Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths. In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants. Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants. Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard. Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.
Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies. More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State. Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards.
Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants: red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth, imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.
If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks. With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard. If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs. If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list. This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.
Each passing day brings news reports of the continued spread of the COVID- 19 virus and its horrible impact on people throughout our state, nation, and world. As a result, we all have to cope with increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Each of us has different ways in which we try to cope with these frightful times. One of the best ways I have found to deal with it is embark of a journey of discovery in my backyard. I would like to share with one such treks.
Recently after watching the noon news present the update on the numbers of cases of the pandemic in Georgia, I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a walk about. I was greeted with bright sunshine and balmy zephyrs. Standing on my deck, I was taken aback by a colorful collage created by the blossoms of jonquils, native and ornamental azaleas flowering dogwood, and other plants. After drinking in the beauty of this living mural, I began my walk.
One of the first things that caught my eye was a pipevine swallowtail nectaring at both yellow and orange blooms borne on native azaleas. I just had to stop and photograph this scene. A short time later, I just happened to notice a dragonfly flying just about my lawn. From time to time, the insect would land. Each time the dragonfly touched down, I was able to snap a few pictures as well as study the relative small aerial hunter. It was obvious that this was a species I had never seen in my yard before. The dragonfly was a female blue corporal.
Moving on I stopped in my tracks when a silver-spotted skipper landed in a patch of purple dead nettle. This marked the first time this spring I had seen this butterfly.
As I continued to walk, I noticed something different every few minutes. During one circuit, I spotted a eastern tiger swallowtail. During another circuit, I spied a cloudless sulphur. Carpenter bees seemed to be everywhere.
In subsequent trips around my yard, I stopped to study and photograph the fresh blossoms of flowering dogwood trees, bluets, and a native thistle.
Throughout my brief time afield, I was treated with the soothing songs of chipping sparrows and pine warblers singing from the tops our tall loblolly pines.
When I finally ended by backyard walk, sat in a chair on my deck, and began reviewing all that I had seen during my brief half hour backyard journey, Mother Nature surprised me with one final event. From around the corner of the house, a mockingbird appeared carrying a stick and quickly disappeared into the bowels of a nearby shrub.
I must admit, I wished that I could have extended my visit with my backyard neighbors; however, I had to address a few other demands on my time. However, when I went back inside, I was totally relaxed and convinced I need spend in my yard every day.
While aside of practicing social distancing, there is little that I can do to help thwart the spread of the terrible Covid-19 virus, I am certain that my backyard wildlife haven will help me deal with our uncertain future.
If you have your own wildlife haven, I hope you will visit it and your backyard neighbors often. I am certain each trip will help you unwind and strengthen your bond with the natural world during these turbulent times.
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.
With daily temperatures soaring into the 90s and above, we Georgians have been spending as much time as possible inside our comfortable air-conditioned homes. Without the luxury of having a cool refuge to escape to when the hot sun is beating down, our backyard wildlife neighbors have to employ other means to beat the heat. Recently my wife spotted a Halloween pennant dragonfly doing just that.
A couple of weeks ago while watering the flowers on our deck she noticed a Halloween pennant dragonfly perched on the dead branch of a red salvia plant. Instead of perching with its wings parallel to the ground, the beautiful gold dragonfly had arranged its body so that its tail was pointing upwards toward the heavens. At first, she thought the insect just happened to land in the awkward position. However, several times during the next few minutes the dragonfly flew off and then returned to the same spot. Each time it landed in the normal manner and then quickly rearranged its body so its abdomen faced upward like an obelisk. This made it look much like a miniature Washington Monument.
It seems the Halloween pennant was employing an odd strategy to keep cool. By positioning itself with its abdomen pointing skyward, it was reducing the surface area of its body exposed that was exposed to the sun’s ray. With less direct sunlight striking its body, it kept itself cooler than it would have been if it perched in a normal position.
Isn’t nature amazing?
Some of our most fascinating and important backyard wildlife neighbors are pollinating insects. Unfortunately, populations of many of these critters are declining. In an effort of assess the number of these pollinators across the state, the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension is conducting the first Georgia statewide pollinator census. The count will be held August 23 and 24, 2019.
Becky Griffin, UGA Extension school garden and pollinator census coordinator is inviting private citizens, families, clubs, school classes and other groups to cooperate.
The count is fashioned after the highly successful Great Backyard Bird Count. Consequently, whereas you do not have to be an expert in bird identification take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you don’t have to be able to identify the insect pollinators that visit your garden. Participants are simply asked to separate pollinators into eight groups (carpenter bees, bumble bees, honey bees, small bees, wasps, flies, butterflies/moths, and other insects. An easy to understand online guide to these insects can be downloaded from the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website (GGaPC.org).
Here is what you need to do to participate:
- Visit the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website and download the GGPC Observation Sheet. The sheet can be used to record your sightings.
- Select a single plant growing in your yard that you know attracts pollinators.
- Count the pollinators landing on the plant during a 15-minute period.
- Visit the website once more and upload the results of your count.
I sincerely hope that you become citizen scientist and participate in the state’s first-of-its-kind pollinator count. If you do, you will be helping conserve these valuable insects.
If you have any questions regarding the census, contact mailto:Becky Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next time you spot what appears to be a bumblebee perched on a plant in your garden, take a close look at the insect, as it just may be accomplish insect predator known as the southern bee killer (Mallophora orcina).
