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Where to see butterflies indoors and out, a primer for would-be lepidopterists

A painted lady butterfly perches on an evergreen branch in Seattle. Butterfly counts, in which groups all over the country record all the butterflies they see in a single day, are a great way for amateur lepidopterists to get involved in the community. (iStock)
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I’m standing in the Butterfly Garden at Harry P. Leu Gardens in downtown Orlando watching tiger swallowtails, zebra longwings and monarchs have a nectar brunch from a kaleidoscope of flowers. A small yellow butterfly — a cloudless sulphur — captures my attention, flitting inside a red hibiscus. I’m trying to sneak up on it and get a picture. It turns out beautifully and brag-sharing it on social media brings a chemical rush.

This could be my gateway bug.

I picture myself joining the enthusiasts who pursue butterflies and moths — or lepidoptera — the way others do constellations or red-winged blackbirds. We have a lot in common with lepidoptera right now. When the insects change from caterpillar to butterfly they’re isolated in one place for a long time, like we just were. Then things suddenly change and haltingly, awkwardly, they begin to spread their wings, just like we are.

Butterfly watching is a perfect transition-time activity — a natural extension of outdoor activities such as hiking and birding. It’s also family friendly, often low-cost and easily accessed no matter where you live.

“Whether you go to a prairie reserve in the outskirts of Chicago, Yellowstone National Park or a tropical hardwood hammock down in the Florida Keys,” or even at a football game, you’ll see them, says Jaret Daniels, University of Florida entomologist and assistant curator and director of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“I was climbing Mount Rainier and we got up to the peak, and there was a butterfly, a painted lady, sunning itself on the snow,” says entomologist Katy Prudic, assistant professor of citizen and data science at the University of Arizona and founder of the citizen science website eButterfly.

“They’re like flying billboards,” she says. “They catch your eye” and serve as a timely reminder that there are other animals and plants sharing our spaces.

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In her neck of the woods, Prudic finds them in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson. The hiking trails have incredible butterfly diversity year-round. Counts there have recorded up to 80 species in a single day.

In Colorado, she says, you can drive from the valley of Pikes Peak all the way to the top and see butterflies the whole way, such as the fulvia checkerspot, an orange, brown and white species with such distinct black markings it looks corrugated. On the west coast of the Sierras in California, you may find that state’s official insect, the California dogface butterfly.

In D.C., Prudic recommends exploring Rock Creek Park, where visitors might see a buckeye, a brown, orange and purple butterfly with conspicuous eye-spots that is positively art nouveau, or a mourning cloak, in classic black with a yellow border delicately dotted with powder blue spots.

One of the country’s best-known wild butterfly sites is the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Tex., owned and operated by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), an education, research and conservation group.

About 240 species have been seen on the 100-acre property, which was an empty onion field 20 years ago, says Jeff Glassberg, biologist, author and NABA president. The site has just acquired an additional 350 acres and the native plants NABA planted there are butterfly magnets, bringing them in by the hundreds, even thousands.

“There’s no cages, they’re not restrained, they’re not brought here,” Glassberg says. “These are wild butterflies,” and though they’re plentiful at other times, October or November is the optimal time to visit.

You can also get involved in butterfly counts, in which groups all over the country record all the butterflies they see in a single day to collect data. NABA sponsors a huge July 4 count, but there are many others throughout the year.

“The butterfly counts are the largest database of butterfly abundances in the world, and they’re used for papers,” Glassberg says, including a study he and Prudic co-authored on the decline of butterflies in the Western states — all the more reason to get out and see them now.

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Even if you’re not part of a count, just uploading your finds to a citizen science website can help conservation efforts.

“You’re documenting that species with a geotag of where and when you saw that, and that goes into the larger data collection for scientists to use,” Daniels says.

If you want to be certain you’ll see butterflies, there are a variety of living exhibits throughout the United States, often associated with museums, zoos or botanical gardens. Examples include the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Living Conservatory in Raleigh and the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House in St. Louis. Some are seasonal, such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s Butterfly Pavilion, so wherever your travels take you, plan your visit accordingly.

At the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Rainforest in Gainesville, there are up to 70 species on hand at any given time, some native, others from more far-flung locales such as Costa Rica. These imported species and the plants are tightly regulated and the butterflies are raised in their country of origin, Daniels says, usually on family farms, leaving the rainforests undisturbed.

The Butterfly Rainforest has a mesh net that keeps the butterflies in but allows the weather to get inside. It’s a “really immersive one-on-one experience that’s kind of like being in a butterfly snow globe,” Daniels says. “There’s nothing like it outside of an aviary,” he says, but “the birds are generally not going to land on you.”

He also recommends the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami and the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, especially if you like a few flamingos on your butterfly watch.

Daniels hopes that butterfly travel will inspire people to create butterfly gardens at home.

Whether you have a container garden or live on 50 acres, “you can make a difference by providing resources and supporting a lot of diversity in your own landscape,” he says. If your neighbors follow suit, “the community as a whole is greener and more sustainable, and that benefits everybody.”

Wherever you go, there are ways to up your butterfly game.

“You can certainly see butterflies with your naked eye,” Glassberg says, but “the majority of butterflies are pretty small.” The western pygmy blue, for example, “would fit on the fingernail of your pinkie.” A good pair of close-focusing binoculars can help reveal these itty bitties.

Read up on habits and habitat before setting out. For a broad overview of butterfly study, Prudic recommends James Scott’s “The Butterflies of North America: A Natural History and Field Guide.”

Also, Glassberg says, “don’t bring a net.” There’s zero reason to capture a butterfly, and the stress can be lethal. “Even if you don’t intend to kill them it often does.”

A specialized camera can help you get macro pictures, but a smartphone is perfectly fine, Glassberg says.

Not that anyone is without their phone anymore, but there are several reasons to bring it on your butterfly watch. You can look up local species and the plants that attract them on apps such as eButterfly and iNaturalist, which make the insects a whole lot easier to find, Prudic says.

Daniels hopes that people will also remember to savor the bigger picture while getting the digital one.

“Observe first,” with your own eyes, he says, not through your phone, otherwise “it just becomes Pokémon Go,” and you’re missing the excitement of “understanding the natural world around you.”

Come to think of it, butterfly watching is a mindfulness exercise. You have to be in the moment. My butterfly time was so rewarding I can pull up the feeling, like an app, and relive that happiness.

Maybe I will take up the hobby. I’m ready to start spreading my wings, and they seem like an ideal example to follow.

Langley is a writer based in Orlando. Find her on Twitter: @LizLangley.

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