There are about 20,000 species of butterflies worldwide, of which about 117 can be found in CT. Here are a few fascinating facts about butterflies:
- Different species of resident butterflies may overwinter in CT as an egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis, or adult sheltering in trees or log piles. (Butterflies do not use butterfly boxes.) A Bog Copper egg can survive all winter long underwater in a cranberry bog.
- The larva of a Giant Swallowtail looks like bird poop. Others (e.g., Coral Hairstreak caterpillar) look like slugs. The American Snout has mouthparts that look a big Jimmy Durante-style nose. The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar has a swollen butt with two big scary-looking eyespots.
- Some territorial butterflies patrol their territory. Others like the Hobomok Skipper engage in aerial dogfights. American Coppers may even dart at birds and humans to chase them off.
- Not all butterflies are vegetarians. CT has one carnivorous species of butterfly – the Harvester - that dines on woolly aphids.
- Monarchs digest toxins from the Milkweed plant that make caterpillars and adult butterflies taste nasty so predators won’t eat them. Monarchs can cross the Atlantic Ocean. They may journey 3,000 miles to overwinter in California or Mexico, sometimes returning to the exact same tree.
- The “host plant” (where eggs are laid and caterpillars feed) for a butterfly may be anything from a blade of bluegrass to a mighty oak. Some butterfly species will only use one type of plant. For example, the Hickory Hairstreak will only lay eggs on a Bitternut Hickory.
- Butterflies have a slender body, and thin antenna shaped like a golf club. They are active by day. Moths have a stout body and their antenna is usually thicker with a pointy end or is feathery. They are active by night.
- On average, most adult butterflies live about a month. A few, like Monarchs and Mourning Cloaks, can live up to nine months.
|Monarch Butterfly. Photo by K. Chapuis
It is believed that the first North American butterfly to become extinct as a result of human activity was the Xerces Blue. Some species of butterflies in CT are in serious decline or have not been seen decades, according to the CT Butterfly Atlas (see last week’s article.) There are steps you can take to try to reverse this trend. Many actions that favor butterflies will also benefit other wildlife (such as grassland nesting birds) and the environment.
The primary threat is habitat loss. Open space conservation, through acquisition or conservation easements or restrictions in deeds, is key. Get involved in a local open space group. Let your elected officials know whether you consider open space protection a priority. Manage existing open areas to create or maintain early successional habitats through mowing, grazing and prescribed burns (controlled use of fire). Get rid of invasive plants like Multiflora Rose, Russian Olive, Autumn Olive and Garlic Mustard, and invasive insects like European Paper Wasps. Use pesticides judiciously.
Create your own butterfly sanctuary. Nectar-producing flowers provide food sources for migrating butterflies and are beautiful to look at. A butterfly garden means less lawn to mow every week. If you want to encourage breeding, do not mow or weed out host plants with eggs or caterpillars on them. Good perennial food sources are the Aster, Bee Balm, Butterfly-Weed, Daisy, Phlox, Primrose and Purple Coneflower. Wildflowers that attract butterflies include Blazing Star, Black-eyed Susan, Milkweed, Thistle and Joe-Pye Weed.
CT has legislation to protect Rare and Endangered Species. However, it only applies if an activity is authorized, funded or performed by a state agency. Both Massachusetts and New York have extended legislative protection to privately-owned lands.
Help raise awareness. If adults and children are aware of the plight of imperiled butterflies, they are more likely to be interested in conservation. Give the gift of a butterfly field guide. The best time to watch butterflies is June through September, depending on the species. The CT Butterfly Atlas suggests locations, and has photos and descriptions of the life stages. Responsible collecting (guidelines are found in the Atlas) may be the start of a lifelong interest in butterfly conservation. Do not release butterflies at weddings. It can spread disease, and the butterflies usually suffer an untimely death. Get involved in collecting data. There are still enormous gaps in our knowledge base. Join an organization committed to butterfly conservation, such as the Connecticut Butterfly Association, North American Butterfly Association, The Lepidopterist’s Society, or Xerces Society.
- The Question Mark (spots on the wings form a question mark) drinks sap.
- The Spring Azure and Morning Cloak are one of the first butterflies to appear in CT in the spring.
- The Tawny Emperor may land on human skin to lap up salt from perspiration.
- The Multi-colored Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis - which was introduced by the Dept. of Agriculture from 1979-1980) also eats adults caterpillars. It looks like an orange ladybug.
- The European Paper wasp (Polistes dominulus) was accidentally introduced, and first showed up in 1992 in CT. It feeds caterpillars to its young.
- Two non-natives – the Cabbage White and European Skipper - were in the top 15 most common species.
- The winter population of white-tailed deer in CT increased from 55,000 to 76,000 in just three years (1997-2000), according to the CT DEP.
- Other suspects for butterfly decline that were listed in the Atlas include pesticides, climate change (which affects distribution), road kill and pollution.
- The Connecticut Butterfly Association - http://www.ctbutterfly.org/ is holding three field trips in September. They indicate CT has 230 species of butterflies.
- CT has one carnivorous caterpillar – the Harvester – that eats Woolly Alder Aphids.
- Since 1985, CT has lost 18 acres a day to development (UCONN, 2005).
- Field Guides:
- Butterflying Hotspots in Windham County: from The CT Butterfly Atlas - get a copy for details and more information.
- Sherman Corner power line right-of-way: no groomed trails, walking is difficult. Extends from Route 6 approximately 0.4 miles south of the junction of Routes 6 and 198. Park at the commuter lot.
- the portion of the Airline Trailway that runs west from Route 203, about 0.2 miles south of Route 6. Park on the west side of the road next to the Joshua's Tract sign
- the barren below Mansfield Hollow Lake dike (north of the Windham Airport).
- Visit the Butterfly Conservatory and Gardens in South Deerfield, MA
- Butterfly Organizations you can join:
- More Information: