Friday, July 17, 2020

Colorado butterflies inhabit local gardens

Supposed to struggle

Story and photos by Rob Carrigan,

We all know the story of the little boy that found a caterpillar and took it home. When the caterpillar later climbed a stick and started acting strangely, he worriedly watched but soon understood that the caterpillar was creating a cocoon, beginning a metamorphosis to become a butterfly.
Watching every day, waiting for the butterfly to emerge, a hole appeared in the cocoon and the butterfly started to struggle to come out. It looked desperate, like it couldn’t break free. So the boy tried to help. He snipped the cocoon to make the hole bigger and the butterfly quickly emerged.
But as the butterfly emerged, its swollen body and small, shriveled wings required it to spend the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings, never was able to fly…
Science later helped the boy learn that the butterfly was SUPPOSED to struggle.
The butterfly’s struggle to push its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon pushes the fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly. The boy’s good intentions hurt the butterfly.

Butterflies in Colorado

"There are approximately 50 species of butterflies in Colorado including: brush-footed butterflies, admirals and relatives, emperors, longwings, milkweed butterflies, snouts, true brushfoots, parnassians and swallowtails," according to Dr. Joanne Stolen, in an article for the Summit Outside for Summit Daily.
"The white admiral form is usually found in deciduous broad-leaf or mixed-evergreen forests dominated by aspen or birch like we have here. Aphrodite fritillary, found in high-mountain meadows, is also common in Summit County," she said.
"I think swallowtails are especially pretty. The mother butterfly will lay her eggs so the caterpillar stage will feast on the leaves of the many plants we have here in the High Country in the parsley family including Queen Anne’s lace, carrot, celery and dill. The adults like nectar from red clover, milkweed and thistles."
The butterfly’s life cycle includes four stages of life: egg, larva, pupa and adult. All butterflies have “complete metamorphosis.” Each stage has a different goal – for instance, caterpillars need to eat a lot, and adults need to reproduce. Depending on the type of butterfly, the life cycle of a butterfly may take anywhere from one month to a whole year.
An adult butterfly probably has an average life-span of approximately one month. Most butterflies’ lives are shortened because of the dangers provided by predators and disease. The smallest butterflies may live only a week or so, while a few butterflies, such as monarchs, mourning cloaks and tropical heliconians, can live up to nine months.

Monitoring Network

In order to take a proactive approach to native butterflies, Butterfly Pavilion developed Colorado Butterfly Monitoring Network as a way for volunteers to learn about native butterflies while at the same time providing valuable data to scientists and landowners. Each spring, new volunteers are trained on butterfly identifications and monitoring protocols. Once training is complete, volunteers become ‘citizen scientists’ and pick their monitoring location, typically a favorite local walking/hiking trail.
Volunteering for CBMN involves walking a designated route, at a specific location, a least six times over the course a field season from the middle of May to middle of September
"We use “Pollard Walk” protocols where we focus monitoring on pre-existing trails that covers multiple habitat types. During their first year volunteers are trained to identify butterflies to their respective families, focusing on 25 species, and with additional yearly trainings are encouraged to expand their identification abilities," says information from the Network.
Citizen science has been shown to be a powerful tool in raising awareness and collecting important data scientists can use to learn and evaluate the world in which we live. Through data collected by CBMN citizen scientists, who monitor the same locations from year to year, we will be able to observe the fluctuations of butterfly abundance and diversity. Over the long term, the information from these surveys will assist land managers in more effective conservation of Colorado’s butterflies and their habitats.
"Currently we work with: Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks, City & County of Broomfield Parks & Open Space, Jefferson County Open Space, Colorado State Parks, Colorado Natural Heritage Program, City of Westminster Open Space, Denver Botanical Gardens at Chatfield, Plans Conservation Center and USF&W.," says the network.

Butterfly facts

 "About 80 species of butterflies make the Front Range of Colorado home. These are some of the most common in our area: black swallowtail, two-tailed swallowtail, western swallowtail, monarch, mourning cloak, variegated fritillary, Weidemeyer’s admiral, painted lady and checkered skipper," says my long-time friend Miles Blumhardt, of The Coloradoan, in a 2018 article.

