Butterflies race for state insect status


Black swallowtail. Image: Michigan Department of Natural Resources

By Vladislava Sukhanovskaya

Three butterflies are racing to become Michigan’s official state insect – and one of them is ahead, at least politically.

The black swallowtail butterfly, a native of Michigan, spends its whole life cycle in the state hibernating as pupa under leaves during winter and hatching in the spring. It can be found in every county of the state.

Because the black swallowtail is so easy to spot, it’s perfect for educating the public about pollinators, said Jeanette Meyer, the legislative affairs chair for Michigan Garden Clubs, a nonprofit organization that provides education and resources for local communities about gardening and the environment.

The organization and its members have been pushing to recognize the black swallowtail as a state symbol since 2016.

Michigan and Iowa are the only states without an official insect or butterfly, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

Now a bill to give the black swallowtail that status in Michigan has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Agriculture. It is sponsored by Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township,

Another state — Oklahoma – already made the black swallowtail its state insect in 1996.

One native competitor for the designation is the Karner blue butterfly, which is backed by Rep. Will Snyder, D-Muskegon, who voted against the black swallowtail.

Karner blue butterfly, Allegan State Game Area, Allegan County. Image: David Kenyon, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

The Karner blue is a federally endangered species and is listed as threatened in Michigan.

Snyder isn’t looking for a legislative battle: “I’m not going to make a butterfly war between my colleagues and I.”

Snyder said that a Muskegon artist and fourth-grade students from North Muskegon and Fremont Public Schools initiated the push for the Karner blue.

“They testified on the bill and they drew pictures,” he added. About four years later, when Snyder was elected a state representative, the local garden club asked him to reintroduce the bill in 2023.

The third competitor for state insect is the endangered monarch butterfly, which has become an official symbol for seven other states, including Illinois. Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac, is the sponsor.

Newly emerged monarch butterfly. Image: Matt Clara, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Among Michigan’s other official symbols are the American robin (bird), brook trout (fish), apple blossom (flower), white-tailed deer (game mammal), painted turtle (reptile), Petoskey stone (stone), eastern white pine (tree) and dwarf lake iris (wildflower), according to the House Fiscal Agency.

While the three species of butterflies race for the title, there are several ways to support all of them, such as weeding out invasive plants, planting native species and reducing the use of pesticides, Meyer said. Instead of pesticides, encourage praying mantis and ladybugs to control pests.

And among native plants that some butterflies like are milkweed, dill, fennel, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace. Another way to support butterflies is by not raking your leaves so that they can overwinter as an egg, larva or pupa.

“Don’t rake your gardens until after they’ve had a chance to hatch in the spring,” said Meyer.

Lowering light pollution is another way to help butterflies and other pollinators such as fireflies.

“We decided to decrease our light pollution around our house,” Meyer said. “And consequently, we had the most gorgeous firefly shows in the evenings.”

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