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HOMEGROWN BUTTERFLY FEEDER

       Recently, a hard freeze brought an abrupt end to the growing season of many of our nectar plants.  The next morning when my wife and I walked outside and looked around the yard, it was not a pretty sight.  Mexican sunflower, cosmos and other plants were drooping and their flowers withered.  It was obvious that the butterflies that were still flying about our yard were in for some hard times. 

       Later in the morning when we noticed a cloudless sulphur was trying to nectar at a dead Mexican sunflower blossom, we decided try to come to the aid this and any other hardy survivor of the freeze.  Since we have not enjoyed great success attracting butterflies to commercial butterfly feeders, we decided to set out a couple of homegrown butterfly feeders.

        We immediately moved a pot containing several pineapple sage plants in full bloom to a spot near the dead Mexican sunflowers.  Talk about immediate gratification–within minutes a cloudless sulphur appeared and began nectaring on the pineapple sages’ long, scarlet blossoms.

       Encouraged by our success we later positioned a couple of containers containing scarlet sage to spots around the yard.  Since we have not experienced another frost since that time, we have enjoyed watching cloudless sulphurs and gulf fritillaries visiting our homegrown feeders every day.

       Our ability to take this action was due to the fact that we grow a number of nectar plants in large containers.  Once we heard of the impending, hard freeze we moved pots containing pineapple and scarlet sage either up against the side of the house or inside our sunroom.

       We realize that providing food for a handful of butterflies after a frost killed most of their food supply means little to the populations of gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs.  However, it means a lot to handful of butterflies that are benefitting from our efforts.  In addition, it has made us feel good.

PINEAPPLE SAGE IS GREAT FOR LATE SEASON HUMMERS AND MORE

        There are at least 60 species of salvias.  In addition, more than 50 cultivars of these popular plants are also available.  There are so many varieties of salvias available it is difficult for Georgia gardeners to decide which are best for their gardens.  If you are looking for salvia that blooms late from late summer into fall and provides nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, native bees and other pollinators, I recommend you plant pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).

       This plant is native in Central America.  Here in Georgia it is  either a tender perennial or annual.  While it is susceptible to cold weather, some gardeners report that when mulched it can survive winter temperatures that plummet as low as 5˚F.

       One of the things I like about pineapple sage is that it begins blooming late in the summer and will continue producing blooms until the frost ends its growing season.  Consequently, in autumn, it is providing nectar when it is often a scarce commodity.

       Although ruby-throated hummingbirds have been gone from our yard for weeks, they did nectar at the plants long tubular-shaped blooms before they left.  However, the main beneficiaries of its nectar are now cloudless sulphur and sleepy orange butterflies, and native bees.

       Over the years, many folks that have been lucky enough to attract wintering hummingbirds have told me that rufous hummingbirds frequent the pineapple sage’s striking red blossoms.

       Pineapple sage grows to be 3-4 feet tall and 3-4′ wide.  It seems to prosper in spots bathed in both morning and afternoon sunshine.  Pineapple sage also needs frequent watering. In addition, they do best in rich, well-drained soil.

       The plants are easily propagated from cuttings.  Young plants should be transplanted as soon as the threat of frost has passed in your neck of the woods.

       As you might expect, the blooming period in the southern half of the state is considerably long that it is in Middle and North Georgia.  However, regardless of how long is blooms, when it is blooming it provides pollinators with a valuable source of food while at the same time adding beauty to our yards.

                 Cloudless Sulphur on Pineapple Sage

       My wife and I bring our potted plants inside in the winter.  The pineapple sage growing in our yard is mulched during the winter.

       With the freezing weather forecast during the next several days, it is time for us to protect our pineapple sage before it is too late: This is one plant we do not want to lose.

THE WIND CAN AFFECT MONARCH WATCHING

       Monarch watching has been downright abysmal around my home.  As of October 15, only one monarch had made an appearance at the Johnson Homestead.  However, the next day monarchs were seen twice in my yard.  The first sighting took place in early afternoon.  Then just before dark, I spotted a monarch drifting across the bird feeding area located in front of my office.  While I will never know for sure, it seemed it was looking for a place to roost for the night. 