Blumhardt also notes the following Butterfly Facts:

  • In October, 2017, a meteorologist in Colorado saw on weather radar what turned out to be a 70-mile-wide swarm of painted lady butterflies. 
  • Butterflies taste with their feet.
  • Many adult butterflies never poop; they use up all they eat for energy.
  • A group of butterflies is sometimes called a flutter.
  • Despite popular belief, butterfly wings are clear. The colors and patterns we see are made by the reflection of the tiny scales covering them.
  • Males drink from mud puddles to extract minerals that aren’t available in flowers. This behavior is known as “puddling.”
  • Butterflies can see red, green and yellow. They can also see ultraviolet light.
  • The average adult butterfly only lives about a month and the longest up to a year.
  • The fastest butterflies are the skippers, which can fly 37 mph, or about as fast as a horse can run, but most butterflies fly 5 to 12 mph.
 You can prolong the stay of these colorful insects and draw in others by providing the food and shelter they need.

Planning the Butterfly Garden

Colorado State University and the County Extension services suggests ways you can make a yard more attractive to butterflies by providing the proper environment, which can be food plants used by the immature stages (various caterpillars), food sources used by the adult butterflies, and physical environment.
Most butterflies prefer some shelter from the high winds common along the Front Range. At the same time, they like open, sunny areas. Windbreak plantings or other means of sheltering the butterfly garden can help provide a suitable physical environment.
Certain kinds of butterflies (mostly males) often can be seen on moist sand or mud collecting around puddles of water where they feed. The function of these “mud-puddle clubs” is not fully understood, but it is thought that the water contains dissolved minerals needed by the insects. Maintaining a damp, slightly salty area in the yard may attract groups of these butterflies.
Adult female butterflies spend time searching for food plants required by the immature caterpillar stage. Most butterflies have specific host plants on which they develop. For example, caterpillars of the monarch butterfly develop only on milkweed, while the black swallowtail feeds only on parsley, dill and closely related plants. When females find the proper host plant, they may lay eggs on it.
Providing the necessary food plants for the developing caterpillars also allows production of a “native” population that can be observed in all stages of development. Most species, however, fly away as adult butterflies.
Food for adult butterflies usually consists of sweet liquids, such as nectar from flowers, that provide energy. Some flowers contain more nectar, and are more attractive to butterflies. Often, specific types of flowers and flower colors also are more attractive. Some species feed on honeydew (produced by aphids), plant sap, rotting fruit, and even bird dung.
"When planning a garden, create a large patch of a flower species to attract and retain butterflies. Consider flowers that bloom in sequence. This is particularly important during summer when flower visiting by butterflies is most frequent. Flowers and flowering shrubs that might be good choices for an Eastern Colorado butterfly garden are included in Table 1," says Colorado State University extension.

Table 1: Plants commonly visited by butterflies.
Asters (Aster spp.)
Bee balm (Monarda)
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)Butterfly plant (Asclepias tuberosa)
Bush cinquefolia (Potentilla fruticosa)
Cosmos (Cosmos spp.)
Gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.)
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
Marigold (Tagetes spp.)
Ornamental thistlesRabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus)
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
Verbena (Verbena spp.)
Zinnias (Zinnia spp.)

Common butterflies in Eastern Colorado and the foods they prefer are shown in Table 2. Include these food sources to encourage a steady flow of butterfly visitors.

Common Conflicts

Many of the most attractive nectar plants are commonly considered as “weeds” in other settings. Good examples are various thistles and dandelion, all highly attractive to several common butterflies. The well-manicured and tended garden discourages some butterfly species that develop on wild types of plants. (Note: Canada thistle is considered a noxious weed. Areas that have formed weed districts prohibit by law the culture of Canada thistle.)
"A few butterflies also develop on certain garden crops and may be pests if the vegetable is considered more desirable than the insects. The European cabbage butterfly (on broccoli, cabbage and other mustards) and the black swallowtail (on parsley and dill) are common garden inhabitants in Colorado," according to CSU recomendations.
"Use insecticides sparingly because most are not compatible with attracting and increasing the number of butterflies in a yard. Most garden insecticides can kill the caterpillar stages of the insects. Adult butterflies also can be killed by resting on insecticide-treated surfaces."