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Butterflies

Spring Azures Mating

5-12-16  spring azures mating 074Every spring tiny, delicate blue butterflies known as Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) are one of the first butterflies one sees.  Your impression of this butterfly depends on the angle from which you view it.  From above, the wings are a bright, pale blue (females’ have a dark border).  From beneath, the wings are very pale and lightly marked with brown speckling.  Thus, at rest or mating (as pictured) with wings folded vertically, they are not as startling to the eye as when they are seen flying.

After spending the winter as pupa, encased within a chrysalis, the adult emerges, mates and the females lay eggs.  The larva, or caterpillar, is slug-shaped, and is tended by ants which stimulate it to excrete a clear greenish “honeydew” which they consume.  (It is thought that the ants discourage parasitism by wasps and flies.)

At one time all North American azures were considered to be one species but now they have been identified as several different, but very similar, species collectively referred to as the “Spring Azure complex.”

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Baltimore Checkerspot Larvae Feeding On Turtlehead

Baltimore checkerspot larvaeAt this time of year, just as Turtlehead is flowering, a butterfly known as the Baltimore Checkerspot is mating and laying bright red eggs on the underside of Turtlehead’s leaves. This is the only plant on which Baltimore Checkerspot eggs are laid, and the only plant which the larvae eat. When the eggs hatch, the tiny larvae proceed to spin a web that envelopes them and the leaves of the Turtlehead plant that they are eating. They eat profusely, enlarging the web as they expand the area to include uneaten leaves. Eventually, as fall approaches, they will spin a pre-hibernation web where they remain until late fall when they migrate down into the leaf litter. While most butterflies and moths overwinter as eggs or pupae, the Baltimore Checkerspot remains in its larval stage until spring, when it forms a chrysalis, pupates and emerges as an adult butterfly.

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Ragged Robin Flowering

6-12  ragged robin 046Ragged Robin, Lychnis flos-cuculi, is native to Europe and has become so abundant in northern United States that it borders on being considered an invasive plant. Found usually in wet areas such as marshes, fens and wet meadows, this perennial can cover an area as large as an acre. When flowering, Ragged Robin is very noticeable — not only to humans, but also to the many insects that pollinate it. Bees and butterflies, especially, flock to stands of this plant in order to obtain its nectar and white pollen. (If you suck the base of the flower, you will soon detect the sweetness that attracts pollinators.)

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Mourning Cloak Butterflies Out From Under Tree Bark

mourning cloak butterfly IMG_5755Mourning Cloaks have recently emerged from under loose bark where they hibernated all winter. These early flyers, along with a few other species such as commas and tortoiseshells, have a jump start in the spring due to their not having to go through metamorphosis like most butterflies. Born last summer, Mourning Cloaks live for roughly ten months (longer than most butterflies), overwintering and breeding and laying eggs soon after appearing in the spring. This summer their larvae will feed on willows and poplars before pupating and emerging as adults in time to seek shelter for the winter. With snow still on the ground, nectar is quite scarce, leaving butterflies that are active this time of year dependent on tree sap available where branches have broken for much of their sustenance.

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Common Wood Nymphs Mating

7-28-14 mating common wood nymphs 066If you’ve walked in a shrubby meadow lately, you are probably well aware that Common Wood Nymphs (Cercyonis pegala) are everywhere. Each step seems to flush one, which, after some erratic flying, settles back down beneath the grasses, hidden from view. These butterflies are in a group called “satyrs” which consists of mainly medium-sized, brown butterflies. They belong to the Nymphalidae family, also known as brush-footed butterflies, or four-footed butterflies. The reason for these common family names is immediately apparent when examining a Common Wood Nymph (or Monarch, Painted Lady, fritillaries or checkerspots). Butterflies in this family look as though they only have four feet. Being insects, however, they have six. The front two legs are folded up in front of its head, and are extremely small and bristly. These reduced legs are present in all brush-footed butterflies, and are not used for walking or clinging. Rather, the bristles on these legs are sensory organs, used for detecting smells and for tasting. The butterfly’s proboscis is coiled up between this front pair of legs.

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Shade-loving Northern Pearly-Eyes Flying

7-21-14 northern pearly-eye  013To find butterflies, one usually heads for sunny fields or gardens filled with flowers, where the ample supply of nectar beckons these winged beauties. There are some species, however, such as the Northern Pearly-Eye (Enodia anthedon) that are more shade tolerant than most butterflies, and are found primarily in forests and their borders. Northern Pearly-Eyes often fly on cloudy days, and later in the day than many butterflies. The larvae eat a variety of grasses and the adults feed on tree sap (especially willows, poplars and birches), carrion and scat. These butterflies often perch head-down on tree trunks, occasionally gathering in large groups. Northern Pearly-Eyes were quite rare in New England in the mid-to late 19th century due to the large amount of land that was cleared. They have since rebounded, and you can find them during July and August in the shady understory of many New England forests.

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Caterpillars Molting

6-25-14 caterpillar molting 044A caterpillar is the larval stage of a moth or butterfly. It is the only stage that has chewing mouthparts, and therefore a caterpillar spends most of its waking hours eating. This consumption of food results in massive growth, making its skin/exoskeleton very tight. When this happens, a hormone called ecdysone is produced, prompting the caterpillar to molt, losing its old exoskeleton (to left of caterpillar in photo) under which is a new and larger exoskeleton. After the molt, while the new exoskeleton is still soft, the caterpillar swallows a lot of air, which expands its body. Then, when the exoskeleton hardens, it lets the air out and has room for growth. Caterpillars molt four or five times as they grow. Each different caterpillar stage is called an instar. (Photo: Forest Tent Caterpillar)

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