Seeing more than 100 giant swallowtail butterflies in a single weekend would delight any natural enthusiast.
But for Bryan Reynolds, president and CEO of the Butterflies of the World Foundation, finding all those butterflies in one spot was like stumbling on a hidden treasure.
Reynolds and two other butterfly enthusiasts visited The Nature Conservancy’s Pontotoc Ridge Preserve, about 20 miles south of Ada, on Aug. 23. The three men were driving along a gravel road between headquarters and the far south gate when they saw more than 100 freshly hatched giant swallowtail butterflies.
“I don’t think there was a damaged one in the bunch,” Reynolds said in a Sept. 4 phone interview. “They were just beautiful.”
He said the butterflies were feeding on thistle blossoms, which made it easy to approach them if the group moved slowly.
The group returned to the preserve two more times that weekend and saw more than 100 giant swallowtails on each visit.
Reynolds said it’s unusual for anyone to see so many giant swallowtails at one time, let alone during three visits over three days.
“Even on a good day, it would be rare to see three or four a day in a good spot,” he said.
Adult giants are one of the largest swallowtail species, with a wingspan of up to 6 inches, according to the website for the University of Florida’s entomology department. Their wings are black with yellow markings near the wing margins, and spots form a diagonal band across the forewings.
The butterfly can be found across North America in a band extending from southern New England across the northern Great Lakes State and into Ontario. The species also appears through the southern portion of the Central Plains to the Rocky Mountains, and it ranges southward to Florida and the Caribbean into the southwest United States.
Giant swallowtails are also common in Midwestern states like Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, where the larvae feed on prickly ash.
Just like any other insect, giant swallowtails have growing cycles, Reynolds said. He said some years are especially good for the species if all conditions — good weather, an abundant supply of food and few predators — are favorable.
“If all of those factors are just perfect, you could have a big hatch like this,” he said.
Reynolds said anyone who drives around the area over the next few days might spot a similar group of giant swallowtails. He noted that the Pontotoc Ridge Preserve is owned by The Nature Conservancy, so visitors need to get permission before entering the property.
Reynolds said butterfly enthusiasts may be in luck if they look for sunny spots along gravel roads that cross wooded areas and are lined with thistles.
“If they drive slowly enough and then once they see a patch of blooming thistle along the side of the road, they can just pull over, get out and explore that patch of thistle,” he said.
Butterflies of the World is a Lexington-based nonprofit that educates people about butterfly habitats and conservation. The organization also hosts programs designed to encourage people to appreciate butterflies.