During the past few weeks, record high temperatures have been documented throughout Georgia. On numerous days thermometer readings as high as 100˚F and above have been recorded. Needless to say, these high temperatures are having a profound effect on each of us. However, have you wondered if this torrid weather is having an impact on the behavior of our backyard butterflies? The truth of the matter is butterflies fare far better than we do when in temperatures reach or exceed the century mark.
Butterflies are cold-blooded animals. This means their body temperature varies according to the temperature of the air around them. Most butterflies are capable of flight when temperatures range from 60-108˚F. However, they fly best when in temperatures between 80-100˚F. At the other end of the spectrum when their body temperature dips into the mid-60s and below, few are capable of flight.
Keep in mind, butterflies can somewhat regulate their body temperatures through behavior. Consequently, butterflies will bask on vegetation and rocks on cool mornings. When engaged in this activity they will flatten out their wings. This enables them to absorb the sun’s rays and warm their bodies to a point where their flight muscles can efficiently move their wings. Conversely, butterflies can actually suffer from heat shock when temperatures range from 105-110˚F. Consequently, when it gets exceedingly hot they often escape to shady areas and hold their wings upright.
This explains why this is not a good time to be butterfly watching during the hottest part of a very hot day. We do not have any business being outside when it is that hot anyway.
The red admiral is one of our most recognizable butterflies. This is because this dark, medium-sized (1.75-2.50″) butterfly displays striking reddish orange bands across the tops of its wings.
The red admiral flies rapidly from spot to spot. It often lands on the ground, the sides of our homes, large flowers, you name it. There it will often flatten out its wings and bask in the sunlight.
Whenever it lands on a flower, do not assume it is nectaring. The red admiral is a butterfly that only occasionally seeks nectar from blossoms. Instead is prefers to dine on the sugar found in plant sap. In fact, the largest concentration of red admirals I have ever seen was feeding on a gaping wound on the trunk of a willow tree. Sap was oozing from the spot where a large limb broke off the tree the night before during an intense thunderstorm.
The butterfly will also dine on the juices oozing from rotting fruit. I have also encountered red admirals seeking nourishment from dry dog food. In addition, to the chagrin of many, it will also visit piles of dung.
The list of red admiral host plants includes pellitory, nettles, and false nettle.
Since red admirals are now flying about backyards throughout Middle Georgia, I am sure they can now be seen in other parts of the state too. If you have not seen one yet, you have plenty of time to make the acquaintance of this butterfly this year. This strong flyer can be seen in Georgia from March through early November.
I must admit I do not see as many red admirals as I would like, however, whenever I do spot one it is a special treat. If you encounter your first red admiral this year, I am sure you will understand why I am so fond of this butterfly.
Since you are a wildlife enthusiast, at this time of the year you are probably spending a lot of time gardening for wildlife. With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you consider adding spotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) to your home landscape. In addition, to producing a bevy of gorgeous purple-spotted blossoms that are accompanied by creamy to pink bracts framing each cluster of blossoms, this native perennial is also a butterfly and hummingbird favorite.
The spotted horsemint (also known as spotted beebalm) grows up to three feet tall. It prefers sand, and well-drained soil types although it will set its roots in other soils too. Plants seem to do best when planted in full sun. In addition, spotted horsemint can withstand dry conditions.
This plant produces a multitude of stems and spreads via rhizomes. As such, I find it is best to plant it in spots where it will not compete with other plants.
I should also mention this native wildflower is resistant to deer browsing. This is a real bonus as many homeowners are faced with the problem of hungry whitetails devouring their favorite flowering plants and shrubs.
Planting spotted horsemint in your garden is an excellent way to enhance the wild plant diversity in your backyard.
Those of us who try to stock our gardens with a variety hummingbird nectar plants are constantly on the lookout for something new. Too often, this quest leads us to nonnative plants while overlooking native plants. One of these native plants, the lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), may actually be blooming in your yard. In fact, I found a few lyreleaf sage plants blooming in my yard.
The lyreleaf sage grows in a wide variety of locations. It can be found anywhere from open woods, roadsides, lawns, damp meadows to dry waste sites. In spite of the fact that the plant displays beautiful lavender blossoms on a slender stalk (1-2 feet tall) it is often overlooked. In fact, many homeowners consider it a weed and mow it down.
Lyreleaf sage begins blooming as early in February in some parts of Georgia and will continue blooming into May. One of the reasons I am so fond of this plant is it provides hummingbirds with a source of nectar early in the spring when nectar is often scarce. The plant also attracts butterflies and bees to its nectar-laden showy blooms.
