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  • Protecting Pollinators

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    Tags: pollinator, pollinators, bees, butterflies

    Created: 7/12/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    Bee on flower

    If you love pollinators as much as we do, you’re probably aware of the recent population decline of many pollinator species. The fact that 75% of our food is made possible because of pollination from butterflies, bees and other species has made this problem an international priority. Groups like the International Pollinator Initiative are working to highlight the need for public participation and awareness.

    Deb Lahey with Fidel Marquez

    It’s become a local priority as well. On Earth Day of this year, we were happy to host ComEd as the company announced its plan to improve Monarch butterfly breeding areas around its transmission lines. Fidel Marquez, Senior Vice President of Governmental and External Affairs for ComEd, joined us to announce ComEd's plan to increase the mixture of milkweed plants used in its prairie restoration program by more than 30%. Meanwhile, at the Nature Museum, we are continually working to protect and reestablish populations of locally imperiled butterflies. Our efforts are to coordinate the restoration of their native habitat, to propagate imperiled butterflies in our Conservation Lab for the purpose of reintroduction, and to monitor butterfly populations throughout the state with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network citizen science program.

    Regal Fritillary butterfly on flower Swamp Metalmark butterfly on flower

    Two native species we continually work within our Butterfly Restoration Project are the Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia), and the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum). The swamp metalmark, endangered in Illinois, is a rare butterfly that can only be found in wetlands. Its populations are small and intensely local in nature. In contrast, the Regal Fritillary was once common in tallgrass prairies across the country but now is rarely seen east of the Mississippi River. In fact, it is now threatened in Illinois. The Regal Fritillary was recently designated a priority species by the Chicago Wilderness Council with the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum as the lead partner to coordinate regional efforts to conserve this species. We are also lead partners on two other species, the Monarch Butterfly and the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, and are currently working with Chicago Wilderness developing strategies to protect these species throughout the region.

    We are also doing what we can to help out one of our most effective pollinators, the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) by hosting a number of beehives on our green roof. You will see our bees' hard at work when you visit our outdoor exhibits Nature Trails and the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden.

    Wondering how you can work to help pollinators? Here are a few easy ways to start:

    • Plant more native species and pollinator-friendly plants in your yard and garden. Check out this brochure to help you get started.
    • Avoid using pesticides whenever possible. Remove pests by hand and use non-systemic pesticides such as insecticidal soap if necessary.
    • Support the upkeep of our own Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden as it continues to serve as a way-station and food source for Monarchs and other species.
    • Don’t use insecticides on bee swarms. If you notice a swarm on your property, contact a local honey co-op (like the Chicago Honey Co-Op) and a beekeeper will come and remove it from your property.

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

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  • 6 Common Butterflies You'll See In Chicago Parks and Gardens

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    Tags: chicago butterflies, butterflies, illinois butterflies

    Created: 7/7/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    If you’ve wandered through our Nature Trails or the Woody Wickham Butterfly Garden lately, you’ve probably seen a variety of pollinators and other insects. In addition to the bees that call our rooftop beehives home, you’ve probably seen a number of butterflies fluttering around. If you have your own pollinator garden, you’ve probably seen some of them there, too. But what are they? Here are six common species of butterflies you’re likely to find around the Nature Museum and in your neck of the woods.

    Red Admiral butterfly

    Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

    Red admiral butterflies are very common and very easy to spot, thanks to their striking black forewings which featured red bars and white spots. Red Admirals are often seen in residential neighborhoods of large cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. They are frequent visitors to parks and gardens, but just as much at home in a prairie preserve. The range of the Red Admiral extends from Guatemala up into Northern Canada. While they fly year-round in Guatemala and Mexico, in the northern areas of their range they hibernate or overwinter as chrysalides. Red Admiral caterpillars eat plants of the Nettle family (Urticacea) such as Pellitory. Red Admirals can be found in most sunny places including moist fields, prairies or marshes. In urban areas, look for them in parks or along tree lined residential streets.

    Viceroy butterfly

    Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)

    Viceroy butterflies closely resemble Monarchs, but their behavior is very different. Viceroys prefer wet habitats and are territorial – they will chase away other butterflies that come too close. Viceroys also fly by flapping their wings quickly, while Monarchs usually glide between wing strokes. You can also tell the difference between the two by examining their wings. A black line crosses through the veins in the Viceroy’s postmedian hindwing, but Monarch wings do not have this line. Viceroys range from the mountain states east to the Atlantic and from Texas north into the Canadian plains. They over-winter in the larva stage. Viceroy caterpillars feed on Willows, Aspens and Cottonwoods. Viceroys are usually found in wetlands and prairies with willows. They are also found in human-disturbed wet areas, like suburban lake edges.

