Bye bye, butterfly

It’s been a spectacular Sunday on the razor’s edge between summer and fall: brilliant blue sky, mid-70s, cool dry breeze, surely the last weekend day of its kind before the coats come out. On Labor Day morning last week, I took my husband to the zoo to say a seasonal farewell to its butterfly garden on the more official “last day of summer.” This morning, in my own mini-butterfly garden (modeled on the zoo’s), I saw a late-season monarch stop by, perching for a minute or two on a stalk of my joe-pye weed before it was on its way.

tiger swallowtail and joe-pye weed

This is my joe-pye weed — a superb, hardy, pollinator-attracting plant I would not have tracked down for my yard if I hadn’t seen monarchs all over it a couple years back at the zoo. Just keep it watered, and it will spread on its own. That is not, of course, a monarch up there but an Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly that hung out in my yard for two weeks straight in August. Last year I was a little sad that only bees were drawn to the tall plants — although this year at the zoo, as we focused on the importance of pollinators, I realized that bees need our help more than butterflies in that respect, with the added risk of colony collapse disorder and bees’ crucial role in providing not just honey, but essentials like chocolate and coffee as well, by spreading pollen from plant to plant as they sip nectar. This year, bees and the butterfly, which finally appeared in August, shared the joe-pye weed.

julia on trunk

julia butterfly

On Labor Day, the zoo’s butterfly garden’s last hurrah for the season, the most active and visible subspecies was this orange one, known as a julia.But even after that garden goes dark for nine months, the zoo keeps its hand in butterfly-conservation efforts — specifically, preserving the Dakota skipper and Powesheik skipperling, inhabitants of Minnesota’s ever-shrinking tall-grass prairie. (Skippers are a butterfly-moth hybrid explained here by the self-described Old Naturalist. And the key differences between butterflies and moths — butterflies have knobbier antennae and hold their wings closed while perching) are detailed here by the Lepidopterist’s Society.)

My tiger swallowtail (so reliably present for a couple of weeks that I dubbed it my “yard pet”) has moved on — either by migration or by virtue of a lifespan measured in weeks. There’s a sadness in the fleeting beauty, but still hope that careful perennial-planting choices can lure next year’s generation, too.




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