Frida’s Flowers and a Minnesota Butterfly

In the Frida Hansen design, Amoriner, there is a bold butterfly.

The modest-colored Minnesota butterfly in my design, the Poweshiek Skipperling, has a sad story. This thumb-sized butterfly, recognizable by its bright white stripes, used to be found all throughout Minnesota, but the last known siting in our state was in 2007.

I read about the butterfly and its demise in an important occasional series in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Vanishing North. See the full list of articles in the sidebar to “These 50 Animals and Plants have Disappeared from Minnesota.” As sobering and saddening these articles are, they also cover the diligent attempts of biologists, government agencies, private groups, and citizens to reverse recent precipitous declines and save several plant and animal species. They leave me with a sense of hope as well as loss.

Coaxing a ‘Most Minnesota Butterfly’ Back from the Brink,” by Jennifer Bjorhus and Greg Stanley, described the painstaking efforts of biologists at the Minnesota Zoo to raise the small butterflies in captivity and release them in the wild to grow the population. Their population has crashed since 2000. I am including a couple of excerpts, but highly recommend the whole article. You will be rooting for the biologists!

This prairie butterfly suffered one of the most sudden and complete population collapses of any species in North American history. They once numbered in the millions in Minnesota, filling every square mile of the state’s grasslands — and just about every open field where people cared to look.

The thumbnail-sized butterflies are a silvery orange and brown, the white veins on their wings giving them a smart pinstripe look. They fly in short bursts, almost skipping from one blade of grass to another. Even at rest, their wings are poised like tiny fighter jets, ready to launch.

They ranged from the Dakotas to Michigan, but Minnesota was their stronghold. At their height, more than half of all Poweshiek skipperlings lived in Minnesota. It could be called “the most Minnesota butterfly in the world,” Runquist said, although they were named for the county in Iowa where they were first documented.

Then, 20 years ago, they vanished. They’re extirpated now in Minnesota, or extinct here, as far as anyone knows.

The Poweshiek Skipperlings article made me wonder whether I saw them when I was a child on the farm in northwestern Minnesota. I remember butterflies flitting around in the grass, small but less showy than our favorites, the Monarchs. So here’s my homage to the Poweshiek Skipperling – abstracted, keep in mind, but with the distinctive white pinstripes.

Dear Poweshiek Skipperling, I’m sorry if I did not notice you when I could have!

Why have the butterflies disappeared? The reasons are not completely clear, and probably many.

The loss and fragmentation of their grassland habitat, diminished genetic diversity, severe weather, climate change, invasive species, farm chemicals — there are overwhelming pressures on the butterfly, as there are on insects and pollinators globally. Scientists estimate that about 41% of insect species have been pushed toward extinction.

Minnesota’s warming climate has brought earlier and more erratic springs, which could be luring Poweshiek caterpillars out of hibernation, or diapause, too soon and leaving them vulnerable to a refreeze, Michigan conservation scientist David Cuthrell said.

But a key culprit in their demise appears to be insecticide drift. The butterfly’s sudden disappearance occurred in the early 2000s, as farmers started increasingly using broad spectrum insecticides sprayed by air to control the destructive non-native soybean aphids infesting fields, Runquist and University of Minnesota entomologist George Heimpel reported in 2017.

The reference to insecticides reminded me of a time at least two decades ago. I was walking on the farm and found a dead Monarch butterfly on the road. “So pretty,” I thought, “I’ll take it to the house and my niece Nicky can glue it to a piece of paper and draw around it.” I saw another. “Even better,” I thought. But then I realized I could see a dozen without moving. Clearly, they died along with the pests when the field next to the road was sprayed with chemicals.

We’ve paved and ditched and tiled and sprayed and polluted our environment in the name of progress. We’ve created a mess. In Minnesota, I commend the Star Tribune for attempting to record the issues we faced with decreasing biodiversity in the Vanishing North series, and highlighting the people who are tracking the issue and working to stem our losses.