Where Are The Butterflies?

Question: Will THIS become a Question Mark?

We came upon this unhuggable lovely caterpillar in a Floyd County garden recently, a spike-adorned (but not poisonous) two-inch-long precursor to some variety of butterfly.

Butterflies. Summer. We’re usually awash in swallowtails in July. Our butterfly bush, out the window and about two-arms-reach from where I sit is in full flower this morning. Other than the gentle bobbing of the white spires of perfumed flower spikes, there’s no motion at all: no skippers, no fritillaries, no tiger or spicebush swallowtails.

Is this just a normal cycle? I don’t remember, in the dozen years we’ve lived here, ever not having swallowtails by the hundreds. This past winter was mild. We’ve not had severe drought over the spring or early summer  when butterflies would break out of their temporary housing and launch off into the sunshine. So where are they?

This caterpillar, best I can figure, will become a creature called the “Question Mark Butterfly.” I’m not sure about this, so if anybody has a more sure ID, please let me know.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. i was at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary near Kempton PA yesterday at the research center where people were doing the annual butterfly survey. They weren’t finding many butterflies either, and i don’t have many here around my cabin in York County Pa. Quite a change from last year when they were profuse!

  2. If anyone runs across a “natural cycles” explanation, that would ease my mind. There has not been any increased pesticide/herbicide spraying in this area that I’m aware of. Hmmm.

  3. There were plenty of swallowtails yesterday (Saturday) on the Appalachian Trail north of Peaks of Otter. I’ll send you a photo of the plant that was attracting them in droves – no idea what it is.

  4. I planted a butterfly garden this spring at my home in South Carolina, throwing in every nectar and host plant I could think of to appeal to any butterfly. The idea being, “if you build it, they will come.” The bees and hummingbirds seem pleased; I’m still waiting on the butterflies!
    But recently drove past meadows filled with milkweed near Vesta, VA, and they were filled with butterflies. I find some comfort that their absence seems spotty. Maybe more will appear as the season progresses.

  5. Dear Fred & Floyd,

    I came on google search to see if anyone had the same question? Where are the butterflies for 2011. I live in Kentucky by Cincinnati, and not one sign of butterflies, this year. I have not seen any wasps, flies, hummingbirds, butterflies, bees???? Is seems that something is very wrong, but what??? This is the first time in life, that I have not seen the butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, wasps & flies??? Beyond peculiar… Please contact me & my email address if you get any information. I am a nature nut, and so miss them. The Universe seems so empty without them. My heartfelt appreciation for posting this, so I would know that I am not the only one questioning this.

  6. I am so glad to know that I am not imagining things! I too did a Google search “where are the butterflies?” because I am used to seeing a lot of Butterflies in my gardens here in Indiana. This year I have seen one Monarch, a few Swallowtails, Red Admirals and maybe one Buckeye. The only ones I see on a daily basis are the white “Cabbage Butterflies”. I planted more host plants, Dill, Rue, Joe Pye Weed, this year as last there were so many caterpillars that they devoured everything in sight! This year there are none… I was pleased to note that there seem to be more honeybees this year. Hummers seem to be normal as well as Bumblebees. There are way too many flies! I am an organic gardener so I know I have not killed the Butterflies off. I would appreciate hearing from others who are interested in this mystery. Just drop me an email 🙂

  7. NT, I am glad you have butterflies. I do not have a single one (beside a few little white ones). I live in Washington, DC – (16th St Heights). We bought a house 2 years ago and have two large OLD butterfly bushes in the back yard. For the past two summers we enjoyed dozens of Zebra and Monarch butterflies constantly visiting the two bushes. This year, we have seen ZERO. What happened to them???
    I have done a little web research, seems some monarch “nesting” grounds
    have been heavily logged in mexico, but that does not explain the lack of all the others (or the monarchs really).

  8. I’m looking out the window at easily a hundred butterfly bush blooms and three spicebush swallowtails and one skipper. The tiger swallowtails, which are usually most abundant of all, are very very few. Also whirling frantically around the bush is the “bully bee” I finally identified as a European Hornet. Its diet seems to rely heavily on butterflies, whose wings we find littering the mulch under the bush–except not this year.

    I’m going to do a bit of research and see if I can figure if we’re creating a pattern just because a number of folks observe similar fluctuations in a natural cycle, or if there’s something larger going on to explain a real decline in butterflies in parts of the eastern US.

