Net Free

Colby Katz

This is a story about people who drive hundreds of miles in blazing heat to walk along dirt roads ragged with wildflowers and weeds, who swat helplessly at the hordes of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, who completely upturn their lives, their lawns, the interiors of their homes, who even change their paths in life -- all because of the class of animal Insecta, of the order Lepidoptera, from the superfamilies Papilionoidea and Hesperiodea. Yeah, all because of butterflies.

As I write this, I am looking into the tops of a cluster of palm trees outside my apartment window. It's midmorning, and the sun is already so bright, the green ribbons of the fronds glisten silvery in the light. Two kids walk down the sidewalk in front of the building on their way to the beach. I can't see them from where I sit, but I hear them yelling excitedly, "Butterflies! Mama! Look, butterflies! Mama, Mama! Butterflies!"

Maybe they have just learned the stages of butterfly life from egg to larva to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly. Maybe they've just mastered pronunciation of metamorphosis. That's a big word and a big idea, one that these children, so recently cast into human form and fluid about boundaries, seemed to understand with instinctive affinity. Or perhaps learning about the life cycle of the butterfly was one of the first lessons in which knowledge combusted with wonder. Now, pumped up by their teachers, they are beside themselves when they spot something fluttering through the flowers outside. Most adults don't shout with glee when we spot a butterfly, but we know a version of this excitement -- tamped down by experience into watchful appreciation.

The sidewalk curves in the shade of a large banyan tree in a park where I walk my dog. It continues past a stand of oaks and into a clearing planted with pentas (Pentas lanceolata) and firebush. On summer afternoons, the sun is so strong that it seems to have brought the world to a stop. It hones the edges of things. Even the blades of grass seem cut to diamond sharpness. The only sound is the low rumble of automobile engines revving and receding like waves in the background. Out of nowhere, two butterflies the color of lemon drops flutter through the air, draw circles around each other, tumble through the green stillness, and then suddenly disappear. They look like yellow rose petals. It's a tiny moment of transcendence.

At Butterfly World in Coral Springs, Ron Boender has culled this delight and amplified it into an experience designed to overwhelm. Boender, who opened the attraction in 1988, stocked it with brilliantly colored butterflies from around the world. His was the first such park in the Western Hemisphere and remains the largest one in the world.

New Age-cum-classical music by composer Steven Davidson greets the visitor approaching the complex. It is the soundtrack of the experience -- lifting, lilting, twirling notes of music carry you into a tropical garden lush with flowering plants. Water gurgles from fountains and tumbles over limestone rocks into dark pools.

Butterflies are everywhere, at least 3000 at any one time -- so many that signs caution visitors to check their clothes before leaving the garden area. Among the fluttering is the giant blue morph, an enormous butterfly with a wingspan of at least four inches. It is shaded the deep blue of the sky just after sunset. The red rim is a brownish-black creature with what looks like a ruffled red petticoat at the bottom of its wings, a surprise visible when it takes flight. The cythera is painted a patriotic red, white, and blue. And the wings of the tailed jay feature acid-green polka dots on a black background.

Adults wander through the garden dazzled, dazed, in a beatific stupor. Errant children chase the butterflies, hoping to capture the beauty in their hands. "I want one, Daddy," a five-year old boy implores.

Butterfly World is a world away from where Buck and Linda Cooper sit in the bed of a pickup truck bumping and grinding through what has got to be some of the flattest and ugliest country on earth. They are decked out as though on safari, in geeky-practical gear -- green rubber boots to wade through knee-high water, wide-brim field hats to shield against the brutal sun, handkerchiefs to wipe away sweat, long-sleeve shirts and slacks to ward off mosquitoes, water bottles fastened to their belts to replenish fluids, and binoculars strapped into shoulder harnesses so their weight is distributed across the back during a long day in the field. Linda, whose red hair is cut short in a no-fuss style that will take a lot of abuse from the elements, carries a small notepad and pen.  

