July 29, 2010

The Regal Fritillary Butterfly on Bergamot


Or is it a REGAL Fritillary?

      This year, my yard has a spectacular, albeit it small, display of bee balm, a.k.a. bergamot. The blooms are light purple, with a smattering of red blossoms mixed in.

     Flittering about this bee balm are numerous brightly colored orange-with-black-and-silver Regal fritillary butterflies.

      On February 28, 1996, this species was moved from the endangered species list to the federal species of concern list.


     The original range of the Regal fritillary butterfly extended north from Oklahoma, then east from Montana and Colorado to the central east coast. Once, it was common in the natural grasslands, pastures, and wet meadows of the northeastern United States. However, in 2010, it can no longer be found in most of New England or the Ohio Valley. There are only scattered populations in the southeastern and south-central counties of North Dakota, and in the Sheyenne National Grasslands in southeastern North Dakota.

     Today, the only northeastern place where its exuberant flight can be observed is located on two hundred and nineteen acres at Fort Indiantown Gap, a National Guard Training Site in Pennsylvania. Another seventy-five acres forms a dispersal corridor.


     The Fort contracted with the Pennsylvania Chapter of The Nature Conservancy to assist in caring for this last Regal fritillary habitat. In January 1998 the Conservancy placed a project manager on the base to assist the National Guard’s efforts to protect this butterfly. In 2006, the Conservancy transferred its research and monitoring efforts to Pennsylvania State University.

     Throughout my fifteen years of living in Southwestern Pennsylvania, I’ve been familiar with Fort Indiantown Gap. However, I was unaware of its ecological little secret about the Regal fritillary.

     The Fort is the only live-fire, maneuver military training facility in Pennsylvania. It supports nineteen Pennsylvania National Guard personnel and more than one hundred thirty thousand National Guard members from other states, plus personnel from the military, law enforcement and civilian population.

     The National Guard has achieved a delicate balance between preparing troops for combat and maintaining high standards of conservation stewardship. Its conservation program has thrived due to an intense natural resources management program.

     The long, narrow valley that supports the Regal fritillary is nestled between Blue Mountain and Second Mountain. Its managed habitat is created and maintained by repeated, frequent, soil disturbance; patchy fires, and stewardship efforts that create a diverse grassland dominated by native herbaceous vegetation.

     Environmental controls include prescribed fires that are occasionally training related. The fires allow for the growth of little bluestem and broomsedge grasses and native bunch grasses, which the butterflies use for protection in all stages of its life cycle. The presence of bluestem grass is an indicator of the proper habitat.

     It also allows for growth of larval host plants, including field violets that thrive in dry, grassy areas. The main violet species utilized the Regal fritillary is the arrow-leaved violet (Viola sagittata), which grows best on bare, low nutrient soils—about five thousand per acre. The count of the adult nectar sources—blooming milkweeds and thistles—is approximately one hundred fifty per acre. Other butterfly friendly plants include wild bergamot, dogbane, Indian hemp, non-native thistles (Canada, musk/nodding, and bull), and exotic spotted knapweed.

     Since monitoring of the Regal fritillary population began in 1998, the count of adult butterflies has remained at a consistent one thousand adults.

      I don’t think of the military training site as a safe haven for butterflies. Yet, the regal fritillary is such a star attraction at Fort Indiantown Gap that there are guided tours, during which visitors can view the only population of Regal fritillary butterflies in this state. The free tours, which have been offered more than ten years, occur each July.

     Unfortunately, I was unaware of this until it was too late to make reservations this year.

     However, it’s not a total loss. All I have to do is step outside my back door to view the fluttering wings white- and silver-spotted wings of the orange Regal fritillary. I grab my camera, shoot a few frames, and create a memory available all winter.

     On closer examination, the butterflies on my bee balm may not be the Regal fritillary, but another type of fritillary. These butterflies are similar, and may take a person better than I am to distinguish which butterfly it is. Perhaps I’d better plan on going to Fort Indiantown Gap next year.

     Any butterfly experts out there? 


     On closer examination, the butterflies on my bee balm may not be the Regal fritillary, but another type of fritillary. These butterflies are similar, and may take a person better than I am to distinguish which butterfly it is.

     Any butterfly experts out there?










  1. The butterfly in your photo is not the Regal Fritillary(Speyeria idalia) but is the common Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) nominate sub species cybele.

    Comment by Ira — June 30, 2012 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  2. They are alive and in abundance here in Southeastern Massachusetts as of September 2013.

    Comment by ABG — November 17, 2013 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

    • Thank you. I didn’t see any in that area during my September travels, but I admit my husband and I were doing other things—as you can read in the New England category on this online magazine.

      Comment by carolyncholland — November 17, 2013 @ 6:56 pm | Reply

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