Late summer is a time in our area of southwest Virginia for flowering of natives such as goldenrod, ironweed, impatiens, virgins bower, wing stem, green headed cone flower, great lobelia, thistles and others. Many of these flowers are an important nectar source for the beautiful butterflies we enjoy in our fields. Just as different flowers bloom during different months, d ifferent kinds of butterflies also emerge in seasonal patterns. For example the early great spangled fritillaries are replaced by tiger swallowtails and now monarchs are the dominant large butterfly in our yard and fields.
In addition to using native plants you can attract butterflies and other insects to your yard by planting non-natives in your flower beds. Such mini-butterfly gardens can indeed be a major source of nectar for your butterflies and hummingbirds, and a delight to the eye. Here is one small example from our yard that primarily includes five species: Brazilian verbena, orange cosmos, zinnia, bouncing bet and Russian sage. Such a display does of course require a lot of work from the gardener!
Monarchs have catholic tastes when it comes to flowers and here one is feeding on an orange cosmos, one of the longer blooming species. Your mini-garden will also attract other insects such as the snowberry sphinx moth which hovers at flowers like a hummingbird. Unlike monarch caterpillars which require milkweed, adult monarchs are not particular and enjoy feeding on “weeds” such as this wing stem. Some “weeds” are indeed remarkably beautiful as well as attractive to butterflies, as shown by a skipper feeding on ironweed.
One of the smaller butterflies that is common in late summer is the eastern tailed blue, which requires magnification to be appreciated for its delicate beauty. The “tails” and spots on the posterior edge of the hindwing are apparently a device that mimics a head to divert attacks of jumping spiders and other predators away from the vulnerable head and body. The eastern comma is hard to separate from its close relative the question mark, both of which are extremely well camouflaged when their wings are closed.
I have recently seen a very few great spangled fritillaries, whose larvae feed on violets, and who are just at the end of their seasonal abundance. The end of summer is a time when you will encounter many flies and wasps, and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. For example I recently heard a loud buzzing noise and looked around with some alarm suspecting that a hornet was nearby. Instead I saw this syrphid fly which is an amazing mimic of a yellow jacket wasp.
So enjoy the final days of summer, the flowers and the insects, and the exciting beginning of an intense period of bird migration prior to late autumn and the oncoming winter months.