Some Flowers and Insects of the Florida “Spring-time”

December 25, 2012

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson


While the northern states are beginning to enjoy their spring flowers, those of us in Florida can also appreciate the special beauty of flowers and the insects that feed on them and pollinate them. It is indeed intriguing that humans find so much enjoyment in flowers despite the fact that their dazzling colors and bizarre shapes were designed only to attract pollinators.

A group of flowers that represents the peak of specialization is the orchid family. We happen to have an orchid in bloom in our yard, the crucifix or rainbow orchid, a type of Epidendrum . Orchids are unusual among flowers in that the male and female parts are fused together and they generally have co-evolved with certain insects that specifically pollinate them. This S. American species has a lip that resembles a cross and the fact that it blooms near Easter has resulted in the common name.

Another exotic flower in bloom in our yard is the Mexican flame vine, a relative of ragwort with a spectacular flower that is extremely attractive to butterflies. Here are two butterflies that were obtaining nectar from this beautiful if invasive vine, the mangrove skipper and the Gulf fritillary. As the name implies, the caterpillar of the mangrove skipper feeds on and requires red mangroves, a common tree in our yard and nearby. In contrast the Gulf fritillary caterpillars feed on the corky stem passion vine, also common in our yard. Since the passion vines are toxic, the red caterpillars and the orange adults are also toxic and advertise this by their bright colors to potential bird predators. It appears that these fritillaries also benefit from their mimicry of the milkweed-feeding monarch and queen butterflies. A second common butterfly in our yard this time of year which feeds as a caterpillar on our passion vines is the zebra. This results in toxicity of the larvae and adults which fly slowly as if they have no worries with bird predators due to their chemical protection.

Prickly pear cactus or Opuntia are common in sandy island habitats and produce absolutely spectacular large yellow flowers this time of year. This one has attracted a wasp which seems to be bathing in the pollen.

Butterflies are not the only insects whose beauty reminds us of “flying flowers.” There are lots of dragonflies around which are also quite bright and attract our attention. One of my favorites is the roseate skimmer; the male is hot pink and the female a dull brown. Bright male colors are generally an advertisement to the females that this male is a good choice as a mate, and a warning to other males to stay out of this macho male’s territory.

Spring is an especially wonderful time of year to enjoy the diversity and beauty of nature.

Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA

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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