Miscellaneous Information About Our World of Nature

It's Summer -- Time to Enjoy Butterflies!

By Lynn Stafford, Liz Buchroeder and Bill Buchroeder
Photos by Bill Buchroeder, Liz Buchroeder and Mary McDevitt

One pleasant sign of summer in our mountain community is the presence of butterflies in our gardens and along trails. This article will discuss six of our local species. Butterflies have amazingly complicated and varied lives. All butterflies pass through four distinct stages of life, often within just a few weeks. First are the eggs. These eggs have been placed on a plant that the emerging caterpillar will eat. The caterpillar is an eating machine! After reaching a certain size, the caterpillar changes into a stationary stage called the pupa or chrysalis. I did not refer to this period as a resting stage. That is because the animal is busy transforming into a completely different form -- the showy and able-to-fly adult butterfly.
Two of our butterflies have rather small distribution ranges. The California Sister (Fig. 1) is
Photo of a California sister butterfly
California Sister
indeed mostly restricted to California. It loves oak trees, particularly the canyon live oak, a common tree native to PMC. Both the caterpillar and the adult get most of what they need from these trees. Adults often can be seen drinking from mud puddles and streams. They are getting nutrients, including minerals, as well as water. California Sisters will cycle through one to three generations each year.
Another limited-range butterfly is the dramatic Western Tiger Swallowtail. As its name implies, it is found throughout western United States. Both the caterpillars and the adults
Photo of Western tiger swallowtail butterfly
Western Tiger Swallowtail
feed on a wide variety of plants. The pupa overwinter. As shown in (Fig. 2), the adults enjoy planted Buddleia bushes. This one was in Mary McDevitt’s garden in PMC.
Photo of Red admiral butterfly
Red Admiral
Next, we will look at two butterflies with wide distributions, including annual migrations. The Red Admiral (Fig. 3) is a striking butterfly with bright red or orange bands on its wings. It is found throughout much of the world, but only where stinging nettle is present. The eggs are placed on stinging nettle leaves, and that is all the caterpillar will eat. People frequently do not appreciate stinging nettle because of its irritating leaf hairs, but this butterfly certainly does. PMC’s wetlands are loaded with stinging nettle, so we are blessed with this species. Red Admiral males are quite territorial, defending their patch of nettle. Adults tend to migrate south in the winter. Migration dates are timed to correspond to food sources.
The Variegated Fritillary (Fig. 4) also is a migrating butterfly, being found in both North and
Photo of Variegated fritillary butterfly
Variegated Fritillary
South America. Different populations have different migration routes and schedules. Unlike the Red Admiral, both the caterpillars and the adults forage on a wide variety of plants. The caterpillars focus on leaves; the adults look for flower nectar.
Finally, we will discuss two species with amazingly complicated lifestyles. Both are multi-generational migrants. The Painted Lady (Fig.5) is found throughout much of the world.
Photo of Painted lady butterfly
Painted Lady
Painted Ladies studied in Africa and Europe were found to undergo migration between the continents that took several generations. In other words, no individual completed a migration, but the species migrated back-and-forth. Mind-boggling! The caterpillars enjoy a variety of thistles and mallows. The adults seek nectar from the flowers of members of the sunflower family, including thistles.
Photo of Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly
Photo of a wintering swarm of adult monarchs on a tree near the coast
A wintering swarm of adult monarchs on a tree near the coast

Then we have the Monarch (Fig. 6). The Monarch is well-known, both because of its tourist-attracting massive winter flocks (Fig. 7) and because it is rapidly declining in numbers throughout its range. The Monarch has complicated migration patterns. The eastern U.S. population tend to winter in Mexico, particularly the state of Michoacan. In the west, the adults fly to several locations along the California coast. In each of the two migrations, the butterflies return to the same groves of trees. The caterpillars (Fig. 8) require leaves of
Photo of a monarch caterpillar on a narrow-leaf milkweed
A monarch caterpillar on a narrow-leaf milkweed
various species of milkweed. The adults are less picky; they just want flower nectar. Two species of milkweed are common in the vicinity of PMC (Fig. 9). If one is interested in
Photo of Broad-leaf milkweed with seed pods ready to burst
Broad-leaf Milkweed with seed pods ready to burst
having milkweed present in one’s garden, seeds can be collected locally in the Autumn from wild plants that are adapted to our unique area. (Fig. 10) shows local resident Liz Buchroeder doing exactly that.
Photo of collecting seeds from a Narrow-leaf Milkweed near PMC
Collecting seeds from a Narrow-leaf Milkweed near PMC
A major mystery is the dangerous decline in insect populations throughout the world. This decline is being studied carefully by entomologists and ecologists, and is thought to be caused by modern human activity. In the case of the Monarch, several theories are being raised. Extensive use of herbicides is a likely candidate. Most of the corn and soy now being grown in the Midwest has been genetically modified to withstand massive amounts of herbicide. Besides contaminating the food, this practice eliminates other plants, such as milkweed. Human-related climate change and other alterations of land cover also are being studied as possible causes. Insects are by far the most abundant animals on earth. The dismantling of their populations could have devastating worldwide consequences.
Here in PMC, we have a relatively healthy environment for all our wild animals and plants, as well as for us humans. As the summer unfolds, do get outside and enjoy! Take a camera; take a sketch pad, or just relax and take your time enjoying our colorful visitors on their journey thru PMC and its environs.