      Monarch butterfly  

    Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

    One of the most familiar North American butterflies, the Monarch is distinctive for its striking colors and as a study in butterfly biology. The caterpillars accumulate toxins from the steady milkweed diet which makes this animal poisonous to predators especially birds. Birds apparently learn to avoid eating monarchs and other butterflies, like Viceroys, that look like Monarchs. Monarchs range across North America – coast to coast – and up into southern Canada during the summer. Every autumn, millions of Monarchs migrate south and west to central California and central Mexico. Monarchs are also found year-round in Central America. Monarch Caterpillars eat Milkweed it is therefore referred to as the Monarch's Host Plant. Monarchs will inhabit almost any sunny place with flowers, including parks, gardens or prairies.

      Painted Lady ButterflyCourtesy of Shelley Abbott (CC BY-SA 2.5)

    Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

    Painted Ladies are found year-round in the deserts of the southwest. They migrate into the Midwest and northeastern states each spring and return to the southwest before winter. In some years – 1992 was one example – they may multiply rapidly across the entire continent in a population explosion. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. In North America, they live year-round in Mexico, but migrate north each year across the continent, all the way to the Arctic Circle. Painted Lady Caterpillars eat Thistle, Mallow, Hollyhock and related plants. These plants are referred to as the Painted Lady’s Host Plants. Painted Ladies are found just about anywhere that thistles grow

      Cabbage White butterflyCourtesy of Vera Buhl (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)

    Cabbage Whites are imports from Europe. They first appeared in Canada in 1860 and have since spread as far as south Texas. They can be seen just about anywhere from March to November. Several generations are produced each year. The Cabbage White ranges from central Canada as far as Texas and northwest Mexico. Individuals over-winter in the chrysalis stage. Cabbage White caterpillars eat Cabbage, Radish, Mustard, Peppergrass, and related plants. The caterpillar is often considered an agricultural pest. Cabbage Whites are found in weedy habitats like vacant lots, power line right of ways and roadsides as well as in marches and gardens where its food plants grow.

    Black Swallowtail butterflyCourtesy of Andrew C (CC BY 2.0)

    Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

    In the Chicago area, these large swallowtails are first seen in April and early May. A second generation begins emerging from chrysalides in mid-June and a third generation may emerge in August or September. Black Swallowtails are attracted to butterfly gardens with fennel or dill plants. Their range extends from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They are found in Arizona, New Mexico, and the eastern half of the United States. Black Swallowtails over-winter in the chrysalis stage. Black Swallowtail Caterpillars eat Parsnips, Wild Carrots, Celery, Parsley and Dill. Black Swallowtails like sunny places with weeds and flowers, and can be found in gardens, vacant lots, old fields, pastures and marshes. They thrive in cities and suburbs due to the abundance of Queen Anne's Lace.

    Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.

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  • Nature's Theatre

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    Tags: steppenwolf, the wheel, butterfly, butterflies, education, inspiration

    Created: 9/30/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Throughout the ages, butterflies have been symbolically important to many cultures, representing everything from the souls of the dead, to resurrection, to steadfast love. Their true stories of survival in the natural world are no less meaningful, but often go largely unnoticed. So I was grateful and excited when the cast of Steppenwolf Theater’s current production of “The Wheel” wanted to ask about the real butterflies behind the imagery and references in this play. 

    Here is a sampling of questions I was more than happy to answer:

    What is the source of butterflies’ color?

     - Mostly light refracting off the scales of their wings.

    How long does the entire life cycle take to complete?

     - Frequently as long as a year, though some adult stages may only last for two weeks.    

    How do butterflies make it through the winter in Illinois?

     - Depending on the species, they may overwinter as adults, larvae, eggs, or chrysalises.  A well-known exception is the Monarch, which flies away to warmer climates.  

    Do butterfly species have “personalities”?

     - They have field behaviors that are unique and help with their identification, such as flight patterns (flap, flap, glide for the monarch), or territorial dog fighting amongst male skippers.

    We observed a sample of the stunning tropical species on display in our Haven (such as the Swallowtail Ulysses butterfly or Blue Mountain Butterfly, Papilio ulysses from Australia, one of my favorites) and talked about some of the unique plant/habitat/insect interactions that occur around the world. What became clear as we discussed the physical progression from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult is just how perilous a journey it is – not unlike the journey that occurs in the play itself. Much of the cast was unaware of just how much trouble certain butterfly species are in around the country.

