Net Free

A whimsical journey on the wings of a butterfly

By Susan Eastman

The tires of Paul Miller's white, four-wheel-drive truck sink into the pungent muck covering the road. As he revs the engine, black mud seasoned with cow manure explodes from the tires and hurtles back toward the truck, where Buck is perched on the side rail. To avoid the splatter, Buck dives into the truck bed as Linda, from her post on the storage box behind the cab, comments ruefully, "I'm glad we didn't try this with our truck."

As they bump down this dirt road, the Coopers are looking for patches of redroot, a roadside weed that grows about three feet tall and is topped with clusters of tiny flowers. Whenever they come upon a patch, Buck shouts to Paul to stop the truck, and everyone jumps out. Linda and Lyn take one side of the road, Paul and Buck the other. They pick their way along, staring into the buff-colored blossoms of the redroot, looking for a flutter of wings, a spot of color. Linda holds her small notepad. "Got a variegated fritillary," Buck shouts as he spots an orange butterfly with black segments like a stained-glass window.

Another butterfly flitting hurriedly through the tops of the blossoms is more elusive. Linda trains her binoculars on the tiny, moth-like insect. "He's got eyespots," Linda calls out while squinting through her binoculars. "He's really orange-y. But only the leading edge. I think I've got a tawny-edged skipper. He's the right size." Buck and Lyn Atherton zero in with their binoculars to consult, and Linda takes a picture. "We don't catch; we don't collect," Linda reiterates. "If there is any question, it's done with photographs."

Colby Katz
Lana Edwards and her daughter Alana have counted 45 species flitting through the butterfly garden with a butterfly-shaped pond at their Delray Beach home
Colby Katz
Lana Edwards and her daughter Alana have counted 45 species flitting through the butterfly garden with a butterfly-shaped pond at their Delray Beach home

The Coopers are particularly excited about their discovery of palmetto skippers in the prairie. Since August 2001, they've counted 96 of the butterflies, which previously were thought to be extinct in Florida. The Coopers hope to pinpont the season when the skipper is abundant in the park so others who want to see the rare creature will know when to visit.

Also since August 2001, the Coopers have counted 5910 butterflies and documented 86 species in the Kissimmee preserve. Upon request, the park gives visitors a list that includes the ceraurnus blue (68 counted), the zebra swallowtail (238), and the monarch (10). In October 2001, Buck and Linda photographed a single arogos skipper, a small orange-yellow butterfly that is extremely rare in Florida. They have also counted 13 tiny, rusty-orange Meske's skippers, butterflies thought to be extinct in all but the state's extreme southern reaches.

The Coopers hope their work in Kissimmee and other state parks and habitats leads to better conservation of the plants that attract the insects. "There is almost zero known about butterflies in any of Florida's state parks," Linda says. "Butterflies are part of the native fauna and should be part of the management plan."

Although butterflies can be spotted on grassy banks of interstate ramps and fluttering through suburban neighborhoods, they lay their eggs on very specific plants and feed on a limited number of nectar sources. The atala, a small black creature with blue spots and an orange abdomen, for instance, lays its eggs on the squat coontie plant, an evergreen that looks like a small palm. The black- and white-striped zebra swallowtail lays its eggs on pawpaw, a shrub found on the edges of brushy pine woodlands and near creeks and canals. The zebra heliconian, Florida's state butterfly, lays its eggs on the passion vine.

In his 1999 field guide Butterflies Through Binoculars, Glassberg calls modern lawns "biological deserts that support almost no butterflies." Weed killer dumped on lawns inhibits the plants the insects need to complete their life cycles. Preserved areas in developed communities, Glassberg points out, are usually shady woodlands, which are not the sort of habitats most butterflies prefer. They like to seek nectar in open meadows and weedy fields where wildflowers grow.

In South Florida, several species have been threatened with extinction. The large, yellow-and-black Shaus swallowtail was almost gassed out of existence by mosquito spraying. Butterfly World participated in a breeding program to repopulate Florida with the Shaus, and efforts by conservationists to plant coontie for the atala helped save it.

Even as the growth of cities and suburbs in Florida has killed butterflies and yanked up the plants they need, watching the winged creatures has become increasingly popular as a hobby. In the past ten years, membership in NABA nationally has mushroomed from 300 to 4500.

And this increased interest has led to greater public sensitivity. Recently, conservationists have concentrated on the Miami blue, which once ranged throughout South Florida. Currently, only one colony is known to exist -- in Bahia Honda State Park in the Keys. NABA is lobbying the U.S. Department of Interior to list the Miami blue as an endangered species, and the group hired a graduate student in July to study the population.

But these conservation efforts have been plagued by controversy that at times sounds like schoolyard taunting. Another group, the Miami Blue Preservation Project, opposes listing the species as endangered. MBPP members say the listing will lead to a mass of bureaucratic red tape that will slow efforts to save the butterfly. The group includes scientists and collectors who disdain Glassberg's anti-net campaign. The MBPP advocates planting of balloon vine, the butterfly's host plant, and a captive breeding program.

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