The plant readily reseeds often forming robust colonies. However, as with many roadside and pasture plants, mowing often hinders its ability to reproduce.
If you are fond of salvias, you will love this native salvia. Although its blossoms are small, they are every bit as beautiful as the salvias the grace our gardens.
Although you can purchase lyreleaf sage seeds, they are often pricey. I have seen 20 seeds cost more than six dollars. Before you go out and buy some lyreleaf salvia seeds, explore your yard, there is a chance it has been hiding there in plain sight. If you do not locate it, I honestly believe it would be worthwhile spending a little money to get it established.
Once again, we are experiencing what I call a yo-yo winter. This is a winter when temperatures go from being very cold to very warm. Whenever this happens, it is possible to see a handful of butterflies in our backyards. The cloudless sulphur is the species that most often makes an appearance in my Middle Georgia backyard.
The cloudless sulphur is the largest predominantly yellow butterfly most of us are apt to see in the Peach State. It has a wingspan that can range anywhere from a little more than two inches to slightly less than three inches in length.
Each winter some cloudless sulphurs can be seen flitting about our backyards, especially when temperatures soar to 65˚F and above. Last week when temperatures reached the high 60s, cloudless sulphurs made appearances in my yard on two consecutive days. These individuals are the only butterflies I have spotted this year. I was not the only one lucky enough to see a cloudless sulphur. A friend told me she spotted a cloudless sulphur in Thomasville last week also.
There is a good chance that you might see a cloudless sulphur this winter as long as we do not experience temperatures that dip to 20˚F or below. When it gets that cold, most cloudless sulphurs cannot survive.
After what seemed like an endless series of rainy/misty days during which the temperature hovered in the 40s and low 50s, I was convinced I would not see another monarch this year. However, much to my surprise after the rain finally moved out, and the nighttime temperature plummeted to 31˚F, I was surprised to see a monarch nectaring at the blossoms on a butterfly bush in my backyard this morning (November 16). When I saw the butterfly, the air temperature was 51˚F.
Later on in the day, I spotted a gulf fritillary nectaring at the same bush.
If that wasn’t enough, shortly thereafter I spotted a cloudless sulphur fluttering at the windows in my sunroom. The butterfly was obviously roosting on one of the plants my wife and I moved inside the night before.
My experiences on this chilly November morning galvanized my long-held belief that my backyard wildlife neighbors will never cease to amaze me. As such when I walk outside each morning, I expect the unexpected.
From the reports I received this week, a wave of monarchs was apparently migrating through Middle Georgia. In addition, it was encouraging to hear that most of those reporting the appearance of these large orange and black butterflies were seeing more monarch than they had seen in years.
For example, my wife and I saw no fewer than seven monarchs at one time in our yard. While that might not seem remarkable, during the fall, in recent years, we have not seen more than two or three at time visiting our flowers. A friend that lives in Lamar County said she was thrilled to discover 15 monarchs nectaring on ageratum late one afternoon. She went on to say this was far more than she had seen on her property in years. In another instance, a friend that lives in McDonough reported seeing many monarchs flying along the highway while driving from his home to Jonesboro. He was excited that this was more monarchs that he had seen in long time. Yet another friend reported larger than normal numbers of monarchs showing up in his Monroe County yard.
The appearance of monarchs in Georgia backyards in autumn points out the need for all of us to ensure that these iconic butterflies have plenty to eat on their epic journey to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. This extremely long migration can take as long as two months. During this flight, monarchs touchdown in many places as they travel anywhere from 25 to 100 miles a day. At each stop they need to be able find enough food (nectar) to restore their fat reserves that fuel their long journey to their winter home, survive the winter, and then return to the United States.
Some researchers feel that the ability of monarchs to find enough nectar along the fall migration pathway is extremely critical to the survival of the species. As such, we all need to put out the welcome mat to America’s favorite butterfly as it moves south. The best way this goal can be accomplished is to grow a variety of fall-blooming nectar plants in our backyards. If we all offer a helping hand, we can create a series of stepping stones monarchs can use as they cross the state each autumn.
The problem is the nectar plants in many backyard gardens across the state are pretty ragged by this time of the year. As such, they do not provide monarchs with nearly as much nectar as they could.
When the monarchs arrived in my yard this year they were greeted to a mix of flowers including butterfly bush, zinnia, cosmos, scarlet sage, Turk’s cap, mountain mint, liatris, ageratum, goldenrod, and lantana. By far, the monarchs most often fed at butterfly bush blossoms. The next most popular plant visited was lantana. Interestingly, while monarchs preferred ageratum at my friend’s house in Lamar County, they never visited it in my yard. In addition, while they have fed at Georgia mint growing in my yard in past years, they did not visit it this year.
This points out the fact that we need to provide migrating monarchs with a variety of nectar plants. When this is done, chances are the butterflies will find one or more plants in just the right stage of blooming to provide them with much-needed nectar.
If you are interested in adding some autumn bloomers to your landscape to help southbound migrating monarchs, here are a few of the other nectar plants reported to attract monarchs in fall: Mexican sunflower, ironweed, aster, marigold, blanket flower, and petunia.
If you have noticed monarchs feeding at other flowers in your yard at this time of the year, I would appreciate knowing about it.
For years, I have fruitlessly tried to attract butterflies to a feeder. During that time, I would occasionally see a red-banded hairstreak, cloudless sulphur, or American snout perched on a hummingbird feeder. However, I was never convinced any of these butterflies were actually feeding.
I have even hung specially designed butterflies feeders in my gardens. Much to my chagrin, the butterflies ignored them too. Then, for reasons I do not understand, during the past week cloudless sulphurs have been feeding regularly at one of my Perky Pet Four Fountains Feeder.
It all started about a week ago. While working in my office I noticed a single cloudless sulphur obviously nectaring at one of the feeding ports on the feeder. When I spotted a single cloudless sulphur feeding at the feeder during each of the next two days, I realized that this was not an accident; a butterfly was selecting the artificial flower as a source of food.
The next day, when I walked to my office, I was greeted to the astounding sight of seven cloudless sulphurs actively feeding at the feeder. I have seen at least that many cloudless sulfurs feeding there every day since.
I find it interesting that whenever a hummingbird shows up to feed, the cloudless sulphurs scatter. However, within minutes of the hummingbird flying off, the cloudless sulphurs return and resume dining.
I cannot explain why the butterflies are feeding at this feeder. I have used it for a number of seasons and never saw a single cloudless sulphur visit it. In addition, cloudless sulphurs have been feeding each day at zinnia, Turk’s cap, scarlet sage, and lantana plants.
Obviously, I have a lot to learn about the feeding habits of the cloudless Sulphur.
The plight of the monarch has focused our attention on the annual fall migration of this gorgeous black and orange butterfly. Since the butterfly’s population has plummeted some 90 percent, backyard butterfly watchers are keeping a close eye on the numbers of monarchs that flutter through their backyards each spring and fall. While this epic event it taking place, the largely unrecognized migration of a broad mix of other butterflies is also taking place.
Would you believe that well more than a dozen other butterflies that you are apt to see in your Georgia backyard also migrate?
Here is a list of some of these amazing insects: American lady, painted lady, common buckeye, red admiral, cloudless sulphur, little yellow, cloudless sulphur, sachem, question mark, fiery skipper, mourning cloak, gulf fritillary, long-tailed skipper, ocola, queen, and American snout.
By far, the monarch stages the longest migration of all North American butterflies. This migration can measure some 2,500 miles in length. The migrations of other butterflies that visit our backyards are much shorter. In addition, all the while monarchs are winging their way south, some butterflies such as the fiery skipper and some cloudless sulphurs are actually flying in the opposite direction.
The migrations of most of these other butterflies is so subtle you would never notice them until one day you wonder where all of the American snouts, gulf fritillaries and others have gone, while the numbers of individuals of other species such as the painted lady have increased.
However, migration cannot account for all of the fluctuations in butterfly populations that take in our backyards at this time of the year. Since most of our butterflies are sedentary, as days get progressively shorter, they simply do not produce any more generations (flights). Most butterflies overwinter as an egg or pupa.
Aside from the monarch, the most obvious migration we are likely to witness in this neck of the woods is that of the cloudless sulphur. Using the sun as their compass, migrating cloudless sulphurs fly approximately twelve miles a day.
During this time of year, cloudless sulphurs are drawn to the red blossoms of Turk’s cap growing in my yard. They are also fond of scarlet sage, pineapple sage, and zinnias.
One major difference between bird and butterfly migration is that the same birds that were raised and fed in our yards this year might return next spring. However, none of the monarchs, cloudless sulphurs, red admirals and other migrating butterflies that graced your property this spring and summer will ever return.
While we measure the lifespan of birds in years, the average butterfly lives no more than a month or less. Consequently, the butterflies that appear in our backyards the following year are ancestors of those that nectared at our flowers this year.
During the next few weeks, I hope you will see many monarchs in your yard. If you do, that might be a sign monarch populations are on the rebound. However, don’t forget to look for those other backyard butterflies that also migrate. Although they will never grab the headlines like the monarch, they are truly fascinating members of our backyard wildlife community and very much deserving of our attention.