By David Hawke -- Although birdwatching is certainly a year-round activity for naturalists,
the summer months provide other types of wildlife viewing to catch the interest of these students of natural history.
Butterfly-watching, while sounding perhaps a bit on the light side of serious, is experiencing a quiet resurgence in popularity. From the late 1800s to about the 1960s butterflies were captured, poisoned, pinned and displayed by thousands of naturalists, both professional and amateur.
Collections of all sizes and conditions were assembled for parlour-room and classroom exhibits. On occasion, bits of wings were pressed between glass for inclusion in pendants, rings and earrings. Society's passion for butterfly bits was running at an all time high. But then came a reality check.
The destruction of fragile ecosystems by chemical spraying resulted in the demise or reduction of many butterfly species. These tumbling populations in the early 1970s were partially the cause of a new ethic to emerge in regards to nature in general: ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints'.
About this same time (the late 1960s), the popular and affordable 35mm camera was catching on, and many naturalists discovered that a good picture of a butterfly was just as nice, or better, than a dead specimen pinned to the wall. Close-up lenses, integrated flash systems, and high-speed films of the day allowed butterfly 'collecting' to become an acceptable activity.
Also assisting the ardent butterfly watcher are several excellent field guides that contain quality illustrations, fairly accurate range maps, informative text regarding the plant species eaten, and season of occurrence.
But even with the modern conveniences of camera and guide book, butterflies are still quite elusive and require a bit of stalking to capture on film.
Some species, such as the Canadian tiger swallowtail, monarch, and great spangled fritillary, are big, bold and beautiful and flit about garden flowers with disregard to humans. Others, however, are a bit harder to get close to.
There are different options that can be used to attract these flighty insects to your yard, and keep 'em close enough to get a positive identification. The first method is to plant wildflowers and flowering shrubs. Most nurseries and seed catalogues now list the flower types that tend to attract butterflies and other pollinators. Dame's rocket, bee-balm and a variety of honeysuckles are often offered, but be aware which ones may become a locally invasive species if left untended; an Internet search will provide a long list of flowers that are safe to plant.
A controversial technique to lure butterflies in close involves spraying a sugar-and-water solution on the flowers and foliage to increase the chance of attracting a passing butterfly. This method has been used to get the critters to come to where you want them, rather than you chasing them from one flower patch to the next. But be prepared for other sugar-loving insects also to appear, such as wasps.
A more involved way to see the beauty of a butterfly close up is to raise your own. The care and feeding of a caterpillar is fairly easy, but does require regular attention. Provide a fresh supply of the same plant that you found the caterpillar on in the first place; some species are very particular as to what they eat. Fresh leaves, provided twice daily, is a good start; no need for a water dish if the leaves are fresh and moist. The larger the caterpillar, the more it will consume -- be prepared to harvest a lot of the host plant.
The next stage of development is of course the pupa: butterfly caterpillars make a smooth chrysalis, while moths design a fuzzy cocoon. I feel that the most spectacular of them all is the stunning emerald chrysalis of the monarch butterfly. The translucent green covering is elegantly decorated with subtle black and gold trim -- perfection of design both artistically and biologically.
No matter what the species, keep the pupa in a shaded area and mist with water once a week. When the adult butterfly emerges from its transformation and spreads its wings to dry, you may sketch, paint, photograph, or just marvel at their intricate beauty.
© 2019 David J. Hawke