    Blue Emperor Swallowtail butterfly specimen

    Blue Emperor Swallowtail

    We discussed the tiny but elegant Swamp Metalmark Calephelis muticum that used to fly (and as of this summer’s work, may again establish) in Illinois. It is startling in its small size– a stark size contrast to the giant Ulysses but still an incredible beauty. The story of its loss is one of human imposed challenges.

    Swamp metalmark butterfly next to a penny for scale

    Swamp Metalmark

    Butterflies have endured the ever-revolving cycles of life and abundance for thousands of years, but are now facing new, manmade challenges. How butterflies and other species might respond to these changes was a topic of discussion and inspiration for the cast members.  

    It was a great afternoon, and I was left feeling grateful that although we have come far in our understanding of the processes behind it all, our love of the magic of nature still inspires artists and scientists alike. Watching the drama of nature play out is never boring, with plot twists and surprises to keep you at the edge of your seat. And the best thing is, we all have a role to play.

    Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist

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  • It's Time to get your Bug on!

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    Tags: bugapalooza, insects, public programs, Biology, apiary, bees, Ants, butterflies, entomology

    Created: 7/22/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

    It’s Time to Get Your Bug On!

    Summer has finally arrived in Chicago with it the endless array of festivals. Not to be outdone, the Nature Museum will once again be celebrating all things invertebrate with its fifth annual Bugapalooza event. So if boiling your brains out with music in Grant Park with several thousand others is not your idea of a fun time (or even if it is, you can do both) why not head over to the museum on August 2nd and delve into the delights of entomology?

    Wasp on flower

    We will have a great selection of bugs on display in our highly popular Bug Zoo with experts on hand to give you all the fascinating facts about these often overlooked creatures. You'll get the chance to learn about bug diets when we do our Bug Feeding Program and we'll also be doing Bug Walks on the museum grounds to show you the vast array of species that call our prairie landscape home.

    Moth

    Along with Bug Crafts, Bug Coloring and Bug Tattoos we will also be throwing down the gauntlet to see how adventurous you are feeling by offering you some tasty dishes to try where the key ingredient is, you guessed it, BUGS!!

    Scorpion

    Our collections staff will be on hand demonstrating the delicate art of insect pinning and we will have our neighborhood apiarist here to explain the skills of bee keeping whilst our younger visitors can learn how bees dance. You will even get the chance to see our Leaf-cutter Ant Colony up close too.

    Katydid

    Of course no celebration of the invertebrate world would be complete without a special ‘after hours’ opportunity to visit our iconic Butterfly Haven and to cap off the evening we will be doing a First Flight Butterfly Release. To register for this great event, simply click on this link.

    Celeste Troon, Director of Living Collections

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  • The Return of Swamp Metalmarks

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    Tags: conservation, swamp metalmark, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, butterflies, Biology

    Created: 6/27/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

    After the very challenging drought year of 2012, the Butterfly Conservation Lab is up and running. Recently I traveled to far southern Indiana to continue our ongoing work with the Swamp Metalmark.

    Swamp metalmark habitat in southern Indiana.
    Swamp metalmark habitat in southern Indiana.

    .
    The swamp metalmark is an endangered species in Illinois.  In fact, many people consider it to be extirpated (locally extinct) from the entire state. The reason the butterfly is so rare is that it inhabits an extremely rare type of wetland called a fen. Its caterpillars can only feed on the leaves of swamp thistle and tall thistle. Both grow in fens. We are attempting to re-establish swamp metalmarks to their last known home in Illinois, Bluff Spring Fen near Elgin.

    Swamp Metalmark
    Swamp Metalmark


    In Indiana I found dozens of metalmarks from a wooded fen near the Ohio River. We brought four females into the laboratory, and set them up in special cages to lay eggs. Over the course of about a week and a half, the butterflies laid over 200 eggs. We are currently waiting for them to hatch. When they do, we will place them on leaves of swamp thistle and rear them to adulthood. We hope to have adults in August when we can release them at their new home. With a bit of luck, they will establish a new population.

    Egg laying cages with female metalmarks in them
    Egg laying cages with female metalmarks in them.

    .

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Virtual Butterfly Collecting

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    Tags: butterfly collecting, butterflies, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Biology, lepidoptera

    Created: 4/19/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    About three years ago, I began a project of trying to take a bunch of butterfly photos. I had an old lecture with images in 35 mm slide format that I wanted to convert to a digital presentation. In the process, I discovered how much more I enjoyed taking digital photos of butterflies than using the old film format. My project quickly changed from getting images for a talk to starting a virtual butterfly collection.

