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IT IS LONG-TAILED SKIPPER TIME

       One of the most abundant butterflies in my backyard now is the long-tailed skipper.   Although this butterfly can be seen through the state somewhere in the state from April through November, I seem to see more around my Middle Georgia home in the fall.

       The long-tailed skipper is to identify.  The bases of its wings and body are cloaked in long blue-green scales that give them a shaggy appearance.  From above, the butterfly’s wings are brown and marked with light-colored spots.  When viewed from beneath the wings are decorated with two dark brown bands.  In addition, each hindwing is equipped with long tails. 

       Sometimes, however, you will find what appear to be long-tailed skippers but they lack the species’ characteristic long tails.  These butterflies are not a different species; they are simply individuals that have lost their tails to wear and tear.

       On cool mornings this time of year, I often seen long-tailed skippers with their wings outstretched with their backs facing the rising sun.  This enables them to warm their bodies so they can begin nectaring.

       Unlike most other butterflies, long-tailed skippers often feed upside down.

       The long-tailed skipper is one of a handful or our butterflies that emigrate.  Each fall many of them escape cold weather by flying into Florida.

       The long-tailed skipper uses a number of different legumes as host plants.  This list includes bean, beggarweed, wisteria and beans. 

A PLEA FOR PASSIONFLOWER PLANTS

        The zebra heliconian (also known as the zebra longwing) is the state butterfly of Florida.  It flies throughout the year in south Florida. 

       Each year untold numbers of zebra heliconians find their way into the Peach State.  Some years these colonists remain in the Coastal Plain.  However, this year they have been routinely seen throughout Middle Georgia and points to the north.  This summer I have personally received more reports of zebra heliconians than ever before.  Many of these butterflies reproduce here in Georgia. 

       Today I received a call from a woman that lives in Macon.  She called to ask me if I knew where she could find some passionflower vines.  It seems that she has been hosting zebra heliconians for about a month.  Recently she saw a female zebra laying eggs on a passionflower vines growing in her yard.  Realizing that her meager vines will not support very many zebra heliconian caterpillars, she wanted to where to find some.  It seems she cannot stand the thought of the caterpillars starving to death.

       Not knowing the location of any plants, I suggested she check with nurseries that deal with butterfly nectar and host plants.

       If you know where she could find some passionflower vines, please let me know.  I will pass the information on to this concerned butterfly enthusiast.

      

BLAZING STAR SPIRES ATTRACT BUTTERFLIES & OTHER WILD POLLINATORS

Blazing star, also called liatris (Liatris spp.), is one of our most strikingly beautiful native plants. Its tall lavender spikes annually treat us with spires of eye-pleasing color.  More importantly, the plant produces nectar and pollen for hosts of wild pollinators.

The plant serves as a food source for bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and moths. However, undoubtedly its most famous visitor is the monarch.  Researchers do not know why monarchs are drawn to this plant. However, researchers suspect blazing star produces chemical cues that draw these large orange and black butterflies to their frilly flowers.

Several species of liatris grow in the Peach State. However, even the experts sometimes find it difficult to identify which species they are looking at.

You are likely to find blazing star blooming from summer into fall.  Those species that bloom during the monarch migration can be important sources of nectar for the long-distance migrant. 

Liatris grows best in full sun in both dry and moist soils.

Gardeners like the fact that blazing star bloom for several weeks.  Interestingly, its spikes bloom from the top down.

If you are looking for a stunning addition to your home flower garden, consider planting this hardy perennial. If you do, you will also providing monarchs and other native pollinators with a valuable source of food.

THE NATION’S LARGEST BUTTERFLY

This dark brown and yellow butterfly can be easily identified without the aid of a pair of binoculars.  The topside of its wings are dark and marked with bands of yellow spots. These bands for an X near the tips of the wings. The longest band extends from wing tip to wing tip.  In comparison, when seen from below, the wings appear predominantly yellow.

       The giant swallowtail’s characteristic pattern of flight can also help in identifying this large, colorful butterfly.  The butterfly alternately flaps its wings and then glides.  In addition, when the giant swallowtail is feeding at flowers it constantly flutters its wings.

       Although it is possible to spot a giant swallowtail anywhere in the state, those folks that live south of the fall line have the best chance of seeing it. However, during the summer giant swallowtails might show up in backyards just about anywhere.

       The host plants used by the giant swallowtail include wafer ash, prickly ash, trifoliate orange, and Hercules club.

      

 

MOUNTAIN MINT IS A BUTTERFLY FAVORITE

 

       If you are looking for a native plant that is popular with butterflies and other native pollinators, you should consider mountain mint.

       In case you are not familiar with mountain mint, chances are you can spot it growing along a country road.  The plants stand upwards of three or more feet tall.  Although it is nondescript, it can easily be identified from a distance.  The leaves surrounding the flowers will appear as if they were sprinkled with powdered sugar.  This makes the blossoms seem to be much larger than they really are.

