On Painted Wings

Colorful butterflies gain new admirers and increased protection
Alaska Airlines Magazine
By Paul Clarke
June 2003

The sky, at first, is empty. I follow a path through a small grove of eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees, peering into the branches in search of a glimpse of orange. Seeing nothing, I scan the treetops, looking for any indication that, of the hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies that live west of the Rocky Mountains, some may have come here, to this little grove on a residential street in Pacific Grove, California. After all, that’s what’s supposed to happen. On this late November day, the monarch’s migration is reaching its peak, and this grove is typically Grand Central Station for butterflies. Some monarchs travel up to 3,000 miles to spend the winter here, and in other groves that dot the coast. But as I watch the sun chase away the last wisps of morning fog, I see nothing. There are no monarchs here.

That’s when a nearby tree erupts with life. A eucalyptus branch, having warmed in the sun all morning, suddenly bursts with color as several hundred monarch butterflies, invisible just moments before, simultaneously take flight. I inspect the branches more closely, and am surprised to see how the dense clusters of butterflies are hiding in plain sight, their wings folded so that only the dull-colored undersides show, merging almost perfectly with the gray-green eucalyptus leaves. As I’m looking around, another cluster bursts into the air, and then another. The sky is thick with fluttering orange-and-black wings, and overhead it looks as though a stained-glass window has suddenly dissolved into hundreds of living panes.

“It makes you want to turn orange and fly away,” says Ro Vaccaro, president of Pacific Grove-based Friends of the Monarchs, as yet another cluster springs from its leafy perch. Vaccaro-popularly known as “the Butterfly Lady” in Pacific Grove-is a small, purposeful woman who wears monarch patches on her sneakers and an enamel monarch pin on her black turtleneck, and is widely considered the butterflies’ best friend in town. The butterfly sanctuary that she leads me through was purchased and preserved by the city in 1990, largely due to her efforts. And Vaccaro and other butterfly supporters encouraged homeowners around the sanctuary to plant colorful gardens of nectar-rich flowers, creating what she calls a “hospitality zone” to support the monarchs during their four-month stay in Pacific Grove. As a result, a unique relationship has developed between the monarchs and city residents. “It’s a symbiosis,” Vaccaro says. “They give us beauty and we give them sanctuary. I’m not sure who’s better off.”

This kind of deep connection with butterflies has existed throughout history. The ancient Greeks used the same word, psyche, to mean both “butterfly” and “soul,” and in Greek mythology a mortal princess named Psyche-frequently depicted with butterfly wings-captivated the god Eros with her powerful beauty. Folk tales and myths from cultures as disparate as the Aztecs and the Norse celebrate butterflies’ beauty and intriguing life cycle, and poets such as William Wordsworth and Edna St. Vincent Millay have lauded the insects’ elegant simplicity. Dazzled by their beauty, mystified by their metamorphosis and awed by their intense fragility, humans are increasingly working to preserve these beautiful insects and the habitat they need to survive. It’s all pretty fantastic, for an insect.

“Butterflies are the supermodels of the bug world,” says Erin Sullivan, an entomologist at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. “They captivate people, and inspire us to do something.” At the zoo, Sullivan and other insect experts create a special greenhouse habitat called “Butterflies and Blooms” each summer, to give zoo visitors an opportunity to experience these special insects as well as learn more about their needs. A similar exhibit, called “Winged Wonders,” opens each summer at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Large enclosed institutions, such as Butterfly Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, and Butterfly World near Miami, Florida, also draw visitors each year with their displays of hundreds or even thousands of the winged insects. And naturalists are venturing into the outdoors in increasing numbers, to see and survey local butterfly populations. Whether it’s at the zoo or in an alpine meadow, as we learn more about these fantastic, fragile insects, we come away with a greater sense of the natural world and of the little things around us. “Insects in general are background noise,” Sullivan says. “Exhibits like ‘Butterflies and Blooms’ home in on insects, and bring them to people’s attention.”

Of all the butterflies that draw attention, few draw as much as the monarch. Ubiquitous throughout most of the continental United States, Mexico and southern Canada, the monarch is the archetypal butterfly: robust in its beauty, a common sight to gardeners and hikers, and an ongoing source of fascination for naturalists and scientists. And while many species of butterfly may face greater challenges than do the monarchs, this regent of the insect world is not immune to difficulties. Milkweed, monarchs’ only host plant (the plant where they lay their eggs, and on which their caterpillar offspring feed), is sometimes sprayed with pesticides or mowed at inopportune times of year. Weather can also take its toll, as was seen last year in Mexico, where a severe winter storm killed more than 200 million overwintering monarchs, roughly 80 percent of the eastern North American population. And the monarchs’ distinct migration, which sees vast rivers of butterflies traveling from their breeding grounds to overwintering spots in California (for those that live west of the Rockies) or the neovolcanic mountains of Michoácan, west of Mexico City (for those to the east), also opens the door for difficulty. For, as with many butterflies, monarchs are dependent on very particular conditions for survival, conditions that are found only in a few groves of trees in a handful of isolated places. Loss of these trees due to fire, disease or development can obliterate an overwintering site, leaving the monarchs without a place to spend the months before they can breed and send their progeny north again. That’s where people such as Ro Vaccaro come in.

In 1990, Vaccaro and other volunteers convinced Pacific Grove residents to approve a new property tax that raised $1.23 million for the purchase of the 2.4-acre site that is now the Monarch Grove Sanctuary. Volunteers have also coordinated tree plantings, and are raising Monterey pine seedlings in greenhouses for eventual planting in the sanctuary.

But even with this help, migrating monarchs still face challenges. Pine pitch canker disease has damaged or killed many Monterey pines in the last decade, devastating some overwintering sites, including Washington Park in Pacific Grove, which saw its last aggregation of migrating monarchs in 1996. And Monterey cypress trees are also facing disease in other spots along the coast. “There’s a fungal disease that, in the last couple of decades, has really done a number on these trees, so they’re losing host plants even in these protected areas,” says Scott Hoffman-Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a Portland-based organization that works on invertebrate conservation.

But monarchs are demonstrating an innate resilience. After the January 2002 storms in Mexico, scientists and naturalists were anxiously awaiting the next autumn’s migration to see what effect these losses had on future generations. Much to their relief, the population rebounded, and an estimated 300 million butterflies completed the migration. Among those delighted by the recovery was Vaccaro, who traveled to Mexico in March this year to witness the spectacle of butterfly-clad mountains. “It was just amazing,” she says. “The ones that survived the storm were the strongest of the bunch, so of course their progeny will be big guys.”

Butterflies exhibit seemingly infinite variety. With around 20,000 species worldwide, butterflies display sometimes demure, but more often spectacular, colors and patterns. Some butterflies, such as monarchs and cabbage whites, seem ubiquitous throughout North America; others, such as Johnson’s hairstreaks or Melissa blues, are particular to very specific forests, glades and meadows, where the right mix of temperature, sunlight and plant life exists-a unique microenvironment tailor-made for a particular species. Many butterflies are also imbued with clever means of deterring or deceiving predators. Butterflies such as the Oregon swallowtail have tails that conveniently break away when snapped at by a bird, and milkweed butterflies, such as the monarch, build up supplies of the plant’s toxic cardenolides in their bodies. These toxins give the butterflies a nasty taste, and predators that fail to heed this warning often wind up with a vicious stomachache and heart palpitations, a lesson they’ll remember the next time they spot a monarch.

Butterflies have adapted to a variety of habitats. Thousands of species can be found in the rain forests of South America, and some, such as the American copper, can be found in arctic environments. With all their ubiquity and mystery, butterflies are attracting growing numbers of devotees.

“They’re this mysterious source of beauty and pleasure that are under your nose, and you never noticed them until you went looking,” says Neil Björklund, president of the Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Comprising more than 30 chapters across the country, NABA connects people with a common interest: a love of and fascination with butterflies. The Eugene-Springfield chapter, which was formed in 2000, has around 50 members who come to regular meetings and participate in field trips. Björklund says the trips offer participants rewards from a variety of perspectives. “There’s a whole suite of lessons that come with learning about butterflies,” Björklund says. “I think for some people it’s the fascinating interrelationship of these elements of nature, and for others it’s this benign form of the hunt-you’re out there, seeking something you’ve never seen before, and that can be really satisfying.”

Among the lessons these participants learn are how dependent particular butterflies can be on particular places. For all the western tiger swallowtails, which are evident in gardens and groves throughout the West, there are many lesser-known species found only in very specific places. Björklund points out the example of the golden hairstreak, a toast-colored butterfly infrequently found in Oregon and Washington. Golden hairstreaks are very dependent on their larval host plant, golden chinquapin, and are found only in the vicinity of these groves. In 2002, during a butterfly count in the Cascades near Eugene, a team from the Eugene-Springfield chapter made the region’s first golden hairstreak sighting. “We knew the chinquapin grew in this part of the Cascades, but no one had seen the butterfly there before,” Björklund says.

While many butterfly watchers are attracted to the insects because of their beauty, many are also drawn because of the butterfly’s distinctive life cycle. This process of metamorphosis-which sees a minuscule egg produce a larva, which grows and bundles itself into a chrysalis before emerging as a winged adult-has long captivated schoolchildren, scientists and naturalists. All butterflies spend their youth as caterpillars, a phase during which they eat, grow and molt. Upon reaching full size, the caterpillar pupates, wrapping itself in a hard outer shell, or chrysalis. Inside, the insect’s tissues break down, only to reassemble into a completely different form: that of an adult butterfly.

