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Lepidoptera

Cabbage Whites Mating

Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris rapae) are seemingly common, rather ordinary and unremarkable butterflies.  That is, until you become acquainted more intimately with their reproductive idiosyncracies.  The male’s sperm, along with a nutritious snack, is contained within a package called a spermatophore. It is the size of the spermatophore that defies belief, as it makes up 13 percent of the male’s body weight.  Translated into human terms, a 150 male would possess a 20-pound package of sperm.

The male Cabbage White deposits its spermatophore into a pouch within the female’s reproductive tract and the sperm proceed to swim to a second pouch where they are used to fertilize the female’s eggs.  The female absorbs the nutrients that accompanied the sperm and uses them to make approximately half the eggs she lays.

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Polyphemus Moth Cocoon

Congratulations to Stein, the first person to correctly identify Monday’s Mystery Photo as the cocoon of a Polyphemus Moth!

The Polyphemus Moth is one of our giant silk moths, spinners of the largest cocoons in North America.  Leaves are often woven into the surface of the cocoon in which the Polyphemus pupa spends the winter.  Unlike most other giant silk moths’ cocoons, the Polyphemus Moth cocoon lacks an escape “valve” at one end. In order to emerge (as an adult) from the cocoon the summer after it spins it, the moth secretes an enzyme that digests and softens the silk at one end. Then it moves about the cocoon in a circular pattern, tearing the softened silk with two spurs located at the base of each wing on its abdomen. Eventually it escapes by splitting the silk and pushing the top up.

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American Dagger Moth Caterpillars Roaming

American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillars are present from June to October in the Northeast, but because of their size (up to 2 ½”) and their searching for a suitable site to pupate in over the winter, they are very evident right now.

American Dagger Moth caterpillars have lemon yellow (early instars) or white (late instars) setae, or hairs.  Their distinctive characteristic is the pattern of black tufts: two pairs of diverging tufts along the middle of the caterpillar and one thick black tuft at the end. As larvae they have a wide variety of host trees, including alders, ashes, birches, elms, hickories, maples, oaks, poplars, walnuts, and willows.

After locating a wintering site, these caterpillars will spin a cocoon in which they will spend the next several months as pupae.  Late next spring American Dagger Moths will emerge from their cocoons as two-inch-long brown moths.

If touched, these caterpillars can cause a mild allergic reaction (a rash) in some people who touch the them.

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Snowberry Clearwing Moths Gathering Nectar

There are four species of clearwing (also referred to as hummingbird) moths in North America. The most familiar ones are the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe).  These day-flying moths fly and move like hummingbirds (hovering near flowers while drinking nectar) and the males have a flared “tail” like that of a hovering hummingbird.  It is also very easy to mistake one for a bumble bee.  Scales cover the wings of butterflies and moths, but clearwing moths lose many of these scales and thus have partially transparent (“clear”) wings.

Like most moths, clearwing moths have a very long tongue (can be twice as long as their body) which they carry rolled under their heads and that they use to reach the nectar of long-necked flowers.  They are attracted to the flowers of phlox, beebalm, honeysuckle and swamp milkweed (pictured), among others. If you approach a clearwing moth as it hovers, you may detect the humming sound that they make with their wings.

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Woolly Bears Seeking Hibernacula

10-10-18 isabella tiger moth 119

The Isabella Tiger Moth typically has two broods during the summer.  The caterpillars (Woolly Bears) in the first brood pupate and emerge as adult moths mid-summer.  The second brood overwinters as caterpillars and pupate in the spring.  The Woolly Bears we see crossing roads at this time of year are second-brood caterpillars in search of protective hibernation sites (hibernacula).

Old-timers predicted the severity of the coming winter by the relative lengths of the black and brown bands of the caterpillars when they became easy to observe in the fall – the longer the black sections and narrower the brown section, the harder a winter they were in for.  In fact, this may have had some validity, as brown hairs (setae) are added to the middle band every time the caterpillar molts. Therefore, the older the caterpillar, the wider the brown band.  If winter comes early, the caterpillar’s brown band would be relatively narrow due to the fact it didn’t have time to mature fully and develop a wider brown section before hibernating.

