The origin of the word “butterfly” has flapped and flitted its way into the sun-streaked halls of history and hidden beneath some dusty object. Speculative etymologists (word sleuths) believe the Old English name “butterfleoge,” meaning either “colored like butter” or “one who raids the butter and milk,” pupated and emerged as “butterfly.” Although the name “flutterby” seems more appropriate, there is little support for this characteristic term being applied to these summertime wonders.
Scientifically called Lepidoptera, which translates better into either “winged scales” or “winged shingles,” so named after the tiny shinglelike scales that roof the wings, these are a group of insects that everyone seems to love. And somehow it seems fitting that to best view these winged wonders one should travel high up into a mountain meadow in summer.
In the nearby La Sals or Abajos, there are plenty of areas to search for butterflies. Look for fields of sneezeweed, balsamroot, yarrow and other July wildflowers in bloom, then hop out and prowl around. You’ll be certain to see several of the large common butterflies that haunt the meadows and ridgetops, as well as some of the smaller species like skippers and hairstreaks. Oh yes, you have to love their common names, as well.
Big and bold the Western tiger swallowtails are hard to miss. Brilliant yellow bodies with black streaks, their color pattern reminds one of the big cats on the African plains. Their long “tails” are projections of the hind wings, not separate attachments. The resemblance of these projections to those of the barn swallow has influenced their name. If a predator catches these butterflies from behind, the projections break off to allow the swallowtail to escape.
Another striking summer butterfly has large black wings with broad white bands. This is the Weidemeyer’s admiral, so named for its inclusion in a group that includes royalty - monarchs and viceroys. Weidemeyer’s occur in Southwest mountains along streams or rivers. They may often be observed giving chase to other butterflies that enter their domain.
Adult admirals prefer tree sap, nectar of snowberry and rabbitbrush, and carrion. Although carrion seems like an odd choice for these aerial acrobats, certain minerals may be obtained from dead animals. Gives these idyllic creatures a bit of a dark side, wouldn’t you say?
Another large dark butterfly is the mourning cloak. Instead of white bands on the wings, the mourning cloak has a tannish border along the outer edges of the hind and front wings. Though most butterflies have a one-season lifespan, the mourning cloak may overwinter as an adult. Its 11-month lifespan makes it a grandparent in the flutterby world.
There are a number of additional species that may be observed in the mountain meadows. There are fritillaries and crescents, whites and sulphurs, wood nymphs and painted ladies. Smaller blues and coppers may also be seen, as well as commas and tortoiseshells.
So if you go looking for summer butterflies, bring a pair of close-focusing binoculars, a butterfly identification book and, if you have one, a butterfly net to view any captures up close. Just be careful when looking at each one and remember to release them.
Of course, you’ll also find the larval stages of these butterflies munching away on vegetation. Though caterpillars are considered the ugly duckling phase of these winged beauties, their appearances can be just as interesting as the adult phase. Take note of the types of plants the caterpillars are feeding on as this may aid in identification later on.
Though the butterflies will take center stage next to the meadow wildflowers, also keep an eye out for sphinx moths sipping nectar from the flowers. Resembling small hummingbirds, these large moths have chunky bodies and long proboscis from which to sip the sweet nectar of the flowers. I’m sure your day will just “flutter by” as you enjoy these insect wonders of summer.