Local Lepidoptera Population Explodes ...

Submitted by Art & Barb Straub

Have you ever had a butterfly kiss you? It was a common occurrence on the first day of astrological summer, 2020, if you were in the right place at the right time. To top it off, you can PUT yourself at the right place at the right time in this last week of June. The story began while gardening near Pumpkin Hill Road. Of a sudden, a medium sized blackish/brownish sepia-colored butterfly alighted, first on this storyteller’s arm, then in hair, then buzzed…not floated gently… about the body. Try to take a photo of a butterfly on your left wrist with camera in the right hand. More similar butterflies arrived, not lots, but enough to get one’s attention. To top it off, we had no idea which Lepidoptera befriended us.

Later in the day, reports arrived via Dean/Judy Hathaway who live along the banks of rural Rush River, Henderson. Dean inquired, “What kind of butterfly is friendly and numerous in the woods near our garden?” Soon thereafter, Steve/Mary Nesgoda, Pumpkin Hill Road, reported similar amorous butterflies observed at the intersection of Chatfield Drive and Salisbury Hill, northeast of Henderson; butterflies landing on shoulders, arms and heads…tame little grayish brown buzzers. Not doubting the observers’ reports for a moment, Sunday morning, second day of summer, found us at the base of Salisbury Hill. Our expression was total amazement as hundreds, if not thousands of the creatures landed about us, on the wet sands of a creek flowing from the hills and under the road; butterflies that flew through the windows of Frances the famous Ford Focus, then frantically attempted to escape. Along came Mark Kapsner and son, local residents, his response was, “Sure, they land on our nearby driveway when it’s wet.”

Finally, catching a photo of a busy four-winger which paused long enough to say “Hello,” , we hastened to the computer to discover that the kissing peacemakers were Hackberry Emperor Lepidoptera, found over much of the eastern United States. (“Exploring Minnesota Seasons.com”) These are members of the brushfooted butterflies which have both dark and light versions, whose larvae eat hackberry tree leaves. (Henderson/LeSueur area has many hackberry trees, unnoticed by most people.) Now the ‘kicker!’ The Emperor uses its green proboscis to suck up tree sap, urine , sweat, carrion, and even milkweed sap, leading one to ask, “Hmm, what were those explorers seeking on OUR bodies?”

Over the weekend, gentle welcome precipitation arrived for summer’s onset making conditions perfect for pulling weeds. Grubbing along on all fours as one ‘hilled’ potatoes, an unwelcome visitor was encountered, nose to nose, eye to eye, major pest of insect world, deadly enemy of the spud lover. Hot humid weather brings the adult Colorado Potato Beetle scurrying onto potato culture aiming to seize and conquer said patch. This innocuous yellow-orange beast, a half inch in length, will destroy a potato crop or at least reduce yields in but a short time. The encounter brought back fond farm memories of hot and humid June days plucking potato beetle adults and eggs from chlorphyll filled leaves, and dropping the bug into a can of kerosene or soapy water as proof to parents of doing one’s part in running a farm.

The larvae of the pestiferous creature, in numbers, can quickly defoliate potato, tomato and pepper plants, cutting down on a rural family’s chances of winter survival. The bug larva may overwinter in soil infested the previous year, or fly in from a neighbor’s garden. When ‘squished,’ it give off a foul smell, and may deliver a painful bite…not venomous, but leaving an ‘owee.’ Toads, birds, and other earthen creatures relish them, and while visiting Vern Bienfang’s Garden of Eden last week, we found a peacock on guard duty, staving off invasions by any stray carnivorous insects. In earlier times, chickens and ducks were invited into gardens to glean insects, thus eliminating use of chemicals.

Say the word, ichumenon ten times as fast as you can. Did that tie your tongue in knots? When Roger and Lorraine Just phone, you know that excitement is brewing. Situated in their rural yard miles west of Henderson is a beautiful maple tree. For some time, the Justs have noticed insect activity at the base of said tree… activity of large weird insects. Sure enough, Icumenon (Ichenumonid wasps) were active. These vicious looking yet harmless insects are doing what their species is intended for, laying eggs in the larvae of destructive insects well inside the bark of a victimized tree. This wasp species has a long ovipositor at the end of its abdomen. It inserts the thin weapon into the tree and lays an egg into the soft body of the prey, an insect named a ‘horntail’, which attacks and eventually destroys trees. Leave it to Lorraine and Roger, who both note and enjoy miracles of nature which many others miss. Next week, how many baby opossums (joeys) might a female (jill) have at one time?