Volume 26 Issue 3, Summer 2021
by Michele Savage, Habitat Herald Managing Editor
The butterflies must be counted — each Hackberry Emperor, every Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, all the Fiery Skippers, and everything in between. In Loudoun County, this happens the first weekend of each August, when the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy fields teams of dedicated volunteers across a 177-square-mile area to count every butterfly they see. Like other volunteer counters around the country, they report their data to the North American Butterfly Association.
The tally for this year’s 25th annual count on August 7 will be announced soon. Last year’s teams recorded 4,485 butterflies of 50 species — well above average, even though fewer counters were deployed because of the pandemic.
“Many people complain that they remember more butterflies in years gone by, but our count numbers don’t show it,” said Anne Ellis, who coordinates the Loudoun count each summer. The results for each year are posted here.
The annual count is always held the first weekend in August because that is peak time here for butterflies, with crossover between earlier and later summer butterflies, according to Loudoun Wildlife Executive Director Michael Myers. “People often start worrying about not seeing butterflies in early summer” he said. “We always get worried people reaching out … and the key is to wait. Larger quantities of butterflies don’t start flying until later in the summer, when more of the native plants start blooming. [Local native plant landscape designer] John Magee has said that when Buttonbush starts blooming is a good indicator of when to expect lots of butterflies.”
Many who contact Loudoun Wildlife are particularly worried about Monarchs, the distinctive orange-and-black-winged species whose struggle to survive in today’s landscape is well documented. While some spot Monarchs in Loudoun earlier in the season, they are most likely to be seen here in August and September “as they fly south,” Myers said. “We don’t typically get as many when they’re migrating north earlier in the year because they use different migration routes.”
If you missed this year’s butterfly count, there’s always next year — mark your calendars for the first weekend of August 2022! Meanwhile, there are many ways to enjoy and support these lovely creatures here and now. Anne Ellis encourages all butterfly enthusiasts to “approach their HOAs about installing meadows (as some have), participate in butterfly walks, visit natural areas such as Banshee Reeks or the Blue Ridge Center [for Environmental Stewardship], and walk mindfully anywhere in search of our favorite insect.”
Loudoun Wildlife hosts many in-person and virtual events where you can meet fellow enthusiasts as you learn more about butterflies, their special needs, and conservation and creation of habitat for butterflies and other pollinators. Check loudounwildlife.org regularly for events. And if you really want to give butterflies a more prominent place in your life, try these suggestions from our experts:
Create Butterfly Habitat at Home
To encourage more butterflies to call your home theirs, give them what they need — plants that provide nectar for adults and host their larvae (caterpillars), plus a source of clean water (a bird bath or small dish will do). Native plants and flowers that evolved side by side with native butterflies are the best and healthiest choices for your winged friends. Buy pesticide-free plants or seeds for your garden, and try to ensure a continuous supply of flowers from early spring through the summer’s heat and until first frost. Grass also has a role in butterfly habitat, especially for skippers, but not the grasses found in most suburban lawns. “Lawns are not butterfly habitat,” Ellis said. “The grass skippers are dependent on native grasses, which don’t make pretty garden landscapes. Leaving weedy ditches and untended garden patches helps these and other creatures.”
If you’re not sure what to plant, Loudoun Wildlife’s “Super 9 ” brochure lists the nectar and host plants most often recommended by our Audubon at Home (AAH) Program. For more personalized suggestions, apply for a home visit from our AAH ambassadors, who can help you identify what your habitat already has and what it needs, and then advise you accordingly. Talk to the staff at your local native plant nursery for ideas.
Don’t Use Pesticides
One thing that should never have a place in your healthy butterfly garden is pesticides. The pyrethrum/pyrethrin that some property owners use to kill adult mosquitos is also harmful to butterflies and caterpillars as well as other pollinators, said Allison Gallo, assistant coordinator of Loudoun Wildlife’s Annual Butterfly Count. “Instead of these products, use dunks in any rain barrels, ponds, or other standing water to kill the mosquito larvae. It is more effective and won’t harm pollinators.”
Get To Know Your Local Butterflies
Identifying the butterflies you see will be easier with the right field guide. Gallo suggests “Field Guide to the Butterflies of Loudoun County” by Nicole Hamilton (available from Loudoun Wildlife) and Robert R. Blakney’s “Northern Virginia Butterflies and Skippers: A Field Guide.” “Since they are small they are easy to carry in the field, and they are local guides so you don’t have to search through different butterflies from all over the country to find your butterfly,” she said.
Share Your Love of Butterflies
When you spread the word about butterflies, the benefits they bring, and the challenges they face, you may inspire others. “Share your love and fascination of butterflies with your friends, family, neighbors, and HOA,” Gallo said. “The more people who understand what butterflies and other pollinators need to help them survive, the better off they will be. Share pictures of the butterflies that visit the native plants in your yard with your HOA and see if they would add some pictures to their newsletter or Facebook page. Introduce children to the wonderful world of butterflies and their fascinating life cycle so they may grow up appreciating the natural world around them.”