“Their life history is extremely fascinating to me,” says Idie Ulsh, founding president of the Washington Butterfly Association, a NABA chapter that formed in Seattle in 1999. “They go through this development process, from chrysalid to adult, in sometimes less than 10 days. Some people view that as a refreshment of life. It’s just a delightful thing to see.”

Like the Eugene-Springfield chapter, the Washington group also participates in the annual summer butterfly count, and groups of counters have ventured to Mount Chumstick, just north of Wenatchee, for nearly 20 years. Since 1984, butterfly watchers have counted 78 species of butterfly on Mount Chumstick, ranging from such common types as the western tiger swallowtail and gray hairstreak to more regionally specific butterflies such as the great spangled fritillary and the Melissa blue. This year the group plans to start a new count northeast of Cle Elum, but Ulsh emphasizes the importance of continuing the Mount Chumstick count as well. “When you identify a spot with a wide variety of species, you monitor it over several years so you have information you can compare,” Ulsh says.

While these organized groups of butterfly counters venture into the mountains and forests, many gardeners have found that, with careful attention, butterflies can be attracted into their backyards. The Xerces Society publishes a very popular magazine on butterfly gardening, as does NABA, and information is provided at the butterfly exhibits at Woodland Park Zoo and the Oregon Zoo. The particular plants that should be planted in a butterfly garden vary by location, but the essentials are the same. Butterflies need good nectar sources, preferably native plants, that haven’t been treated with pesticides; an open area where they can fly around, plus a sunny spot for basking; and a good water source, such as a water-and-sand-filled birdbath or a small pond. “Also, keep your bird feeder away from the butterfly garden,” Ulsh says. “A lot of people put them near each other, and that just makes for happy birds.”

Scott Hoffman-Black from the Xerces Society says this growing popularity of butterfly gardening is a good sign for the long-term health of many types of butterflies. “People are really looking for ways they can protect their small piece of earth,” he says. “When you give them a way to work in their own backyards for the betterment of the environment, they really take it. Most people care.”

In an era that has seen the decoding of the human genome and the cloning of large animals, you would expect that the recovery program for the Oregon silverspot butterfly, federally listed as a threatened species, would involve lots of high-tech gadgetry and sophisticated lab equipment. But in a tiny brick hut near the “Bug World” exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo, the setup is decidedly simple.

Here, in the zoo’s Invertebrate Conservation Unit, Erin Sullivan walks me through the breeding process for the Oregon silverspot. “Because we’re bug keepers, our skills lie with breeding more bugs,” Sullivan says. “We take those skills to breeding butterflies, and hopefully we’ll affect the population significantly.” The tiny Oregon silverspot once populated a long stretch of coastline from Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula down to northern California, but due to loss of their native salt-spray meadow habitat, now can be found only in a few isolated spots. In two of these areas-Cascade Head and Rock Creek, in northern Oregon-female silverspots are captured midway into their laying season, typically late summer and early fall. They are brought to the zoo in coolers (some are also taken to the Oregon Zoo, a partner on the project) and numbered for identification, and each butterfly is then placed into an ordinary white paper bag lined with strips of paper towel and a few leaves from the early blue violet, the silverspot’s host plant. Once a day the butterflies are taken out for feeding. “While they’re eating, we search through the bag for eggs,” Sullivan says.

Zoo staff carefully cut the comma-size eggs from the paper-towel strips, then place the eggs into petri dishes. The egg count varies, and each butterfly averages around 50-60 eggs per day; some days a butterfly will lay no eggs, and the next day dozens. Sullivan shows me a log entry for silverspot #7, captured at Rock Creek last September: #7 laid no eggs for a week, beginning on September 12; on September 19, though, she laid 138 eggs, which apparently sapped her reserve, as on the next day she laid only two.

After several days the larvae hatch, and this is where the work gets tricky. The Oregon silverspot is somewhat unique in that it will remain a larva for nine months, spending this time in diapause, “sleeping.” At the zoo, the larvae are placed in special containers and refrigerated for nine months, kept at a steady 40 degrees and 90 percent humidity. To do this, Sullivan says, the zoo has turned to old-model refrigerators, which allow a higher relative humidity than do recent models. “We’ve learned more about refrigerator science than we ever thought we’d know,” Sullivan says. At the end of diapause the silverspots, now pupae, will be returned to the habitat areas, where they will augment the existing population, giving the species a better chance at recovery.

This recovery plan, designed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and implemented by the Woodland Park and Oregon zoos, is just one example of how institutions are working to provide a future for the butterflies. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association recently launched a nationwide Butterfly Conservation Initiative, aimed at engaging more zoos in recovery efforts for threatened species. Also integral to this equation are nonprofit organizations. The Oregon silverspot, for example, would have much more trouble without a protected habitat area, such as the Cascade Head Preserve, which is administered by The Nature Conservancy.

