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Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies and moths are members of the insect order Lepidoptera. Both have four-stage life cycles — egg, larva, pupa and adult — and larvae (i.e. caterpillars) that feed on plants and trees. A few species are pests because their larvae can damage crops or trees, and a few have larvae that eat other caterpillars or soft-bodies insects, such as aphids. Many adult butterflies and moths are important pollinators. There are approximately 100 species of Lepidoptera in Winnebago County.

It can be difficult sometimes to determine if a member of Lepidoptera is a butterfly or a moth. For the most part, butterflies are active during the day and moths at night, but not always; and although most butterflies have large, brightly colored wings, some species are predominately tan and brown. However, butterflies almost always have club-shaped antennae with small bulbous tips; moths that live in Winnebago County do not. Instead, moths usually have feathery or threadlike antennae.

In June and July, resident butterflies will emerge as adults. During this time, they visit flowers to forage for nectar. They may also find suitable mates and host plants on which to lay their eggs. For example, you may see the caterpillars of a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feeding on milkweed plants or black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) caterpillars feeding on Queen Anne’s lace and golden Alexanders.

Monarch butterflies have long been the popular icon of the Lepdioptra order. Sadly, monarch populations in our region and throughout the world have plummeted. A 2013 report published by the World Wildlife Fund and others documented a 59 percent decline in monarch populations this year.

In April 2013, Yale Environment 360 published perhaps the best piece yet on this alarming decline, Richard Conniff’s interview with Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. It presents a number of interesting issues.

It’s well known that almost the entire eastern population of monarch butterflies overwinters in a few clustered forests in Mexico. These tiny islands of habitat make the butterflies vulnerable. Many U.S. residents believe that the population decline is, in fact, due to logging in Mexican forests. But as Taylor points out, the Mexican government has done an excellent job stopping illegal logging.

So why the decline?

The study’s authors point to agricultural fields. Taylor suggests that the monarch butterfly is likely “collateral damage” from the use of genetically engineered crops, namely Roundup-ready corn and soybeans. These crops have resulted in significantly higher pesticide use, wiping out the milkweeds that monarchs need to survive. Adult monarchs feed on the nectar of many flowers, but they breed only where milkweeds are found.

Additionally, due to biofuel and high crop prices, there are more acres in corn and soybean production than any year since just after World War II.  This has meant that a lot of land has been taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and a lot of marginal land–where milkweeds once grew– has been tilled.

That’s a lot of lost habitat for wildlife, including monarch butterflies. And here’s where we can all help.

Taylor’s Monarch Watch is urging people to plant milkweeds as part of their backyard gardens this spring. Milkweed isn’t going to grow back on agricultural monocultures. Backyards and restored natural areas can help provide the critical habitat that monarchs and other butterflies require. In addition to forest preserves, there are a lot of backyards and vacant lots that could hold milkweeds.

As Taylor says: “To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds has to become a national priority.”

Milkweed is propagated and planted throughout the forest preserves. A variety of milkweed species that support butterflies thrive in WCFPD’s restored prairies. Ten types of milkweed can be found in Winnebago County’s restored prairies, wetlands and woods. Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is an abundant dazzling orange flower that contributes to the great beauty of summer prairie, as well as supporting the monarchs and other butterflies of our county.