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It's a bird, it's a plane .. it's a Lepodoptrian!

July is the ideal month to go butterfly hunting
2018-07-15 hawke swallowtail close up.jpg
This close-up look at the wing of a swallowtail butterfly reveals the intricate layering of the colourful scales which sets this insect apart from all others. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

Every July they emerge to scour the countryside, long-handled nets at the ready, dressed for the heat, intent on capturing alive any quarry they encounter ... the hunt is on for the scaly-wings! They call themselves The Lepodoptrians!

Okay, so that intro is a little over the top, but nonetheless July is the best time of the year to go hunting butterflies. No matter the habitat, whether wetland or dry field, country lane or urban garden, butterflies can be found there. And there are folks who want to know what species are where! Organized butterfly counts are the equivalent to the bird watching tallies of naturalists' clubs.

Of all the insects in the world, many of which have wings, only the butterflies and moths have their wings covered in scales. Overlaid like shingles on a roof, these scales provide strength to the wing as well as unique identifying colouration. Unlike feathers which are firmly attached to a bird, these scales are quite fragile and can be easily dislodged, hence the 'powder' seen on your fingers if the specimen is handled roughly.

Theses scales, when viewed close up, are quite different between butterflies and moths. Butterfly scales are very uniform in shape and laid out in tight patterns, whereas moth scales are almost fuzzy and have frilly edges. A hand lens or loupe will provide you with enough magnification to see these marvels of insect engineering.

The Greek word 'lepidos' means 'scaly' and the word 'ptera' is for 'wings'; combined we get Lepidoptera, the scientific name that collectively describes the scaly-wings: the butterflies and moths.

Of the 18,000 species of butterflies in the world, only 167 make their home in Ontario (which may sound easy to find them all, but ha, I laugh in your face at such a preposterous notion). Hence the organized butterfly counts held each year to determine range and abundance of as many species as possible.

There was a time, not so long ago, when butterfly collecting meant killing the captured critters, partially for proper identification and partially for displaying the colourful prey on the wall of the den. I did such collecting in the 1960s to obtain my Collectors Badges through both Cubs and Scouts; it simply was what one did to prove their interest and efforts at studying the natural world.

Nowadays it is rare that a specimen need be 'collected' in this manner. Yes, the long-handled butterfly net is still employed to snag the winged beasties out of the air, but careful handling is stressed and a live release is expected. The amazing telephoto lens available for today's cameras allows for the 'capture' of most butterflies encountered on a walk.

All this attention to flying insects has revealed some interesting insights: five species of butterflies migrate into and then out of Ontario (the monarch being the most well-known as it leaves our backyards and flies directly to Mexico); and there are changes in population as some species find themselves now on lists of endangered species (West Virginia white, Karner blue, and monarch immediately come to mind).

As invasive plants move into our area the local ecology gets shifted out of whack, and butterflies are both indicators and victim of these changes. Dog-strangling vine is related to milkweed, and milkweed (both common and swamp) is the only plant that monarch butterfly caterpillars can eat. But when a female monarch butterfly is lured to lay eggs on dog-strangling vine the emerging caterpillars soon starve to death.

Similar situation with the West Virginia white, a butterfly that lays its eggs on a wildflower called toothwort, which is a member of the mustard family. Toothwort never has been abundant in this area, yet enough grew to feed the caterpillars of the West Virginia white. Along comes garlic mustard to invade woodlands and as eggs are mistakenly laid on these plants, the same fate occurs as with monarchs.

The whole life cycle thing with Lepidoptera is quite fascinating considering the many stages the creature must pass through to become a reproducing adult: an egg laid external to Mom's protective body; several growth stages of caterpillar (each called an instar); pupation in a cocoon or chrysalis (where the body cells are totally reconstructed into soup and then reassembled as a winged adult); and the adult form of a flying organism. Pretty awesome stuff when you stop to think about it.

We are learning quite a bit about our surrounding environment by studying the plethora of wee winged beasties. There is a quote that is accredited to Charles Bethune, a noted naturalist of the late 1880s: "Time was when to be an entomologist [one who studies insects] was to render oneself a source of anxiety and care to one's friends, and an object of pity or derision to one's neighbours; but now, happily, people in general are becoming rather more enlightened, and do not think a man has a bee in his bonnet because he captures butterflies." Yes the day of the pith helmet and knee socks has passed.

A visit to the local bookstore or nature centre will reveal several publications concerning butterflies and moths, from introductory level to quite advanced study. A search of the internet will let you know where organized butterfly counts are being held, be sure to check that source for information.

Studying butterflies is an activity that is to become engaged in during summer, and this summer is providing a great abundance of 'scaly wings' to find... get out there and see what you can find.