Butterflies Abound in Fields of Summer Wildflowers

In late June and early July, wildflowers produce a myriad of blooms and butterflies take full advantage of the availability of nectar. We have planted a series of polllinator fields and the most recently planted, in 2012, is now a mass of flowers. This photo shows blooms of purple cone flower, wild bergamot, ox eye sunflower and common milkweed. On warm sunny days butterflies and bees swarm around the flowers collecting nectar and pollen.

The sulphurs are one of my favorite groups of butterflies because of their bright yellow colors. But separating the species can be confusing to the novice watcher. This gorgeous sleepy orange is drinking from a purple cone flower which has a head made up of many tiny flowers, characteristic of the aster or composite family. It is called “sleepy” since the circular eye-like marks on the wings of similar species, such as clouded and orange sulphurs, are lacking.

The tiny male pearl crescent is less showy than some species, but has a subtle beauty when viewed up close. A wood nymph shown on a purple cone flower is cryptically colored except for a series of small eye spots on the hind wing and a light patch on the forewing with additional eye spots.

At our intermediate elevation in the Blue Ridge of Virginia the great spangled fritillary is one of the most common large butterflies in fields, with wings showing a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, with a wide pale band across the outer margins of both wings when they are closed. Yet mixed in with these is a occasional aphrodite fritillary, more typical of higher elevations, with a much narrower marginal pale band and an extra dark spot on the inner forewing. These are classic sibling species in the same genus that are distinct but barely so, illustrating how evolution can proceed by gradual separation of forms with slightly different habits.

Although butterflies are generally the more flamboyant of the Lepidoptera with many moths having rather somber hues (the better for camouflage), I came across two moths recently that do not fit this pattern. The Io moth is inconspicuous when its wings are folded (this illustrated female is reddish while the males are yellowish), but when the wings are opened in response to disturbance, a pair of remarkable eye spots is revealed. These appear to function as a bluff to scare away predatory birds. The smaller black and yellow lichen moth uses another tactic of bluffing by its resemblance to the poisonous net wing beetle, which advertises its toxicity by a bright color.

Butterflies and moths are truly spectacular and cannot fail to astonish you with their fantastic colors and forms. See what you can do with your yard to make it more butterfly friendly for larvae and adults and you will be thrilled by these “flying flowers.”

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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