Winter Term: Butterflies, One of Nature’s Flashiest Pollinators

September 14, 2020

Yvonne Gay

A girl stands in an open window.
Mary Perchlik at home in Vermont.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Perchlik ’21

Mary Perchlik '21 adores butterflies. That interest led to her month-long project in August, which combined the study of butterflies on a species level while maintaining a broader focus on environmental systems that support butterflies and their interactions between different plants, insects, and habitats.

Being some of the flashiest pollinators, Perchlik says, butterflies were easiest to identify, find, and track as a newbie watcher. After familiarizing herself with the most common butterflies in her hometown in Vermont, she hopes to attract more butterflies to her own garden to support species diversity in her area. This past August, 10 to 15 species visited Perchlik’s garden on a given day—mostly Meadow and Great Fritillaries, Pearl Crescents, and White and Red Admirals.

“It’s impossible to study butterflies in a silo, since they are connected to flowers and plants, temperature, migration, and predators as both butterflies and caterpillars,” says the environmental studies major. “Observing the changes in the weather as the summer passes and how that affects plants and therefore butterfly behavior and species abundance gives a holistic view on the habitat and environment where I live. The study of butterflies and caterpillars incorporates the study of the entire environment and ecosystem. Since creating a sense of place and connecting to an environment takes time and patience, committing to observing an animal and their habitats brings me closer to my environment as a whole.”

The project also brought about new insights for Perchlik. In one instance she noted observing a butterfly she had never seen before feeding on Red Maple tree sap. She later learned it was a Northern Pearly-Eye, a species that gets moisture and nutrients from mud, dung, tree sap, decaying fruit, and carrion.

“I also saw some behavior that surprised me this summer, especially with the White Admirals,” says Perchlik. “The White Admirals in my area are usually found along roads, feeding on minerals and salt among the gravel. This year I’ve seen them flying around fields much more.”

During her study, Perchlik worked remotely with Bryan Pfeiffer, a renowned educator, writer, and naturalist in Montpelier, Vermont. She also worked on an independent project with Oberlin College’s Becky Bode, grounds service manager, and Meghan Riesterer, assistant vice president of Campus Energy and Sustainability. The project, financed by the Oberlin College Green Edge Fund, would establish a butterfly garden on campus. Perchlick says the project could use the help of a student who is on campus this semester.

As a longtime butterfly enthusiast, Perchlik will continue observing the insects as long as the weather allows. She also plans to pursue her interest in environmental and regional planning in Vermont, where she is studying remotely this academic year. 


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