A Baltimore Checkerspot hangs on the leaf of a turtlehead plant in the Washington home of Pat Durkin.
A Baltimore Checkerspot hangs on the leaf of a turtlehead plant in the Washington home of Pat Durkin. (JERRY JACKSON, Baltimore Sun)

Don't look now, but Maryland's state insect is fluttering away.

The Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, named for the state's founding Calvert family, has dwindled to just a handful of places, mostly in Western Maryland. Experts worry that the butterfly, once fairly common, may disappear entirely from the state.

Pockets of dedicated butterfly lovers, though, are trying to slow or even reverse the decline by breeding the species in captivity. One such nursery is in a tent in back of an old maintenance shed at Black Hill Regional Park in Montgomery County.

"Here's where the larvae are," said Barbara Kreiley, pointing out tiny caterpillars clinging to the stem of a white turtlehead plant inside the tent. The crawlers are recently hatched and still green, not yet displaying their distinctive orange-and-black markings. "My little babies — see them?"

From a single caterpillar-infested plant collected from the wild last year, Kreiley, a retired nurse, and four other volunteers reared about 250 hatchlings to adulthood. About a month ago, they released them as butterflies, in spots primed to be suitable habitat for the seemingly picky creatures. Since then, patches the women recognize as butterfly eggs have been spied on the undersides of leaves at the release sites, and they have been waiting like expectant parents for them to hatch.

Meanwhile, behind the old maintenance shed, they're already working to step up production for next year, tending to nearly 20 white turtlehead plants inside the tent on which butterflies have laid eggs. Many of the plants have the beginnings of silky "tents" in their tops, spun by newly hatched caterpillars as they feed on the leaves.

Kreiley said it's "awesome, just awesome" how well the group's initial effort has gone, but acknowledges that the real test is yet to come — can the butterflies they released flourish in the wild?

On that score, the record is not encouraging. Others, including the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, have tried captive breeding and given up after failing to see their "colonies" take hold and sustain themselves year after year. Ruth Eisenhour, a teacher at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center in Bel Air, said she's had some success raising and releasing the butterflies in Harford County, but she's only been doing it for three years.

The Baltimore Checkerspot is still seen across much of eastern North America, more commonly in northern states and Canada. But it's increasingly rare in the southern portion of its range, and in Maryland experts say the colorful little butterfly — long on the watch list — is increasingly in peril of vanishing altogether. It's among 37 species of butterflies now considered rare, threatened or endangered in the state. Five are officially listed as extirpated — no longer seen.

"We're definitely losing the butterfly in the state," said Pat Durkin, a retired journalist who's dedicated the past 15 years of her life to protecting and restoring the species known to entomologists as Euphydryas phaeton. Once seen in 15 counties, the butterfly is now found in perhaps five.

The butterfly has a special meaning for this state, as it's reputedly named for the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, who sponsored the first English colony in Southern Maryland and whose family crest also displays orange and black.

Because of that connection, the state's entomology society persuaded the General Assembly in 1973 to name the Baltimore Checkerspot Maryland's official state insect. It was still seen across much of the state at the time, but by the early 1990s had begun a rapid decline.

Experts aren't entirely sure why the butterfly is fading out, but say the most likely factor is the loss of the wet meadows it frequents, and in particular the decline of white turtleheads, a wetland plant that only grows in such settings. The Checkerspot seeks out turtleheads as "host" plants for laying its eggs.

"Some of the sites it had been found on historically were on private lands, and the properties were just developed," said Jennifer Fry, an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' natural heritage program. "The wetland wasn't there anymore — there were now housing developments."

Climate change also could be playing a role in the butterfly's westward shift in Maryland, Fry suggested. The most known populations are in relatively sparsely developed — and cooler — Garrett County.

But the white turtleheads that are the key to its survival are in short supply these days.

The plants, a member of the snapdragon family with white, sometimes pinkish flowers, are bitter to taste. Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars pick up that unpleasant flavor as they feed on the leaves, according to M. Deane Bowers, an entomologist at the University of Colorado. That evidently prompts predators to leave them alone.

Unfortunately, deer like the taste of turtleheads as well, and have consumed whole stands of the plants, possibly wiping out Checkerspot caterpillars in the process.

The caterpillars themselves, though, may be to blame for some population crashes. Bowers said they have voracious appetites and if numerous enough can chew their way through their food supply — especially if it's limited.

"There is a lot of interest in trying to re-establish these butterflies in some places," Bowers said. Institutions and groups in states where the butterfly is declining have begun raising white turtleheads, and some are rearing caterpillars in captivity.

The staff at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, for instance, recently released nearly 200 Baltimore Checkerspots they'd raised from egg to winged adult. It was their first successful crop, said curator Doug Taron, made possible by the accidental discovery that the caterpillars need to over-winter in a wetter environment than other butterfly species.

But more efforts have failed than succeeded.

"It's really not difficult to breed them," said Durkin. "What is difficult is to maintain the breeding population for any number of years."

With little success so far in captive breeding, experts say their focus is on trying to protect the remaining butterfly populations that they know of.

"Our first line of conservation is to preserve what habitat we have," said Durkin. She lives in Maine but returns to Maryland in late spring every year to check up on the Baltimore Checkerspots and teach a class on butterflies. She said she's been spending time this year consulting with residents on a privately owned butterfly haven near Kitzmiller in Garrett County, counseling them on how to maintain the habitat.

Prior captive-rearing failures haven't daunted butterfly lovers like Kreiley, though. She and her volunteers were coached by Denise Gibbs, a naturalist at Montgomery's Black Hill park.

They collected one plant with caterpillars on it from the last known Baltimore Checkerspot habitat in the county, a small open wetland in Clarksburg — the state's most rapidly growing community, according to the latest census. The land all around this spot is bulldozed, though Gibb said the developer has pledged to work with county officials to protect and even enhance the wetland.

The volunteers collected and raised their own white turtlehead plants, and planted some in four spots on other county parkland that had been scouted for apparent suitability. Gibbs said that when the captive butterflies emerged in the spring and were being taken to be released, they started mating in the small cage in which they were being transported. Some female butterflies started laying eggs as soon as they were placed on the turtlehead plants.

"So far so good," said Gibbs. But, she adds, "Nobody seems to know what this butterfly needs. We're learning things as we go."

Ruth Eisenhour at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center in Bel Air also thinks her captive-rearing efforts, carried out with the assistance of Harford County school students and Scouts, are gaining traction.

She said they've managed to take about 30 caterpillars given to them by another breeder in Carroll County a few years ago and build that to about 3,000 last year. This year, Eisenhour said, for some reason the number of caterpillars inside the school's enclosures declined. But she noticed more outside the fenced-in plants, meaning they likely came from butterflies released in prior years.

"I knew nothing about butterflies before I started this," said Eisenhour. "I don't know why this in particular appeals to me. … I'm an animal lover, and you hate to see things just decline and disappear." But in spring, in the few weeks when the butterflies are flying around on school property, Eisenhour said, "it's pretty cool knowing that our kids are the reason they're there."