The adult stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth is often overlooked, due to the appeal of the larval stage.  This tan moth, with a wingspan of 1 ½ – 2 inches, has tiny black markings on its wings.  Male and female are sexually dimorphic and can be distinguished by the color of their hind wings.  Males have yellow-pale orange hind wings while the hind wings of females are rosy. (Photo:  Woolly Bear; photo inset: female Isabella Tiger Moth)

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A Butterfly’s Proboscis May Act More Like A Paper Towel Than A Straw

9-24-18 sulphur butterfly IMG_9736The chewing mouthparts of a butterfly larva, or caterpillar, undergo changes when the larva develops into an adult butterfly. They are turned into a tube consisting of two parts, or galeae, that when joined form a structure called a proboscis. The proboscis looks like a straw, and has long been thought to act like one. It is often referred to as a sipping tool through which nectar is obtained by butterflies. However, recent discoveries have scientists thinking that the proboscis works more like a paper towel than a straw.

The liquid that a butterfly feeds on in addition to nectar – animal tears, juice inside decomposed fruit, tree sap, sweat, liquid contained in scat – is so viscous that sipping or pumping it through the proboscis, or feeding tube, would require an enormous amount of pressure. It’s been suggested by entomologist Konstantin Kornev of Clemson University that butterflies draw liquid upwards using capillary action – the same force that pulls liquid into a paper towel. The proboscis actually resembles a rolled-up paper towel, with tiny grooves that pull the liquid upwards along the edges, carrying along the bead of liquid in the middle of the tube. (Photo: Sulphur Butterfly on New England Aster)

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Viceroys — Master Mimics

8-17-18 viceroy metamorphosis

A plump caterpillar is irresistible to many insect-eating birds, and some of them (notably Viceroys and Giant Swallowtails) have outfoxed their predators by assuming the appearance of bird droppings, which one assumes is a far less appealing meal.  They do this using color, pattern, choice of resting place and even position – contorting their bodies to match the shape of bird droppings. The Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) uses this technique during its later larval and pupal stages.

The adult Viceroy butterfly also uses mimicry to enhance its survival, but it mimics another butterfly — the Monarch — not bird droppings.  Both the Viceroy and the Monarch are unpalatable and contribute to each other’s protection from birds with this strategy, a relationship known as Mullerian mimicry.

In New England there can be up to three broods of Viceroys, with the larvae of some of the second brood and all of the third brood overwintering and pupating in the spring.

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Eastern Black Swallowtails Laying Eggs

7-23-18 black swallowtail female laying eggs_U1A2171Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterflies are mating and laying eggs.  The female Eastern Black Swallowtail can appear quite frantic as she visits multiple host plants just long enough to leave a very tiny, spherical, pale yellow egg before heading on to the next plant.  In the wild, Queen Anne’s Lace, Wild Parsnip, Golden Alexander and Poison Hemlock are favorite host plants; in vegetable gardens you frequently find larvae (if you should miss the eggs) on dill, fennel and parsley.  Entomologists have found that host plant odor is one of the cues involved in the Eastern Black Swallowtail’s choice of where to lay eggs.

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Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Larvae Maturing

7-23-18 Abbott's sphinx moth_U1A2632The larvae of sphinx moths, commonly called hawk or hummingbird moths, are easily recognized by the horn, eye spot or hardened button that is near the tip of their abdomen.  Most readers are probably familiar with the larval stage of tobacco and tomato hornworms (Carolina Sphinx Moth and Five-spotted Hawk Moth, respectively) which are found on tomato plants. A less observed sphinx moth, Abbott’s Sphinx Moth (Sphecodina abbottii), can be found on grape and Virginia creeper vines.  As a larva it molts several times and assumes three different appearances by the time it pupates.

Abbott Sphinx Moth larvae start out green, with a horn near the tip of their abdomen, like most other sphinx moths. However, when they are about half-grown, they turn blue-green and the horn develops into an orange knob (see inset).  In the last stages before they pupate, the larvae molt and the knob turns into an “eye,” complete with a black pupil and encircling iris.  The finishing touch is a white reflection spot that makes the eye appear moist and shiny.  At this point, the larvae may be either brown with a “wood-grain” pattern (resembling grape vines, a host plant) or brown with ten pale green saddles along the back (thought to resemble grapes).  Pictured are the second and third stages of a brown “wood-grain” Abbot’s Sphinx Moth larva.

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First Brood of Pearl Crescents Emerging

6-15-18 pearl crescent_U1A6249The first of this summer’s broods of Pearl Crescents are maturing. Our smallest and most common black and orange butterfly can be found throughout the eastern half of the U.S.. This particular species is named after a crescent-shaped spot near the margin of the hind wing on the underside. Its wingspread is about an inch and a half. The exact pattern on its wings is highly variable, making it challenging at times to distinguish it from other crescents.

