Delaware butterfly watching season is at its peak.

Enchanting butterflies

Prime butterfly watching season in Delaware runs until mid-August

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10:31 a.m., July 18, 2011--Sheila Vincent may be the only person in Delaware who gets paid to catch butterflies. Every summer day, Vincent heads out with a net and collects butterflies, caterpillars and larvae to stock Ashland Nature Center’s Butterfly House.

As group program coordinator for the Delaware Nature Center, Vincent spends the bulk of her time teaching natural history programs and only about 15 minutes with her butterfly net. “I really look forward to butterfly catching. It’s a bit of peace and quiet during hectic workdays,” she says.

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Last season was a “spectacular butterfly season,” according to Vincent and this summer looks to be shaping up to be a good one, too.

“Most years, butterflies are abundant in Delaware from June through August,” says Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. “Mid-July to mid-August is typically the peak of activity.”

But bad weather or insufficient food sources can be game changers. Two years ago, the butterfly season was lackluster because of too many cool, rainy days. Other times, host plants may not be well developed.

Delaware is a good place for butterfly watching. There are about 120 species of resident breeding butterflies in the state. Some entomologists make a distinction between butterflies and skippers – in which case, there are 70 species of butterflies and 50 of skippers. Named for their rapid flight pattern, skippers have small, angular wings and bodies that are proportionately larger than true butterflies, says Kunkel. There’s even a skipper known as the Delaware skipper because it was first spotted here.

But speedy skippers aren’t good for teaching purposes. Monarchs are Vincent’s go-to butterfly for nature programs, especially when she’s working with kids. Monarchs are fairly slow, abundant and easily recognizable. Her own personal favorites include the pipevine swallowtail, a relatively rare species that has orange spots and iridescent blue wings. Vincent also appreciates what she calls the “somber beauty” of the mourning cloak butterfly, which is dark brown with yellow borders around the wings and a row of blue spots.

The black swallowtail butterfly, which has distinctive yellow and bright-blue markings, tops Kunkel’s list of favorites. His wife grows herbs on their deck and always plants dill or fennel, which attract black swallowtails and their caterpillars. Kunkel also likes the Eastern-tailed blue. The males are usually light blue and the females a charcoal color but some varieties are pink or purple.

When Kunkel was a boy, he saw scores of Eastern-tailed blues in his yard every summer. That’s because his parents weren’t perturbed by a bit of clover in the their lawn.

“The caterpillars of Eastern-tailed blues feed on clover,” says Kunkel. “If you eradicate every piece of clover in your yard, I guarantee you won’t see any Eastern-tailed blues.”

Kunkel says he’s a “lawn guy,” who loves a carpet of green, but he’s happy to let clover or wild strawberries coexist with turf. He also can handle a little leaf damage on ornamental plants for the sake of the butterflies.

“Don’t get overly excited about caterpillars on your plants,” he says. “Yes, they’ll munch on some leaves but if you want butterflies, you’ve got to have host plants for the larvae, too.”

Vincent has incorporated plenty of host plants for caterpillars, as well as food plants for butterflies, into her New Castle yard. Her perennials include butterfly weed, milkweed, phlox, asters and goldenrod.  She also plants parsley and fennel in the ornamental beds to attract black swallowtails.

If your yard isn’t lepidoptera friendly just yet, there are other places to spot butterflies. To see the largest number, as well as the most species, choose a sunny, open location – like a meadow or field – that features plant diversity. Vincent recommends the meadow at Ashland Nature Center, Middle Run Natural Area, and White Clay and Brandywine Creek state parks.

Kunkel suggests the UD Botanic Gardens, which opened its Lepidoptera Trail in 2009. This self-guided interpretative trail showcases trees, shrubs, wildflowers and native grasses that provide food for butterflies and moths during both the caterpillar and adult stages. Right now, the Trail is abundant with butterflies.

Special events

• Open House in the Native Plant Teaching and Demonstration Garden will be held Monday night, July 18. Join Kunkel for a plant, pest and beneficial insect walk. Get your questions answered about butterflies, caterpillars and other insects. New Castle County Cooperative Extension Office, Newark. 6-8 p.m. For more information, call 831-COOP or email cjmurphy@udel.edu.

• A Mid-Summer Night’s Stroll through the Gardens will be held Wednesday, July 20. Watch butterflies feast on natives on the Lepidoptera Trail and enjoy all the mid-summer blooms in the UD Botanic Gardens. Live steel drum music and light refreshments. 4-6:30 p.m. Reserve a spot by contacting Donna Kelsch, 831-2531 or botanicgardens@udel.edu.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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