Plebejus idas nabokovi    (Masters, 1972)

Nabokov's Blue 

MN Status:
special concern
(as Lycaeides idas nabokovi)
Federal Status:


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Minnesota range map
Map Interpretation
North American range map
Map Interpretation


Lycaeides idas nabokovi, Lycaeides argyrognomon nabokovi

  Basis for Listing

Nabokov's blue was originally described from Minnesota specimens. This subspecies of Lycaeides idas is restricted to northern Minnesota, southeastern Manitoba, southwestern Ontario, northern Wisconsin, and northern Michigan. Other subspecies range across Canada and southward in the mountains into the western United States. Throughout its limited range, Nabokov's blue is uncommon to rare and highly local (Masters 1972; Klassen et al. 1989).

Recent Minnesota records are confined to the three northeastern most counties, and although focused searches in the past few years have discovered several new occurrences, most appear to be small colonies. Because the species' preferred habitat is open woodland where the larval host plant, dwarf bilberry (Vaccinium cespitosum), is abundant, forest fires were probably important in creating and maintaining habitat for the species. Forest management may provide a suitable substitute but this is uncertain, and some silvicultural practices, such as herbicide use, pose a real threat to this species. Given its very limited distribution in the state, Nabokov's blue was listed as a special concern species in Minnesota in 1996.


Nabokov's blue is a small butterfly with an average wingspan of 2.75 cm (1.08 in.) in both sexes. The upper side of males is an intense, bright blue; females are somewhat variable, but generally they are mostly brownish gray, with blue limited to the basal third at most. A submarginal row of dark spots is usually present on the hind wings, sometimes with a hint of orange along their inner edge. Beneath, the 2 sexes are very similar: irregular rows of white-ringed black dots on a pale grayish ground (females tend towards a warmer, slightly darker shade) and a more regular submarginal band of paired black crescents enclosing orange, especially on the hind wings. The outermost row of dark crescents is enlarged into silvery-blue spots on the hind wings.

Nabokov's blue is very similar to its close relatives the Karner blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) and the Melissa blue (L. m. melissa). The orange in the submarginal band beneath is typically more prominent in both subspecies of L. melissa than in Nabokov's. Females of the Melissa blue have a prominent submarginal orange band on the upper side of both hind and forewings, and Karner blue females usually have a definite orange band on the upper side of the hind wings. Definitive determination of males not associated with females requires dissection of genitalic structures. Fortunately, neither subspecies of L. melissa occurs within the range of Nabokov's in Minnesota. The most likely butterfly to be confused with Nabokov's blue is the greenish blue (Plebejus saepiolus), which flies during the same time as the Nabokov's. It is nearly identical in size, but the blue of the male's upper side is paler and more greenish than in the Nabokov's. Beneath, both sexes of the greenish blue butterfly are much less conspicuously spotted, and the orange, if present, is reduced to a single spot on the hind wing. The body is densely clothed in long, hair-like scales, giving the greenish blue a furry appearance. The silvery blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) is much darker beneath, making the white rings around the spots very conspicuous, and it lacks any trace of orange. Its flight period generally ends before that of the Nabokov's begins. The summer azure (Celastrina neglecta) also lacks any orange markings. It is chalky grayish white beneath, with the darker spots somewhat smeary looking. The blue of the upper side is a lighter blue and has a powdery look from the presence of white overscaling; females have a broad, strongly contrasting, charcoal gray to black border along the outer part of the forewing that continues more narrowly along the front edge. The eastern tailed blue (Everes comyntas) is distinctly smaller than the Nabokov's, and has a short, hair-like tail extending from the margin of each hind wing.

Other common names for this species include Northern blue and Scudder's blue.


The Nabokov's blue inhabits various upland openings in the northern forest with low vegetation and an abundance of the larval host plant, dwarf bilberry, a diminutive rhizomatous shrub that forms mat-like colonies. This plant occurs on sandy soils and on rock outcrops. In Minnesota, all known colonies of this butterfly occur at sandy sites, but it is recorded from rock outcrops in Michigan (Nielsen 1999).

  Biology / Life History

The Nabokov's blue has a single annual generation. Larvae hatch from overwintering eggs in early spring and complete growth and pupate by mid-June to early July. Adults emerge after about 10 days in the pupal stage. Females mate shortly after emergence and begin egg laying right away. Eggs are affixed singly to stems of the larval host plant, nearby plants, or debris and remain dormant until the following spring. Adults can live for at least three weeks, but average survival is probably not more than one week (Wolf 1993). They feed on nectar from a variety of available plants, native and non-native; males also feed on dung, urine-soaked soil, or even just damp soil (mud-puddling). Adults are almost always encountered in the close vicinity of host plant patches, giving the impression that this butterfly is highly sedentary. The transient nature of suitable habitat requires that emigration from patches occur to colonize new patches created by disturbance, but this aspect of adult behavior is poorly known. In one small 30-day study, no marked butterfly moved farther than 260 m (853 ft.) from the point of marking, but two unmarked individuals were encountered more than 2 km (1.2 mi.) from a known colony (Wolf 1993).

