Florida Museum of Natural History researchers Rob Guralnick and Akito Kawahara work in the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity collections. ©Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace


From the newsroom last week of the McGuire Center at the U of Florida:

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Butterflies have been objects of scientific research for hundreds of years, but information about the popular insects is scattered across the world in books, research papers and museum collections.

Scientists at the Florida Museum of Natural History aim to gather everything known about butterflies, from conservation status to host plants, and connect the details to a comprehensive evolutionary family tree including all 18,728 named species. The information will be available to researchers and the public online through a resource called ButterflyNet. The four-year project funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation begins Jan. 1, 2016.

Creating a full picture of butterfly diversity and identifying gaps in our knowledge will spark new insights into insect evolution and how butterfly species may respond to climate change, said project leaders Akito Kawahara and Rob Guralnick with the Florida Museum on the University of Florida campus.

“Our project will pull everything together in one location within an evolutionary framework in order to see how the diversity of butterflies was shaped,” said Kawahara, assistant curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. “Butterflies are very important because they serve as models for lots of different kinds of research. For example, they help us predict and monitor how climate change is impacting the planet as their distribution ranges spread into warmer climates.”

The online ButterflyNet dashboard will be an extension of the Map of Life smartphone app and website being developed by Guralnick and colleagues, which stores species locations and helps users learn what plants and animals are nearby. By providing a way to access ButterflyNet’s stored images, distribution maps, conservation statuses and host plant associations, the new dashboard will serve as a butterfly field guide for any locality in the world.

Assembling a global-scale understanding of butterfly relationships will allow researchers to better identify geographic distribution, specific traits and trends within the group. The finished project will help scientists tackle tough questions about butterflies that remain unanswered, said Guralnick, associate curator of biodiversity informatics at the Florida Museum.

“By having everything in one place, you can tap into that knowledge and be able to do really broad-scale comparative science,” said Guralnick, who will bring the tools and knowledge needed to pull together massive amounts of data and assemble it in a way that will be usable for scientists and the general public.

Project leaders will engage the public through a YouTube series called “Biology for Butterfly Enthusiasts” targeted at adult butterfly gardeners, photographers and other enthusiasts. They will also host workshops in phylogenomics for researchers and discuss the project at upcoming Florida Museum events, including ButterflyFest during the fall of 2016.


Jim Wilkinson photo of Ocola Skipper in Howard Co MD [2015 Sept 16, Elkhorn Garden Plots]

Jim Wilkinson photo of Ocola Skipper in Howard Co MD [2015 Sept 16, Elkhorn Garden Plots]

In this last Mid-Atlantic Field Lep Forecast of the season, not a lot of new reports save a second local Long-tailed Skipper sighting earlier this week in Anne Arundel Co MD.  Otherwise, most of the same cast of characters persists.

From the perspective of southern migrants, Ocola Skippers, while still being seen, are fewer the past week.  No Clouded Skippers have been spotted for the past month or so.  Leonard’s Skippers are still flying at Soldiers Delight.  Few Cloudless Sulphurs are in evidence (despite reports of mass northward migration in South Carolina), Buckeyes are having only a modest flight, Sleepy Oranges are around but certainly not common, and Whirlabout (always a hoped-for rarity) hasn’t really been common in the South this year either.

Sachems are still flying well, and Fiery Skippers.  The Southern and Northern Broken-dash flights seems to have fizzled out.  Good numbers of Common Checkered-skippers are being reported still.

Swallowtail numbers are dropping precipitously, and the remaining individuals are looking rather ragged, with the exception of Black Swallowtails (which fly rather late).  The last brood of Palamedes also usually persists well into October in their redoubt at Hickory Point near Pocomoke City, MD.  This same location also sometimes yields Great Purple Hairstreak and Bronze Copper late into the fall as well, although none have been reported anywhere on the Eastern Shore this year.

The anglewings are having their last fling of the season before hibernating, so check fallen pawpaws and windfall apples for Eastern Comma, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, and (in the west) Gray Comma.  You might scare up some Red-spotted Purples, Red Admirals, Hackberry Emperors, or Tawny Emperors.

Hairstreaks still flying include Gray and Red-banded; White M presumably is still out too but it’s been a poor flight year for this species generally.  Summer Azure is still surprisingly common.

