Utah news


Monday, September 10, 2001

Chasing butterflies turns into a lifelong pursuit

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News staff writer

      When Todd Stout was about 7 years old, walking home after school in Glendale, Calif., he noticed black-and-yellow butterflies gathering nectar from flowers. He caught one, took it home and put it in a jar but he was caught himself.

Sara orange tip butterflies make a stunning display. The Lepidopterists Society encourages collecting for scientific purposes.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
      "I was just fascinated," says Stout, who now knows the butterflies were western tiger swallowtails.
      He borrowed a 1927 butterfly book from the local library, studied it, discovered how to mount the insects and learned everything he could about butterflies. His mother made a butterfly net, and soon his hobby attracted the attention of other children in the neighborhood.
      "Six or seven boys got their moms to sew butterfly nets. Then we would kind of all collect butterflies together on my block," he said.
      Today he is married and living in the Northpoint section of Salt Lake County. But he is just as fascinated as he was when he was a boy.
      Stout is president of the Utah Lepidopterists Society, a group with about 30 members. They meet on the second Saturday of nine months in the year to discuss the science and lore of butterflies and moths.
      Their gatherings alternate between the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah and the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum at Brigham Young University, Provo.
      But they don't meet during the summer, Stout said during an interview at his home. June, July and August are the busy months, "when people are out catching butterflies."
      The 2001 butterfly season is over for the most part, although some butterflies are still around. "There's always cabbage whites until the freeze," he said.
      As noted on the society's Web page, maintained by Provo member Bruce Dolen at, the group encourages collecting for scientific and educational purposes but is opposed to depleting populations.
      Members share research, such as the paper by Stout, "The Papilio indra complex in Utah," posted on the Internet.
      Stout is a committee chairman for a Boy Scout troop and teaches the insect study and environmental science merit badges. For the former, the boys raise butterflies from caterpillars.
      He has learned the ways of butterflies, seeking out caterpillars to raise or adults that will lay eggs. In the San Rafael Swell, he found that males of a rare swallowtail "will fly up on the buttes and dive-bomb" into the lower country searching for females.
      Males of some butterflies engage in aerial combat. One will chase another away, sometimes damaging the wings of the rival, he said, illustrating with swift hand motions how they fight.
      Several climate-controlled terrariums stand in his upstairs study. They house plant species like willow or lily caterpillar fodder. One plant was somewhat tattered, the leaves obviously chewed.

Todd Stout holds a swallowtail butterfly, left, and a Lorquin's admiral at his Salt Lake home. Stout has been fascinated with butterflies since he was a boy.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
      Stout lifted a potted willow out of a terrarium and pointed out a small dark-banded worm hanging upside-down from a twig. It was the caterpillar of an Arizona purple butterfly, some of its skin hanging to the side.
      The caterpillar was "getting ready to shed his skin one more time and form a chrysalis," he said.
      His collections are pinned so that they display overhead and underside views of butterflies. They are under glass in shallow drawers, inside a tall wooden cabinet.
      "These are skippers," he said, showing a drawer with many small mounted butterflies. "Kind of a drab group of fast-flying butterflies," attractive in their own right.
      His skipper strategy is to capture females, which then lay 40 or 50 eggs. Collectors swap the extra pupae. "Especially Utah collectors," he said. "We look out for each other."
      Removing a drawer of two-tailed swallowtails, he noted, "This is the biggest species in the western United States.
      "You don't see too many in this part of Salt Lake because there's not too much green ash. . . . Wherever you plant green ash, if there's enough of it, they'll create colonies of this kind of butterflies."
      Some neighborhoods of Salt Lake City, Rose Park, West Valley City and Provo with green ash trees often attract swallowtails.
      Food for butterflies differs from what their younger selves, caterpillars, need. Caterpillars have chewing jaws that devour plants, but the adults have a "curled straw" proboscis they use to feed on nectar in flowers.
      When they are caterpillars, monarch and queen butterflies feed on milkweed, which excretes a substance that is toxic to birds. The butterflies' bodies contain a great deal of the material. Avian predators soon learn to avoid anything that looks like a monarch or queen.
      The admiral butterfly, presumably a tasty insect, has "evolved to look like these distasteful butterflies," he said. The mimicry protects it from birds.
      By now, the Arizona purple had dropped its skin, a tiny bundle on the terrarium's floor.
      "This is what we call the wing case, right here, and the wing case is going to move up." As the structure expands higher on the insects' bodies, the outer coating will begin to harden into a chrysalis shell.
      "That'll be a fully formed chrysalis in about two hours," Stout said. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar will transform into a beautiful butterfly. It should emerge about 10 days after the chrysalis forms.
      So why are butterflies so beautiful?
      "All I can say, from my own personal beliefs Heavenly Father did it for aesthetics," he said. "It's like flowers. What's the purpose of flowers?"




2001 Deseret News Publishing Company
Reproduced with permission