As a kid, I once tied a mesh potato sack to a yardstick and stumbled around our yard with dreams of bagging a butterfly.
"I use a real butterfly net, but it's not altogether different from what you describe," admits Doug Taron, curator of biology at Chicago's Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and director of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network. "I've been doing this since I was 7, but I'm usually reluctant to be out in the field with people like you watching me."
This week, Taron is prowling a prairie preserve near Kankakee, hoping to bring back a half-dozen female Regal Fritillary butterflies whose eggs will be used to repopulate the Indian Boundary Prairies in south suburban Cook County. The Regal Fritillary, distinguished by its dark hind wing, died out there about a quarter-century ago. But Taron says ecological restoration projects have made the area ripe for reintroduction of the species, which "requires the little remaining remnants of native habitat we have left."
All of the 100 or so butterfly species in Illinois need habitats where they can lay eggs in peace, and where the resulting caterpillars can find food and shelter.
"Large swaths of suburbia are not really caterpillar-friendly," Taron says. The suburbs' overly manicured lawns often are void of two butterfly necessities: "Plants that caterpillars eat, and the willingness to let caterpillars eat them," Taron says.
One suburban butterfly haven is the Nelson Lake Marsh in the Dick Young Forest Preserve west of Batavia, says Tom Peterson, a 57-year-old Fermilab mechanical engineer from St. Charles who serves as the volunteer coordinator for the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network.
"I've seen quite a few wetland butterflies," says Peterson. "I've seen a lot of (the rare) Baltimore Checkerspot in the marsh, maybe even more than average."
During lunch and after work at Fermilab, Peterson has spotted and photographed dozens of butterflies -- from Meadow Fritillaries to Hairstreaks.
"There are a lot of butterflies at Fermilab," Peterson says.
Although the cold, wet and windy spring took its toll.
"The numbers that I've been seeing, although down, haven't been as bad as I was fearing," Taron says. "We're rebounding back up to much more normal levels. I don't want to sound too gloomy about this."
Butterflies are the most vulnerable to disease and predators when they are still in caterpillar form, and the cold, wet weather "stretches out the time a butterfly is a caterpillar," Taron says.
"The good news is most species are doing well," says Taron, who notes the winged insects (including the Baltimore Checkerspot) are doing very well at the Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve in Elgin where he is one of the site managers.
"It's always had them (Baltimore Checkerspots), but their numbers have gone up," Taron reports. "There were parts of the preserve you never used to see them on, and now you'll seem them."
While must suburban yards aren't big enough to make a real impact on butterfly populations, planting butterfly gardens does attract the beautiful creatures.
"My wife has planted butterfly weed and butterfly bush," says Peterson, who boasts Tiger Swallowtails and Monarchs in his yard.
For more information and tips on attracting butterflies, check out the monitoring group's Web site at www.bfly.org or the Peggy Notebaert site at www.naturemuseum.org.
Queen Anne's lace does the trick, as do herb gardens with dill, fennel and parsley. Some suburbanites are thrilled when Black Swallowtails lay eggs on the leaves.
"Then there are other people who are horrified by that," Taron notes.
The plants have to be the right ones.
"They won't eat just anything," Taron says of caterpillars.
That's OK. The suburbs have a long history of appeasing finicky eaters. But butterflies and suburbanites would get along better if only caterpillars would develop a taste for dandelions and crabgrass.