Melissa Arctic (Oeneis melissa) (Fabricius, 1775)

Diagnosis: The upperside is dull blackish grey, translucent, more so on the forewing, so that the light underside markings show through. There are usually no eye-spots (occasionally a small faint one on the forewing underside). The hindwing underside is heavily mottled with black and pale grey with a little more black in the medial band, but the band is usually only slightly darker than the outer third of the wing and often barely darker than the basal third. Wingspan: 34 to 50 mm.

Subspecies: There are seven North American subspecies, with five found in Canada. The nominate subspecies melissa, from Newfoundland and the Labrador coast, is described above; subspecies semplei, from Quebec, interior Labrador, and Hudson Bay, has a little orange brown in the ground colour above; subspecies assimilis, from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, is darker, blackish; subspecies gibsoni, from Alaska, Yukon, and extreme northern British Columbia, has a more evident medial band; and subspecies beanii, from Alberta and British Columbia, is an even blackish grey above with an indistinct medial band on the underside.

Range: Oeneis melissa flies from Labrador and northern Quebec, around the shores of Hudson Bay, through Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, including the southern tier of Arctic Islands, to Yukon and Alaska. In the western mountains its range extends south to southern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta. There are isolated colonies near Labrador City and adjacent Quebec, in the Gaspé, in New Hampshire, and in the U.S. Rocky Mountain states.

Specimen collection data

Similar Species: The White-veined Arctic (O. bore). The Polixenes Arctic (O. polixenes) has a more yellowish or orange-brown ground colour and the medial band on the hindwing is dark and contrasting. The paler basal and outer thirds of the wing are pale grey with fine black striations in polixenes, not mottled as in melissa; some specimens require examination of the male genitalia to distinguish melissa and polixenes. [compare images]

Description of this image follows.
Melissa Arctic (Oeneis melissa), larva. J.T. Troubridge

Early Stages: The variable larvae range in colour from reddish brown to dusky green, with blackish, brown, and greenish stripes. The head is brown with six blackish stripes. The foodplants are sedges (Carex bigelowii and C. rupestris), although the larvae will eat grasses and sedges in captivity (Scott,1986).

Abundance: The Melissa Arctic is often common to abundant.

Flight Season: Oeneis melissa flies from mid-June to early August. It is biennial, but flies every year in most areas.

Habits: This butterfly is usually seen in dry arctic and alpine tundra, most often on gravelly ridges in the lowlands, and on rocky ridges and scree slopes in the mountains. Males perch on rocks and investigate any butterfly that comes close. On the summit of Smokey Mountain, near Labrador City, RAL observed several aerial battles between Oeneis melissa and worn Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui).

Description of this image follows.
Melissa Arctic (Oeneis melissa semplei). Churchill, Man. J.T. Troubridge

Remarks: JDL observed melissa on a ridgetop near Windy Pass in the Ogilvie Mountains, Yukon, where a dark acidic rock abutted an area of pale grey dolomite limestone. There were both dark and light forms of melissa that matched the light and dark grey shade of the rocks; the butterflies consistently occurred on the matching substrate colour and they avoided crossing the seam, even when disturbed.

© 2002. This material is reproduced with permission from The Butterflies of Canada by Ross A. Layberry, Peter W. Hall, and J. Donald Lafontaine. University of Toronto Press; 1998. Specimen photos courtesy of John T. Fowler.