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Karner Blue
Sing Your Purple Song

by Robert Dirig

A male nectars at common cinquefoil. July, 1978, Saratoga Co. Airport, NY (photo Robert Dirig)

I am quietly sitting in a sandy opening, surrounded by the pretty leaves and massed lavender flowers of wild lupine. As my pencil glides over a sketchbook on my lap, small azure blurs shimmer among the gorgeous plants, frequently alighting to rest with widespread wings. They become, for me, the finishing touches in this natural masterpiece of color coordination.

   Although I have chosen a quiet way to begin my field experience at this Wisconsin site, I am actually very excited; for today is the climax of a journey that began 23 years ago in a place a thousand miles away.

   My first glimpse of 'Karner' Melissa Blues (more familiarly known as "Karner Blues"), the butterflies I am watching, came near Karner, New York, a former railway stop between Albany and Schenectady. This butterfly was not easy to find in the vast Karner barrens. I tried in early May and late June 1973, the year I first heard of them, but missed their flight season. Returning in the last days of April 1974, I was again too early to see them outdoors. Finally, on the 25th of May 1975, John Cryan (my collaborator in Karner Blue studies) and I reveled for the first time with these butterflies in the vernal glory of their type locality.

A female shows off her orange HW band. July 20, 1990, Dike 17, Jackson Co., WI (photo by Ann B. Swengel)

   In the intervening 20 years, we have found this rare insect in scattered sandy areas in New York and at one site in New Hampshire, but were too late to see it at former localities in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Ontario. On June 6-7, 1996, I was unable to flush any adults at known habitats in the Indiana Dunes or in Allegan County, Michigan, in cloudy and rainy weather after very cool nights in a late spring. Today, the 10th of June 1996, I am with the butterfly on a sandy prairie at the 3700-acre "Dike 17 Wildlife Area" in Jackson County, Wisconsin, a site suggested by Ann Swengel, another Karner Blue enthusiast.

   It has been several years since I have seen Karner Blues in any abundance, so I sit for a few moments and enjoy their company, as is proper with any old friend. After many years of collecting butterflies, I have reached the point where I simply want to observe and commune with them, allowing their beauty and magic to rekindle the excitement of boyhood discovery.

In the Albany pine bush, Karner Blues are quite fond of spotted knapweeds. July 17, 1989, Albany Co., NY (photo by Jeffrey Glassberg)

   Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis ) is blooming all around me. This exquisitely wrought legume is vital to the Karner Blue's existence as its only caterpillar foodplant. The flowers are the size of my fingernail, arranged in a spire as long as my hand, with paler buds at the top. On each blossom, the lower petals are medium blue, marked with purple lines, while the lavender upper ones are fronted with white. The axis of the plant is a fuzzy rich maroon, as are the leaf stems, each topped with 7-10 prettily splayed leaflets of velvety emerald. Several blooming stalks grow in a clump, and flowers and foliage are beaded with crystalline raindrops. I have timed my Wisconsin visit to coincide perfectly with wild lupine's showpiece season, when its leaves and flowers are at their very best.

Other populations of Melissa Blues are much more tolerant of varied habitats and use many hostplants. Females, such as shown to the left, have more orange on their FWs than do Karners. June 30, 1996, Pope Co., Minnesota (photo by Jeffrey Glassberg)

   Seeing Karner Blues again reaffirms how beautiful they are. Their wings expand about an inch. Males are deep bluish-purple above with narrow black rims and white fringes, while females have wider dark borders and orange crescents internally edging the HW fringe. The wings are pale gray beneath with arcs of black spots, and rows of orange and satiny blue markings along the margins. Females are a trifle larger than males, and have more extensive orange areas on the underside.

   Karner Blues are remarkable butterflies that dramatically illustrate unusual behaviors -- adult swarming, ant-associated caterpillars, overwintering eggs, and communal roosting, sheltering, and puddling. Unfortunately, because it is endangered and occurs so locally, most people will not have the opportunity to know and enjoy it without considerable effort.

