Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths. In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants. Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants. Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard. Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.
Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies. More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State. Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards.
Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants: red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth, imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.
If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks. With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard. If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs. If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list. This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.
Each passing day brings news reports of the continued spread of the COVID- 19 virus and its horrible impact on people throughout our state, nation, and world. As a result, we all have to cope with increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Each of us has different ways in which we try to cope with these frightful times. One of the best ways I have found to deal with it is embark of a journey of discovery in my backyard. I would like to share with one such treks.
Recently after watching the noon news present the update on the numbers of cases of the pandemic in Georgia, I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a walk about. I was greeted with bright sunshine and balmy zephyrs. Standing on my deck, I was taken aback by a colorful collage created by the blossoms of jonquils, native and ornamental azaleas flowering dogwood, and other plants. After drinking in the beauty of this living mural, I began my walk.
One of the first things that caught my eye was a pipevine swallowtail nectaring at both yellow and orange blooms borne on native azaleas. I just had to stop and photograph this scene. A short time later, I just happened to notice a dragonfly flying just about my lawn. From time to time, the insect would land. Each time the dragonfly touched down, I was able to snap a few pictures as well as study the relative small aerial hunter. It was obvious that this was a species I had never seen in my yard before. The dragonfly was a female blue corporal.
Moving on I stopped in my tracks when a silver-spotted skipper landed in a patch of purple dead nettle. This marked the first time this spring I had seen this butterfly.
As I continued to walk, I noticed something different every few minutes. During one circuit, I spotted a eastern tiger swallowtail. During another circuit, I spied a cloudless sulphur. Carpenter bees seemed to be everywhere.
In subsequent trips around my yard, I stopped to study and photograph the fresh blossoms of flowering dogwood trees, bluets, and a native thistle.
Throughout my brief time afield, I was treated with the soothing songs of chipping sparrows and pine warblers singing from the tops our tall loblolly pines.
When I finally ended by backyard walk, sat in a chair on my deck, and began reviewing all that I had seen during my brief half hour backyard journey, Mother Nature surprised me with one final event. From around the corner of the house, a mockingbird appeared carrying a stick and quickly disappeared into the bowels of a nearby shrub.
I must admit, I wished that I could have extended my visit with my backyard neighbors; however, I had to address a few other demands on my time. However, when I went back inside, I was totally relaxed and convinced I need spend in my yard every day.
While aside of practicing social distancing, there is little that I can do to help thwart the spread of the terrible Covid-19 virus, I am certain that my backyard wildlife haven will help me deal with our uncertain future.
If you have your own wildlife haven, I hope you will visit it and your backyard neighbors often. I am certain each trip will help you unwind and strengthen your bond with the natural world during these turbulent times.
Each spring nature treats us to a kaleidoscope of beautiful plants and animals ranging from butterflies and moths to flowers and birds. In fact, with so many beautiful things to look at, nobody can appreciate them all. As a result, far too many stunning natural jewels go unseen. Take the case of the great purple hairstreak. It maintains its anonymity because its wingspan only measures 1-1.7 inches and it spends most of its life in the tops of trees. Consequently, although it is one of the most gorgeous butterflies we are likely to see in our backyards; it is safe to say most of us never spot one.
Recently my daughter stumbled across one basking on the lawn surrounding the place where she works. When she stopped to take a closer look at the butterfly, its beauty took her aback. The butterfly appeared to be what butterfly enthusiasts refer to as “fresh.” This means the butterfly recently emerged and was sporting undamaged wings cloaked with all of their scales.
If you see a male great purple hairstreak basking, it is something you will not soon forget. This is because the butterfly’s wings are a bright metallic blue and literally seem to shine in direct sunlight.
The upper side of the female great purple hairstreak is blackish in color and displays a limited amount of metallic blue.
Being an amateur photographer, one of the things on my bucket list is being able to photograph the dorsal side of a male great purple hairstreak. However, since the only time you are likely see the topside of this butterfly is when it is flying or basking, my chances of photographing it from above are limited. Consequently, all of my photos of it show the ventral side of the insect.
The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are best described as blackish in color and highlighted with red spots near when the wings join its body. In addition, a series of blue spots adorn the undersides of the hindwings.
Lastly, short, fragile tails extend from the trailing edges of the hindwings. If you look carefully at a great purple hairstreak you will likely see the butterfly moving these fragile tails back and forth. It is believed this is done to distract would-be predators. Supposedly, a bird or other predator is more apt to strike at the moving tails and not the insect’s head and body. This would give the butterfly a chance to escape before the predator realized its mistake.
One feature that immediately catches your eye when you spot one of these butterflies is its orange abdomen. Supposedly, this is a warning to predators that it is distasteful.
The best butterfly gardens offer butterflies host plants and to nectar-rich flowers. While we can offer great purple hairstreaks a supply of nectar, we cannot plant its host plant. The reason for this is its host is mistletoe. With that in mind, if you see mistletoe growing atop a tree such as oak growing in your yard, there is a good chance great purple hairstreaks are living in your neighborhood.
I should note that during the spring I most often see the great purple hairstreak nectaring on purple dead nettle (see accompanying photo). Purple dead nettle is an invasive introduced plant most homeowners would call a weed.
