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Lepidoptera

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

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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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Butterflies As Pollinators

7-29-16  swallowtail in lily 086Butterflies pollinate during the day while most flowers are open and they have better color perception than bees or even humans, but they are less efficient than bees at moving pollen between plants.  Their legs and proboscis are longer and farther away from the flower’s pollen so they do not pick up as much pollen on their bodies.  They also lack specialized structures for collecting pollen. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that some of the Daylily pollen that has collected on this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail’s wings might not fall onto or be brushed against the stigma of the next Daylily it visits.

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White Admirals Mating

7-5-16 white admiral 224For several weeks White Admiral butterflies have been a common sight along dirt roads, where they obtain nutrients from damp soil.  They are a kind of “brush-footed butterfly,” having reduced forelegs that are folded up and often bear a brush-like set of hairs.  Like most other butterflies in their genus (Limenitis), White Admirals fly with alternating quick wingbeats and flat-winged glides.  It is not unusual to see males perched on trees along trails or forest clearings, waiting for females to come along.

After years of White Admirals and Red-spotted Purples being classified as different species, they are now considered to be one and the same species, even though their appearance is quite different.  (Red-spotted Purples lack the bold white banding on their wings that helps break up the outline of White Admirals.)   Where their ranges overlap, which includes New England, individuals with characteristics of both of these butterflies are seen with some regularity.  Look for White Admirals, Red-spotted Purples and intermediates feeding on rotting fruit, in dirt roads, scat and flowers throughout the Northeast.

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Rosy Maple Moths Emerging, Mating & Laying Eggs

6-13-16  rosy maple moth 059Rosy Maple Moths (Dryocampa rubicunda) are easy to recognize, with their pink and yellow woolly bodies, pink legs and pink antennae.  Many adults are emerging from their pupal cases now, having spent the winter underground as pupae. Once metamorphosis is complete, the adult moths lose no time in finding mates and laying eggs, not stopping to even eat.  These members of the family Saturniidae are most active during the first third of the night, reducing their body temperature and activity in the morning and afternoon.

Mating takes place at night on the underside of a leaf, and 24 hours later the female lays clusters of 10-30 eggs (a total of 150 – 200 eggs) on the underside of the leaves of the larvae’s host plants, most often maples and oaks.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae usually remain on the same tree throughout their larval stage.

Known as Green-striped Mapleworms, the larvae initially feed together, but become independent feeders as they age.  Mapleworms change color as they develop.  When young, most have black heads and yellow bodies, but with age their heads turns reddish-brown and their bodies assume a shade of green.

In New England there is only one brood per summer; further south, there are multiple broods.

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