This story was originally published in the May 2023 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
Written by Caryn Gresham
Butterflies, West Virginia has your number—and it looks like it’s about 142, give or take.
From 2012 through 2018, a hearty group of butterfly wranglers set out to help the state Division of Natural Resources identify butterflies around the Mountain State. With nets, cameras and notebooks in hand, these avid naturalists, many volunteers, crossed the state to identify butterfly species, the habitats in which they’re living, and even the plants they like to perch on. The wranglers also took notes and photos of the caterpillars they found to add more depth to the research.
All of this information will come together in 2024 as Sue Olcott, DNR Wildlife Resources wildlife biologist emeritus, and Casey Rucker, West Virginia Butterfly Atlas editor, develop a new West Virginia Butterfly Atlas. It will be the first updated butterfly atlas since Thomas Allen published The Butterflies of West Virginia and their Caterpillars in 1997.
“This new atlas will feature research done by DNR staff, naturalists, and volunteers,” says Olcott. “It will include photographs, maps, and charts detailing where species can be found and will expand on the information about their habitats to include information about their feeding habits and recommendations on how people can help butterflies thrive in the state.”
This atlas is one of several in the works since 2005, when DNR developed a statewide wildlife action plan that included the development of atlases on various wildlife species throughout the state. Since then, state biologists and their teams have completed atlases on birds, fireflies, dragon- and damselflies, land snails, crickets, and grasshoppers.
“The 2015 West Virginia State Wildlife Action Plan is part of a federal legislation directive calling for all states to complete surveys to help us know what species are in our states and to help develop best management practices for their survival and sustainability,” says Olcott.
Scouting for Species
To complete the research needed for the atlas, DNR’s Wildlife Diversity staff was joined by volunteers recruited from the state’s Master Naturalists program and from people who heard about the project through speaker’s programs and social media.
Before they set out on their searches, they received training on what they needed to record, how to take photographs, and how to capture butterflies for cataloging. They also learned how to capture and release butterflies so as to not harm them. “Our research partners were challenged to take notes on when and where they saw the butterflies, identify them if they were able, and make notes on what plants the butterflies and caterpillars were found on or feeding on and how many they saw,” says Olcott.
Pam Byrne of Elkins and Rich Greenlee of St. Clairsville, Ohio, were two of the people who answered the call.
Retired from the Army, Byrne and her husband retired to Elkins. She learned about the butterfly project from a friend who invited her to a presentation about it. “Three of us took the training and decided this was a good project for us,” says Byrne. “We all enjoy being out of doors, and this was a good activity to get us traveling around our area.” Learning how to handle the butterflies so as not to hurt them was an important part of the training for Byrne and her friends.
Greenlee, whose family roots run deep in Ohio and Wetzel counties, was taking master naturalist classes at Oglebay’s Good Zoo in Wheeling and heard Olcott’s presentation on the project. “I was interested in nature photography and didn’t know much about butterflies except for the monarch,” he says. “I decided this was a good way for me to get out, do some photography, and enjoy nature.” Greenlee is dean emeritus and an associate professor of social work at Ohio University Eastern Campus—it was an easy drive for him to cross the river and start in the familiar region of the Northern Panhandle.
Making the Most of the Search
Byrne and her team decided to make Wednesdays their butterfly research days. Each week, they set out with cameras, notebooks, and packed lunches. Their primary target areas were Barbour, Randolph, and Tucker counties.
“Sue gave us good directions as to where there had been butterfly sightings, so we used the information from the previous catalog as starting points,” says Byrne. “We went to some places that are no longer viable for butterflies because the meadows are now subdivisions.”
The gal pals, as Byrne dubbed her team, really just wanted to know more about butterflies. Once they became comfortable with the methods Olcott taught them for capture and release, they enjoyed doing the photography and making notes for the following four years. “Sometimes, a butterfly would come and sit on my hand,” she says. “We learned to take the photos with different angles and to keep good notes of what we saw and where we saw them.”
For Greenlee, the research project dovetailed with his nature photography and hiking interests. “I enjoy walking 4 to 5 miles a day, and I wanted to concentrate more on nature photography,” he says. “I started out in Hancock County, where I have family roots, and concentrated at first on places in the Northern Panhandle.” Eventually, Greenlee headed farther south, reaching as far as McDowell County on his butterfly quest.
Greenlee’s research led him to identify more than 70 species of butterflies. He found himself fascinated by the butterflies’ behavior and the terrains in which they were found. “I walked through forests and swamps and up mountains,” he says. “I had an amazing experience once when I saw male Eastern tiger swallowtails (Pterourus glaucus) puddling along a stream.” This is when a group of male butterflies gather together to sip salts and minerals from damp soil to aid them in the reproductive process when mating.
In some of the state’s wildlife management areas, Greenlee wouldn’t see any other people on his treks. But he did see amazing things. On August 21, 2017, he arrived at the Anawalt Lake Wildlife Management area in McDowell County just before a total solar eclipse. As the midday sky was getting dark, he realized the animals thought night was coming. Crickets were chirping, birds were nesting in trees, and a Diana fritillary (Argynnis diana) butterfly came flying out of the forest. “It flew onto the branch of a bush and just sat there,” he says. “I started taking pictures like crazy until it flew away. What a neat experience!”
Byrne says the same of one of her sightings on Dolly Sods. “I was documenting a sulphur butterfly and thought it was a pink-edged sulphur (Colian interior),” she says. “To see if it had the fine pink edges, I had to catch it.” Once she caught it, she was able to get photos of it as well.
Learning for Today, Conserving for Tomorrow
“Sometimes when I’m in my garden, I’ll see a butterfly that’s different from the others and wonder what it is,” says Byrne. “Now I have an understanding of how to identify them and what to grow to attract them.”
She appreciates the opportunity to help with the inventory and believes it is an important step in conservation efforts. “When you are involved with a project like this, you understand more about conservation because you witness the state’s biodiversity,” she says. “I feel like I am making a difference with this and with my participation on the board of the West Virginia Nature Conservancy.”
Greenlee’s participation in the project led him to doing more nature photography to showcase the diversity he sees. More than that, it increased his awareness of what people can do every day to help. He has planted milkweed in his home garden and harvests butterfly pupae so he can raise and release them, improving their chances of survival.
For Olcott, the opportunity to catalog the butterflies in West Virginia uncovered some bad news. “In the Eastern Panhandle, the columbine duskywing (Erynnis lucilius) wasn’t located during the atlas research. We think this is partially due to urbanization and possibly to past use of aerial spraying to combat gypsy moth infestations in the 1980s and 1990s,” she says. “We need to find ways to help that species.”
But the effort found good news as well: Some butterflies, like the Appalachian grizzled skipper (Pyrgus centaureae wyandot) and the Olympia marble (Euchloe olympia), which were thought possibly extinct in the state, have been found on protected public lands.
And the coming edition will even have some first-time additions. “We’ve found a few new species,” Olcott says, offering an example. “At Spruce Knob, the common ringlet (Coenonympha california), common in New England states and Canada, is making a home in Pendleton, Tucker, Pocahontas, and Randolph Counties.” Finds like these will make the new atlas project an especially satisfying update to conservation knowledge in the state.