The Coopers have come to the Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve from their Haines City home on a mission. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a break for lunch, they will count butterflies. They've been making the 96-mile drive once a month for a year now, since Kissimmee Prairie manager Parks Small asked the couple to do a monthly survey of the butterfly population, explaining he had noticed a large number of the black- and white-striped zebra swallowtails that spring. Small wanted to develop a list for visitors of the species commonly found in the park.

The couple had done similar surveys in the James A. Van Fleet State Trail in Polk County, the Withlacoochee State Trail near Ocala, the Disney Wilderness Preserve near Orlando, and Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. By documenting all the butterflies they see in one day each month for a year, the Coopers provide a snapshot of the species in the area as well as seasonal fluctuations. At the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the Coopers documented a small colony of ruddy daggerwings well north of their breeding range. On the Van Fleet Trail, they also photographed a funereal duskywing, a butterfly found in the Western United States that probably had strayed to Florida.

The Coopers seem well suited to this enterprise. Until retiring in 1998, they were the resident naturalists at the Street Audubon Nature Center near Winter Haven. To butterfly watching, the couple brings birders' eyes for detail. The marks differentiating butterflies can be very subtle -- a small streak of orange on a brown wing distinguishes the tawny-edged from other skippers. Additionally, the coloring of butterflies fades as they age; males and females have different markings, and the insects often have strikingly different coloring on the undersides and tops of their wings.

The Coopers go into the field armed with binoculars and a camera that focuses at close range. They observe flight patterns, habitats, and other markers to distinguish one species from another.

With their binoculars, the Coopers identify themselves as part of a vanguard of enthusiasts advocating the observation of butterflies in the wild rather than pinned to a board. "Netless butterflying" as a hobby was first advocated by naturalists Robert Michael Pyle, author of the book The Butterfly Watcher's Handbook, and Jeffrey Glassberg, a conservationist and birder who founded the North American Butterfly Association ( ten years ago. Glassberg published a field guide to butterflies of the Boston-New York-Washington region in 1993 and since has produced guides titled Butterflies Through Binoculars for the Eastern and Western United States as well as Florida.

Jane Scott, secretary/treasurer and a founding member of NABA, compares the change in emphasis from nets to binoculars to the transformation in birding. For many years, scientists and amateur birders shot and bagged birds to study them. Then in the 1930s, hobbyists began using binoculars and field guides to view birds. "Today, if you shot a bird because you wanted to see what it was, people would think you were crazy," Scott says.

When the Coopers are in the field, they take scrupulous notes detailing the condition of the butterflies, the nectar plants they are feeding upon, flight patterns, and other behavior. By doing so, they hope to contribute to the science of lepidoptery. Vladimir Nabokov, most famous as the author of Lolita and sublime Russian poetry, was a highly regarded lepidopterist who found new species and oversaw the butterfly collection at Harvard University.

For many hobbyists today, acute observation has replaced dissection of the sort practiced by Nabokov and thousands of others, Linda Cooper explains. "You can identify some species simply by their flight," she says. "You can also watch males patrol their territory, watch females search for host plants to lay their eggs on, and watch the search for nectar sources. Watching the behavior adds to the enjoyment so much more than looking at a drawer full of dead butterflies."

Buck, who is 72 years of age, and Linda, who is 61, have observed all 161 of the butterfly species commonly found in Florida. They are on the lookout for an additional nine species that are very rare or thought to be extinct in the state. The Coopers exchange information about their finds and post photographs on a listserve called LEPSrUS (http://groups.msn.-com/LEPSrUS). They think nothing of hopping into their SUV to see butterflies, just as they might to spy a rare bird. Recently, they trekked to the Keys, twice, to catch a glimpse of a greenish-white lyside sulfur, which is rarely seen in the state.

On this squelching hot mid-July day, Paul Miller, a wildlife biologist studying the prairie's endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow population, is ferrying the couple into the Kissimmee preserve down a dirt road still flooded after a week of heavy rains. Lyn Atherton, a naturalist from St. Petersburg, sits in the passenger seat. The view on both sides of the road is monotonous, a patch of wiregrass here, an occasional cabbage palm jutting into the air there, and acre upon acre of saw palmetto, a bushy, tight-fisted, and sharp-edged palm that grows in clumps about four feet tall. Saw palmetto is a favored hideout for rattlesnakes, and Buck mentions he saw one as fat as his arm a few months back on this very roadway.  

