An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Butterflies

Monarch Butterflies Reach Wintering Grounds

Two days ago, on November 6th, the first Monarch Butterflies arrived in their 73-mile-wide overwintering area in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Central Mexico. This miraculous flight, which takes a Monarch roughly two months, can be up to 3,000 miles long. Using the sun, and most likely the earth’s magnetic field, they head for specific stands of Oyamel Fir trees, where they will cluster and be protected, unless weather conditions are severe, from extreme temperatures, predators , rain and snow until next March, when their journey north begins. (These butterflies only get about half way back to New England, at which time they mate and lay eggs. The third or fourth generation of these monarchs will reach their eastern destination.) To track the migration of these remarkable insects, go to http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/index.html.
11-8-13 monarch butterfly IMG_6361

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Black Swallowtail Larvae Soon to Form Chrysalises

8-29-13 black swallowtail larva and QALace 028In its younger days, this Black Swallowtail larva resembled a bird dropping, but in successive molts a green (or white), yellow and black pattern develops. Often discovered in vegetable gardens on carrot, parsley and dill plants, it also feeds on wild members of the carrot/parsley family (Apiaceae), including its favorite, Queen Anne’s Lace (pictured). Seeds as well as leaves are rapidly consumed, as the time for one last molt and the development of a chrysalis in which to overwinter approaches.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Butterflies Obtain Nutrients From Scat

8-14-13 white admiral on raccoon scat 019Nectar from flowers and sugar from running sap (especially at Yellow-bellied Sapsucker holes) or overripe fruit provide most, but not all, of the nutrition that butterflies need. The males of some species will also drink at muddy puddles or damp earth for mineral salts and on scat or animal carcasses to get amino acids and other vital nutrients. This added nutrition is needed for them to generate spermatophores, the packets of sperm and nutrients that are transferred to the female during mating. (Photo is of a White Admiral, Limenitis arthemis arthemis, feeding on blackberry seed-laden Raccoon scat.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Fritillaries Feeding

7-24-13    Atlantis Fritillary 627Greater Fritillaries are a genus of butterflies that are also known as “silverspots” due to the silver spots many of them have beneath their hind wings. Greater Fritillaries in New England include the Great Spangled Fritillary , the Aphrodite Fritillary and the Atlantis Fritillary. It can be challenging to tell these three orange-dappled species apart. The black margins on the upper side of the pictured Atlantis Fritillary’s wings help identify it. This fritillary is named after Atlantis, a legendary island first mentioned by Plato. While adult Atlantis Fritillaries favor the nectar of milkweed, thistle, burdock and boneset, the brown and black-speckled larvae feed on violets.


Monarch Numbers Down

7-22-13 monarch IMG_1107According to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, this spring and summer there’s been an estimated drop of 90% in the overall monarch population in eastern Canada – the most dramatic decline ever recorded. Vermont (and most likely New England in general) is experiencing much the same situation. The low numbers of monarchs are due to several factors that they have encountered along their migratory routes the past couple of years, including extreme temperatures, record drought, low nectar production by flowering plants and a scarcity of their host plant, milkweed. The cold temperatures and record amounts of rain this spring undoubtedly added to their stress.


Butterflies Mating

6-10-13 mating pearl crescents 351These mating Pearl Crescent butterflies may have used size, color, shape, vein structure and/or pheromones to recognize each other. When mating, most male butterflies provide a package (spermatophore) of sperm and nutrients the female needs to produce and lay eggs. The mated female stores the spermatophore in a sac called a bursa until she’s ready to lay eggs. She fertilizes her eggs as she lays them, using the last sperm she received first. For this reason, males of some species will leave a substance that dries into a film on the female’s abdomen in an effort to keep her from mating with other males. (Thanks to Kent McFarland for butterfly i.d.)


White Admiral/Red-spotted Purple Caterpillars Emerge from Hibernation

5-15-13 white admiral larva 133Butterflies in the family Nymphalidae are also referred to as brush-footed butterflies (their front pair of legs are much reduced, brush-like and nonfunctional). Several species of Admiral butterflies belong to this family, and one of the most common in New England is the White Admiral, also known as the Red-spotted Purple. White Admirals overwinter as caterpillars and emerge in late April to feed for several weeks on the young leaves of cherries, willows, poplars and birches, as well as other trees, before forming chrysalises and transforming into butterflies. It is relatively easy to recognize the larva of any species of Admiral butterfly, as they are our only horned bird-dropping mimics. Quite an effective way to discourage predators!


