July is a peak season for perennial flowers and flowering shrubs and is thus a great time to observe butterflies. I refer to butterflies as “flying flowers” since that is what they most resemble. Indeed many species are totally dependent on flowers for nectar (and pollen for bees) so that without a flower garden you will have few butterflies in your yard. I had a call from a family friend who wondered if I had seen any tiger swallowtails lately since he had only seen one and was concerned that they might be in a population decline. I looked out my window into my recently planted (1-2 years) butterfly garden and saw at least 5-6 tigers plus several other species. Clearly it is necessary to have the flowers to attract butterflies and larval food also for the caterpillars. Having a chemical free environment is also a big plus- we do not spray anything but a few poison ivy plants and a very occasional wasp nest. We will soon begin some hack/squirt herbicide treatment of the “tree of heaven/hell- Ailanthus) but that will be done in the woods far from our garden.
The big decision you face in establishing/maintaining a pollinator garden is in the choice of plants. You must choose generalists or specialists. For example the first photograph shows a pearl crescent on the flower of bear’s foot (Smallanthus uvedalia) a native aster in some of our roadside fields. This is a flattish flower head which could accommodate almost any pollinator. In contrast consider the hummingbird nectaring on the long tubular flowers of native coral honeysuckle and see how its thin bill fits so well into the corolla tubes of this honeysuckle. This is obviously a specialized relationship which very few pollinators can utilize. Another choice you must make is whether to use natives or non-natives, or both. I choose to use natives whenever practical but also plant non-natives that are highly attractive to pollinators, bloom for a long time, and can be managed to avoid invasiveness by dead heading. For example consider the snout butterfly nectaring on a non-native lantana; this interesting species uses hackberry/sugarberry as a a larval food and seems to seek out animal secretions as a source of sodium. One landed on my camera lens cover and on a shoe perhaps detecting animal odors that attracted it. Another larval feeder on hackberry is the tawny emperor, shown here with wings both open and closed. Note that the individual with closed wings has also been attracted to a sweaty shoe! There is often a huge difference in the pattern which is commonly cryptic on the outer wing surfaces to fool predators and bright on the inside to signal conspecifics.
The “black and blue” butterflies are a confusing lot, all designed apparently to mimic the toxic pipevine swallowtail. The model species, the pipevine< is not common in our area but of course birds fly/migrate and likely become familiar elsewhere with the pattern as a warning. The inside of the pipevine wings is black with a bluish sheen on the hindwings; on the outsides of the wings there are a single series of large orange spots. The unrelated red spotted purple has a very similar pattern, as does the spicebush swallowtail on both inner and outer wing surfaces. One difference is that the outer wings of the spicebush have two rows of large orange spots. The larval food of spicebush is also toxic and likely conveys some toxicity to the adults. Only one form of the tiger swallowtail is a mimic- the adult female black and blue morph; all males are yellow/black as are many of the females..
I planted a tall native cut leaf cone flower, Rudbeckia laciniata, and was excited that it attracted some beautiful red banded and gray hairstreaks. These tiny butterflies must be magnified to be appreciated for their extraordinary patterns. The strange structure and colors of the hind wings are believed to mimic a false head and direct the strikes of predators to areas of the butterfly that are the least subject to mortal damage.
Two common butterflies, the painted and American ladies, are closely related and resemble one another. They are what are called “sibling species” that are relatively recently evolved in the genus Vanessa. A trick to separate them is to look for the larger eye spots on the outside of the wings of the American lady. The painted lady is the most widely distributed species of butterfly world wide. A third species in the genus is the red admiral which is very distinct and also is widely distributed around the world.
A few interesting other insects I encountered in July include the very well camouflaged green katydid which sings in the trees this time of year. This is a female with a curved ovipositor which is used to deposit the eggs. .Excellent camouflage must be very critical to survival of insects where birds are constantly looking for them. Another very surprising insect I found on the yellow flower of a non-native canna is the mydas fly, Dielis plumipes. I thought at first this was a black wasp with a red abdomen, but when I submitted it to BugGuide.net it turned out to be a fly mimicking a wasp very effectively. The larval fly feeds on grubs of beetles such as scarabs that live in the soil and wood and can thus be considered a beneficial agent of control ( https://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Mydas_fly ). But the remarkable mimicry by this strange fly of wasps reveals the extraordinary strength of evolutionary selection of anything that resembles a wasp.
Despite the amazing observations of butterflies one of my most memorable observations of nature in July actually came from a bird in the drip water bath next to our house. A chance look out the window from where my computer desk is placed showed me an astounding view- a prothonotary warbler taking a bath ! This spectacular warbler breeds on our property down in the Haw River swamps and we often hear it singing in breeding season. Another example of how we must be eternally vigilant and lucky to observe some possibly common but rarely seen natural events.