Florida's dry prairie once stretched from Okeechobee County to the Gulf Coast. These 54,000 acres were left undeveloped because the Latt Maxcy Corp. of Frostproof used the land to graze cattle. The company set fires periodically to keep pine and oak scrub from taking root; the wildflowers that sprouted in the newly burned fields made good fodder for the cattle and attracted a plethora of butterflies.

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."

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.

"Glassberg's [Miami blue] group appears exclusionary; they want no breeders or collectors, for example," says Ron Gatrelle, an MBPP member and president of the International Lepidoptera Survey, which is based in South Carolina. "This leads me to view the Glassberg group as politically motivated and a narrow, extremist environmentalist group. We are broad-based, inclusive, and conservation-minded. They have chosen to not work with us. We have been and are willing to work with all. To put it bluntly, this whole thing is stupid. It is childish and petty turfism on their part."

Lana Edwards is butterfly-crazed. She has butterfly knobs on her kitchen cabinets, butterfly dishes (and not just one set), butterfly cups and saucers, pots and pans, napkins, place mats, butterfly salt and pepper shakers, and butterfly magnets on the refrigerator. She has butterfly umbrellas stuffed into three ceramic butterfly umbrella holders in her living room, butterfly finials on her lamps, butterfly pillows on the sofa, a butterfly letter holder, butterfly tongs, butterfly candleholders, and even a butterfly shower curtain and butterfly towels. In her library, she has more than 25 butterfly books, including the 1898 The Butterfly Book by W.J. Holland. She wears butterfly earrings every day and has a formidable collection of butterfly T-shirts and blouses. "I am a self-confessed butterfly fanatic," Edwards says after giving a tour of her lair.

Before butterflies invaded her world, Lana led a fairly sedentary life. She cleaned her house more than she does today, she admits. She read. And she worked as a legal assistant. The home she and her husband, David, own in the Tradewinds subdivision, just east of U.S. 1 north of Delray Beach, was similar to others on the block. A swath of St. Augustine grass dotted with groupings of ornamental plants provided a green canvas for a two-story home with a brick façade. Lana, who was known in the family for her brown thumb, thought of the yard mostly as decoration or didn't think about it much at all.

Today, her yard is the pride of her butterfly world. And the way she looks at vegetation has changed completely. "I can't look at a plant without wondering if there is a butterfly or some other creature that depends on that plant for its life," she says. "Before, the plants were just kind of there."

She finds monarch caterpillars on the milkweed and Cassius blue butterflies flitting around the firebush seeking nectar. Recently, a Horace's duskywing laid an egg on the native laurel oak. It was a moment of great excitement for Lana, David, and their daughter Alana. "We have seen the butterfly in the yard before," Lana explains. "But we haven't seen one lay an egg. It is exciting because it may mean that the Horace's duskywing is going to establish a residence in our yard."

The Edwardses began their metamorphosis on a visit to Walt Disney World about ten years ago. Alana bought a packet of butterfly nectar plant seeds in a gift shop as a Christmas present for her grandmother, Eula Smoot. Alana, who was living in a butterfly-unfriendly high-rise apartment in Chicago while attending the University of Illinois, had seen a television show on butterfly gardening and spoke enthusiastically of it to her parents. Lana and her husband took a course in butterfly gardening at Butterfly World, and Lana read up on the subject. When Alana returned home for Memorial Day, the family went shopping for butterfly-friendly plants. In the fall, Alana returned home to finish her degree in Spanish at Florida Atlantic University. That's when Lana and Alana began transforming the family's yard in earnest from suburban wasteland to fecund habitat.  