Eastern Commas Flying

4-23-13 green comma IMG_9353Commas are a group of butterflies also known as anglewings (for obvious reasons). There are several species of commas in New England, all of which have a silver mark in the shape of a comma underneath each hind wing. Like mourning cloaks, these butterflies overwinter as adults in bark crevices, logs or other protected spots. You often see them in the woods, where they feed on tree sap, mud, scat and decaying organic matter. When perched with their wings closed, they are extremely well camouflaged and easily mistaken for a dead leaf.


Mourning Cloak Butterflies Emerging from Hibernation

4-11-13 mourning cloak IMG_2827

A male mourning cloak butterfly basks in the sun on an eastern hemlock while its dark wings act as solar collectors, warming the hemolymph (a circulatory fluid analogous to blood) in the wing veins and returning the warmed fluid to the butterfly’s body until it reaches a temperature sufficient for flight. This butterfly has just emerged from hibernating in a sheltered spot, such as behind loose bark. Because they overwinter as adults, mourning cloaks are one of the first butterflies to be seen in the spring.  The adults mate and lay eggs, and the caterpillars that hatch from the eggs will metamorphose into adults in June or July.  After feeding for a short time, the adults become dormant (estivate) until fall, when they re-emerge to feed and store energy for hibernation.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar Defenses

The Giant Swallowtail (Papilio crestphones) appears to be extending its range northward into Vermont.  It was first confirmed here two years ago, and more sightings have been made each summer since then.  The Giant Swallowtail is the largest butterfly in North America, with roughly a 4-6-inch wingspan. Because of the caterpillar’s preference for plants in the citrus family, this butterfly is generally is found further south.  However,  Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) is found in northern New England, and it is a member of the citrus family.  With this food source, and increasingly warm winters, the Giant Swallowtail may be here to stay.  The larval stage, or caterpillar, is as, or more, impressive as the adult butterfly.  Its defense mechanisms have to be seen to be believed.  The caterpillar looks exactly like a bird dropping (it even appears shiny and wet), making it appear unpalatable to most insect-eaters.   As if that weren’t enough, when and if it is threatened, a bright red, forked structure called an osmeterium emerges from its “forehead” and a very distinctive and apparently repelling odor to insect-eaters, is emitted.


Monarch Butterfly Migration is Underway

Monarch Butterflies have begun migrating — the peak of their migration in Central Vermont/New Hampshire is September 3 – 15. Monarchs typically cycle through four generations during the breeding season. The final generation migrates to Mexico. Those individuals emerging in late summer live much longer than the Monarchs that are around in June and July (6-9 month life span vs. 6-8 weeks). This allows Monarchs in the East the time needed to migrate up to 3,000 miles (a trip that takes roughly two months) to central Mexico, live through the winter and to begin a return trip (making it only about halfway back), mating along the way. The succeeding generations of Monarchs continue the return trip back to New England, and with luck, the great (or great-great) grandchildren of the butterflies that are migrating to Mexico now will grace our milkweed patches next summer.


Clouded Sulphurs

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Sulphurs are a group of butterflies that are usually some shade of yellow, orange or white and have a wingspan between 1 ½ “ and 2 ½ “. The three species likely to be seen in New England are the Clouded Sulphur, the Orange Sulphur and the Pink-edged Sulphur. (Distinguishing one species of sulphur from another can be quite challenging.) Sulphurs always perch with their wings closed, and are commonly seen on flowers drinking nectar as well as puddling in muddy areas, where they obtain salts and other minerals.


American Lady Larva

The American Lady larva is very distinctive with its branched spines and white bands across its abdomen.  One of its favorite foods is Pussytoes, a member of the Aster family.  The larva feeds inside a shelter it makes by tying up several leaves with silk.  In the photograph, the larva has incorporated the flower heads of Pussytoes into its shelter.  Not only is the larva feeding and growing inside this 1 ½ ”-long  cavity, it also shed its skin.  To see an adult American Lady butterfly, go to http://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/american-lady-common-milkweed-pollinia/ .  Soon after the larva forms a chrysalis and pupates, a butterfly emerges and starts its migration south for the winter.


Spined Soldier Bug

The Spined Soldier Bug is a predatory stink bug which preys on a variety of other insects (over 90 species), especially the larvae of butterflies, moths and beetles. It is one insect that farmers actually welcome, as it preys heavily on the larvae of the European corn borer, Mexican bean beetle, cabbage looper, Colorado potato beetle, flea beetles and many other crop pests. The adult Spined Soldier Bug has a prominent spine on each “shoulder.” It also has piercing-sucking mouthparts which it uses to impale prey and suck out their internal juices. The photograph shows a Spined Soldier Bug dining on the innards of a monarch caterpillar.


Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis

Of the multitude of discoveries that every summer offers us, one of the most magical is that of  a Monarch Butterfly chrysalis.  While locating a Monarch larva is not all that difficult, especially when they are as prolific as they are this summer, finding a chrysalis doesn’t happen all that often. Most butterfly chrysalises are a rather drab brown, but the Monarch’s is a beautiful green which serves to camouflage it in fields where the caterpillars feed on milkweed and eventually pupate (form a chrysalis).  The Monarch caterpillar, when mature, usually seeks a sheltered spot under a leaf or branch where rain will not cause the silk button by which it hangs to disintegrate.  The chrysalis in the photograph is attached to a blade of grass which was anchored with silk to another blade of grass in order to make it more secure.  No matter how many I’ve seen, each one still takes my breath away.


Viceroy Butterfly

The Viceroy Butterfly closely resembles the Monarch Butterfly, but is smaller, and has a black line that runs across the veins of its back wings, which the Monarch lacks. While Viceroys don’t contain the poisonous cardiac glycosides that Monarchs do, they do contain salicylic acid due to fact that the larvae feed on willows. This acid not only causes the Viceroy to taste bad, but makes whatever eats it sick. So not only do these two butterflies look alike, but they discourage predators in the same way. This is not a coincidence. The fact that they are both toxic if eaten and are preyed upon by some of the same predators has led to their similar appearance. This phenomenon is referred to as Müllerian mimicry, and essentially it means if two insects resemble each other, they both benefit from each other’s defense mechanism — should a predator eat one insect with a certain coloration and find it inedible, it will learn to avoid catching any insects with similar coloration.


Milkweed Visitors

Milkweed is in full bloom right now, presenting the perfect opportunity for young and old alike to discover the multitude of butterflies, beetles, bees and other insects that are attracted to these magnificent flowers. If you visit a milkweed patch, don’t leave before getting a good whiff of the flowers’ scent – one of the sweetest on earth. How many of the insects you find are carrying milkweed’s yellow pollen “saddlebags” on their feet? You might want to check out my children’s book, MILKWEED VISITORS, which I wrote after spending the better part of one summer photographing the various insects I found visiting a milkweed patch. ( http://basrelief.org/Pages/MV.html )


White Admiral Butterflies Puddling

If you’ve been traveling on sunny dirt roads lately, chances are that you have seen White Admiral butterflies all over them. They are in the road to obtain salts and minerals that have leached from the soil into standing puddles and moist dirt. Because butterflies do not have chewing mouthparts as adults, they must drink their meals. While nectar is their main source of nutrition, males often supplement their diet with these minerals. The act of acquiring nutrients in this manner is referred to as “puddling.” If there’s no water around, a butterfly may regurgitate into the soil and then drink in the hope of retrieving minerals. In addition to finding butterflies on dirt roads, look for them puddling on animal scat.


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (pictured) is yellow with four “tiger stripes” on each of its forewings. The female can be yellow or black, and has more blue on the hind wings than the male. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are currently mating and laying eggs on plants which their larvae eat, which include black cherry, red maple and American hornbeam. When the caterpillars first hatch, they resemble bird droppings – an effective way of decreasing predation. As they get older, the larvae turn green and have a large head and bright eyespots.


Question Mark Butterfly

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The butterfly known as the Question Mark is in a group of butterflies known as “commas” (a silvery comma can be seen on the underside of their hind wings) or “anglewings”  (for their sharply angled wing margins).  The Question Mark has a silver dot adjacent to the comma, turning it into a question mark.  When its wings are open, the question mark is fairly bright orange and quite noticeable, but when it closes its wings, it transforms into a dead leaf, for the undersides of its wings are dull brown and gray. This Question Mark was drinking sap from a wound in the trunk of a tree. These woodland butterflies prefer rotting fruit, mud, scat, carrion and tree sap over the nectar of flowers.

 


Mourning Cloak Butterflies

With the warm temperatures this week, mourning cloak butterflies have been seen gliding through the leafless woods.  Like eastern commas, question marks and red admirals, mourning cloaks overwinter as adults.  They resemble dead leaves so much that from a distance the entire insect seems to disappear.  Up close you can see the velvety texture of the wing scales, said to resemble the clothing mourners used to wear; hence, their common name. Mourning cloaks live up to ten months — an impressive life span for a butterfly.  As they age, the yellow border of their wings fades to an off-white.


Butterflies that Overwinter as Adults

With all the warm weather this week, butterflies are suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Unlike most butterflies, which typically spend the winter as eggs or pupae (inside of chrysalises), red admirals, mourning cloaks and eastern commas (pictured) simply slip out from behind loose bark, where they overwintered as adults, and take to the air. Those species of butterflies which spent the winter as eggs or pupae must undergo metamorphosis this spring, and won’t appear in their adult form until later in the year. With so few wildflowers out now, especially this year, sap from broken tree branches sustains early-emerging butterflies!


Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.   http://www.noba-web.org/books11.htm


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