There is no greater summer pleasure than watching the “flying flowers”, the butterflies. It is wonderful just to appreciate their beauty, but is also an intellectual challenge to learn their names and their habits. Of course first you have to plant or find some flowers that provide nectar to attract the butterflies. Our “pollinator field” planted about two years ago has been very successful, and one of the best flowers for butterflies in this field is the purple cone flower or echinacea. Here are five butterflies for you to learn that were found on echinacea.
The painted lady is well named and is an amazing kaleidoscope of colors. You just have to learn to tell it from its sibling species the American lady, which has larger eye spots on the outside of the hind wing.
Everyone knows the yellow tiger swallowtail, but this black tiger female is confusing. It is one of the “black and blue” butterflies which apparently mimic the toxic pipevine swallowtail. It can also be confused with the spicebush and black swallowtails, the female Diana fritillary and the red spotted purple. So if it confuses the predatory birds, it confuses humans also! But isn’t it amazing that female tiger swallowtails come in two color morphs, yellow and black, but that males are only yellow?
The orange sulphur can very easily be confused with its sibling species the clouded sulphur; the presence of a white morph makes it even more difficult. These two may interbreed, further complicating the picture. Talk about evolution in action! It helps a lot to get photos of the sulphurs to sort these and other species out later with the help of reference books, and experts available on line.
The fritillaries are another confusing group. This great spangled fritillary has a distinctive light band extending around the edge of the hind wing between the silver spots. But depending on where you are, you have to also consider Aphrodite, meadow, Gulf and variegated fritillaries.
The ultimate in difficulty of identification for butterflies are the skippers, which except for a few species such as the silver spotted and mangrove skippers, are not that distinctive. They tend to be brown and gray with various spot patterns. But if you can learn your locally common species first, you will enjoy the subtle beauty of these little gems. Here is a female sachem skipper; note the unusual pattern of markings on her forewing.
The most practical way to make progress in learning the butterflies is to start with the 10 most common species in your area. This may be a bit hard at first but the effort in learning the common species pays off since you are able to begin to see patterns in nature that were otherwise invisible to you.