Clellie Lynch | Our Berkshires: Last of the butterflies, for now and ever?
"The butterfly obtains
But little sympathy
Though favorably mentioned
The Butterfly Obtains, Emily Dickinson
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> When I awaken of a September morn, barely a glint of sunlight slips through the window. I lie still for a few minutes listening to the constant churr, whirr, buzz of hundreds of insects frantic at their nightly cocktail party, (unlike their silent fellow ants who when not taking an ant-nap, constantly toil underground, across patios and into the house to feast on catfood).
Today, the delicious cool morning air belies the coming heat. Fall is definitely creeping in even though it is still warm. Many tree tops have drying leaves curling a bit as they pale from the heat or have splashes of red and gold hinting that autumn is arriving sooner rater than later. Grass now crinkles as you walk across the lawn. Some flowers have already turned brown; others, like the omnipresent September seas of goldenrod, are in their heyday.
More insect species exist than in all other animal families combined. Since some of these tiny creatures live for only a few hours or days, new ones are found, identified and classified almost daily. To make your name in entomology perhaps you should keep your eye to the ground. Most insect species are quite insignificant and barely register except perhaps to sting, bite or nip one's legs unseen. Others like the beautiful butterfly are prominent, gracing our gardens like floating rainbows searching for that pot of nectar gold.
In this, the month of insects, the most obvious are the beautiful butterflies (and their caterpillars). Butterflies with their winged comrades, the moths, constitute the order Lepidoptera from the Greek, lepid meaning scale and ptera meaning wing, for they do have wings with a powdery scale covering. Hemingway described one of his characters, thusly: "His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred."
Butterflies wings are fragile. Many by this time have paper thin or broken wings having barely survived their hungry predators. Perhaps talent is as fragile and must struggle to survive in the world of fierce editors and publishers.
Butterflies represent only about 7 percent of this order, the remaining are moths with their hairy antenna and camouflage coloration. Flashy butterflies are definitely more noticeable not just for their painterly outfits, but also because they tend to fly by day while most of the not-so-colorful moths wing it by night and snooze by day. Of the 150,000 worldwide species of Lepidoptera, only 15,000 dwell in North America and, of these, only 725 are butterflies.
Butterflies, those gaudy gadabouts, are noticeable as soon as spring arrives and flowers bloom. Look for the spring azure in early May, the monarch in the September and hundreds of others throughout the summer. "Butterflies through Binoculars" by Jeffrey Glassberg is a great beginners field guide with not just detailed descriptions, but also the food plant special to each species. My favorite, the giant swallowtail (giant it is at nearly five inches) with that very prominent yellow crossbar on its wings made an appearance earlier this year.
The first butterflies written about were yellow and thus, dubbed butter-flies — or so the story goes. Many cultures admire these creatures attractive in any language: papillion (Fr.), smetterling (Ger.), mariposa (Sp.), farfalla (It.) babochka (Rus.), choucho (Jap.), and húdié (Chin.). They adorn stamps, jewelry, fabric. They are featured in fable (Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen) and opera ("Madame Butterfly"). Various peoples believe that butterflies are human souls that linger on Earth and one should respect them especially if one has lost a friend or relative recently.
Superstitions abound. In Britain, if the first butterfly of the year was white, you'd eat white bread for the rest of the year and have good luck. In contrast, if the butterfly was brown, then it was brown bread and bad luck for you. Others in Britain in days of yore thought that if you caught and decapitated (!) the first butterfly of the year and buried the head under a stone, plenty of money would come your way.
Even with most of the garden flowers gone to seed, butterflies are still flitting about near the patio feasting on phlox, morning glory, zinnias, nasturtium, thumbergia competing with the flow of hummingbirds constantly at the flowers and feeders fattening up to fly that incredible distance to South America.
Our resident spicebush swallowtail flits from one flower to the next constantly fluttering making nearly every photo slightly out of focus. The great spangled fritillary, that burnished orange beauty, which was always at the beebalm, now settles for cosmos. Cabbage whites in pairs and trios dance about. The silver-spotted skippers hang around the vegetable garden. Occasionally a metalmark or an admiral stops by. But nary a monarch this year!
Strangely enough when I was in the UK in June and July, I saw NO butterflies. Not a one. I discovered that is an ongoing problem. Scientists have recently concluded that the pervasive use of neonicotinoid insecticides is not only killing off plant-damaging bugs, but flower-visiting bees and butterflies. In one article I read: "As of 2013 neonicotinoids have been used In the U.S. on about 95 percent of corn and canola crops, the majority of cotton, sorghum, and sugar beets and about half of all soybeans. They have been used on the vast majority of fruit and vegetables."
Uh-oh. Who can imagine a world without butterflies? or want to?
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.