Story by The Bug Lady
Artwork by Ratty
When we think of endangered species---if we think of them at all; we typically think of our Nations greatest success story the Bald Eagle, or perhaps we think of the Manatee---of which the legend of mermaids was born. Maybe for you it is the Florida Panther that stirs in you a deep sadness at its possible demise. For me it is a
creature until last summer I had not even heard of much less seen, and this lovely creature calls our beautiful state of Missouri home. I am speaking of the Regal Fritillary (pronounced Frit-a-Larry) unless you don’t mind strange looks then you can pronounce it fri-till-ery rhymed with artillery )as I did for quite some time. Although this beautiful butterfly does not evoke in us the soul stirring patriotism of the Nations greatest symbol, or the mystery and myth of the manatee, it nevertheless is a creature worthy of our admiration and protection.
My story takes place a few summers ago, after receiving an email from the Idalia Society(A wonderful organization based in KC for all you butterfly lovers)that a gentleman by the name of Ray Moranz was seeking help with his dissertation research of the regal fritillary butterfly in Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas prairies. I contacted Ray, and spoke with him about his research and offered to help out one day that summer. He was doing a comparative study of the prairie habitat of the regal fritillary; studying populations over a 2 year period of time on burned, grazed and untouched prairies. I am intensely curious myself at this point, how the different habitat types would effect populations of these beautiful butterflies. Ray was grateful for any help I was able to give and after speaking with my husband we set up a date to meet Ray and his assistant, Laura, in Nevada Missouri in July. We made the decision to incorporate this adventure with our family vacation and headed south. We arrived in Nevada early evening just in time to have dinner with Ray & Laura. He spoke at great length about his research, and studies. His love of these creatures was apparent and his passion contagious. I could hardly wait to get on the prairie and meet these beauties up close.
After a good nights sleep we met up with Ray and Laura early in the morning. Everyone decided that a large breakfast was in order, well, almost everyone. I had serious doubts about a huge breakfast right before heading to the prairie, seems I was the only one who remembered there are no trees on a prairie much less a bathroom. I opted for a light breakfast, although no one else seemed to have reservations about a hearty breakfast.
Our first stop was Taberville prairie, where we were greeted by two of Ray’s assistants from MDC. At this point my body didn’t seem to care that I had ate a “light” breakfast. A bathroom stop was going to be in order and soon. Imagine my distress. I am faced with 4 people I have never met before, I am on a prairie, not a bathroom or tree in sight, and my stomach decides to go haywire! Talk about bad timing. I am fast reaching the panic mode when my husband suggested a clump of grass. You have got to be kidding me!!! Are you envisioning this? After locating what seemed to be a promising clump of prairie grass I managed to take care of business ( don’t ask me how) and returned to the group in short order, all dignity out the window. At this point it was grin and move on.
We drove for awhile further out into the prairie where Ray had areas previously cordoned off for his research. We divided into two teams. It was Ray, I and one of the MDC employees. My husband Joey went with Laura and the MDC volunteer. After Ray gave us our instructions we headed into our designated areas. Ray was in the lead scouting for butterflies, I was behind him with a clip board and pen writing down species names as he spotted them, including what activity they were engaging in, whether it was perching, nectaring, or flying etc...Ray seemed somewhat impressed with my knowledge of butterfly species and an easy rapport soon followed. I was completely intrigued by his studies. Behind us bringing up the rear was our man from MDC carrying a large pole and a clip board, he used the 10 foot pole as a guide to document the prairie flowers within the perimeter of the pole. This was my first time on a prairie and I was completely absorbed in everything around me. My first sight of a Regal was one I won’t soon forget, truly an apt name, for such a beautiful butterfly.
From a distance they seem much like a monarch. After a closer inspection the differences are obvious. As we walked through the tall grasses, and brambles (yes, brambles, the prairies are loaded with blackberries, and I paid dearly for not dressing appropriately) we continued to startle Regal’s out from their hiding places near the ground. We spotted numerous species, but none as impressive as these large orange and black beauties.
The other team which was out of sight consisted of Laura scouting butterflies, the MDC volunteer documenting her findings and Joey using the pole to identify the flower species. Now keep in mind, what my husband knows about wildflowers is almost nil, he received a crash course in the flowers he was likely to see and headed out pole in hand to document the best he could what flowers he seen. I am sure all the while wondering what in the heck I got him into this time. We spent approximately an hour and a half on this prairie. After meeting back up with the other group we headed back to our cars and it was decided that Joey and I would head back to the Hotel and pick up our daughter and nephew and drive further south and meet up with Ray and Laura at another location. We arrived back at the hotel packed up and drove to Lamar, Missouri.
We arrived in Lamar ahead of Ray and Laura, checked into the hotel. Got the kids settled and started the second leg of our adventure. This time it was to Bethal Prairie. By now the gorgeous weather we had earlier in the day was giving way to typical Missouri July heat. Temperatures were fast approaching the mid 90’s and the sun was blazing high in the sky.
