Before I moved to Craftsbury Common, it seemed like I hadn’t seen a butterfly in years. While I hesitate to call Rutland a “city” in the truest sense of the word, its labyrinth of roads and collection of soulless nationwide store names made my hometown urban enough so that I once proudly, though now somewhat bashfully, boast to have never owned a car, out of sheer lack of necessity or desire. I have lived in Orange, California for a few months; Minneapolis, Minnesota for a year; Rutland, Vermont on and off most of my life. These all offer their own brand of something or another to appease the masses which crowd them, none of which being rows of milkweed and sprawling fields of varied wildflowers to attract winged arthropods. Recollection hints at fragments of memories from my childhood, including some years an age ago in New York State as a very wee one before moving back to my birthplace, which contain now blurred flashes of interactions with colorful insects.
However, one memory which has persisted involving my initial interest in the class Insecta, at the risk of dating myself, hearkens back to times when the well-known and well-loved Monarch (Danaus plexippus), official state butterfly of seven states (including Vermont) and state insect of five, was actually still safely in abundance. This was back before the days of Round-Up, when the actual range of the butterfly might be “ground-truthed” accurately from a range map. I’m sure now an updated map would contain many dents and holes in that range where agriculture abounds, primarily in the grain belt. I digress. At a primary school in Rutland, our homeroom teacher suggested a tentative assignment to seek Monarch caterpillars or chrysalises and bring them to class. Having still the large numbers that made them so widely recognized across the continent, this was not a difficult task even for second-graders. Three of us found Monarchs in one or the other aforementioned phases of their life cycle and shared with the class.
I recall the broken silk cremaster of mine being crudely fastened to a rubber band and hung over the mouth of a jar, as I had found the chrysalis not on organic material, but hanging from the concrete of a small crypt in a Ludlow graveyard I often played in with my cousin. We were in class when it began to eclose, and the lesson paused so that we might gather and watch the magic of one of the most fascinating processes evolution has ever invented. More than the fragments of imagery, I remember wholly the wonderment imbued in my little mind as we watched the Monarch unfold from its tiny case, clearly much larger than should reasonably be contained in such a small chitin package (a butterfly chrysalis is actually the hardened exoskeleton of the pupa after sloughing the last of its softer larval instars). The resulting creature spent a few moments circulating hemolymph through the veins of its fuzzy scale-laden wings and we watched it fly away out the window. I believe everyone can in some way liken themselves metaphorically to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. For certain, I feel strongly about my own metamorphosis, although its basis I don’t care to remark upon in this missive.
A score of revolutions around the sun later, Monarchs are in depressingly short supply. So much decline has happened in two decades that 2014 saw an official petition to grant the species the status of “endangered.” This well-written petition describes empirically why the butterfly should qualify for this status, although its outright mention of glycophosphate being the primary factor in the Monarch’s decline might make the movement inaccessible to politicians. Protecting the butterfly under the Endangered Species Act would inherently involve negative consequences for the use of the systemic herbicide, and nobody needs a tinfoil hat to see that current policies and loyalties lie with Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, and Syngenta. Like the Grizzly of California or the Bald Eagle of our nation, sentiment for symbolic wildlife becomes shallow when the profits of encroachment gild the pockets of the powerful.
Imagine my delight and surprise to relocate to the rural Northeast Kingdom in summer ‘14 and find such a plethora of species diversity in not only butterflies but all insects and their respective food plants. Two autumns in a row I have seen Monarchs flying on multiple occasions, albeit isolated and too late in the season to successfully produce progeny for the winter migration – northward migration is the result of mating competition stress, and with less competition comes less reason to spread north for territory. So rich is our list of resident butterfly species that for my senior project I have been photographing them all year in order to produce a hand-bound guide to the Lepidoptera of Craftsbury Common. While it is still a work in progress (and crunch time at that!), I will make it widely known when I will be ready to present my work to the campus and larger community.