Monarchs, by contrast, have been reported widely and regularly.  As I’ve perused the local hawk watch counts, in fact, almost all have reported daily double digit numbers sometimes approaching 50 or more a day.  At lunch today over the National Mall I had a half dozen, and Tom Stock had a couple on his Mall walkabout, even though the winds are dead calm and have been for several days.  The predicted cold front over the weekend with accompanying westerly winds may bring larger numbers down from the north.

Cliff Hence will be leading a Butterfly/Ode Walk this Saturday at 11AM as part of the annual “Cradle of Birding” festival held at the John Heinz NWR at a Tinicum located near the Phila Airport. This event is free and open to the public.  There will also be a presentation by Eileen Boyle from Mt. Cuba on butterflies and how to entice these flying jewels to your garden. This program will begin at 2pm in the multipurpose room.  Contact Cliff at cwhenceiii@aol.com.

This is the last Forecast of the 2015 butterfly season; thanks for joining us and for contributing you sightings.  If there are interesting observations before the heavy frosts, I’ll be posting them on the Google Group MDLepsOdes, so feel free to connect with us there!

One of Matt Orsie's EIGHT Gray Commas from Big Run SP [2015 SEP 7, MD: Garrett Co]

One of Matt Orsie’s EIGHT Gray Commas from Big Run SP [2015 SEP 7, MD: Garrett Co]

No new southern migrants have turned up this week so far, and given the rain that’s moving in it’s unlikely the end of the week will produce much new. However, some northward-moving storms might sweep a few rarities farther north.

The most interesting sightings locally were of good numbers of Leonard’s Skippers at Soldiers Delight near Baltimore, where they put on a good show for many viewers last weekend. This species isn’t on the wing for long, and its nectar host Liatris is rapidly declining, so if you want to see this skipper in 2015 I’d try for it this weekend.

Lots of good butterflies were flying in Garrett Co MD this week, including nearly three dozen anglewings in Big Run State Park, eight of which proved to be Gray Comma and the rest Eastern Comma. These will overwinter as adults and emerge (if they survive) in the spring. The same trip yielded Harvester. More details on these at http://wvbirder.org/wvleps/

Other nymphalids are winding up, including both Emperors, a few straggling Great Spangled Fritillaries, and satyrids (including Appalachian Brown and Common Wood Nymph).  Carolina Satyr is still on the wing and apparently enjoying a very strong late flight.

At Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in DC this weekend, Dion Skippers and Broadwinged Skippers were both still frequenting blooming Pickerel Weed, while hordes of Sachems favored the blooming white Eupatorium species. Viceroy, Red-spotted Purple, and a pretty impressive flight of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (tending toward a majority of black-morph females) rounded out the sightings. Sleepy Orange was flying at the US National Arboretum across the Anacostia River.

Practically every field trip over the past three weeks has noted Monarchs, sometimes in double-digit numbers.

Hairstreaks still making themselves known include Red-banded, Gray (in good numbers), and White M (not so common). We’ll likely have to wait for the final brood of Great Purple Hairstreak at the end of this month to see that species for 2015, as it has not yet been reported in the region. Ditto for a late flight of Bronze Copper.

The Howard Co. MD Butterfly Count at Meadowbrook Park is slated for Saturday the 12th from 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm.  Leader Sue Miller says they will walk along paved pathways and may occasionally step off into the grass.  Meet at the entrance of the Park & Ride located from the Long Gate Parkway exit off of Rt. 100.  Rest rooms are located at the Park & Ride.  Bring binoculars and cameras if you have them as well as any drinks or snacks you may need.  Please let Sue know if you will join the count.  No experience necessary and a great way to learn to identify some butterflies if you are new to this! CONTACT leader Sue Muller, smuller@howardcountymd.gov.

The Forecast is winding down for the year and we’ll do our last issue next week for Sept. 19-20 (the autumnal equinox and astronomical start of fall). If you want to keep abreast of late-season sightings or happenings after that, sign up for MDLepsOdes on Google Groups.

The weather seems pretty unsettled this weekend, but if you find yourself in the field and you see anything interesting, post or send your sightings for the next Weekend Forecast. In the meantime, visit us at https://leplog.wordpress.com/ and on Google Groups at MDLepsOdes.

The British moth world is aflutter with expectations of a strong migrant push for one of its star sphinx moths, the Convolvulus Hawk-moth.  The notes below are from press materials prepared by Butterfly Conservation in the UK — and the headline above is theirs, not mine!


