Citizen Science Tuesday: Butterfly Blitz

Count participants on the hunt for butterflies at The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch. Photo by Sara Deur/TNC.

Count participants on the hunt for butterflies at The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch. Photo by Sara Deur/TNC.

By Amy Pocewicz, conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy in Wyoming

What is a Butterfly Blitz?

During my drive out to Red Canyon Ranch I watch the sky closely. It’s cloudy this morning, which is not a good sign. Butterflies like the sun, and need it to warm their bodies and fly.

Luckily, as the group assembled to begin, the sun pushed its way out and the butterflies took flight. So did some of the participants, sprinting in circles with butterfly nets dancing around their colorful targets.

During butterfly counts like this one, we catch many butterflies so that we can identify their species.

Today I’m leading the 7th annual Butterfly Blitz near Lander, Wyoming. Each year in June we spend one day walking along the same trails near Lander and count all the butterflies of each species that we see. These data are collected as part of a national butterfly monitoring program led by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA).

This event is focused on counting butterflies, but learning is a big part of it. Each year many of the participants have never caught or looked at butterflies before, but everyone leaves remembering how to identify several species.

Each time a butterfly is caught, we carefully transfer it from the butterfly net to a clear plastic cup so it can be passed around for everyone to see.

This year we counted 176 butterflies, including 24 different species.

Why is it important?

Butterflies are great indicators of what is happening in the habitats around them. They are also spectacular in their own right – colorful and diverse, with fascinating life cycles.

A great example is the monarch butterfly and its astonishing migration. Unfortunately, as land uses have changed over the past several decades, migrating monarchs have been declining rapidly.

Thankfully, there are efforts underway to help them, for instance by planting milkweed, and anyone can help.

Only a limited number of butterfly species migrate, so most are affected mainly by what happens in their local habitat.

By monitoring butterflies in local areas through annual counts, over time we can learn about changes in surrounding habitats or timing of butterfly flight and how species may be expanding where they live. The ranges of some butterfly species have been shifting northward in recent years.

A fritillary butterfly that has been placed in a plastic cup to be identified. The butterflies are quickly released unharmed. Photo by Tony Pocewicz.

A fritillary butterfly that has been placed in a plastic cup to be identified. The butterflies are quickly released unharmed. Photo by Tony Pocewicz.

Butterflies are very closely tied to the plants they eat as caterpillars (called “host” plants) and are therefore good indicators of changes in habitats.

Some butterfly caterpillars are adaptable and can eat non-native weeds – and the cabbage white butterfly caterpillar can even eat the broccoli plants in our gardens – but most butterflies rely upon native plants to carry out their life cycle.

Butterflies are also sensitive to disturbances such as mowing, pesticide use, and extreme weather conditions.

How do you get involved?

There are three ways to get involved in butterfly monitoring: 1) find an existing butterfly count near you 2) start a new count or 3) submit your own butterfly observations through Butterflies and Moths of North America.

To find an existing butterfly count like the one near Lander, Wyoming you can visit the butterfly count map of NABA.

Each count is shown as a dot on the map. Click on a butterfly count close to where you live and contact the organizer for information on how to participate. Most counts occur between June and August.

If there are no butterfly counts near you, you can start a new count!

Anyone can begin a new butterfly count, which involves defining a count circle (15 miles in diameter), choosing a date and inviting the public to participate. Count guidelines are available from NABA.

If you do not have experience identifying butterflies, you should enlist the help someone who does, at least until you gain more experience. A good place to start is by contacting the leader of the closest existing count and asking if they may be able to help get you started.

You can also submit your butterfly (and moth!) observations at any time to Butterflies and Moths of North America. This website is a great resource to learn what butterflies may be in your area and you can submit photos to receive help with identification.

Be careful, once you start looking for butterflies, you may be hooked!


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org with information about the project or leave a comment below with a link.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Posted In: Citizen Science

Amy is a Conservation Scientist with the Wyoming Chapter. Her favorite research projects combine the ecological and social sciences and inform management or policy. She leads the annual Butterfly Blitz each June.



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