Wednesday, August 7, 2013

From Natives to Butterflies

One of the wonderful results of having lots of native plants in the yard is the arrival of many colorful winged creatures.  The vast majority of butterflies exclusively use native plants on which to lay their eggs.  The caterpillars can only eat the leaves of these native plants; the plants with which they evolved over thousands and thousands of years.  While this year’s butterfly populations have been notably low, I’ve been particularly anxious to see which of these Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths) we’d see here this year. 
Giant Swallowtail nectars on Swamp milkweed

Giant swallowtails have been frequent visitors to our numerous blooming plants this summer.  Our bloomers are alive with all sorts of pollinators.  Yet I found these Giant swallowtail ignored all but the pale pink flowers of the Swamp milkweed.  Unlike the other butterflies, this large butterfly never rested.  Even while perched on the blossom, sipping nectar through its unfurled proboscis, it continually flapped its wings (5 second video.)  Every creature has adapted special behaviors to help it survive and populate the next generation.  I wonder why this frenetic flapping when other butterflies don’t indulge in this action.  You have to wonder if the energy gained from the nectar is enough to offset that consumed by the winged workout.  Perhaps the flapping enables it to make quicker getaways from would be predators.  Prickly ash is one of only a few host plants for this butterfly’s caterpillars.  When Jan Hunter identified a patch of this thorny shrub in our woods, I never imagined that I’d really get to see such a lively result.  Now I think I should find a Kevlar suit and check for eggs amongst the thorns. 
Common blue violet
Last year I was pleased to see that we had several good size populations of violets growing in the side yard.  They are the native Common Blue violet, and Downy yellow violet.  I really liked them and was particularly pleased to discover they are native to Northwest Ohio.  Many told me to get rid of them:  “They are a weed and will take over everything.”  I didn’t care.  I vowed I’d watch them and if they threatened to knock down our house, then I would remove some of them.  A little research and I found they are the host plant for a group of butterflies, the fritillaries.  I’d only seen pictures of fritillaries, never one “in person”.  When the violet opponents would raise their “weed” issue, I’d respond that these vibrant plants were crucial to the survival of whole group of butterflies.  Surely that would quell the naysayers.  This spring Jim McCormac, a legendary Ohio naturalist and author who works for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, posted an inspiring piece about a field of Common blue violets he discovered.  (
).  In my quest to further validate keeping my violets, I dutifully searched through the numerous leaves for signs of butterfly eggs or caterpillars.  All to no avail.  Well, the flowers are reason enough to keep them.  Yesterday while diligently working at my home office, a movement outside the window caught my attention.  Ah, a butterfly.  This looked a little different than the ones I’m used to.  I looked at it a little bit and told myself to get back to work.  And what could I do anyway.  My camera was in its case, my tripod all folded up.   A little while later I noticed the butterfly was still hanging around in the backyard.  It came to gather some more nectar from the Swamp milkweed again.   Well I should take a picture.  My cell phone camera just wouldn’t zoom in close enough to make it worthwhile.  Back to work.  A few moments later I looked up and again the butterfly was sipping away.  Well darn it.  I’ll be mad if I don’t make the effort.  Unfold the tripod, extract the camera from its case, take off the lens cap, put on the lens shade, and mount the camera to the tripod.  Then out the back door I went.   As predicted, the creature was gone.  Now at least I wouldn’t be mad at myself for not trying.  Hey, there it is again.  This is one thirsty little critter.  For the next half hour I chased this unidentified butterfly around the yard.  Finally I gave up with the tripod, cranked up the camera speed and hand held my picture machine.  From Joe-pye weed, to Swamp Milkweed, to Purple coneflower blooms I followed this tenacious flyer.  Several times when I thought I’d scared it away for good; it would reappear and land on a blossom so close I could see its eyeballs.  Later that night,
Unidentified butterfly on Purple coneflower
I discarded all but a handful of the digital images and went on a quest to identify this wondrous creature.  Without a clue as to how to go about this, I just opened to the butterfly section of Kaufmann’s Field Guide to Insects of North America and started paging through the images.  One really caught my attention and I compared it to the pixels on my screen.  Both pictures looked the same to me.  Well I sure didn’t want to embarrass myself by posting this online and then having to make a correction.  So I called out to Wood County’s bug queen, Sherri Doust.  From the one picture I sent, she was pretty sure of the identification, but said a yellow band on the underside of the hind wing would nail it.  So I sent her another view and the verdict was in.  It was a Great spangled fritillary whose host plant is the oft maligned violet.  Thanks Sherri, and long live the Violets.

Great spangled fritillary
nectaring on Swamp milkweed
Note the yellow band between the two rows of white spots on the underside of the hind wing

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Hey! Great to be connected on here...we are excited to check out your progress on your property. :):)