It was an hour into the 2021 Butterfly Count Saturday at Chester Woods Park and the underdog great spangled fritillaries had jumped into an unexpected lead over the usually favored monarchs.
Then two women walked into a large meadow. “One more monarch,” Sandy Hokanson called to Roberta Bumann who was tallying the butterflies. Then another and another flitted amid the flowers. The well-loved butterfly soon surged into the No. 1 spot 10-8.
That’s part of the fun and challenge of such counts, be they for birds, butterflies, plants or aquatic bugs -- seeing what species are around. “Isn’t this exciting,” asked Hokanson, coordinator of the count. “It’s like a treasure hunt.”
Then there is the chance for seeing the unexpected, said Joel Dunnette who began the count in 1999. There is always a chance to see another harvester butterfly such as the one he found on a non-count day at Quarry Hill Park; it was the first and only known sighting reported in the county.
Saturday's annual count is part of an international count -- numbers that are used to judge the health and hardiness of butterfly populations.
Of course, there is also the sheer beauty of some of the butterflies, including the monarch, but also smaller ones such as great spangled fritillary, eastern tailed-blue and swallowtails. “People wouldn’t go out in the field if they weren’t as interesting and attractive,” Dunnette said.
Yet, while the counts offer nature lovers a fun challenge and beauty, there is also a very serious side, Dunnette said. Butterflies, like birds and other kind of plants and animals, are a good indicator of environmental health, he said. To know their condition, you need data, “you need more measurements to figure it out,” he said. The count is "one of many ways to measure what’s going on out in nature.”
Butterfly numbers have become more critical because of the discovery that numbers of many pollinators, including butterflies, are crashing.
“Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce,” according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Some scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths, birds and bats, and beetles and other insects.”
It went on to state: “Habitat loss, disease, parasites, and environmental contaminants have all contributed to the decline of many species of pollinators.”
Dunnette said he started the count more than two decades ago because he was interested in butterflies, as well as birds and native plants.
One thing that really helped interest in butterflies was a 1999 book that included pictures of live butterflies, he said. Before that, pictures were of “dead and spread” insects that had been collected, killed and displayed. Those lacked the brilliant colors of the live butterflies.
During the annual counts, participants walk pretty much the same routes as the year before. Many are in parks such as Chester Woods, but Rochester has other good habitats too, Hokanson said. Rochester has stopped mowing its ditches, and has seeded some with clover for more butterfly habitat, she said.
“It has definitely improved over what it has been,” she said.
On Saturday, Bumman volunteered because she has driven past Chester Woods, en route from Winona, hundreds of times and wanted to see more of it, including the butterflies there.
Bumman and Hokanson walked slowly, stopping now and then when they saw a flash of movement.
“Really watch the edges of the roads,” Hokanson said. One of the first butterflies the pair saw was the fritillary. Then a northern pearly eye and a wood nymph.
After a while, Bumann noted how few butterflies were in what is considered great habitat. “This should be swarming with bees and butterflies,” said said.
“It is disturbing,” Hokanson said.
Finally: did monarchs or fritillaries come out on top for all teams?
By Sunday morning, Hokanson had the answer: “Monarchs big time!"
Saturday's counters saw 208 monarchs and 99 fritillary species. Cabbage whites were the second-most seen at 139.
In all, the teams reported 32 species and 704 individuals. That is about average for the past several years, she said.
To see more butterflies
- Go out between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Butterflies are most active during the warmest part of the day. Warm, sunny days are better viewing; cloudy, cooler days are poorer.
- Open meadows with a lot of flowers are better habitat, but some species do live in the woods and marshes.
- Use a good butterfly identification book or pamphlet.
- Use a digital camera to get a picture of quick-flitting butterflies so you can identify them later.
You can go on the same route every two weeks and see different concentrations because one species will lay eggs and die, allowing another species to dominate. This week, you may see sulphur butterflies and in two weeks see cabbage whites.
Heartland Hospice and Cottagewood Senior Living are hosting a butterfly release ceremony in memory of loved ones who died in 2020. One hundred butterflies will be released with music, prayer and a naming of those passed beginning at 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, at Cottagewood Senior Living Community, 4220 55th St. NW, Rochester.