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
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.
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.
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!
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.
Whenever I spot a cloudless sulphur during the winter, it is a welcomed sight. Its lemony, yellow color always brightens and otherwise drab landscape.
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.