I have a dear friend who is a bona fide curmudgeon. He is convinced that most things are going downhill rapidly, and it doesn’t matter whether the things in question are garlic presses or the ethics of U.S. congressmen. He is upset by the fact that libraries have computerized their catalogs, and saddened that traditional downtown department stores have all but vanished. He is deeply suspicious of online booksellers. Over the years he has often lamented that butterflies seem to be on the wane.
Now he is singing a different tune. Despite the insidious effects of global warming, it’s been a great year for butterflies—at least here in the northeast. I don’t know if this apparent increase in the butterfly population is due to especially felicitous weather, the growth in the number of nectar-rich plants, or the fact that a lot of people forgot to use pesticides last year. Whatever the reason, my garden and those of friends near and far have been visited by record numbers of sulfurs, skippers, swallowtails and all their colorful lepidopterous kin.
My garden is home to an absolutely chaotic tangle of butterfly lures. There are three butterfly bushes (Buddleia), assorted coneflowers (Echinacea), salvia, lavender, and enough swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’) to stock a small nursery. (I started the milkweed from seed and things got out of hand.) The perilla mint (Perilla frutescens) will blossom soon, keeping the butterflies interested well into the fall.
Early last spring I saw the first butterfly of the season, a cream-banded, deep purple Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). My curmudgeon friend, who is also an avid amateur entomologist, told me that these butterflies overwinter as adults, and that my Mourning Cloak probably spent the winter somewhere on the premises. I hope so, and I hope that next winter his or her offspring will do the same.
I especially love the swallowtails, with their exuberantly marked and shaped wings. We get lots of yellow and black Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) on the butterfly bushes. Occasionally a Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) also flits through. A few weeks ago, in central New York State, I encountered several Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes asterius) during a four mile hike. The swallowtail world has its own kind of pathos. While few butterflies are as glorious fresh out of the chrysalis, few things are as sad as the sight of a tattered older swallowtail with a missing “tail”.
Being rural and full of milkweed, central New York is also full of Monarchs (Danaus plexippus). The combination of large numbers of orange butterflies, their wings glowing in the summer sun, and the warm, honey-drenched smell of milkweed flowers is so irresistible that I want to stop time and make summer go on forever.
This year I saw lots of tiny Blue (Hemiargus) butterflies romping in roadside ditches. These are so small that species identification is nearly impossible, but they are worth watching for their unusual lovely color. Semi-dry mud puddles also play host to gatherings of tiny orange butterflies that I have yet to identify.
Like people, some butterflies are rather drab. While drab people congregate in suburban living rooms to watch the Paleontology Channel, drab butterflies hide among brown leaves, the better to avoid predators. I don’t often brag about it, but my property is extremely friendly to these drab types. I have seen Commas (Polygonia) and Question Marks (Polygonia interrogationis) passing through. Two of their more colorful cousins, Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta), even did a mating dance above my back porch while I ate lunch a few weeks ago. Since it was high summer and most of the neighbors were away, I am quite sure that nobody noticed these particular inhabitants of this particular small town having sex in broad daylight.
While on vacation in the middle of August, I saw a glorious black creature resting on a branch of a black walnut tree. It had a prominent white band across its open wings, but I couldn’t identify it, and had no field guide handy. I followed the butterfly from place to place just to get a better look, and even made a quick sketch to fix the details in my memory. Eventually I discovered that my elusive beauty was probably a White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis). It was my best sighting of the summer-until this morning when I saw the checkered wings of a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) perched atop one of my white coneflowers. It has truly been a great year for butterflies.
Naturally I derive perverse pleasure from confounding my curmudgeonly friend with evidence (in the form of this year’s bumper crop of butterflies) that my native optimism is occasionally justified. He usually responds by harumphing about the decline of songbirds, especially bluebirds, which he claims not to have seen in years. I haven’t the heart to tell him that two weeks ago I was watching a black swallowtail when a handsome male bluebird lit on an oak branch about 20 feet ahead of me. After all, the art of preserving friendships is all about knowing when to speak and when to keep silent.
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg