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Butterfly of the Month

June: Red Admiral

Kara Davidson

We skipped last month’s Butterfly of the Month because we were preparing for the habitat opening for the season and redesigning our website. If you haven’t already stopped by the habitat, we hope you do soon. When you are there, you may see this month’s Butterfly of the Month- Vanessa atalanta, more commonly referred to as the Red Admiral.

Adult Red Admiral

Adult Red Admiral

Range: Most of North America [1]

How to Attract them to Your Backyard: Red Admirals prefer woodlands, so a shady backyard is preferred. Planting False Nettles would provide a place for Red Admirals to lay their eggs, as well as food for the caterpillars. They love most nectar plants but Ann has seen them in her own backyard on cosmos and lilacs. They also enjoy rotting fruit and oranges.

Red Admiral Egg

Red Admiral Egg

Find them locally in the wild: If you happen to live in southeastern Massachusetts and want to see Red Admirals in the wild, you should visit the Bournedale Herring Run.

May be confused with: Red Admirals are pretty distinctive!

Size: ~2.5” [1]

Season: Spring to late summer

Female vs. Male: No easily observable difference

Red Admiral Caterpillar Hiding in a Leaf

Red Admiral Caterpillar Hiding in a Leaf

Life Cycle: The eggs are laid individually near the top of the plant. The caterpillars develop spines to defend themselves from predators. While normally black, older caterpillars may have white or orange spots. Like the monarch, the chrysalis of the Red Admiral has some spots that appear golden.[1]

Interesting Facts:

  • They love rotting fruit

  • Caterpillars may make tent-like structures made of silk (for hiding)

  • Caterpillars are very challenging to find in the wild

Red Admiral Chrysalis

Red Admiral Chrysalis

In Our Habitat: Red Admirals are active, social and easy to spot. They enjoy warm, sunny weather with a light breeze. You can often find them eating at a plate of fruit- where they are very easy to photograph. They like salt, so if you are sweaty enough they may even land on you!  

 

References:

  1. Burris, Judy, and Wayne Richards. The Life Cycles of Butterflies: From Egg to Maturity, a Visual Guide to 23 Common Garden Butterflies. North Adams, MA: Storey Pub., 2006. Print.

April: Monarch

Kara Davidson

April’s Butterfly of the Month is Danaus plexippus, the Monarch.

 

Range: North America- from southern Canada to Mexico [1]

How to Attract them to Your Backyard: Ann recommends milkweed and lots of it! If you aren’t a fan of common milkweed, check out butterfly weed. It’s attractive, and the monarchs will love it. She also recommends planting the milkweed in patches, not just single plantings. In addition to milkweed, have lots of colored flowers available…zinnias are a wonderful nectar source.

May be confused with: Viceroy (we’ll do a post on them soon!)

Size: ~3.5″ to 5″

Season: End of May through September in Massachusetts; In fact, you may see even more in September as the individuals in Canada begin their migration.

Female vs. Male: Difficult to distinguish; but you can look for small black dots on the lower wings which are scent glands only found on the male [1]

Life Cycle: Monarchs lay single eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. After hatching, the monarch caterpillar devours the milkweed. When they’ve eaten enough, they hang upside-down to form their chrysalis. The green chrysalis have a row of tiny golden beads- it looks like actual gold! The final generation of the season (generation 3 in our area) will migrate to a warmer area for the winter. West coast monarchs head to southern California, while east coast monarchs head to Mexico. The population overwinters in Mexico before returning north in the spring. [1]

Interesting Facts:

  • They are the only butterfly in the world to have a true migration. We’ll discuss this migration in greater depth this fall!
  • A compound they ingest from the milkweed makes them slightly poisonous to birds and other predators- a great defense mechanism

In Our Habitat: The monarchs are a pleasure to have in our habitat! They are very social butterflies and interested in people. They love the sun and warm temperatures, so tend to be more active in the afternoon on sunny days (~11am to 4pm), particularly when temperatures are in the 70s. You can often find them enjoying the sun by hanging on the screens, or eating from brilliantly colored flowers. They get pretty engrossed in eating, so are easy to photograph. Ann has placed zinnias both in hanging baskets, and close to the floor, so there are plenty of opportunities for viewing!

Be sure to stop by to see our monarchs starting in May!

References:

  1. Burris, Judy, and Wayne Richards. The Life Cycles of Butterflies: From Egg to Maturity, a Visual Guide to 23 Common Garden Butterflies. North Adams, MA: Storey Pub., 2006. Print.

March: Question Mark

Kara Davidson

March’s Butterfly of the Month is Polygonia interrogationis, the Question Mark.

An orange question mark butterfly on a leafy twig.

An orange question mark butterfly on a leafy twig.

Range: They can be found throughout the entire eastern United States, as well as in very northern Mexico, and southern Canada.[1]

How to Attract them to Your Backyard: If you happen to have an Elm tree in your yard, you are off to a good start. We find a combination of elm and false nettle does a great job of attracting question marks for us.

May be confused with: Eastern Comma

Size: ~2”

Season: May through October

Female vs. Male: No easily noticed visual difference.