       I suspect the monarchs had been riding the wind.  Yesterday a cold front swept through Middle Georgia.  This leads me to believe this was the case because it is a fact that during their fall migration monarchs often catch rides on northerly winds found along the leading edges of approaching cold fronts.  If these winds are blowing in the direction the butterflies want to go, the butterflies can fly long distance without having to expend a lot of stored fuel.  When this occurs monarchs are often seen making their way southward  for several days after the leading edge of the cold front has left your us far behind.

       On the other side of the coin, if the north winds are too strong, monarchs are known to fly so high in sky it is impossible for us to see them as they wing their way over our yards.

       Conversely, when the prevailing winds are blowing from the south, they tend to hang around and forage for nectar before resuming their migration.  This situation often provides us with some of our best monarch watching opportunities.

     

BACKYARD SECRET–BUTTERFLY WINGS ARE ACTUALLY TRANSPARENT

       It is hard to believe that the colorful insects that are often called flying flowers possess wings that are actually transparent.  Let me explain.

       It seems that butterfly wings are composed of a rugged material called chitin.  This same substance comprises the exoskeletons of all butterflies.  The thin layers of chitin found in a butterfly wing is actually transparent.  The colors seen in a butterfly’s wings stem from literally thousands of loosely attached tiny scales covering each wing.  Some 600 scales/sq. millimeter blanket the surfaces of the wings of some butterflies.  These scales contain pigments that reflect light.  The colors we see on the wings of the butterflies we spot flitting around our yards are the result of the types of scales and the amount and kinds of pigments they possess.

       Butterflies constantly lose scales as they age.  Consequently, some of the individuals of the same species we spot are less colorful than others.  When we see pale versions of species, we know these individuals are much older than those that display more iridescence and color.  In some cases, butterflies lose so many scales it is difficult or even impossible to identify them.

      

BUTTERFLY SECRET REVEALED

       The red-banded hairstreak is one of our smallest and seemingly most fragile butterflies.  Whenever I am fortunate enough to spot one of these tiny flying jewels, I realize that they have little chance of surviving the attack of a predator.  Without the benefit of speed or camouflage, they must rely on deception to avoid becoming a meal.

       The red-banded is one of a handful of hairstreaks that inhabit my yard.  Like the other hairstreaks, the red-banded’s hindwings bear short, slender extensions often referred to as tails or hairs.  In addition, two black spots adorn the trailing edge of each hindwing.  These spots serve as false eyes.  They, along with the projections that look like antennae, are keys to the red-banded hairstreak’s ability to deter predators.

       Whenever you look at a red-banded hairstreak perched on a leaf or flower you will notice its hindwings are in constant motion.  When one wing goes up other goes down.  The constant movement of the butterfly’s wings makes a bird believe it is looking at the head of the insect.  As such, when it attacks what it perceives to be the head of its prey, it ends up with nothing more than pieces of the insect’s wings.  This gives the butterfly the opportunity to fly away without suffering a lethal wound.

       However, Dr. Andrei Sourakov, a scientist with the University of Florida, has conducted experiments that strongly suggest that the hairstreak’s ruse might actually serve to protect it from attacks of another predator known as the jumping spider.  When the biologist placed hairstreaks that had their false heads cut off in the same container with jumping spiders, the spiders always attacked the butterflies’ true heads.  However, when he placed hairstreaks possessing complete wings in a container containing the predators, the spiders only attacked the butterfly’s false heads.

       I am certain the hairstreaks’ behavior dupes birds into striking at their false heads too.  However, due to the jumping spider’s greater abundance, it makes sense, that the deception aids the butterflies from fooling spiders more than birds.

       This is just another case where research is forcing us to question our long-held beliefs concerning the natural world.

THE JUNIPER HAIRSTREAK CAN BE SEEN IN OUR BACKYARDS

       The juniper hairstreak is one of our more elusive butterflies; in spite of the fact, it ranges across most of the state except in portions of Southwest Georgia.  This is unfortunate because this small (wingspan roughly one-inch), butterfly possesses unique beauty.  When you see a juniper hairstreak, the thing that jumps out at you is the jewel-like olive green color that covers most of its wings. 

       Juniper hairstreaks are often difficult to find anywhere, let alone in backyards.  However, last summer I saw more juniper hairstreaks in my yard than I had seen in my entire life.  My good fortune is appears linked to my transplanting mountain mint plants in four locations in my backyard.  During much of August 2020, I could consistently find juniper hairstreaks nectaring at the mountain mint’s tiny blooms.

