Reynolds, who has participated in other counts in the past, has been hired to track a whole season of butterflies in the Black Mesa State Park and Nature Reserve in the state's Panhandle.
It's arduous work, plagued with annoyances such as poison ivy, ticks, mosquitoes, deer flies, briers, mud, horse flies and snakes. (Sometimes, he said, he covers up most of his skin in dense mosquito areas but leaves one patch bare so he can photograph the parasites as they drink his blood.)
“My last trip to Black Mesa, it was already well over 100 degrees,” he said. “Very dry with a lot of wind and dust. I had to be careful with my fluid intake and so on. You get very excited. You see a species, and your excitement carries you through the discomfort, and you get the shot, and then you realize you're just dripping with sweat. You're in danger of dehydration. You need to get water.”
Nearly 200 butterfly species have been documented in Oklahoma. About 80 percent of them, Reynolds said, return regularly. The others are “rare strays” carried into our state because of hurricanes or unusual weather conditions.
“You can have a hurricane near Texas that can bring into Oklahoma butterflies normally found in Mexico,” he said.
The work has been rewarding. Reynolds' photographs have been published in Discover magazine, Mother Earth News, Highlights for Children, Smithsonian magazine, Outdoor Photographer and more. National Geographic has used images he captured of mosquitoes and black widow spiders in their educational materials. His work has been reproduced in textbooks, post cards, greeting cards, field guides and calendars.
Through the foundation, which was established in 2007, Reynolds has spoken to thousands of people about butterflies and conservancy.
“It's very rewarding,” he said. “I love it.”