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Jewels of the Air: Butterfly Conservation, Part II

There are about 20,000 species of butterflies worldwide, of which about 117 can be found in CT. Here are a few fascinating facts about butterflies:

  • Different species of resident butterflies may overwinter in CT as an egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis, or adult sheltering in trees or log piles.  (Butterflies do not use butterfly boxes.)  A Bog Copper egg can survive all winter long underwater in a cranberry bog.
  • The larva of a Giant Swallowtail looks like bird poop.  Others (e.g., Coral Hairstreak caterpillar) look like slugs.  The American Snout has mouthparts that look a big Jimmy Durante-style nose.  The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar has a swollen butt with two big scary-looking eyespots. 
  • Some territorial butterflies patrol their territory.  Others like the Hobomok Skipper engage in aerial dogfights.  American Coppers may even dart at birds and humans to chase them off.
  • Not all butterflies are vegetarians.  CT has one carnivorous species of butterfly – the Harvester - that dines on woolly aphids.
  • Monarchs digest toxins from the Milkweed plant that make caterpillars and adult butterflies taste nasty so predators won’t eat them.  Monarchs can cross the Atlantic Ocean. They may journey 3,000 miles to overwinter in California or Mexico, sometimes returning to the exact same tree.
  • The “host plant” (where eggs are laid and caterpillars feed) for a butterfly may be anything from a blade of bluegrass to a mighty oak.  Some butterfly species will only use one type of plant.  For example, the Hickory Hairstreak will only lay eggs on a Bitternut Hickory. 
  • Butterflies have a slender body, and thin antenna shaped like a golf club. They are active by day.  Moths have a stout body and their antenna is usually thicker with a pointy end or is feathery. They are active by night.
  • On average, most adult butterflies live about a month. A few, like Monarchs and Mourning Cloaks, can live up to nine months.
Monarch Butterfly. Photo by K Chapuis.
Monarch Butterfly. Photo by K. Chapuis

It is believed that the first North American butterfly to become extinct as a result of human activity was the Xerces Blue.  Some species of butterflies in CT are in serious decline or have not been seen decades, according to the CT Butterfly Atlas (see last week’s article.)  There are steps you can take to try to reverse this trend.  Many actions that favor butterflies will also benefit other wildlife (such as grassland nesting birds) and the environment.

The primary threat is habitat loss.  Open space conservation, through acquisition or conservation easements or restrictions in deeds, is key.  Get involved in a local open space group.  Let your elected officials know whether you consider open space protection a priority.  Manage existing open areas to create or maintain early successional habitats through mowing, grazing and prescribed burns (controlled use of fire).  Get rid of invasive plants like Multiflora Rose, Russian Olive, Autumn Olive and Garlic Mustard, and invasive insects like European Paper Wasps.  Use pesticides judiciously.

Create your own butterfly sanctuary.  Nectar-producing flowers provide food sources for migrating butterflies and are beautiful to look at.  A butterfly garden means less lawn to mow every week.  If you want to encourage breeding, do not mow or weed out host plants with eggs or caterpillars on them.  Good perennial food sources are the Aster, Bee Balm, Butterfly-Weed, Daisy, Phlox, Primrose and Purple Coneflower.  Wildflowers that attract butterflies include Blazing Star, Black-eyed Susan, Milkweed, Thistle and Joe-Pye Weed.

CT has legislation to protect Rare and Endangered Species.  However, it only applies if an activity is authorized, funded or performed by a state agency.  Both Massachusetts and New York have extended legislative protection to privately-owned lands.

Help raise awareness.  If adults and children are aware of the plight of imperiled butterflies, they are more likely to be interested in conservation.  Give the gift of a butterfly field guide.  The best time to watch butterflies is June through September, depending on the species.  The CT Butterfly Atlas suggests locations, and has photos and descriptions of the life stages.  Responsible collecting (guidelines are found in the Atlas) may be the start of a lifelong interest in butterfly conservation.  Do not release butterflies at weddings. It can spread disease, and the butterflies usually suffer an untimely death.  Get involved in collecting data. There are still enormous gaps in our knowledge base.  Join an organization committed to butterfly conservation, such as the Connecticut Butterfly Association, North American Butterfly Association, The Lepidopterist’s Society, or Xerces Society.


The Top 15 most commonly "vouchered" (report verified) species in CT per The Connecticut Butterfly Atlas (CBAP 1995-1999 project data)

  1. Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
  2. Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)
  3. Peck's Skipper (Polites peckius)
  4. Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela)
  5. Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
  6. Yellow Sulphur (Colias philodice)
  7. Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia)
  8. Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes comynta)
  9. American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
  10. Tawny Edged Skipper (Polites themistocles)
  11. Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  12. European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)
  13. Great Spangled Frittillary (Speyeria cybele)
  14. Silver-Spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
  15. Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris)

The Top 15 most commonly "vouchered" (report verified) species in CT PRE-Project - NOTICE CHANGES

  1. Yellow Sulphur
  2. Pearl Crescent
  3. Spring Azure
  4. Orange Sulphur
  5. Cabbage White (non-native)
  6. Hobomok Skipper
  7. Meadow Fritillary
  8. Question Mark
  9. American Copper
  10. Eastern Tailed Blue
  11. Monarch
  12. Juniper Hairstreak
  13. Tiger Swallowtail
  14. Great Spangled Fritillary
  15. Little Wood Satyr



Other Butterfly Facts and Links:


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Last updated October 25, 2016

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