  9. I live in Roanoke County and have a yard designed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. I have one hummingbird, one black swallowtail, a few skippers, several white cabbage butterflies and that is all! Had two Monarch catterpillars in May. No Tiger Swallowtails at all!

    Was at the Cascades last week and they only had Pipevine Swallowtails.

  10. i’m in north florida in a rural area between gainesville and jacksonville and have noticed very few butterflies this year. i have lots of larval plants still waiting and untouched. i also noticed on my tomato plants that this year i don’t even have those pesky little caterpillars on my tomato plants (not that i miss them too much). what’s up?

  11. I live on a barrier island just outside of St Pete on the Florida gulf coast. I planted a butterfly garden this year and had tons of Monarchs and Gulf fritillaries in May, devouring several milkweed and passionvine plants in days. However, I haven’t seen a single butterfly or caterpillar since mid-May. I’ve never seen this before. I can’t remember any summertime day here without seeing literally dozens of gulfs and monarchs and occasional tiger swallowtails. I have a vacation house in Western NC, just got back from there, usually loaded with Pipevine Swallowtails, but didnt see a single one all week. No idea why. Glad to hear its not something local.

  12. We finally about a month late started seeing large groups of tiger swallowtails in “puddles” on the gravel road, gathering for nutrients. Then suddenly, there are very few again on the butterfly bush. The timing and numbers both seem off from a normal year. But then, how the norms in so many ways are in an unpredictable state of change.

  13. The number of butterflies is definitely down here in Central Florida. Of special note is that I have tons of Passionvine and haven’t seen ONE Zebra Longwing! A few years ago they were everywhere. I have Cassia and haven’t seen many Sulphurs either.

    I wonder what’s going on!

  14. Well, I have joined the ranks of the disappointed. I live on the Eastern plains of Colorado, and have not seen many butterflies either. I can say that the Monarch population has definitely declined here. Fifteen years ago I saw around fifty on one small patch of zinnias, but this year have only seen three at different times. Other than the plentiful Cabbage butterflies, I have only seen a handful of other types. This is an agricultural region, and they do spray. I have seen more wasps this year and not as many songbirds. Maybe, due to the actions of man, our world is out of balance. This makes sense to me.

  15. I’m from Ohio and was just lamenting this same thing. I have a few Silver-Spotted Skippers but have only seen one or two Monarchs and Black Swallowtails.

  16. Well, it looks like a spreading epidemic, unfortunately. I’m in Toronto, Canada and have noticed a steady decline in butterflies over the last seven or so years. I used to raise butterflies from eggs (Black Swallowtails, Question Marks, Mourning Cloaks, Painted Ladies and, of course, Monarchs). This was both a hobby (raising and photographing) and for preservation, since, if not raised from an egg, caterpillars were likely to fall victim to the Tachnid fly and would not survive to adulthood.

    In the past years, there has been such a decline in the Black Swallowtails, ( my personal fave) that I haven’t been able to find a single egg! This year, I have only been successful at finding Monarchs. There haven’t even been any (previously abundant) Question Marks! I am extremely worried! I have been hoping that it was just a cycle thing but it has been going on for so long and seems to be getting worse.

    Does ANYBODY have any hopeful scientific info for us?


  17. I have had increasing numbers over the last few years. Monarch this year were unbelievable! Literally I had 4 dozen feeding at one time,great photos! I don’t use anything that God hasn’t put on this earth,my neighbors are far enough away so if they do it does not affect our eco-system. Dragonflies are eco indicators,so if you have those that’s a good start. Many people start a butterfly garden and that’s great,but if you create a “butterfly thicket” it will help ! Grow shrubs,flowers for the caterpillars,”host plants”. Hope this helps.

  18. We have no shortage of host plants, including milkweed in abundance. We have no less food source in our Valley, but saw significantly fewer monarch butterflies——and other butterflies as well——this season. I think this is a local issue rather than any regional environmental matter, and of course others are going to see the same kind of apparently random fluctuations.

  19. Here in Columbus, OH the common milkweed goes untouched and the dill has no swallowtail caterpillars. Only white butterflies and a few fritillarys. What has happened?

  20. My friends and I were discussing this and my friend Patty believes the reason you hardly see any butterflies, or many of our normal bugs, is that people put bug killer on their lawns and flowers and that kills the caterpillars. It has been happening for many years and this year is a bad one. The birds and a lot of other creatures depend on those bugs!