By Pam Martin
Kansas Department Wildlife, Parks and Tourism educator
With butterfly weed’s orange flowers now in full bloom and butterflies approaching their peak populations it’s prime time for butterfly watching.
Just watching butterflies brings back childhood memories. I’ve been chasing butterflies since I could hold a net and run. Over the years, I’ve learned to look for butterflies sipping nectar from flowers so I don’t have to expend as much energy or risk a tumble. A few years ago, while chasing a Monarch butterfly across an alfalfa field, I ran right into a hole. Down I went, popping right back up and looking around to see if anyone saw me fall. The butterflies were the only ones laughing and that one got away, reminding me I wasn’t a kid anymore.
Of course, you don’t have to chase and capture butterflies to enjoy their beauty or marvel at their behaviors. Many butterflies have courtship rituals and displays, as well as elaborate ruses to escape predators.
The male buckeye butterfly, whose inside wings are painted with large eye spots, basks on bare ground waiting until another buckeye butterfly flies by. Pursuing the butterfly, he determines whether it is male or female, following the female until she lands. He courts by briefly hovering above her before landing behind her and then beating his wings more slowly. If she accepts his courtship, mating occurs, lasting up to 30 minutes.
A close relative of the buckeye, red admiral males defend territories aligned with distinct features such as a row of trees or a sidewalk. Perched on a plant, he flies out to investigate intruders, which may include birds and even people. He might fly at a person for a short distance before returning to his perch, probably thinking he’s successfully chased a huge creature out of his territory.
A masterful actor, the diminutive gray hairstreak butterfly bears a small tail on each hind wing, which is also marked with a small black eyespot just above the tails. As it perches with wings closed, it moves the hind wings back and forth, making the tails resemble moving antenna above a “head”, tricking predators into attacking the wing instead of the real head area. Scientists have found numerous hairstreaks missing on that area of wing, suggesting the trick works and granting them another day of life.
All of these behaviors may be observed from your backyard if you plant butterfly-friendly flowers, some caterpillar host plants and refrain from using pesticides and herbicides. The Kansas Wetland Education Center recently planted a butterfly and hummingbird demonstration garden with donations from The Kansas Associated Garden Club Wildflower Committee and the Soroptomists. If you have questions about plantings or butterflies please feel free to contact KWEC.
If you’d like to learn more about butterflies, plan to attend the 2nd Annual Butterfly Quest, beginning at 8:30 a.m. on July 16. After a 30-minute presentation on butterflies, including how to identify and count them, participants will go out and search for butterflies in a specific area. Most of the count is done from a vehicle, very much like the Christmas Bird Count. Those who want to continue after a lunch break, will go back out until 4 p.m. There is a $3 charge per person fee and the registration deadline is July 14.
It’s not too early to mark your calendars for “Mad About Monarchs”, planned 9 a.m. to noon on Sept. 24. Participants will capture, tag and release Monarch butterflies that are migrating to Central Mexico. Additional activities include kids’ crafts and presentations. Nets and tags are provided and there is no cost for the event. For more information on these programs, call KWEC at 1-877-243-9268.
Top 10 Butterfly Nectar Plants
Liatris (blazing star or gayfeather)