Ozarks Life: Helping the regal fritillary butterfly rebound

MSU retired professor Dr. Chris Barnhart is studying Missouri’s “Queen of the Prairie”
Published: Sep. 23, 2022 at 8:49 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 24, 2022 at 10:23 AM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - At the Missouri State Library’s bell tower, the peaceful chime means its feeding time.

But it’s not just students getting some grub. A small collection of regal fritillary butterflies is eating as well on campus.

“The regal fritillary should be our state butterfly,” retired MSU biology professor Dr. Chris Barnhart said. “It came close. But it got tabled on the last day of the session.”

Dr. Barnhart and his wife, Debra, have been running the Bill Roston Native Butterfly House at Close Memorial Park for well over a decade. But for two years, he’s been riveted by the regal.

“We like to call it the ‘Queen of the Prairie’ because it’s a very large, very charismatic, butterfly,” Dr. Barnhart said. “Very evident on the prairies and not uncommon.”

The regal’s habitat is disappearing. We have lost close to 99% of Missouri’s native tallgrass prairie.

Without the rich nectar plants for the adults and the violets for the larva out there, this professor here at MSU is trying to build back this butterfly in a basement.

“Last year, we were so successful raising them that it morphed into, oh, let’s try to put them back on prairies where they’re not,” Dr. Barnhart said. “And that’s gone pretty well.”

This past year, Barnhart has released 44 adults and over 3,500 caterpillars into the wild. And so this year, the mission morphed again.

After female regal drinks most of her body weight in a sugary solution, Barnhart and his student aide Derek Bateman will put them back into the safety of their bags. In September, a female will lay up to 50-eggs a day and 2,000 in her life span.

“Unlike most butterflies,” Dr. Barnhart said, “they hatch from the egg, but they don’t feed in the fall, and then they overwinter as really, really tiny larvae. And we don’t know where we don’t know what they’re doing. But they don’t eat until spring.”

So, in a few weeks, a few of these eggs will hatch. And then Barnhart will study them to see how these microscopic species survive until spring.

“We’ll have all these micro caterpillars,” Dr. Barnhart said, “and we’re going to expose them to different conditions and interrogate them about how they live their lives.”

And that could help rebound the regal population. Of those 2,000 eggs that come from one female, only two might live to see adulthood. This study might help landowners understand how to protect this butterfly.

“When do you burn,” Dr. Barnhart asks. “In the summertime, you’ve got the adult butterflies flying, and they can get out of the way. But you might decimate their food source, the females need nectar plants all summer long.”

“The butterflies on a prairie are spectacular,” Dr. Barnhart concludes. ”And this is the most spectacular, I would say even more so than the monarch. Because it’s a resident. It stays year-round. It’s not just a tourist like the monarchs are.”

Dr. Barnhart says we can help our insects with native plants in our yards. You don’t just plant flowers for butterflies, you also have to plant the plants that the caterpillars eat.

This weekend, you can meet Dr. Barnhart at the Roston Native Butterfly House at Close Memorial Park. They will be tagging and releasing monarch butterflies Saturday at 2 p.m. The house is open until October 2.

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