In search of Alaska's butterflies

A handful of butterfly enthusiasts are trying to learn more about these fragile creatures

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Collecting butterflies is a hobby that attracts more kids than adults, but a few adults continue their fascination with these fragile, winged creatures. Other adults, rarer still, never chased insects as kids but stumbled into butterfly collecting later in life.

Many say they do it because of the insects' beauty, but also for the adventure and challenge, and the possibility of making a new scientific discovery.

Carole Lloyd, a naturalist at the Eagle River Nature Center, said she got hooked on the hobby 10 years ago when she realized how little was known about the butterflies around Anchorage.

Through collecting and observing, she hopes to learn which species call the Anchorage area home. No one really knows for sure which species live here although she and others are starting to get a better idea, she said.

In Alaska, much is still unknown about butterflies and just a handful of people are trying to figure it out.

Kenelm Philip, Alaska's top butterfly expert, notes that the Lepidopterist Society typically has about three members in Alaska. Philip said the numbers are similar nationwide; all told, the society has just 2,000 members.

Philip, 71, a former astronomer and physics professor, is Alaska's most experienced lepidopterist. The field was wide open when he started his Fairbanks collection, the Alaska Lepidoptera Survey, three decades ago. Today, his is the second largest Arctic butterfly collection in the world with 75,000 butterflies and about 25,000 moths, second only to the Canadian National Collection's arctic holdings.

Philip used to join other scientists on their expeditions whenever he could, flying throughout the Arctic to collect butterflies. These days, he launches most of his collecting expeditions along the road system, basing out of his light blue GMC pickup with the license plate, "Insect."

Because butterflies rely on sun to warm their blood and flight muscles, Alaska's butterfly season tends to be short. Butterflies go through four life stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult. In general, Alaska's prime butterfly season - when the adult butterflies emerge, mate and then die - takes place from May through mid-July.

About half of the state's species - 43 to be exact - are found on the North Slope. Philip said that's no coincidence. During butterfly season, the slope basks in light. Fairbanks has about 20 more species than Anchorage, and Anchorage probably has about 20 more species than cloudy coastal communities like Haines, Philip said.

Alaska also has six species that overwinter as adults. They survive cold winters by tucking themselves onto a leaf or in a wood pile and hibernating. They avoid freezing damage to their tissues by stocking their bodies full of glycerol, which acts like antifreeze. Three of those overwintering species can be found around Anchorage, according to Lloyd. They are the green comma, the mourning cloak and Milbert's tortoiseshell.

To watch butterflies, all you really need is a pair of binoculars. Or if you want to catch and release the insects, buy a net and bring along a container with holes in it to hold the insects while you identify them.

A field guide is also essential. Philip recommends "Butterflies of North America" by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman. Collecting gear is a bit more involved. Many collectors use ethyl acetate to dispatch the butterflies (all it takes is a drop or two) plus a spreading board and pins to dry the butterflies with their wings out.

Tom Evans, a polar bear biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who's collected butterflies since he was 8 years old, said he keeps the butterflies in paper or glassine envelopes along with information like where he found them and when. Once home, he processes the insects as soon as possible.

To make them pliable again after drying out, Evans places the butterflies on a paper towel on top of damp sand overnight. Then he pins them on a spreading board, wings open. Serious collectors will also put moth balls (napthlalene) in with their collection to prevent butterflies from being devoured by other insects.

Many places, including Chugach State Park, National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks and Native lands require permits to collect. National Forests do not, Philip said. Just in case, Philip recommends contacting landowners before you begin collecting.

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