Summer is a time of many pleasures, among which flowers and butterflies are at the top of my list of natural wonders. Indeed you might even say that butterflies are “flying flowers.”
The abundance and types of butterflies varies considerably over the summer months. These observations were made between July 13-16 in our yard near Boone, NC, at about 3400 feet elevation. We use a combination of native and exotic species of flowers to attract butterflies but you will note that the butterfly bush Buddleja from Asia is a very attractive nectar source for insects and hummingbirds. I recommend dead-heading the flowers to diminish the possibility of spreading beyond the garden.
The American lady shown here on butterfly bush, closely resembles its relative the painted lady and is only easy to distinguish if you can see the outer wing pattern which is not visible here. Both species are highly migratory. The pearl crescent is another widespread but smaller butterfly that feeds on asters as a larvae; it is shown here on a black eyed Susan. The very differently colored common wood nymph feeds on grasses as a caterpillar, and is quite camouflaged except for the eyespots which can be flashed, presumably to frighten bird predators.
The larger butterflies include the famous monarch which is rather uncommon in this area in mid-summer even though there are many milkweeds available. It becomes somewhat more common in late summer when the monarchs are returning to Mexico for the winter. The great spangled fritillary had been very common earlier in the summer but is now relatively rare and individuals are quite worn. The tiger swallowtails are more common, both the yellow morph (males and females) and the dark morph (females only). This female black morph of the tiger swallowtail is an edible mimic of the poisonous pipevine swallowtail which is currently rarely seen- it has light blue patches on the inner hind wings and large orange spots on the outer wings.
I have been seeing only a few red admirals and they have been worn, presumably after a long migration to the north. They are impressive due to the beautiful red bars on the inner wings and a totally camouflaged pattern on the outer wings. The most common and even “trash” butterfly is the silver spotted skipper which I have not shown since it is so abundant, vastly exceeding numbers of all other species combined. On the other hand other small skippers such as this crossline are only being seen occasionally.
We often forget that the moths are relatives of the butterflies and can be very abundant, even though they fly primarily at night. But one group, the sphinx moths, have several species that mimic bumblebees for protection from birds and fly during daytime. This snowberry clearwing sphinx moth hovers like a hummingbird to access flower nectar. The caterpillars feed on coral honeysuckle vines. The nocturnal moths are legion- a friend Bob Perkins of Woodlawn, VA, has recorded 879 species of moths on his back porch and is still counting! These two nocturnal moths (sycamore tussock and arched hooktip) that came to a light on my back deck illustrate the large numbers that are generally very well camouflaged. Birds are constantly foraging for moths so camouflage is essential but the varieties of camouflage patterns are remarkable.
Finally summer brings ruby throated hummingbirds to our garden where they enjoy the nectar-bearing flowers. We do not put up sugar water feeders in summer since natural food is so plentiful. This exotic crocosmia is very attractive to hummers for the several weeks of its blooming; native coral honeysuckle and bee balm are also visited frequently.
Why is it that the lazy hazy days of summer seem to fly by so quickly? Enjoy them while they last- savor the cooler nights and marvel at the changing frequency of species as the months pass (phenology).