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Wild Side: Butterflies display colors of summer

The late novelist Vladimir Nabokov grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a family of wealthy aristocrats and intellectuals. Nabokov took an early interest in his father's butterfly collection that grew into a life-long passion for butterflies.

Nabokov's family fled to France to escape the Bolshevik revolution and he moved to the United States in the 1940s. He became a professor of Russian literature at Wellesley College and a research fellow in zoology and curator of the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

Nabokov never learned to drive a car. His wife Vera drove him on butterfly collecting expeditions out west. He was the first to describe the Karner Blue, a gem of a little blue butterfly that lives on wild lupine. The Karner Blue today is a federally-listed endangered species, but it has a stronghold in Wisconsin.

Like Nabokov, I developed an early childhood fascination with butterflies. Their variety, seemingly fragile structure, brilliant colors and flights over flowers had me chasing them through fields and woods in the summer. My collection grew to include most of the butterflies that lived in northern Ohio.

Many of the same species of butterflies that I came to know near my childhood home in Ohio live here in western Wisconsin. The abundant rain that we've had so far this year has encouraged lush growth of crops and flowering wild plants. On a walk last weekend through our planted prairie, purple prairie clover, bergamot, purple and yellow coneflowers and milkweed were blooming and covered with butterflies.

Brilliant orange with silver spots, spangled fritillaries were feeding nectar on the coneflowers. Monarchs glided over the field on wings held in a "V," lighting on milkweed plants to lay their eggs. Monarch caterpillars tolerate the toxins in milkweed and have bright green, black and white stripes to warn predators that they are poisonous. Monarchs are famous for migrating all the way to central Mexico to spend the winter.

Tiger, black, and spicebush swallowtails were also attracted to the prairie flowers. They are surprisingly strong fliers for such delicate creatures.

Raggedy-looking commas and question marks flitted along the edge of the woods. Deep purple-red morning cloaks with blue spots and a yellow band around the edge of their wings flew through the shadows under the trees. Adults of these butterfly species spend the winter under tree bark.

Back at the shop, red-spotted purples and white admirals were drinking water and taking on minerals on a wet spot in the gravel driveway. Sulfurs and cabbage butterflies were cruising our garden about to lay eggs on our cole crops.

I don't collect butterflies any more but still enjoy seeing them out in the wild. Butterfly watching, like bird watching, is a great reason to be outdoors. Butterflies are diverse enough to challenge the amateur scientist, providing fine summer days of observation and evenings of study.

Each species of butterfly has one or more plant species that the caterpillars feed on. Adult butterflies are attracted to nectar-bearing flowers and are important pollinators. Planted native prairies with flowering forbs and gardens with cone flowers, bergamot, butterfly weed, cardinal flower, asters and goldenrod will attract butterflies to near your home.

Enjoy the flying displays of summer color.

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