       The small, whitish blossoms are formed in clusters.  The plant blooms from June through August.

       While recently participating in a butterfly count on the Big Lazer Creek Wildlife Management Area in Talbot County, I found mountain mint blooming in profusion.  If fact, I have never seen more mountain mint in one place.  Much to the delight of the folks taking part in the count, the mountain mint proved to be a butterfly favorite.  Among the butterfly species I personally spotted on mountain mint on that hot, humid August day were gulf fritillary, long-tailed skipper, pearl crescent, eastern tiger swallowtail, and pipevine swallowtail.

       Fortunately, this perennial native plant can be easily grown in backyard settings.  However, I need to tell you mountain mint can rapidly spread by rhizomes.  Consequently, plant mountain mint in an area where it will not crowd out other plants.  

       In the wild, mountain mint is often found growing along woodland edges, old fields and along roads where the vegetation is not regularly mowed.

       Mountain mint does well a variety soil types.  However, sites need to receive sunlight for at least half a day. In addition, mountain mint can withstand dry conditions.

 

 

THE GRAY HAIRSTREAK DISPLAYS SUBTLE BEAUTY

One of the most common butterflies you are likely to see in your backyard is the gray hairstreak.  Although this small (1-1.5″) butterfly is predominantly gray, I think it possesses its own form of subtle beauty. 

It has been my experience that you will rarely spot this butterfly with its wings spread open.  If you do, however, its wings will be colored slate gray.  This most distinguishing feature displayed on each hindwing is an eyespot consisting of a black dot surrounded by an elongated orange splotch…

To me, the butterfly is far more beautiful when viewed with its wings closed.  The underside of each hindwing is light gray and also marked with an orange and red eye spot.  However, you will quickly see notice a white line bordered in black meandering across both the hind and forewing.

Each hindwing features a short, slender hairlike appendage.  If you look closely, you will see the butterfly moving their wings back and forth.  It is thought that the eyespots and constantly moving “hairs” on the tail are designed to confuse predators.  Supposedly, a predator will strike at the butterfly’s hindwings instead of dealing a deadly blow to its head and body.

The first flight of the hairstreak appears in February.  The last gray hairstreaks of the year are spotted in early November.

The gray hairstreak has a number of plant hosts including partridge pea, beggarweed, bush clover, and vetch.

 

BUTTERFLIES AND AIRPLANES WARM UP BEFORE TAKING TO THE AIR

 

Recently while I was taking a morning walk before the temperature began to soar; a female eastern tiger swallowtail slowly flew in front of me.  In fact, the large butterfly seemed to glide more than fly.  When she did beat her wings, they flapped slowly.  As I watched, the butterfly landed on the leaves of a nearby shrub.  She chose to land in a spot that was bathed by the light of the rising sun.  Upon landing she kept her wings outstretched and remained motionless for quite some time.

This butterfly was warming up.   This something each butterfly does every day of its life.  Like an airplane, before it can fly efficiently, it must warm up.

The butterfly is a cold-blooded animal.  This means that it cannot control its body temperate such as warm-blooded animals like you and me.  Consequently a butterfly’s body temperature reflects the air temperature.  In comparison, our body temperature remains constant at all times.

The next time you are out and about on a sunny, cool morning be on the lookout for basking sites.  Once you find one, you can often find butterflies there day after day,

In the case of the butterfly, most are not seen flying about when the temperature dips below 55˚F.  In fact the ideal temperature for butterflies to be winging about is roughly between 80 and 100˚F.

When the temperature is below this zone the insect’s flight muscles are not capable of contracting as quickly as they are when temperatures are high.  In addition, butterflies expend more energy moving their flight muscles when it is colder.

Since butterflies need to start moving about as quickly as possible to escape predators and find food and mates, it behooves them to take to the air as soon as they can each day.

One way they are able to do this is to take advantage of the warming effects of solar energy.  The butterfly that drifted to a nearby bush in front me was doing just that.  She positioned herself to maximize the amount of solar radiation striking her wings and body.  This would allow her to begin daily activities much sooner than would have been possible if she perched in the shade.

Dark butterflies, such as the female eastern tiger swallowtail, are able to fly sooner in the day than butterflies that are lighter in color.  The reason for this is darker colors absorb more solar energy than light colors.

As you can see, one of the best times to watch or photograph butterflies in your backyard is early in the morning.  During this special time of day if you find a basking butterfly, it will often remain motionless longer than it would if you found it in your garden later in the day.  As long as you do not disturb a basking butterfly, you can take pictures of it to your heart’s content.

You can create additional butterfly basking sites by placing large, flat, dark-colored stones about your garden and yard.