Asters are the primary food source of Pearl Crescent larvae. Mated females lay their clusters of 20-300 green-yellow eggs on aster leaves, and in roughly a week the brown, black and white spiny larvae emerge. Two broods are common in the Northeast, so one can continue to look for crescent caterpillars on asters into August.  Note:  The Northern Crescent is very similar-looking to the Pearl Crescent (it may not even be a distinct species). Photo could be of either species. All lepidopterists welcome to comment!

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Polyphemus Moth Cocoons

12-15-17 polyphemus cocoon2 IMG_4455The Polyphemus Moth is a giant silk moth, a member of the Saturniidae family which includes some of the largest species of moths. Giant silk moths derive their name from both their size as well as the fine silk they use to spin the cocoons which serve as protection for the pupal stage in their life cycle.

Most Polyphemus Moth cocoons start out attached to a tree branch, although some are spun among leaves or grasses on the ground (see pictured cocoon). They are oval, roughly 1 ½” long and nearly an inch wide. Cocoons in trees are susceptible to attack by squirrels and woodpeckers, whereas mice are the biggest threat to cocoons on the ground.

The moth overwinters as a pupa inside the cocoon. Unlike most other giant silk moths’ cocoons, the Polyphemus Moth cocoon lacks an escape “valve” at one end. In order to emerge (as an adult) from the cocoon the summer after it spins it, the moth secretes an enzyme that digests and softens the silk at one end. Then it moves about the cocoon in a circular pattern, tearing the softened silk with two spurs located at the base of each wing on its abdomen. Eventually it escapes  by splitting the silk and pushing the top up.


Bruce Spanworm Moths Emerging

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If you’ve walked in northern New England woods recently, chances are great that you’ve noticed light tan moths with a one-inch wing span flitting about — with temperatures in the 20’s, this seems slightly incongruous. However, there are some insects that are active in cool weather, among them the Bruce Spanworm Moth (Operophtera bruceata), also called Winter Moth and Hunter Moth (these moths are active during deer hunting season, which approaches winter). The adults of this species are active from October to December.

Bruce Spanworm Moths belong to the Geometer family, the second largest family of moths in North America. All the flying moths you see are males seeking wingless, and therefore flightless, females to mate with. The females crawl up the trunk or branch of a tree and send out pheromones to attract winged males. After mating, the female lays her eggs which hatch in the spring. Larvae pupate in the summer and adult moths emerge in the fall.

Many Geometers are considered agricultural and forest pests. Bruce Spanworm larvae periodically defoliate hardwood trees, preferring the buds and leaves of Sugar Maple, American Beech and Trembling Aspen trees. In 1958 in Alberta, Canada, at the peak of a 10-year infestation, over 50,000 acres were moderately or heavily affected by Bruce Spanworm larvae.


Painted Ladies On Their Way

9-28-17 painted lady2 IMG_1979For the past few weeks we have been witnessing the migration of thousands of southward-bound orange butterflies, a vast majority of which are not Monarchs (although they are having a good year, too) but Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui). Both their large numbers and the length of time that they have lingered in the Northeast this fall are unusual.

This was a good year for Painted Ladies — they migrated north earlier than usual, arriving in mid-April, possibly giving them time to have an extra generation, reproducing twice instead of once during the summer. In addition, the unusual weather we’ve been having has not been great for migrating. The butterflies have spent a lot of time fueling up on nectar while waiting for a wind out of the Northeast to assist them in their flight to the Southwest. With the prevailing wind change we’re now experiencing, it’s likely many of them will resume their migration today.


Geometrid Larvae Dangling

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The larvae of moths in the family Geometridae (the second largest family of moths in North America) are known as loopers, inchworms and spanworms. These names are derived from the looping gait of the caterpillars. They generally have only two or three pairs of prolegs (at the hind end) rather than the usual five pairs of most moth and butterfly larvae. The lack of prolegs in the middle of their body causes them to move by pulling the hind prolegs up to the true legs on the thorax in the front of their body, thereby forming a loop, and then extending the body forward.

Many Geometrid caterpillars evade predators by flinging themselves from trees and dangling by a silk thread that is attached to the tree at the other end (see photo). After the danger passes, they climb back up the silk and return to their leaf-eating.


Blinded Sphinx Moth vs. One-eyed Sphinx Moth

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Moths in the family Sphingidae are commonly called “hummingbird” (for their habit of hovering as they feed on nectar from flowers), “sphinx” (the larva holds its legs off the surface and tucks its head underneath, resembling the Egyptian Sphinx) or “hawk” (they fly with great speed and precision) moths.   Most are fairly large, with some species having a wingspread of up to 5” or more.

One group of sphinx moths is referred to as the “Eyed Sphinx Moths,” two of which are the Blinded Sphinx Moth (Paonias excaecata) and the One-eyed Sphinx Moth (Smerinthus cerisyi). The derivation of their respective common names can be easily ascertained by examining the upper surface of their hind wings. The Blinded Sphinx Moth has a single blue eyespot on each hindwing, whereas the One-eyed Sphinx Moth has a round or diamond-shaped black spot (“pupil”) in the center of each blue eyespot. The Blinded Sphinx Moth is light brown, whereas the One-eyed is a violet-gray. Both moths have scalloped wings that are held elevated and slightly away from the body. They are nocturnal, and regularly visit lights in small numbers. Their life is short, and adults of both species do not feed.

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Luna Moths’ Sonar Scramblers

6-26-17 luna moth 001Luna Moths, Actias luna, are known for their hindwings’ beautiful, long, green tails. These tails are not simply decorative, nor is their primary function to attract a mate (pheromones do that). A recent study found that Big Brown Bats have an easier time catching Luna Moths that have lost their tails. Further research revealed that Luna Moths defend themselves from voracious bats patrolling the night air by spinning the tips of their two wing tails in circles. The twisting tails of the moth act like a sonar shield, interfering with the bat’s means of locating them – echolocation. In contrast with the stronger, ever-changing echoes coming off of the moths’ large flapping wings, the twisted shape of the tails create a persistent weak echo signal. According to researchers, this could make the insects trickier to catch, and harder to track as they fly.

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Modest Sphinx Common & Scientific Name Correction

6-16-17 moest sphinx IMG_8668Poplar Hawk-moth and Big Poplar Sphinx are both common names used for more than one species of moth. Normally, the scientific name would clarify the identity of a species, but in yesterday’s post, the scientific name given was that of another moth with the same common name.

The confusion over the use of the same common names for different species of moths has led to the current use of the name Modest Sphinx for the moth depicted in yesterday’s post, with a scientific name of Pachysphinx modesta. It derived both common and scientific names from the fact that when it is seen up against a tree or other substrate with its forewings not fully extended, the bottom half of the moth is dark, as though “modestly covered” by a cloak or shawl. Thank you, Andree Sanborn, for your sharp eyes!

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Poplar Hawk-moths Emerging, Mating & Laying Eggs

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June is well-known for the giant silk moths that emerge this month, but there are other large moths that are encountered as well, one of which is the Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi). Hawk-moths, also known as Hornworms (their larvae, which feed mainly on species of poplar, usually have a horn), are a type of Sphinx moth, which are known for their fast, enduring flight. One of the more familiar species of this family is the day-flying Hummingbird Hawk-moth, which can be seen hovering at flowers while sipping nectar with its proboscis.

Adult Poplar Hawk-moths, with wingspans as large as four inches, emerge in early summer. Their life is so short that they do not have a functional proboscis and do not eat, but concentrate on mating. Females extend a scent gland from the end of their abdomen to lure in the night flying males whose large claspers are frequently wide open as they fly in to lights around midnight. The moths mate and the females lay their pale green eggs on the leaves of poplars and willows, which the larvae eat once they hatch. Fully-grown caterpillars pupate and overwinter in shallow burrows in the ground.

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Mourning Cloaks Surviving On Sap

4-25-17 mourning cloak IMG_2827

Who doesn’t celebrate at the sight of a Mourning Cloak butterfly gliding through the woods on soft, spring breezes? Because the adults spend the winter hibernating behind loose bark, Mourning Cloaks are among the first butterflies to take flight in the spring. Most butterflies overwinter as eggs or pupae inside chrysalises, and have to complete metamorphosis before they can take to the air.

Surviving in March and April, when there is little, if any, nectar to be found, is challenging. Mourning Cloaks sustain themselves with the sap that exudes from broken tree branches or wounds in tree trunks. Oaks are their preferred source of sap. When they find some, they walk down the trunk to the sap and feed head downward (see photo).

