Book delves into complex lives of butterflies
Entomologist David James prefers the butterfly motif.
Butterflies are an important part of the food chain, but as James says, "their aesthetic value is incalculable. The most popular tattoo is a butterfly."
The Washington State University entomologist is the author, with naturalist David Nunnallee, of "Life Histories of Cascadia Butterflies."
Ten years of research and raising butterflies resulted in information on about 160 species and photographs of their four life stages.
"Life Histories" is a hybrid of a scientific presentation with recommendations for research and a reference for naturalists. The photographs are small but beautiful, the introduction provides the basics of butterfly life, and the quick guides to eggs, larvae and pupae are fascinating (who knew the eggs of sulfurs, checkerspots, dun skippers and duskywings would be so cool?
"Such detailed coverage of a regional butterfly fauna has not been published in North America or Europe," James said.
The research pushed butterfly knowledge to a new level.
Butterflies needed to be raised in the lab so that all stages could be photographed, for all practical purposes impossible in the wild and one that has never been accomplished on such a scale.
"We had to develop techniques for certain species. It was a hit-and-miss system. We'd fail and come back year after year to try to succeed. It was years before we got every one."
James' love for butterflies started at age 6 in his family's back yard in England. He continued to be fascinated by them whether he lived and worked in England, Australia or the U.S.
"Western Washington is one of the poorest places in the country for butterflies," James said, estimating as few as 30 species, of which the casual observer might see one or two.
Chalk that up to persistent cloud cover, dampness and coldness.
West of the Cascades, butterfly season starts in May (peaks in June), about a month later than in Eastern Washington.
Here, the most obvious butterfly is the western tiger swallowtail.
The iconic monarch is not common in Washington and less so on the wet side. It may be more plentiful this year thanks to a good overwintering producing large numbers in California.
Butterflies are an important spoke in the ecological wheel. Diets of many species of birds are dependent on butterflies and other insects. And they play a larger role in spreading pollen then most people think, particularly for certain plants.
"They're a good indicator of habitat degradation. They're the first thing to disappear," James said.
Milkweed is the key. While other butterflies feed on milkweed nectar, that perennial is the host plant to monarchs. The butterfly lays its eggs on milkweed and the larva (caterpillars) eat the leaves.
The leaves contain cardenolides, which are toxic, making a caterpillar poisonous to predators, such as birds. The bitter-tasting toxins are carried over into the butterfly stage, making it toxic too.
The survival formula is simple: No milkweed, no monarchs.
James spent time and effort studying the fritillaries' defense mechanism.
"We discovered a gland on the underside near the 'neck.' If roughly handled it would produce a musky-type order," James said.
The chemicals are repellent to ants and other fauna on the forest floor.
"Fritillaries feed on violets in wooded areas. It's their adaptation to defend themselves."
One fritillary, the coronis, is emerging now in the shrub-steppes of Eastern Washington.
"When it gets too hot and dry, they (mostly females) migrate to the mountains in July and August. They go to about 7,000 to 8,000 feet and feed on wildflowers."
They return in autumn and lay their eggs in a delayed breeding cycle that means only one generation a year.
"We didn't know that before we researched the book. That's the thing we thrive on."
Researching was a family affair, one of hiking far and wide, often looking for a specific butterfly.
"One species, the American lady, we only got because of my daughter, Jasmine. It's fairly rare up here so we went to California to have a better chance of finding it.
"We'd almost given up hope when my 5-year-old caught a very ragged old American lady female."
Not everyone loves butterflies as much as Jasmine. There are those who hate and/or fear butterflies. See www.ihatebutterflies.com.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.
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