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Spotlight: Some familiar butterflies

Some of the most conspicuous insects are the butterflies. Few people find anything “negative” about butterflies, and in fact, many folks plant specific flowers or shrubs to attract them to their backyards or decks. Butterflies are quite variable in sizes, shapes and, particularly, colors.

In the United States about 750 butterfly species have been identified.

A few weeks ago my column focused on caterpillars. Caterpillars are the larvae of butterflies and moths and are the second stage of complete metamorphosis. Butterflies are the fourth stage. The least noticeable and certainly less active stage, the pupa stage, occurs when a fully developed caterpillar forms a chrysalis (a protective case) in which it transforms into a thing of beauty.

Most butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers using a long proboscis, which they uniquely can coil up, when they are ready to move on to another flower to feed. The nectar is found inside the flower’s pistil. In most cases the nectar really serves as a “tease” to lure bees and, of course, butterflies to them. The result is that butterflies, while feeding, “accidentally” carry pollen from one flower to another and assist in cross-pollination, allowing the fruit/fruits to develop.

Butterflies are attracted to many flowers, particularly by their colors. Moths, which mostly feed at night, often feed on white flowers, those which are often vary fragrant. Moths, with their branched antennae, have an excellent sense of smell and use that sense at night to get their food.

The female butterfly determines what plants the caterpillar will eat. She locates plants best suited for the caterpillar to grow, and in some instances such as monarch butterflies, plants that will make the caterpillar inedible after ingesting those plants’ toxins. This is why you will see monarch butterflies feeding on zinnias, petunias, etc. but they seek out milkweed plants to lay their eggs.

Something else unique with some butterflies is that they can migrate. Most familiar to us is the monarch butterfly. The summer’s last brood emerging from a chrysalis in, let’s say southern Canada, will migrate to a mountainous region of Mexico. (However, these do not make the return north.) Succeeding generations hatching in Texas and then the Carolinas, eventually make their way back to the Times News area’s backyard gardens. Some other species of butterflies that migrate, at least to some extent, are the cloudless sulphur and the painted lady.

Some species of butterflies, such as the mourning cloak butterfly, actually hibernate through the winter. That is the reason they are seen so early in spring. They find a tree cavity (or something similar) in which to seek some shelter from winter’s drying winds. Ladybird beetles, although not butterflies, hibernate similarly, often in huge numbers.

One last bit of info: Butterflies and moths are the only insects that have scales. If you handle a butterfly too long, you can remove many of these scales. Do be careful, but like many things in nature, just get out there to see them. Enjoy …

Test your outdoor knowledge: True or False: Much like banding birds, entomologists actually developed a system to “tag” monarchs and were able to find these marked adults in Mexico.

One of the most familiar butterflies is the monarch butterfly. Some monarchs will be arriving in this area shortly after their northward migration.
A monarch butterfly caterpillar munches on a milkweed leaf. The female monarch sought out milkweeds on which to lay her eggs.
I have already observed a number of Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies this summer.
This black tiger swallowtail butterfly was feeding on sweet pea flowers.
This silver spotted skipper found a buffet of nectar in my zinnia flower garden.
I found this cloudless sulfur butterfly offering me a photo opportunity while alighting on the ground.
This red spotted purple admiral butterfly was photographed in August.
The question mark butterfly was common in my garden.
Not only do zinnias offer me great cut flowers for my home, they are quite an attraction for butterflies, including this painted lady butterfly.
Butterflies emerge from a pupal case called a chrysalis. The chrysalis is often only attached by one or two threads and can even be very glossy.