Meditations on Butterflies

By Kristen Lindquist | Nov 10, 2011
A male Monarch.

Here’s a cool trick to show off at an outdoor party: identify the gender of a monarch butterfly. All you need is one monarch butterfly, a common, easily recognizable species: big, orange with black stripes. (The viceroy is similar, but has an extra black stripe crossing the hindwings.) When your chosen butterfly is posed in such a way that you can see the tops of its wings, look for a tiny swelling along one of the innermost stripes of each hindwing. This little blob is a specialized wing scale called the androconium, which releases pheromones. If your butterfly’s got them, he’s a male. He uses those pheromones to attract females.

Once you notice these spots on one monarch, it becomes obvious on others. So start looking! The best place to practice this neat skill is in a field full of milkweed. Monarch females lay their eggs in milkweed in the spring. The caterpillars feed almost exclusively on milkweed throughout their growth stages. And the adult butterflies will sip milkweed nectar, as well as that of other fall flowers such as goldenrod and aster. Milkweed sap contains toxins, which make all stages of the monarch’s life cycle — from caterpillar to butterfly — poisonous. During migration, when both falcons and butterflies are migrating southward, I’ve watched hungry merlins snap up monarchs and then quickly spit them back out. Once a merlin tastes one toxic butterfly, it avoids chasing others, which undoubtedly contributes to the overall survival of monarchs (as well as the look-alike viceroys).

During my annual fall pilgrimage to Monhegan Island to enjoy the spectacle of bird migration, I’ve also found myself paying more and more attention to butterflies. For one thing, they’re migrating too. And many good birders — which are the ones I like to follow around — are also good butterfly- and dragonfly-watchers, as well. It comes with the territory — while you’re out there looking for one set of flying creature, you can’t just ignore the others. The prime appeal of dragonflies for me is their names. I’ve written an entire column here on their poetic names. But while butterflies also have cool common names — little wood-satyr, summer azure, great spangled fritillary, Melissa arctic — they don’t zip past in a blur. They flap past gracefully, pause near or sometimes even land on you. So they’re easier to observe and potentially identify. And they’re beautiful. They hang out on flowers. There’s a reason why you see so many butterfly tattoos. (Well, probably more than one reason, but aesthetics plays its part.)

A friend’s recent Monhegan visit produced a list of 21 butterfly species, casually observed while he was actually watching birds. I personally can recognize only about a dozen butterfly species commonly found on the island, and that’s when I’ve been practicing for a few days with those who know a lot more than I do. Each year I try to learn more, remembering once again, for example, how to distinguish the painted lady from the American lady (“American ladies have big eyes.”). I can almost understand how some people choose butterflies over birds. Great writer and famed butterfly collector Vladimir Nabokov declared, “Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.” While this is debatable, it certainly reveals the intensity some people feel for these insects.

Some butterflies are easy to ID, especially those I regularly see even around home. The mourning cloak, for example, is a big, dark brown butterfly with yellow hindwing edges, often the first butterfly I see in the spring (because it hibernates), and one I frequently find feeding on rotting apples on Monhegan’s trails in the fall.

The cabbage white, one of the country’s most common butterflies, is actually a European immigrant, as are some of our most common bird species like starling and house sparrow. This small, white butterfly with black wing spots (two for the female, one for the male — another party trick!) can be seen in open spaces from gardens to farm fields to vacant lots. This is not to be confused with the cabbage moth, the garden pest, which is gray (and, of course, a moth).

Another one that’s easy to pick out is the red admiral, which has bold orange-red bands on dark wings, with little white spots on the wing tips. There’s apparently some blue in there, as well, from which it derives its patriotic name, but I can’t usually pick that out. The unrelated white admiral is just as unmistakable — a bigger bug with wide white bands standing out against all-dark wings. I’ve seen these on Beech Hill in the summer; they always make me stop and look twice.

My favorite butterfly, a species I’ve only seen on Monhegan (perhaps because that’s the only place I pay so much attention to butterflies?) is the question mark. Its name comes from a silvery pair of marks on an otherwise leaf-brown underwing that looks just like its namesake. Calling out, “Oh, look, a question mark!” can elicit some confused responses to the uninitiated. This beautiful butterfly belongs to the group called anglewings because of its irregularly shaped wings, all fancy dips, curves, and points. Its wings are primarily orange with black spots. Many of the ones I’ve seen have pale wing edges that can sometimes look lavender. The question mark is not to be confused with the comma, which, as you might guess, has a silvery mark shaped like a comma on its underwing. If you aren’t fortunate enough to get a good look at what punctuation mark graces the underwing, the primary difference between these two related species is one less spot on the comma’s forewing.

I should have called this piece “Butterflies for Dummies,” as this barely scratches the surface of Maine’s most common species. Maine has more than 100 native butterfly species, some of which are very habitat-specific or rare, almost all of which are worth a long look. Watching them can become habit-forming. Once you start practicing your party trick of identifying male from female monarchs, you might really start noticing the butterflies around you. And perhaps you may even find yourself one day agreeing with Nabokov. At least about butterflies, if not literature.

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