Kansas Wetlands Education Center’s North American Butterfly Association annual count: 2010 butterfly count = 1051 individuals, 20 species; 2011 butterfly count = 405 individuals, 10 species; 2012 butterfly count = 308 individuals, 15 species
Orange sulphur butterfly numbers: 2010 – 710 individuals; 2011 – 130 individuals; 2012 – 42 individuals
Black swallowtail butterfly numbers: 2010 – 54 individuals; 2011 – 35 individuals; 2012 – 47 individuals
Humans have a soft spot for butterflies. They’re more visible than most insects and are a symbol of beauty with their various colors and dancing, graceful flight.
That makes them the perfect ambassador for the world of insects.
“They’re easier to see and people are more interested in them,” said Pam Martin, environmental educator for the Kansas Wetlands Education Center at 592 NE K-156 Highway in Great Bend.
The center has participated in the North American Butterfly Association count – with cooperation from Quivira National Wildlife Refuge – the last three years, roaming alfalfa fields in Barton County to tally butterfly sightings. This year’s count was on July 7.
Annual butterfly counts have been reported nationwide since 1982. There were 427 counts throughout the U.S. in 2011.
“Some places have 30 years of records,” Martin said. “We’re just getting started.”
In Barton County, the two agencies have conducted counts in July – on different dates – in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Martin is quick to point out that no conclusions can be made from three years of observations, but numbers the last two years – both affected by record heat and drought – were much lower than the first year.
“I wish we had more years of data to make some observations,” Martin said. “It makes it difficult to draw any conclusions.”
Jeff Whitworth, crops entomologist with K-State Research and Extension, agreed since hot weather came to Kansas much earlier this year.
“The temperature makes a big difference in terms of insect development,” he said. “It’s better to get away from a calendar basis.”
The count is done with several volunteers using binoculars or the naked eye to spot butterflies throughout a 15-mile-wide circular area in the county. Martin said this year was unusual in that there was a butterfly explosion in the spring.
“Everything is two weeks off. We’re seeing things earlier than normal,” she said.
Despite the count’s short duration, Martin said butterflies can use all the help they can get.
“They’re losing habitat,” she said. “Everything is suffering. People can put out a bird bath and butterflies will use that. But they need to put a rock in it. They need a landing place.”
Barry Jones, visitor services specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, has helped all three years with the count. He has been a butterfly watcher for 40 years.
“It’s a hobby,” he said.
The butterfly count operates similarly to the National Audubon Society’s 112-year annual Christmas Bird Count. Jones said the two hobbies are similar.
“A lot of birders expand into butterflies,” he said. “It’s a similar type of interest.”
Earlier this year, there was an explosion of red admiral butterflies, Jones said.
“The conditions were just right,” he said. “Every year is different.”
Elsewhere in the insect domain, some pests are less common that normal, including the corn borer, said Great Bend agronomist/crop consultant Randy Garrett.
“We had a real light corn borer run this year,” Garrett said of local crops. “There were a lot of fields that we did not treat for that this year.”
Garrett said that has been helpful to fields that were irrigated and not as affected by the drought. He believes the light pressure from the corn borer was due to high temperatures.
“I think it’s heat related more than drought,” he said. “It’s just been hot every darn day.”
That same heat, however, has created ideal conditions for other insects like the spider mite.
“The spider mite population has built up,” Whitworth said. “They like hot and dry conditions. They will suck the juice out of a plant.”
Garrett also said he is seeing an increase in mites locally.
“We’re starting to see them,” he said. “They love it hot and dry.”
Another problem the heat has caused, Whitworth said, is that insects respond to it much the same way as people. They head indoors.
“I got a lot of calls about insects trying to get into people’s houses,” he said. “And where we’d have one or two generations of insects in the past, this year we’re getting three or four generations.”