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'The Butterfly Guy': Chance encounter leads to decades-long devotion

| Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, 8:55 p.m.
A Monarch butterfly finds a perch after it was released during  Greensburg Garden Center's 2015 butterfly release event.
Tribune-Review
A Monarch butterfly finds a perch after it was released during Greensburg Garden Center's 2015 butterfly release event.
'The Butterfly Guy' Rick Mikula became interested in butterflies when a question mark butterfly, so named for the punctuation-shaped, white markings on its wing, landed on his arm during a bird-watching excursion.
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'The Butterfly Guy' Rick Mikula became interested in butterflies when a question mark butterfly, so named for the punctuation-shaped, white markings on its wing, landed on his arm during a bird-watching excursion.
The chrysalis stage is when a caterpillar's tissues are broken down and the adult insect's structures are formed.  Many butterfly species overwinter in this stage.
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The chrysalis stage is when a caterpillar's tissues are broken down and the adult insect's structures are formed. Many butterfly species overwinter in this stage.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which provide food for the insects' pupal, or caterpillar, stage.
Google Images
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which provide food for the insects' pupal, or caterpillar, stage.
Monarch butterflies winter by the millions in the trees at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. The reserve was recognized by UNESCO in 2008 as a World Heritage Site.
Google Images
Monarch butterflies winter by the millions in the trees at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. The reserve was recognized by UNESCO in 2008 as a World Heritage Site.

Rick Mikula didn't set out to be "The Butterfly Guy," but that's what he's become in the past three decades with books, presentations, newspaper and magazine articles and television and radio appearances devoted to the colorful flutterers.

He'll be sharing his knowledge on Aug. 12 at Greensburg Garden Center's annual Monarch butterfly release, which this year has been moved to the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve in Unity.

Mikula of Hazelton, Luzerne County, says he was bird-watching with his wife Claudia about 37 years ago when a butterfly landed on his arm.

Rick Mikula, "The Butterfly Guy," shows how to properly care for the Monarch butterfly during the Greensburg Garden Center's 2015 butterfly release. Mikula has been breeding and sharing his love of butterflies with audiences for the past 37 years.

 

"I looked at its back wing and it had a silver question mark on it," he says. "I wondered what it was, so I got a butterfly identification book and started learning about them, and then I started photographing them."

Mikula was soon raising butterflies native to northeastern Pennsylvania and then more exotic species, learning by "trial and error, research and meeting other people who were interested in butterflies. Then I started traveling and teaching others."

He also found an unexpected source of butterfly expertise.

"A lot of my basic information came from farmers in central Pennsylvania" who grew milkweed, the food source for the Monarch butterfly larva: the lowly caterpillar.

The United States government promoted the growing of milkweed late in World War II as a source of filler for life preservers. Floss from the pods became the go-to material when the usual source, kapok — a cottony fiber extracted from pods of the ceiba tree cultivated in Asian rainforests — was cut off by Japanese incursion into the South Pacific.

"The government bought milkweed pods by the truckload," Mikula says.

Mikula has been the special guest at the garden center's butterfly release for about 10 years. In two sessions during the release, Mikula says, "I'll be talking about the current state of Monarchs and how we can help them."

Challenges facing Monarchs, he says, include dwindling milkweed sources, temperature fluctuations that can affect breeding and migration and lack of nectar sources in the fall.

"People don't realize that Monarchs can still be migrating in November," he says. "People can help by planting late-blooming nectar sources like asters."

The garden center has ordered 250 Monarchs for the release from Once Upon a Butterfly in New Castle. Half will be released at each session. Butterflies can be reserved beforehand, while supplies last, for $8 each.

The location was changed in hopes of introducing the event to a new and wider audience, says center president Carla Rusnica. Nature reserve staffers will add to the fun by dressing up as butterflies.

And the name of the butterfly that originally piqued Mikula's interest?

It was the Polygonia interrogationis, commonly known as — you guessed it — the question mark butterfly.

Rick Mikula's butterfly books

The Butterfly Fandex: Photos and fun facts about 50 of the most interesting and colorful butterflies from around the world

The Family Butterfly Book: How-to on building a habitat to raise butterflies at home; includes pictures of the butterfly's life cycle from egg to adult

Garden Butterflies of North America: Coffee table book with color photographs of each butterfly and a list of flora that attract it

Learn more:

• The Audubon Society will present a free program on Monarch butterflies at 2 p.m. Aug. 13 at Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center, 142 Kerr Road, Ford City.