    Buckeye butterfly
    Buckeye (Junonia coenia),
    Willow Springs, IL July 18, 2010

    This was one of the first specimens in my virtual collection.

    I've collected butterflies most of my life. Early on my collecting was simply a hobby. As I began collecting for a variety of professional purposes, I stopped collecting for fun. Among other things, I couldn't justify taking the butterflies simply for my own amusement. Digital photography has changed all of that.

    California Sister butterfly
    Caption: California Sister (Adelpha californica)
    Madera Canyon, Arizona. July 31, 2012

    I've been surprised at how similar digital photography is to collecting specimens. Both involve similar pleasures of the pursuit in the field and both require knowledge of habitats and host plants. Both result in a sense of elation at the moment of capture. Both involve work with the specimen once you get it home. In the case of the physical specimen this work involves relaxing, pinning mounting and labeling. In the case of the photograph, it involves cropping and correcting exposure. For me, one of the enjoyable parts of virtual collecting has been keeping records of date and location of capture that are just as rigorous as those that I would maintain for a pinned specimen. 

    Olympia Marble butterfly
    Olympia Marble (Euchloe olympia). 
    Illinois Beach State Park May 11, 2011

    Ethical and conservation concerns aside, there are additional advantages to virtual butterfly collecting over traditional specimen collecting. Want to collect an endangered species or collect in a National Park?  Not so fast- you need a slew of permits and a really good reason to do so. But with a camera, you can take as many images as you would like. Are you traveling abroad and want to collect butterflies?  Many countries now prohibit the export of species, and many more require a permit.  In contrast, the images on your camera will go right through customs, no problem. 

    Karner Blue butterfly
    Karner Blue (Lyciades melissa samuelis)

    Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, May 30, 2009

    A double whammy: This endangered species was virtually collected in a National Park.

    One of the things that I always enjoyed with my specimen collection was looking at my specimens much later and remembering where I was, who I was with, and how much I was enjoying myself. I now get a very similar kind of enjoyment from my virtual collection-- and the specimens in it don't fade or break or get eaten by dermestid beetles. I'll continue collecting actual butterflies for the Nature Museum as the specifics of my work require it. But I also expect to be collecting virtually with my camera for my own enjoyment for the rest of my life.

    Fatima Peacock
    Fatima Peacock (Anartia Fatima)
    Vallarta Botanical Gardens, Jalisco, Mexico, February 15, 2012

    I had no trouble getting this virtual specimen of a Fatima Peacock through customs when I returned home from Mexico.

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology


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  • False Head Hypothesis

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    Tags: butterflies, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences, camouflage

    Created: 4/15/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    I recently posted this butterfly photo on line:

    Ciliate Blue butterfly

    It's a Ciliate Blue from Malaysia.  A friend was prompted to comment, "I like the orange and black "eye" on the edge of the wing. Is it part of a disguise camouflage?" 

    My friend was very astute in noticing that the spot resembles an eye and surmising that it has something to do with defense against predators. This species is a good example of what is often referred to as the false head hypothesis. The hypothesis notes that the markings on one outer edge of the hind wings resemble heads in some species of butterflies.  These markings can be quite elaborate in some cases and may include tails that resemble antennae and a narrow shape that enhances the appearance of a head.  Some species carry this even one step further and rub their hind wings together.  This draws attention to the tails, which appear like twitching antennae.

    Gray Hairstreak butterfly

    Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)

    The false head hypothesis suggests the possibility that these head-like markings confer a survival advantage by deflecting predator attacks towards the hind wing (which butterflies can usually live without) and away from the vulnerable head. Many butterflies, especially species in the Metalmark and Gossamer-Winged Butterfly families show these markings.

    Martials's Scrub Hairstreak butterfly

    Martials's Scrub Hairstreak (Strymon martialis)

    In 1980, scientists from the Smithsonian attempted to demonstrate that predators could be fooled into attacking the wrong end of the butterfly. They collected hundreds of butterflies in Panama and Colombia, and divided them into groups based on the number of head-like features were present in their wing patterns. Consistent with the false head hypothesis, the greater the number of head-like features, the more likely wing damage due to predator attacks was to be directed to that part of the wings.

    Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly

    Eastern Tailed Blue (Cupido comyntas)

    The false head hypothesis remains a hypothesis. Further support of the hypothesis would require a much more difficult experimental design - one that demonstrates that butterflies with the false head designs survive better than those without them.

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Where Do Butterflies Go in the Winter?

