Like the more than 3,000 species of butterflies in Colombia, agronomist Juan Guillermo Jaramillo underwent his own metamorphosis several years ago, as his passion for photographing nature took an unexpected twist. The 65-year-old, who used to run an animal feed business, originally took photographs of birds, but is now a key figure in the world of Colombian butterflies. Jaramillo is the co-author of an inventory that led to Colombia being recognised as having the biggest variety of butterfly species in the world. The list he worked on was published in the British Natural History Museum in London – which has the world’s largest collection of butterflies – in June. The Checklist of Colombian Butterflies identifies 3,642 different species, which makes up 19.4 per cent of the known global varieties. But Jaramillo is keen to point out he is not a collector. “I broke from the traditional image associated with butterflies of collectors that kill them, put them in an envelope and then pin them to the inside of a box,” says Jaramillo. “I’m simply not capable of killing them.” Like bees, butterflies are pollinators and vital to the ecosystem. They are also an important source of food for birds and snakes. Their habitats are under threat from deforestation, agriculture and global warming . Jaramillo, who lives in Antioquia department in the country’s southwest, has an archive of 220,000 photos of butterflies and has captured images of 1,500 different species. Some of the world’s most spectacular butterflies – see them in Hong Kong Jaramillo has spent the past 15 years trekking through jungles and woodlands in search of the “winged jewels” – a dangerous pastime given those areas are infested with armed groups and drug traffickers. The signing of a 2016 peace accord between the government and the Marxist guerilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) after more than half a century of armed conflict sparked hope areas previously off limits would become safe for scientists and naturalists. But it was not long before armed rebels and drug-traffickers returned. “I want to go to many places but there are some I don’t go to out of fear,” says Jaramillo. When he does venture out, Jaramillo takes a camera, tripod and a container of pink liquid he prepares every morning: shrimp bait. Having tried various other types of bait, he has found that shrimp worked best. He spreads the foul-smelling bait on rocks and leaves by a rushing stream, and even lays out cotton balls soaked in the liquid. “That’s how I make them think it’s bird droppings,” he explains. “When the butterflies land on a leaf they stay there for quite some time … they’re almost like models. “Without the bait, it would be impossible to see certain species in the woodland because they live in very tall trees.” Another potential barrier is the weather. “If there’s no sun, there are no butterflies.” ‘The forest is returning’: trees make a comeback in Hong Kong Jaramillo used to be a bird watcher and also compiled an inventory of the species he observed. Colombia has the most varieties of bird species and orchids, according to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. It was the switch from film to digital photography that sparked Jaramillo’s conversion to butterflies. “Taking a good photo of birds is very difficult because you need very big, heavy lens.” While filming birds, he also took photos of butterflies and was amazed by their colours and shapes. It opened up a vast world to Jaramillo. After beetles, butterflies and moths are the most numerous insects on the planet with almost 160,000 described species. “In Colombia, I think there are about twice as many species of butterflies as birds,” says American Kim Garwood, Jaramillo’s fellow inventory author. “In the Andes I have been told there are about 10 to 15 per cent of the butterfly species that are undescribed. We have many photos of undescribed species.” Near his farm on a road with little traffic, Jaramillo, who is retired, says he is in the perfect place to photograph butterflies when the sun rises and the day’s warm air helps them stay aloft. But Jaramillo’s work doesn’t end with sunset, as at nightfall, he turns his lens onto moths. “With butterflies and moths, I have work for this lifetime and 10 more,” he says.