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Butterfly numbers down due to drought

July 26, 2013 at 04:48 PM

The State Journal-Register

It’s been a tough couple of years for butterflies.

First last year’s drought took a toll. Then cold and rainy weather this spring combined to keep butterfly numbers down.

The World Wildlife Fund reports monarch butterfly numbers were way down on the wintering grounds in Mexico in 2012.

“Last year was the worst year for butterflies,” said Dave Nance, a retired biology teacher from Pana who operates the Tallgrass Butterfly House located not far from the town’s high school.

“This year started out to be really bad with all the rain and cold weather,” he said. “Finally at the end of June, I all of a sudden I started seeing more butterflies, and now definitely a recovery.”

That would be good news for those fretting about a lack of butterflies in gardens, parks and nature preserves.

A question mark butterfly casts a long shadow at the Tallgrass Butterfly House. Photos by Marcus Gruwell.

Angella Moorehouse, a biologist with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, said butterfly numbers are a hot topic this summer.

“I just got back from the Iowa Prairie Conference in northeast Iowa and this was a topic of much discussion,” she said.

“Around here numbers are seriously down for almost all species,” Moorehouse said. “We conducted the McDonough County butterfly count on July 12 and got only 22 species.”

In 27 years of keeping track, that was the lowest total ever.

“We couldn't even get 300 individuals,” she said. “A friend of mine in Iowa has been doing a bunch of counts and only recently (last Saturday) is starting to see larger numbers of sulfurs.

“The numbers may improve over the next few months but overall it’s a poor year likely due to the drought.”

Moorehouse said she is starting to see more monarchs, buckeyes, Eastern-tailed blues and swallowtails.

“But skippers are way down, and I’m not seeing sulfurs yet.”

Nance, who is at the butterfly house in Anderson Prairie Park six days a week, said he is seeing more butterflies, and catching some that were scarce last year.

“Last year, I hardly caught a tiger swallowtail,” he said. “Now I see tiger swallowtails all over.
“And dogface butterflies are the most numerous that I’ve ever seen.”

Dogface butterflies have unique markings on their wings that look like a dog’s head and front paws.

The butterfly house, essentially a structure made with large metal hoops covered with netting – similar to an aviary – contains nectar plants to feed adults and host plants to feed hungry caterpillars.

Black swallowtail caterpillars were particularly numerous. Pipevine swallowtails also were doing well in the butterfly house.

Nance said he is optimistic that 2013 can turn out to be a good year for butterflies, despite them being nearly absent in the early part of the summer.

“Early this year we had virtually none,” he said. “This is turning out to be a productive year, but still there are certain things I have not seen this year.”

He said painted ladies, silvery checkerspots, snout butterflies and other “holes” remain.

“I haven’t seen half a dozen monarchs so far this summer,” he said.

With luck, the butterflies are just behind schedule.

Nance said there’s still time to catch up.

“I think we are going to start seeing more towards the end of the summer.”

Dave Nance nets a butterfly for the Tallgrass Butterfly House.

Wildlife Prairie Park building new butterfly house

Starting next year, educators at Wildlife Prairie Park will be able to help the public better appreciate Illinois native butterflies.

A new butterfly house is about three-fourths of the way done, and is expected to open to the public next spring.

“With the butterfly’s natural life cycle, by the time we get this complete we won’t be able to introduce large numbers of butterflies until next spring,” said Mike McKim, director of operations for Wildlife Prairie Park.

He said the park’s education department will begin tracking butterflies both inside and outside the habitat starting next year.

McKim said area master gardeners have been the “driving force behind this project.”

Right now, the fine details of educational programs to be implemented at the butterfly house are being worked out.

“We want to get to where we can track what we are seeing throughout the park and region,” he said. “Everything we will have (in the butterfly house) will be native to the area.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at

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