Flight of the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterflies

By Christina Stalnaker, SPP Graduate Research Assistant and Roots of Success Coordinator

It was a smaller crowd than usual: two males fluttered around a single female. The lighting was ideal and temperature at just the right degree for a successful pairing. As these butterflies moved in their miniature habitat, two inmate technicians quietly watched to verify if they had a fruitful engagement. We had just entered the greenhouse of the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly (TCB) captive rearing program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women on an early spring morning.

A technician waters flowers that will be placed in TCB habitats for captive rearing. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

A technician waters flowers that will be placed in TCB habitats for captive rearing. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

These butterflies were the first of their cohort to eclose, marking the beginning of TCB flight season. Eclosure is one of the final stages of a Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly’s life cycle—it occurs when the butterfly emerges from its cocoon. When the remaining butterflies join them in flight, the technicians will place two females and up to seven males in an insect habitat. Lindsey Hamilton, SPP’s TCB program coordinator, later explained to me that placing so many in the habitat at once ignites the male’s competitive behavior. In the wild, TCB males can be found next to a female pupa, waiting for her to eclose.

Having just emerged from its cocoon, a Taylor's Checkerspot Butterfly patiently waits to feed on honey and take flight for the first time. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

Having just eclosed (emerged from its cocoon), a Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly patiently waits to feed on honey water and take flight for the first time. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

The technicians had been waiting for us to arrive at the prison’s greenhouse to “process” two more butterflies that had just completed eclosion. The word “process” is far too ordinary to describe this next step in caring for these beautiful, endangered butterflies. Upon emergence, the butterflies patiently wait in their tiny container for at least 24 hours before feeding on honey water and taking flight. I had never handled butterflies before and was pretty nervous. Elizabeth Louie, TCB inmate technician, proudly demonstrated how to handle and process the delicate insects. After she showed me exactly what to do from start to finish, I went on to process the second TCB on my own.

Name?, TCB technician, shows Christina how to "process" an eclosed butterfly. Photo by Lindsey Hamilton,

Elizabeth Louie, TCB inmate technician, shows Christina Stalnaker how to “process” an eclosed butterfly. Photo by Lindsey Hamilton.

First, we recorded the ID number and color code. Next, we removed the mesh caging and the TCB from its insect cup, gently pinch its wings, and closely examined the butterfly to determine if it is a male or female. Mine was female; I could tell by looking at the tip of the abdomen. Females have a pointed tip at the end of their abdomen, whereas males’ are more rounded. After placing her on the balance, we recorded her weight. Swirling the end of a q-tip in the honey water and teasing her proboscis with a paperclip, I set her down and watched as she tasted her first drops of honey as a butterfly.

A Taylor's Checkerspot Butterfly enjoys her first taste of honey water. Photo by Lindsey Hamilton.

A Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly enjoys her first taste of honey water. Photo by Lindsey Hamilton.

Once captive rearing is complete and the females finish laying their eggs, the butterflies are released to various South Sound Prairies, like the Glacial Heritage Preserve (photographed below). Here they will live the remainder of their lives, and we hope that they continue to mate and lay eggs in their native habitat to bolster populations directly.

Home of the mysterious Mima Mounds and a critical habitat for Taylor's Checkerspot Butterflies, Glacial Heritage Preserve is managed by many of our partners to ensure they continued survival of these beautiful butterflies. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

Home of the mysterious Mima Mounds and a critical habitat for Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterflies, Glacial Heritage Preserve is intensively managed by our partners to ensure the continued survival of these beautiful butterflies. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

Yellow and red flags mark areas of Glacial Heritage Preserve with prairie plants cultivated to enhance TCB habitat. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

Yellow and red flags mark areas of Glacial Heritage Preserve with prairie plants cultivated to enhance TCB habitat. Photo by Christina Stalnaker.

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