Adventures in Butterfly Catching

After ensuring the plants and flowers in the Ashland Butterfly House were in good order, it was time to start stocking it with local butterflies. Armed with the tools of the trade, a butterfly net and a big plastic jar with a screw top lid, I set out early one hot August morning at Ashland Nature Center to catch my first batch of butterflies. There had been a soaking rain the previous evening, so the grasses and trails were still wet, but I was prepared for the trek with my mud-loving hiking shoes, long pants, hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

The quintessential tools of butterfly catching.

As I hiked along the scenic and peaceful Succession Trail, two things became glaringly obvious…I had taken the long way around to the meadow through a mature woodland (not many butterflies in there) and, more annoyingly, I had forgotten bug spray! It turns out a long butterfly net can act like a horse’s tail, so I managed to fend off the intrusive flies, gnats, and mosquitos by constantly swishing the net back and forth around my head and neck. After finally making it out to the sunny succession meadow, I was eager to see a bevy of butterflies just waiting to be caught!

One of the neatly mowed paths in the meadow.

Alas, to my surprise, there were hardly any butterflies to be found along the edges of the mowed meadow paths. There were plenty of bees on the surrounding Queen Anne’s lace and Joe-Pye-weed, but the butterflies that I did spot were at least 50 to 100 feet away.

If you are not familiar with the meadow, I can tell you that at this time of year, the plants there are very tall (many up to my head or taller) and the growth is very dense, making it difficult to venture very far from the mowed trails.

I wandered along the meadow paths until I came to a clump of Purple loosestrife not too far from the path’s edge. There was a lot of butterfly activity in that area with a small orange-colored butterfly…from where I stood they could have been Skippers or Fritillaries…but there sure were a lot of them! So, I plowed through the meadow grasses until I stood in the patch of loosestrife, sure that I would capture one or more of these little beauties!

Patches of Purple Loosestrife in the meadow.

Well, as you probably guessed, I failed miserably to catch a single one. I tried all sorts of strategies with the butterfly net: come down from above, come up from below, swish in the air…and I even tried placing the open net next to the butterfly in case it might accidentally fly inside. Nothing seemed to work, although I did accidentally entrap one in the net when I wasn’t even trying, but of course it flew out of the net immediately!

By this time, I was very hot, very sweaty, and very discouraged.  I needed to figure out a new strategy. Three things are clearly required to catch butterflies: skill with the net, knowledge of where the butterflies can be found, and patience (all of which I lacked at the moment). So, I decided to head closer to the Visitor Center…oh wait, what direction was that in? Indeed, I had gotten so turned around from trying to catch these little creatures that I had lost track of where I actually was (in other words, I was lost). Not being all that familiar with the Ashland Nature Center trails, I at least knew that if I headed along the stream, I could find my way back. So I walked downwards towards the stream valley and was overjoyed to hear the hoots and hollers from the summer campers in the distance, obviously enjoying the cool stream waters.  

I continued to walk along what turned out to be the Flood Plain trail, and I was desperate to catch anything at this point in time. I tried chasing some kind of large winged flying bug (I don’t really think it was a butterfly) and attempted to snare a beautiful Hummingbird moth which passed by (they are BIG), but once again, I came up empty-handed.

A Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis). Photo by Joe Sebastiani.

As the trail neared the joyful campers, I came to a low-lying area that was filled with lots of butterflies flying close to the ground! I got so excited I ran in the middle of several Cabbage White butterflies and fearlessly threw the butterfly net down on top of them. I caught one!!! As I held the net tightly on the ground, I realized I had to squeeze the net closed to entrap my captive in the net above, so it couldn’t fly away once I picked the net up off the ground. It took several minutes for me to successfully get the butterfly from the net into the jar and then close the lid…but I did it!

My first successfully butterfly catch…a male Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)! Males have one black spot on the center of each forewing, while females have two spots in the same place.

I was overjoyed to have my first catch under my belt. So now, with the thrill of the chase and excitement of the capture coursing through my veins, I sought more butterflies, and several more Cabbage Whites flew tantalizingly close by. Yes…I caught another one! Same technique as the first one…but to my dismay…as I tried to carefully place it in the jar, both butterflies escaped and flew high above my head (I swear I heard little butterfly laughs as they took off).

I almost started to cry…it had been over two hours and I had nothing to show for all my efforts. I wandered aimlessly along the Flood Plain trail, seeing a Monarch and a pair of Tiger Swallowtails gently floating above me, just out of my reach. I didn’t have much fight left in me, but I took one more careless swipe at a passing Cabbage White, and to my surprise, I caught the little guy. Being very careful to gently push the butterfly inside the jar, I decided that I wasn’t going to chance losing him and should quit for the day. I found my way back to the Butterfly House where I released my precious passenger and left him resting peacefully on a large leaf. Down, but not out, I look forward to doing better next time I’m out butterfly catching!

Learn more about butterflies by visiting the Butterfly House at Ashland Nature Center. And, while you’re there, hike the trails and discover the beauty that nature offers to all of us.