Monarchs and Painted Ladies
Bliss for a Butterfly Guy
By Les Tanner
Photos by Susannah Newsome
This feature is offered free in its entirety for the first part of December.
It was 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 3, 2019, when I bid goodbye to Jimmy the cat, promising to be back by dark (I’m not sure he believed me), and set out for Pingree, a good five-hour drive from Caldwell. Pingree is a small agricultural community on Idaho’s Highway 39, in the eastern part of the state some twenty miles north of Aberdeen, the town where my wife, Ruby, had lived before we got married. There’s not much in that part of Idaho but wheat and corn and sugar beets. And a place I had read about where live butterflies are on public display. I’d been a butterfly guy since my kidhood and thought it would be worth a look.
It was close to noon when I found the sign I was looking for, where Willow Road crosses U.S. Highway 26, about fifteen miles west of Blackfoot. It was an official blue sign of the sort the Idaho Highway Department uses to indicate services and attractions. It directed me to “The Butterfly Haven,” eleven miles to the south.
I followed Willow Road to where it crosses Pingree’s Second Street South, and then drove west the quarter-mile or so to where cars were parked along the road. As I pulled into the single empty space in a small graveled parking lot, I saw an old tractor headed west, pulling a trailer that carried two kids and a couple of adults. A sign festooned with butterflies and the name of the place was on one of four greenhouses that stood side-by-side. A small wooden building adjacent to the greenhouse was the obvious entryway. Inside I found a reception desk and a dozen or so folks, some chatting, some looking at displays of magazines and butterfly-related items along one wall, and a couple of kids messing around with a gumball machine near the door.
“Are you Karen Reed?” I asked the woman at
“I’m Les Tanner of IDAHO magazine. Looks like your anniversary celebration has drawn a good crowd.”
“We’ve been busy since we opened up this morning.” She gestured toward a closed door at the west end of the room. “There’s a group of Cub Scouts in there right now. They should be through in a few minutes. Have a look around while you’re waiting.”
Several other people waited for the next tour of the butterfly garden, and a man holding a small baby stood near the reception desk.
“Do you happen to be Randy Reed?”
I introduced myself. “Looks like you’re a
He was about to reply when Karen, who had just answered the phone, called to him. “The tractor’s run out of gas.”
“Looks like I’m going to be even busier for a while,” he apologized. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
With that, he gently laid the infant in its bed on the floor behind Karen, got out some keys, and headed for the door.
The Scouts had not come out yet, so I wandered outside where I spent a couple of minutes playing with a friendly black kitten. When I went back in, people were still waiting to enter the area where the butterflies were. Through a window in the north wall, I could see a work area. There were several butterfly chrysalises, or pupae, attached to a support behind the glass. In time, it would be their turn to become part of the haven’s collection.
I wandered over and mentioned to Karen that I had taken the back way in from Mountain Home.
“We always go that way ourselves,” she said. “Less traffic and better views.”
“Just the way I like it, too. Besides that, there’s road construction on the interstate east of Mountain Home.”
“You can blame our son, Zane. His company is involved with some of that.”
“The back route was okay, except for a couple of bridge repair jobs.”
“If this had been last year, those would have been Zane’s projects, too.”
Just then the Scouts, followed by a harried young man, tumbled out through the west door, and the signal was given for those of us waiting to enter. We didn’t go directly into the greenhouse where the butterflies were, but into a small buffer zone room. The door was closed behind us.
“We have to be careful not to let any butterflies out,” we were told. That seemed sensible enough, but the next explanation was a surprise: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers butterflies to be pests, so they must not be allowed to escape. Also, be careful not to touch the insects. Removing the dust—the scales—from their wings can harm them.”
That last bit of information didn’t sound right to me.
Another door was opened and we moved into the greenhouse-cum-butterfly garden, accompanied by a stiff fan-created breeze. I can’t say I was amazed or surprised by what I saw, because I had no preformed notions. I will say that I was pleased. This was, to put it in the vernacular, the real deal.
