While everyone else is surrounded by winter, Jon Ulstad enjoys winged beauty
Even in the coldest days of winter, Jon Ulstad is surrounded by butterflies.
Since he began collecting in earnest in 2000, Ulstad has amassed and mounted hundreds of butterflies and moths, some of which he caught among the grasses and flowers of Iowa, and some purchased from around the world.
The majority of the colorful insects can be found mounted on walls or under clear domes in a room along with model rockets, stuffed birds, drawings and hunting and fishing memorabilia.
Ulstad knows a lot about the little critters.
“The red admiral is the only butterfly that’s territorial,” he said, while showing some of the specimens waiting to be mounted in his basement. “They’re more fun to mess with in the backyard. If you take one down the street and let it go, by the time you get back you’ll have two or three of them fighting for his spot.”
Ulstad has always loved the outdoors. He’s been hunting and fishing since age 15. But he didn’t always have such a high interest in butterflies.
“What got me restarted was when Reiman Gardens down in Ames opened up, when I saw the article, it got me thinking.”
Ulstad spent “quite a few years” giving tours as a docent at the Reiman’s butterfly wing, though he still lived in Fort Dodge.
“I especially loved giving tours to young kids,” he said.
He got himself a good, 5-foot butterfly net and made his own pinboards, and started collecting.
Ulstad retired from the Fort Dodge Fire Department in 2011, and now works part time at Van Deist Medical Center in Webster City.
“I have my places I go in Webster City the hours I’m not working,” he said. One is a little triangle of land by the state Department of Transportation shed.
He also goes through the road ditches, and searches the north side of Badger Lake at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park. He takes his net with him when he goes biking at Lake Okoboji.
“It’s tough work,” he said. “Some of those butterflies are very fast.”
It’s good exercise going through the 3- to 4-foot tall weeds, he said, especially when it’s moist out. But it can also be uncomfortable, unless he seals the bottoms of his pant legs against ticks.
“I’ve fought ticks quite a few times until I learned my lesson,” he said.
“Butterflies and moths are in the family of Lepidoptera. That’s Latin for scaled wings.”
Handling the delicate creatures is a challenge. You can’t touch the wings, or the powdery scales will come off on your hand. If you plan to release the butterfly, losing too many scales can keep it from flying.
Ulstad waits until the Lepidoptera calms down, then grabs it through the net by the thorax -where the legs attach to the body. Then he can reach into the net, grasp it gently and put it head first into a paper cone.
“You can have seven or eight in one cone if they’re small,” he said.
Ulstad puts the insects into the freezer for 24 hours, and then they’re ready to be mounted. He uses small pins to hold up the wings for about two days until the butterfly dries out, then glues it to a Styrofoam mount on a board.
He also creates displays of butterflies suspended in more lifelike positions complete with artificial flowers, protected by glass domes he said are sold as antique doll cases.
Ulstad has 482 species on display, and multiple specimens of quite a few. He’s ordered some from South America, India and even Madagascar. They’re often frozen solid when they arrive, and it’s a long process using warm, wet napkins to loosen them up.
One of his prize specimens is a Madagascan sunset moth, a bright turquoise and orange day-flying moth with three tails on its hind wings.
“They’re very sought-after, one of the most popular,” he said. “Just the prettiest thing.”
As far as local butterflies, he particularly likes tiger swallowtails and giant swallowtails, as well as the cecropia, polyphemus and luna moths.
Some specimens are hard to find. Ulstad was very excited when he found the pink-spotted hawk moth.
“It’s not in the best shape, but I kept it. It was the first time I ever found one,” he said. “I found it back here in my butterfly bushes.”
It’s gotten a lot harder in the last few years for butterfly collectors, he said, with people spraying the ditches. Habitat loss has been the biggest problem.
Some butterflies have a specific plant their caterpillars need, such as monarchs needing milkweeds. When those weeds are gone, the butterflies go too.
“For swallowtails, Canadian thistles are their number one, and that’s what I look for. Unfortunately, (they’re a) No. 1 nemesis for farmers, which they spray,” Ulstad said.
Even with all his butterflies, Ulstad still looks for more.
“They’re beautiful,” he said. “I get my exercise. … I’m by myself, and nobody’s bothering me.
“I catch dozens and dozens and probably let 80 to 90 percent go,” he said. “I still have some different specimens I’m looking for in perfect, perfect shape, that I enjoy catching. If it’s not perfect, I let it go. I still enjoy it.”