A view of Karner Blue habitat. June 10, 1996, Dike 17, Jackson Co., Wisconsin (photo by Robert Dirig)

   Karner Blues were discovered in the 1860s at London, Ontario, and in New York's Karner barrens. Within a few decades they had been reported from widely scattered sites in a narrow band from Maine and New York to Minnesota and Wisconsin (see map). In 1944, famed novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov finally scientifically named the Karner Blue, which had previously been confused with other blues. Alexander B. Klots coined its English name in his Field Guide to the Butterflies in 1951.

   Today we know this butterfly extremely well. The butterfly's distribution and status have been carefully watched by local and federal agencies since it was officially classified as an endangered species in the United States and Canada a few years ago. Two studies conducted in the last 10 years involved close monitoring of caterpillars in the wild -- spring caterpillars in Wisconsin (by Ann Swengel), and their ant associations in New York (by Dolores Savignano). Ryk Peter Spoor and Elizabeth Nickles have likewise watched eggs overwintering in nature and recorded and filmed their predators and parasitoids.

   In contrast to many butterflies, Karner Blues have a wonderful insouciance, and seem unafraid of people. They dart up out of the herbage, land in the sun, and spread their wings in an oddly droll manner, then fly a short distance and indulge in another sunbath. They are easy to photograph, posing for my camera long enough for three or four shots at very close range.

The author reveling amidst Karner Blues. June 10, 1996, Dike 17, Jackson Co., Wisconsin (photo by Robert Dirig)

   This butterfly avidly visits flowers. As I slowly walk along the sand ridge at Dike 17, I see a female nectaring at common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex). But nectar is not their only food. In New York, small assemblages "puddle" at wet sand -- not the hundreds observed by the well-known entomologist J. A. Lintner in 1870, but enough to hint at the delight of encountering such a concentration of these blues in a bygone era. Occasionally they also feed at dung and birdlime.

   A less common manner of feeding in these butterflies is very charming: They actively seek out people and ride around on an arm or hand for up to half an hour, lapping salty perspiration! Here a male settles on my finger for a few minutes. I snap his picture.

   Territoriality has not often been noted as part of this butterfly's behavioral repertoire, but at Karner I have seen males dart at a relatively huge Black Swallowtail that was trying to feed at their lupine flowers, in the same way that American Coppers sometimes buffet Monarchs.

   Since it stays so close to wild lupine, Karner Blues are easy to find throughout the day and night. They are most active in sunlight, but can be observed in assemblies of 15 or more resting on and near lupine plants during afternoon showers. I have frequently seen them settling for the night in small groups among the lupines, usually resting head-down. John Cryan and I even discovered a population after dark by noticing the silvery glint of roosting butterflies in our flashlight beams in a large lupine patch near Glens Falls, New York!

   A persistent cloud cover limits butterfly activity today, but the several fresh males and few females I have seen suggest that the flight season has just begun at this location. In eastern populations, male Karner Blues emerge a day or two before the females appear, so that pairing may be speedily accomplished. After a ritualized courtship, the butterflies mate, usually in early afternoon, staying together for about an hour. They rest like mirror images with their abdomens joined, their wings closed and erect, fanning their antennas. Female Karner Blues lay one egg at a time over several days. Probably because of fickle sun, I notice no pairs or egg-laying today.

A Karner Blue egg. 1978, NY (photo by Howard H. Lyon)

   The eggs that Karner Blue females place on lupine plants in spring are turban-shaped, about 1/16 of an inch in diameter, and have a nubby white shell. A tiny caterpillar chews an angular exit hole in the eggshell a week later, and after hatching, crawls to the underside of a lupine leaflet and begins to feed. The caterpillar gnaws a hole in the surface, inserts its head, and eats out the juicy interior of the leaflet as far as it can reach, then moves over and begins again. This manner of feeding produces translucent areas on the leaf, a sure sign of Karner Blue presence in a lupine patch.

A Karner Blue caterpillar and its attendant ants march down a wild lupine. May 14, 1991, Necedah NWR, Juneau Co., Wisconsin (photo by Ann B. Swengel)

   Since 1867, Karner caterpillars have been known to associate with ants, but details of these interactions have been sparse. During a study in 1987-1989, Dolores Savignano discovered that Karner Blue caterpillars may associate with up to 20 species of ants in one place! She concluded that ant attendance affords caterpillars some protection from predators and parasitoids. (Many ants feed on the nectar-like fluid these specially adapted caterpillars produce, but a few are egg predators.)

