All aflutter: Berkeley insect lovers celebrate 40th year counting butterflies

Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Anise swallowtail butterfly: one of the 43 species spotted in and around Berkeley during the annual Butterfly Count. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

A hummingbird whirrs by, as a squirrel flicks its tail, flirting. A robin fluffs its feathers after bathing in the stream. Leopard lilies, columbines, even the cacti are in full summery bloom. But today, at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park, we’re here for the butterflies.

Alan Kaplan, an entomologist, educator, and retired Tilden Park ranger, meets me at the garden’s gate, where, already, I have spotted maybe five different types of butterfly, from a teensy so-called “blue” to a glamorous pipevine swallowtail.

Still, there are rules for counting butterflies in nature. So Kaplan gives me the rundown of the day’s event — the Fourth of July Butterfly Count (currently run by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) — held for its fortieth continuous year in Berkeley.

Butterly Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
The cabbage white butterfly is an introduced species from Europe. Females, like this one, have two small spots on their forewings. Males have just one. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

“See there,” Kaplan says, pointing to two simple white butterflies, called cabbage whites, alighting on the flowers near our feet. “We count these butterflies as ‘two,’ because we’re observing them at the same time and in the same location.”


Farther down the path, we will probably see more cabbage whites. Kaplan says he could safely add those ones to his tally. But he wouldn’t count cabbage whites from this place, again, unless we see three or more. Two of them might be repeats.

Butterfly. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Skippers are a group of butterflies recognized, in part, by their quick, darting flight. They also have especially long tongues, like this umber skipper, which is probing a flower for nectar. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

The same methods hold for the other types of butterfly we see — the variable checkerspot, gray hairstreak, and several umber skippers — flitting about the same patch of flowers. Counting butterflies seems relatively straightforward until Kaplan walks to the next plant and carefully inspects its leaves, stems, and flowers.

“Whoa! Whoa!” he calls out. “We did it! We’ve got a monarch!”

Monarch butterfly photo elaine miller bond
An adult butterfly, like this monarch, is called an “imago.” Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

I step in closer, thinking that Kaplan might show me a dazzling butterfly on the wing. Instead, he points to a showy black-, yellow-, and white-striped caterpillar. He also reveals holes in the milkweed flower buds — evidence that a caterpillar has been munching them.

“We’ve got a known larva on its known host plant,” Kaplan says. “So it’s confirmed: we’ve got at least one monarch.”


Monarch caterpillar on its host plant, milkweed. A caterpillar’s job is to eat and grow, shed its skin, then eat and grow some more—a process it may undergo several times before pupating. Each embodiment of the growing larva is called an “instar.” Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Monarch caterpillar on its host plant, milkweed. A caterpillar’s job is to eat and grow, shed its skin, then eat and grow some more — a process it may undergo several times before pupating. Each embodiment of the growing larva is called an “instar.” Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

This caterpillar goes into a different data column than the adult butterflies do. And yet, seeing it makes my mind flutter, as I begin to realize the full scope of butterfly work. In entomology, beauty and fascination belong to the tiny butterfly eggs, larvae (caterpillars), and pupae (chrysalises), just as much as the delicate winged adults.

Indeed, searching for butterflies is a quest for shape-shifters.

The arresting coloration of this pipevine swallowtail larva delivers fair warning to hungry birds: “I’m poisonous.” It also serves as evidence that birds do have the capacity to learn from a bad taste in their mouths. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
The arresting coloration of this pipevine swallowtail larva delivers fair warning to hungry birds: “I’m poisonous.” It also serves as evidence that birds do have the capacity to learn from a bad taste in their mouths. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

And, half way through our search, I begin to recognize a few types of butterfly from earlier in the day: the Mylitta crescent, fiery skipper, buckeye. I call out these names as I see butterflies, and Kaplan gives verbal confirmation of my sightings. Then he jots them down.

In the end, we find and identify nine butterfly species here at the Botanic Garden — all in varying abundance.

