91.7 Grand Rapids | 90.5 Bemidji | 89.9 Brainerd
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

On the Hunt for Northwoods Butterflies: Allison Barta

A large yellow butterfly with black stripes on the wings and small blue-and-orange markings on the tail. The butterfly is sitting with its wings spread on a green flowering plant.

John and Heidi talk with Allison Barta, former science teacher and lepidopterist (butterfly expert) extraordinaire! She discusses her upcoming presentation "On the Hunt for Northwoods Butterflies," as well as some of the highlights from her 12-year hunt for all 90-some species native to the Bemidji area.

Heidi Holtan:
The Forest History Center in Grand Rapids is hosting "On the Hunt for Northwoods Butterflies" with retired science teacher Allison Barta. That's this Saturday, January 7th from 1 to 3:00 PM. Allison Barta joins us now. Good morning, thanks for being here, Allison!

Allison Barta:
Thank you. Morning, John. Morning, Heidi. I'm really excited to be on your show this morning.

John Latimer:
Yeah, nice to hear you again, Alison. So, I'm curious, you're a science teacher: you're working with all those kids and they get interested in stuff. How did you get interested in butterflies?

Allison Barta:
Well, this has been a lifelong endeavor for me. When I was a child back in the sixties, I was chasing butterflies up and down our alley and got to know their characters and a lot of the species. I was even catching butterflies for biology students at the local high school.

John Latimer:
You mean as a child you were doing their collections?

Allison Barta:
Yeah, they were actually paying me for butterflies!

John Latimer:
I was hoping you were getting paid for that.

Allison Barta:
It was a good money maker for a little kid.

John Latimer:
I believe it might have been. Yeah.

Heidi Holtan:
So, were those butterflies in northern Minnesota?

Allison Barta:
No, I actually grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin, so that's where I was doing that. I grew up in a family of eight children and nature was my thing! I spent a lot of time outside catching butterflies, and I used to catch bees too. I had quite a collection. I was putting them to sleep and displaying them in boxes. But then, as I grew up and I had my own children, I started realizing that butterflies were disappearing. So, I taught my kids a little bit about displaying them, and then switched over to, "Let's take pictures of them instead."

John Latimer:
Yeah, yeah. Isn't that nice? I came from a large family: nature was my outlet as well. And in your and my youth, we captured [butterflies], we euthanized them and we pinned them. And taking a picture wasn't as much of an option. You took a picture, and if you were really lucky, it was in color. Most of them were black and white. And you got them back like three weeks after you took the picture. So, you really didn't know what you had captured until then. But now, I do an awful lot of my gathering of butterflies digitally, which is really quite nice because you can look instantly and see, "Well, I got that one!" <laugh> or, "I didn't get that one." Oftentimes, when I'm trying to take a picture of a butterfly, I'll start 15 feet away, take a picture, and then I'll take a step, take a picture, take a step, take a picture. And I keep doing that until the butterfly flies away. Oftentimes, you can get quite close and get some detail. Then, you can go back and figure out who you were looking at. And speaking of that, who are you looking at? How many butterflies are you cataloging over in your country?

Allison Barta:
Well, so this is what happened to me: I decided to become a science teacher after moving to Bemidji. And I went out on a hike one day, and took a picture of a Canadian Swallowtail, and realized that my camera could take beautiful pictures. So, I got one of the best books I could find around. It's a field book by Larry Weber called Butterflies of the Northwoods. And there are little maps in there that show you where species live. I went through the whole book and found that 90-some species live in the Bemidji area. And I thought, "Okay, I'm going to prove that these butterflies really live here." So, I started going out and looking for them and checking 'em off my list one at a time. Now I have spent 12 years looking for all these butterflies that Larry has in his book. And I only need three more butterflies.

John Latimer:
Wow.

Allison Barta:
Yeah. It's been pretty exciting, but it's taken me 12 years and I have over 41,000 photos. This presentation that I'm going to be giving in Grand Rapids on Saturday is called "On the Hunt for the Northwoods Butterflies." And I started the PowerPoint the first year, after I took a picture of the first butterfly. I started putting the best photos in there of every species that I was finding. You won't believe this, but my PowerPoint is at 415 pictures. In 12 years, you see a lot of really cool stuff! And I put the most fabulous photos in there and I can do my show in about an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes. But I think everybody who comes will really enjoy seeing all those photos.

John Latimer:
We're speaking with Allison Barta and she is going to be at the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids on Saturday, January 7th from one until three. Allison, 415 photos? You must not give people much time to study the photo! "Look quick!"

Allison Barta:
Well, I really enjoy presenting it. I think people enjoy my presentations because I'm a pretty good storyteller. As I'm talking about one species, I might have six of the most fabulous photos and I'll just go through those photos as I'm talking about that species. I also wanted to tell you that I'm not just adding photos to this PowerPoint. Along the way, I've had the opportunity to give this presentation to the state parks, to garden clubs, and I've been the guest speaker at the BSU Monarch Festival. Now I give them an annual summary. Most important to me is that every year at the end of the butterfly season, I put all my data together (I collect data almost every day in the summer) and I submit it to the National Lepidopterist Society for their season summary. I just finished doing that, and it's quite an endeavor. You have to put in the first time you saw that species, the last time you saw it, what they were feeding on, and then you also write a summary of all the weather and what was going on during the whole summer that might have contributed to how the butterflies came and went.