Convolvulus Hawk-Moth [photo copyright Ben Lewis courtesy of NorfolkMoths.co.uk]

Convolvulus Hawk-Moth [photo copyright Ben Lewis courtesy of NorfolkMoths.co.uk]

>> Back gardens across the UK will be baited with tobacco and alcohol over the next few nights as part of a cunning bid to lure in a massive continental moth whose tongue is longer than its body.

Moth-lovers are hoping to attract the palm-sized Convolvulus Hawk-moth into their gardens with ornamental tobacco plants, planted en masse earlier in the year.

With a 12cm wingspan, the Convolvulus is one of the largest moths found in Europe, yet it is capable of pin-point precision flight as it hovers to drink nectar from deep tubular tobacco plant flowers using its amazingly long 7.5cm proboscis.

As part of this year’s Moth Night celebrations organisers Atropos and Butterfly Conservation are asking the public to look for the Convolvulus Hawk-moth and other migrant species as sightings will help build a clearer picture of moth migration into the UK.

Migrant moths will come to moth-traps, but can also be attracted by hanging out ropes soaked in alcohol, preferably wine, in a practice known as wine roping.

Another moth attracting technique, known as sugaring, involves painting a mixture of sugar, syrup and beer onto a post or tree trunk.

Around 40 species of immigrant moths have appeared in the UK for the first time in the last 15 years with a small number becoming established, such as the Black-spotted Chestnut.

Other species that were long considered occasional migrants have now also become established UK residents in recent years such as the Tree-lichen Beauty, Oak Rustic, Sombre Brocade, Blair’s Mocha, Flame Brocade and Clifden Nonpareil.

The apparent increase in migrant records could reveal important information about the effects of climate change on UK moth populations.

The Convolvulus Hawk-moth migrates from southern Europe with a few hundred spotted in the UK annually, mainly during late summer and early autumn.

The signs are good for Moth Night 2015 as the moth has already been sighted widely across the UK in the recent weeks. Although most frequently encountered along the south and east coasts of England, there have been reports from inland areas too, as well as from Northern Ireland, and Shetland.

Other spectacular immigrants to look out for include Death’s-Head Hawk-moth and Crimson Speckled along with the Vestal which are all borne in from hotter parts of Europe and even Africa on warm winds.

Butterfly Conservation Head of Recording, Richard Fox said: “It has already been an amazing year for moth immigration and such activity usually peaks in early autumn. With migrants such as the massive Convolvulus Hawk-moth mixing with beautiful home-grown autumnal species, Moth Night is a great opportunity to discover the hidden wonders of our nocturnal wildlife at a public event or even in your own back garden.”

Mark Tunmore, editor of Atropos, said: “We will be remaining extra vigilant at Atropos’s headquarters in Cornwall over the Moth Night period. For many decades this area has been a famous location for visiting moth enthusiasts, hoping to see some of the rarer visitors to our shores at this time of year. One of the great things about moth recording is that immigrant species have the potential to turn up anywhere in the UK so you don’t have to live in the south or even at the coast to have a chance of observing something unusual and I encourage everyone to get involved, wherever they might live.”

Moth recorders at UK migration hotspots have also been colour marking some moths caught in the days leading up to Moth Night and the organisers will be asking people to keep an eye out for marked moths in the hope that it might reveal more information about insect migration.

Moth Night 2015 runs from 10-12 September and will include moth trapping events across the UK.

Moth Night 2015 is organised by Atropos and Butterfly Conservation in association with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, with the aim of encouraging recording and raising the profiles of moths amongst the public. The annual event was founded by Atropos in 1999. For information about events visit www.mothnight.info


ATROPOS is the popular UK journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts, catering for amateur and professional interests. www.atropos.info Up to the minute information about latest sightings of migrant insects around the British Isles may be found on the Flight Arrivals pages of this website.

Butterfly Conservation is the largest charity of its type in the world. Our aim is the conservation of butterflies, moths and their habitats. We run conservation programmes for more than 100 threatened species and manage over 30 nature reserves. www.butterfly-conservation.org <<

Barry Marts & co snapped this Brazilian Skipper this week at the botanic gardens in Norfolk. A harbinger of things to come in the /MDDC region?

Barry Marts & co snapped this Brazilian Skipper this week at the botanic gardens in Norfolk VA. A harbinger of things to come in the MD/DC region?

