One week each summer I set birds aside, ever so briefly, to talk bugs. Of course, I mean “bugs” in the colloquial sense, not “true bugs” in the order Hemiptera, but I bet you entomological sophisticates knew that already.
In this forum, I generally stick to butterflies, those showy, top-tier celebrities of the insect world. With their colorful wings and fascinating life cycles, these floral flutterers are well positioned to bring the public’s ever-shortening attention to the conservation issues affecting insects and the plants they depend on.
On Sunday I conducted the Truro 4th of July Butterfly Count, the first of the butterfly counts I participate in each year. I and a handful of other intrepid enthusiasts covered key sites in Truro and Provincetown. I say intrepid because some of these places are well guarded by an unholy alliance of poison ivy and mosquitoes. These counts occur across the continent under the aegis of the North American Butterfly Association and work much like the Christmas Bird Counts. One day a year, volunteer observers fan out across the best habitats within a 15-mile circle, counting every individual of every species when possible. “How do you know you’re not counting them twice?”, you might ask. Good question, and the answer is: trust us, we know what we’re doing.
This year, numbers and species diversity were alarmingly low for some reason. We never know if it’s drought, a boom year for parasites, some aspect of climate change, or weather patterns to our south. For some species that migrate anew into the region each summer, like Monarchs and Red Admirals, we are at the mercy of the forces controlling their populations further south. I do also worry about things like the now ubiquitous residential mosquito spraying companies, whose approach of spraying general insecticides to kill adult mosquitoes at the scale of individual yards has been shown to also kill harmless and beneficial insects alike, including butterflies and moths.
What can you do, beyond limiting pesticide use? Butterfly gardening, as we called it ten years ago, has been replaced with pollinator gardening, and for the truly hardcore, native plant gardening, which is focused on providing food and shelter for the full array of native insects. The best way to help butterflies and other native insects is indeed to choose a high proportion of native plants for your yard, especially your trees and shrubs. Everything doesn’t need to be native if you just like to see bees on flowers – your catmints, Salvias, and Lavenders are not native but their flowers will swarm with common bees and some butterflies. But native plants are far better - they support all the cogs in the ecosystem wheel, including all the insects birds like to eat.
For your homework, I’m giving you some local butterflies you should get to know, beyond everyone’s favorite, the Monarch. First, the tiny but visually potent American Copper, who uses a lawn weed as it’s larval food plant. There’s the intricately patterned, orange-and-black Pearl Crescent, which everyone says looks like a “baby Monarch”. The striking Red Admiral migrates north each spring and summer, when it can be seen flying rapidly in off the open water at Cape beaches. Maybe learn the flashy Silver-spotted Skipper, but don’t attempt any of the smaller skippers – they’ve driven many a naturalist mad and you’re not ready. Your final assignment is to join one the upcoming butterfly counts. The Falmouth, Bristol Country, and Brewster counts are coming up soon – meeting locations and times are on the Mass Butterfly Club website. Oh, and I was just kidding about the poison ivy and mosquitoes before, as far as you know…