Dwarf bilberry, in the heather family (Ericaceae), is the only reported larval food plant of Nabokov's blue (other L. idas subspecies in eastern North America feed on a variety of plants in the heather and crowberry (Empetraceae) families (Layberry et al. 1998)). Larvae are attended by ants, which probably provide some protection from predators and parasitoids. Nabokov's blue larvae have specialized organs that produce a secretion that is avidly fed upon by the ants, and, as is documented in other Lycaenid butterflies, they probably have organs that produce mimics of ant pheromones to further manipulate ant behavior (Malicky 1970). Larvae feed and develop normally in the absence of ants (Wolf 1993), but mortality from natural enemies may be much higher. Whether particular ant species are more effective is not known.

  Conservation / Management

Reforestation of habitat openings will eliminate this butterfly (although dwarf bilberry, a long-lived perennial, can persist in the understory). All known Nabokov's blue sites in Minnesota are capable of supporting forest, and therefore it appears that the presence of this butterfly in the state historically depended upon periodic habitat-opening disturbances and upon the butterfly's ability to find and colonize new openings as old ones became unsuitable. Occurrence of the host plant is controlled primarily by substrate characteristics; therefore forest disturbances influenced butterfly distribution by making the already present host plant available to the butterflies. Fire was presumably the primary disturbance that created habitat for this butterfly in the pre settlement landscape. Today, after decades of fire suppression, Nabokov's blue is dependent on human induced mechanical disturbances, including timber harvest. However, silvicultural practices that reduce or eliminate the host plant, such as rock raking and herbicide application, will negate the potential of timber harvest to create habitat. Rapid reestablishment of tree cover through intensive management will also negatively affect this butterfly, as it shortens the time available for colonists to find the habitat. If the butterfly does colonize, intensive management can shorten the time interval to produce emigrants to colonize other patches. Forest is a barrier to dispersal for Nabokov's blue, so colonization requires connectivity via natural openings such as streams, or via human created openings, such as roads or utility corridors. Managing a few good sites specifically to sustain strong Nabokov's blue populations and otherwise restricting only those silvicultural activities that would harm dwarf bilberry, would probably be an adequate conservation strategy. The use of prescribed burning to maintain the suitability of occupied habitat, while probably the most effective management approach, requires caution as all non-adult life stages of the butterfly are highly vulnerable to incineration. Subdivision of occupied sites and burning the units in a rotation that allows for recolonization after burning will minimize the risk of local extirpation.

  Conservation Efforts in Minnesota

In 1986, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased a significant portion of the McNair site from a timber company. This site is the type locality for the Nabokov's blue (the source of the specimens from which the subspecies was originally described). TNC transferred the property to the U.S. Forest Service in 1991, which designated it as a Special Use Area in the Superior National Forest. Forest Service biologists, with support from the Minnesota DNR, developed a management plan for the site and began cutting planted and invading trees and shrubs and burning small subdivisions of the site in 1998. Monitoring of Nabokov's blue numbers at the site, also begun in 1998, is an ongoing project. Nabokov's blue is included on the U.S. Forest Service Region 9 Regional Forester Sensitive Species List, which will encourage attention to the needs of this butterfly in forest planning for the Superior National Forest. Both the Forest Service and the Minnesota DNR have funded inventory efforts in northeastern Minnesota for the butterfly. In 2002, the eastern region of the U.S. Forest Service prepared a conservation assessment (Wolf and Brzeskiewicz 2002) for the Nabokov's blue and dwarf bilberry to aid in developing a plan for conserving these species on U.S. Forest Service lands.

  References and Additional Information

Klassen, P., A. R. Westwood, W. B. Preston, and W. B. McKillop. 1989. The butterflies of Manitoba. Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, Winnipeg, Manitoba. 290 pp.

Layberry, R. A., P. W. Hall, and J. D. LaFontaine. 1998. The butterflies of Canada. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario. 280 pp. + color plates.

Malicky, H. 1970. New aspects on the association between lycaenid larvae (Lycaenidae) and ants (Formicidae, Hymenoptera). Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 24:190-202.

Masters, J. H. 1972. A new subspecies of Lycaeides argyrognomon (Lycaenidae) from the eastern Canadian forest zone. Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 26:150-154.

Nielsen, M. C. 1999. Michigan butterflies and skippers: a field guide and reference. Michigan State University Extension, East Lansing, Michigan. 248 pp.

Wolf, A. T. 1993. Ecology and conservation of the Northern Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides idas nabokovi) and its relationship with Dwarf Bilberry (Vaccinium caespitosum) in northern Wisconsin. Thesis, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, Wisconsin. 114 pp.

Wolf, A. T., and M. Brzeskiewicz. 2002. Conservation assessment for Northern Blue Butterfly - Plebejus (Lycaeides) idas nabokovi Masters and dwarf bilberry - Vaccinium caespitosum (Michx). United States Forest Service, Eastern Region, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 33 pp. Accessed 18 August 2011.

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