Late summer is the perfect time to view one of our area’s showiest pollinators, the monarch butterfly. But this year, it’s not the only royal visiting the St. Louis region. Tad Yankoski, Entomologist at the Butterfly House, says two queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus) have recently been spotted around town.
The queen is a cousin of the monarch (Danaus plexippus). It looks similar but with darker wings and fewer black stripes. It’s average size is also slightly smaller. Like monarchs, queens feed on milkweed as caterpillars. The queen can be found throughout Central and South America, and across the southern United States.
The species itself isn’t considered rare, but sightings in Missouri are. Most databases show five or fewer queens being collected in the state, and none in the St. Louis area. The most recent sighting was 2011. That is until two queens were photographed in a 24-hour window over Labor Day weekend. The first was in Overland, in St. Louis County. The other was at Shaw Nature Reserve in Franklin County. Yankoski calls the twin appearances unprecedented.
Even small observations can make a big impact. Both recent sightings of the queen butterfly were made by citizen scientists who saw something interesting, took a photo, and shared it.
“I shot it with no knowledge of just how interested those of you who study butterflies would find it,” says Linda Oppland, who spotted a queen butterfly in her backyard. “I can’t tell you how privileged I feel now for having seen this butterfly, taken its picture and then was curious enough to contact the Butterfly House to find out how rare my sighting was.”
John Warmbrodt, who snapped his photo in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, says his wife Chris was quick to identify the rare find, which he later shared on Facebook.
Recorded sightings like these are part of a broader effort to identify butterfly populations across the St. Louis area. The Missouri Butterfly Monitoring Network, of which Yankoski is director, trains volunteers to identify the 25 most common butterflies in the region. Those volunteers monitor specific natural areas and count the butterflies they see there. This observation data, along with data from other butterfly monitoring networks, can be combined to track how butterfly populations and distributions change over time across the continent.
You can use an app like iNaturalist to document your own findings, or participate in citizen science programs like BioBlitz. You can also reach out to the Butterfly House on Twitter or Facebook if you think you’ve spotted a queen butterfly, or any unique insect, in your area.
The best way to lend a hand to queen, monarch, and other butterflies is to plant pollinator-friendly gardens. Milkweed is an important food source for monarch and queen caterpillars. And native plants such as blazing star and butterfly weed provide much-needed nectar for butterflies. The Project Pollinator program can help you get started. You can also visit the Butterfly House in Chesterfield to see its certified Monarch Waystation.
Cassidy Moody – Digital Media Specialist