Heaven on Earth—I'm not the religious type, but today I experienced Heaven. On a nondescript country road in Jackson County we passed a small rural cemetery with a massive white pine lording over it. This was not Heaven. That designation was reserved for the simple red clover field across the road—singularly unprepossessing by itself. Add in the hundreds of swallowtail butterflies, caressing the clover like so many paper angels, however, and you have a spectacle for the ages. I'm almost envious of the residents residing under the granite monuments across the road that are witness to this butterfly pageant each day that it occurs through the long days of summer. Today, as an entomologist, although still alive and kicking, I visited and experienced my own vision of Heaven. —Michael Jeffords, August 10, 2017
Field of Dreams—Along a lone country road in Southern Illinois I encountered a swallowtail’s Field of Dreams, a red clover pasture in prime bloom—tiger swallowtails, both yellow and black females and spicebush swallowtails, courting, nectaring, dancing, twirling, even a confused red-spotted purple tries to get in the mix. Over a 100 butterflies along this small swath of clover go about the business of being butterflies. While swallowtails stole the show, there were a few monarchs, cloudless sulfurs, painted ladies and a lone red spotted purple. It is also a Field of Dreams for two entomologists/photographers with never-ending subjects and bright, overcast lighting—a good day. —Susan Post, August 10, 2017
The world is fretting the loss of its pollinators, including bees, wasps, and butterflies, but today we witnessed something so simple, so elegant, and so straightforward, that we had to marvel and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Embedded deep in the mosaic of agriculture and forests of Jackson County, we found a simple, seemingly abandoned red clover pasture (no fence around it) with basically two species of plants—red clover and Queen Anne's Lace. Yet here we found hundreds upon hundreds of swallowtail butterflies—spicebush, tiger, and even an occasional pipevine—liberally cloaking the red clover. They floated over the blossoms, dancing as they came to land for extended periods of time.
Males and females twirled skyward in intricate choreographed routines, a prelude to mating, while other males seemed to hover above a certain female as she nectared. We speculated that perhaps they had already mated and he was protecting her from "other amorous males" while she had a last drink before heading off into the surrounding forest to oviposit.
We even observed a transitional morph tiger swallowtail female who seemed to be wildly popular with the males. Tiger swallowtail females come in two color morphs—yellow with black stripes and much blue on the hindwings, and a dark morph that is the mimic of the toxic pipevine swallowtail. This form is nearly black with blue on the hindwings and merely a hint of the tiger stripes. This unique transitional individual, the first we have ever encountered, seemed not to be able to "make up her mind," genetically speaking.
Our thoughts as we witness this butterfly phenomenon were that "can the answer be so simple?"
Merely by diversifying farmsteads and reserving a few acres for red clover perhaps we could amerliorate the pollinator crises? Besides the swallowtails there were other species of butterflies and a plethora of bees. It is certainly an intriguing question that was answered by hundreds of butterflies on this very special day.