There were no spectacular, tropical butterflies flying around to distract us. There were no unfamiliar jungle vines. There were no disconcerting screeches in the distance. We might have seen and heard such things in a movie or in one of the large butterfly gardens that exist around the country, but not here. Inside this big former greenhouse was what the world of butterflies is to most of us. The trees and shrubs and flowers were ordinary-looking. There were birds. And there were butterflies, hundreds of them, fluttering about or resting on flowers or twigs.
Many were like those that most of us have seen in our own back yards: monarchs and painted ladies and mourning cloaks and buckeyes. For most of the insects, it probably was as close to their natural habitat as humans could make it. The plants—over a hundred species in all—had not been randomly selected. Each one was either a host or a source of nectar for the resident butterflies. This spoke of thoughtful and careful planning by the Reeds. Had there been a lot more weeds and a lot fewer trees, I might have believed I was at home.
The folks in my group—singles and couples, families with kids, a camera buff, a woman in a wheelchair—spread out and began to wander along the path that wound through the garden.
I spotted a butterfly I’d seen before—I have one in my collection, but it isn’t native to Idaho. It was a queen, a close relative of the monarch but one found in the southern United States. All the species here were from the U.S.
“What’s it doing?” a man who was watching the queen wondered aloud. “Eating the flower?”
“It’s nectaring,” I replied.
“Only the caterpillars eat plants. The adults need food for energy, so they stick their tongues into the blossoms, like other insects do, to get at the nectar.”
“Butterflies have tongues?”
“Yep. If you get a chance to look at one closely, you might be able to see its tongue. If it isn’t extended into a flower, it will be coiled up like a spring on its very front.”
He seemed satisfied with the answer, and I moved on. When I looked back, I saw he had leaned a little closer to the queen. It gratified me that here was a person learning about butterflies, firsthand and up close, and not just admiring them from a distance or on a computer monitor or movie screen.
Not far away I spotted Sarah, one of the Reeds’ two daughters. She held a baby, too, just as her father had done earlier. Might even have been the same one.
“I have a question,” I said, walking up to her.
“I hope I have an answer.”
“In her introduction to us, Karen advised us not to touch the butterflies, because doing so might remove some of the scales, and that would hurt the insect. I’ve heard that’s not true.”
“Removing the scales isn’t the problem. Butterflies lose scales all the time, brushing against bushes or in close calls with birds. We say that to discourage people from touching them in any way. The important thing is a touch could carry a disease, and it’s critical that we keep the garden disease-free.”
Thanking her, I was about to move along when she said, “By the way, you have a butterfly on your hat.”
Heeding Sarah’s advice, I didn’t reach up to check it out. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. My jaunty orange hat, my signature, often draws glances and comments from passersby. Now I know it even attracts butterflies.
The Reeds’ other daughter, Susannah, was helping visitors, too.
As I chatted with her, she asked, “Did you see the mama bird on her nest?”
I hadn’t, so I looked up to see in which tree she might be.
“Not up there. Down there behind you.”
I turned to see where she was pointing, and it took me a moment. Sure enough, within a couple of feet from where I was standing, nestled in a crevice in the brick-work along the side of the path, sat a tiny yellow bird. My guess was goldfinch, but it turned out to be a canary. The bird had one of those “And just what do you think you are looking at?” expressions on her face.
Now that was neat, even though I did feel a bit chastened by its look.
Farther on down the path, a young man took close-up photos of a butterfly resting on a blossom.
“Amazing creatures, aren’t they?” I suggested.
“I’m an artist, but nothing I can ever do will approach that,” he said, pointing at his subject.
I had yet to see any monarchs, but as I turned the corner at the south end of the path, there they were, maybe eight or so of the magnificent and aptly-named orange and black insects. Some were resting, some flying. Two were even coupling. I guess they felt right at home.
“Look at the caterpillars,” said a little boy to his mother, pointing at a nearby plant.
I didn’t recognize the leafless plant, but sure enough, perched on its long slender branches were at least a dozen monarch larvae. The plant had to be some type of milkweed. Monarchs need milkweeds to survive. It’s the only vegetation these creatures eat. A smaller plant that I knew by its blossom grew nearby: a bloodflower, a tropical milkweed.
