This post is about finding the Mountain Apollo, one of the most beautiful and large butterflies in Europe.
The quest for the fantastic Parnassius apollo butterfly began when I was very young, while receiving a book about insects; on the front cover it stood very proudly the big whitish black-and-red spotted Apollo. This image remained with me for so many years…
My first big disappointment came in 2012 when, together with my wife, I went to the Bicaz Gorges (for the second time in as many years), in my own country, Romania. Despite knowing that most Romanian lepidopterists accepted that P. apollo is considered extinct in the area, my hopes were very high. Of course, no Apollos were seen, despite visiting many of the known sites for this species…
The next Apollo-targeted trip was in 2017, in Croatia, again with my wife, and her brother. There we went first on the Velebit Mountain. Unfortunately, the weather was a bit ahead of time, and we’ve arrived a bit too late at the meeting…Most probably a couple a weeks too late.
A second trip towards the east of Croatia resulted in a bigger disappointment: the wildfires encircled one of the best areas for Apollo in Croatia, so my hopes to meet the species were, again, ruined.
The last trip dedicated to finding the species was in Bulgaria, at Trigrad, also in 2017, in August. Not learning from my mistakes, I’ve decided to check the area despite being very late in the period. Again, no Apollos, but the area was truly peppered with its main food plant, Sedum album. The region is characterized by steep calcareous walls, sub-alpine vegetation in some areas, and a lot of space for butterflies to fly in, with many species of plants around this rather quiet village. A few interesting butterfly species were observed, and comparing their usual flight periods with the Apollo’s, I’ve concluded that we’ve arrived too late, perhaps with as much as 3 weeks…To be honest, this was already in my mind before we departed towards Trigrad: exchanging a few messages with the renowned lepidopterist Levente Székely, I’ve found out some general areas where the species flies, and also their main flight periods for each location. He told me that basically it was too late to find the Apollo in that year…I did not listen :(. After the big disappointment with Croatia, I needed badly some evidence of the Apollo. But it was not to happen in 2017.
So, this was the story of Apollo for me…until 2018.
Bulgaria July 13-15, 2018.
To begin with, the team: myself, my brother-in-law, Mihai, and my uncle, Leonard. All of which never saw an Apollo butterfly in the wild before…
Our trip started in Bucharest, with the team gathering at about 5:30 in the morning. We drove to the Giurgiu-Ruse bridge over the Danube, and into Bulgaria. By 12:00 we were in Sofia, and by 15:00 at Melnik, a nice little vacation village, situated at around 400 meters above sea level. The area was surrounded by calcareous walls, and the nearby grass fields looked very similar to the Retezat Mountains fields back in Romania. A lovely location.
Our first stop was right next to Melnik, in a small opening where a light shower cooled the air from 34 Celsius to around 24 C in a matter of minutes.
And the very first invertebrates: a spider (Lycosa sp., to be determined)…
…and a few individuals of Scarabaeus pius/sacer (yet to be precisely determined):
Also, a few butterflies were observed, including one Limenitis reducta female, and the only Polygonia egea observed in the entire trip.
The next few stops were on the road from Gorno Spanchevo to Pirin, a mountainous road recently “refurbished”. Being late in the evening, not much was to be expected. Yet hundreds of Cetonidae were flying around, with as many as 40 on a single plant. A few scarab beetle were also observed.
The first big “wow” of the trip came from Mihai: a couple (really a couple, a male and a female) of Palpares libelluloides, perhaps the largest species of ant-lions in Europe:
The last stop, an hour before sunset. This time at the side of the road a large grass-rich opening offered no more than 10 individuals of Libelloides macaronius, or owlflies:
This short trip had to end, since all of us were quite tired, and the next day was to be dedicated to the Apollo.
Again, early in the morning, 6 AM, and we were already making the plan for the day. A short breakfast and up we went. This time, the road to Pirin showed its true colors:
At an altitude of 900 meters and rising, the number of butterflies was increasing rapidly. Here I’ve managed to observe the only Chazara briseis of the trip. Lots of Colias sp. individuals were flying in the morning Sun, as were a few Satyrinae. Melanargia galathea and Brintesia circe were the most common species in the area. No larger butterflies. Yet 😉
Further along the road, on the calcareous walls, tens of Sedum album plants were giving us the sign that Parnassius apollo should be…close.
Our first larger butterfly was…well…we still don’t know for sure. A whitish large shape flying above our car. With the Sun in our eyes, we could not discern the true nature of this back-illuminated butterfly. (We can however assume it was actually our first Apollo observed, since no other species encountered in our trip were similar to it.)
Many of the visited locations were filled with Carduus sp., the main feeding plants of the Apollo:
The next few stops were rather brief, with all of us looking down the valleys or up the cliffs, but with no luck…
I was again a bit disappointed, and thinking “Croatia all over again…”.
Another stop, and another one and…WOWWWW!!!
Ten Apollos were flying in front of my eyes down a cliff, all on a small patch filled with Carduus. What a sight! “I’ve finally found it!”. Shouting to the other members of the expedition: “Get over here, tons of Apollos here!”.
The next three hours were dedicated to this area alone, with the Apollos flying up and down on a rather steep stony wall. Pretty hard to photograph the species here:
Next stops along the road revealed another 8 Apollos, some observed at an altitude of 1600m. By the time we’ve got back to the first Apollo location, the bulk of the species was already gone. Still, a couple of females were laying their eggs on a few stones close to the larval food plant.
The Gallery presented below is the result of some 2 hours of photography.
On the road back to Melnik, we’ve observed another two Apollos, at an altitude of only 900 meters. This was the lowest altitude where the species was observed on the trip.
We went back to the Hotel, and celebrated our success with a couple of beers and a nice big stake. What a memorable day…
Again, early in the morning, and up to the mountains. Same locations were visited, but due to the earlier time of the day, only two Apollos were observed. These were the only individuals of the day, adding to a total of 22 (perhaps 23) Parnassius apollo individuals observed on the entire trip. Not bad, not bad at all 🙂
On our way back from the mountain, stopping again at around 900 meters of altitude, Leonard finds an ant colony, with some rather large individuals. Some were gathering at the entrance of the colony as soon as we were approaching it. Their bite on the camera’s lens cap was proof that these were no ordinary ants, but some rather ferocious ones (Cataglyphis nodus, ID: Leonard):
The very last insect, found by Mihai just a few hundred meters from the ant colonies, was also the giant of the trip: Saga natoliae. What a magnificent bush-cricket.
The way back home was long, delayed for a couple of hours by a terrible accident (in which a truck smashed a small car in a wall…not a nice sight to remember), but it made all the drivers a bit more careful on the sinuous road to Sofia…
The long way back was rather quiet, with only a few cars passing from Bulgaria to Romania. It was a relaxing returning trip from a very tiring expedition.
Must get back there again…
-This post is dedicated to my wife, who couldn’t come with me on the trip. She stood back home, preparing the next generation of astro/ento/photo enthusiasts ;).
-I must thank Levente Székely for all the information regarding the general locations and flight periods of Parnassius apollo in Bulgaria. Without these details, I could still be only dreaming of one day meeting the superb Mountain Apollo. Thank you!