 

Life Cycle: The coloration of the caterpillars varies considerably. Some have dark oranges spines, while others can have pale yellow spines. Caterpillars spin pink silk to anchor the chrysalis. The butterflies emerge in the fall and overwinter as adults. They remain mostly inactive (hiding) until the spring. Adults eat animal feces, rotting fruit and sap. [1]

Interesting Facts:

  • Eggs are sometimes laid in vertical stacks (see photo)
  • They either get their name from a position they are commonly found in as caterpillars, or because of a silver mark located on the underside of their hindwing (and how this mark is different from the Eastern Comma)
  • When open, the edge of the wings is outlined in a beautiful, brilliant lavender color
  • When closed, they are camouflaged to look like a dried leaf
  • If disturbed in the chrysalis state, they wiggle like crazy! You don’t even need to touch them, just be near by.

In Our Habitat: Question Marks are easy to spot when the weather is cool, but sunny. They are very active butterflies and not at all shy of people. They can often be found on the plate of fruit. They tend to be sluggish when the weather is hot & humid (who isn’t?). Be careful though, their appearance when closed is very different than when open, they might confuse you.

References:

  1. Burris, Judy, and Wayne Richards. The Life Cycles of Butterflies: From Egg to Maturity, a Visual Guide to 23 Common Garden Butterflies. North Adams, MA: Storey Pub., 2006. Print.

February: Mourning Cloak

Kara Davidson

The Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa, is our butterfly of the month for February.

 

 

Range: Mourning Cloaks can be found all over North America, though they are rare on the gulf coast. They can even be found in temperate regions of Europe. They can be found in forests, parks, in your backyard- wherever their host plants are found. [1] In Britain, they are referred to as the Camberwell Beauty. 

How to Attract them to Your Backyard: You will have better luck attracting Mourning Cloaks to your yard if you already have the specific types of trees they enjoy near you. If you happen to live near woods, or have a Common Willow, Elm and Corkscrew Willow in your yard, you are more likely to see them. Additionally, making sure your yard has plenty of places where they can find shade and cool temperatures. You may also wish to place a plate of rotting fruit (especially bananas) outside. Just make sure to keep an eye on it and bring it inside at night, so you don’t attract any unwanted pests!

May be confused with: Mourning Cloaks are pretty distinct and unlikely to be confused with any other species.

Size: 2.25” to 4”

Season: Spring and again in the fall. They are fairly inactive in summer

Female vs. Male: There is no easy visual way to tell the males and females apart.

Life Cycle: Adults overwinter and then lay eggs in groups during spring. The caterpillars live communally in a web, feed on young leaves, and emerge in early summer. [1]

Interesting Facts:

  • One of the longest-lived butterflies. Adults survive 10 to 11 months. [1]
  • One of the few species that overwinter instead of flying south or dying off before winter, the adults hibernate in tree cavities or under bark.

In Our Habitat: We learned early on that the caterpillars do not do well if you separate them. We let them stay in communal groups and make sure there is enough food for everyone. The younger butterflies have a beautiful blue band on their wings that fades as they get older. They can “play possum” when they feel threatened- many other butterflies will attempt to fly away, but the mourning cloaks will be extremely still (even falling over when moved). Mourning Cloaks are easy to find and photograph- just head over to the plate of bananas and watch them eat!

References:

  1. “Attributes of Nymphalis Antiopa.” Butterflies and Moths of North America. Web. Feb. 2016. <http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Nymphalis-antiopa&gt;.

January: Eastern Black Swallowtail

Kara Davidson

Papilio polyxenes, also known as the Eastern Black Swallowtail, is our January Butterfly of the Month.

 

Range: Eastern, central and southern United States from Maine to northern Mexico.

How to Attract them to Your Backyard: Their host plants (where they lay their eggs) include fennel, dill, Queen Anne’s lace and other plants in the wild carrot family. Butterfly Bush and Butterfly Weed make great nectar plants. (1) Ann, our gardening expert, has had great luck using parsley as a host plant and also recommends impatiens and petunias, as nectar sources. She highly recommends Butterfly Weed as a great nectar source for most butterflies.

May be confused with: Pipevine or Spicebush Swallowtail

Left: Spicebush Swallowtail Right: Pipevine Swallowtail

Left: Spicebush Swallowtail Right: Pipevine Swallowtail

Size: ~3.5″

Season: April to September,

Female vs. Male: Males have a row of large light yellowish spots. Females have smaller spots, and have larger blue patches on their lower wings. (1)

Life Cycle: Young caterpillars are dark and covered with spikes, as they mature they lose their spikes and develop spots and stripes. Typically, the mature caterpillars are green with black markings, but some have more black due to natural variation. (1)

Interesting Facts:

  • They can emit a nasty odor as a caterpillar when they feel threatened. (1)

In Our Habitat: We’ve found Eastern Black Swallowtails are incredibly difficult to photograph, especially when feeding. They flutter and bounce from flower to flower quickly, constantly on the lookout for their numerous predators. In the habitat, they prefer the types of flowers we usually keep in hanging baskets, so they are often up high.

References:

  1. Burris, Judy, and Wayne Richards. The Life Cycles of Butterflies: From Egg to Maturity, a Visual Guide to 23 Common Garden Butterflies. North Adams, MA: Storey Pub., 2006. Print.