In middle June in the area near Boone NC the butterflies have suddenly been appearing in larger numbers when the weather is suitable (warm and sunny). The most common large butterfly near our house at about 3400 feet elevation is the great spangled fritillary. It is very active seeking out flowers of many different kinds that yield nectar. In this photograph it is feeding on the flower head of the arrowwood viburnum, an excellent native plant for insects and birds who eat the fruits. A very confusing close relative is the aphrodite fritillary which is a sibling species usually found at higher elevations such as at Heart Pond/Moses Cone Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In the photograph of the inner wings note that at the base of the forewing there is a dark spot not found in the great spangled. Also the outer wing surfaces of the great spangled has a very wide light band around the periphery that is much smaller in the aphrodite. I found a group of three species of fritillaries puddling (drinking water with salts) at Heart Pond; compare the wide light band on the first butterfly in the foreground (great spangled) against the two aphrodites in the background; a smaller meadow fritillary is seen to the right.
A much easier butterfly to identify is the cabbage white, an exotic species from Europe. It differs from the native great southern white by the presence of two large dark spots on the inner forewings. Note that the body is darker which is an adaptation for basking (white wings reflect light to the body) on cool mornings.
There are several small blue butterflies that are quite beautiful on close inspection with binoculars or a camera. This is a spring azure female. Often you will find many small butterflies of the skipper group on flowers. These can be difficult to identify. An easy one is the very common silver spotted skipper, in this case finding nectar on an exotic privet. A Peck’s skipper is shown feeding on verbena and a least skipper on speedwell. Your best bet is to photograph these, enlarge them and compare them with photographs in books or send them to an expert.
Another confusing group of large butterflies are those in a mimicry group centered on the pipevine swallowtail. The pipevine swallowtail is dark with a brilliant light blue coloring on the inner hindwings advertising its toxicity to predators. This poison is derived from the feeding of the caterpillars on pipevine and is passed to the adult. Tiger swallowtails are often yellow as this individual which has been damaged by attacks of birds. So a different dark morph has evolved in the females only which gains protection from its close resemblance to the pipevine swallowtail. Several other species such as this red spotted purple in a completely different family (the brushfoots) also look like the pipevine, yet they are edible to birds. Such a mimicry complex is called Batesian mimicry since several edible species resemble an unpalatable species. Muellerian mimicry found in the monarch and the queen (caterpillars feed on milkweeds), the gulf fritillary (caterpillars feed on passionvines) and the viceroy (caterpillars feed on willow) differs in that all members are toxic due to their consumption of toxic food plants as larvae.
Of course not just butterflies but many types of insects increase in numbers with the advent of warm weather. Here are three interesting species I have seen recently. The six spotted tiger beetle is an amazing tiny predator (look at the huge jaws) that is a brilliant green due to a structural/refractive color. The large milkweed bug feeds on toxic milkweed and its bright colors warn predators to stay away. The female ebony jewelwing damselfly is a tiny predator that flies near water where its larvae live.
So as you go forth to enjoy the wonderful weather of early summer, look around and be dazzled by the variety and beauty of insect life.