From the street, the Edwards yard doesn't appear unique. A swath of St. Augustine sod still provides a green backdrop for groupings of plants and shade trees. But now the plants have been carefully arranged and selected to provide larval food for specific caterpillars and nectar plants for Lepidoptera.

Close to the house is a large clump of blue-flowering plumbago, the baby food for the Cassius blue butterfly. A large firebush is a favorite nectar plant for many butterflies that visit the yard. The centerpiece is a waterfall cascading into a butterfly-shaped pond created from oolite limestone. Around the edges, Lana and Alana built a bog-like ecosystem filled with water-loving plants, such as the long-stemmed and purple-flowered pickerelweed, a nectar source for many butterflies, including the palmades swallowtail. On the edges of the pond grow native iris, milkweed, and a low-growing, flowering weed commonly called creeping Charlie. The pool is partially shaded by a willow tree, where the viceroy butterfly lays its eggs and upon which its caterpillars feed.

If plants that Lana knows are good food sources for caterpillars or butterfly nectar plants find their way into the yard, she makes way for them. She points to a clump of milkweed growing on the edge of her driveway. "That's not really where I want milkweed, but I left it there for my queens and monarchs," she says. With all the food plants for caterpillars, Lana admits, her yard sometimes appears ragged. She no longer believes that a yard must be immaculately groomed. That is part of her compact with the insect. "When you butterfly-garden, you have chewed-on leaves," she says. "You can't be too fussy about keeping everything perfect."

Lana says the garden has given her life a more natural rhythm. The butterflies that visit change with the seasons and arrive in waves. Chrysalises dangle from plants, and butterflies emerge to consume nectar, hunt mates, and begin the cycle again. Her heart thrills at that process. "There must have been 20 to 30 queens out in the yard this afternoon," David reports. "They were everywhere." The Edwardses have counted 45 species of butterfly in their suburban habitat. The family's yard was featured in the summer 1996 issue of NABA's American Butterflies and in a USDA publication titled Backyard Conservation, published in 1998.

Lana relishes her role as caretaker of this ephemeral and beautiful insect, of knowing that the plants in her yard support life. "There's just something wonderful about walking into your yard on a sunny day and seeing butterflies," she says. "It is uplifting." Butterflies make her feel happy, so she naturally wants to surround herself with them. "To me, they represent peace and tranquility."

Butterflies have also gotten her out of the house, Lana says. She is treasurer of the Atala (Palm Beach County) Chapter of NABA, attends lectures the club sponsors, and goes on club field trips to area parks. And she and Alana take annual butterfly vacations. Mother and daughter recently returned from a NABA conference in Oregon and a week-long butterfly tour in Northern California. "It was fabulous," Lana says. "Every day was something new." She climbed a rocky mountainside to see the rockslide checkered spot. "Jeff Glassberg has not even seen that butterfly yet," she says.

Alana doesn't see anything strange about her mother's lepidopteran obsession. "I don't think it's weird because I'm like that too," she says. "Some people do find our passion more of an obsession. I always say I'm worse than a born-again Christian when I start talking about butterflies."

On a sweltering Saturday in early July, Alana led a group of ten people, including her parents, down a dusty road in the Highlands Hammock State Park near Sebring. Sponsored by NABA, the group was counting butterflies as part of a national campaign.

Focused on the count, she continued through stands of sand pine and oak scrub while others were waylaid by the flora and fauna. That's what makes walks like this interesting, Lana says. "Is that a Bachman's sparrow I hear?" called out wildlife biologist Marian Bailey, who works for the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach. Bailey hoisted her binoculars to her eyes and scanned the oak scrub for the bird. After finding it, she commented, "I didn't know whether it was found here, but I was walking along just now thinking that this is the perfect habitat for the Bachman's."  

A little farther along the road, Hal Weidemann eyed a three-inch-long millipede gliding across his path. "Look at this guy," he hollered out to the others. Several of the party stopped to admire the millipede. "He flows, he flows," Weidemann commented. "Like a river." Weidemann, a 79-year-old retired metallurgical engineer, has logged more than 6000 hours as a volunteer at the Loxahatchee in the past 20 years. He created the park list of native plants and butterflies and conducts nature walks for visitors. As they reached a bend in the road, Weidemann pointed out a clump of pawpaw and a sweet bay tree, where the huge Eastern tiger and spicebush swallowtails lay their eggs.