One of the leading groups in butterfly conservation is the Xerces Society, which was founded in 1971 and takes its name from the first American species of butterfly known to have gone extinct due to human activity. The Xerces Society also works with local, state and federal agencies, as well as regional stakeholders, to create and protect habitat areas for butterflies such as the Fender’s blue, an Oregon butterfly that is federally listed as endangered. Last December the group petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assist in the protection of three additional types of butterfly found in the prairies of Washington and Oregon: the Taylor’s checkerspot, the mardon skipper and the island marble.

“When people think of the Northwest, they don’t think of prairies, but the Puget Trough and the Willamette Valley used to have significant prairie habitat,” Hoffman-Black says. All three species are suffering from loss of this prairie, and the most recent culprit is the incursion of invasive weeds and other non-native plants. “These areas are all very small, and they’re all imperiled for a number of reasons, mainly now because of invasive species,” Hoffman-Black says. “Scotch broom, for example, really takes over the native prairie in a big way, crowding out the larval host plants and nectar plants the butterflies need to survive.” The Taylor’s checkerspot, in particular, is seeing its main larval host plants, castilleja (Indian paintbrush) and plantain, wiped out by invasive species.

To remedy this situation, the Xerces Society is also working with state agencies, such as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, to monitor sites where the butterflies are found and to protect the butterflies by according them endangered status. “We’re also in the initial stages of working with a land trust to see if we can get a conservation easement on this land, or raise the money to just outright buy it,” Hoffman-Black says.

Underlying all of these conservation efforts is a need to preserve butterflies not just for aesthetic or ethical reasons, but because they, like all insects, play a vital role in the world around us. “Invertebrates are a part of our everyday lives,” Hoffman-Black says. “Without them, we wouldn’t have fruits and vegetables, decomposition in the soil, clean streams, or food for salmon to eat. They’re vitally important organisms, and they’re all around us.”

Experience has shown that these conservation efforts can be popular, and can make good business sense. Pacific Grove-a place that bills itself as “Butterfly Town U.S.A.”-has hosted a festival during the monarch’s migration every October since 1939, a local tradition that was even mentioned in the novel Sweet Thursday by former resident John Steinbeck. Complete with a parade featuring local schoolchildren dressed in monarch butterfly costumes, the celebration is so integral to the city’s identity that in 1997 a life-size statue of two costumed children was erected in front of the Pacific Grove post office.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people who come to see the monarchs, both day trippers and people who spend the night,” says Moe Ammar, president of the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce. Ammar says more than 5,000 people spend the night in town as a result of the monarch migration, and he estimates the annual event pumps more than $5 million into the local economy. But the only way Pacific Grove can continue this success, Ammar says, is if they take care of the butterflies. “We want to focus on ecotourism and the monarchs,” Ammar says. “If you preserve it, they will come.”

Paul Clarke is assistant editor

Where to See Butterflies

Butterflies are all around us; here are a few places where they can be seen.

“Butterflies and Blooms,” Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle. A popular seasonal exhibit now in its sixth year, “Butterflies and Blooms” occupies a large greenhouse filled with nectar-rich flowers and around 1,000 butterflies. Open through September. 206-684-4800, www.zoo.org.

“Winged Wonders,” Oregon Zoo, Portland. Now in its second year, “Winged Wonders” features around 600 butterflies in its large walk-through greenhouse. Open through Labor Day. 503-226-1561, www.oregonzoo.org.

Tropical Butterfly House, Pacific Science Center, Seattle. This year-round exhibit features up to 1,200 tropical butterflies in a lush rainforest environment. 206-443-2001, www.pacsci.org.

Butterfly Gardens, Victoria, British Columbia. Hundreds of butterflies from 30 different species populate this seasonal indoor garden. Open through October. 877-722-0272, www.butterflygardens.com.

Butterfly World, Coconut Creek, Florida. The world’s largest butterfly park, Butterfly World is home to more than 4,000 butterflies from around 80 different species. Located north of Miami, the park is open year-round. 954-977-4400, www.butterflyworld.com.

North American Butterfly Association (NABA). NABA takes butterfly watchers straight to where the majestic insects live. Local chapters hold meetings and field trips, and participate in the annual Fourth of July Butterfly Count. Newcomers are welcome. Visit www.naba.org to find your local chapter.

Monarch Days Celebration, Pacific Grove. “Butterfly Town U.S.A.” welcomes migrating monarchs-and the visitors who come to see them-each year from October through mid-March. An annual Butterfly Parade kicks off the events in October. Contact the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce at 800-656-6650 or visit www.pacificgrove.org.