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Large Yellow Underwing Larvae Crawling On Snow

12-12-16-large-yellow-underwing049a2252The striped caterpillar that is crawling along the surface of fresh snow is the larval stage of a noctuid or owlet moth known as the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba). Noctuids are dull-colored, medium-sized, nocturnal moths that are attracted to lights in the summer. They usually possess a well-developed proboscis (mouthpart) for sucking nectar. The Large Yellow Underwing larva is one of many species  known as cutworms that feed on herbaceous plants. Introduced from Europe to Nova Scotia in 1979, this species has since spread north to the Arctic Ocean, west to the Pacific, and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Larvae sporadically feed through the winter months whenever temperatures are above the mid-40s. The Large Yellow Underwing larva has been nicknamed the winter cutworm and the snow cut-worm for its ability to feed actively when other cutworms are dormant for the winter. Occasionally on warmer winter days, such as we had last week, you see them crawling on the snow.

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Greater Fritillaries

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There is a group of butterflies known as greater fritillaries, or silverspots (their underwings often have multiple silver spots). Three species of greater fritillaries can be found in the Northeast: Great Spangled, Atlantis and Aphrodite. All three are similar in appearance, with differences so subtle that the butterfly in a Naturally Curious post last month was mis-identified as a Great Spangled Fritillary, when it was actually an Atlantis Fritillary. Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader, Sue Elliott, this was brought to my attention. If you can approach a fritillary close enough to see the color of its eye, identification is a snap! Great Spangled Fritillaries have amber-colored eyes, Atlantis Fritillaries have blue-gray eyes, and Aprhrodite Fritillaries have yellow-green eyes. Can you identify the two species of fritillaries that are pictured? (Upper right, on thistle – Great Spangled Fritillary; main photo, on Joe-Pye Weed – Atlantis Fritillary)

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Milkweed Tussock Moths

9-6-16  milkweed tussock moth larvae 20160830_1764Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars are responsible for eating all portions of milkweed leaves but the largest veins that contain sticky latex. They can tolerate the cardiac glycosides within the milkweed plant that are toxic to most other insects as well as certain mammals and birds. Like Monarchs, these caterpillars retain the toxic compounds as adults, and are therefore avoided by many predators.

Female Milkweed Tussock Moths lay their eggs in masses on the underside of milkweed and dogbane leaves, which their larvae will eat. The hatching caterpillars are gray and hairy, but in no time they have developed the tufts of hairs that give them their name. When fairly young, the larvae tend to stay together, skeletonizing the leaves they consume. As they mature, the caterpillars tend to wander, and it’s unusual to find large groups of them on a single leaf.

Many of the insects that feed on milkweed have orange and black patterns as both larvae and adults. These colors serve as a warning to would-be predators. One of the adult Milkweed Tussock Moth’s main predators is bats. While the moth possesses these colors during its larval stage, as a pale brown adult (the stage that nocturnal bats prey on them) it lacks the bright coloration (which would provide little protection in the dark) but has an organ that emits an ultrasonic signal easily detected by bats. The signal warns that an attack will be rewarded with a toxic and distasteful meal, thereby deterring predation.

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Eggs Of Migrating Generation Of Monarchs Hatching

7-19-12 monarch eating eggshell IMG_4494

The Monarch eggs that are hatching now contain the larvae that will metamorphose into the butterflies that will migrate this fall to central Mexico. Unlike earlier-hatching generations that only live six to eight weeks, the Monarchs that result from late summer and early fall hatchings live six to nine months. Part of the reason for this difference in life span is that, unlike the earlier generations that mate soon after emerging from their chrysalides, late-hatching Monarchs postpone mating (reproductive diapause) until the end of winter, thereby conserving energy for their two to three thousand-mile, two-month migration. (Photo: monarch larva’s first meal – its eggshell.)

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Great Spangled Fritillaries Flying, Feeding & Mating

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There are five species of fritillaries in New England: the Great Spangled, Aphrodite, Atlantis, Silver-bordered and Meadow.  The largest and most common is the Great Spangled Fritillary.

The adults are in flight now, feeding on the nectar of a variety of flowers, including Joe-Pye Weed (pictured), mints and milkweed.  In general they prefer long, tubular flowers.  Males patrol open areas for females.  After mating, female Great Spangled Fritillaries enter a resting state called diapause, which they emerge from in late summer.  At this time they lay their eggs near patches of violets (larval host plant) and die. The caterpillars hatch in the fall and overwinter as larvae, becoming active in the spring at the same time as violet plants begin to grow.  Feeding takes place at night, and is limited to violet leaves. Hopefully global warming will not upset the synchronization of these two events.

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