The big news this week is what’s NOT flying: Leonard’s Skipper, so far, at Soldiers Delight. Multiple sightings across PA, however. Liatris (also known as blazing star) is their preferred nectar source, and it’s already past peak given the hot dry weather this week, but several of us last weekend and through the week so far have checked out the Choate Mine Trail (the go-to spot for Leonard’s) in vain. Dick Smith is leading a walk there this weekend, so perhaps there will be some emergence before the field trip.  [Late breaking news:  Leonard’s just started emerging yesterday at Soldiers Delight, according to a report this morning from Barry Marts!]

Are there Brazilian Skippers in our mid-Atlantic future? Observers visiting Norfolk VA Botanic Gardens had this large southern skipper and canna specialist there this week, and that’s a rarity this far north even later in the season. Given the early sightings of Long-tailed Skipper and many Ocolas locally already, this may prove a very productive migrant skipper autumn.

Along the Carolina coast, multiple viewers reported thousands of Cloudless Sulphurs moving northward along the beach this week; with luck each of them have internal compasses fixed on DelMarVa. Little Yellow was seen in Howard Co MD earlier this week (first sighting in several years) behind Thomas Viaduct Middle School in Hanover. A first report for the county for many years of Hayhurst’s Scallopwing in the community gardens at the Howard Co Conservancy was also of interest but undocumented by photo or voucher; despite diligent searching only one individual was found, and that suggests perhaps it was an interloper brought in with nursery stock or garden supplies.

Multiple White M Hairstreaks were seen across the region this week, apparently the beginning of their final fall brood. At this time of year they especially favor the white Eupatorium species, like thoroughwort and white snakeroot.

Things were livelier to our south, where parties trekking Great Dismal Swamp NC/VA and environs (Virginia Beach and the afore-mentioned botanic gardens in Norfolk) found Creole Pearly-eye, Southern Pearly-eye, Great Purple Hairstreak, Duke’s Skipper, Palamedes Swallowtail, Long-tailed Skippers, Sleepy Oranges, Cloudless Sulphurs, and Gulf Fritillary (another southern migrant already pushing farther north than usual) in addition to the Brazilian Skipper above.

As noted earlier, Dick Smith is leading two field excursions this weekend:   Saturday, September 5, Butterflies Through Binoculars Foray – Elkhorn Community Gardens and Butterfly Meadow and Powerline Right-of-Way Vegetation Management Tract, 9:30 a.m. (2-3 hours); and Sunday, September 6, Serpentine Barrens Late Summer Butterflies – Slide Show and Hike, Visitor’s Center, Soldiers Delight NEA, Owings Mills, MD, 1-4 pm. See the LepLog calendar section for more details.

The Forecast is winding down for the year and we’ll do our last issue for the week of Sept. 19-20 (the autumnal equinox and astronomical start of fall). If you want to keep abreast of late-season sightings or happenings after that, sign up for MDLepsOdes on Google Groups.

Weather’s looking pretty good, somewhat cooler but sunny, for Saturday and Sunday of this long Labor Day weekend. Too far out to call Monday. If your weekend labors find you in the field and you see anything interesting, post or send your sightings for the next Weekend Forecast. In the meantime, visit us at https://leplog.wordpress.com/ and on Google Groups at MDLepsOdes.

Monarch in migration in 2013 at Point Lookout, St. Mary's Co MD [photo by REB]

Monarch in migration in 2013 at Point Lookout, St. Mary’s Co MD [photo by REB]

I noted in an earlier post that a spate of new papers representing long-term citizen science monitoring of Eastern Monarch fall migration populations published last month failed to observe the precipitous decline in Monarchs reported from their Oyamel fir wintering grounds in Mexico or trumpeted in the media for the American plains.  Here are two of the studies, one based on the well-known Journey North data (18 years) and Michigan’s Peninsula Point Monarch Monitoring Project (15 years).

Local researcher Leslie Ries at Georgetown University is among the coauthors of a paper that similarly found high variation year to year in Eastern summer Monarch populations reported from NABA and other counts but no statistically significant trend, downward, precipitous, catastrophic or other.  The trend in Mexico is grim, the authors say, but appears disconnected from summer populations, suggesting that GMO crops and other factors on the summering grounds have had minimal impact on Monarch populations.  Whatever is going on is likely either going on in Mexico or on the southward migration (likely linked to their passage through Texas, some researchers theorize).

By contrast, the fall count at Long Point on Lake Erie shows high variability that, corrected for some factors, shows a gradual 3% year over year decline that the authors postulate is related to lower egg densities in milkweed habitat (i.e., Monarchs appear not to be laying more eggs in remaining habitat to compensate for habitat loss, a finding of the Oberhuaser lab at the University of Minnesota).  Another Oberhauser paper in the set suggests a predetermined egg-laying density that Monarchs observe regardless of milkweed abundance, that might be related either/both to predators/parasites and disease.

