Saturday, May 2, 2015

Babies and Butterflies

There are 19 baby girl names that mean "butterfly" and, if you believe the anonymous internet, their usage peaked in 2012 at 0.0024%. The Blackfoot name for butterfly is "apanii," which give us the girl's name, Aponi. I always liked "Mariposa," the Spanish word for these lovely insects. The French "Papillon" is nice, too, but you might not want your child sharing a name with a little yappy dog that has butterfly-shaped ears. (Moths often rest with folded wings, and a papillon dog with droopy ears is called a "phalene," the French word for moth.)

Baby names have increased on a trajectory similar to butterfly species names. In 1800, just six names accounted for half the human population of England. By 1950 it took 79 names to account for half the names in the U.S. By 2012 you needed to call 546 first names to roll call half of us. Currently, there are about 575 butterfly species living in the contiguous 48 lower U.S. states. Canada is home to about 275 butterfly species while tropical Mexico boasts 2,000 species. Peru is butterfly heaven, with more than 3,700 named butterfly species and counting. We have about 68 different butterfly species living among us here in Montana. Below are some of the ones you can find flying right now - I found all of them during 1-2 hours of weaving around a windy hilltop near Polson.

Variable checkerspot butterfly (c) John Ashley
Checkerspot butterfly basking in the morning sun
The checkerspot butterflies are welled named, and three species live in Montana. This one (above) is probably the variable checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona) though it might be an Edith's checkerspot. They're hard to tell apart in the field. The antennae club is bright yellow in the former, yellow and black in the latter. What do you think?

Sara orangetip butterfly (c) John Ashley
Sara orangetip butterflies are fairly common and easy to find this time of year
The Sara orangetip (Anthocharis sara) is strictly a western resident. They're one of a complex of at least nine different butterfly species or subspecies - the jury is still out. There are also intergrades within the group, which would point towards one single species. Regardless, they all show the characteristic orange wingtips, but a small percentage of females have yellow instead of white wings.

Sheridan's hairstreak butterfly (c) John Ashley
Little hairstreak butterfly holding its wings together over its abdomen
We have 40 different species of hairstreak butterflies living in the western U.S. Whenever perched, most of them hold their wings together above their abdomen, so you only get to see the underwing colors and never the tops of their wings. Most of them have brown to gray wings. This one has green wings and is probably the alpine variety of Sheridan's hairstreak (Callophrys dumetorum). They feed on nectar from the buckwheat family of wild plants.

Western pine elfin butterfly (c) John Ashley
Western pine elfin perched on a lupine leaf
Elfin butterflies are a group of half a dozen hairstreak species. Our earliest spring butterflies in Montana are the species that overwinter as adults. The elfins are our earliest butterflies that overwinter in the chrysalis, emerging as flying adults in May and June. The adults feed on flower nectar while the caterpillars eat young pine needles. In spite of their small size, males are seriously territorial.

Anise swallowtail butterfly (c) John Ashley
One of our beautiful anise swallowtail butterflies
There are 12 swallowtail species in the west, including four "black" species. Of these, the anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) is the most common. These large butterflies seem to be more tolerant of close-up photos than most species, so they're one of the easier ones to find and enjoy. But get outside soon - the flight of adult swallowtails usually lasts for less than one month.