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News : Summertime ripe for tracking butterflies, says Jon Neal

Summertime ripe for tracking butterflies, says Jon Neal
by Richard Johnson-Sheehan Journal and Courier
A Painted Lady butterfly is held during the 2009 Tippecanoe County Butterfly Encounter at Evonik, formerly the Eli Lilly Tippecanoe Laboratories Wildlife Habitat Recreation Area.

As the summer grows hotter, now is one of the best times to look for butterflies in Greater Lafayette.

A few favorite places to find butterflies include Prophetstown State Park, the Celery Bog in West Lafayette and the open fields along the Wabash Trail near the Tippecanoe Battlefield Monument in Battle Ground.

And, if you like butterflies, you might join the Tippecanoe County Butterfly Encounter on July 17 at Evonik -- formerly the Eli Lilly Tippecanoe Laboratories Wildlife Habitat Recreation Area. More information on this event is below.

Finding butterflies

To find butterflies, you don't need to travel far. Just walk through open fields where you see wildflowers. Where there are wildflowers, you are almost certain to find butterflies. So, when the daisies, coneflower, yarrow, clover, goldenrod, milkweed and thistle begin to bloom in the summer heat, look for butterflies landing on their flowers to sip nectar.

Butterflies come from caterpillars that eat plants. According to professor Jonathan Neal from the Purdue Entomology Department, most caterpillars of butterflies feed on a few species of plants. For example, tiger swallowtail caterpillars feed on tulip tree leaves, black swallowtail caterpillars feed on dill and parsnip, and cabbage butterflies feed on plants in the cabbage family.

Neal also points out that "to have healthy butterfly populations, it is important to have natural areas for the caterpillar food plants to grow." Keep in mind that butterflies are insects and they feed on plants that are often called weeds. So, if you want to see them around, minimize your use of insecticides and let those wildflowers grow.

Identifying butterflies

We are fortunate to have many species of butterflies in our part of Indiana. Some of the most common include swallowtails, monarchs, fritillaries, sulphurs, whites and brushfoots.

Swallowtails are probably the most noticeable. Tiger swallowtails are those large, yellow butterflies with black stripes on their wings. They're hard to miss because they are brightly colored, and they tend to float at eye level from flower to flower. Black swallowtails are a little smaller than Tiger swallowtails. They often have blue-colored spots along their bottom wings and white spots along the edges of their upper wings. Swallowtails get their name because their lower wings have longer "tails," like the tails of swallows.

We also have plenty of monarchs in this area, because we have lots of milkweed. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underneath side of milkweed leaves. Monarch caterpillars feed on the leaves, and monarch butterflies like to sip nectar from milkweed. Monarchs survive because they don't taste good to birds. That's because milkweed plants contain toxins, which monarchs store in their bodies. So, a hungry bird will usually only try eating a monarch once and will swear them off from then on.

Fritillaries are sometimes mistaken for monarchs because they are red or reddish orange with black markings on their wings. Unlike Monarchs, though, they prefer to sip nectar from black-eyed susans, dandelions and daisies.

Sulphurs are the small, bright yellow butterflies with tiny reddish or black spots. They are smaller than most other butterflies you will see. Cabbage whites are small, like sulphurs, but they are white with a dark spot and a triangle of black on the front of the wing.

Brushfoots are less common, but you will see them around. They include checkerspots, which are reddish orange with squares like checkerboards on their wings. You will also find brushfoot varieties called commas and question marks, which are noticeable because they have strangely shaped angular wings. Admirals and painted ladies are similar in size to monarchs, but they have prominent white spots on the tips of their wings and they have different patterns on their wings.

Getting started

A good way to start observing butterflies is to pick up a field guide with pictures. "The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies" is a classic. Another guide, "Indiana Butterflies and Moths," is helpful if you are just observing in the state.

You can also find plenty of information through the Purdue Extension and the Purdue Entomology Department at

The Tippecanoe County Butterfly Encounter on July 17 is also a great way to get started.

"We want to encourage butterfly enthusiasts of all ages and expert levels to come out and join us for this family-friendly event celebrating the beauty and diversity of Indiana butterflies," said Melissa Shepson, educational outreach coordinator for the Purdue Department of Entomology. "Evonik and the Department of Entomology will also host a photography workshop at the habitat shelter from (10 a.m. to noon), so anyone interested in improving their nature photography skills is encouraged to attend."