I learned later something I hadn’t heard before. Whereas monarchs can exist only if milkweed plants are available, another very common Idaho butterfly, the painted lady, can utilize more than three hundred different plants as hosts.
During the next two hours or so, as I continued to walk around the garden, I witnessed parents pointing out and explaining things to their kids. Older folks watched the insects and commented on them, and other people just sat on benches enjoying the outdoors indoors.
On one circuit I came upon Sarah again, baby-free this time, and had more questions
“Where do you folks get your butterflies?”
“We get most of them from certified suppliers of eggs, pupae, and butterflies. It’s quite a business these days. But when we can, we grow our own.”
“You grow your own?”
“Butterflies don’t live very long. Once they emerge from the chrysalis, their main goal is to make sure the species survives. So they mate, find the right host plant, and lay eggs. We harvest those eggs when we can find them.” She turned and pointed to some plants behind her. “If you look closely, you can see some eggs on those leaves.”
I had to take her word for it. I couldn’t see anything, no matter how hard I looked. Not wanting to disappoint her, I said, “Hey, that’s cool!” (I know, I need to learn some more up-to-date expressions of wonder and delight.)
The next time I encountered Susannah, she was the one holding a baby. Hers or Sarah’s? I had no way of knowing. I asked about her background, and learned that she has degrees in art-related topics, and owns a photographic studio in Shelley.
Suddenly, two black critters hopped down onto the path from the bushes nearby and went about the business of pecking here and there, looking for something to eat. I could see they had beaks, so I assumed they were some kind of fowl.
“What on earth are those?” I asked. They looked to be about the size and shape of large tennis balls.
“Button quails,” replied Susannah. “We all just love them. We’ve had those two for several years now.”
I’d never heard of button quails before. I made a note to myself to look them up when I got home.
“We have six different species of birds in the garden. The quails and the canary are two of the six. The quails are bug-eaters. The rest are seed-eaters.”
“Do the quails eat the butterflies?”
“They can’t fly well or high, so the butterflies are safe. They seem to be content with other kinds of bugs, which is fine with us. Having the wrong kinds of insects here is not good at all, so these two little guys are a big help.”
I watched them, fascinated, as did others nearby, until they skittered back into another patch of brush.
It was nearing 4:00, and I decided it was time to head on home. Sunset was around 9:00 in Caldwell that time of year, and if I were to stay on good terms with my cat, I knew I’d better make it home in time for him to have a couple of outside hours before I made him come inside for the night.
When I opened the door to the small buffer-zone room on my way out, a whoosh of air met me—clearly one means of making sure the insect inhabitants of the garden couldn’t escape. Full-length mirrors at each end of the room allowed me to double-check that I wasn’t carrying any unwanted hitchhikers.
Karen was still at the desk, welcoming more visitors. Randy hadn’t returned yet from the tractor-rescuing mission.
“What happens to the butterflies when winter comes?” I asked Karen.
“Actually, we close up at the end of September because the butterflies need heat. Some of them will have died. We’ll keep a few, like the monarchs, in a separate facility so we’ll have something to start with come May, when we get the garden up and running again. We’ll harvest the eggs we can find, but we’ll have to buy more chrysalises, too.”
“What happens to the dead butterflies?”
“We freeze the ones we can find and dispose of them following USDA guidelines.”
“What about the plants and the birds?”
“We move the birds and some of the less hardy plants to support buildings. The trees and other plants will take care of themselves.”
At that point, Randy came in, explaining that the problem was not one of the tractor being out of gas. It had just quit. I’m sure he was thinking that some days are just better than others.
My drive home was an easy and pleasant one. I didn’t even get lost. Not quite a personal record, but close. I went the back way, and it was quicker this time than I expected. The bridge repair crews had finished their work for the time being. I thought a lot about the people I’d met and what I’d experienced. The trip also brought back memories of the many times I’d driven home from fishing on the South Fork of the Boise. I stopped at one spot to change CDs of the audio book I’d been listening to, and realized it was the same spot where I’d always called to let Ruby know I was on my way.
When I finally got home, Jimmy greeted me as usual by heading to the patio door to be let out.
Life was back to normal.[/private]