Butterfly-Collecting Was The Perfect Cover For This Historic Spy

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We love real-life spy stories. The gadgetry! The clandestine meetings! The coded messages! But thus far, most spy stories have glossed over the role of butterfly-collecting. That was a terrible mistake.

Commenter spagornasm shared this real history of a spy working in the early 1900s — and the unexpectedly important role that butterfly-collecting and birdwatching played in his work:

It’s not sci-fi, but I would love to see the story of Colonel Frederick M. Bailey (Mission to Taskhent, his autobiography, is superb). He was a spy in the British secret service, working a signals intelligence unit in Meshed, Persia/Iran, in 1919, when he was called up to travel through British India to Kashgar, where he then infiltrated into Soviet Turkestan during the Russian Civil War, with the mission of “undoing” the Bolshevik revolution while scoping Soviet plans for what became known as the Kalmyk Projekt, their attempt to invade British India through Afghanistan’s territory.

After he’s embedded in Tashkent, he befriends a blindingly clever American diplomat who springs him from jail. Bailey was an expert in languages (he taught himself Tibetan and helped Francis Younghusband lead the British invasion of Tibet in 1904), and eventually went under cover as a Cheka agent hunting himself. After more shenanigans, wherein he was made to translate between Sultan of Afghan (who was seeking Soviet protection from British India) and the local Bolshevik apparatchiks.

Bailey eventually found a friend he made in prison, a German prisoner captured earlier in the war, and the two fled through the desert to modern-day Ashgabat (then part of Persia). But Bailey wasn’t done with the region: a few short years later he returned to Central Asia to support and expand the Basmatchi Rebellions, which lasted a decade and caused enormous grief for the Bolsheviks as they tried to consolidate control over the region.

Like most British/Victorian imperialists, Bailey was also an amateur horticulturalist and entomologist; he discovered several new species of poppy and butterflies all while playing hide and seek with the earliest version of the KGB.

Anyway, truth is better than fiction sometimes!

Today, Bailey’s butterfly collection is housed in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History.


When you think about it, butterfly-collecting, bird-watching, and insect-hunting are all much more practical hobbies for a spy than the Bond-inspired ones of target practice and making bartenders hate you. It gives an excuse to carry a notebook and a camera everywhere. Jaunts to remote locations are easily explained, and having the odd bit of gadgetry on your person is simply expected.

If nothing else, it should give the writers of the next Bond movie some truly novel ideas.


Image: Karner Blue, Lycaeides melissa samuelis by Sam Droege / USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab