Each spring nature treats us to a kaleidoscope of beautiful plants and animals ranging from butterflies and moths to flowers and birds. In fact, with so many beautiful things to look at, nobody can appreciate them all. As a result, far too many stunning natural jewels go unseen. Take the case of the great purple hairstreak. It maintains its anonymity because its wingspan only measures 1-1.7 inches and it spends most of its life in the tops of trees. Consequently, although it is one of the most gorgeous butterflies we are likely to see in our backyards; it is safe to say most of us never spot one.
Recently my daughter stumbled across one basking on the lawn surrounding the place where she works. When she stopped to take a closer look at the butterfly, its beauty took her aback. The butterfly appeared to be what butterfly enthusiasts refer to as “fresh.” This means the butterfly recently emerged and was sporting undamaged wings cloaked with all of their scales.
If you see a male great purple hairstreak basking, it is something you will not soon forget. This is because the butterfly’s wings are a bright metallic blue and literally seem to shine in direct sunlight.
The upper side of the female great purple hairstreak is blackish in color and displays a limited amount of metallic blue.
Being an amateur photographer, one of the things on my bucket list is being able to photograph the dorsal side of a male great purple hairstreak. However, since the only time you are likely see the topside of this butterfly is when it is flying or basking, my chances of photographing it from above are limited. Consequently, all of my photos of it show the ventral side of the insect.
The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are best described as blackish in color and highlighted with red spots near when the wings join its body. In addition, a series of blue spots adorn the undersides of the hindwings.
Lastly, short, fragile tails extend from the trailing edges of the hindwings. If you look carefully at a great purple hairstreak you will likely see the butterfly moving these fragile tails back and forth. It is believed this is done to distract would-be predators. Supposedly, a bird or other predator is more apt to strike at the moving tails and not the insect’s head and body. This would give the butterfly a chance to escape before the predator realized its mistake.
One feature that immediately catches your eye when you spot one of these butterflies is its orange abdomen. Supposedly, this is a warning to predators that it is distasteful.
The best butterfly gardens offer butterflies host plants and to nectar-rich flowers. While we can offer great purple hairstreaks a supply of nectar, we cannot plant its host plant. The reason for this is its host is mistletoe. With that in mind, if you see mistletoe growing atop a tree such as oak growing in your yard, there is a good chance great purple hairstreaks are living in your neighborhood.
I should note that during the spring I most often see the great purple hairstreak nectaring on purple dead nettle (see accompanying photo). Purple dead nettle is an invasive introduced plant most homeowners would call a weed.
If you do not happen to spot a great purple hairstreak this spring, all is not lost. Great purple hairstreaks can be spotted throughout the state from March to early November.