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BUTTERFLY FEEDERS

       Not too long ago, one of our blog followers wrote that she had recently purchased a butterfly feeder and was requesting tips that might help her attract butterflies to her new feeder. 

       I must admit that over the years I have tried several different models of butterfly feeders in my yard.  Each one was designed to offer the insects a sugar water solution.  In spite of the fact I placed the feeders in a variety of locations, I was not able to attract a single butterfly to any of them.

       That being said, butterfly feeders do work for lots of folks.  With that in mind, I am convinced I have yet to find the right feeder, location, and/or food that appeals to these beautiful insects in my neck of the woods.  Consequently, here is a brief list of some the techniques others have employed to attract butterflies to their backyards:

       ● Have realistic expectations; the butterflies that most often visit feeders are those that prefer eating dining on such things as animal droppings, tree sap, and rotting fruit.  Therefore, you are more apt to attract a pearly-eye, red admiral, or question mark to your feeder than an Eastern tiger swallowtail or one of the sulphur butterflies.

      ● Carefully follow the directions provided with your feeder.  For example, some of the feeders I have tried recommended sugar solutions stronger than the formula commonly used to feed hummingbirds.

     ● It is always a good idea to change the solution in your feeder after a rain.  Rainfall can seep into the feeder and dilute the fluid’s sugar content.

    ● Protect your feeder from an ant invasion.  As such, use the same technique you employ to thwart ants from reaching your hummingbird feeders.

   ● Keep your feeder clean.  As is the case with hummingbird feeders, fungi and bacteria can spoil butterfly nectar.

  ● Finally, if you are unable to attract butterflies to your feeder, move it to another location.

       If you have been successful in attracting butterflies to a butterfly feeder in your backyard, please let us know what works for you.  I am sure that many folks would love to know the secret to your success.

LONG-TAILED SKIPPERS HAVE TAKEN CENTER STAGE IN MY BACKYARD

        The long-tailed skipper is a butterfly that can be seen in all of Georgia’s 159 counties.  Although it can be seen from April into November throughout much of the state, in my backyard, I see more long-tailed skippers from late summer into the autumn than at any other time of the year.  Since it is so common and seen over such an extended period, one might think all of these butterflies live and die in the Peach State.  Actually, many do.  However, some have wanderlust. 

       For reasons that are not fully understood, during the summer some long-tailed skippers take wing and move northward.  These movements are particularly common along the Coastal Plain.  As a result, before cold weather sets in long-tailed skippers are sometimes spotted as far north as southern New England.

       Far more often, however, each fall far more long-tailed skippers will fly south to the peninsula of Florida.  Here in Georgia some longtails are considered permanent residents, particularly in the southeast corner of the state.

       In spring, long-tailed skipper populations in Florida begin moving northward and eventually end up in our backyard gardens.

       I suspect many of the long-tailed skippers I am currently seeing in my backyard are en route to the Sunshine State.  Meanwhile, for the past several weeks, long-tailed skippers are the butterflies I have most often seen visiting ageratum, butterfly bush, zinnias and other fall-blooming plants.  This is the first autumn I can remember when I have seen more long-tailed skippers than cloudless sulphurs in my yard.  I suspect our prolonged drought has played a role in this situation.

       In the meantime, since I am not seeing any migratory songbirds in my yard, and most other butterflies such as eastern tiger swallowtails have disappeared; long-tailed skippers have added an appreciated touch of beauty to a backyard that has suffered immensely from a lack of rainfall.

BACKYARD SECRET: BLUEBIRDS EAT MONARCH CATERPILLARS

       Most of us have been taught that birds do not eat monarchs.  In fact, if a bird just happens to try to make a meal out of a monarch, it gets sick from ingesting the poisonous compounds that course through the monarch’s body.  After living through such an experience most birds do not try to dine on a monarch again. 

       Eastern bluebirds are an exception to the rule.  These gorgeous backyard favorites eat monarch caterpillars laden with poisonous chemicals obtained when they chomp on milkweed plants without showing any ill effects.  

       The bluebird can devour this toxic food because it uses a technique to prepare a caterpillar before it tries to consume it.  Once a bluebird grabs a monarch caterpillar it flies to a branch and squeezes the large, juicy caterpillar time and time again.  This process forces much of the juicy innards of the caterpillar out both ends of its body.  Once the caterpillar has been flattened, the hungry bluebird then proceeds to eat the hapless insect.

 

 

THE WIND CAN HELP MONARCHS MIGRATE

       Now that September has arrived it is hard not to turn our thoughts toward fall and migration.  Invariably we associate migration with birds.  However, the plight of the monarch has heightened our interest in the migration of insects such as the monarch butterfly. 

       Each fall these amazing insects make their way south to their winter home in Mexico.  While this is truly an amazing fete, we know very little about how these butterflies accomplish this seemingly impossible task.  Recently the results of research conducted by Samantha Knight of the Nature Conservancy of Canada and others filled in another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of monarch migration.