Wild lupine in riotous, full bloom. June 10, 1996, Dike 17, Jackson Co., Wisconsin (photo by Robert Dirig)

    After about three weeks of growing, the caterpillar is one-half inch long and velvety green, with a dark stripe down the back and lighter stripes along the sides. When ready to pupate, it crawls off the lupine plant and seeks a sheltered nook in which to spend the most critical episode of its metamorphosis.

   The caterpillar covers the selected place with white silk, attaching itself to this at the anal end and with a silken belt around the middle. A day or so later, the last caterpillar skin peels, revealing the bright green chrysalis. When it hardens, the body segments, spiracles, and wing, leg, eye, and antennal covers of the developing butterfly can be seen. After a week, the wings change to salmon, presaging their progression, a few hours later, to violet with white fringes. One can know in advance the sex of the butterfly that will shortly emerge by inspecting the forewing markings visible through the transparent chrysalis. When the miracle finally happens, a wet, bedraggled adult somersaults out, rights itself, and begins to expand. Fluids pumped from the body swell the wings to full size in about twenty minutes, while the proboscis is readied for feeding. When fully formed and dried, the new Karner Blue will bask in the sunlight before making its maiden flight.

   This second brood of butterflies appears from mid-July to early August, the hottest period of the year in their habitat. Wild lupines already have shed oval brown seeds onto the sand, and their leaves, whitened with powdery mildew, are dying down for the year. After mating, female Karner Blues of this summer brood lay eggs on lupine seed pods and stalks or on adjacent surfaces. Many of these fall to the ground, where they rest unhatched (with the caterpillar fully developed inside) through the glories of autumn foliage and under an insulating blanket of snow until the following spring. Then as wild lupines send up fuzzy new leaves from their thick underground rhizomes, the caterpillars finally hatch and begin to feed, reinitiating the Karner Blue's annual pattern of two cycles through all the life stages.

Range of 'Karner' Melissa Blue

(map by Robert Dirig)

   After enjoying the Karner Blues for awhile, I am eager to compare this Wisconsin habitat on the western edge of the butterfly's range to familiar ones in the Northeast. My initial impression is of a slightly more open vegetation composed of many familiar plants and a few new ones.

   As I explore along the ridge I marvel at the high percentage of overlap in the flora: Wild lupine, of course, is also here, but additionally birdsfoot violet, frostweed, dewberry, wood betony, American hazelnut, wild strawberry, whorled loosestrife, flowering spurge, little bluestem, wild columbine, meadowsweet, lowbush blueberry, horsemint, bearberry, round-headed bush clover, wild rose, bracken, pale spiked lobelia, common cinquefoil, and, remarkably, three-toothed cinquefoil, usually a plant of mountain crags, but growing here on sand, as it also does in New York's upper Hudson River valley! Even the lovely hoary puccoon and dainty lyre-leaved rockcress I see here grew at Karner in the mid-1800s, although they are now gone. The limy nature of these soils is evident from the large assemblage of calciphilic plants, supporting my suggestion, a few years ago, that wild lupine prefers limy sand.

   Other more subtle commonalities amaze me. I hear the same birds -- Field Sparrows, robins, Killdeers. I feel the constant play of the breeze in this similarly open landscape, and it brings the same spiciness of sweetfern, so characteristic of pine barrens habitats. Wetlands abut the sand ridge here, as they do the dunes at Karner. The same cabbage galls occur on the same prairie willows. Identical lichens grow between the very same grasses and wildflowers, even the same tiny lichen crusts over a larger one. The selfsame earthstar fungi spread their points on bare patches of sand, and the beautiful yellow-winged grasshoppers that flush up before me here, likewise startle me in the New York barrens.

