Butterfly Enthusiast

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It's a blaze of orange, gold and black. A large monarch butterfly has landed on a milkweed plant and is delicately picking its way over a cluster of leaves. The morning light enhances the stained glass pattern on its wings.

It pauses for a moment, each wing folding and unfolding in a gentle breeze. You are spellbound. The whole scene is right outside your kitchen window. You are amazed to see such a beautiful creature in your backyard. The butterfly lifts off and slowly flutters away. The spell breaks, but in that one moment you've become a butterfly enthusiast.

At one time, being a butterfly enthusiast meant being a butterfly collector -- you went out with a net to capture butterflies, which you killed and kept and pinned to a display board.

Times change. Today, the North American Butterfly Association encourages members to observe, list and photograph butterflies they see in the wild.

Some enthusiasts aren't content to leave butterfly viewing to chance. They plant the flowers and shrubs butterflies need to eat or lay eggs on to attract butterflies to their yards.

Photographing colorful moths and butterflies, such as the one pictured, is not easy. The most colorful ones are often the first to be picked off by birds and other predators.
Courtesy of: William T. Hark

"For me, it's a way to reconnect," says Kathy Malone, a 36-year-old butterfly enthusiast in southern Florida. "I bring caterpillars in and raise them. We watch them hatch and emerge as butterflies. My five year old loves it and he learns so much."

Don't just expect to see butterflies in your garden, however. "The same people who enjoy the beauty and simplicity of a butterfly may complain about nasty caterpillars eating their parsley or their pussy-toes. Those unwanted caterpillars may turn into a swallowtail or a painted lady butterfly," writes Anna Leggatt in Landscape Trades magazine.

Butterflies live in most parts of North America, except northern Canada and Alaska. Since different plants attract different butterflies, gardeners have to research what plants will attract which butterflies in their area.

Gardening with butterflies in mind encourages butterfly populations in urban areas. "It's better than sod and asphalt," says Scott Dueweke, an enthusiast in Boca Raton, Florida. "I think we have a responsibility to plant flowers and making where we live as appealing as possible to nature."

Dueweke is the editor of The Butterfly Zone on the Internet. He says even planting a favorite flower in a window box will attract butterflies. "They have a great sense of smell, they can smell what they need for miles."

Many butterfly enthusiasts belong to a butterfly group, and many others do not. The North American Butterfly Association has some 2,500 members. On July 4 each year, the NABA organizes a North American butterfly count.

There are about 1,600 members in over 60 countries (the majority being from all 50 United States and 10 Canadian provinces) in the Lepidopterists' Society. This group is concerned with the study and appreciation of moths and butterflies and has both amateurs and professionals in its membership.

Butterfly watching is where birding was 30 years ago, says Jeff Glassberg of the NABA. While people used to go out and shoot birds, now thousands are involved in bird watching.

"People went out with nets and studied them. Now they realize they don't have to kill them. I think it's going to be as big or bigger than birding in 10 or 15 years."

Scott Dueweke agrees. "This is an up and coming hobby for Generation Xers and yuppies. People seem to have a void in their lives. Butterfly gardening is taking off for inner reasons. It offers a way to connect to what's real."

It doesn't cost much to enjoy butterflies. You may want to invest in a pair of binoculars so you can better observe butterflies in your backyard or in the wild. A modest pair will cost you about $100.

If you want to make your garden more attractive to butterflies, most seeds cost 50 cents to $2 a packet. "The right plants will re-seed themselves -- like milkweed," says Kathy Malone.

Malone adds that many butterfly enthusiasts expand into photography in order to capture the butterflies on film. She says a good camera capable of fast speeds and close-ups will cost you a couple of thousand dollars.

"I've been doing this three years and I haven't got into that yet, but after seeing some of my friend's pictures, I'm thinking about it."

People of any age and physical ability can enjoy this hobby. Some butterfly enthusiasts go on extensive hikes and walking tours hoping to see rare and exotic species in the wild.

Other butterfly enthusiasts are content to let the butterflies come to them. It takes some agility to plant and maintain the flowers and plants needed to attract butterflies to your yard, but most of the time you just sit back and enjoy a truly living garden.

A love of butterflies could lead to work as an entomologist or a zoologist. Tom Emmel at the University of Florida has been raising swallowtail butterflies in a laboratory for four years.

The swallowtail population was almost wiped out by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The study of butterflies is a branch of entomology called lepidopterology.

Butterfly enthusiasts might also find a career in botany. When the slow-growing coontie or arrowroot plant became scarce in Florida, so did the Atala butterfly, which counts on it for food. Botanists helped identify ideal growing conditions for the plant and the coontie and the Atala are now both making a comeback.

In some areas, public interest in butterflies has become a multi-million dollar industry. There are several Butterfly World tourist attractions across the U.S. The various Butterfly World sites feature hundreds of species of butterflies and are visited by tens of thousands of North Americans each year.

Getting Started

So, you've decided to give butterfly watching a try. You will want to do some research and join a butterfly watching group to help you along.

You can start small: just start paying attention to butterflies, learn more about them, and log the names of butterflies you see. Later on, with more information, you can start looking for more unusual butterflies, or plant a garden to attract butterflies.


North American Butterfly Association
4 Delaware Rd.
Morristown , NJ   07960

Association for Tropical Lepidoptera
P. O. Box 141210
Gainesville , FL   32614-1210


The Butterfly Zone
Great pictures, how-tos, and lists of butterflies native to most regions of the United States

Butterfly Web Site
Butterfly conservation, education and gardening tips

Images of Insects and Their Relatives
Butterflies and bugs from Colorado State University

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