We arrived at Bethal Prairie, this time just Ray, Laura, Joey and I. We divided into two teams. Laura & myself; then Ray & Joey. After being given our instructions Laura & I ventured into the prairie, leaving Joey and Ray behind. We had not walked but 50 feet when I grabbed Laura and told her to stop, she was absolutely covered in ticks, when I say covered, believe me I am not exaggerating. I spent several minutes picking these pesky little critters off her, only to discover I was in a similar situation. I too was covered. At this point I felt like a couple of monkeys on the prairie picking pests off each other. This was only the beginning, we walked for what seemed like miles, in the heat, picking ticks, and scrambling through blackberries. It was at this point that I got the sneaking suspicion that Ray sent us in this direction on purpose. Fortunately I have a great sense of humor and I was able to persevere. We finally finished collecting data from this portion of the prairie. We reached a barb-wired fence, with mowed grass on the other side. I knew exactly how a cow felt when they decided to test the grass on the other side. We had two options at this point, one was to continue on the prairie fighting blackberries and sumac, not to mention the ticks, or we could climb the fence and be free of this torture. For me it was a no-brainer. I climbed that fence in record time. Only to discover; that Laura was struggling to get herself over the fence, it was at this point it became apparent that years of farm life and scaling fences had paid off. I managed to help Laura out of her quandary and we began our long walk back to the truck. She was pleasant company and the walked passed in no time. We climbed in the truck, and headed out to meet up with the guys on the other side of their portion of the prairie. After more climbing, this time a gate. We met up with the guys near the end of their trek. If it was at all possible, Joey and Ray seemed almost invigorated after their walk in the prairie. I knew it…Ray DID send us to the nasty portion of the prairie. I was still finding ticks!
We drove back to get our car, and it was at this point that I realized that I fought the blackberries and they won…my ankles were completely swollen and red, covered in scratches that were bleeding. That will teach me to listen when I’m told to wear long pants on the prairie; there is good reason for this advice. I could blame no one but my own stubborn self, and my desire to be just a bit cooler in the July heat that everyone else that was present. It was days before the redness and swelling went down and weeks before the scratches healed. It was a daily reminder of our adventure into the prairie, seeking these elusive regals.
These butterflies are quite large with a wingspan of 2.9 -3.8 inches. They have the very similar markings of orange and black such as the familiar monarch. The similarities end there, upon closer inspection the hindwings are quite different; dark above and covered with white spots below. The forewings possess short dark lines running crosswise to the wing veins, unlike Monarchs who do not possess these lines. The females have a dark patch at the wing tip and a row of small white spots along the outer margin, on the upperwing ; the spots are pale yellow, whereas the males spots are white on the inner row and the outer row is orange.
The regal fritillary is listed as a species of concern in Missouri.
The main reason for this is loss of habitat. The tall grass prairie is the only know habitat for these butterflies. With only approximately 2% of our prairies remaining in the state of Missouri, and most of the prairie states that call home to this butterfly are in similar situations. It is a fight for survival for the regal. That is why it is so important that research such as what Ray is doing be carried out. If his research brings with it; better managed prairie habitat and a wider awareness of the needs of these butterflies then it is possible that these flying flowers may be with us for many more generations.
The needs of the regal are very specific; the only acceptable host plant for the larva is the violet. The female after breeding will fly to the ground and walk among the vegetation laying eggs willy nilly, up to 2400 eggs can be laid by a single female. Once the eggs are laid they will hatch in the fall, and the resulting caterpillar will overwinter in the prairie under vegetation. In the spring these hungry little eaters will begin searching for their host plants and start feeding. If violets are in ready supply they will grow rapidly. One problem is the managed burns on prairies, if done too soon; the young larva will surely perish in the fire. Other reasons for the decline of these butterflies are possible; everything from habitat loss, to disease, the use of chemicals, and the haphazard egg laying practices of the female, make is candidate for problems. By looking at populations on these different types of managed prairies, over a period of years, it will be in all likelihood possible to help the populations of these butterflies grow, or at the very least stay stable.
It would be a great loss indeed to ever lose these great flyers of the prairie. Many times in our lives we become so busy with day to day living that we find it hard to think about such small matters as the loss of one butterfly. Sometimes we may even find ourselves saying that if the loss of one butterfly means the greater good of commerce by supplying us with more strip malls and farm land, then it is a loss worth taking, I say hogwash! We should never become so arrogant or conditioned to let ourselves think in such a way. Afterall once we lose something so beautiful it is too late to get it back. Imagine the world today without the bald eagle, (which was once hunted as pest). For me the world without the regal fritillary would be a sad one indeed. Let me encourage you to venture out and explore the prairies, and see if you too aren’t immediately drawn to the wonder that is the prairie, and the beautiful flying flowers that call it home.
If you'd like to read more articles like this one, follow the links below to find The Bug Lady's blogs, which are both very good. MOBugs is a wonderful blog about the insects that can be found in and around Missouri. It has been featured here at Nature Center Magazine in our Nature Site Of The Week. Explore Missouri is an excellent blog about all of the other wildlife around Missouri. It isn't updated as often as MOBugs, but if you leave her some encouraging comments I'm sure that will change.
Now go and visit one or both of her blogs. You'll be very glad you did. And make sure you leave her a nice comment to let her know you were there.