Friday, July 8, 2011

Volunteers try to restore Maryland's vanishing butterfly

Baltimore Checkerspots reared in captivity to offset wild declines

  • A Baltimore Checkerspot hangs on the leaf of a turtlehead plant in the Washington home of Pat Durkin.
A Baltimore Checkerspot hangs… (JERRY JACKSON, Baltimore Sun)
July 05, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun
Don't look now, but Maryland's state insect is fluttering away.
The Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, named for the state's founding Calvert family, has dwindled to just a handful of places, mostly in Western Maryland. Experts worry that the butterfly, once fairly common, may disappear entirely from the state.
Pockets of dedicated butterfly lovers, though, are trying to slow or even reverse the decline by breeding the species in captivity. One such nursery is in a tent in back of an old maintenance shed at Black Hill Regional Park in Montgomery County.
"Here's where the larvae are," said Barbara Kreiley, pointing out tiny caterpillars clinging to the stem of a white turtlehead plant inside the tent. The crawlers are recently hatched and still green, not yet displaying their distinctive orange-and-black markings. "My little babies — see them?"
From a single caterpillar-infested plant collected from the wild last year, Kreiley, a retired nurse, and four other volunteers reared about 250 hatchlings to adulthood. About a month ago, they released them as butterflies, in spots primed to be suitable habitat for the seemingly picky creatures. Since then, patches the women recognize as butterfly eggs have been spied on the undersides of leaves at the release sites, and they have been waiting like expectant parents for them to hatch.

Meanwhile, behind the old maintenance shed, they're already working to step up production for next year, tending to nearly 20 white turtlehead plants inside the tent on which butterflies have laid eggs. Many of the plants have the beginnings of silky "tents" in their tops, spun by newly hatched caterpillars as they feed on the leaves.
Kreiley said it's "awesome, just awesome" how well the group's initial effort has gone, but acknowledges that the real test is yet to come — can the butterflies they released flourish in the wild?
On that score, the record is not encouraging. Others, including the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, have tried captive breeding and given up after failing to see their "colonies" take hold and sustain themselves year after year. Ruth Eisenhour, a teacher at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center in Bel Air, said she's had some success raising and releasing the butterflies in Harford County, but she's only been doing it for three years.

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