Butterflies as Pests?

Yesterday this innocent-looking white butterfly landed on a coworker’s hard hat and I made her stand still so I could take a photo before it flew away.

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This is a male Pine ButterflyNeophasia menapia. I first became aware of their existence shortly after moving here, when I noticed a brochure tacked up on the wall at my office – an update from the previous year on a Pine Butterfly outbreak in the local national forests. Like many butterflies, these are tied to a specific plant to complete their life cycle – in this case, their caterpillars feed on the needles of Ponderosa Pines and Douglas-firs. Unlike many butterflies, they occasionally have large outbreaks that can damage forests, which happened here last year. (Incidentally, the Forest Service brochure reassured anyone reading it that despite the damage “…they are not ‘eating all the trees,'” and I felt like those quotation marks conveyed a lot of frustration and weariness on the part of the Forest Service staffer tasked with educating the public on this issue. Doubtless he/she had fielded a lot of phone calls from people demanding that the agency do something about those butterflies eating all the trees.)

Anyway, I’m not used to thinking of butterflies as pests, but people around here who know almost nothing else about butterflies seem to know that white butterflies eat pine trees. (I’ve already found myself explaining at least once that no really, there are a lot of different kinds of white butterflies and only one actually eats pine trees, so please, please don’t just smoosh any white butterfly you see). The outbreak has died down somewhat since last year, and today was the first time I’d actually spotted any of the butterflies in question. It got a fair amount of media coverage at its height, though, including this great NPR piece complete with video of the butterfly “snowstorm.”

I looked briefly for any signs of eggs or caterpillars on the needles of the trees around us, but without time for a more thorough search I wasn’t able to find any. In any case, like so many things in nature, these insects are a little more complicated than we might like them to be. Butterflies are nice, pests are bad – which one is this?

Butterfly Pick-Up Lines

The two butterflies on this yarrow flower head are Blue Coppers (Lycaena heteronea, not to be confused with Blues, which are a different but very similar-looking group of butterflies). The one with its wings spread, showing off the blue color, is a male, and the one in the back is a female.

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I watched the male chase the female back and forth across the flower for about a minute. She didn’t seem to want anything to do with him.

“C’mon, baby…”

“Leave me alone…”

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“Let me buy you a drink…”

“No, really, I have to go home and wash my hair…”

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“Whew, that creeper finally left.”

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I know this is probably the most blatantly anthropomorphic post I’ve written in a long time, but who could resist imagining bad butterfly pick-up lines.

Butterflies Are Confusing

Last week I snapped my first photo of an Oregon butterfly.

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Handsome creature, isn’t it? I recognized it as some sort of checkerspot, a group of butterflies I’m not very familiar with, and figured I would identify it to species using my field guide when I had a chance. However, as sometimes happens, this turned out to be more complicated than I expected. The best match in my book was the Variable Checkerspot, Euphydryas chalcedona, but none of its illustrated, er, variations perfectly matched the patterns of colored dots on the wings of the butterfly in my photo. Luckily, thanks to the wonders of Twitter I recently “met” a lepidopterist who used to do a lot of collecting in this part of Oregon, @AndyBugGuy. I tweeted the photo for him to see and he told me it was a male Euphydryas colon, the Snowberry Checkerspot. That species is not even listed in my field guide! What gives?

Turns out there are a lot of different populations and subspecies of the Variable Checkerspot, some of which may or may not be actually be distinct species of their own, depending on who you talk to. (And it doesn’t help that each one seems to have more than one common name. Euphydryas colon can also be called the Colon Checkerspot, and Euphydryas chalcedona can also be the Chalcedon Checkerspot. Argh!) So I wasn’t really wrong. Andy the tweeting lepidopterist says I need to buy a whole other butterfly book devoted solely to the many variations of the species found in the Cascades, but in the meantime I may just keep pestering him with my photos when I get stuck. In any case, butterflies are confusing, and I have a whole new diverse set of them to deal with now that I’ve moved to the other end of the continent.

The Itsiest Bitsiest Butterfly

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Okay, there is really nothing in this photo to give you much of a sense of scale, but this is the Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exilis), also known as the smallest butterfly in North America, with a wingspan of about half an inch. They seem to be pretty common around here (“here” being the Phoenix area), but since they’re so small it would be easy to overlook them.

The Western Pygmy-Blue is really a great example of why it pays to take a second look at things that are small and inconspicuous. Yes, it’s tiny – but look at the beautiful detailed patterns on its wings. What a lovely creature!

Arizona Blues

Did you think that the onset of winter meant you were finally safe from my butterfly obsession? Well, you were wrong! Here in Arizona, where I’m visiting for the holiday, butterflies are still on the wing, and I checked two more species off my list yesterday at the Desert Botanical Garden. Both are fairly common, but since I have yet to do much butterflying out West, they’re new to me. As usual, it was amusing to be chasing after the tiny grayish butterflies most people didn’t even notice while other folks were admiring the big Queens and Cloudless Sulphurs. One woman stopped to ask what I on earth I was photographing!

Reakirt’s Blue – its host plant is mesquites, of which there are many at the botanical garden (and everywhere here, really).
Marine Blue – I like its stripy pattern. This one has a tear in its hindwing, making it almost look like it has an extra dot.

Happy Thanksgiving tomorrow!

Quiz Time!

In a couple weeks I have to give an interpretive talk as part of one of my graduate classes. For my topic I’ve selected cool adaptations of butterflies, and I’ve been working on making big butterflies out of cardboard and colored paper to use as props.

Now that you’ve admired my arts and crafts abilities (I sketched out the outlines of those babies freehand!), I have a two-part quiz for you.

  1. What two species of butterfly are these?
  2. Why might I have chosen these particular species for a talk on cool butterfly adaptations?

All of this information has been discussed in posts on this blog within the last six months. Answers will be revealed Monday!


Up Close and Personal with the Karner Blue

After visiting the International Crane Foundation, we drove an hour north to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, the only place in the United States where migratory Whooping Cranes breed in the wild. (Most of the migratory birds breed way up in Canada, and a small non-migratory population has been established in Florida as well.) I did get to see one pair with a chick, waaayyyyyyyyy far out on an island in the marsh, so they are now officially on my life list – hooray! But there was a second federally endangered species to be found in the refuge as well, one that we could get close to: the Karner Blue.

The Karner Blue butterfly, Lycaeides melissa samuelis, is actually the eastern subspecies of the Melissa Blue. This species can be distinguished from most other similar butterflies by the row of orange spots that extends all the way up the forewing – check out my photos of an azure butterfly from this spring for a comparison.

Karner Blues lay their eggs on wild lupine, and as their host plant has declined, so have they. However, the oak savanna at Necedah supports a relatively large population, and we were lucky that their second hatch of the season had occurred only a few days before our visit. Every few feet we’d see another tiny blue butterfly flit across the path! (Although they mostly perch with their wings closed, when they fly you can see the rich purple-blue of the top side.)

A life bird and a life butterfly, and both from the endangered species list – not a bad morning at all.