David Droppers wouldn’t want to live in a world without butterflies.
The 31-year-old naturalist and biologist from Lynnwood has studied the colorful insects for more than a decade. As a volunteer with the Washington Butterfly Association — a nonprofit organization that helps protect the insects and inspire appreciation for them — Droppers leads presentations and butterfly tours that examine the insects’ habitats, ecosystems and life stages.
He is currently working on a pollinator inventory project with the U.S. Forest Service, creating inventories of butterfly, moth and bumblebee species along many popular trails along the Mountain Loop Highway in Snohomish County, as well as assessing resource use of these pollinators for potential restoration work.
Compared to the rest of the world, Snohomish County is one of the worst regions for watching butterflies, Droppers says.
But don’t let that stop you from trying. There are still plenty of ways to attract them to your back yard or see them in the wild.
What made you interested in butterflies?
Photography. I’ve always been interested in animals. During my teen years, I was photographing animals at the zoo and doing a bit of background research on each to know a bit about what I was photographing. Nothing grabbed me like butterflies. It wasn’t a conscious decision.
What is your professional background?
My background is in teaching, field research, statistics and data management. I have been studying butterflies and moths for over 10 years. My primary research interest is reaction to populations after management actions. I have worked for the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Woodland Park Zoo, and many other organizations. I have a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and resource management from the University of Washington, with a focus on quantitative sciences, and my master’s degree in environmental science is from Western Washington University.
What’s fun about your work?
Butterflies get you outside in the sun. They are finicky insects, but when they are out, all is good — it’s sunny and warm. In getting out and paying attention to butterflies, I can’t help but notice other things like animals and plants that lead me to delve deeper into natural history.
What’s your favorite butterfly fact?
They’re really just sexy daytime moths. All they’ve done is trade some of their sense of smell for better eyesight and brighter colors.
What kinds of butterflies are found in Snohomish County?
We live in one of the poorest butterfly regions in the world — the causes why are still up for explanation. It is sure that they don’t do well in places that are wet and cold, and that’s us. That being said, we can expect to see about a dozen species in suburban Snohomish County, and more as you get into specialty habitats like the subalpine meadows east of us. I consider them the tough butterflies — the species that have figured out how to thrive in an area where few other butterflies are able to.
Which species is the rarest around here?
Polygonia oreas, the oreas comma, is one that continues to elude me. It is a rare species found in forest openings and creek sides. They seem to be naturally rare, compared to others like pale swallowtails, or Papilio eurymedon, which are very common in other parts of the state but rare in Snohomish County.
Tell me about your work with the U.S. Forest Service.
I’m basically serving about 10 to 12 trails on the Mountain Loop Highway, and creating a species inventory of the butterflies, bumblebees and, of course, moths, and if there have been any notable changes. The goal is to provide the Forest Service with baseline data so that it gives them something to work with after they’re done with their restoration work. If you do restoration work without knowing what’s out there already, you have no idea what worked. The original goal was to complete it in five years, but since I’m moving (to Walla Walla), it’s going to take longer to complete. The ultimate goal is to create some kind of booklet on the butterflies of the Mountain Loop Highway, so visitors can pick it up.
What’s the best way to interact with a butterfly?
There are numerous ways to interact with butterflies, all of which have value. Watching is great, especially when combined with photography, as you can record valuable information about their movements, phenology and resource use. There are also numerous websites where you can submit your data and contribute to our knowledge — no scientific training needed. Consider Butterflies and Moths of North America (www.butterfliesandmoths.org), BugGuide (www.bugguide.net), or INaturalist (www.inaturalist.org).
Catching with a net is a great way to get to know butterflies intimately, and they are tougher than old wives’ tales would have you believe. Collecting can also still be of great value, even though it recently has received some negative light, and often inspires youth to become entomologists.
How can you attract them to your garden?
White, pink, yellow and purple flowers. Those are colors that reflect ultra violet, which many plants use to attract pollinators. Native plants are always preferred, since butterflies are already familiar with and adapted to these. Native plants also provide more places for butterflies to lay their eggs than ornamentals, truly adding to butterfly habitat.
Are there different techniques for urban, suburban and rural settings?
If you go to a place with lots of butterflies, you will often find that the habitat is a bit weedy or unkempt, in other words, wild. This is how butterflies like it. This is easier to achieve in rural settings than urban, as social pressures coerce us to keep our yards tidy. But native plants, including nectar sources and host plants, will still provide resources for the butterflies already here, such as our swallowtails and admirals.
What’s your favorite butterfly species and why?
I have none — kind of a disappointing answer, I know. There are so many aspects to each butterfly that I admire or find fascinating, that it’s next to impossible for me to pick one.
How have humans impacted butterfly habitats?
We have replaced much butterfly habitat with homes, roads, businesses and farming. As with any event, there will be winners and there will be losers. Some butterflies have benefited from human activities, and others haven’t. For example, forest roads can be great places to find butterflies, as they open up the forest canopy and allow for hosts and nectar sources to grow. We can have a positive impact on butterflies, and it starts with your local yard or park.
What can we do to make their lives better?
In my opinion, we are entering a world where humans have the opportunity to shape the world we want to live in. If you want butterflies and all that goes with them (birds, flowers, etc.), then there are absolutely things you can do. Habitat preservation and restoration are among the top things we can do, and that can start in your back yard and by planting native species (please avoid butterfly bush in our region) that provide nectar and foliage for caterpillars. Other opportunities exist with plantings in local parks, natural areas and wildlife refuges. Contact these areas and see if butterflies and other pollinators are on their radar, and what help they may need.