Curious Nature: Flecks of color
June 23, 2012
The reaction to seeing an insect land on your arm is usually to swat it off. Flies, beetles, bees and ants alike are all brushed aside without a cursory glance. The lone exception to the swat rule in the ongoing race of humans versus insects is the butterfly. Butterflies share the same basic form and function as other insects, but they are generally treated with higher regard than other members of phylum Arthropoda. And so the butterflies float and flit around us, flaunting their delicate, color-flecked wings as they fly from one flower to the next in their quest for sweet nectar.
According to some entomologists, Colorado’s unique combination of diverse habitats and river headwaters makes it one of the best places in the United States to view butterflies. The author of “Colorado Butterflies,” F. Martin Brown, cites historical studies that have identified more than 200 species within the state’s borders.
Looking a little closer to home, the website for Butterflies and Moths of North America lists approximately 130 species of butterflies and moths that inhabit Eagle County. Narrowing things down even further, the iPhone application Audubon’s Birds and Butterflies cites 61 species that are commonly seen in the Rocky Mountain region.
We use the term butterflies to refer to just about any fluttery, flying insect. But what about moths? Are they just dull-colored butterflies, fluttering in the shadows of their more brightly colored relatives? Do moths haunt the nighttime while butterflies flutter by day?
It turns out that color has nothing to do with this classification, and “moth” is really just a catch-all term for anything that isn’t a true butterfly. In general, though, butterflies and moths are differentiated by their antennae. Butterflies usually have thin antennae with small clubs or balls at the ends, while moths have antennae that come in a variety of shapes and forms but without the club at the tip.
Insects, already high in numbers, seem to be on the rise. My yard already looks like a scene from “Rise of the Red Ants.” Scientists from different fields have offered several reasons behind the rise of insects this year, from the mild winter that allowed adult insects to survive to the reduction in bat numbers from White Nosed Bat Syndrome. The bright side is that there are also more butterflies, brightening up the blue skies while we swat mercilessly at their less beautiful cousins.
Within the grand scheme of things, though, butterfly numbers are being carefully monitored. Like birds and other migratory species, their populations appear to be declining. Using similar procedures to those in the Christmas Bird Count, lepidopterists (butterfly scientists) from the North American Butterfly Association conduct citizen science programs annually. These programs allow butterfly enthusiasts to help scientists identify, track and monitor butterfly species and population numbers. Anyone can participate, and all support is welcomed. Log onto the association’s website
at http://inst-149.mycorphosting.com/butter_counts.html and participate in the July 4 Butterfly Count. It’s a great way to show patriotism to your natural heritage.
No matter how young or old you are, the flash of a butterfly always seems to stir up a smile. There’s something so precious about watching those fragile wings flapping gently in the breeze. There are some days that I wish I could be like the butterfly, floating wherever the winds blow, stopping to rest on a brightly colored flower long enough to sip sweet nectar and then floating onward without a map or a plan or a worry about being swatted.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center, where she enjoys watching flying creatures of all sorts over the long summer days.