Dear Gardening Friends, I wanted to share with you a fabulous new resource, the Butterflies of Massachusetts website. Created by Sharon Stichter, Butterflies of Massachusetts “offers a comprehensive review of the current status of butterflies in the state. It is designed as a resource for all those interested in these charismatic insects, including butterfly enthusiasts, conservationists, biologists, land managers, and wildlife professionals.” I find the Species List particularly useful for learning more about the earliest recorded sightings of Massachusetts’s butterflies, frequency and distribution, and caterpillar hostplants. My readers residing outside of Massachusetts but along the East Coast will find the information on the Butterflies of Massachusetts website nearly equally as valuable. Ecologically speaking, the Appalachian Mountains and Atlantic coastal plain are largely self-contained, allowing unrestricted north-south movement of individual butterflies and migratory populations. The information found on the new Butterflies of Massachusetts website represents many years of data compiled by Sharon Stichter and the Massachusetts Butterfly Club.
Sharon graciously agreed to speak with me about creating Butterflies of Massachusetts and how her passion for butterflies, particularly the butterflies and skippers of Massachusetts, has evolved. She was first drawn to butterflies through gardening at her summer home in Newbury, Massachusetts. Her husband is a landscape architect and together they developed and continue to cultivate their expansive garden abutting the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. After retiring from her teaching position of thirty-five years as Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Sharon joined the Massachusetts Butterfly Club. She very much enjoys hiking in nature with fellow club members and finding beautiful living creatures.
The following are just some of Sharon’s favorite flowers for attracting butterflies (listed in no particular order): spicebush (Lindera benzoin), pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Joe-pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii), gayfeather (Liatris spicata), dill (Anethum graveolens), flat-leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum), cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida), Spanish flag (Ipomoea lobata), and many daisy-like members of the Asteraceae, including purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), and zinnias (Zinnia elegans).
The Massachusetts Butterfly Club was founded in 1992, following the completion of the highly successful Massachusetts Audubon’s sponsored Massachusetts Butterfly Atlas. A butterfly atlas is a project where, with the help of volunteers, the presence of as many species of butterflies at a given time and geographic location is recorded. The Massachusetts Butterfly Atlas (1986-1990) was the first statewide butterfly atlas ever undertaken in North America. At the end of the atlas period a core group of the volunteers, led by Brian Cassie, formed the Massachusetts Butterfly Club (MBC) to promote the continued appreciation and documentation of the state’s butterflies. Sharon is currently the editor of the semiannual publication of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club.
I am looking forward to the completion of Sharon’s BOM website, particularly the “Pioneer Lepidopterist” page where Sharon will examine the earliest Massachusetts lepidopterists, Thaddeus W. Harris (1795-1856) and Samuel H. Scudder (1837-1911), who “were describing a butterfly fauna already heavily impacted by early agricultural development. The works of Harris, Scudder and Thoreau are used to show what butterflies were known and what can be said about their abundance at the end the 19th century.” The first North American entomologists were from Harvard and many North American Lepidoptera species names were penned by these earliest zoologists. The books of Samuel Hubbard Scudder are available for anyone to read online at the Open Library.
Sharon explains that today the majority of lepidopterists are working in the tropics, looking for “new” discoveries. New England butterflies have become largely overlooked because they are “old” news, unfortunately so because there is still much to be gleaned, and because we have a vast store of comparative historical and current data.
Sharon is currently working at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, helping to photograph specimens of Harvard’s Lepidoptera collection, which will be made available to everyone to view online. Sharon feels more strongly than ever after doing this work “that there is hardly any need for anyone to actually collect butterfly specimens anymore. The Massachusetts Butterfly Club quite rightly promotes observing only, no nets or collecting.”
End Note: As mentioned above, the books of Samuel Hubbard Scudder are available for anyone to read at the Open Library. I am currently reading Scudder’s Frail Children of the Air, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1895, which is a compendium divested of the more technical details of his extensive three volume set Butterflies of the Eastern United States and Canada (1889) that after published Scudder wrote “…is a work so costly as to reach relatively few, and one which was mainly addressed to the specialist.” Wonderfully ironic, won’t you agree, that thanks to resources like Open Library, books that were rare and precious even at the time of their publication are today freely available for everyone to read!