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Northland Nature: Butterflies do well in the heat

Cloquet photographer Jeff Papas captures this image of a monarch in flight.1 / 3
A Great Spangled Fritillary, one of the colorful butterflies in the region now, takes nectar from a milkweed. Photo by Larry Weber2 / 3
A Northern Pearly-Eye, one of the brown butterflies here now, sits on a milkweed flower. Photo by Larry Weber3 / 3

Northland weather appears to be in a near-record setting mode this summer. While June was one of the few Junes where more than 10 inches of precipitation was recorded (first time in 40 years), July seems to be memorable in another way. So far the above-normal temperatures are on pace to be one of a few Julys with a temperature to average over 70 degrees, the last being July of 2006.

Not all of the Northland's residents are appreciating these heated days, but there are those that are doing just fine.

Being coldblooded, the insects function well in the setting of a hot day. Their body temperature equals that of the ambient conditions and they remain very active. And we can easily see that insects are abundant this month.

This six-legged group is huge and diverse and we now have many kinds. Besides annoying mosquitoes, deer flies and horse flies, we have plenty more. This is when bees are very active and the hornets finish their arboreal nests, while dragonflies and damselflies survey the scene for meals.

Cricket-chirping has joined buzzes from katydids and the trill of the cicada sounds from the leafy trees. But maybe the best example of July insects is that of the butterflies.

Besides being a time of ample temperatures for these colorful insects to flutter by, July also provides plenty of food in the form of nectar-rich wildflowers. Fragrant milkweeds, fireweeds, black-eyed susans, clovers and bergamots, along with early-blooming goldenrods and asters, are all open for business now, and attracting many of these insects.

Recently, I was able to observe more than thirty kinds of butterflies without traveling far. These ranged from the rather large and well-known monarchs and tiger swallowtails to the tiny and often overlooked skippers. (Being small, an adult skipper could easily sit on a fingernail.) They also varied in color from white to yellow to orange to red to blue to brown and even nearly black. And although I saw many on flowers, others were at mud puddles, on animal droppings and even our sweaty clothes. They uncurled their long tongues to take nectar from flowers, but also to get needed minerals from these other sites. While butterflies often spread their wings while basking in sunlight, I found that in these recent hot days, many are content to sit in the sun with closed wings.

July also appears to be the midpoint of the life cycle for some of them. I found newly emerged fritillaries, checkerspots, hairstreaks and wood-nymphs that I always associate with summer days, but also some that are more connected to spring: spring (summer) azure, mourning cloak and various anglewings.

Like the monarch, several of these butterfly species are the offspring of those that survived winter in some phase.

The more colorful ones, the monarch, viceroy (which mimics the monarch), fritillaries, checkerspots, red admiral, tiger swallowtail, sulphur and buckeye are quite easy to see and invite us to stop and take a closer look at them. Others are brown and wear drab attire that we would not likely associated with this group of insects.

These light-to-dark brown ones carry names such as wood-satyr, wood-nymph, ringlet, pearly-eye and eyed brown. (The references to eyes on these butterflies have to do with large circular eyespots on the wings. Not true eyes, they serve mostly to confuse


Many of these lesser-colored butterflies will come to flowers, but often they do not. And so, with no bright colors and not feeding on flowers, we can easily pass by. But whatever the color and where they may be sitting, butterflies are abundant during this hot month.

Dealing with predators as they do, the life span of these adult butterflies is not long and many will have vanished as we go through the coming months. But for now, seeing this bouquet of flying flowers is worth a walk in the midday sun and heat.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." Contact him c/o