The southern bee killer is one of the approximately 1,000 species of robber flies that inhabit North America. All of these amazing flies eat all sorts of insects; however, the southern bee killer prefers to eat paper wasps, carpenter bees, honeybees, and bumblebees.
The southern bee killer is commonly inhabits backyards throughout the entire state. In spite of this, unless you actually spot this predatory insect flying about with its prey, chances are you mistook it for a bumblebee. Bumblebees do not fly about clutching other insects. That is understandable as it is fuzzy like a bumblebee, and its body is marked with the yellow and black pattern we associate with bumblebees. In addition, if its legs seem to be exceptionally long and its eyes extremely large, you are probably looking at a bee killer.
The southern bee killer is a true mimic. It definitely looks like a bumblebee. Biologists are not certain how the bee killer’s similarity to a bumblebee benefits the insect. Some suggest it causes predators that do not like to be stung by bumblebees to shy away. Who knows?
At any rate, the southern bee killer is an ambush predator. It spends its day perched on a blade of grass, flower, twig, or other object and waits from a bee to fly by. Once it spots a potential prey, it immediately chases it down. If successful, it grabs the hapless bee in midair and impales it with its powerful, sharp mouthparts. It then immediately injects its prey with a combination of enzymes and nerve poisons. This deadly concoction disables the insect and dissolves its body tissues. The bee killer then drinks its liquefied meal.
Since bee killers routinely return to the same perch, if you happen to locate a perch, check out this location from time to time, you can watch the bee killer hunt time after time.
Although the southern bee killer is a deadly predator, I have never heard of an instance where one attacked a human. That being said, if for some reason you happen to touch one, it can inflict a painful bite.
The question mark is one of the most uniquely shaped butterflies you are likely to see in your backyard.
The wingspan of this butterfly ranges from 2 3/8-2 5/8 inches wide. Each of the butterfly’s fore and hind wings displays a deep downward pointing hook. The ragged outer margins of the wings dip inward toward the body. The dorsal surface of the wings is rusty orange and marked with black markings. Meanwhile, the ventral surfaces of the wings are light gray to tan. In summer, the outer edges of the wings are shaded with violet hues. The butterfly is named for the distinctive silvery question mark found on the ventral surface of the hind wing.
Do not waste your time looking for this butterfly visiting your flowers. Although question marks will occasionally nectar at flowers, they much prefer to dine on an odd variety of items including sap, animal dung and rotting fruit. Interestingly, question marks sometimes become intoxicated on the alcohol produces by decaying fruit. When they are in this condition they move above erratically and will even let you touch them.
The best way to attract this butterfly to your yard is to leave rotting fruit beneath your fruit trees and to provide them with caterpillar host plants. Two of their favorite hosts are elm and hackberry.
Early morning, before it gets really hot is an excellent time to go looking for question marks. At that time of the day, question marks can often be located basking in the morning sunshine.
In the afternoon, males spend much of their time displaying for females. When they are engaged in these displays, they will sometimes closely approach anyone walking near them.
The coneflower’s value to wildlife is widely recognized. It is a source of food for native pollinators such as native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. In addition, long after its blooms fade, American goldfinches and other birds feed on the plant’s prickly seeds.
Those of us that plant this plant in our gardens enjoy the beauty of it uniquely shaped, colorful flowers. However, according to many herbalists, the value of this plant to humans may go far beyond its pleasing appearance. It has been purported to be beneficial in treating a wide variety of ailments. For example, it has been reported that chemicals found in the coneflower a natural antibiotic and even enhance white blood cell counts.
While I cannot substantiate claims of its medicinal values, I can attest to its value to wildlife. This year, for example, my wife and I enjoyed watching bumblebees and carpenter bees daily visiting the blooms of coneflowers growing in our backyard. In addition, the flowers produced by these plants were particularly popular with common buckeyes. In fact, this year we saw more common buckeyes on coneflowers than any other plant growing in our backyard. Numerous times, a single flower hosted four or more buckeyes.
A little more than a week ago while I was admiring the showy pink blossoms blanketing the large George Tabor azalea bushes encircling a chestnut tree in my yard, I noticed scores of large carpenter bees visiting flower after flower. When I moved closer to floral show I realized that after the carpenter bees landed on the blooms, they immediately made the way down the outside of the blossoms to the junction of the petals and green sepals. As it turned out, the hefty bees were robbing nectar from the large trumpet-shaped flowers.
It seems carpenter bees are too large to fit through the throats of the bright pink blooms to reach the nectar located at the base of the blossoms. Faced with this problem, most other nectar feeders would abandon their quest for the nectar.
Such is not the case with these carpenter bees. These bees have the uncanny ability to obtain the nectar from the outside of a blossom. What I was observing was the bees chewing longitudinal holes at the base of each bloom and then dipping their tongues into the flowers’ sugary nectar.
Since I first noticed what was taking place I have closely examined a number of azalea blossoms and found any number of feeding portals created by the carpenter bees. In addition, my wife saw a wasp using a feeding hole after the carpenter bee that created it left.
Insects such as the carpenter bee are called nectar robbers simply because they feed on nectar without pollinating the flowers.
If you would like to witness this odd behavior, on a warm, sunny day, look for carpenter bees flying about your azaleas. When you spot them, watch where they go. After they leave, look for the feeding holes created by the bees.
I think you will agree you do not have to leave the confines of your yard to witness fascinating animal behavior.