Counting Critters: Results of 2015 Science Outreach Athabasca Butterfly Count

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Photo by Robert Holmberg

On a brilliant, blue-skied day in the hot mid-summer prairie, what could be better than finding yourself in a field of lush green grass, net in hand, ready to delicately swoop down and collect some of Mother Nature’s most vibrant and colourful creatures—all in the name of Science?

The 2015 Athabasca Butterfly Count is the perfect pastime for anyone wanting to try something fun and different in the great outdoors. For 16 years now, retired AU biology Professor Emeritus Dr. Robert Holmberg and Science Outreach Athabasca has led a group of Lepidoptera-curious people to help identify and calculate the number of butterflies in the area.

“Lepidoptera” is the scientific name referring to butterflies and moths.

Counts across North America, including those in Athabasca typically happen between the end of June and the end of July. Most recently, Holmberg led a group of 17 on a 16 km trek along the Athabasca circle through to Baptiste Lake. Participants of all ages and two experts, an entomologist and a physicist, armed with butterfly nets, coolers and notebooks, counted and collected the scaly-winged specimens along the way.

Photo by Robert Holmberg

Counting Contributes

By participating in butterfly counts, both recreational and professional butterfly demographers across the continent help contribute to population dynamics data—the presence, absence or abundance of species.

Holmberg says the data compiled becomes important and useful with the culmination of thousands of participants throughout North America over a 20-to-30 year period, with many groups traversing the same places each year.

Groups gather in city centres and rural regions throughout Canada. For example, in Calgary the Nature Conservancy of Canada hosted its annual butterfly count on July 21. Data is then sent to which stores and compiles North American stats.

“There are always changes; populations go up and down,” Holmberg says, referring to changes related to climate, or food availability, or those attributed to pesticide hazards. His groups record variables like temperature, wind speed and cloud cover.

And if it’s a grey day, better take a rain check.

If you’re chasing butterflies it’s got to be a beautiful day,” says Holmberg.

“Butterflies don’t fly when it’s too cold, too hot, too windy, or too wet—so you don’t get a good count.”

So what do the critters get up to then?

“They sit up in the tree canopy or down in the grass. Some are brightly coloured sitting with their wings outstretched [easier to spot] but when they fold their wings they’re very well camouflaged and you just don’t see them,” Holmberg says.

On Holmberg’s counting treks, participants will learn about the European Skipper and the Tiger Swallow Tail species, for example. The former is an exotic and invasive butterfly which started inhabiting North America in recent years.

Northern Crescent Phyciodes-cocyta found on one of Science Outreach Athabasca’s Butterfly Counts. Photo by Robert Holmberg.

“A decade ago there were none, yet last year and the year before there were outbreak levels,” Holmberg remarks, noting the species had visibly overtaken roadside grasses or ditches by the hundreds or thousands.

The Tiger Swallow Tail includes three species—one of which is the Canadian Tiger Swallow Tail, found in Athabasca, Alberta. The other two species have been found north and south of Athabasca. “They are big, yellow and black—and they’re flitting around Calgary right now,” Holmberg says.

Over the years, Holmberg’s outings have led to the identification of about 30 different species at different times.

“On an average butterfly count, we identify about 20 different species. Some butterflies are easily identified when they’re flying. Others, we have to catch and examine more closely,” he explains.

Some butterflies are as small as your thumbnail; others as big as your hand, says the professor, while some butterflies disappear from regions altogether, leading researching biologists wanting to find out why, including answering questions like is it a viral disease? Or due to habitat loss or pesticide spraying?

“It gives us a state of the health of the environment, in effect,” says Holmberg.

He adds there are both “good” and “bad” butterflies. For example, the more useful caterpillar larvae feed on and destroy weeds like thistle—a good thing because they take up moisture and sunlight and crowd out crops; cattle and humans dislike thistles due to thorns. “And some butterflies are economically negative because they feed on cabbages or canola or other crops we grow,” Holmberg says.

On a typical count, each of Holmberg’s groups record the number of species they’ve found. Either they count them up-close, “on the wing,” or they might put the insects in vials which are stored in ice chests and brought back to the main base—“That’s where we group all the data together,” he says.


Robert Holmberg and participants of Science Outreach Athabasca’s Butterfly Count at the Muskeg Creek Chalet headquarters. Photo by Wayne Brehaut, July 11, 2015.

The Count

On his most recent trek, Holmberg’s group of 17 participants ranged between five and 41 years old.

“I enjoyed this outing very much,” said participant Fiona Charles.

“It was informative and interesting – and it was great to get outdoors with a purpose!”

The groups’ findings included:

  • Total butterflies seen/collected/counted: 132 (lower than average; with a range of between 84 to 879)
  • Total species: 8 (much lower than its usual 20, perhaps because of previous hot, dry weather and smoke; range 10 to 31 over the years)
  • Species (numbers) identified this year:
    • European skipper (65) (imported species, many more could have been counted in the roadside ditches)
    • Northern crescent (31) (a normally common species)
    • Silvery Blue (9)
    • Northern Pearly-eye (7) (has become common in the last few years)
    • Great Spangled Fritillary (4) (our largest fritillary)
    • Cabbage White (5) (another imported species)
    • Mustard white (1) (virtually no markings)
    • Pink-edged Sulfur (1) (pretty pink wing edges)


Prince Edward Island Award-winning songstress Meaghan Blanchard posing among a wall of butterflies. caption: Hannah Rose

Prince Edward Island Award-winning songstress Meaghan Blanchard posing among a wall of butterflies. caption: Hannah

Symbols in society and pop culture

Butterflies have been popular symbols for years—as stickers used by children in their collections, or as raincoat art, or by elementary school teachers in place of gold stars affirming good work.

