Wednesday, September 5, 2012


            As late summer mercifully rolls toward autumn here in southeastern North Carolina, we experience a butterfly boom. They’re flitting about everywhere these days, singly and in pairs.

Cabbage looper branching out
from cabbage to melons
When I went out around eight this morning, I noticed the adjacent zinnia patch teeming with airy nectar-sippers, intent on breakfast and/or romance. My mission to douse the cabbage loopers (Trichoplusia ni) chewing on the late-season melon plants with insecticidal soap completed, I slipped back inside to snag the camera. Since any motion causes alarm in members of the Lepidoptera clan, I stood very still until they resumed their fitful feeding. Snapped 35 pictures in all: got many lovely shots of zinnias, some stupid ones of fuzzy trees and blank walls; 12 of the images actually contained butterflies; six captured recognizable species (which is why this Luddite loves her digital camera).

            Butterflies delight and charm us with their delicate ephemeral beauty, but all that enchanting airy-fairyness comes with a cost, and its name is caterpillar. After winnowing out the 29 useless photos, I hit the Wikipedia trail to find images of the, well, less lovely predecessors of the winged wonders I’d managed to fix in pixels. Why? you ask. Because, my dear, we don’t get butterflies if we run around squishing all their earlier incarnations.

            So here’s who was fluttering around the garden this morning juxtaposed with images of them going through that awkward stage.

            Cloudless sulphurs (Phoebis sennae) herald fall’s approach locally: when they show up, you know summer’s rounding third. I’ve never seen either the caterpillar or a single chrysalis, but the adults arrive en masse around the end of August every year. As for the name, I’ve no idea where the “cloudless” part comes from; “sulphur” is iffy too, as their wings are more of a lemon yellow. Females sport greeny-brownish eyespots on their upper wings that males lack, should a specimen sit still long enough for you to determine its sex. The literature says the caterpillars’ favored host plants belong to the pea family (Fabaceae). The grown-ups in our yard can be seen sipping from the flowers of spider lilies (Lycoris radiata), black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata), rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala), and various asters and daisies.

Male cloudless sulphur on Lycoris radiata
Cloudless sulphur caterpillar


Male Eastern tiger swallowtail
Female Eastern tiger swallowtail

            Wikipedia and other websites taught me bunches about the swallowtails common to our area. We have two major species—the Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and the Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). I used to think that the adult tigers were predominantly yellow and the blacks were, um, black. Well, yes and no: turns out some female tigers turn out dark, too, cunningly called “dark form.” Still, it’s easy to tell the difference once you compare pictures. Again, there are subtle gender differences in wing patterning in adults of both species, which came as news to me. But there’s absolutely no doubt about whose babies got all the good looks. I put parsley and fennel in my garden every year for the blacks’ caterpillars, who I find beautiful. The tigers apparently go for the same sorts of plants as the sulphurs. I’ve never come across a tiger caterpillar, though. From the picture, I think that’s a good thing.

Female Eastern black swallowtail
(note double row of white dots
on lower wing edges)
Female Eastern tiger swallowtail, dark form
(note single row of white dots 
on lower wing edge

Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar
Eastern black swallowtail caterpillar



            Here’s our old maypop friend, the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilae). The ugly caterpillars only eat various species of passionflower: if you plant it, they will come. I noticed that we’ve had two broods this season, so the frits have been flitting around our yard all summer. I put this phenomenon down to our very mild winter. The adults love zinnia nectar—there’s always an orange crowd on them.

Gulf fritillary on zinnias
Gulf fritillary caterpillar on maypop


            Part of the aforementioned orange crowd consists of painted ladies (Vanessa cardui). Smaller and usually more raggedy-looking than the frits, the adult ladies also enjoy the zinnias. Wikipedia’s article on these butterflies was not exactly a fountain of information beyond listing four painted lady species. (Should you check it out, please note that the specimen I photographed is just a plain ol’ painted lady, and not an American painted lady. My girl's upper wings have three white spots blending into one elongated splotch, whereas the wing-dot on the American is a single. The devil in the butterfly identification gig definitely resides in the details.) Further clicking revealed thistles are the ladies’ host plant of preference. Again, I’m personally unfamiliar with any stage but the adult.

Painted lady caterpillar
Painted lady on zinnia

            Another of the Vanessa genus, the red admiral (V. atalanta, after the athletic young lady of Greek myth, not the misspelled capital of Georgia), is one I’ve spotted only rarely, even in its adult form. I hope that’s because I pay insufficient attention. Preferred host plants are from the nettle family (Urticaceae), local examples of which I’m unable to come up with off the top of my head. Maybe an underabundance of nettles explains the relative rarity of red admirals chez Fitz.

Never-seen (by me) red admiral caterpillar
Seldom-seen red admiral

            Six species of butterfly in one small yard before coffee, followed by education during coffee. Not too shabby for a Wednesday morning, eh?

            Thanks for dropping by.


P.S. -- In case you were wondering, this is what an adult cabbage looper moth looks like.

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