   Of course there are differences in this wide geographic separation: I am thrilled to find Gorgone Checkerspots and Arctic Skippers here, but neither flies at or near Karner. Jack pines replace the usual pitch pines of the East, and small shrubs of Hill's oak grow on the sand ridge instead of the scrub oaks and dwarf chestnut oaks of the Hudson valley. Climbing an observation tower a few hundred feet to the west, I am struck by the Midwest's relative flatness and celestial dominance, exposed to every nuance of sun and cloud; whereas in New York, raised topography frequently closes the horizon. I am here in spring, and can see only some of the seasonal biota within the limits of my interests and knowledge. Even so, the similarity of this Karner Blue habitat to those in the East is remarkable.

   Earlier today, as I traveled to this site, I saw signs announcing that fire danger was "low" after a rainy morning. It comes as no surprise that fires occur in this mix of jack pine barrens, oak savannas, and sandy prairies; for fire is an infrequent, if welcome visitor to Karner Blue habitats everywhere. Periodic fires enrich the soil with ash and set back plant succession by several years -- thus maintaining the critical "open canopy" on which many pine barrens species depend.

   Eastern Karner Blue populations are in severe peril at present. The main cause is too many human settlements. These result in roads that fragment sensitive habitats, and in the suppression of fires, preventing the natural reversion of overgrown habitat to an open-canopied situation. Hundreds of acres have been preserved at Karner, but fire management progresses slowly. Fortunately the butterfly has been able to survive on roadsides, along utility corridors, and at airports that are kept open by frequent mowing.

   For many years I have pondered other possible reasons for the Karner Blue's decline. John Cryan's New York figures from his mark-release-recapture studies in the early 1980s suggest that only one in 250 eggs laid in late summer produces an adult Karner Blue the following May. A continuous snow cover from December to March may be vital to survival of overwintering eggs; but a series of mild, nearly snowless winters during recent decades may have taken their toll. For whatever reasons, Karner Blues have declined markedly in this century, especially in the East. Wisconsin and Michigan are the present strongholds of this butterfly.

   My experiences on the sand ridge today have put me on a high plane of wonder and delight. I have been watching the images, smelling the perfumes, feeling the textures, and hearing the music of this special place, against a backdrop of all the other Karner Blue habitats I have seen. The butterfly's considerable mystique looms as a totem of these "vanished landscapes."

   When it is time to leave, I stroll out among the lupines to say goodbye. My spiritual connection to this butterfly is strong, and on impulse I hold out my hands and say:

"Hear me, my precious blue friends: Thank you for our revel today. You have added much richness to my life. I cherish you, and watch your fate. For many years I have championed your special places, your right to be. Find peace in your flowery paradise. Sing your purple song to the sun and wind. Keep yourselves well ... until I see you again."

Where to See Karner Blues

Dike 17 Wildlife Area, Black River State Forest, Jackson County, Wisconsin. This wonderful area is on the west side of N. Settlement Rd., 2.75 miles south of Rt. 54. Park in the lot by the large brown wooden sign, proceed to the open sand ridge straight ahead, and find Karner Blues and wild lupines within a few feet. The first brood flies late May to mid-June; the second from mid-July to mid-August (both abundant). This reserve is also home to other rare species, including Bald Eagles, Massasauga rattlesnakes, and Sandhill Cranes.

Allegan State Game Area, Allegan County, Michigan. Located 8 miles northwest of Allegan, this is another easily reached site with abundant butterflies. Drive west on Rt. 89 to 46th St., and park. Wild lupine grows profusely all through the open pine barrens to the west, the butterfly occurring with it. The spring brood flies from late May to mid-June; the summer brood in the last half of July.

Karner Pine Bush, Albany County, New York. This is the type locality. Find the intersection of Rts. 20 and 155. Drive northeast on Karner Rd. (Rt. 155) to the traffic light at the junction of Old State Road, opposite a credit union. Turn left onto old State, then immediately pull off into a sandy area on the right (northeast) side of the road and park. Proceed northeast along Rt. 155, crossing a paved road that enters an industrial park. Karner Blues occur abundantly northeast of that road, among billboards. Find them May 20th to June 10th and July 15th to August 5th.

   Please remember that this is a federally listed Endangered Species, protected by law throughout its range.

30 Dec 1997 / Main Page