Butterflies Are Free to Find Better Weather; Farmers Have to Stay Put

Swarms of Pink Lady butterflies have descended in dramatic fashion upon the Midwest. Unlike mosquitoes or grasshoppers, they pose no problem for humans or crops. But the forces behind their odd migration might.

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Here around Langdon, it’s been a buggy year.

First we had mosquitoes, anything from tiny little black ones to huge striped blood suckers that seemingly had bones and made a crunching sound when swatted. Then it was chiggers. Too tiny to see until it was too late, they left huge bacterially infected festering welts that itch like nothing else can and take weeks to heal. Then it was Japanese beetles and June bugs, so many that at night they accumulated in piles around any light source—not just yard lights, but windows and doors, too. And, as always, the Midwestern icon fish bait and planet wrecker: grasshoppers.

Next came Painted Ladies.

Butterflies are free. That Dickens quote, made even more famous in our time by Goldie Hawn and Edward Albert in the movie by the same name, means that if butterflies are free to roam, then a man (or woman) should be too.

Some people think liberated Painted Ladies followed spring and summer blooms all the way from California to Missouri. I have no idea where their next stop will be. Entomologists seem undecided whether they follow a route similar to that of their cousin, the Monarch butterfly, by returning to where they started, or go someplace else.

One thing I know for sure. It’s leave or die. The only way a butterfly can survive Missouri winters is indoors.

But in terms of Painted Ladies, not all butterflies are necessarily free-free. That’s because they are easily grown in captivity and have become something of a fad for people who buy a box or two to set loose during weddings, birthdays, or other life celebrations. A box of 12 Painted Lady captives will set you back about $50 plus shipping and handling.

With the economy breaking all records and the stock market higher than it’s ever been, could people be buying billions and billions of butterflies and setting them loose in record numbers never seen until now?

Anything is possible. Maybe that’s why I have so many at my house this year.

Or….maybe…Painted Ladies might be blowing in on winds of change caused by warming ocean currents and El Nino. I remember when, 40 years ago, a meteorologist named Art Douglas, professor emeritus at Creighton University, first laid Midwestern droughts and floods squarely on the doorstep of Pacific Ocean currents. This year Douglas predicted a hot, dry Midwestern summer that seems to have been centered over the Dakotas. Some of those areas have seen little rain since April.

Most of the crop-producing Midwest suffered under a wet, cool spring, then 100-degree temperatures and spotty rainfall between heavy downpours—or nothing at all—during June and July. That’s why farmers in the worst affected regions of the U.S. have been trying to raise awareness of Congress and the administration so that disaster assistance can be made available.

Butterflies are free to go where spring blooms eternal.

Farmers are tied to their own plot of land where everything we grow begins with something that blooms. Weather has a big effect on that.

The first two Painted Ladies spotted on the West Coast this year were seen in early March. That’s about 30 days sooner than previous records, and it’s suspected that an unusually heavy wildflower bloom “attracting an army of pollinators” in the Western deserts may have contributed to their numbers. Big numbers first showed up here in July. When it seemed they had all but left, numbers picked back up, drinking nectar and spreading pollen from clover and blooming weeds along roadsides. My ladies like the roads themselves, congregating on them so that passing cars kick them up into what looks like a blizzard of blowing leaves that slowly flutter and float back to earth.

Painted Ladies don’t bite or sting. Occasionally one will land on an outstretched hand, even landing on the nose of rescued farm dog La Nina, named for the cool-ocean-current-spawned winter storm I saved her from a couple of years ago.

If most climate scientists are correct, evolving winter weather last year may have been a precursor of this year’s winged insect invasion, because climate change is affecting El Nino/La Nina.

Some people still say the jury is out on carbon pollution and our warming planet.

Right or wrong, they’re free to believe however they choose…just like butterflies do.

Richard Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. He is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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