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    Tags: winter, butterflies, conservation, Mourning cloak, baltimore checkerspot, painted lady, monarch, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences

    Created: 2/22/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Even though it's been a pretty mild winter, we have had some snow and cold weather. It's been months since I've seen a butterfly outside - yet I'm quite confident that as the weather warms next spring, there will again be butterflies here in northeastern Illinois. So where are the butterflies now?  Did they migrate off someplace else? Are they hibernating? As it turns out, the answer varies from species to species.

    Some butterflies do spend the winter elsewhere. The most familiar example is the Monarch, which spends the winters in the highlands of Michoacán in Mexico. It's the only local species that makes an annual round-trip migration.

    Monarch butterflies in Mexico
    Monarch butterflies in Mexico



    About a dozen other species spend the winter in the desert southwest or along the Gulf Coast in the Deep South. These include species such as the Buckeye, Painted Lady, and Little Yellow. They don't seem to have much of an organized southward migration; they simply die off in more northern locales as the weather cools in the fall. Each spring they begin dispersing northward as the weather warms, though it may take several generations to arrive here.

    Painted Lady butterfly
    Painted Lady



    Although it may be hard to believe, especially on a really cold day in the middle of winter, some species of butterflies hibernate and spend the entire winter here. Each species has one particular life stage that hibernates. There are examples of all four species being used. Species such as the Purplish Copper overwinter as eggs. These are laid on twigs or leaves, where they remain for the entire winter.  Many species, including Baltimore Checkerspots, hibernate as caterpillars. The caterpillars burrow into the leaf litter at the base of their host plants as fall approaches. Many swallowtail butterflies spend the winter as chrysalises. About a half dozen Illinois species, such as Mourning Cloaks, even overwinter as adults.  They spend the winter tucked into crevices in logs, or underneath loose bark on trees. These are the species that can be seen flying on the very first warm days of spring, and occasionally even during warm spells in January or February.

    Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars
    Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars



    How do the hibernating butterflies survive? As cold-blooded animals, their body temperatures drop to that of their surroundings. The secret turns out to be in their chemistry. As the days shorten during the autumn, they begin secreting natural antifreezes into their body fluids. The natural antifreezes are necessary no matter which life stage overwinters. If ice crystals form they rupture cells, which is fatal to eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies alike. The natural antifreezes are small molecules such as glycerol. Glycerol shares many chemical properties with the antifreeze that is used in car engines.  Although the body temperature of a hibernating butterfly may drop to well below zero, the glycerol in its body fluids prevents the formation of ice crystals. The butterfly can therefore survive the very low temperatures, become active again when the weather warms in the spring and complete the life cycle.  Next time you are taking a walk in midwinter, consider that there are thousands of butterflies tucked away in warm spots, waiting to fly next summer.

    Mourning Cloak butterfly
    Mourning Cloak



    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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  • Chicago Butterflies in 2012- A Wild Year!

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    Tags: butterflies, Endangered Species, Drought, Climate

    Created: 10/5/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    It's been a wild year for butterflies in the Chicago area.  Heat and drought seem to be the catchwords of the year.  The season got off to an extraordinarily early start.  It's not all that unusual to see a few butterflies in March, as species like Mourning Cloaks that hibernate as adults sometimes venture out on warm days.  The prolonged hot spell in March brought a lot of species out, many over a month early.  These Spring Azures were photographed at Bluff Spring Fen on St. Patrick's Day.

    Spring Azure



    As the season settled in, the east central part of the US and Canada was overrun by an enormous population explosion of Red Admirals.  In April the wave of Red Admiral migration crossed northern Illinois, with numbers about ten times their normal levels.  As impressive as that was, the huge migration was even bigger in eastern Canada, where it was estimated that hundreds of millions of the butterflies were passing through.

    Red Admiral



    Not surprisingly given the early and very warm season, 2012 saw the influx of several butterfly species that normally fly further to the south.  Pipevine Swallowtails, Dainty Sulphurs (photo below), and Sachem skippers were all conspicuous in the Chicago area for much of the summer.  These species are typically either rare or absent this far north.  It will be interesting to compare data collected by the Illinois and Ohio butterfly monitoring networks to see if similar trends were observed in both of these states.

    Dainty Sulphur



    The news wasn't all good.  The drought seems to have taken a toll on some of the region's rare butterflies- those species that require remnant prairies or wetlands.  The Nature Museum's Butterfly Restoration Project made very little progress this year due to the very low numbers of these species that we encountered.  Species that were present in very low numbers this summer included Silver-bordered Fritillaries, Baltimore Checkerspots (photo below), and Regal Fritillaries.  With luck, conditions will be more favorable in 2013 and their numbers will rebound. 

    Baltimore Checkerspot



    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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