Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Butterfly on palm: © Rebecca Deatsman

This small orange harvester butterfly is the only one in North America with carnivorous larvae.
© Rebecca Deatsman

August 2013

Creature Comforts

Meet your neighbors at WisconsinButterflies.org

Story by Rebecca Deatsman

Getting to know your neighbors and learning their names isnít just good manners; it can help you feel connected to the place where you live. This is as true of our plant and animal neighbors as it is of our human ones. But you canít just ask a bird or a flower – or a butterfly – to introduce itself. Thankfully, a resource to help you learn more about Wisconsin butterflies is online.

Wisconsin Butterflies ( Wisconsin Butterflies) was created by Waushara County resident Mike Reese as a father-and-son project.

"My background is actually in botany," explains Reese, " but my son was interested in insects when he was young. I became involved with Cub Scouts, and the Cub Scout troop that I was with had a butterfly club."

The site began as a page on the website of the local school covering the butterflies found in the county, but it soon grew. Reeseís son, David, helped develop and design the site.

Five cool Wisconsin butterflies

Harvester, Feniseca tarquinius

This small orange butterfly is the only one in North America with carnivorous larvae. Instead of plants, its caterpillars prey on other insects, such as aphids. Look for it near water in wooded habitat.

Mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa

These are often the first butterflies spotted in the spring because they overwinter as adults instead of eggs or caterpillars, burrowing under the leaf litter and pumping their bodies full of natural antifreeze.

Karner blue, Lycaeides melissa samuelis

This federally endangered subspecies depends on the wild lupine flower, the only plant on which it lays its eggs. The worldís largest population of Karner blues is found in Wisconsin.

Frosted elfin, Callophrys irus

This is a tiny beauty, reddish-brown in color with a delicate "frosted" area along the edges of its wings. Like the Karner blue, it relies on central Wisconsinís wild lupines.

Giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes

The largest butterfly found in Wisconsin is this black-and-yellow giant that wanders north into our state in summer, which has a wingspan exceeding five inches. Watch for it gliding through the woods in the southern half of the state.

Since 2000, Wisconsin Butterflies has grown into one of the best insect identification websites. Unlike other insect sites where users have to sort through photos of species only found in Florida and Texas, users will find a page devoted to each butterfly species found in Wisconsin, organized by family group.

Each species page includes photographs, a map of which counties it can be found in and a chart showing what time of year youíre most likely to see it. The detailed butterfly descriptions include tips for how to distinguish it from other, similar-looking species, plus information on its habitat and life cycle.

Users can submit their own butterfly sightings and photographs and even create an account to track their sightings over time.

Though heís seen and photographed many of Wisconsinís butterflies, Reese definitely has a favorite. The frosted elfin isnít one of the big or colorful ones – actually itís the opposite, small and colored in subtle shades of brown – but itís special to him " just because it was so hard for me to find the first time. Thereís only one area where theyíre found in Wisconsin now – there might be some hiding out there somewhere, but basically the only ones weíve found are in Jackson County."

Over four years, Reese visited the site more than 20 times trying to find the elusive elfin, making a two-hour drive each way.

"Some days the weather wasnít great, but I went anyway, because if I wanted to see them I had to go when theyíre flying. So thatís always a special butterfly to me, and I lead a field trip there now, and thatís one of the highlights because not many people get to see it. You wouldnít see it in any other part of the state."

If youíre interested in getting to know the butterflies in your area, the release of the Wisconsin Butterflies database as a smartphone application has made it easier to carry the information into the field ($7.99, the app is compatible with the iPhone™, iPad™, and iPod™ Touch). The app was designed by Reeseís son.

Technology has made it easier for people to learn about butterflies, but even more importantly it has allowed butterfly lovers to connect with each other.

"If you have some idea of what it is, itís nice to be able to look at photos online and compare yours to that, but also itís a lot easier to share your photo with other people, like an expert, and ask them questions," Reese says.

Why watch butterflies? Just like hunting, angling, or birdwatching, itís a way of getting outdoors and finding a connection with the natural world.

"You might be looking for butterflies, but you wonít just see butterflies," advises Reese. "You might see a rattlesnake, or you might see a bird thatís unusual, just because youíre out in an area thatís different from your backyard. Just get out and start looking!"

You could even discover something no one has ever seen before. Last summer, a user of Reeseís website found a Brazilian skipper, a butterfly species never before observed in Wisconsin, at Schlitz Audubon Center in Milwaukee.

Next time you see a butterfly, snap a photo for Wisconsin Butterflies. Connect with butterfly enthusiasts and the next time you run into that butterfly youíll be able to greet your neighbor by name.

Rebecca Deatsman finished her masterís degree in environmental education from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in May and has since relocated to eastern Oregon, where she is the Education and Projects Coordinator for the North Fork John Day Watershed Council in the tiny ranching town of Long Creek. You can find more of her wildlife writing and photography online at Rebecca in the Woods.