       Prior to last summer, I would only occasionally find juniper hairstreaks nectaring on the blossoms of white clover in my backyard.  However, I would often go a year or more without seeing one.

JUNIPER HAIRSTREAK ON MOUNTAIN MINT

       I did not understand why this is the case since several large red cedars grow in my large backyard.  Red cedar is the juniper hairstreak’s host plant.  It seems juniper hairstreaks do not venture far from the trees, preferring instead to spend the majority of its time in the trees aromatic foliage. 

       In fact, I have often read that the best way to see a juniper hairstreak is to flush one by shaking a limb or tossing a dead branch in the into the canopy of a red cedar.  Although I have tried this trick many times, it only worked once.

       The juniper hairstreak nectars on a variety of flowering plants, although for some reason, I have never seen a juniper hairstreak feed on any of the large array of nectar-bearing flowers in my yard.  That is until I planted mountain mint.

       If you long to see a juniper hairstreak and red cedars grow nearby, you might want to plant mountain mint in your yard.  The native is hardy an easy to grow.  If you do add this plant to your yard, set it out in a place where it will not compete with other nectar plants, as it will spread.

       Once you spot the first juniper hairstreak in your yard, you will wish you had made its acquaintance a long time ago.

DON’T FORGET TO DEADHEAD BUTTERFLY BUSHES

       Butterfly bushes are truly butterfly magnets.  However, if you want them to continue blooming from now until migrating monarchs pass through out state months down to road; you must deadhead the plant’s spent blossoms.

       For reasons I do not understand, this spring my butterfly bushes have been covered with the largest clusters of flowers they have ever produced.  Unfortunately, few butterflies were around to enjoy them.  However, lots of bumblebees, honeybees, and carpenter bees constantly visited the nectar-rich blossoms while they were blooming. 

       Fortunately, butterfly bushes can be encouraged to produce a bounty of flowers throughout much of the growing season.  All it takes is deadheading the bush’s flower clusters before they go to seed.

         Butterfly bush w/spent blossoms

       Recently I deadheaded my butterfly bushes for the first time this year.  From experience, I know I will have to repeat this procedure many times.  However, I realize that, if I am diligent, countless butterflies and other pollinators will benefit from the food produced by crop after crop of fresh flowers.  In the past, I have been successful in prolonging the butterfly bushes’ blooming until the monarchs en route to their wintering home in Mexico.  When they use my yard as a stopover area on their epic journey it is not uncommon to see anywhere from four to eight monarchs on a single butterfly bush.

       When deadheading a cluster of flowers, remove the spent cluster down to the spot close to the point when the main flower stem joins two side branches.  If this is done at the right time, the two side branches will quickly produce flowers too.  When the blooms on the main branch and side branches have already turned brown simply, cut the stem just above the next juncture of side branches and the main stem.

       This is definitely a case where a little time spent cutting back spent flowers will produce a beautiful bush and remain a source of nectar throughout the summer.        

HEAL-ALL IS POPULAR WITH BUTTERFLIES RIGHT NOW

      Recently I participated in the Annual Spring Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge/Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area Butterfly Count.  All of the participants I have talked to since the count have told me that they found more butterflies on a wildflower known as Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris) than any other plant.

       The plant is also known by a number of other names such as prunella, carpenter’s herb, woundwort, heart-of-the-earth, and self heal. 

       Heal-all has long been recognized as a nectar plant used by butterflies, bees and other nectar feeders.  However, many books dedicated to attracting butterflies either do not mention it at all, or, if they do, provide little information pertaining to the plant.

       Depending on whom you talk to heal-all either is a native or naturalized plant in Georgia.  However, at least three varieties of heal-all grow in Georgia.

       During the count, we found the plant growing in sunny (the plant will also grow in partial shade) areas along roadsides, disturbed sites, and small unmowed tracts.  In most cases, the plants were growing in dry soil.

       In spite of its value as a nectar source, it is rarely planted in gardens.  In years past, this was not the case.  Back in the day, the plant was grown more as a medicinal plant that for its small, showy lavender flowers. 

       Blossoms appear on thick cylindrical spikes.  The plant’s square stem-bearing flowers typically reach a height of a foot or more.  The plants we encountered are now in full bloom.  Deadheading the blossoms will extend the plant’s blooming period.