As the group walked down a dirt road surrounded by pines, Alana spotted eight black butterflies in a muddy area of the road. "Look, we've got puddling," she cried. In addition to sucking the nectar from flowers, some butterflies feed on carrion, animal feces, and draw minerals from the soil in muddy water, which is known as puddling. The group confabs.

"They're just sucking up all those nutrients," said Lana, delighted at the sight. Several people creep up on the butterflies for a closer look.

"There's not much water there," Weidemann observed.

"Yeah, but the ground is kind of damp," commented someone else.

"It's the minerals they're after," repeated Lana.

Alana moved closer, hoping to take a photograph. But, as she approached, the butterflies flitted into the air. The group let out a collective sigh. "I counted four spicebush and four palamades," Alana announced, then turned to the others and scrunched up her face. "I'm sorry I got too close."

When Alana was growing up just north of Delray Beach, she wasn't what you'd call outdoorsy. She doesn't remember seeing butterflies in her family's yard, and she didn't give the creatures much thought. Outside of shopping, a sport in which both she and her mother engaged, Alana didn't have any real hobbies. At college, Alana majored in Spanish because she had traveled to Mexico and learned the language. She figured she'd teach after she tried her hand at modeling. With classic good looks straight from a Ralph Lauren ad, she found work as a runway and catalog model, including stints for Land's End catalogs.

After returning to Florida and graduating from FAU, Alana taught Spanish for two years in Boca Raton. But she began to wonder whether teaching was the right career. This questioning coincided with an increasing interest in butterflies. "When you get involved in butterflies, it draws you into plants, and you get more and more drawn into the environment," Lana says. "That's what happened to her."

Alana returned to FAU and earned a master's degree in environmental science. Now 35 years old, she works as the education and training coordinator for the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at the Riverwoods Field Laboratory on the Kissimmee River. She also lives at the site. "When I got interested in butterflies," she says, "my whole outlook changed. Butterflies basically changed the direction of my life."

Alana declares that scientists do need to collect some specimens, but she is firmly in the camp of netless butterflying. "I don't like people who are doing stamp-collector-type butterfly collecting," she says. "Right now, we know so much about our butterfly fauna, due to all of that hard work scientists and collectors have done all these years, that it is time to sit back and enjoy them."

And although she says she doesn't have anything against Butterfly World, she worries that people may think the only way to view the creatures is in captivity. "I will tell you honestly that I have had more exciting experiences sitting in a meadow in Northern California with every flower around me covered with butterflies or in Mexico surrounded by 200 to 300 swallowtails than I've had at Butterfly World," she says. "To me, it is more exciting to be in the wild and have it happen naturally than having butterflies flown in and put in a cage somewhere."

While counting the insects at Highlands Hammock, several Atala Chapter members said they were looking for skippers, a class of moth-like butterflies with minimal visual appeal. Those butterfliers who have been at it a while are no longer dazzled by the showy colors of the insects. "The big, flashy butterflies are easy after you've been doing it for a while," Lana explained. "The real pretty ones are beautiful, but they aren't challenging."  

Despite that claim, the height of the count came when Alana spotted a little metalmark amid a ragged bunch of thistle and redroot near the park entrance. The metalmark is a tiny butterfly, not even an inch across, that has mahogany-brown wings decorated with black, lacy scrollwork. It is a dashing creature found only in the southeastern United States. When the sun shines on its wings, the little butterfly rivals the exotic marvels of Butterfly World. Its markings glisten as though its wings have been decorated with lines of tiny silver rivets. Everyone gathered in front of the redroot in a clump, binoculars trained on the deep brown butterfly that alighted on the buff-colored blossoms. For a while, there was nothing but silence, that sister to wonder, as the little metalmark glinted in the sun.

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