July is often called the butterfly month, and with good reason.

It is almost impossible to look anywhere in a flower garden, alfalfa field or meadow without seeing at least one bouncing along on an erratic flight, or a steady glide in the case of the monarch. We think of butterflies as part of the summer scene, flitting lazily about in the warm sunshine.

There are about 20,000 species of butterflies worldwide. About 700 inhabit North America, and Minnesota is home to 172 species. In early July we look for hackberry and Baltimore butterflies on the wing. Sulphurs are quite numerous over fields of blooming alfalfa, monarchs are increasing in numbers, and a new generation of mourning cloaks has emerged. These attractive insects are commonly seen as the expression of all things tranquil and ethereal, but butterflies are capable of some pretty eccentric behavior.

In defending their territories, some butterflies can act quite aggressive. Yet the adults, with their strawlike mouths, can’t bite. The pearl crescent and red admiral butterflies will establish a territory and will dart out at anything that strays into their path, be it a dog, cat, bird, human, katydid or squirrel.

The butterfly’s senses of smell and taste are remarkably acute and are vital to its feeding and mating. Some butterflies walk on their food because taste organs are located in the soles of their feet.


Jim Gilbert has taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.