John Latimer:
Amazing. You must be familiar with John Weber and Dallas Hudson who are in your neighborhood. Not exactly right next to you: One lives in Nevis and the other lives in Akeley. They are both butterfly hunters of the first degree (as I know you are as well). Have you discovered any butterflies that Larry didn't mention in your area that might be added to the list?

Allison Barta:
I have had some fabulous things happen to me along the way. A couple years ago, I was in my yard and I saw this orange butterfly go across the yard and I was thinking, "What is that? It doesn't look familiar." And there was a storm coming, so I took a picture of it quickly. It started raining, so I came in the house and emailed [the picture] to Larry and to some other scientists. (By the way, yeah, I do know John and Dallas.) Anyways, I emailed two people that are nationally-known scientists and I got this email back going, "Allison, you have a Gulf Fritillary in your yard!" And I emailed the two scientists back and I said, "The only Gulf I know is the Gulf of Mexico... You realize I live between Catholic and Walker Minnesota?" And I got emails back right away saying, "Yeah, we're telling you you have a Gulf Fritillary in your yard!" I couldn't believe it! That was pretty fabulous. And it actually stayed here overnight: I took more photos of it in the morning, and then it flew north. I reported it, and as far as I know, it's the most northern record. So, that butterfly came from the Gulf of Mexico!

A vibrant yellow butterfly sits with its wings spread on a brown twig. It has small black markings on the hindwings, and is captioned "Gulf Fritillary".

John Latimer:
Oh my goodness. Wow.

Allison Barta:
It probably got caught up in a wind with air coming from the Gulf. Last summer, I had three things happen that were really cool. One, I woke up in the morning after a storm the night before, and I was walking across the lawn and I saw a flash of blue and I'm like, "What is that? That must be a Silvery Blue. Or maybe it's a Summer Azure." It was a Melissa Blue in my yard, north of Walker! I mean, that butterfly lives way south of the cities or way over by Duluth. I've been wanting to go photograph it, but I'm thinking, "If I drive six hours, maybe I won't even find it." And there was one in my lawn! So, I got a picture of it. Also, this past summer, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail arrived in my yard in August. They also live really far south, they're way down by the Twin Cities. I couldn't believe that happened. And then, I found a Titan Sphinx moth, which flew so fast I couldn't even figure out what it was. And I started taking pictures ahead of it to try to capture it. And I found out that that species also lives far south of our area. So, I have had some really awesome things happen to me along the way.

John Latimer:
Wonderful.

Heidi Holtan:
So Allison, as you're describing all these visitors you've had, I'm thinking you must have the things that butterflies want in your yard.

Allison Barta:
Oh yeah. I belong to NABA, the North America Butterfly Association, and my garden is a certified butterfly garden. So, I have food in my garden for caterpillars and for butterflies. I have milkweed and blazing star and golden rod. I make sure that every year I plant a lot of zinnias because the monarchs need zinnias as they go through in the fall. A lot of the other plants (like the milkweed and the blazing star) they get spent [at the end of the season]. And then what food is there for the monarchs? So, I have zennias until they freeze over. Because of that, I get to see butterflies until late into the season. Besides my yard, I live in a place called Oak Point, which is a peninsula going into Leech Lake. And every day that it's not raining or really cold, I'm out checking my observation sites. I have five sites in our area (we live way out in the forest, so it's pretty non-populated out here), and I have found 90 species of butterflies.

A vibrant orange-and-black butterfly sits with its wings folded on a many-petaled pink flower. It is captioned "Monarch on a Zinnia".

John Latimer:
Wow. 90. That's really remarkable. We've got a couple of minutes before we have to go, but why are butterflies important to all of us?

Allison Barta:
Wow, that's such a a fabulous question. If we don't have butterflies, we're in trouble. We need pollinators! Butterflies, bees, moths, hummingbirds, even bats pollinate our food. Every time you sit down to eat, you're probably eating something that is been grown because of the fact that we have butterflies. We wouldn't have fruit, we wouldn't have vegetables. Humans would be in trouble if we don't have the pollinators. So, they are really important. When I give my presentation, I always hope that when people leave, they'll go home and say, "Yeah, I'm going to let milkweed grow in my yard, and I'm going to find some blazing star, and I'm going to plant some zinnias so those Canadian monarchs have some food on your way south." So, pollinators are really, really important to us humans.

John Latimer:
Allison, thank you for joining us. I feel your passion. I encourage everybody to show up to “On the Hunt for Northwoods Butterflies” on Saturday the 7th from one to three at the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids. Alison, tell, keep telling stories. I think it's what you set out to do.

Allison Barta
Thank you. And I hope everybody comes because you're going to love my PowerPoint! Hope to see people on Saturday. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

Heidi Holtan:
You're welcome.