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On the hunt for elusive butterflies on Long Island

Kelsey Law searches for butterflies last month in

Kelsey Law searches for butterflies last month in Sayville.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

A pair of interns had the weight of a butterfly nation on their shoulders this summer.

Searching grasslands from Montauk to Hempstead, American Conservation Experience interns John Buechel and Kelsey Law, both 24, working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, identified 46 elusive frosted elfins. Just like bees, these butterflies are crucial pollinators, the interns stress.

Flying Pointillist miniatures is one way to describe butterflies, including this increasingly rare thumbnail-sized species, which was spotted last month in Sayville, experts say.

Much like the dots painted by 19th century post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, the colorful patterns on butterfly wings are made up of tiny, fragile scales, said Jeffrey Glassberg, who founded the nonprofit North American Butterfly Association.

“Each scale has only one color on it,” said Glassberg, a molecular biologist who grew up in Lynbrook and taught in Greenport and Massapequa before fathering DNA fingerprinting. “It might be green, it might be yellow; if you put those colors in proximity, the way that human eyes work, they synthesize and create another color.” 

Frosted elfins are not truly frosted, he said. “It’s called frosted; around the edges of the wings, on the underside, there are kind of gray scales that are a little bit metallic.”

These silvery-brown members of the elfin family lay their eggs on wild indigo and lupine, which grow in pine barrens and meadows, including the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Sayville.

Along with moths, said Glassberg, butterfly larvae also are crucial sustenance for birds. “They are not only beautiful, they are kind of what’s for dinner; for songbirds in North America, the main food they feed nestlings on is caterpillars.”

The way butterflies metamorphosize from multiple-footed grounded creatures to beautiful fliers is part of their appeal, Glassberg said. "I think that is emotionally how people respond." The Greeks, he noted, "believed butterflies were the repository of people's souls." 

No frosted elfin put in an appearance on one hot sunny morning at Wertheim, though the interns netted a variety of other butterflies after donning boots, anti-tick gaiters and white painters’ coveralls — to speed tick-spotting — and spraying on insect repellent.

The duo employed white mesh funnel-shaped nets like the ones collectors have used for centuries.

Inserting a crumpled paper or a twig or leaf gives the butterfly a perch while they examine it.

To catch a butterfly, says Buechel, “I guess you just have to be confident in the swing.” And swift: “If you look at it too long, it’ll fly right off,” observes Law:

The first butterfly they net has a red dot on its wing, which helps Law identify it as an elfin cousin: the Arcadia Hair Streak. “Sometimes, they’ll hang out in your hand. They’re really friendly,” Law says.

One reason the frosted elfins might have eluded the census-takers is their short life: adults live just two to three weeks in the early spring.  

“You can tell they’ve been there because of the holes in the leaves,” says Law, looking at a host plant.

Fires, home-building, and a scarcity of wild indigo and lupine already have caused frosted elfins to vanish from Ontario, Canada, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, and Vermont, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says. Herbicides, gypsy moths, and deer that eat the host plants are additional threats.

As 90 percent of the East Coast’s frosted elfins fate is unknown, the federal agency launched surveys to see if they merit protection under the Endangered Species Act by Sept. 30, 2023.

New York State lists frosted elfins as threatened, but must match any graver federal designation, said Kathy O’Brien, state Department of Environmental Conservation biologist.

To help preserve the species, home gardeners can plant indigo and lupine, experts said.

Their numbers, O'Brien said, reveal the health of their surroundings, a point echoed by Glassberg, who noted butterflies respond much more swiftly to environmental changes than longer-lived species.

“They are tough little guys," she said. "We like frosties.”

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