In 1965, when James Nebel was a young man, he became the owner and protector of a huge collection of moths and butterflies.
At the time it was known as the Anderson Collection and considered the second largest private collection of lepidopterans in Washington. It consisted of more than 3,000 specimens and it was the lifework of Andrew Anderson of Pateros, Wash., a man Nebel had known growing up.
“When I was a kid, he was a grandpa to all the kids in the neighborhood,” said Nebel, who now lives in Rosalia where he owns the Budding Rose Gallery with his wife, Diane Nebel. “And I guess I was the only one who was interested in the collection.”
Anderson was an avid lepidopterist who had spent 46 years gathering and preserving local butterflies and moths, as well as trading for some exotic specimens from around the globe. He was 86 years old when he gave the collection to Nebel.
Now the Nebels are putting part of the collection on display at the Budding Rose Gallery during Rosalia’s fall festival on Saturday.
“I’d say there will be a minimum of 800 butterflies and moths at the gallery,” said James Nebel.
After he received the collection and while he was living near Belt, Mont., with his family, Nebel continued to catch and preserve butterflies and moths.
“I liked it,” he said, adding that, “the classification system and the naming of them all were kind of hard for me to grasp.”
But the beauty of the butterflies and moths wasn’t lost on him and he added at least 500 specimens to the collection during his Montana years.
“You are always looking for that rare species,” he said.
In the spring of 1984, the Nebels’ Montana home flooded for the third time and he became concerned with the safety of the collection.
“We felt like it needed to be stored under better circumstances,” said Nebel, who then contacted Washington State University. And in 1985 WSU professor of entomology Richard S. Zack headed to Belt to pick up 45 cases of lepidopterans and take them back to the university’s James Collection in Pullman.
“The Nebel donation was a significant addition, especially because of its historical value,” wrote Zack, who’s still at WSU, in an email.
Today, WSU’s James Collection houses approximately 35,000 butterflies and 60,000 moths, Zack wrote.
Nebel isn’t quite sure how many butterflies and moths are in his private collection today but estimates it’s about 1,400.
“Getting ready for the show at the gallery we found one in an envelope that was from Germany and marked 1916,” James Nebel said. “I think that’s the oldest one we found.”
He keeps his 40 cases of lepidopterans in an unused sauna at his home.
“The cedar siding in the sauna protects the specimens from being eaten by other insects,” Nebel said, adding that the larvae of the common flour weevil have quite the appetite for preserved butterflies. “You have got to be very careful how you store them.”
The Nebels, who are both in their 70s and both retired from environmental health careers at the Spokane Regional Health District, are now contemplating what to do with the collection.
“I don’t think any of our children are interested in it,” Diane Nebel said.
Just recently they heard from the family of “Grandpa A” as they call Anderson, and they are now putting together smaller cases of butterflies for Anderson’s great-grandchildren.
And even though they no longer collect lepidopterans, they still have favorites.
“I’ve always liked the big swallowtails,” James Nebel said, “they are colorful and big and beautiful.”
Diane Nebel likes moths.
“Especially the big Atlas moth, they are just so fascinating,” she said.
They are both hoping lots of children will come see the butterflies Saturday and have extended a special invitation to schools in Rosalia.
“If kids are really interested there are some specimens here that may not be in existence anymore,” Nebel said. “And if they have questions, then I still know a little bit about it all.”