Taken together, these papers paint a rather confusing picture of Monarch abundance.  The only compelling evidence of a drastic decline in Monarch populations seems to be on the overwintering grounds, and it’s hard to reconcile this with historically quite stable populations on the summer grounds (anecdotal observations notwithstanding).  But one thing seems pretty certain — planting Monarch waystations across the Eastern US is unlikely to make much of a dent in populations here, which seem to have enough milkweed and then some for larval food supplies, especially as there is likely much more milkweed available in the East now from agriculture and road construction that ever existed historically prior to European colonization (when most of the East was forested).


 Ed. Note:  I recently ran across this very interesting October 2013 blog piece on Blogspot from Beatriz Moisset’s excellent (and excellently referenced) Pollinators site (the specific URL for this article is http://pollinators.blogspot.com/2013/10/when-did-common-milkweed-become-common.html)
Moisett raises the concern I have voiced for some time, that in aspiring to restore late-twentieth-century numbers of Monarchs to those population levels we are attempting to recreate an historically inaccurate population level, a level artificially created by European settlement and sod-busting of the American plains.  Enjoy Moisett’s post, which begins below the illustration.

Monarch on common milkweed. © Beatriz Moisset. 2010


The prairies of this continent used to be rich in biodiversity before they were plowed under and turned into cropland. We can only guess at the structure of those lost plant communities by studying the remaining plots of prairie. A couple dozen species of milkweed (Asclepias) prospered in the Midwest two centuries ago, each adapted to its own habitat. Certain species preferred high moisture, others, drier spots. Some showed a preference for coarse, loose, damp, or undisturbed soils; still others did well on almost any soil type. Some needed more sunlight than others. A few survived drought or fire better than others.

Among this variety of habitat preferences, common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, a “weedy” or pioneer species, does best in disturbed areas, patches that, for a variety of reasons, have lost their established vegetation. In a few years, it is displaced by other species when the ecological succession continues. Two hundred years ago, disturbed spots must have been rather uncommon. Everything changed when the prairie became farmland and was annually plowed. Many species of these plants lost ground under the new treatment. However, plowing created ideal conditions for the common milkweed. It can grow between rows of plantings and along edges, and its deep rhizomes, underground stems, allow it to survive year after year despite plowing. Is this when common milkweed earned its name?

For many years, farming practices in the Midwest continued to disrupt the land creating the conditions that this plant prefers. Farmers dislike this plant for its tenacity. It is said that farmers rejoice at the sight of big fat yellow and black caterpillars devouring the cursed weed. By now, you probably guessed that those caterpillars are monarchs.

USDA map of corn production

Monarch butterflies feed on most types of Asclepias, but Asclepias syriaca is by far their main food source. Perhaps, when the prairie became our breadbasket, it also became the monarch’s breadbasket, who took advantage of the spreading weed.

In the meantime, all along the Eastern United States, forests were being cut down. A tree-covered area is not the right habitat for any types of milkweeds. When forests were cleared, the conditions favored by common milkweed emerged. Populations of monarchs must have grown along with the expansion of this plant.

If all this is true, and much of it may be just speculation, then these butterflies must have benefited from these man-made changes. We must ask ourselves: what were the monarch’s populations like before the expansion of common milkweed numbers? Were they as abundant before the early 1800s as in recent times? What were the population sizes in their overwintering sites in Mexico? We became aware of the monarch butterfly migration in the past one hundred years. The whole story of their incredible trip to Mexico became known only in recent years. Curiously, no references to monarchs in Mexico can be found until 1890. By then, the transformation of the Midwest with its expansion of common milkweed was well underway. Were their numbers in Mexico so low before this time to escape notice?

Present day discussions about monarchs and their preferred food plant, common milkweed, seem to accept the numbers reported around the 1950s as the norm. Those were the highest numbers ever recorded, and it is assumed that these had remained the same for a long time, perhaps from the days when glaciers receded, tens of thousands of years ago. However, we must consider the possibility that milkweeds and monarchs were never as abundant as in the twentieth century; that this is largely a man-made phenomenon. The numbers of both, plant and butterfly have been going down steadily in recent years. Is the new normal similar to the old normal of hundreds of years ago?

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed. © Beatriz Moisset. 2010


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