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'Madame Butterfly' - Barta seeks to show 86 different species fly in Bemidji area

These are some of the 56 different species of butterflies that Allison Barta has seen in the Bemidji area.1 / 2
Allison Barta2 / 2

BEMIDJI - The Bemidji area may be better known for its abundance of lakes than for the 86 different species of butterflies that are said to fly in the area, but for "Madam Butterfly," a butterfly enthusiast, her goal is prove all the species are here.

Allison Barta, 55, a writer of knitting books, a cake decorator and an aspiring science teacher, began the butterfly hunt last June after she and her boyfriend went on a walk and saw some Canadian Tiger Swallowtail butterflies.

After noticing how detailed the yellow and black wings appeared on her camera, she decided to search for the 86 different species that were said to be in the Cass County and Bemidji areas, according to "Butterflies of the Northwoods," a book by Duluth native Larry Weber.

With one year of searching and identifying, she has taken more than 5,000 photos and has identified 56 different species to date.

Barta's hobby has become an obsession to the point where she has spoken with Weber about her search and even submitted her data to be published in the National Lepidopterist Society's 2011 Season Summary, which goes out to butterfly scientists across the nation.

Chippewa National Forest Botanist Tom Huette also asked her to revise the forest's butterfly checklist pamphlet to include her photos.

"You have to immerse yourself into the insect world," Barta said. "Everyone asks me how I get these amazing shots. You immerse yourself. You have to think about your mode of thinking or your train of thought and forget about everything in your life and you just walk."

And Barta walks a lot. For an average of two hours a day she walks, searching several different locations on a regular basis.

Because some of the species are so rare, she does not want to share her locations, but her car is often seen on the side of the road as she searches nearby.

She carries Weber's book with her wherever she goes, along with her camera. When she sees a butterfly she will sneak up on it, zoom in with her camera, take a few shots to identify what it is and then her artistic side takes over.

"I tell them, 'OK, now I need to have a photo session with you,'" Barta said. "I don't say it out loud but I am thinking it."

But butterflies can be a little less predictable than a model walking down the runway. Some do not cooperate, keeping their wings closed to make it hard to get a shot of the dorsal or back side of the butterfly.

For each species she finds, Barta attempts to get the dorsal shot and a ventral, which is an under the wing shot. Some butterflies cooperate to the point where she has to tell herself to stop taking photographs, where others she has to snap as many shots as she can before the butterfly flutters away.

Like a fisherman that lost the hook on their trophy fish, Barta has had her own 'one-that-got-away' stories. The Variegated Fritillary Butterfly teased Barta one day, sticking around long enough for her to get a couple of mediocre shots off before flying away. Barta walked around the area for three weeks looking for it to reappear before she saw it again.

Other butterflies, may fly away just to keep their distance from human contact.

"If you find a butterfly and you want to take a picture of it, but it flies off, the best thing to do is hold still for a while and it might come back," Barta said. "If it doesn't come back right away, it's up in a tree watching you."

When Barta began the hunt, she just went out and began noticing different species left and right, seemingly checking species off the list every day.

"My goal is to find all 86 different species and every day it seemed like I was finding a new one," she said. "Then it got to a point where I am down to the last 30 (species) and now it's not as easy."

Barta said she does not have a goal for finishing her search because each species has a different life span and time of year to be found, putting pressure on her to find them quickly or face having to wait another year before the species-specific window opens again. Over the next couple weeks Barta is searching for the Olympia White and the Brown Elfin.

Barta said the change in climate has played a factor in the cycle of butterflies. The Northern Azure, one of the first butterflies seen in the spring, was spotted April 2 this year, three weeks earlier than they are supposed to be around. Because of this, there were no plants for them to eat and the late snow fall towards the end of the month wiped them out.

In addition to the climate, human factors are also causing for a drop in the butterfly population. Barta stressed the importance of butterflies and other pollinators to the foods and vegetables that people eat. She encourages people to join the pollinator partnership, a program that promotes the conservation of these species.

If butterflies and other pollinators are killed off, "It won't matter how many apple trees you plant because you won't get any apples," she said.

As part of Barta's support and interest for butterflies, she recently signed a contract with the Minnesota State Parks and Trails to give presentations. The presentations will include a slideshow of some of her photos as well as butterfly hunts afterwards.

Her scheduled presentations include:

-- May 19: Bemidji State Park

-- May 21: Cass Lake Lions Club

-- July 14: Scenic State Park

-- July 28: Big Bog State Park

Barta said she will continue looking for ways to utilize her photographs and her research.

With the help of her son Brian, a computer science major at Bemidji State University, she has produced a poster showing the various species she has found so far.

She is trying to get the posters in locations that sell nature gear but for now they can be bought by emailing her at

Once she has found all 86 species, she will likely be looking for a new adventure, but her ultimate goal is to find a science job.

"It is great that I am doing this and it's really fun and it's really giving me a sense of calmness because I really would like to have a science job," Barta said. "When you don't have a job it's stressful, but when I am immersed and I am looking for butterflies, all the stress goes away."

In addition to searching for butterflies, Barta is a substitute teacher at the Cass Lake and Laporte schools.

She grew up with an interest in the sciences and graduated from BSU with a geology degree. The beauty of butterflies has been something that she has admired from a young age and the interest has stuck with her through the years.

"They are just beautiful," Barta said. "If you see one, cherish it because they don't stay that pretty for that long."