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August 20, 2014 / Rae Spencer

Yearning for Butterflies

Butterfly June 18

It’s been a slow year for butterflies in the yard. (And in other yards, as noted in the comments section on this recent post.) There were no butterflies at all in May, and in June the only visitors were a few skittish Gray Hairstreaks. They took brief sips from the hydrangea, then flew away in search of better nectar.

As July grew hotter and hotter, I caught glimpses of larger butterflies fluttering high overhead, but they never stopped in the yard. Our new butterfly bush bloomed in vain, and the praying mantis lurking among its branches eventually moved into the nearby irises.

Praying Mantis July 28

Finally, late in July, I spotted a Painted Lady.

Butterfly July 25

Butterfly July 25

A skipper arrived the same day, the first of an unexpected abundance of skippers. In past years these small butterflies were rare in the yard, but they seem to find the butterfly bush irresistible. Now I see them almost daily.

Butterfly Two July 25

I haven’t been able to identify any of the skippers in my photos. The closest I can get is to say they all fall into the sub-group of “closed wing skippers.”  As always, please comment if you can confirm or correct my identifications!

Butterfly Aug 10

Butterfly Aug 10

Butterfly Aug 11

The only other butterfly I’ve seen in the yard was a faded, torn Common Buckeye. I wondered if its wing damage indicated long, perilous journeys or a single stormy event…

Butterfly July 28

While each new visitor is a hopeful sign, I’m puzzled by the conspicuous absence of Commas and Question MarksRed Admirals, Viceroys, sulfurs, and swallowtails. Others are puzzled, too. A short internet search found several articles detailing decreased sightings of butterflies in eastern North Carolina and Virginia:

Most sources blame the long, cold winter and associated rain, and some cite additional factors such as habitat loss and pesticide use. Whatever the cause, I hope it is temporary. In the world’s Field Guide to Small Joys, butterflies fill a uniquely delightful chapter.

Butterfly July 25

8 Comments

  1. Kami / Aug 20 2014 10:40 PM

    Beautiful photos of precious and rare flying gems! Brings to mind Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel “Flight Behavior.”

    • Rae Spencer / Aug 21 2014 2:09 PM

      I haven’t read Flight Behavior, but it’s on my “want-to-read” list. Maybe I should start it next! Thank you! 🙂

  2. jeanryan1 / Aug 21 2014 8:39 AM

    GMO crops have changed the environment utterly. Unlike corn and soybean crops, milkweed is not Roundup ready, so there go the Monarchs. And then there is the pollen drift from BT-infused corn, which takes out caterpillars in untold numbers. That our major food crops contain their own poisons is insanity beyond measure. Here in CA the butterflies are also in sharp decline. Only large ones I’ve seen this year are the breathtaking Western Tiger Swallowtails, and precious few of those.

    • Rae Spencer / Aug 21 2014 3:05 PM

      I recently finished reading the second edition of Richard Lewontin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions”, which includes an essay/book review addressing some of the literature surrounding genetically modified crops (first published in The New York Review of Books in June, 2001): “Genes in the Food!” The essay is a bit dated, over a decade old, so I’ve been trying to follow up. What I’ve discovered is that the topic is clouded by difficult questions. I did find a well-constructed study, available in PDF here (“Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide use: effect on the monarch butterfly population”), that showed a relationship between declining monarch numbers and declining milkweed populations, but I also found an article (“Monsanto v. Monarch butterflies”) reminding me that “correlation does not prove causation.” I suspect I could research and study for weeks, and I would still be forced to confess confusion on the issue. (I would love some suggestions for further reading…)

      • jeanryan1 / Aug 21 2014 3:40 PM

        The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

        • Rae Spencer / Aug 22 2014 12:13 PM

          Oh, that’s a good one! I read it years ago, and it’s been on my “read it again” list for a while. (My “want to read” and “want to read again” lists stretch into infinity…)

        • jeanryan1 / Aug 22 2014 12:36 PM

          He’s so good at delivering information in an entertaining fashion. Ditto for Annie Dillard and Diane Ackerman, though the latter’s nec

  3. jeanryan1 / Aug 22 2014 12:43 PM

    Whoops! The latter’s metaphors can be exhausting after a while.

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