In recent years, butterflies have been on-trend fashion emblems on the world’s catwalks, or inked on skin as tattoos. Even more recently, they’ve been used as a party gimmicks (remember the popular 2011 sleeper hit Bridesmaids when comedian Kristin Wiig opens her best friend’s wedding invitation only to be startled by the live butterfly bursting out from the envelope?)

“They symbolize nature, they symbolize beauty. They sort of symbolize freedom because they flit about,” says Holmberg.

Funnily enough, despite his scientific credentials, Holmberg says he’s no butterfly expert.

“I’m an arachnid specialist; I study spiders and daddy long legs more than butterflies—I also know more about mosquitoes and grasshoppers and horseflies,” he asserts.

Hard to imagine given the amount of factoids he proffers. For instance, he just happens to know the species of said “envelope” bug is called the Painted Lady; of the “Vanessa and caudi genus,” more specifically.

“It’s found all over the world except Antarctica and it also feeds on thistle and it migrates north,” he adds.

“A few years ago it actually came into Athabasca and I haven’t seen it since. It’s the species people usually use in parties because it’s easy to rear.”

European Skippers in Athabasca, Alberta. Photo by Robert Holmberg.

European Skippers in Athabasca, Alberta. Photo by Robert Holmberg.

How do you catch a butterfly?

“If you’re really, really patient and careful, you can do it with your fingers. You sneak up to it and put your two fingers against its wing and you’ve got it,” says Holmberg.

Using a net, however, takes some precision, he explains. Either you can catch them when they’re flying or sitting still.

“The best way [for a sitting butterfly] is to hold the tip of the net with one hand–while holding the handle with your other hand. Then, being careful not to cast your shadow over top of it, you sneak up to the resting [insect] and just gently fold the net over it. And you’ve got a captured butterfly.”

Now the identification process can begin. Best way, says Holmberg is up-close, holding the two wings together with your fingers.

“Or you can look at it through the screening of the net, identify it, and then let it go.”

The other way as noted earlier is to pop it in a clear pill vile and examine the specimen closely “as it’s not fluttering around too much,” he says.

Otherwise they’ll put them in a cold-pack encased cooler or ice chest for five or 10 minutes.

“They cool right down and stop moving and then you can look at them. You can figure out what it is and you release it,” Holmberg explains, adding if they’re uncertain of the identity, they’ll carry the chests back to headquarters for further study.

Aside from contributing to global conservation and biodiversity, Holmberg says, butterfly counts are a way for the general public to get involved with nature just for fun.

“Too many of us sit in front of our television sets or our computer screens and see the world indirectly,” says Holmberg. “This is hands-on. We get kids who are two- and three-years-old coming with their parents. That’s typical for a lot of butterfly counts; it’s a family sort of affair.”


Getting your butterfly game on


Photo by Christine Roy,

Want to learn how to make the best butterfly net? AU members who have kids at home might want to check out blogger Christine Roy’s instructions on her site 2 little hooligans DIY site.

And if you want to find your own butterfly count to attend next year, all city centres should have a natural history society or conservancy that can provide information where members of the public can take part in a butterfly count.

In Calgary, for example, contact:

  • The Calgary Zoo has a butterfly conservation area called the ENMAX Conservatory where butterflies hang out in the Garden Gallery  [on average 50 species on a given day]

Fun Factoids 

Dr. Holmberg's introduction to Science Outreach Athabasca's 2015 Butterfly Count at Muskeg Creek Chalet, July 11, 2015. Photo by Wayne Brehault.

Dr. Holmberg’s introduction to Science Outreach Athabasca’s 2015 Butterfly Count at Muskeg Creek Chalet, July 11, 2015. Photo by Wayne Brehault.

Holmberg begins every group tour with a PowerPoint presentation to initiate newcomers on butterfly basics. Participants can view his preserved collection of butterflies on display and books for identifying species. He’s even produced a booklet showcasing the butterflies of the Athabasca area, to which he adds the new material collected each year.

“I was hoping this year to finish it with help of real experts and make the electronic pages available to anyone in Alberta who wants to make a similar booklet for their area,” Holmberg says.


  • Butterflies are Lepidoptera insects (refers to scaly winged insects, which also includes moths);
  • The difference between butterflies and moths: Butterflies are usually “diurnal”; they fly during the day; moths are nocturnal, fly at night. When flying during the day, butterflies recognize visual patterns for reproductive purposes; moths do it by pheromones, chemicals that attract females;
  • Butterflies include three different families;
  • In Canada there are a few hundred species; thousands in the world. Tens of thousands of specimens have been collected, identified and catalogued in Canada;
  • There are five families of butterflies in Alberta;
  • Pheromones are produced by the females to attract male butterflies;
  • Most butterfly species feed on flower nectar;
  • What’s a typical butterfly life span? Usually the whole life cycle is finished within a year. But up north, for example, some butterflies in their larval stages can take up to two to three years to reach adulthood. Adult butterflies, in general, only survive between one and three weeks (during winter months temperature levels cause mortality. Some species are exception to the rule and can live several months – say, if they over-winter somewhere – some can live an extra six to eight months depending on the species.)
  • Butterflies spend most of their time sitting on or under plant leaves
  • Butterflies change colour over generations. Some will go through a couple of generations in the summer; there can be the early- and late-summer variations in colour. They change colour either because it’s warmer or due to changes in diet. And their colour patterns can be different i.e. the same species may be white in the spring and yellow-white in the summer
  • What do butterflies eat? They’re vegetarian. At the caterpillar stage they chews on leaves, whereas adult butterflies suck on the nectar of flowers.