In the spring semester ’15, before I had even finalized my project proposal, I had ordered away for hundreds of dollars in various items I believed I would need for the large task at hand. Initially, I believed our flying friends too fleeting to be sufficiently captured in a digital visual medium, and so my field gear at the beginning of my butterflying season resembled the stock of a wild safari expedition. I purchased two collapsible butterfly nets with seven feet of extension handles and an upgraded replacement mesh for the larger of the two designed specifically to be less harmful to the fragile scales of butterfly wings. The powdery substance seen sloughing from lepidopteran wings are unfathomable numbers of tiny, ridged, chitinous scales (Lepidoptera literally means “scale wing”) which come in handy for escaping the snare of the web of a spider, but they do not regrow once lost. The ridges you see in the inset photos add a refractive quality to the semi-transparent and multi-layered chitin scales which contribute the majority of the appearance of bright colors in butterflies; only a little of the color we see is induced with pigment, and this is why the colors appear faded in the direct light of a microscope.
On top of the nets, I procured tanks, a rearing cage, malleable blunt-nosed forceps, a vast quantity of jars, and other such instruments. I bought a portable Coleman cooler with ice packs, as my first seemingly foolproof method of photographing my skittish friends entailed capturing and chilling them to induce torpor, allowing me ample time to get my pictures before they came to and flew away uninjured. This worked surprisingly well at first, but when the method saw to the end of both a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and a Silvery Blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) simultaneously, I immediately changed my game plan. Destruction of the things I love most for the sake of my own work is not something I’m comfortable with, and I still cringe and emotionally beat myself up when I think about the unfortunate individuals who taught me this lesson. Instead, I learned on a grand curve how to use my camera more efficiently and use patience rather than frustration to guide my activities. By practicing photographing Lepidoptera in their natural state, I have learned a great deal more about their behavior and flight patterns and was rewarded with pictures exponentially greater than those of butterflies on ice. Most importantly, I ceased being so annoyingly intrusive, potentially draining my subjects’ energy and ruining their day.
Craftsbury has been an overwhelmingly great source of sightings throughout the year. Some of the earliest species I found flying, such as the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), and Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), lit up the pathways of the Virginia Russell Woods after the snow finally melted in late spring. Later on, many more species could be seen patrolling fields and roadsides in such numbers their flashes of varying colors nearly rivaled that of the swaying wildflowers they visited. A great deal of the pictures I’m using in my guide came from the “leach field” – the wet meadow buffer of our beloved Cedar Swamp which runs the east side of the footpath to the lower dorms and gardens. A solitary Common Wood-nymph (Cercyonis pegala) perches atop a Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis). The red “horn” of a Gallium Sphinx (Hyles gallii) sways underfoot as it voraciously mows down mats of bedstraw. Nearby, a Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) sits with legs “crossed” on its orb web, patiently awaiting some fast food of the dipteran persuasion. The trifling patches of Bishop’s Weed by the edible forest garden feed a scarce population of larval Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes). One remarkable afternoon at the end of August, as the sun grew orange in bending rays, within an hour I had spotted at least one of each of the following:
- American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
- Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia)
- Silvery Blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus)
- Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
- Viceroy (Limenitis archippus)
- Monarch (Danaus plexippus) (male)
Unfortunately, the male Monarch who patrolled this field arrived very late in the summer, and the only female I saw on campus had taken residence between the sugarhouse and the cedar hedgerow dividing Madison House from the neighbors. I do not believe they met. However, this meadow and its vegetative constituents have long been a great attraction for various butterflies, as well as bees both wild and domesticated. The abundance of late-blooming Asters and Solidagos provide much needed reserves of nectar and pollen, as well as a rich diversity of other plants which feed the larvae of many Lepidoptera species, as the method of partitioning resources decreases competition and allows a spectrum to coexist. Warm, humid summer nights sometimes reveal so many mating fireflies (Lampyridae spp.) the light show trumps the clearest starry night. This habitat is an incredibly rich one for so many of our flying pollinators and other insects; I sincerely hope that the installation of the new solar tracker array does not greatly disturb it.
My excitement to share the photos I’ve collected is rising every day. I intend to leave my guides in the Brown Library with the hope future students might use them to stimulate their interest and expand their knowledge of this fascinating order of insects. This project is becoming stressful as the deadline approaches, but I know in the end I’m going to have a piece of work that I am proud of, and I can’t begin to describe how much I learned in the process of gathering these photos and information. This is only a fraction of what I can say about Lepidoptera. I’ve logged hundreds of hours into this already. When I’m good and ready at the end of the semester, everyone will be invited to a presentation of the capstone work I’ve done for my degree at Sterling College. Watching my friends in fanciful flight and tending to their daily business all year has on occasion moved me to weep for joy. I hope it moves others in a similar fashion.
Written by Nick Trapeni.