Buckeye butterfly. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Buckeye butterfly. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

But I’ve learned more than that. Following Kaplan’s lead, I stop along our walk to smell the creamy-sweet flowers of a buckeye tree, touch the velvety leaves of a thimbleberry, hear the fluting song of a black-headed grosbeak.


Butterflies, after all, are part of a vast and intricate network of life. And Kaplan really knows his stuff.

“It’s just like everything,” he explains. “If you’re going to be an entomologist, then you have to be a plant person, because that’s what your insects are eating, and you have to be a bird person, because that’s what’s eating your insects.”

What’s the “Grand Slam” of Berkeley butterfly-watching? It’s to see all four members of the Vanessa genus, like this painted lady, at one site on one day. Seeing three is a “Hat Trick.” Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
What’s the “Grand Slam” of Berkeley butterfly-watching? It’s to see all four members of the Vanessa genus, like this painted lady, at one site on one day. Seeing three is a “Hat Trick.” Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

Next, Kaplan will go count butterflies near the Tilden Nature Area. When we rendezvous this evening (over pizza and beer at La Val’s), we join the half-dozen other parties who counted butterflies in different pre-assigned spots in and near Berkeley. Dr. Jerry Powell, Director Emeritus of the UC Berkeley Essig Museum of Entomology, does the final tally.

Overall, he finds that 43 butterfly species were observed on the count today. This, Dr. Powell says, is up from the last few years in Berkeley.

He also says that numbers are not the whole story.

Since their inception in 1974, butterfly counts have expanded from 16 original locations, including Berkeley, to about 400 across the country today. Dr. Powell is one of just three scientists who have organized counts for four decades straight. Here, he and Lisa Weiss tally the day’s numbers. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Since their inception in 1974, butterfly counts have expanded from 16 original locations, including Berkeley, to about 400 across the country today. Dr. Jerry Powell is one of just three scientists who have organized counts for four decades straight. Here, he and Lisa Weiss tally the day’s numbers. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

“We started the counts not so much to track abundance,” Dr. Powell says, “but to increase awareness for butterflies and natural history in the bigger picture, especially in places where many species are endangered by development and other massive effects on the environment.”

Gulf fritillary, a nonnative yet pretty flutterer in Berkeley gardens. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Gulf fritillary, a non-native yet pretty flutterer in Berkeley gardens. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

As I reflect on his words, my mind pictures all the butterflies I saw today as symbols for something greater, as the striped and checkered wings for acts of conservation.

My mind goes next to all the other people — both scientists and non-scientists — who admire butterflies and go venturing out to count them. Maybe they’re driven by curiosity, or intricacy, or beauty.

Whatever it is, I seem to have caught the bug.

May beautiful butterflies be our reminder to conserve nature. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
May beautiful butterflies be our reminder to conserve nature. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

For more on our local butterflies:

Elaine Miller Bond is photographer of the upcoming book, “The Utah Prairie Dog: Life Among the Red Rocks” (University of Utah Press, 2014). She’s also the author of “Dream Affimals: Affirmations + Animals” (Sunstone Press, 2013) and “Affimals” (LIT Verlag, 2009) — uplifting books of environmental education.

Related:
Friends in high places: Peregrine falcons soar above us (04.29.14)
Counting crows: Why are there so many in Berkeley? (03.28.14)
Darlings not Draculas: The bats that live in Berkeley (12.23.13)
In a Berkeley park a bluebird displays unusual behavior (08.05.13)
Lynxes of the bird world: Cooper’s hawks nest in Berkeley (04.18.13)
The mystery and thrill: Shorebirds enjoy winter in Berkeley (03.21.13)
Sitting on the dock of the bay: Birds throng Berkeley pier 02.28.13)
Rare bluebird sightings bring happiness in a Berkeley park (08.07.12)
In Tilden Park’s Jewel Lake: Spotting a rare river otter (04.05.12)
Up close with Berkeley’s wildlife at Tilden Regional Park (03.06.12)

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