Upper elementary schoolers through adults can learn to collect data on eggs and caterpillars in their own backyards. Part of the program will take place outdoors.

Details: 724-763-6316 or aswp.org

• Visitors can walk among more than 20 species found in the Butterfly Forest at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

The exhibit showcases the delicate life cycle of some of nature's most important – and beautiful – pollinators and their favorite aromatic blooms.

This year's Butterfly Forest features a soundtrack created by Carnegie Mellon University students enrolled in an Experimental Sound Synthesis class. The installation uses micro-computers and custom software to generate a constantly evolving sonic environment.

Details: 412-662-6914 or phipps.conservatory.org

Count 'em

There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species have occurred in North American north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the continental United States and about 275 in Canada.

Peru has the largest number of butterfly species of any country in the world. The highest concentration of species within Peru is in the Pakitza region of Manu National Park, where 1,300 unique species have been counted.

Antarctica is the only continent on which no Lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths, have been found.

The largest species may reach 12 inches across, while the smallest may be only one-half inch.

Wide range

The Monarch butterfly is widely distributed across North America, from Central America to southern Canada, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts.

One of the most notable characteristics about Monarchs is the astonishing 3,000-mile journey some make in the fall to their wintering grounds. Monarchs that live west of the Rocky Mountains will migrate to southern California, while monarchs that live east of the Rockies will migrate to Mexico.

Similar to migrating birds, Monarchs glide on updrafts of warm air, called "thermals," thereby preserving the energy that would be used by flapping their wings. Traveling between 50 and 100 miles a day, Monarchs can take up to two months on the journey to winter habitats.

At wintering sites in Mexico, they roost by the millions in trees. In 1986, the Mexican government converted 62 square miles of forests in the Sierra Madre Mountains into the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which was recognized by UNESCO in 2008 as a World Heritage Site.

Waning numbers

In recent years, scientists have noted a sharp drop in the number of Monarchs wintering in Mexico. A 2012 study counted 60 million, while 2014 figures were down to 33 million.

Reasons for loss of population include:

Deforestation (including illegal logging) in the Monarch's winter habitat in Mexico.

Recent bouts of severe weather. It is predicted that one effect of climate change will be wetter and colder winters. Monarchs can survive below-freezing temperatures if they stay dry; if they get wet and the temperature drops, they will freeze to death. Because so many monarchs winter in a small area in Mexico's Sierra Nevada, a cold snap there could be devastating.

The growth of herbicide-based agriculture destroying crucial milkweed flora, on which Monarch larva feed, in the Midwest.

Puddle clubs

A butterfly has a long, tube-like tongue called a proboscis that allows it to soak up food rather than sip it. Most adult butterflies drink nectar from flowers through their tongues, which function much like straws.

A minority of butterflies almost never visit flowers, instead getting sustenance from tree sap, rotting animal matter and other organic material. Some butterflies have been seen drinking blood from open wounds on animals.

Males drink from mud puddles to extract minerals that aren't available in flowers. This behavior is known as "puddling."

"Puddle clubs" are groups of butterflies that gather at wet soil to suck up salts and minerals.

Watch what you eat

Fluff from the pod of the milkweed, on which caterpillars feed prior to transformation into Monarch butterflies, was used as filling in life preservers during World War II.

 

Since Monarch larva feed on milkweed foliage, wherever there is milkweed, there will be Monarch butterflies. From milkweed, Monarchs also ingest and store a poison called Cardiac Glycosides, which can be harmful to vertebrate predators, but is ineffective on invertebrate predators.

Butterflies therefore have a poisonous defense against predators such as lizards, birds and frogs.

Butterfly life cycle

Egg: A tiny, round, oval or cylindrical object which the female attaches to leaves, stems or other objects, usually on or near the intended caterpillar food.

Caterpillar (or larva): The long, worm-like feeding and growth stage. The caterpillar often has an interesting pattern of stripes or patches, and it may have spine-like hairs. As it grows, it sheds its skin four or more times to enclose its rapidly growing body.

Chrysalis (or pupa): The transformation stage when the caterpillar tissues are broken down and the adult insect's structures are formed. The chrysalis of most species is brown or green and blends with its surroundings. Many species overwinter in this stage.

Adult (or imago): The colorful butterfly. Adults undergo courtship, mating and egg-laying. The adult butterfly is also the stage that migrates or colonizes new habitats.

The process by which a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, known as metamorphosis, is completed in 10 to 15 days, depending on the species. The total time frame for a butterfly's life cycle (one generation) is about 6 to 8 weeks.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.

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