Mother Nature's jewels: painted lady butterflies see population explosion

Painted Lady butterflies feed on purple aster flowers at Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Area in Toddville on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Painted Lady butterflies feed on purple aster flowers at Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Area in Toddville on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

For a short time this autumn, Iowa was blanketed in painted ladies.

These orange and black butterflies, often mistaken for monarchs, saw a huge growth explosion this year.

At Reiman Gardens in Ames, a butterfly survey counted 747 individual painted lady butterflies in a one-week survey period in early September. That’s compared with counts of between 11 and 21 butterflies in the same period last year.

“You’d walk out of your house and pretty much anything you had that was flowering had butterflies on them,” said Reiman Gardens butterfly wing curator Nathan Brockman.

He said the increase could be due to a combination of factors, including favorable spring weather that let them migrate farther north and low predation rates.

The painted lady is a migratory species, and it takes several generations to complete one migration. Iowans were likely seeing newly emerged butterflies combined with a wave of migration from north of here as they make their annual trek to the southern United States and northern Mexico.

Since each butterfly species needs different conditions to thrive, the high painted lady numbers don’t necessarily mean other species like monarchs also will see a population boost. The annual monarch migration is hitting full swing, but it is too soon to say how that population is faring this year.

Tracking those numbers comes down to citizen scientists who are trained to be part of the Iowa Butterfly Survey Network. Reiman Gardens hosts regular trainings for volunteers and is planning a spring training in Cedar Rapids. Network members help count and track butterflies across the state, which helps scientists measure population health. In the long term, the data could also help track how Linn County’s butterfly assistance programs like the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative or the Monarch Research Project are doing.

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The painted lady population is winding down, but that doesn’t mean butterfly enthusiasts need to wait another year to enjoy Mother Nature’s winged jewels. At Reiman Gardens Butterfly Wing, Brockman helps keep hundreds of butterflies flying year-round.

The 2,500 square foot enclosed glass facility includes butterflies from around the world.

“At any given time we have up to 800 butterflies in flight and of that, 80 different species. What’s in there changes regularly. Order from different parts of the world each week,” Brockman said. “There are butterfly farmers and ranchers around the world. Instead of clear cutting the land, they’re using native plants to raise butterflies and sell them as a commodity.”

The butterflies come shipped as chrysalides and then emerge at the gardens. Butterflies have an average life span of two weeks, so Reiman Gardens receives about 450 chrysalides each week.

“It’s quite a treat to open the box,” Brockman said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

If you go

l What: Reiman Gardens

l Where: 1407 University Blvd., Ames

l Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

l Cost: $8 adults, $7 seniors, $4 kids, under 3 free

l Details: (515) 294-2710, reimangardens.com

l Learn more about the Iowa Butterfly Survey Network: reimangardens.com/collections/insects/iowa-butterfly-survey-network

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