Butterflies are free! At Phipps Conservatory

Monarch2Summertime always stirs up warm memories. In my youth, far before the times of texting, streaming videos and catching Pokemon, life for a typical kid on summer break was spent outside. Activities were only limited by the imagination.

I spent most of my time down the street in a large field with flowers that I would never name. That wasn’t why I was there, however. It was the butterflies, swallowtail and monarch, specifically.

I wouldn’t know the etymology of these creatures until much later. They had four stages of development: Egg, Larva, Pupa (Chrysalis), Adult and they emerge from the chrysalis just prior to the spring migration. They then head north. This occurs each year from May until the end of June, putting them in Southwestern Pennsylvania just around mid-July. No, I was not armed with any of these facts, I just liked catching them and staring at them in wonderment for a day or two in a big pickle jar from my father’s catering business until I inevitably said “goodbye” and let them go in a day or two. Unfortunately, that is no longer permitted as the Monarch species is now protected.

Scott Creary, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ resident entomologist, says Monarch sightings may be become scarcer in the future.

“Within the last three years we have seen a marked decline and just talking to people, other people have seen the same thing. We were first saying it was deforestation in Mexico that was causing the huge decline and as it turns out we can’t necessarily blame that on deforestation in Mexico, anymore,” he says.

East coast Monarchs migrate south to fir forests in Mexico for the winter. Illegal logging has destroyed some of their habitat there. However, part of the reason for the decline may lie closer to home with a native plant species called milkweed.

Milkweed. I suppose the field from my youth was also an accidental godsend as the place was covered in it. Milkweed is the only plant on which a Monarch will lay their eggs.

Gabi Hughes, an environmental educator with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, says “the Monarch is choosy about which particular milkweed plant becomes the maternity ward for her eggs.”

monarchs1Although not as abundant as in the past, there is a place that you can still enjoy this summer season of butterflies in Pennsylvania. The beautiful glasshouse of the Phipps Conservatory Stove Room has a Butterfly Forest from July through the end of September. There are over twenty-one species of butterfly to enjoy that wander around freely throughout the gardens.

The Conservatory isn’t the only place to find them this summer. If you are more of an adventurous type and prefer venturing out into the wild, there is a great website hosted by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Audubon Society that provides both atlases and species online for free download. This should put you in the right location to see whatever type of butterfly you may want to venture out and see. Take a camera though and leave your pickle jar at home as we want to keep these miracles of nature around for generations to come.

For more information on butterfly etymology: thebutterflysite.com

FMI on the Butterfly Forest, visit: phipps.conservatory.org/calendar/detail/butterfly-forest

For a checklist and atlas of butterflies: www.nepaaudubon.org/resources/butterflies-of-pennsylvania

Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges