CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ A summer thunderstorm chased away the delicate visitors to Valley Gardens nursery.

But the sun soon emerged and, as if borne on the steam that followed the rain, butterflies returned to the diverse flowers that Sally Emery was putting on display.

``As the sun stays out, they'll start coming back,'' said Emery, a botanist who loves showing off the nursery's varied flowers that draw butterflies and customers.

Butterflies, the fragile and ageless symbol of renewal and transformation, have emerged across West Virginia in numbers that amaze entomologists and delight nearly everyone else.

``We seem to have done real well,'' said Tom Allen, a butterfly specialist at the state Division of Natural Resources. ``This is a pretty good year.''

Entomologists don't have a count, but insect experts, gardeners and motorists have noticed an increase in the number and variety of butterflies.

This year's mild winter and moist spring are credited for protecting eggs as they brought forth caterpillars that, in turn, unfolded into swallowtails, monarchs, orange sulfurs and others of the 128 butterfly species that dot the state's landscape.

``Everybody has been talking about it and noticed it,'' said Rick Ambrosia, who oversees grounds maintenance at the 16-acre Sunrise Museum in Charleston. ``It's a wonderful sight.''

Linda Butler, an entomologist at West Virginia University, said she has noticed more butterflies, particularly tiger swallowtails, which are known for their black-striped yellow wings.

Butler, a 30-year veteran at WVU, is thrilled at the surging butterfly population.

``To me, all insects are beautiful because they are so beautifully adapted to their world,'' she said. ``All the components of their little bodies are so beautifully sculpted.''

The absence of a bitter winter and plenty of moisture in spring and summer have been a boon to butterflies. Temperatures averaged 41 degrees in January, up from 35.6 degrees in January 1997, said Eddie Whitened, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in Charleston.

And average temperatures were several degrees above freezing in December and February for the second consecutive year, he said.

In addition, nearly 11 inches of rain soaked West Virginia in June, due to floods in parts of the state. About 4 inches of rain fell in July and more than 2 inches were recorded in the first two weeks of August, Whitened said.

``It's way above normal,'' he said.

Butler said the state's abundant foliage, particularly black cherry and yellow poplar trees, also nurture butterflies in their caterpillar stage. And West Virginia, sandwiched between northern, southern and eastern states, provides a central meeting space for migrating butterflies, she said.

But elsewhere in the region and in other parts of the United States, butterfly lovers have not been as lucky.

``I've gone a month without seeing butterflies,'' said Bob Snetsinger, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, Pa. ``People here are concerned that, generally, butterfly numbers are down.''

Jim Mason, a staff naturalist at the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, Kan., said hot and dry conditions in Texas and Mexico have reduced the number of butterflies in the Southwest.

And Jeff Glassberg, secretary of a North American Butterfly Association chapter in Morristown, N.J., said the number is ``down a bit.''

Not all the news in West Virginia is good, especially along the state's interstates highways where butterflies, floating across the roads, meet the windshields of cars and other vehicles.

Still, the vast majority of butterflies who live out their natural lives of between three and five weeks continue to show off their beauty, strengthening their centuries-long ties to appreciative humans one more summer.