       The research team captured and placed tiny transmitters weighing only 300 milligrams on 43 monarch captured near the Canadian shore of Lake Huron.  The devices were mounted on the insects in an attempt to track their southbound migration.         Fortunately, the biologists were able to retrieve data from six of these butterflies.  One of the most interesting findings was one of the monarchs flew 89 miles in a single day.  They were also able to determine the monarchs winged their way south at a speed on 7.5 miles per hour.  Knight later stated, “[It] was a lot faster than anyone had ever really anticipated.”  She went on to comment, “They could likely go even faster without the heavy tags on them.”

       The biologists also learned the butterflies flew faster when they were pushed along by a tailwind.  This was demonstrated by one butterfly that was clocked flying at a bit under 18.5 miles per hour with the aid of a tailwind.

      It was also discovered that monarchs flew faster in warm weather.  However, the butterflies were not able to fly until the temperature reached 50˚F and flight speed dropped when the air temperature reached 73˚F.

       It is definitely true the more we learn about these stunning insects the more we realize why they are so special.

DO NOT FORGET TO DEADHEAD MEXICAN SUNFLOWERS

        Humans and butterflies alike are drawn to the bold orange blossoms of the Mexican sunflower.  The problem is by the middle of August the blooms displayed by this tall plant are often quickly fading.  This is unfortunate for those of us that enjoy its stunning beauty and the butterflies and other pollinators that feed at its showy flowers.

       With this in mind, if you deadhead the spent blossoms displayed by your Mexican sunflower plants, they will produce a new crop of flowers that will continue to contribute their beauty to our gardens and be a source of nectar for butterflies such as monarchs later in the year when nectar will be less abundant than it is right now.

BACKYARD SECRET: RED-BANDED HAIRSTREAKS NECTAR ON BRONZE FENNEL

        For quite some time I have been documenting butterflies nectaring on a wide range of cultivated and native plants.  This effort has helped me gain a better appreciation of which species of butterflies use which plants.  Every so often, I encounter a butterfly nectaring on a plant I never realized they visited. 

       For example, a few days ago my wife and I checked our bronze fennel for black swallowtail eggs and/or eggs.  Much to our chagrin, we did not find either.  However, my wife did make a fascinating discovery. When she called me over to look at what she had found, I was surprised to see six red-banded hairstreaks nectaring on a bronze fennel’s pale yellow blossoms.

       Although we have been growing bronze fennel in our garden for a number of years, we never considered the well-known black swallowtail host plant a source of nectar for butterflies.  Oh sure, we routinely see the blossoms routinely visited by sweat bees and other native pollinators, but never a red-banded hairstreak other butterfly.  Yet, here were half a dozen beautiful red-banded hairstreaks so engrossed in sipping nectar they never attempted to fly away in spite of the fact we were standing only a few feet away from them.

       A quick check of the literature and Internet failed to uncover any mention of red-banded hairstreaks using the plant as a source of nectar.  In fact, most authors simply mentioned it was visited by a number of pollinators; however, none said it was source of nectar for butterflies.

       While my wife’s sighting may not be an

important scientific find, it was important to us.  It

advanced our understanding of the unbelievably

complex relationships that exist between the plants

and animals that live just outside our backdoor.  

EASTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAILS CAN BE YELLOW OR BLACK

        Believe it or not, one of our most misidentified butterflies is the eastern tiger swallowtail.  This might come as a surprise to you since it is our state butterfly and is one of the largest butterflies that visits our yards.  This reason for this is this gorgeous butterfly has two color phases.

       The wings of the males are predominantly yellow and marked with vertical stripes.  This is the color form most people recognize.  Females, on the other hand come in either yellow or black phases.  If you look closely at the wings of a dark female, you will usually seen telltale black stripes.  The black form of the eastern swallowtail is the phase many people do not realize is also an eastern tiger swallowtail.

       In middle Georgia, my neck of the woods, more than 90 percent of all female eastern tiger swallowtails are black.  However, dark females are far less common in some other parts of the country.  Some lepidopterists – folks that study butterflies – suggest that the percentage of dark females is greatest where pipevine swallowtails are most abundant.  For example, black females are far less common in New England and others parts of the butterfly’s range.

       Interestingly, dark females are prone to produce dark daughters while yellow females usually have yellow mothers.

      Dark females have a better chance of surviving long enough to lay eggs than yellow females.  The reason why is that dark females look much like the poisonous pipevine swallowtail.  The pipevine has an extremely bitter taste.  If bird or other predator tries to eat one, it rarely goes back for seconds or even attacks a butterfly that looks like it.

       I would be interested in know the percentage of black females to yellow females you see in your yard.  If you conduct a survey of the eastern tiger swallowtails in your yards, let me know what you find.

HAVE YOU BEEN LOOKING FOR A QUESTION MARK

        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.

BACKYARD SECRET: THE CATERPILLAR’S AMAZING GROWTH RATE

Some caterpillars exhibit an unbelievable growth rate.  Believe it or not, the caterpillars of some butterflies actually double their weight every two days.  If a human baby had a similar rate of growth, it would weigh a ton in just 14 days!

DOES HOT WEATHER AFFECT BACKYARD BUTTERFLIES?

        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.