       Those gardeners that utilize the plant for butterflies often incorporate it in natural gardens or use it in borders.  Heal-all can even be grown in larger containers.

       Plants can be divided in spring or grown from seed.  If you want to prevent them from seeding, cut off the flower heads before they produce seeds.

       If you have some unmowed spots on your property, you might find heal-all growing there.  If you cannot find heal-all growing near your home, and want to see what it looks like drive  slowly driving down country roads.  Chances are you will find patches of heal-all.  If you stop to look at one or more of the heal-all stands, do not be surprised if you find several species of butterflies feeding on heal-all nectar. 

       After you become acquainted with heal-all, you can see why I feel it is an underrated nectar plant.

NOW IS A GREAT TIME TO BEGIN PLANTING ZINNIAS

      Zinnias are among my favorite plants.  Whenever I plant them, I cannot help but recall pleasant memories of planting them as a child many years ago.  Now that I am a wildlife gardener, I am fond of them because the add beauty to my yard and are great wildlife plants too.  With that in mind, my wife and I are preparing to plant zinnias for the first time this year.  That’s right I said for the first time because my wife and I plant zinnias multiple times a year.

       We plant patches of zinnias in our gardens as well as in large planters.  The crop we are planting now will begin producing flowers in sixty to seventy days.  Once the plants bloom, we prolong the time they bloom by deadheading spent blossoms.  By planting zinnias once week for several weeks, we are ensuring that we will enjoy zinnia blossoms and our wildlife neighbors will have access to the food they provide well into the fall.

       My wife and I have had the best luck attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and our nectar feeders using single-flowered varieties.  They provide hummingbirds easy access to the plant’s nectar.  In addition, many butterflies seem to prefer feeding on the relatively flat surface offered by the flat landing area found on the blooms of old fashion varieties.

       While butterflies visit zinnias for their nectar, hummingbirds also eat the tiny insects often found on zinnia blooms.  In fact, it has been suggested they visit zinnias as much for the protein provided by insects as they do nectar.

       My wife and I also enjoy watching American goldfinches visit our zinnias during the summer.  The birds spend day after day pulling the petals off zinnia flowers to reach the seeds found at base of the petals.

       I think it is great that zinnias enhance by backyard wildlife viewing opportunities by attracting hummingbirds, scores of butterflies and American goldfinches.

       I hope you will plant them in your garden this year.  If you do, I will be surprised if they do not offer you some great wildlife viewing too.

LOOKING AT NECTAR PLANTS THROUGH THE EYES OF A HUMMINGBIRD

      My wife and I enjoy gardening for hummingbirds.  In an effort to provide them with a source of nectar throughout as much of the year as possible, we provide them a multitude of plants.  The list of nectar plants includes such hummingbird favorites as zinnia, Turk’s cap, trumpet creeper, lantana, coral honeysuckle, scarlet sage, lyre leaf sage, red buckeye, hollyhock, columbine and many more.  These plants provide us with an ever-changing mosaic composed of different colors.  Often when I gaze at this gorgeous setting, I cannot help but wonder what these plants look like through the eyes of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit these flowers countless times.

       Research conducted by researchers representing the Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard, University of Maryland, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the University of British Columbia has revealed our ability to see colors pales in comparison with that of hummingbirds.  Princeton University Assistant Professor Mary Caswell put it this way, “Humans are color blind compared to birds and many other animals.” 

       The research discovered hummingbirds appear to be able to detect pure ultra-violet from a combination of colors such as ultra-violet plus red and red as well as ultra-violet plus green from pure green.  Ultra-violet plus red and ultra-violet plus green were undetectable to the researchers.

       Many scientists believe the reason why hummingbirds are able to see far more colors than us is linked to the fact that a hummingbird’s eye contains four different types of cones whereas humans have but three.  The fourth type of cones detect near ultra-violet light (UV).  Ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye. 

       The ability to detect near UV light is beneficial to hummingbirds because many nectar plants display colors in the near UV light range.  Consequently, such plants stand out more to hummingbirds than they do to humans.

              I am certain that this research represents another step toward our greater understanding of the hummingbird’s ability to see colors.  Wouldn’t it great to catch a glimpse at the colors of the natural world through the eyes of a hummingbird?