If you do not happen to spot a great purple hairstreak this spring, all is not lost. Great purple hairstreaks can be spotted throughout the state from March to early November.
With spring just weeks away, there is no better time than now to decide which plants you are going to introduce into your home landscape this growing season. With that in mind, if you are looking for a native plant that is beautiful and is a used by pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies and others, consider planting beebalm. Here is some information that you should consider when deciding whether or not you want this native wildflower in your yard.
Wild Bergamot (Beebalm) – Monarda fistula – Type of Plant – perennial; Height – 1 to 5 feet: Blooms – June to September; Soil – moist to well drained; Light – full sun to partial shade; Wildlife Use – butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds.
Today I awoke to a thermometer reading of 32˚F. This marks the first day the temperature has plummeted to the freezing mark this fall. While I do not have any idea how long the temperature hovered this low, I know it could not have been too long since none of the plants flowering in my backyard showed any signs of frost damage.
When I ventured outside for the first time on this sunny, cool day the temperature had risen to 57˚. Much to my surprise the first creature I saw this morning was a monarch butterfly. The monarch was nectaring on the purple blossoms displayed on two butterfly bushes.
Needless to say, I was startled to see a monarch on such a cold morning since even on a sunny day, monarchs are rarely seen when the air temperature is in the 50s. When it is cloudy, this magnificent butterfly often does not take to the air until the air temperature reaches 60˚. That being the case how was this butterfly out and about feeding?
In autumn, when monarchs are passing through the south on their way to Mexico they seem to prefer to roost in pecan and oak trees; especially those growing close to a nearby source of nectar. These trees offer protection from the wind and their dense foliage provide places to roost that at are often warmer than the air temperature.
During the past few years, I have noticed that late in the afternoon during the monarch migration, monarchs will nectar on one particular butterfly bush growing on the north side of my home. Just beyond my driveway stand three water oaks. Several times as the sunlight melted away, the monarchs would flutter up into the oaks and vanish from sight. While I am not positive this is their nighttime roost, I suspect it is.
Wherever the monarch I saw this morning roosted, it could not move until the temperature rose above 40˚. As the temperature slowly climbed, the butterfly had to crawl to a sunny spot and open its wings and bask in the warming rays of the sun. The butterfly’s black scales and abdomen enabled to it to absorb the heat needed to raise its body temperature. Once its flight muscles reached 55˚ degrees, the monarch was capable of flight.
I am certain the monarch I saw this morning is now miles away from my backyard. As the sun begins to dip below the horizon this afternoon, I hope it finds another suitable roost site and the night will not be as chilly as it was last night in Monroe County.
One event that backyard wildlife enthusiasts look forward to each autumn is the migration of the monarch butterfly. During the fall of the year, these beautiful butterflies stop and feed in our backyards as they make their way to their winter home in Mexico. This epic flight takes a tremendous toll on these gossamer-winged insects.
Ever since it became apparent monarch populations have plummeted to a fraction of what they once were, researchers have been scrambling to learn as much as they can about this fascinating insect. The results of one such study recently conducted by University of Georgia, Odum School of Ecology researchers provide us with answers as to why female monarchs are better fliers.
When the UGA research team compared the wings of male and female monarchs, they discovered some notable differences. It seems the females’ wings are thicker, and somewhat smaller. In addition, their flight muscles are smaller and lighter.
One might think having larger and heavier wing muscles, coupled with thinner and lighter wings would benefit the males. Actually, the reverse is true. The males’ larger and thinner wings are more susceptible to damage. Their wings also forced to bear more weight per square inch than those of the females.
In essence, this means female monarchs are more efficient fliers than males. This, in turn, enhances the chances of the females surviving the autumn migration.
Late last week the first monarch of the fall fluttered into the Johnson backyard. Since that time, I have seen monarchs seven more times. Seeing these handsome orange and black butterflies is a sure sign the vanguard of the 2019 autumn migration has reached Middle Georgia. Although I am elated to see these amazing butterflies, I fear that this year these long-distance migrants will have a difficult time finding enough food to fuel their flight on south.
The reason for my concern is for many weeks we have been suffering through a terrible drought. This severe weather has stressed or killed plants growing across the rolling southern Piedmont countryside and in backyards alike. This has significantly reduced the amount of nectar available to monarchs and bumblebees and other nectar feeders.
If you doubt this, assess the availability of nectar in your own backyard. Even in a good year, fewer nectar plants are blooming in most backyards in autumn than during the summer. This year, however, this year’s drought has made the situation much worse.
With that in mind, the yards that will offer these hardy migrants the most nectar are those that feature plants that do not require a lot of water. If there is a paucity of such nectar sources in your yard, I hope you will make an effort to remedy this situation.
One simple way to enhance the availability of nectar plants in your backyard is to grow plants in containers. For example, during the summer my wife sows zinnia seeds in pots sitting on our deck. As a result, currently some of our plants most visited by monarchs, gulf fritillaries and other nectar feeders are zinnias.
Here is a list of the plants growing about our yard that are currently visiting in the Johnson backyard: lantana, ageratum, butterfly bush, scarlet sage, zinnia, goldenrod, and verbena.
Keep in mind, providing food for southbound monarchs is every bit as important as offering them an abundance of host plants.
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.
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.